Standing Up to Bullies: Raising an Assertive Child
Dean Family Medicine Physician Dr. Virginia McKenna explains how teaching children how to be assertive without resorting to aggressive behavior is a key part of teaching them how to stand up to bullies
A common piece of advice for anyone encountering a bully is to “stand your ground.” The idea is that if you stand up to a bully, the bully will back down. The hard part is learning, and teaching your kids, the difference between assertive behaviors and simply becoming a bully in the face of confrontation.
What is the difference between being assertive and being aggressive?
“Being assertive is stating your opinion in a respectful, non-threatening manner,” says Dean Clinic family medicine physician Dr. Virginia McKenna. “It is important to teach children to stand up for themselves by being assertive.”
On the flip side, being aggressive is stating your opinion in an attacking manner without any regard for the other person’s feelings or opinions.
One way to talk about the differences between assertion and aggression with your child is to explain that assertive behaviors allow someone to be heard, but don’t hurt other people’s feelings. Aggressive behaviors usually involve an imbalance of power and make someone feel bad.
How can parents model assertive behaviors?
Parents can model assertive behavior for their children by speaking to them with respect and being a good listener.
“Parents should listen to their child’s point of view and respond appropriately,” says McKenna. “In interactions with others, they should make sure they are not being physically or emotionally intimidating (slamming doors, using their physical size to intimidate their child, being very loud and aggressive). They can also model good behaviors during disagreements with adults, while driving the car, and while interacting with people on the phone.”
What are some ways a parent can teach and encourage a child to be assertive?
When it comes to bullying and everyday life, Dr. McKenna suggests trying these methods to encourage assertive behavior:
- Encourage your children to be kind to others, but to also stand up for themselves. They should speak up when they have an idea, but also learn to be good listeners. They shouldn’t try to change the way they feel just to fit in. Being a leader, rather than a follower, can help them have confidence.
- Role playing OR going over scenarios that have happened/could happen at school. Role playing or reviewing scenarios helps prepare children how to respond when someone is intimidating them. Keep the lines of communication open—don’t just ask “how was school today?” Ask more direct and open-ended questions like “what did you do at recess today?”
What is an assertive way for my child to respond to a bully?
Dr. McKenna suggests teaching your children to follow these steps when confronted with a bully:
- State clearly “I don’t like what you are doing. Please stop.” If they continue, walk away, especially if the person is asking them something unreasonable, or demanding they do something they are uncomfortable with.
- Tell a teacher or another adult. Oftentimes teachers do not hear what is being said on the playground or in the hallway, but would want to address bullying behaviors if they were aware of them.
“Don’t ever encourage your child to ‘fight back,’ instead teach them to stand up for themselves (or others) by clearly stating how they are feeling,” says McKenna. “Responding to bullying behaviors by bullying back, will not help the situation and often escalates it. Bullies tend to lose their power if the person they are bullying stands up to them in a non-confrontational way.”
How does aggression lead to bullying behaviors?
Aggressive behaviors and attitudes can morph into bullying behaviors when children don’t stop to think about how their actions and words make others feel.
“When children are aggressive, they are not concerned about others’ feelings, and are often loud or intimidating,” says McKenna. “They use their words, their physical bodies, or involvement of their peers to make another person feel threatened (emotionally or physically).”
By modeling assertive behaviors and going through these exercises with your children, you can help them grow into assertive adults.