The Magic 4-Word Phrase That Can Stop Bullying In Its Tracks

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phrase that stops bullying in its tracks

We are facing a menace that, for a couple of decades, has been labeled an epidemic and is reportedly getting worse with kids back to school in person: bullying.

Thanks to years of intensive bullying awareness campaigns, bullying has become the number one fear of parents, surpassing drugs.

In just about every classroom, there are one or two kids who are victims of relentless bullying by their peers. They are picked on every day, usually many times a day, and these unfortunate souls are absolutely miserable and desperate for a solution.

Many cases of bullying begin with the bully making up a rumor or saying something false about another child.

This has happened not only to kids but to adults as well, sometimes even ending in suicide. Parents will often resort to suing their children’s schools for failing to have stopped their children from being bullied.

In their defense, virtually all accused schools insist they have zero tolerance for bullying and followed mandated procedures. And they are probably right.

The real problem is that zero tolerance and mandated procedures have been proven by research to fail in helping the great majority of victims, and can sometimes make bullying worse!

One of the most highly publicized youth suicides of recent times was that of 15-year-old Nate Bronstein, a student at the prestigious Chicago prep school, The Latin School.

It began with another student spreading rumors that he was unvaccinated against Covid-19. Due to public health organizations' public focus on the importance of vaccinations saving lives, an accusation of being unvaccinated could be devastating.

Nate insisted the accusation wasn’t true, and the parents turned repeatedly to the school for help, but accusation quickly intensified, leading to his suicide. The Bronsteins are now suing the school for $100 million.

Another bullying lawsuit is being brought against the Newport High School in Washington.

The parents are suing because they allege the school failed to protect their unnamed minor son from months of relentless bullying that began with a false accusation by an ex-girlfriend that he “once hit her arm and pushed her.”

But these two incidents are mere drops in the bucket. Imagination is the limit when it comes to the types of rumors and accusations that have led to bullying and suicide.

RELATED: Why The Myth That School Shooters Are Usually Victims Of Bullying Is Dangerously Inaccurate

The mistake of a defensive reaction when confronted with false rumor bullying: 

First, let’s understand how rumors can morph into nonstop bullying.

Let’s say Amanda tells Bob that she heard something nasty about him. Bob is upset by the accusation and proceeds to defend himself, hoping to get Amanda to stop making it.

Instead of stopping, Amanda continues, and the more Bob gets upset and defensive, the more the misinformation spreads, with other kids joining in the fun of attacking him.

By getting upset and defending himself against things that are untrue, Bob is assuming a vulnerable position, and his rumor-mongers feel like they are in a winning position, which is why they enjoy it and continue.

Getting upset and defensive are absolutely normal, healthy instinctive responses. So why don't they work? Haven’t our instincts evolved to help us?

It’s because our instincts developed during our prehistoric lives in nature, where animals eat each other for dinner and the only law is might makes right.

In nature, these responses help us win. If we wouldn’t get upset, we wouldn’t be motivated to defend ourselves, and if we didn’t defend ourselves, we’d end up in another creature’s tummy.

But we no longer live in nature. The rules for winning in civilization are different because we don’t eat each other and we have laws against violence. Thus we have less cause to be afraid of one another, especially from our words.

Today, the moment we begin acting defensively when faced with verbal attacks is the moment we begin losing our ground.

Unfortunately, many of the leading psychologists who have devised the official protocols for dealing with bullying don’t realize this, and they promote the idea that it's everyone's duty to defend bullying victims because they are powerless to defend themselves. 

RELATED: How I Conquered My Adult Bully Like A Grown Woman

Fortunately, the solution to most bullying is simple.

While it is unreasonable to expect schools to stop all children from making up rumors about each other, because adults simply don’t have such control over kids (as you may have discovered by now), there is a simple four-word question that even kids can use to instantaneously turn the tables on accusers. 

The magic 4-word phrase that can help stop bullying and teasing in its tracks:

How do we help a child who is confronted with rumors and untrue allegations? It’s by using role-playing to teach them to use a response that works like magic: 

“Do you believe it?” 

By role-playing with your child, you will both discover how surprisingly powerful it is.

Put your child in the bully role while you play the victim. The simulation has two stages. The following is, of course, only an imagined script of how it might go.

No two people will say exactly the same things. It's the process that counts. And you can use any accusation you prefer.

RELATED: 10 Struggles Only People Who Were Bullied In School Will Understand

The role-playing exercise parents can do with kids to show how using the phrase "Do you believe it?" to shut down face-to-face bullies: 

Stage One: Defensive response example 

You: Let’s say we’re both students. You are going to tell me you heard I cheated on a test, and don’t let me stop you.

Child: I heard you cheated on the math test!

You: No, I didn’t! That’s a lie!

Child: I don’t believe you! You suck at math! There’s no way you could have passed without cheating!

You: That’s not true! I am good at math! I don’t need to cheat!

Child: Yes, you do!

You: No, I don’t! Why are you saying that?

Child: Because you always fail math!

You: No, I don’t! That’s not true!

Child: Yes, it is!

You (after a bit of back-and-forth): I give up. I’m not making you stop, am I?

Child: No.

You: Who’s winning?

Child: I am.

You: And aren’t you having fun seeing me get upset?

Child: Yes.

RELATED: 3 Ways To Make 100% Sure You Don't Raise A Bully

Stage Two: You use the magic response to turn the tables on the accuser

You: Let’s do it again. Accuse me of having cheated on a test, and don’t let me stop you.

Child: I heard you cheated on the math test!

You: Do you believe that?

Child: Yes!

You: If you want to believe it, how can I stop you?

Child: You can’t.

You: That’s right. You can believe whatever you want.

Now your child is left with nothing more to say.

You: Do you want to continue accusing me?

Child: No.

You: Who’s winning?

Child: You are.

You should go on to explain to your child that kids aren’t spreading the rumor because they believe it, but because the kids 'win' when your child gets defensive over the rumor.

And it doesn’t matter whether the child is being accused of not being vaccinated, or of having hit or pushed someone, or any other negative rumor. “Do you believe it?” puts the accuser on the defensive. And if the accuser happens to say, "No," regarding whether they believe it, even better.

RELATED: 3 Psychological Reasons Even Good People Become Bullies

Bullied children should be empowered

We will never put a stop to the pain and tragedy resulting from bullying as long as we believe it’s only up to parents, schools and other adults to protect kids from each other and take on their bullies for them.

It is important to teach them how to handle social challenges on their own as well.

The lessons will empower them for a lifetime, because rumors and bullying are not only limited to the school years.

And think about it honestly. Would you prefer that your children’s emotional wellbeing be dependent only upon the school for protection from rumors and bullies, or that they be able to help defeat rude people all by themselves?

For the vast majority of parents, it’s a no-brainer.

RELATED: 3 Hurtful Things Parents Say When Their Kids Are Being Bullied

Izzy Kalman is a certified school psychologist and pioneer of the resilience approach to bullying. He has been featured on The New York Times, Psychology Today, and Good Morning America. He is the founder of The Kalman Bullying Institute

This article was originally published at Psychology Today. Reprinted with permission from the author.