On Raising Kids Not to Bully (Or to Be Bullied)

The antidote to bullying

Julie Gillis looks at ways you can help your child grow up to not be a bully — and, equally important, how to not have them be a victim of bullying.

As a mother, I want to raise my children to look out for others, to stand up for their friends, and to step in when they see things going wrong. I also want them to be strong and confident and to have resilience in the case that someone bullies them. It feels like a conundrum. How do we raise children to be peaceable, kind, and supportive of their friends, while also making sure they don’t have a “victim” target plastered to their forehead.

Empathy is, for me, the most important tool in teaching children not to bully, to recognize dynamics of bullying, and helping them feel confident in stepping up when they see bullying happening.

If you are a spiritual or religious person you are probably familiar with the passage, “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” There are other versions of this edict across spiritual paths, but it’s empathy in a nutshell. Think about how you might feel and how you’d like to be treated, and then treat people that way.

How do you teach this children not to bully? One way is through mirroring:

  • If you are in the car and someone cuts you off, do you yell nasty words at the driver, honking your horn and blaming them for your feelings or do you take a breathe, wonder why they were in such a hurry and hope that they start driving more safely?
  • How do you and your partner/spouse/co-parent interact? Little eyes and little ears pay close attention. If you push each other around, try to score points, or “win” at household dynamics, that will sink in and your kids may mimic that behavior at school.
  • Seek opportunities to help others through volunteering, church or spiritual institutions, schools and neighborhoods. Lots of neighborhoods have gardens that need tending, or residents that might need chores done.
  • When you see a person in need, whether at the store or on a walk, stop and ask if they need help. Simple to do, sends a huge message to kids.
  • When you are watching a movie or tv program and you see an instance of bullying, it’s a great time to ask your child what they think about that moment, and really listen. Your child telling you about their experience, and you really paying attention is a huge meta/micro exercise in empathy and connection. Letting them pick out what the dynamics of bullying is helps them see it in real life and avoid it, get help, or intervene.
  • Have pets. Any pet is awesome from a turtle to a big dog. Taking care of pets teaches children that they have to notice and think about others. This teaches empathy and compassion along with responsibility.

I also am a big fan of calling out negative dynamics when I see them and discussing them. Kids truly want to understand systems. Mine ask me “why” all the time. So we talk about the whys of bullying.

I ask them to imagine why someone would want to hurt others and then we talk about what they think. I ask if they ever feel that way about other people, but I don’t shame them if they admit to wanting to push others around. We talk about times I’ve felt that way and how I moved my thinking and actions into more productive forms.

I think it’s important to admit to your kids that you’ve been on one side or the other of that dynamic. Let them hear about what hurt, what didn’t. What you did or didn’t do, choices you would have made differently. It helps them feel less alone and like they aren’t the only child this is happening to, no matter if it is bullying or being bullied.


And how to you teach children not to be bullied?

So it’s all well and good to teach these empathic skills, but what happens if it is your child that is on the “being bullied” side of things. Sometimes this happens for no good reason at all, the bullies of a class might shift their targets based on random issues or specific dynamics.

Teach confidence in the self. It goes without saying that confidence inspires others. Confident kids can weather difficulties and keep thriving. How is confidence instilled?

  • Make sure your kids have ample access to good friends. Never underestimate the power of a core group of friends for increasing the inner confidence of kids. Even if those kids live across town, make sure they can hang out, have spend the nights, create and play together.
  • If your child has something he or she LOVES to do, make doing that a huge priority. Rock climbing? Ballet? Art? Get that kid the resources he or she needs to be awesome at that skill. Get them the opportunities to shine and be seen as competent and in control.
  • Listen when they talk about difficulties at school. Don’t immediately tell them how to handle the problem but ask them what they think will help. Believe their emotions and really listen to them.
  • Practical skills like karate classes, running, comedy, self defense of all kinds—seems like a strange thing to say, but knowing they have some power (physically or otherwise) in some way gives a huge boost of confidence.
  • Help your child learn who his or her allies are in a school. Favorite teachers? Kids in older grades? Help your child maximize those alliances so he or she doesn’t feel alone.
  • Teach children how to pick battles wisely. In the first section, we talked about not bullying and also standing up for kids when things are going wrong. Your children need to know how to discern which situations are for them to fight back against, or which are ones to get a teacher or another adult.


The Good Men Project hosting a GoogleHangout for Premium Members on Thursday July 25th at 2 PM EST, and Jamie Utt will be talking about bullying. Interested in joining? Email joanna@goodmenproject.com. Not a Premium Member yet? Register here. 

About Julie Gillis

Julie Gillis is a coach, writer, and producer focused on social justice, sex, and spirituality. She is dedicated to sexual freedom and education, equality for the LGBTQ community, and ending sexual violence. Julie intuitively helps people live their fullest lives, navigating terrain from relationships to sex education. She writes at The Austin Chronicle, Good Vibes Magazine, Flurtsite and JulieGillis.com. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter@JulesAboutTown


  1. As someone who grew up on the receiving end of bullying there is one line of defence which I found works against taunts, ridicule and humiliation. Violence is another issue though. This is possibly just for older kids but here it is.

    Don’t lie to yourself. Try and understand the motivations and emotions behind every significant action/reaction you have. Try and work out whether you do or say something because it makes you happy or feel good, you want a friend to be happy, or want a friends approval, its out of anger,you’re grumpy, hungry, you reacted because it hurt, you reacted because you believed it was true (or false), you reacted because you didn’t want to believe it was true (or false), you want revenge, because its a step on a longer term plan or you do it simply out of spite, pique or pure childishness. I am not saying you have to regret your actions, just understand why you did them. Whether you choose to change something after you understand why you did it is also up to you.

    Your brain is fantastic in trying to paint your actions as justified in every situation and more then likely you aren’t exactly the saint you think you are.

    The reason this works against bullies is this, words only have power when you believe the source. If you don’t lie to yourself and a bullies taunt is in conflict with your own self knowledge you can happily ignore them. You believe in yourself and not the bully. Bullies work on the power of suggestion through repeated taunts. You let them into your head because you appallingly enough believe, just a little, what they have to say is truer then your own self knowledge. If you don’t lie to your self then you can trust yourself implicitly. That sliver of doubt that comes with believing, just a little, that the bully knows something about you that you don’t can never gain a foothold if you trust yourself.

    Not everything a bully has to say will be false, if it isn’t false try and understand it the same way you apply to your actions above. If it is something that you can’t change then accept that whatever it is is a part of you that makes you a unique, a small piece of a jigsaw puzzle that is you. Don’t let it define you. You don’t define a puzzle by a single peice and you can’t define a person by a single trait. If they taunt you over something you can change then trust yourself. If you wanted to change that part of yourself you already would be changing it. If you don’t want to change that part then having a bully say you should is not a good enough reason for you to change your mind.

    I will give you a quick example that happened recently. I was driving home and an old shabby man was lying half on the road and half on the curb apperently unconcious. I stopped to see if he was all right and he proceeded to ask for money, he was begging and faking being hurt. I gave him about 50c in change, not much. At this point 3 neighbors came out and started swearing and abusing me for encouraging him. They told me I shouldn’t stop for people like this. The neighbors actions are those of bullies – they are trying to force me to think a certain way about someone else because they judged my actions to be wrong.

    I believe no such thing about my actions. I trust the reasons behind why I stopped and it was not an action I would choose to change.

    I turned to them and said “I don’t want to be the sort of person that won’t stop and help someone in distress. Next time you are in a car accident ask yourself if you would like someone like me to drive past because you might be ok or would you like me to stop to render assistance because you might be hurt.” With that I turned away, stepped into my car and drove off with the sound of absolute stunned silence behind me.

  2. I think it is also important to teach you children how to use physical force to defend themselves. Being a boy is violent, we get a lot less protection from the teachers than the girls do “Boys will be boys”.

    A good example is if someone invades your space, or hits you, then move your back foot backwards, place both hands on their chest and push very hard, from your legs and stomach to get them off balance, then run through them to push them over. He isn’t going to get in trouble for pushing a someone over and the bully will go and find an easier target.

    It shouldn’t be this way but it is, and teaching your son to be non-violent will make him a victim. My parents taught me to be non-violent, but that didn’t stop the other boys from using violence against me.


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