Bully Proofing a Child

This is a question I get asked a lot. How can I bully proof my child. The answer is that you can’t bully proof a child. What you can do is teach them how to respond to a bully so that if and when a bully challenges your child they learn very quickly to leave your child alone.

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The technique required is called extinguishing a behavior. The bad news is that it’s the hardest of the behavioral conditioning techniques to master. The good news is that it works and it’s fairly easy to teach. Before I get into how, let me talk about the process. In order to get a behavior to stop, you have to stop rewarding it. The removal of the reward will trigger an extinction burst – which is an escalation of the behavior you don’t want. You have to continue to not reward the behavior as the behavior gets worse. If you can do this, eventually the behavior will stop. All behavior extinction follows this pattern. ALL of it. Doesn’t matter if it’s a fish or a worm or a dog or a bird or a human. There is no way to extinguish an established behavior without going through this process. With this in mind we can start discussing how to get specific bullying problems to stop.

1st – what the child needs to do depends on what is happening. If the bullying is verbal – the response needs to be verbal. If it is a threat or actual violence, a different approach is required. So don’t call what is happening bullying. Be specific about what exactly the behavior is you want to stop or your child wants to stop. This will help the parent talk to the school more effectively about what is happening. For instance, go to a school and say my child is bullied and the school will say – we will look into it and that will be that. If you say – this kid on this date cornered my kid in the hallway and said this then hit him – the school will respond more effectively for you because you, the parent, will have given them actionable intelligence. The word bully is a subjective term. It implies the offender is a bad kid. If you say – this behavior happened and it was inappropriate – that’s something the school can act on and most likely will.

2nd – teach your kid what to say and how to say it and who to report it to. Don’t just tell your kid to ignore the bully or to stand up for themselves. They need something they can say to the bully when the bully confronts them. This something needs to show the bully  a) that your kid isn’t bothered by the bully and b) if they continue, your child is likely to report them. The goal is to remove the reward. Ignoring a bully looks and feels like submission to a bully, which the bully interprets as a reward, what they did worked. It’s important that the target of a bully respond in a way that makes it clear, the bully was heard, but … the reward they wanted, a submissive kid, didn’t materialize. It really doesn’t matter what the kid says, only that it is neutral and that it is said in a neutral tone of voice while making eye contact if at all possible. Here is what I tell kids, if you are insulted, say – thank you for that information it’s very helpful in a bored tone of voice making eye contact. If they can’t make eye contact, look at their hair or their ear as long as they don’t look down. Then I make them practice it so that they can actually say it in a bored tone of voice with the correct body posture. If they don’t practice it – they won’t be able to perform this when challenged by a bully.

3rd – once the child knows what to say and you have made them practice it – you need to tell them what the bully is likely to do when they do this. And that is the bully is likely to escalate and get worse and may challenge them again. They need to know what to do when, not if, this happens. Which is – if it is verbal – repeat their chosen phrase as necessary until the bully leaves. If it is a threat – you tell the bully, if you do that I will report you – and then if they do, you report them. If they engage in physical violence, your child is to retreat and report.

4th – reporting. Your child needs to know who and when to report to when something happens. And really, that is whatever teacher is available at the time of the incident. With slight verbal harassment I tend to tell kids, use the go to phrase to shut it down. Only report if it doesn’t shut it down. So – bully says something, use the go to phrase, bully tries again, use the go to phrase, bully tries again – report. If it is threat – tell the bully calmly, if you do that, I will report you and if they do, report them. When it comes to reporting, immediacy is key. They need to report what happened in real time if at all possible. The reason for this has to do with variable reinforcement patterns which strengthen the unwanted behavior. If the bully thinks they got away with it – it strengthens the behavior. The bully has to learn – they will never get away with it. Period.

5th – consistency over time. Your child has to respond to every single incidence of bullying. Every. Single. Time. If they respond sometimes and not others, they will inadvertently strengthen the bullying behavior. The reason for this is because the variable nature of their response creates a variable reinforcement pattern and that will strengthen and exacerbate the behavior problem of the bully. Once they start removing the reward of the bully they need to be 100% consistent in not rewarding the bully until the bully stops. No exceptions. The consistency is key and it’s the hardest part. What normally happens is that kids are told how to not reward the bully and then the bully escalates and the kid thinks what they were taught didn’t work so they stop doing it for a bit and then try again and stop again. What they don’t understand because no one told them is that the escalation means what you are doing is working so keep at it. Kids have to be supported and nurtured to keep reporting it when things get tough. An extinction burst is also called a blow out because it can get really nasty. Kids need to know to keep at it if they want it to stop. This is a parent’s job.

6th – the parent needs to report to the school and ask what is happening to keep the lines of communication open and to ensure that the school is taking timely action in response to your child’s reports. Delays cause variable reinforcement and that strengthens the unwanted behavior. Keeping the pressure on and doing constant reporting forces the school to act in a timely way and causes behavioral extinction to occur much much more sooner.

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