It never ceases to amaze me how adults botch this. Retaliating against bullies isn’t ok and neither is ignoring them. How about we use science instead.
Why do some adults advocate ignoring bullies rather than retaliating against them in self-defense?
There is science to how you get unwanted behaviors to stop. In fact, there are over 70 years of such research. It turns out there is only one way that works to get an established behavior to stop. It is a technique called – extinguishing a behavior.
The technique is to remove the reward for the behavior. That’s it. You just remove the reward and over time, the animal learns that the behavior is not going to be rewarded and they stop. Before that they increase their behavior trying to get their reward back. This is called an extinction burst and it’s a normal part of the process. But it is caused by – removing the reward.
The reason some adults advocate ignoring bullies is that they are trying to teach kids – to remove the reward. Removing the reward and ignoring a bully are not the same thing though, so this advice isn’t very helpful and doesn’t work.
First, ignoring a bully isn’t possible if they are in your face or physically hurting you. Second, silence is often read as submission, which is a reward for the bully.
What we should be teaching kids is how to most effectively remove the reward. This usually involved having something to say and then reporting. Consistently. Every time.
As for the – hey – let’s retaliate, that doesn’t stop bullying either. It just turns the victim into a bully. Yes, victims should defend themselves, and if it is physical, they should physically defend themselves. The problem is that if the bullying has progressed to the point it is physically violent, the children involved have already been failed by the people around them. It should never get to that point.
The other reason to not advocate for retaliation is because retaliation doesn’t work to stop unwanted behavior. It’s a punishment, which is a negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement is still – reinforcement.
While retaliation may seem emotionally satisfying, the science is clear that it doesn’t work to get bullying to stop. The only thing that really works, according to science, is removing the reward. This is best done by standing up, looking the bully in the eye (if possible) and telling them to stop in a calm voice. If they don’t, and they probably won’t, you report them. If the bullying is verbal, respond verbally. If the bullying is physical, defend yourself then report them. Every time. Deny them their reward.