Reader Advocates Hitting Back

By Sylvia Rimm

October 4, 2015 5 min read

A reader responded to my answer to a parent who reported that her son had experienced one-time minor bullying and wondered whether she ought to prepare him with self-defense classes to protect himself. The reader's response is below:

Q. I would like to weigh in on a column you recently wrote regarding the 13-year-old boy who was physically bullied on the playground. His mother wrote to you asking if her son should take self-defense lessons to protect himself, and I want you to know that my response to this question would be "absolutely yes!"

There is a real chance the son may again need to defend himself against another bully. Dr. Robert Wallace, who authors the syndicated column, "'Tween 12 and 20," advocates standing up to bullies. Wallace once ran a letter from a man who was bullied in high school. This man honored his parents' wishes by not fighting when he was younger, but developed a reputation of being a coward and a pushover even though he was a 6-foot-2-inch man and 180 pounds. One day, one of the bullies jabbed him in the hand before class and he stood up and punched the bully in the jaw, knocking the bully over two rows of desks. The teacher sent another student to get the school nurse, and then whispered in the student's ear that she was waiting for him to stand up for himself and she would smooth the situation over with his parents.

Later that evening, his father asked what his son learned from the experience. The son replied that he was sorry someone had gotten hurt, but he was not sorry he defended himself. He also did not realize his own strength until he hit the bully. The son was never bullied again at school following that incident.

A. Before we advise children to stand up for themselves and fight back, it's important to realize that the outcomes aren't always as positive as the one described above. When a child who is bullied fights back and wins, in most cases the bully would discontinue tormenting that child. However, it's also possible the bully would then become further angered and gather together his or her peers to "get even" with the child. If the responder (former victim) does serious harm to the other child, the parents and school can likely expect a lawsuit, even though the victim was defending himself. Furthermore, the school is likely to add a consequence to the former victim who now appears to be a perpetrator.

Most school antibullying guidelines remind victims not to fight back. Thus, if a victim fights back, even if attacked first, he is likely to suffer consequences that could include a detention or even suspension from school (unlike your specific example). That doesn't sound fair, but schools set clear rules about physical aggression and it can be very difficult to determine who precipitates the battle. One case example is not proof positive that fighting back will alleviate the aggression by any bully.

Typical school guidelines on how to respond to a bully follow:

1. Tell the bully to "cut it out" or "stop," or say, "I don't want to fight."

2. Walk away and find an activity to do with other friends.

3. If the bully pursues, report the problem to authorities.

Sometimes counselors follow up with both the bully and the victim to try to assure peace for the future. Other times, the children are counseled to stay away from each other.

If the victim is weak or cries, that typically encourages more bullying. In the case of the first parent I responded to, the bullying was so minor that I didn't think it necessary that the child learn self-defense. On the other hand, I think it can help anxious children to build confidence if they feel self-assured about defending themselves against potential attacks. My advice to victims remains, "Don't hit back," unless you absolutely have no choice, but definitely stay away from bullies and find some other kids who share your interests and values. Research also tells us that children who bully others have often been bullied at home or by other children. We have no wish to motivate victims to become bullies to others.

For free newsletters entitled "Bullying Needs to Stop," "Growing Up Too Fast," and/or "Social Skills," send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to the address below.

Dr. Sylvia B. Rimm is the director of the Family Achievement Clinic in Cleveland, a clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, and the author of many books on parenting. More information on raising kids is available at Please send questions to: Sylvia B. Rimm on Raising Kids, P.O. Box 32, Watertown, WI 53094 or [email protected] To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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