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Shutting Down a Bully With Body Language
January 27, 2017 - Betsy Bethel
Can you bullyproof your child?
What if there were a magic formula that guaranteed your child would never be bullied again?
According to Jim Bisenius, a mental health counselor from Ohio who has worked with hundreds of bullied children and their bullies to find patterns and solutions, you can. And it won't cost you a dime.
The key is teaching your kid to keep his* cool when confronted with verbal assaults from the class bully.
It's not just about your child keeping his cool, though; according to Bisenius, it's teaching him to BE cool. Bisenius swears it can be done, has been done many times, and will work for any child who follows his tried-and-true steps perfectly.
Bisenius spoke Tuesday evening at a public workshop for families and community members hosted by Wheeling Country Day School. It was his second time presenting his bully-proofing methods in Wheeling; WCDS hosted him three years ago.
Bisenius said the victim can "stop the dance" of bullying and even snatch power away from his or her tormentor. It's important to teach kids these tools, he said, because bullying almost always happens under the radar of adults. And when adults do get involved, the bully goes even deeper underground but will keep tormenting his victims.
The key to stopping the dance, he said, is controlling body language so that it doesn't send off signals of fear. The bully feeds on fear, he said. If the bully is starved, he'll look for food elsewhere. If everyone at the school stops feeding him, he will eventually change his ways.
The body reveals tell-tale signs of fear — someone who is afraid lowers his gaze, hunches his shoulders, has a lower jaw that trembles, shaky hands and a shaky voice. Someone who is not afraid has an aloof demeanor — almost bored, Bisenius said.
To teach a fearful child to keep his cool can be difficult. He will need to practice at home and then at school so that when the adrenaline is surging he goes into auto-pilot mode. The first thing to teach a bully victim when confronted is to gaze at a fixed point straight ahead or a little above the bully's head. He should turn so he is at an angle to the bully. If walking toward the bully, keep walking past him then turn back toward him. Lower the shoulders and let the arms hand loosely. To keep the jaw from trembling, push the tongue against the back of the teeth. To stop shaky hands, bring the fingers together, slightly cup them and press the thumb to the side of the pointer finger. If seated, lean back and stretch out the legs to appear bored.
The only way to keep the voice from trembling, Bisenius said, is to not talk. This is a vital component of his plan, and the hardest part for his clients to implement, he said. The worst thing a bullied kid can do is to talk to the bully: Groveling gives the bully power. Saying he will be reported results in a laugh. Trying to out-insult the bully never works -- the bully is a pro.
If a child (this works best for third grade and up, Bisenius said, and can even be used by adults) successfully ignores the bully, the bully eventually will give up. If the bully tries again and gets the same non-response, he likely will not bother that child again. It's no fun for him anymore. No one likes to be ignored.
In the case of a physical bully, Bisenius says to use the same approach as a first line of defense. If it is not effective, he suggests the victim learn five or six key defensive moves from a local martial arts teacher. Once a child becomes proficient at martial arts, he may have solved his problem without ever having to use his new skills defensively because the bully will sense the child's newfound confidence by the way he carries himself. Only a few of his clients ever had to use the self-defense skills they learned on their bullies. Those who did successfully maneuvered the bullies to their stomachs on the ground and held them there until help arrived. After that, they weren't targeted.
Bisenius reminded parents never to call the parent of the bully. When the bully is punished, he will double-down on the victim.
The core problem of both the bully and the victim is low self-esteem. The best way to build a child's self-esteem is to set limits on behavior and provide unconditional love, he said. And that's a whole other workshop.
* I use the male pronoun, but it is meant to be inclusive of females. Bisenius also spoke on Tuesday relational bullying that occurs primarily within groups of girls.
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Jim Bisenius speaks at Wheeling Country Day School on Tuesday.