Taking the Bully by the Horns

Students working in a computer lab.

By the Duke University Talent Identification Program

When I conjure up the image of a bully, Popeye’s nemesis, Brutus, comes to mind. Arrogant, large, overbearing, and dumb, Brutus uses might and bluster to intimidate Popeye, especially in quest of their common love, Olive Oyl. Of course, Popeye’s reaction is not entirely praiseworthy. With a little grit and spinach in him, he is as nasty and belligerent as Brutus. Popeye always wins the battle for Olive’s heart, but he does it by force, not reason.

In real life, most bullies look like everyday kids; they are seldom as obvious as Brutus. Bullying may be as subtle as excluding a classmate from games or projects (“Eww . . . we don’t want you in our group!”) or as blatant as pushing someone against a locker and pretending that it was an accident. Like other children, gifted children are not immune to bullying, any more than they are exempt from becoming bullies. So . . . what are parents to do if their child complains of getting pushed around, either physically or psychologically? Here are three pointers.

Get Specifics

It is often and rightly said that gifted children are more sensitive than others their age. Thus they may construe even casual disregard by a classmate as a slap in the face. So you need to ask questions: How long has this been going on? What exactly is the bully doing or saying? Does this happen when you are by yourself or in a group? Have you told anyone at school about it? Is this child intimidating any other children? It is important to ask these questions, because if a bully is pestering your child, it is a good bet that he or she is doing it to another child, too.

These questions can help you determine if you are dealing with a long-term problem that has reached the boiling point (“That’s all I can stands, and I can’t stands no more!” in Popeye’s words) or with a one-time occurrence that has taken on more importance than it deserves.

Ask Your Child: How Would You Like Me to Help You?

If the bullying is ongoing and you are just learning about it, a natural reaction would be for you to intervene immediately on your child’s behalf. You might call the teacher or principal, explain the situation, and ask, “What are you going to do about this?” But this is an unanswerable question. About 99 percent of all bullying takes place where adults do not see or hear it, and without tangible evidence educators find it hard to intervene after the fact.

Instead, ask your child what he or she would like you to do the next time bullying occurs. The answer may be, nothing—but this is not true. Your child has come to you because he or she has been unable to resolve this issue alone; a little bit of guidance is both wanted and needed. Tell your child not to feel embarrassed or intimidated and, should another incident occur, to do what he or she will be loath to do: report the incident to an adult at school who cares about your child’s well-being. Tell your child to ask this adult to contact you so that the situation can be addressed in a reasonable, specific manner. Perhaps the result will be simple: talking to the whole class about the importance of respect, or a one-on-one with the bully that puts him or her on notice that he or she is being watched.

Arm Your Child with Words

I asked my seventh- and eighth-grade gifted students to rank verbal responses to bullying as effective or ineffective. The following were nixed:

  • “Hey! You’re above making comments like that.”
  • “I was just starting to like you! Why say things like that?”
  • “I have a right to be who I am. Give me a break!”

These comments were seen as effective:

  • “You know, I really couldn’t care less what you think.”
  • “Frankly, that’s my best quality” (preferred by boys).
  • “I didn’t realize I was supposed to be perfect in your eyes” (preferred by girls).

According to these students, the most appropriate follow-up to comments like these is simply to walk away. If this is done often enough and with conviction, the Brutus of the bunch will head elsewhere.

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary gives many definitions of bully, but an especially noteworthy one is “a blustering fellow more insolent than courageous.” Although this “fellow” could be either a boy or a girl, tell your child one more thing: the bully is usually weaker than the victim but just doesn’t know it. Perhaps this truth will carry your child through those rough times that are often too much a part of growing up.

—James R. Delisle, PhD

James R. Delisle is professor of education at Kent State University and a part-time teacher of gifted children in Twinsburg, Ohio. He has written eleven books, including When Gifted Kids Don’t Have All the Answers, with Judy Galbraith (Free Spirit, 2002).

Further Reading
  • The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander: From Preschool to High School—How Parents and Teachers Can Help Break the Cycle of Violence, by Barbara Coloroso, HarperResource, 2003
  • Girl Wars: 12 Strategies That Will End Female Bullying, by Cheryl Dellasega and Charisse Nixon, Simon and Schuster, 2003
  • And Words Can Hurt Forever: How to Protect Adolescents from Bullying, Harassment, and Emotional Violence, by James Garbarino and Ellen DeLara, Free Press, 2003
  • The Bully Free Classroom: Over 100 Tips and Strategies for Teachers K–8, by Allan L. Beane, Free Spirit, 1999
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