Helping kids — from tots to teens — handle bullying
managing editor):Why are children so often mean to each other?
Rabbi Edythe/Edie Mencher (clinical social work psychotherapist, author,
organizational consultant): They may be feeling angry, competitive,
insulted, irritable, envious—the same reasons adults behave unkindly. They may
have been ridiculed at home or school. They may not have developed impulse
control or benefited from years of socialization; very young children in
particular do not appreciate the consequences of their actions. They may
compensate for poor language skills by hitting or saying, “Dummy!” Sometimes
bullying is rewarded with popularity. And “wiring” makes a difference: Some kids
have more difficulty understanding other people’s feelings and tend to be more
aggressive and impulsive.
If one sibling is aggressive with another, consider the possibility that the
larger family may be inadvertently playing a role their interactions. In the
biblical story, Joseph’s brothers not only resented his grandiose prediction
that he would rule over the family, but envied the special treatment their
father Jacob afforded Joseph. And because Jacob both provoked feelings of anger
and hurt in his sons and did nothing to help them appropriately channel their
emotions, it came to pass that Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery.
Aron (RJ editor):How should parents respond if one of
their children bullies another?
Edie: When it comes to hostility between kids, quantity and degree
count. If adults intervene in every squabble, children will not learn to fend
for themselves. On the other hand, letting a child hit or say cruel things to a
sibling without intervention leaves the hurt child feeling unsafe. The
victimized child must know that her suffering matters to those in authority and
that her cry will not be ignored.
In situations involving dangerous behavior, take a firm moral stance: Tell
the child who has injured a sibling that “hurting another person is not allowed”
and work with her to develop other ways of handling her frustrations. Avoid
shaming and belittling the offending child, which will only compound the problem
by modeling the very behavior you wish to discourage. Also refrain from
suggesting or implying that the wounded child is more vulnerable or precious, as
you’re liable to diminish her confidence and incite more hostility toward her.
At every opportunity, try to reinforce the idea that each child is treasured,
everyone makes mistakes, and the wellbeing of the teased and the teaser are of
Also, consider how you might redirect a child’s aggressive tendencies in
positive ways. According to Jewish tradition, all human beings are born with
both a yetzer hara, an inclination toward evil, and a yetzer
hatov, an inclination to do good. Judaism does not expect us to blot out the
yetzer hara —Genesis Rabbah 9:7 teaches: “Were it not for the evil
inclination, men would not build homes, take wives, have children, engage in
business”—but to balance it with the yetzer hatov. The yetzer hara
of a fiercely competitive child can be channeled into sports, debate club, or
other activities where winning is celebrated.
Aron:What should be done if your child is being bullied at
Dr. Dale Atkins (psychologist, author, TV commentator, Reform
congregant): All manners of bullying are wrong, whether they’re verbal (name
calling, threats), psychological (making a child feel vulnerable by exclusion or
other mind-game tactics), or physical (shoving, hitting, kicking, punching).
Commend a bullied child for seeking help and assure him that doing so is not a
sign of weakness but of strength and confidence. Explain that the bully may be
acting out of jealousy or intolerance of people who are different. To help the
bullied child build his inner strength, ask him to imagine he’s wearing a coat
of armor and carrying a shield to ward off the “arrows” coming at him in the
form of hateful words. Keep reminding him about his strong and decent qualities.
Encourage him to do the things he enjoys and is good at, and to spend more time
with friends who support him.
If the problem at school is severe, you might also ask the teacher or
principal to call a meeting with the families of the children and enlist
everyone involved in resolving the situation.
Edie: A child also needs to be told that he shouldn’t let pride compel
him to take on the bully physically, especially if he’s liable to get hurt.
Joy:How can a child defend against physically stronger
Dale: Self-defense classes can be helpful. Most martial arts programs
these days focus on using the mind to deal with the opponent: The strength comes
from within. The child isn’t being encouraged to fight, but rather to feel
unafraid. Children who are perceived as “weak” are often targets, and it is
important to help them feel competent.
Aron:I was physically bullied in junior high school
until I pushed my tormentor down a flight of stairs. While my action might have
caused him serious injury, it stopped him from messing with me again. Since that
time, I’ve believed that the best way to stop a bully is to fight back.
Edie: Sometimes there is no other choice, but in general, it’s best to
avoid physical confrontation because violence begets violence and conflicts tend
to escalate. While Judaism does not encourage pacifism in the face of assault
and an obligatory war is part of our tradition, it is still our hope that
children should not have to experience day-to-day life as a battlefield. Martial
arts training may help, as a child who projects internal strength and confidence
may be less likely to be pushed around. Engaging in extracurricular after-school
activities may also prevent the child from continuously encountering threats and
feeling unsafe. If violence persists, you may need to involve school officials
and even legal authorities. It is not unreasonable to ask for a class change and
even to consider a change of school. Most importantly, the child should know
that he has the support of adults and is not at fault for what’s happening to
Aron:How do you teach children not to bully one another?
Edie: Moral education is absolutely essential, but to be effective it
needs to happen through modeling and subtle guidance rather than from overt
lecturing or even storytelling. Years ago, when I tried preaching at kids,
expecting them to make leaps from a story to their own behavior, I got nowhere.
During a weekend Girl Scout trip I led, we read Eleanor Estes' book, The
Hundred Dresses, about the daughter of a school custodian teased for wearing
the same dress every day. The girl tells the other kids she has 100 beautiful
dresses at home, and they torment her, “Tell us more about your dresses!”
Finally, she can’t take it, and her father removes her from the school. Many of
her classmates are disturbed to realize what they’ve done, among them a girl who
hardly participated in the teasing but did not stand up to the school
During our discussion about the book, all of the scouts said they identified
with the girl who felt badly about not speaking up. But afterwards, the popular
girls acted just as nastily as before to one of the other kids! They later told
me that the girl in the story “didn’t do anything” to deserve that treatment,
but the real girl was “annoying” them.
Joy: What did you do?
Edie: I pulled each of the girls aside individually. “Look,” I said,
“I don’t want to embarrass you, I know you don’t want to be mean, but your
actions are hurting another person who has as much right as you do to have a
good time at this event. If you feel annoyed by someone, find a way to handle it
so that the other person doesn’t feel so badly that she doesn’t want to come
back.” I realized, however, with some sadness, that the child who was being
teased was different from the others (among children and adolescents, difference
often stirs anxiety that can lead to exclusion) and less socially adept. The
best I could do was pair her with another girl who had been somewhat
marginalized so that each girl had a friend. I also let everyone know that
teasing was strictly forbidden. My approach did diminish overt teasing (and,
indeed, studies show that it can be more effective than promoting empathy).
Dale: Getting the girl to identify with the child she’s hurt can
sometimes help. You can say: “You must have felt awful to speak like that to
another person. What’s going on with you? How do you think she’s feeling?”
Joy:You are not saying, “Stop that!”
Many children model what their parents do. If you admonish a child for demeaning
behavior, you may also be rebuking her parents. She will naturally defend
herself—and her parents. It’s better to try to understand what the child is
feeling, give her a choice of alternative behaviors in response to those
feelings, and reinforce the teaching of socially appropriate behavior in
It is also appropriate to “label” the offending behavior as hurtful and
unacceptable, saying, “It is not okay to speak to someone in our group that way.
If you are upset about something she did, talk with her in a way to work it
Edie: Adults often make the mistake of being overprotective. Let’s say
Susanna’s hearing aid whistles in Hebrew school, the class clown remarks, “Who
put the tea on?” and the class erupts in laughter. If the teacher admonishes the
joker by saying, “We don’t make fun, we don’t put stumbling blocks in front of
the blind or tease people with disabilities—go to the principal’s office!” and
invites Susanna to sit next to her, she has compounded the problem by
embarrassing and further isolating the victim. If, instead, the teachers says,
“True, the hearing aid is whistling like a tea kettle,” and (if she knows
Susanna will respond favorably) asks Susanna to explain to the class why this
happens, she might be able to diffuse the entire situation. This approach is no
different from handling a tactless remark at a dinner party. The host would not
vilify the person by saying, “Get out!”; someone would move the conversation to
a neutral topic. The goal is to transform the situation so that both the joker
and the person at the butt of the joke maintain dignity.
Aron:What if a troublemaker sends nasty emails to everyone in
the religious school class?
Edie: It would be best if the teacher spoke to the offender privately,
perhaps saying, “I very much want you to be part of our community, but we have
got to get this emailing behavior under control—our congregation has to be a
safe place for you and everyone else. You know you are going to end up in
trouble for doing this, the kids getting the messages feel bad, and later you
will feel bad and get a bad reputation. Before you can return to class, we have
to figure out how to help you stop.” Sometimes a period of separation is
required before the person can rejoin the community. In a sense, that’s what
happens in the biblical story of Miriam and Moses. After Miriam speaks ill of
Moses, she is afflicted with a leprosy-like condition. Moses’ first response is,
“God, please heal her” (Numbers 12:13). The text tells us that Miriam is sent
outside the camp for awhile, and the Israelites do not move on until she has
recovered and rejoins them. In other words, Miriam was no less valuable to the
community than before her error—a reminder to us all that no one should be left