Thursday, October 14, 2010

How to Handle the Schoolyard Bully

I walked through the school hallway amidst hurrying students. When I felt someone behind me yank away the books under my arm, I whirled around.

"Pick them up!" I said red‑faced to the lanky teen‑ager standing before me. A group had gathered around us, my books and papers spilled across the floor.

"Make me, #@$%&!" the boy answered. The toughest guy in our junior high school, he was tall and wiry, with black hair and taunting eyes. He stood squarely in front of me, his arms at his sides like a gun slinger ready to draw. I silently picked up my books and went to my next class, disappointing the group waiting to see how this new, tall kid could fight.

14 years old, I had just moved from North Africa to Dallas. I had been feeling out of place in my new school when the bully challenged me. This was one of many such incidents that year. Almost weekly, bullies goaded me to fight or tried to yank my books away in the school hallways. They were like wolves attacking their prey‑‑an awkward kid who felt alienated.

My parents taught me to fight only in self‑defense, so I never took up their challenges. They continued harassing me until we transferred to high school the next year. Then they forgot about bullying, having entered a school with bigger, tougher kids.

Just how should a teen‑ager handle a bully? I avoided bullies in the 9th grade, so they continually harassed me. They interpreted my avoidance as weakness. Yet does confronting the bully mean fighting him? I recently asked noted karate expert Allen Steen. He was national karate champion in 1966 after defeating, among others, Chuck Norris. This was during a rough‑and‑tumble era in American karate when competitors were often knocked out.

You'd think someone as tough as Steen would tell teen‑agers to fight back. But Steen told me, "There is no honor in fighting for fighting's sake if you can out‑think a trouble‑maker. I have no fear of being struck‑‑I've been struck too many thousands of times. I generally am very calm when I see trouble boiling up. Then I immediately start looking for ways to defuse the situation. It's only good self‑protection not to have to defend yourself."

In this article, I will explain how to confront the bully without violence. There is a way.

"Being close to an enemy is far better than shutting him out," explained Steen, "where his misconceptions can foster more anger. Rather than shut the enemy out and polarize the situation even further, keep him close to you. You will know more about what he wants, and you will know how to handle it. If he tries to hurt you, at least you will know where he's coming from. When you know why something is happening, you can deal with it.

"I think Cuba is a good example," Steen continued. "Batista refused to even speak to Castro, and now we know that if Batista had said, `Fidel, come on over. I want you to be Minister of Interior,' that communism never would have taken over Cuba. But Batista wouldn't recognize Castro and shut him out, and that drove Castro further to the left. He became even more of a revolutionary, and said, `Well, if you won't share power, we are going to take it away.' If you know who your enemies are and you can stay close to them, you can figure out a way to coexist rather than assume a highly polarized relationship."

Steen gave another example. "Let's say you're a karate tournament competitor, and there are three or four guys who you consider your biggest competition. The best way to find out how to beat them is not to threaten them from a distance and say, `Boy, when I see you in that tournament I'm going to stomp you!' The best way is to be their friend. Then you learn more about their techniques, their weaknesses, strengths."

There are ways to apply Steen's strategy to a bully. This is what I would tell your teen‑ager: There is a lesson to learn from the bully. If you avoid this lesson, you will face it again later. The lesson is that living fully means facing fears, not running from them. Stop seeing the bully as an enemy. Instead consider him a means to learn to face fear. Then he will begin to lose his power over you.

If you show the bully fear, he will keep on bullying. He feeds on fear. You grant him power by fearing him. Your fear enlarges him in your mind out of all proportion to reality. In their imaginations, most people look at burglars and muggers not as the ordinary humans they are but as all‑powerful. This is why people freeze up when attacked.

Avoid fighting the bully. You play his game when you fight him. This is what he wants. If you beat him or make him back down in front of others, you will have made a bitter enemy. Life is so much simpler without needless enemies.

Avoid fighting, even if you could win, but at the same time be firm. Stand up for yourself. If you shrink back and appear weak, the bully will taunt you to no end. Never give in to the bully's demands, such as the proverbial kid who steals lunch money from smaller kids. One demand only leads to another. Giving in teaches you to be a victim, and that role could follow you for years.

If you are afraid of the bully, stop avoiding him. Instead of walking away from him when you see him down the hallway at school, walk toward him. You need not do this belligerently. Be friendly. Moving toward him will dissipate your fear, and then he will lose interest in harassing you. Sit near him in the school cafeteria. Go up and make conversation with him.

When you see the bully, say hello and wave. Instead of averting your gaze from him, look at him. When you see the bully walking with friends, walk near them. This will startle them, because they will have expected you to shy away.

Between the victim and bully, there is always a barrier‑‑the same barrier that separates people of different races or countries or political parties. Dissolve that barrier by becoming familiar with the bully. Come to understand that he is only human. He is not powerful at all. You will understand this when you stop avoiding him.

Another way to break down the barrier between victim and bully is to find something about the bully that you like. There is good in everyone. Do not be nice to the bully, however, only because you fear him. Be genuinely friendly. Otherwise being nice is only another way to show fear, and he will sense the fear.

If he is the toughest kid in school and higher in the "pecking order" than you, ignore the "pecking order" and accept the bully as your equal. The bully will begin to reciprocate. Catch him alone and talk to him. Barriers will drop. He needs to show off in front of others. When he has no audience, he will lose the need to control you. When you are alone with him, you will find that he is a different person. He will no longer have anything to prove. When you accept the bully as a human being, you strip away his macho facade. Every tyrant has a human side hidden beneath the macho exterior. The facade is a protective shell. The bully feels that without that facade, people would see him as he really is and find him unacceptable.

Learning a martial art such as judo, karate or taekwondo is another way to become fearless of bullies. Know how to fight to avoid fighting. Martial arts training will help you become inwardly strong. Then bullies will stop bothering you. Through martial arts, you will learn to disarm a bully by being relaxed and friendly toward him. To be genuinely friendly, one must be fearless. This is a natural outcome of martial arts training.

Some people pounce upon the kids they perceive to be the weakest members of the group to rise in status themselves. They turn those kids into the class clown or wimp. If you get picked on, the kids at school may have chosen you as a weakling of the group. Tolerate this, and you are accepting the role of victim. When we accept a role, we risk spending our entire lives in it. You are more than your position in the school "pecking order." You can be anyone you want to be. You can play any role you choose.

The bullies of the world can be the means to teaching us a valuable lesson. When we face them squarely, their power diminishes. They grow smaller. Then we learn that we become more powerful ourselves by facing our fears. Learn this lesson now from the bully, and it will stay with you the rest of your life.

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