September 25, 2011

What to Say to a Bully

The Background:

Eight years ago I developed the social education program Athena’s Path to give girls the tools they need to manage the middle school social scene so that they could be more successful in school. I first tested my curriculum as a summer camp with 20 girls, most of whom I begged, borrowed, and stole from friends to attend. Over the years, the girls kept coming back (and bringing their friends!). That pilot program evolved into ten camps each summer, a brother program, Hero’s Pursuit, and a classroom curriculum taught in public and private schools in four states. Although a lot has changed along the way, one lesson that has endured the changing times is “Responding to Criticism” my lesson on what to say to a bully. Over 4000 boys and girls have participated in this lesson either in school or at a summer camp, and it’s the one on which I receive the most positive feedback from parents and kids alike.

How It Works:

You’ll have to take a small leap of faith with me here when I tell you that after weeks of bonding exercises the kids in Athena’s Path and Hero’s Pursuit have developed a trust that you would find hard to believe unless you saw it for yourself. The curriculum is structured in such a way that everyone becomes equally vulnerable with each other and they become proficient in empathizing and supporting each other. One girl at Mint Hill Middle School in Charlotte said to her teacher, “There are girls in this class I used to look down on when I passed them in the hall and now I tell these girls things I would never tell my best friend.” If you’re trying this at home with your child you already have that trust established so you’re a step ahead.

The first thing teachers do in our class is explain two types of criticism: mean spirited and constructive. This lesson focuses on responding to mean-spirited criticism, the kind meant to tear you down not make you a better person. You might need to begin by explaining this difference to your child.

Next, kids brainstorm ways to respond to mean-spirited criticism. Man, are they good at coming up with how to react when the pressure isn’t on! And that is the key to this exercise. Tweens and teens are not good at thinking on their feet. Being caught off guard by a stinging comment can result in tears, tremors, or threats. None of these say to a bully, “you don’t bother me.” Practicing how they will respond before the situation arises is the only way your tween can ensure a smooth response.

I’m amazed that after 8 years of practicing this exercise, kids still come up with roughly the same responses every time. Each time their responses look something like this:

What to Say to a Bully:

• Shrug like you don’t care, then walk away
• Make a joke
• Smile to show you’re not bothered
• Say something random to change the subject
• Ask “why would say something so mean? Are you ok?”
• Say “thank you!” or agree lightheartedly like it doesn’t bother you
• Tell them calmly to “quit it”.
• If the situation happens repeatedly and you need help, tell an adult.

We have a saying in my program: A bully gets bigger when you feel smaller. The outcome of this activity is that tweens feel bigger when they pick the response that fits them best, practice it so it becomes natural, and have that in their back pockets should a situation arise. This is about not falling apart when someone cuts you off at the knees. Some parents worry that their child isn’t responding strongly enough to criticism. Don’t worry. More confidence and assertion come with time. Forcing a tween to pick a response you like better only makes them feel less capable. Let them pick whichever response feels most natural to them, even if in the early stages that’s something as simple as shrugging, and in time their confidence will grow. Once tweens have success coming up with a plan, practicing, and following it under heat, they’ll believe in their ability to do bigger and bolder things.

So how do you practice? In Athena’s Path and Hero’s Pursuit tweens don’t stop at brainstorming responses to mean-spirited criticism. Next they write down the worst thing someone might say to them on an index card and then they get plenty of practice responding in front of a crowd. It’s harder (and more important) than you’d think. As a mom, you can recreate this exercise at home privately with your child or around the family dinner table. Getting everyone involved in brainstorming responses is fun. Not sure how to even bring up the subject? Try something like this:

“I read an interesting article today about how lots of kids practice what they’re going to say ahead of time so if a bully said something mean to them they would be prepared. I thought we could try coming up with a bunch of responses together so you could pick one that feels right to you. That way you won’t be caught off guard.”

In the end remember, the most important thing about this lesson isn’t what a tween says to a bully, it’s how he or she says it. Practice a few insults and encourage your child to remain calm and confident while responding. You’ll be amazed at how such a simple activity will fill your tween with the conviction to stand up for themselves and others.

If you are interested in learning more about Michelle’s programs, visit her website at

3 Responses

  1. […] out my first blog What to Say to a Bully and find me there every Sunday sharing tips for parents navigating the tricky world of raising […]

  2. Marianne Beardall says:

    This article could not have come at a better time. We just had this discussion with our 2nd grade daughter who is being bullied by someone she thought was a good friend. We’ll see how she did today in school and talk with all our kids about your tips! Thank you.

  3. Michelle Icard Michelle says:

    Thanks for your comment. I’m glad this post was meaningful to you. Good luck as you help your daughter practice responding. Keep us posted! – Michelle

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