Battling the Playground Bully

Posted March 18, 2008 by

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My friends and I all have secret fears about our children. My friend Caroline is deathly afraid her children will get sick. She wakes up at night, heart pounding, wondering if the bruise on her son’s arm is really cancer. My other friend Jaimie worries that her daughter is so socially awkward that she won’t ever make good friends. My secret fear? That my son will be bullied in school, just like I was in 4th grade. (But that’s a topic for another blog post.)

Well, my fears were realized last fall. When I picked Alex up from the playground at pre-school, I saw him playing with some other kids, but as I got closer, I realized that one of the boys was actually throwing rocks at my son. Not only did Alex not say anything, he didn’t even move out of the way. When I ran up to the them, the tears were rolling down my child’s face, and all he said was, “Billy is hurting me.” Ugh. As I hugged him, I felt about 3 inches tall. How could we have raised our son and not taught him how to protect himself? (Never mind how to assert himself!)

At this point the teacher had also gotten there and was talking sternly to the other boy, but I felt frozen inside. I wondered, “How do I teach my son to fight back? And will he get in trouble if he does fight back physically?” My husband Joe, on the other hand, was ready to sign Alex up for boxing lessons at the local gym—never mind that our son is only 5. “That’s what my dad did for me when I got bullied at school,” he said. “After one fight, the problem was solved.” I had an image of Alex at 10, all his teeth knocked out, yelling “Adriaaaan!” Not exactly my idea of a good early childhood sport.

So Joe and I sat down in that “parents-trying-to-be-casual-but-we’re-really-freaking-out-here” way and talked to Alex about what was going on. We found out that “Billy” often picked on him at school. “He lies on top of me until the teacher comes,” said my son. “What do you say to him? Do you try to get him off you?” I asked. “No. I just wait until the teacher sees us,” said Alex. Man, did I really feel like we’d dropped the ball here! We enlisted the help of his teachers for this one, and started talking to Alex about what he could do, and also did some practicing and role plays with him in case Billy “pancaked” him again. (The teachers in his school also began to talk more to the kids about bullying in class, which has helped.)

I’m left with a conundrum, though: At school, kids are taught not to hit or hurt anyone, not to call names, to always tell the teacher if someone is hurting them. As a parent, I’m stumped—do we tell Alex to fight back? (Joe says, “Yes, absolutely,” and I have to say I agree, if it’s a question of Alex being able to protect himself.) But at what age does “telling the teacher” turn into being a “tattle tale?”

In the end, instead of boxing, we opted for Karate—a little less scary for Mom on the head-injury front. So far, it’s helping a lot. We found a great dojo where they teach self defense as opposed to aggressive, attack-style techniques. Last week, Alex came home with a big smile on his face. I got a little teary when he said, “Billy tried to push me down today, but I used my T-stance and he couldn’t do it.” He proudly demonstrated the whole thing for us and said, “Then I roared like a dragon and he ran away.”

If only that will still work when he gets to high school!


Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.

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  1. Report

    Good on Alex and don’t worry about High School. Keep up the Karate and by that time no one will even dare look at him funny.

  2. Carole Banks Report

    Dear ‘auntytori’:

    It is a good idea to go in to the school and ask what is taking place on the play ground. If bullying behavior is occurring, ask the school to require the bullies to change their behavior. So often our focus is on changing the behavior of the person who is bullied. We try to understand ‘what’s wrong with the victim’ that they are being singled out. But parents and teachers should give a clear messages that the ‘bully’s behavior’ is the problem. In the meantime, you can probably help your daughter by making time available for play dates so she can develop a friendship with someone in her class. Ask her teacher who she feels would be a good friend for your daughter.

  3. auntytori Report

    Hi, I’ve been reading through your posts (which have been really helpful) as I’m researching ways to help my 7 year old daughter.
    The question I have is, at what point does it become bullying? I don’t know if this is true for anyone else, but the 2 girls that keep ganging up on my daughter in the playground have never shown any discernible physical aggression towards her, but no less hurtful. Most of the incidents she reports to me are about excluding her from games, and telling her what to do. My daughter is a sensitive girl, who won’t stand up for herself. I have told her to pick a quiet moment and chat to the teacher about it (which she has done.) Now they have a new teacher, I am going to go in and talk to her about it, as I don’t fully comprehend the severity of this situation, but certainly don’t want it to get any worse! My daughter is learning that she has an easier time by complying, and the other two girls are learning that if they work as a team, they can easily overpower an individual child. I don’t think they are singling out my child specifically. Any advice for empowering a daughter when the behaviour is verbal rather than physical?

  4. Bulliedbabies Report

    Thank you for expressing how his being bullied made you feel you failed. My 5 yr old is currently experiencing playground bullying too — and that is how I feel. We failed him somewhere down this line.

    Although to be fair to myself, we have also have a 13 yr old and a 3 yr old who are outspoken, confident, and self assured. I think, with T – he’s been sensitive and quiet since birth. I have to remind myself that this is not my failure but another human taught their kid bad things…and he’s taking it out on my kid because he’s an easy target.

    Now…to help build his self-esteem – I think you did the right thing. I may have to talk to the DH about martial arts…but we did sign T up for swimming — something he’s been begging to do…and it will be outside of school not with his peers — I’m hoping it will have the same affect – self esteem by learning to do something he really desires…and getting to meet kids outside of his regular routine.

    • Elisabeth Wilkins Report

      Dear Bulliedbabies: I’m sorry to hear that you are going through this with your son. For whatever reason, some kids have a harder time standing up for themselves than others. Our son is also on the sensitive side, so I know what you mean. I think for younger kids in particular, role playing is really helpful. We did this with our son quite a bit, and it really paid off. I pretended I was him, and he played the role of the bully. We then had a conversation. I gave him words he could use when dealing with the bully (Like “Stop doing that–I don’t like it” and then turning around immediately and going to the teacher.) My husband and I showed him how to avoid the bully, and what to say to the teacher. I’m also wondering if you’ve spoken to the school or your child’s teachers? If you haven’t, I would do so immediately. Ask them what they’ve seen happening, let them know what’s going on from your son’s perspective, and ask them directly what they are doing about it. Most schools have a very tough anti-bullying stance these days — I found all my son’s teachers to be very helpful and proactive. Good luck, and thanks for writing in. Please let us know how it goes with your son! P.S. Yes, karate has been a godsend. Be sure to find a martial arts school that teaches respect and self defense.

  5. SJC Report

    Bullying has even gone beyond mere children at school as teachers also rely on this technique to gain obedience out of a child. This is not true in all cases, but I have witnessed more than one teacher single out a student to make an example of him or her when it wasn’t necessary.

  6. Lisa M. Report

    I agree wholeheartedly with Cason regarding teaching kids not to tattle. I was very upset when I found out my child’s kindergarten teacher was teaching the kids not to tattle, unless it’s an emergency. It sets up such an unhealthy environment and easy environment for possible abuse. Dangerous.

  7. EJaffe Report

    Part of the ongoing problem of what we call bullying is that children are not born knowing how to “play nicely” with each other, and many adult directions are meaningless to children. Children are told “behave!” Of course, whatever they are doing is their behavior – if it’s friendly or hitting someone else.

    Children can be taught to play in a kindly fashion, and their positive behavior should be reinforced when they are doing what we want them to do. “You two are playing so well together – you are speaking softly and using toys without taking them from each other!”

    Additionally, even 2 year olds can be taught to say, “No!” very loudly when another child is on the brink of either hurting them or taking their toys. Most often, that loud “No!” makes the other child stop for a second. If they cannot anticipate the negative behavior, they can still shout “No!” or “Stop!” if they are being hurt. It not only lets the “hurter” know it’s not the right behavior, it also alerts the teacher. I have had great success in empowering young children just by teaching them to shout “No!”

    There’s also a great Woodie Guthrie song, “Don’t You Push Me Down” that I’ve taught kindergarteners to sing.

  8. Cason Report

    Just a note, I think the views of a tattle-tale being negative are bad for parents or teachers to portray to our young. It begins to set them up for holding secrets, retaining issues and a dishonest society. I have heard many parents and teachers, say stop being a tattle-tale. Unfortunately it can be annoying but the child is requesting assistance in one of two areas. The first being the obvious that someone or something is bothering them. The second is the issue discussed here, that the child’s needs to be empowered. Either way the point is that we have to stress openness and honesty in our children as well as ourselves as adults in order to have a true society based on integrity. Let’s consider changing the tattle-tale to truth-tale and the whistle blower to man of integrity!

  9. Elisabeth Report

    Thanks to people writing in with questions about their children bullying others. Bullying is definitely a two-sided issue, and either scenario is difficult for parents. We’re considering doing a larger article on this topic on Empowering Parents soon. In the mean time, here are a few websites that might help:

  10. Carole Banks, LCSW Report

    Dear Gwen Sulzbach » I think that any time a child threatens to kill himself or to kill another person, it should be taken seriously and treated as though he means it. It’s the only way to handle this type of situation and make sure your child and other children are safe. What I would recommend is that he receive a mental health evaluation as soon as possible to make sure he has all the support he needs.

  11. Norman F. Carbajal Report

    My child is the bully also and I don’t know what to do about it. Her mother and I are not together and she lives with her mother during the week. My daughter is only 5 but she is very close to being kicked out of her after school daycare for bullying. Her mother and I try to work together with our daughter but nothing is working. I have my daughter every weekend and work very hard on not letting her be a bully. Her mother is so frustrated with her that she’s ready to give up. She is not allowed to bully anyone when she is with me, nor does she try either. Why does she think she can get away with bullying other kids, even small babies for no reason, and think that it’s ok? Is there something going on with her that neither of us is seeing with our daughter?

  12. Gwen Sulzbach Report

    What if your child is the bully? I have custody of my great nephew he is 10 years old. I was called into a parent teacher meeting and the teacher said Tim had been threating other students. The teacher didn’t believe it. And we ask Tim and he said he hadn’t done it. But the next day the principal had a meeting with Tim and the other boy and it all came out. Tim had been threating other kids. Even saying ” I’m going to kill you.” both the teacher and I were blown away we couldn’t believe that he had been doing that. The principal said that next time she will bring a resourse officer with her to school. What do I do when my child is the bully?

  13. Dawn Report

    Hi all,
    Three quick thoughts: One, hooray for those of you suggesting karate and self-defense. My son (age 7) is in year 3 and loves it. The dojo is a second family.

    Two: my daughter was bullied by a girl starting in 2nd grade. The teacher tried to help but the bullying continued. It wasn’t made easier by the bully’s history: her little sister had a life-threatening disease, which was used to explain – but not stop – her behavior; and, we’re relative newcomers to a very small town where the bully’s family has long roots. We’ve always told our kids, “Don’t start the fight, but if you’re in one, make sure you finish it.” The bullying continued for 2 years until one day when the bully hit Claire at a party, and Claire clocked her back in the mouth; the “mean girl” was stunned into tears (and a bit bloodied) and never bothered Claire again. Claire now has a reputation as a girl not to be messed with. She also stands up for other kids who get picked on. Self-defense works!

    Finally, don’t be fooled by anti-bullying programs that are in name only. Our middle school is all about trumpeting their program, but they still tend to blame the victims for problems, and prefer parents stay out of it. Force yourselves in! Make sure the program they use is effective and fairly applied!

  14. Elisabeth Wilkins Report

    Chris » Good for you for throwing that fit–sometimes that’s what it takes to get change implemented! And this is great advice for all the parents out there dealing with this issue. (I think what you suggest would help parents on both sides of the fence–those whose kids are being bullied, and those whose kids are bullying others.) We’re planning to have an article in EP soon about “mean girls” and girl bullying soon as well, so please stay tuned…and feel free to chime in when it comes out!

  15. Chris Report

    We had a huge problem with “mean girls” bullying our daughter from pre-school thru 4th grade. Every year it was the same thing but turned up a notch. I finally threw a fit at the school with several teachers and the principal present. I must have gotten my point across because when 5th grade started they had implemented a whole new bullying program based on defining what bullyig is and consequenses for such behavior. It appears to have worked because the “mean girls” are now treating my daughter as an equal and with respect. The point is, there are great bullying programs out there that have been proven to be effective. If your school has a problem insist the school institue one of these programs. You are protecting your child and probably others as well.

  16. Elisabeth Wilkins Report

    Connie, first of all, I’m so sorry to hear about what your grandson is going through. I’d like to suggest an article to you on…there are a lot of tips in there from bullying expert Peggy Moss, JD, on how to help your child when he or she is being bullied at school. The link:

    And another one by James Lehman, MSW (some good tips at the bottom, after the subheading “If Your Child is Bullied”)

    I hope this helps somewhat, Connie. The good news is, there are definite things you can do as a parent to help the situation, and to empower your child or grandchild.

  17. Nancy Churchill Report

    I wanted to respond to your “if only that will work in high school” comment.

    According to the studies that I’ve done, experts claim that 90% of all attacks can be stopped by an assertive “non-physical” response, ie strong body posture, like the T-stance your son has learned. Coupled with a loud voice, firm tone, and a “that’s not ok” attitude, most attackers will look for an easier target.

    As a professional martial arts instructor for children, I’m a firm believer in the value of these programs. Just keep it up.

    I also highly recommend that YOU find a program that you can attend. I started Aikido after my then 5 year old son started the art. After 6 months, I realized that I had always had a “victim” sign around my neck, and that my martial arts practice was my path to personal empowerment.

    Your choice to try a martial arts program for your son was a great one. Keep up the good work.

  18. Connie Carpenter Report

    I have a 13 year old grandson who is in “special classes” and doesn’t learn easily. I know he is tormented by other children, on the bus or places without supervision. He refer’s to it sometimes, but won’t give details. How do I help him?

  19. Elisabeth Wilkins Report

    Deborah, Thanks for your comment about martial arts. I’ve been so happy with the results so far…even Alex’s teachers have already noticed a difference. (He has really wonderful teachers, both at school and at karate, so that helps.) One interesting thing that’s happened since he started–he used to have bad nightmares. Now he reports that when he sees a monster in his dreams, he’s able to face it or transform it somehow. I honestly think this is a result of taking karate– along with my husband and I getting on the ball. He’s been empowered!

  20. Maria E. O'Connor Report

    Please be advise that fear is the apposite of faith! whenever, you find yourself thinking negatively reverse it with a positive statement aloud, until your mind is renew.

    Plenty people have their fears come to pass, but also is true that plenty of people allow their faith to bring into pass their heart’s desire. As a Woman/Man thinks so she/he is.

  21. Deborah Zuhlke Report

    I help teach Tae kwon do to younger children and we also teach them about bullying and what to do in that sort of situation. While we do teach them some skills that can give them self defense, we can’t come right out and say to defend themselves.. That is up to the parent and the school. Sometimes that can be a problem, as the child defending himself will usually be the one that will get in trouble. We suggest talking to their parents when someone is picking on them, or telling a teacher. The one thing that Martial Arts gives kids is confidence in themselves, and learning to stand up for themselves. I have two 13 yr old boys who have just recently earned their black belts, and I can tell you that it has really empowered them.. Plus some of the older Black belts are really great role models to them. It can take a few years to earn their black belt, but as these kids grow and work together as a group, you can see how Martial Arts has helped them become stronger people in mind and body. I highly recommend it!



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