How to stop a bully

At Kitchen Table Math, Catherine Johnson highly recommends Fred Frankel’s book, Good Friends Are Hard to Find: Help Your Child Find, Make and Keep Friends. Children can learn to interact with others — including how to stop a bully.

Johnson’s second-grade son was being bullied at school. She learned bullies tend to pick on kids with two characteristics:

1. they cry easily, giving the bully bang for the buck
2. they are compliant to other children

Both of these things were true of Christopher.

. . . Our neighbor . . . taught Christopher “how to fight,” which in Christopher’s case meant how to defend himself in a very loud voice accompanied by an equally loud glare & the all-important step forward.

There was also a whole dramatic Second Act Christopher was supposed to launch into if the bully dared to mouth off after he’d been Warned. It was basically Robert DeNiro for the 2nd grade. Christopher spent the afternoon running through the whole thing with the neighbor and his son, and then we rehearsed him at home.

It worked.

She shared the technique with the mother of Christopher’s friend.

When other kids bullied him he ran.

Talk about bang for your buck. Number one, motion triggers everyone’s ‘prey chase drive;’ and number two, chasing a running target is fun whether you’re planning to kill and eat your prey when you catch him or not.

I told his mother: Tell him not to run.

I also told her that not only should he not run, he should make direct eye contact with the lead bully, and take a step forward.

His message: There are 5 of you and 1 of me, so you can stuff me in a garbage can if you want to.

But I’m not the only one coming out of this with bruises.

The bully backed off.

About Joanne


  1. hardlyb says:

    When my younger brother was in middle school he became the target for a small gang of bullies. My mother sent him to a martial arts class for a while where he learned something they called Kung Fu (I don’t know if this is really a fighting style or if what he learned was that style — this was during the days of the TV show). Anyway, it gave him the confidence to fight back, and the skills to land some punches. They never bothered him again after that, and it even helped him deal with some more dangerous bullies in high school.

    The one time I was bothered by a bully, in high school, I tried to ignore him for a while, but in the end gave him the same sort of “garbage can” speech used by the kid in the story. I was half expecting to get seriously hurt, while doing my best to do some damage to him, but my bully backed off after that, too. (And I was very glad, because I never got any Kung Fu lessons…)

  2. This only works if the other kids don’t have weapons.

  3. I took Mantis Kung-Fu in Junior High and partly through HS (c.’70-’74) because of my big brother… It was a real style, around the time of the TV show. My instructor was a short little guy named Paul Eng who had taught Green Berets in Vietnam. We learned a very effective series of “forms” that were confidence enabling, and physically workable – it stopped my brother’s ability to attack, and I wasn’t afraid of any of the upper-grade thugs.

  4. This only works if the other kids don’t have weapons.

    And if the other kids don’t have parents who are lawyers, DAs, superintendents, etc.

  5. I looked at the website for Good Friends Are Hard to Find: Help Your Child Find, Make and Keep Friends. It sounds like just another Behavior Modification book, implying it’s the victim, not the bully, that needs to modify behavior. Want your child to make and keep friends? Enroll her in a good school (private or home) with a solid bullying prevention and no “socialization” agenda.

  6. I look at this issue from an “economics” perspective in my blog. The key is that by taking the steps above, you make the activity of bullying both “lower paying” and costlier (from the perspective of the bully). The “stepping towards the bully” is also very important, because talk is cheap.

    From personal experience, I’ve found that having “bullying prone” kids take martial arts doesn’t just increase the chance of their winning a fight with a bully. It also makes the bullying a lot less likely, because your kids will become more confident. Bullies can pick out likely victims. They tend not to pick on kids that act like they can take care of themselves.

    I grew up in a mill-town, so you learn these lessons pretty early.

  7. Like many kids, I was bullied at times. It stopped in high school after I took a stand (in the middle of Soph. Writing class). I used my Dad’s advice: If you’re gonna fight, forget hitting them on their body; hit their face. You’ll do more damage and they will remember it (and leave you alone in the future). It worked.

    Having worked around kids for many years as a public school teacher, I believe it will take some confidence building to first get the kids who are being bullied to be able to look the bully in the eye and speak up to the bully. IF martial arts can improve/provide that confidence, great. But some kids are too cowed to make eye contact. Bullies seek confidence from their victims, to make themselves feel better/stronger. IF they can’t get that from their victim, they will go elsewhere.

  8. Bullies seek confidence from their victims, to make themselves feel better/stronger. IF they can’t get that from their victim, they will go elsewhere.

    Bullies are just one type of psychic vampire. My advice is: don’t play their games, and don’t feed them. Walk away, stay at home, develop your own non-geographic non-institutional circle of friends, and check out the many alternatives to public schools. Government child ghettos, by their nature, are a paradise for bullies.

    Yes, I know this is “easier said than done”. But I lived through it. Society wants the good smart visionary kids to be one of three things: perpetual victims of bullies; wasting effort trying to beat them at their own game; or becoming bullies themselves.

    There’s nothing wrong with active self-defense, against the occasional deserving SOB. But there’s little point in staying at a school or workplace, if such place is a “Hall of a Thousand Enemies”.

  9. Oh goodness!

    I just saw this.

    I’m glad to see the other commenters here sharing similar experiences. When Christopher’s problems cropped up, I was flummoxed. I hadn’t been bullied myself as a child, and nor had my husband, and I couldn’t think why Christopher would be.

    Frankel’s book is what I call ‘Xtreme behaviorism’, but not just in the sense of offering behavioral training for children in various difficult situations.

    Good behaviorism is based in precision analysis & observation of behavior.

    Frankel’s book allowed me to see why Christopher was the chosen victim. And make no mistake: some are chosen, and some are not. It’s not random, and Frankel lets you see through the bully’s eyes.

    As to modifying the bullies, not the victims, that’s the approach taken by every school program I know. Our school spends 6 months, 20 minutes each and every morning, on an anti-bullying program called ‘No Put Downs.’

    After all that lost instructional time, my friend’s son was still getting stuffed in garbage cans.

    One conversation with his mom about what I’d learned from Frankel, and no more bullies.

    After I’d spent a few days mulling over Frankel, I realized that in fact I had once been bullied as a child; I’d been bullied, and I’d solved the situation on my own. (Today I realize that I used a variant on the step-forward approach.)

    The reason I knew how to solve it was that I’d spent my entire childhood slugging it out with my 2 sisters & 1 brother.

    Christopher has two brothers, but they’re both autistic, and he’d never learned to rough and tumble. He was essentially an only child, at least when it came to sibling battle.

    Interestingly, his twin, Andrew, who did have a normal sibling (Christopher!) was much tougher. The day Christopher went to fight-school at the neighbor’s house, I watched Andrew rough up another little autistic kid who had dared to touch his Barney at a birthday party.

    Talk about Robert DeNiro. Andrew had all the moves down. The stare, the insolence, the violation of the offending child’s space… was a wonder to behold.

    Parents are constantly looking for ways to stop sibling fights, but I now think that one of the main benefits to closely spaced siblings is the fighting.

    One last thing.

    The kids who were bullying Christopher were & are nice kids, from nice families. The lead bully is a handful, and his mom & dad know he’s a handful, and he will no doubt carry on being a handful until he’s all grown up when he will be an upstanding citizen with a lot of energy and panache.

    He’s not going to change overnight because the principal calls him into his office and says Be nice to Christopher.

    I didn’t want to get into a Whole Big Thing with the parents, or with the school. If there was any way for Christopher to settle the situation himself, that’s the way I wanted to go.