How To Deal With School Bullies Of All Ages

How To Deal With School Bullies Of All Ages

Bullies can make our lives difficult at any age – even when you’re an adult – but you don’t have to sit by and take undeserved punishment from someone bigger, louder or meaner than you. Here are a few approaches you can take.

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To get some sound advice on resisting bullies, I spoke with Jeffrey DeGroat, PhD, LP, a clinical psychologist in Birmingham, Michigan. He says bullying is an issue he encounters regularly with children during treatment. So, if you feel alone in this, know that you’re not. Almost everyone gets bullied at some point or another – myself included – and almost everyone gets through the experience just fine. It may not seem like things can get better right now, but they will. Depending on your preferences, DeGroat suggests you have a few options that will work with bullies of almost any age.

Ignore Them Up to a Point

The first option is to ignore the bully, says DeGroat. They’re attempting to upset you in an effort to provoke a reaction from you. If you don’t react, there’s no reward for the bully. They want you to yell, cry, cower, look sad, do anything that suggests they’re getting to you. It makes them feel powerful. If you ignore them completely the power goes away. If you can tough it out, they will get bored and move on.

DeGroat notes that this is one of the most difficult approaches to bullies, but it’s also one of the most effective. To help yourself out, he suggests you try this mental exercise:

One technique I often recommend to students is to imagine the bully is a two-year-old child. Generally, if we have a two-year-old calling us names, we ignore them because we do not see them as a threat. Therefore, by viewing a bully as a two-year-old we recognise that their name-calling is not a threat, making the process of ignoring them even easier.

Choose to see them as something non-threatening and they will start to feel that way. Of course, if their abuse is more physical in nature, or you feel in danger, consider a different approach, such as…

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Tell an Authority Figure Who Can and Will Help

DeGroat says a bully’s power is often magnified if we feel too ashamed to tell anyone about it. Do not be embarrassed by your situation, and do not hesitate to let someone know what’s going on. Go to a teacher, a counsellor or your parents, and explain the situation. Once you inform someone else, you’re no longer alone in dealing with it.

The other reason it’s good to tell an authority figure – especially someone at your school – is because you’ll be protected if something happens. DeGroat explains:

Bullies may attempt to claim that you are the aggressor, in an attempt to protect themselves from getting in trouble. By reporting the bullying to the authorities, we are protecting ourselves from potential false accusations from the bully.

If you get into a physical altercation, your teacher or counsellor will know immediately that the bully is lying about who started it because you told them about the issues before. I offer one piece of advice, however: Tell the authority figure in private if you can. Don’t raise your hand and tattletale in front of the whole class or you might make things worse (plus you’ll get labelled as a snitch by everyone else).

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Fight Back in Self-Defence Only

Your third last-resort option is to fight back. This approach is a bit more controversial, says DeGreat, but it can also be extremely effective. You aren’t just ignoring the bait a bully dangles in front of you, you’re throwing it back at them. But DeGroat says it’s only ever recommended if you discuss this approach with your parents and they’re comfortable with it, and there’s an important distinction to be made before you do anything:

Often times, bullies physically assault other students. While their targets might try to ignore these aggressive behaviours, or tell teachers about these aggressive behaviours, the bullies may persist. As long as the student and parents are comfortable, I indicate that the student has the choice to fight back in self-defence. I do not recommend the student fight the bully in retaliation, but self-defence, an important distinction.

What does “self-defence” mean, exactly? For one, you should never start a confrontation with your bully. Only respond to what they do. You also need to keep your focus on protecting yourself, not hurting them. The key is to show you’re willing to defend yourself, not prove that you’re up for fisticuffs. Think of it like this: You just want them to know that you won’t make things easy for them. That’s often all it takes.

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DeGroat points out, however, that choosing to fight back in self-defence means you should expect to face consequences for your behaviour. Many schools have a zero-tolerance policy for fighting, even if you’re defending yourself, so be prepared for that. And again, DeGroat highly recommends you discuss this option with your parents first. If anything, them knowing how serious you are about handling your bully might motivate them to find other courses of action that are better suited for the situation.

Whatever approach you take, DeGroat emphasises the importance of reaching out to someone you trust. That may be a parent, a sibling, a friend or a teacher. Just having someone to talk to will keep you from feeling alone and powerless. And if the bullying is extreme and persistent, talk to your school counsellor immediately, and consider talking to a mental health provider to help you work your way through what’s going on in your mind. There are so many people out there than can help you help yourself, so don’t hesitate to reach out.

Get out those calculators and sharpen your 2B pencils – it’s Back-to-School Week! Going far beyond the classroom, Lifehacker is bringing you genius tricks and ideas on how to start routines, brush up on old skills, or learn something new this year.


  • Defending myself worked in my case, and will make anyone else who might decide you’re an easy target think twice.

    I had the blessing of my parents, and tacitly, the school. Yes I got hauled in front of the headmaster, but because he was aware it had been an issue, that I wasn’t the aggressor and I hadn’t swung first, I received enough of a “punishment” so he could say I’d been disciplined to the other parents, without actually punishing me.

    Watching the other kids reactions to my bully’s return with black eyes, fat lip etc, and his reaction when he next saw me was a beautiful thing.

  • Experts keep giving the same advice – and I think the advice is ok to start with. But if the bullying persists, despite intervention from the school, I would tell my kid to strike the bully first with my permission.

    The bully is weak and is looking for a weak target.

  • Institutions continue to defend the sociopaths who have grown out of being schoolyard bullies. They’ve often reached a level of power within institutions that means that dealing with them is admitting to an institutional failure, and we can’t have that!

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