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How to deal with the bully and bullying — a senior karate instructor’s view, part one

bullyingI happened to catch Dr. Phil’s TV show the other week on bullying. He covered the need for self esteem and the importance of not buying into derogatory, verbal bullying, but the sh0w was a little light on practical tips. It seems a lot of people can tell you why it happens, but not how to stop it.

FOR KIDS: Three ways to avoid a bully’s targeting or profiling:

Body language
Ask yourself this: Once babies can sit up, do they slouch, keep their eyes down, hunch their shoulders, breathe shallow, or hold their arms rigidly against their bodies? Neither did you. Re-discover the body’s natural posture — it shows you are unafraid.

Think about how your hero walks and talks. Batman does not slouch or avert his eyes from his environment. Even comic book characters can have great body language and so can you. The more fluidly and synchronously (left and right sides equally strong) you walk, the more secure and confident you look.

I had the opportunity to teach self defense and awareness skills to a group of teenagers who had court-ordered counseling. They’d all broken the law in a minor way. Unlike strong-willed, fairly well-adjusted, and confident kids, these teens sat with arms and legs pulled in as if to take the smallest space possible. Some held a couch pillow in front of them or they hid behind long hair. Their body language screamed insecurity.

Bullies can read this type of insecure body language and may consider it an indication of vulnerability. People who are comfortable in their own skin don’t try to make themselves smaller or move with hesitancy. Confidence is a lot about looking comfortable, so learn to relax your body and face and breathe naturally.

Deeper voices imply confidence and authority. Recall how exasperated parents or teachers sound as their voices rise higher and higher in anger. You know they really mean business when their voices drop lower. Learn to drop your voice, especially at the ends of sentences (instead of having an inflection upward as if you are unsure.)

In karate classes for kids, I’ve called up students one at a time and then had older teens, who are instructors, walk up menacingly to them, demanding money or their lunch. The students learn to take a shoulder-width stance, hold up their hands palms out, and say “No. Back off! Leave me alone.”

At first try, they often giggle, or hold their arms or fingers too rigidly, or they use timid voices, their eyes bug-eyed with anxiety. With practice, they soon discover their Inner Warrior and speak with power, authority, and confidence radiating from them. Once they discover they can project confidence with their demeanor and voice, they can apply it in class, during job interviews, or in self defense.

Boundary setting
If you don’t set boundaries on your time, money, intimacy, skills, resources, and emotions, someone else will. It’s OK to say “No” when your well-being is at stake.


Practice the "I'm too bored to be bothered with your bullying" look.

In a deep, authoritative voice and with shoulders back and good eye contact, learn to say, “No. I don’t like it when you stand too close/mess with my stuff/pull my hair/try to touch me.” Practice saying things like this in a mirror or practice with close, trustworthy friends. If you can make your friends wonder if you are really acting or not, you’re getting close to where you need to be.

If you want to stand up for yourself, you have to do it with boundary setting and by setting a tone in the relationship where you respond instead of react. You want to do this in ways that won’t escalate things or show anger and frustration. You can use a firm, low, but unemotional voice and say things like:

  • “Look, I know you are trying to hurt me by saying that. There’s nothing cool or good about what you are doing.”
  • “You can say what you want, but it doesn’t make it true.”
  • “This is my stuff. Leave. It. Alone.”
  • “I don’t like when you tell racist jokes.”
  • “Stop. I don’t like that. No one does.”
  • “I don’t agree that you have a right to judge my appearance, to put me on your 1-10 scale for beauty, or to make comments on my clothing.”
  • “It’s not OK to talk to me like that.”
  • “It’s not OK to call me that.”

And when they reply, “Oh yeah? What are you going to do about it?”, you can look bored, sigh dramatically (which shows you are in control of your emotions and the pace of the conversation), and simply say: “Nice try” or “I am not amused.”

If you aren’t tongue-tied, you might try, “I’m not going to snap to and follow that prompting. My life is about more than responding to your taunts. Go try that on your buddies. I’m. Just. Not. In. The. Mood.”

If they mock you by repeating your words back at you in a “sissy” voice, you can say enthusiastically, “Thank you. I love it when you follow my lead like that!” Or, as I wrote before, you can look bored, sigh dramatically, and say, “Nice try.”

As a senior martial arts instructor, I’ve worked with kids who bully, kids who have been bullied, and parents who were bullied as kids who don’t want their kids to go through the same thing. Bullies and the bullied are caught in a nasty, reciprocal relationship. Both need different reality checks. They need a challenge and healthy support from parents or older mentors who care.

After students know I’m the real deal and I care about them, I can take them aside and help them re-frame bullying. It involves “naming their game,” throwing down a challenge, and showing them the power of personal choice:

For example I might take a bully aside and say:

“I hear you are bullying your siblings and some smaller kids at school. Karate students aren’t supposed to be the bad guys. We are supposed to be the good guys. Being bossy, pushy, controlling, or threatening other kids is bad-guy behavior. You are a good kid. I know it. You know it. Your behavior, though, isn’t showing it right now. We all have the ability to make choices. Bullying may seem cool and you may find yourself getting attention from it — whoop-de-freakin’-do — you know it’s not right. You know how bad it would feel if I started harassing you, calling you names in class, and putting your parents down in front of other parents. I would never do that. I’m a black belt and a karate instructor. I’m one of the good guys. Look, I don’t even care if everyone you know bullies. As martial artists, we have higher standards to live up to. You need to know I can’t promote people to higher ranks if I think they are going to hurt and bully others. If you want to get your next belt color, things will have to change. You will have to make some different choices in how you treat people. If you want attention, get it the positive way by working hard in class and changing your behavior. I’ll check back with you next week on how this is going.”

And to a bullied student, I might say:

“I’ve noticed in class that you act like a wallflower. Your karate yells are still timid and you look down a lot. In class, you do what you must, but at the same time, you do it to keep yourself invisible, like you don’t want anyone to notice you. That won’t cut it here. Do you think black belts get to that rank by never putting themselves out there in class or by acting timid, shy, and self conscious? Do you think Bruce Lee, The Rock, Jet Li, Chuck Norris, or Randy Couture got where they are by letting their inner wallflower win over their inner warrior? You are tougher than you think, stronger than you imagine. I see that more confident kid inside you, wanting to come out. I saw it when you stepped up to help the new white belts find a place for their gear bags. I know you have it in you. Now you need to wake up to that. It doesn’t take much muscle to hold your head up, keep your shoulders back proudly, and develop a firm, authoritative voice. I’m teaching you hard-to-learn punches and kicks most adults have trouble with. How many people do you know who can do the jump front kick like you? So I know you have the necessary heart, the determination, and the inner toughness. Let those things fire you up to stand tall and speak with authority and certainty. I’ll check back with you next week on how this is going for you.”

Note: If a student were to see any hypocrisy in me, those kinds of talks would never work. Parents and mentors must be there for the kids in ways the kids appreciate and understand. Low self esteem is learned. It’s time to change the learning environment. Read, research, and ready yourself to find healthy ways to help children discover the wonders of inner strength. (More on this in future posts.)

I’m writing more on this subject, including the underlying reasons why martial arts training works so well in building self confidence. Please subscribe for free here or get updates via email here. You can also check out this earlier post: Using words as a part of self defense.

Thank you for visiting and learning about self defense.
If you think others can benefit, please pass it on!

Lori Hoeck

Top photo: Photos8.com
Bottom photo: Peekature Studios

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • janice October 7, 2009, 12:57 pm

    This is wonderful, simply wonderful. I wish every school in the land would hire you. Every point, from voice firmness and the poker faced bored look to the integrity of the adults, is spot on. This blog has the potential to be truly life-changing. It’s not just lives that are affected by bullying; it’s familes and whole communities. Thank you, Lori.

  • Lori Hoeck October 7, 2009, 6:30 pm

    Hi Janice,
    I appreciate the support!

  • Davina October 10, 2009, 10:37 am

    Hi Lori.
    Kids can be cruel, I can attest to that. What is sad is that the bullies don’t realize how much they are already hurting or feeling badly about themselves and that is why they are lashing out at other kids. I like the Practice the “I’m too bored to be bothered with your bullying” look idea. Body language is more powerful than words.

  • Lori Hoeck October 10, 2009, 1:13 pm

    Hi Davina,
    “Body language is more powerful than words.”

    Tru dat. I’ve won sparring matches against better opponents because I had the better swag.

  • Barbara Swafford October 11, 2009, 2:52 am

    Hi Lori,

    This is another wonderful example where your experience is shining through. Although Dr. Phil knows why, you have solutions.

    I’m thinking you need to email him a copy of this post. 🙂

  • Lori Hoeck October 11, 2009, 8:42 am

    Hi Barbara,
    Thank you. I could send him a copy, but his son wrote a book on bullying that is light on how-tos, too.

  • Gary Burnett March 1, 2011, 1:25 am

    Thank you so much for posting this message. I am trying to instill some of these items into our own childrens teaching methods, but I am having a tough time. I wish you had schools in our area (metro Detroit Michigan), as I would love to see your school in action. I first learned about you from reading the Black Belt Club book series to my daughter, and I have become a fan of your teachings and style every since. My daughter and I both train in the martial arts, and I have shared many of your messages with her, and I will share this one as well.

  • Lori Hoeck March 7, 2011, 1:53 pm

    Hi Gary,
    Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    I’m not the author of the book series you mention, but glad to read you and your daughter are training. Best wishes with your training and future belt testings.