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March 2009

Bully Proofing Your Child

By Deborah Wood, Ph.D.

The first day of first grade, Roy learned an important lesson: Bart was not to be crossed. Bart was the towering brute who wore a blank look in the classroom and a scowl in the hallway. He didn’t have answers for the teacher, but he had a message for his classmates: “Stay outta my way.” Roy noticed that whenever there was no adult in sight, Bart would pick on kids.

In the hallway before lunch, Bart loudly slammed his locker door, and those unfortunate enough to be standing nearby were threatened with his metal lunch box. The unwary child who was hit as he walked past winced his way back to his desk without a word.

A Bully Is Born

Research on bullying behavior looks in two directions: environmental causes (social influences) and inborn causes (genetics). Cecil Calliste, director of Wonders Child Care at Bethesda Extended Day, says one cause, “is the desire to belong.” Lacking effective social skills that would enable him to be connected to other children in a positive way, the bully resorts to an aggressive style of interacting. It may also be, says Calliste, a way of acting out the anger the child feels at being disenfranchised.

It is easy to understand the social influence at work when a child sees what can be gained by bullying. He may identify with media models who resolve conflict with threats and bullets. Fifty years of research on the effect of violent media (television, movies and now video games) on children’s aggression shows conclusively that make-believe aggression negatively affects the reality of children’s thoughts, emotions and actions.

Emotional and physical violence in real life can cause a bully as well. A living model of hostility and harassment could come from a child’s parents or siblings. In this situation, he has “caught” the disease of bullying from home and spreads it around at school.

Parenting Matters

A parenting style that is more neglectful than mean can also raise a bully. The child who isn’t affectionately fed, bathed, dressed, comforted and played with has no reason to believe he is worthy of love. He sets out to prove he is worthy by demanding and commanding the attention of others (less worthy than he) through bullying.

The overindulged child is yet another case. Her parents do not set limits to help her take other people’s needs into consideration. Eight-year-old Suzette whines about ballet class being too repetitious, so her parents let her skip most of the classes. When the teacher assigns Suzette a place in the back row for the recital – where her lack of practice would be less noticeable – her parents raise a stink and force the teacher to rechoreograph just before the show.

In some children, there’s a complex mixture of both nature (genetics) and nurture (social influences) that combine to cause trouble. Learning disabilities, for example, frustrate a child, as well as his caregivers. Imagine the constant upsets in the family of a child who confuses, “You should tell your father I said to get the honey down from the high shelf,” with, “Your father said you should get the honey down all by yourself.” Likewise, a child who has inherited strong emotions or a strong will (traits he may share with one or both parents) will impact the whole household. Drama and revenge could be the normal pattern of family interactions.

Innocent Victims?

Just as there are predictable factors among bullies, there are also traits and behaviors in their typical targets. Perceived weakness is the key. Since the bully is seeking to dominate, he looks for vulnerability: a girl who stutters, a boy who wears glasses, a recent immigrant with unfamiliar clothes, a friendless child, a homeless child, an unconfident child. Lacking intervention from an adult, differences become deficiencies. Schools that stress grades and behavioral standards out of the reach for some children can create a negative atmosphere. Lydia Deem, president of Kids at Hope Herndon Chapter, says that when classmates' mistakes and weaknesses become the focus, bullying is supported. A relatively low social status invites some trial teasing, and soon the bully is assured of success for increasingly severe intimidations. By contrast, students at Kids at Hope recite a daily pledge, which affirms each child's potential for success and reminds children of their own positive possibilities and those of their classmates.


Jealousy can also provoke bullying. The exceptionally bright child, the musically gifted child or the child with more wealth makes the bully angry about what he doesn’t have or can't do. Objects are symbolic of that power. To restore his supremacy, the bully takes revenge in the form of an insult, threat, prank or theft directed at the victim’s prized possessions. Mention of an expensive vacation is mocked: “Oo la la! The shoes you got in Paris at spring break!” The violinist’s sheet music gets extra notes drawn in on each page. The scholar’s essay award ribbon disappears from his desk.

Direct assaults – more often verbal for girl bullies and physical for boy bullies – are most likely to occur when the victim is alone. The friendless child is at a big disadvantage because during unsupervised times, when children are free to be with anyone they like, he is by himself. It's easy to corner him in the bathroom, in a remote spot on the playground or in the midst of a noisy cafeteria where adults have so many distractions. The back of the school bus is notorious as a bully crime scene. All eyes face front, so woe to the victim who sits by himself just in front of the bully in the last row.


To prevent bullying, supervise children as much as possible. Vulnerable children need to be close to adults at all times. Instill the buddy system for children going to the bathroom.

Listen to them when they seem embarrassed, sad, afraid or angry about the actions of another child. “Tattling” by a third party is sometimes the only way bullying is exposed to adults. The concerned child might hold some power of his own: peer power. You could encourage him to support the victim by listening and consoling, bringing in adult help as needed. He might also offer the bully an ear and possibly uncover some of the root causes (family dysfunction for the bully, the “annoying” traits of the victim) that could benefit from grown-up assistance. It might be that the child who takes lunch money from other children is poor and hungry. He should not be facing this issue on his own. After about age 7, children tend to forget that grown-ups can be resourceful allies for their problems (and we may forget that they still need us). Be that rare adult who knows about, and cares about, what is going on.

David Zimand, director of general education for the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital, recommends a strong collaboration between school and home. “A child’s life at school doesn’t operate in a vacuum. We inform parents of our observations and work together to help the children grow.”

Home and School Cooperation

Calliste stresses that child care providers are in a key position to figure out underlying causes and address them. Different tactics can be applied depending on the child’s needs. Often, a leadership role can be given by the adults to redirect the bully’s desire to have the respect of his peers.

A good prevention against would-be bullies and would-be victims is any activity that builds self-esteem. Competence in one skill can balance out shortcomings in others. Structured after-school activities, such as scouts, community theater or “just for fun” sports, can build skills and raise confidence. Creative outlets can be particularly effective, suggest John Wortman and Allyson Ger, co-creators of Artrhythmz in Silver Spring. Individual and group sessions facilitate creative expression for children from ages 6 to16 through drumming, dance and visual art media. Ger says, “When children can express themselves through the arts, whether it be drawing or moving, they gain the attention they may have been seeking through bullying.”At home, one-on-one time with an adult can be perfect for learning candle making, photography, model plane building, pet care or baking. If you don’t know where to start, use the library or the Internet to explore possible avenues for building a strength from scratch. From aeronautics to zoology, there is so much to choose from.

Wood will present a workshop about bullying for parents and child care professionals on
Saturday, March 21, at the YMCA in Silver Spring. To register, call 301-576-3423 or e-mail

Teach children how to resolve conflicts. An effective set of social skills will serve a child well beyond childhood. Teach him to recognize his own rising emotions when a conflict occurs and to choose from among several constructive actions: Give a well-thought out reason for your point of view. Listen carefully to the other side. Trade. Divide. Take turns. Meet in the middle. Children with learning disabilities or emotional challenges will need more coaching to read body language and to hear the needs of their playmates. For the more volatile children, specific techniques in anger management will be helpful. These include getting plenty of exercise and ample sleep, taking a deep breath, writing down feelings, walking away and talking out problems long before the adrenaline takes over. And because children learn what we do better than what we say, adults should provide a good example by working things out without abusing power.

Emergency Measures

Unfortunately, bullies can turn up anywhere -- at school, on the playground, just around the corner -- at any time in your life. Practice for these emergencies. Talk to children about body language, and experiment with postures that say, “I’m afraid” versus, “I’m confident.”
Practice “self-talk” to override verbal slings. For example, “What could you say to yourself about being sprinkled with ginger, just like Bill Gates was as a child, if Ashlyn teases you about your freckles again?” Describe situations in which someone made you feel uncomfortable, and brainstorm how to get out of it, such as pretending you’re late for something and running off. One person role plays a bully saying mean words, and the other disarms him by agreeing or being humorous.

And if someone threatens to hurt you if don’t give him money or your cell phone, you give it to him. Then, get to a safe group of people, and tell them what happened. Get a grown-up to help you.
Nobody wins if bullies get away with it.

Editor' Note: We realize that cyberbullying is a serious problem, which we will address in an upcoming issue of Washington Parent.

Deborah Wood is a consultant, trainer and counselor for child development issues and a frequent speaker for parents and child care providers in the greater Washington, D.C., area. The mother of two grown children and an adopted teenager, she is the founding executive director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum in Annapolis.

Internet Resources
Kids Health for Parents:
KidPower (personal safety for kids):

Other Resources
Artrhythm:, 240-899-4193
Kids at Hope:, 866-275-HOPE
Kids at Hope Herndon Chapter: 703-401-6040

Wood will present a workshop about bullying for parents and child care professionals on
Saturday, March 21, at the YMCA in Silver Spring. To register, call 301-576-3423 or e-mail