“What to say to a bully” is a topic many students, educators, and parents search for. And 31 school-bullying-prevention difference makers have insight that can help.
Lots of people struggle with the question of “what to say to a bully.” So we asked 31 thought leaders in bullying prevention this question:
You witness a kid engaging in bullying behavior. You have an opportunity to say one sentence to them. What is it?
Here are their answers. You’ll find many ideas, lots of consensus, and some differences. Common themes include explicitly saying “STOP!”, questioning the behavior, sparking empathy, and offering help.
Keep in mind that guiding positive behavior change in most circumstances is, of course, a process. As you know, there’s rarely a quick fix or a one-size-fits-all approach for anything.
That said, we hope the following statements and insights will help you through the process of reducing bullying.
How to respond to bullying: 31 expert ideas
Eight experts said to say “STOP!” simply and directly.
“Stop doing this — no one deserves to be treated this way!”
— Ross Ellis, Founder, Stomp Out Bullying
Ross: One word would be an authoritative “STOP.” One sentence: “Stop doing this — no one deserves to be treated this way!” They should then take the arm of the victim and lead them away, even if the bully is still talking.
“Stop. We need to talk.”
— Jim Dillon, Founder, The Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention
Jim: I want to immediately stop someone from being hurt, and I would need to inform the person who was doing it that there would be follow-up.
Beyond establishing those two things, what I would say and do next depends a lot upon several things: the type/severity of the bullying, my relationship with the student who is bullying, and the situation/environment in which it is happening.
In many cases after I made sure the bullying stopped, I might decide that the student who was bullied might need more immediate attention than the student who was bullying. I would have to assess my resources at the moment since bullying takes place when many other things are happening that often cannot be put on hold, i.e., I would need to see what other adults were around to help me address the problem.
“Stop, you have no idea what your actions can cause someone else to do and the price for finding out is more than you or anyone should ever have to pay.”
— Kirk Smalley, Founder, Stand for the Silent
“Stop! You’re hurting him/her!”
— Bill Belsey, President and Founder of bullying.org
Bill: Bullying is emotional. Aggressors and victims of bullying literally aren't thinking rationally. Bullies use others to establish the power and control they want.
Most bullying happens when peers are together, nearly 90% of the time, but most bullying will stop in less than 10 seconds when peers intervene to befriend those being bullied. This means that those who witness bullying have the power to stop it and cannot continue to give bullies power by being silent bystanders. Speaking loudly calls attention to a bullying problem and can help prevent it from getting worse.
What should bystanders say to the bully? “Stop! You're hurting him/her!” They should not confront the bully further; they should befriend the victim and walk away. This can be very hard to do on your own. Try to have at least one or two friends with you for support.
“I need you to stop treating X that way. It’s hurtful and completely inappropriate.”
— Marc Brackett, Ph.D., Director, Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence
“Stop and think about what you’re saying.”
— Sue Scheff, Founder, Parents’ Universal Resource Experts (P.U.R.E.)
Sue: I would immediately attempt to de-escalate the situation. Depending on the age of the children and the circumstances, I would ask them to consider how they would feel if someone was treating them the way they were treating the victim. I am someone that believes there is a learning experience in all situations — and hopefully the bully and the victim can walk away shaking hands.
“Stop that. You are bothering and offending me when you behave that way, and we don't do that here. I know you can behave better than that.”
— Elizabeth Englander, Founder, Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center
“Excuse me, it’s not OK to make fun of another person (or whisper behind their back or exclude someone). That’s not how we treat people at this school. Please stop.”
— Michele Borba, Author, micheleborba.com
Michele: Start by addressing the behavior — what you see — and then emphasize the damage it causes the whole school climate — not just the child. You can get into more specifics later. The first is a calm, direct message that addresses a clearly inappropriate, hurtful behavior.
Explicitly saying “Stop” is clear, direct, and simple. The word can be pivotal to use as an adult, and as you saw in Ross Ellis’s response above, STOMP Out Bullying recommends it for kids too — in situations where they feel safe and comfortable using it. Here’s their whole tip sheet on Bullying and What You Can Do About It.
Two experts said they’d say just one word, asking just one question.
This behavior-questioning approach reminds me of something we teach here at CPI — which is viewing not the person as a problem, but their behavior as what requires change.
— Pernille Ripp, Founder, Global Read Aloud, and Dr. Justin Patchin, Co-Director, Cyberbullying Research Center
Pernille: There is always a story; there is always a reason, and it is our job to get to the bottom of it and to help the bully stop and the victim heal.
Justin: I don’t know if I would say anything to the kid doing the bullying. I would more likely go up to the kid who was being targeted and remove him from the situation and make sure he knew I was a resource for him. If anything, the one sentence I would say to the kid engaging in the bullying behaviors might be boiled down to one word: “Why?” Of course this is my thirty-something self responding. It is quite different for teens who are put in this situation.
“Why?” is a great place to start because behavior is a form of communication. It’s up to us as adults to listen to bullying behaviors and get to the root of what the student who’s doing the bullying is really trying to say.
No question — a kid who’s bullying might outwardly say, “You’re stupid, you’re ugly, you’re worthless,” but what’s underneath that is where the solution lies. That is, the roots of a behavior can help you predict its path, intervene effectively, and prevent future bullying.
It’s also important to remember that bullying is a learned behavior. If you work with hurt people, you know how common it is that people who hurt others have been hurt themselves, sometimes horrifically so. Again, it’s about looking to the roots as the fundamental place to promote healthy growth and positive change.
Eight experts said they’d urge a kid who’s bullying to put themselves in the recipients’ shoes. And of course, there’s all kinds of evidence that social and emotional learning (SEL) — including healthy empathy — is a key to increasing the quality of relationships and decreasing problem behavior.
“Imagine if someone just said (or did) exactly what you just did to someone you really love and care about.”
— Raychelle Lohmann, Author, The Bullying Workbook for Teens
“What you're doing is hurting someone, but I understand you're struggling too.”
— Deborah Temkin, Child Development Scientist
Deborah: One of the things we have to recognize is that bullying does not happen in isolation. Kids bully for many reasons, whether as a response to trauma or stress in their lives, or as a way to gain popularity and status based on the norms at their school. They may not even realize what they are doing is really hurting someone else.
It's often not as simple as telling a child who is bullying not to do it. We have to give them the tools to address the reasons why they're bullying and change the climates that reinforce the behavior.
“How would you feel if someone did this to you and what will you do to make things right?”
— Nancy Willard, Founder, Embrace Civility in the Digital Age
“You never know what somebody might be going through; they could be being abused at home or going through a death in the family, and your actions and words could be the thing to push them over the edge. It’s not worth it.”
— Tyler Gregory & Scott Hannah, National Spokespersons, Great American No Bull Challenge
“Do you realize that your behavior is not nice? Have you stopped to think how your behavior is affecting her/him? How do you think you would feel if another kid did that to you?”
— Dr. Dorothy Espelage, Bully Expert
“If someone did that to you, what would you say to them?”
— Joey Katona, Culture of Empathy Builder, startempathy.org
“You never know a person’s struggle, so treat people with kindness; your cruel actions could send them over the edge.”
— Unkle Adams, Motivational Rapper
“Would you like it if this was happening to your younger brother?”
— Alexandra Penn, Founder, Champions Against Bullying
Alexandra: Assuming the target is smaller than the bully, I would get between the two of them and ensure that nobody is hurt. Then, I would suggest the bully imagine how he would feel if he saw this happening to his younger brother. Would he like it? What would he do?
I would schedule separate follow-up meetings with the target and the bully and a third meeting that has the bully apologizing to the target. I would also inform both sets of parents, separately. I would then check in with the target in a couple of weeks to confirm that he is safe.
For more about the role of empathy, check out Bullying in School by Dr. Terry Ehiorobo, a school principal and education professor.
Dr. Ehiorobo points out that reflective interviews help kids who bully think about how their actions affect their victims. He first meets alone with the student who’s doing the bullying and asks them to reflect on their behavior. He then has them meet in his office with the student they've bullied.
“Making things right with the victim lessens the bully’s sense of power and control over the victim,” Dr. Ehiorobo writes. “This process also allows me to empower the victim and provide him with new tools of confidence and assertion.”
By the way, are you an empathic educator? Take the quiz!
Say That the Behavior Is Not Right, OK, or Allowed
Four thought leaders said they’d tell a student clearly that bullying is not OK.
“No more, not here, never.”
— Barbara Coloroso, Founder, Kids Are Worth It
Barbara: If I saw a kid being mean, I would approach them and say in a very firm voice, “No more, not here, never. That was mean; that was cruel. This playground (bus, hallway, classroom) is a safe harbor for every kid.”
That’s the beginning of stopping the behavior, then the follow-up is to hold those doing the acts accountable, and to assure the kid who was targeted that I am here for them, and I care, and I will help them avoid succumbing to the bullying.
“We don’t do that here.”
— Susan Swearer, Director, Empowerment Initiative
Susan: This line came from a group of kids who were telling me about a boy who was bullying them on the playground and then he learned to stop bullying.
I asked, “Why do you think he stopped?” The kids told me that they said to him: “We don't do that here.”
“Hey man, you don't have to treat people like that. That ain't right.”
— Travis Brown, Founder, Mojo Up Anti-Bullying Program
Travis: I always like to keep it real simple. And I would say something like, “Hey man, that’s not cool.” Or, “Hey man, you don't have to treat people like that. That ain't right.” Something simple that is even less confrontational.
But I also teach the three things that students can do:
Number one is you can step in. If you’re comfortable, you can step in, and you personally can say something to that person that’s the bully.
Second thing is you can reach out. That means reach out to the person who’s being bullied, attacked, or talked about and just let them know that you're a friend, you’re there for them, and you can be there for them long-term.
The third thing is to get help, and that means reach out to a principal, counselor, teacher, or coach and let them know what’s happening so they can intervene in the situation.
So pretty simple ways to really make an impact, make a difference. All you gotta do is Mojo Up, because you make a difference.
“It’s not okay to say that to someone in my classroom. Are we clear?”
— Signe Whitson, Author, 8 Keys To End Bullying: Strategies for Parents & Schools
Signe: Many adults struggle with finding the “right” words to say to a young person engaged in bullying behavior. Truthfully, the most effective messages are the ones delivered in under 15 seconds, such as:
- “It’s not okay to say that to someone in my classroom. Are we clear?”
- “Sending that kind of text is unacceptable. Are we good?”
- “Leaving one kid out of the group is not going to work. Let’s fix this and move on.”
Brief messages have the distinct advantage of sending a clear message to the child who is bullying that their behavior will not be tolerated while, at the same time, definitively signaling to a vulnerable child that they’re safe and have the backing of a trustworthy adult. Moreover, brief statements don’t humiliate anyone but do let everyone know that the adult is attuned to social dynamics and not afraid to step in to bring an end to bullying.
It’s important to ensure that the kid who’s doing the bullying knows which behaviors are wrong, why they’re wrong, and what the consequences are. Setting clear expectations and limits helps kids who bully learn to make better choices about how they treat others — and it helps kids who are being bullied feel safer.
EduRef.org offers resources that help adults teach kids what types of behavior are OK and what “a safe school environment” truly means.
Tell the Person That You Want to Talk
Three experts said they’d start a conversation about stopping cruel behavior.
“We need to talk.”
— Julie Hertzog, Director, Pacer's National Bullying Prevention Center
Julie: It is so important that you do say something to those involved in the behavior, that you do take action. To not address it, to not say that one sentence, your silence sends the clear message to the person bullying that their behavior is acceptable and within the norms. To the person being bullied, your silence implies that they are not safe in that environment. If we as adults don’t enforce and encourage the social norms, who will?
And what should that one sentence be? It can be as simple as “we need to talk.” That way, depending on the immediacy of the situation, you can address it right then, talking with each of those involved independently or later. It is important that those involved have the opportunity to share their story. Also important is to not make assumptions. Behavior is complicated, especially when it comes to aggressive acts, and there can often be more to the story than what lies on the surface.
“I’d like to talk to you, may I?”
— Emily-Anne Rigal, Author, Flawd: How to Stop Hating on Yourself, Others, and the Things That Make You Who You Are
Emily: One-on-one with someone is where it’s possible to make a real difference. In a firm yet non-shaming way I’d ask what's going on with them. And then I’d be prepared to really listen. Because people who bully are people, too—hurt people, and “hurt people hurt people.” Hurt people who seek to hurt others need to know there are other ways to manage their hurt.
“Tell me, please, what’s making you so angry that you want to get back at him/her?”
— Annie Fox, Founder, Cruel’s Not Cool!
Annie: By giving kids (and adults) opportunities to express their destructive emotions (anger, hurt, jealousy, rejection, fear, frustration) to people who are really listening, we help them get back in control of their emotions while helping them think more clearly about their options for getting their needs met.
It’s crucial that kids have adults who they feel comfortable talking to, and that our responses are helpful and respectful — even when the bullying itself is definitely not respectful. That’s the essence of Rational Detachment and the Integrated Experience: My attitudes and behaviors affect yours, and vice versa. And I can’t control your behavior, but I can control how I respond to your behavior.
Taking the time to really listen will help you better understand where the kid is coming from. And by modeling respect yourself, you have the power to help them start showing respect too.
It’s also important that your school policy — or your child’s school’s policy — be clear about communication, definitions, reporting, and expectations. Here’s one district’s policy on bullying that could help if it’s time to refine your own. (And if you already have a good one, please share in the comments your process, expertise, or achievements!)
Acknowledge What the Person is Trying to Achieve
Two bullying prevention advocates said they’d tell a kid who’s bullying that they recognize what the kid is trying to do, feel, or accomplish.
“I know bullying that girl gives you this ‘high’ and makes you feel almighty and powerful. But the truth is, a few years from now when you grow up, have kids of your own, and look back on what you've just done, I promise you won't feel all-mighty or powerful; you will just look in the mirror and feel sad.”
— Tyler Stricker, Founder, High School Fat Ass
“Your abuse of others does not make you better.”
— Anna Bucy, Anti-Bullying Advocate, annabucy.com
This very head-on approach reminds me of Grabbing a Bully by the Horns by Dr. Kathleen Briseno. In the article, Dr. Briseno emphasizes that there’s a reason why someone bullies.
To get to the root of the behavior, she recommends asking yourself these questions:
- What’s going on in their life that makes them turn to bullying?
- What do they have to gain?
- What do they have to lose?
Three experts (two of whom were bullied as kids themselves) said they’d offer the person who’s doing the bullying some much-needed help. All three suggested or outright said that they wouldn’t give up on the person, and one said she’d help the person channel their power into positive outlets.
It’s common for people who are violent to have learned somewhere along the way that power is finite, and that if they don’t exert power over others, they will be overpowered themselves. This is of course connected to the “hurt people hurt people” reality that Emily-Anne Rigal shared.
Teaching by example that “power given is power gained” is, well, a powerful way to empower people to replace problem behavior with positive behavior.
“You don't need to be this kind of person. You have the power to make the world better, so let's figure out how you're going to use that power.”
— Emily Lindin, Founder, The Unslut Project
“You wanted attention and now you have mine. Bullying him will not relieve the hurt you're feeling. But I can certainly help.”
— Fabianna Pergolizzi, President and Founder, Project Anti-Bully
Fabianna: When I was a high school senior and Project Anti-Bully was in its preliminary steps, I witnessed a freshman boy being shoved into a locker by another taller freshman boy. There was a group of students watching this happen and doing absolutely nothing to help the young student. I walked right up to the freshman bully and said, “You wanted attention and now you have mine. Bullying him will not relieve the hurt you're feeling. But I can certainly help.”
Shocked, he let go of the other student and was rendered speechless.
This bully’s name is Tom. Tom is one of my main spokespersons for Project Anti-Bully. He tells students around the world that we must raise awareness of the emotional experiences the bully feels as well. For him, bullying was a main form of release for his emotional distress. Both boys became great friends and were roommates throughout all of college.
“Though I cannot assure you that I can fix this immediately or completely, I will not give up on helping you if you do not give up on me while I try to help you.”
— Michael Dorn, Author, Weakfish: Bullying Through the Eyes of a Child
“I will not give up on helping you” is a crucial message to send someone who’s on the receiving end of bullying. It’s also a helpful thing to say to someone who’s doing the bullying. Because, as Signe Whitson said in her interview with CPI, “young people deserve to be taught better ways to behave. Then we’re really doing kids a service.”
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