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Ask an Expert: Should your child take on a bully ringleader?

Q. My elementary school son is being harassed by another group of kids at school. At what point is it OK for him to take on the main ringleader – physically or otherwise?

A. Martial arts legend Bruce Lee said that we must master “the art of fighting without fighting,” the highest level of martial arts skill. I believe, as do most sane people, that physical self-defense is and should be the last resort, yet it is an unfortunate resort nonetheless. Before your son attempts to “take on the ringleader” be sure to consider the following three factors:

  • School policy, which likely prohibits physical fighting. I recommend talking to your son’s teachers and school administrators about the situation. They may be able to at least keep an entire group of children from harassing your child on school grounds. School authorities must be notified of on-going bullying, especially if it escalates into more violent attacks on your son.
  • Your parental values and morals. Before he does anything you should talk to him about your family values and the importance of respecting other people. Further, talk about why bullies who don’t show respect to other students must be shown that this type of behavior is unacceptable and won’t be tolerated. Most of all, be sure to ask yourself: Am I going to support my child’s actions when he stands up for himself, regardless of the consequences (including suspension from school)?
  • Your child’s self-protection skills, including what he is willing to do to face his tormentors. Does he have the training to stand up to a bully? A half-hearted attempt to stand up to the bully, or a weak attempt, can make matters worse.

Your question is timely. I am currently helping a student who was bullied in elementary school. He recently started middle school and has learned – for better or worse – that either he creates a strong group of friends (allies) or risks the likely consequence of being bullied. In creating his group for protection Brian inadvertently learned to exclude other children, psychologically bullying those other kids. The bullied became the bully – an all too common role reversal in the lives of kids (and adults).

Fortunately, Brian was the bully for only a short time; his mom and I arranged for a swift plan of action. The kid who Brian was bullying spent some time alone with Brian…and lo and behold, they found some common ground. They broke the cycle of bullying behavior by taking the audience away from the bully.

This serves as a reminder to all parents: The best time for your child to deal with the ringleader is when he or she is away from his or her group. Often bullies get power from their group and are a bit more open to being friendly in a one-on–one situation. At the very least your son will be on more or less equal footing to address the bullying.

Abby, one of my former students who moved to Atlanta, had to take a more direct approach when dealing with her bullies. Abby’s mother was called into the principal’s office one day because Abby was going to be suspended for fighting. Here’s what she said to the principal when he described the incident. “YOU tell my daughter that SHE is being suspended because she defended herself by kicking three boys who attacked her, one holding each of her arms and the third hitting her. YOU tell her that their behavior was OK and she had no right to protect herself. Tell her this right here, right now.”

Needless to say, Abby wasn’t suspended.

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