Dear Lauren,

A kid in my class is harassing me and bullying me. What should I do?

Lauren Roth's Answer

Your question came at a perfect time; our family also had a rash of bullying experiences this week. And I purposely use the word “rash:” bullying is angry, bothersome, inflammatory, uncomfortable, painful, and never anything anyone wants to have.

In a previous article, I elucidated one method of dealing with bullies: befriending them. Being nice to them, at an arm’s distance, because if they’re bullying, it means they’re hurting. I’ve seen that approach work many times, but in order to deal with all types of bullies effectively, it’s good to have a lot of tricks in your bag. Some rashes respond to topical steroids. Some need air, and some need water. So too with bullies. They come in all shapes and sizes, and one approach might work with one mean kid and a different approach might work with a different one.

This week, the bullies and mean kids we’ve encountered have responded well to two different techniques. One really difficult person had been held at bay by the “befriending” technique for a long time. Then he flared up this week, and my son spoke to him strongly, firmly, and calmly, looking him straight in the eye and showing no fear, and said, “Stop bothering me. It’s mean, and I don’t like it.” My son stared him down for a few moments, strongly, calmly, and firmly, and the mean kid kind of skulked away. This week, that worked with that kid.

“I do not need anyone in my life who is mean or rude or obnoxious. I can be strong, and independent, and my own best friend.”

I do wonder if that “strong but firm” approach worked because my son had been employing the “be kind to bullies because they’re hurting” approach with him until now. What I mean is this: if you were, for example, a parent, and you wanted to discipline your child and explain to him that what he did was wrong, you first would have to have good will between you and your child. If there’s good will because you’ve been nice to your child, he’ll be much more willing to hear what you have to say. I wonder if my son’s “strong but firm” approach would have worked this week if he hadn’t been doing the “befriending” technique with this kid beforehand. Like rashes, sometimes you have to vary the methods to calm the inflammation, and see what works.

The second approach that worked for three of my kids this week (I told you we’ve had a rash of bullying!) was the “absolutely ignore them” approach. What this approach necessitates is knowing completely and fully that you are strong, you are confident, you are independent, and you don’t need anyone mean in your life. This approach has to come from a deep well of self-confidence within you. This approach comes from your telling yourself: “I do not need anyone in my life who is mean or rude or obnoxious. I can be strong, and independent, and my own best friend.”

I like my kids to practice this approach, because it’s very empowering and helps build that self-confidence. You can practice it too. Practice with a friend, a sibling, or a parent. If you can get this one down, your days of being bullied just might be over. This is how it goes:

Stare him down confidently, firmly, and strongly, give a little sneer, say something like “You are so weird,” and slowly walk away.

Harry bothers you. You completely and totally ignore him. He gets in your face; you pretend you can’t see him. He says, “Hey you, loser, I’m talking to you!” You remain totally impassive and pretend you didn’t hear him. You read a book, you look through your locker, you look out the window…. He pushes you; you don’t break your stride, just keep on walking. You continue whatever you were doing before he pushed you. Make Harry feel as though he can’t touch you. Like there’s a wall of steel around you, protecting you, and making him invisible. If he keeps trying to get your attention, keep ignoring him. Then, if he doesn’t stop, after ignoring him for a long while, switch to the “strong and firm approach.” Stare him down confidently, firmly, and strongly, give a little sneer, say something like “You are so weird,” and walk away. Slowly walk away.

If the bully doesn’t get a reaction from you, eventually he or she will move on to another target.

Unfortunately, that last statement was true: bullies move from target to target. They only stop bullying if they get to therapy and get the help they need, or, in the case of Antisocial Personality Disordered people, until they get thrown into jail where they can only bully other inmates.

I gave a parenting seminar on bullying a couple of weeks ago. I had one of the fathers act like the bully, and I was demonstrating the “absolutely ignore” approach. That father didn’t give up so easily! With my own kids and teenaged clients, I’ve found that bullies are not as tenacious as you might think once you employ the “befriend,” “strong but firm,” or “absolutely ignore” technique. However, this father would not give up. He followed me around the stage for much longer than I’ve ever experienced with simulated or real bullies. I had to be equally tenacious in my ignoring him. And his persistence made me realize that I should tell all of you: don’t give up. Don’t give in. Whichever approach you adopt, don’t quit ‘til you win. If you had a stubborn rash, and it just wouldn’t go away, would you say, “Argh! Forget it! I’m not treating this skin thing anymore. Go ahead, rash, take over my whole body! See if I care!” No, you wouldn’t.

Sometimes in life, God gives us challenges and we have to be persistent, even though it’s uncomfortable. But don’t give in. Don’t cry. Don’t do what the bully wants. You can do this.

Last night, we had a really gross situation. One of our toilets was stuffed, and it would not flush. My husband plunged that toilet maybe 50 times, and it would not budge. I said to him, “Sweetheart, forget it. I’ll call the plumber tomorrow. Don’t bother with the toilet – you have surgeries to perform tomorrow. Just forget about the toilet and go to sleep.” He said, “Let me just try 10 more times.” He was tenacious and persistent. And do you know what happened? After those 10 more times, Whoosh!! The water swirled and exited properly, just like a good toilet should.

This is your anti-bully mantra: “Icky clogged toilets and red, inflamed rashes: I’m better than any bully ever could be, because I’ve got kindness, self-confidence, courage, tenacity, and all of Lauren’s techniques on my side. I can do this!”

Of course, don’t dismiss the power of telling as many adults as you can about your bullying problem. Even though you think they might not be able to help you, merely sharing your experience with them can make you feel less alone in your struggles. And you might be surprised – a parent, a teacher, a principal, a neighbor, the police… might just be able to effect change for you and your issue. If you’re worried that “tattling” on the bully might backfire, make sure you impress upon the adult how important it is that they not reveal the source of their information. And choose adults you trust.

I’m on your side.