A bully may back off when his target fights back, but will he learn a lesson?

Editor’s Note: Carrie Goldman is the author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter.

Story highlights

Telling bullied kids to fight back is the wrong advice, says Carrie Goldman

Fighting back creates a cycle of bullying that doesn't end when school is over

Asking bullied kids to conform to others' expectations can harm their self-esteem, Goldman says

The answer is to educate bullies about compassion and consequences

CNN  — 

Fall is upon us, and that means the school year is in full swing. Along with the stress of homework assignments and extracurricular activities, unfortunately some students bear an additional burden – bullying. October is National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month, pushing the issue to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness.

Educators and legislators are under pressure to prevent bullying, and many schools are implementing programs such as A Classroom of Difference, Steps to Respect and Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports that teach empathy, interpersonal skills and respect for those who don’t fit into the mainstream.

But not everyone agrees with this approach to managing bullying. There are vocal groups of naysayers who believe that focusing on social emotional skills training and urging students to be accepting of those who are different is leading to the weakening of America. They argue that bullying is really a form of socialization, asserting that kids who do not conform to society’s expectations are bringing on their own troubles.

And when a child does end up being bullied, this same group of people advises that the victims should just fight back.

For example, the following comment on a recent CNN.com article about gender neutral toys (for which I shared my child’s bullying experiences): “Communities demand relative conformity, it is what makes them communal. Nonconformity, therefore, naturally results in exclusion. Children are callous in this respect, and if parents wish to ensure their children find acceptance, then find them a suitable community. As for self-expression, all humans are welcome to express themselves, but I reserve for myself the right to point and laugh, as should you too.”

Or consider this comment, which was made on a Fox News Magazine article about tips for ending bullying: “I went to Catholic school. Got bullied. Told Dad. He said, knock him in the mouth. He will leave you alone. Next day I got bullied. Punched Billy in the mouth. End of story. We are best friends today and I haven’t been bullied since. Write letters, document facts? Make school aware? Whaaaat? How political we have been? What a shame. One slap can change things for sure!”

This type of “superior force” advice shows a lack of appreciation for the complexities of the bully-victim dynamics of today’s world, where bullying often takes place in new arenas, such as on the Internet. Sure, if a victim fights back and flattens his bully, the bully tends to back off. But what if the bullies are hiding behind computer screens? What if the target is physically incapable of taking down the bully, which is more often the case?

The truth is that there are many bullying situations in which the victim cannot simply beat up the bully and end the problem. The very nature of bullying renders victims fearful, frozen and incapable of defending themselves. According to bullying researcher Dan Olweus, bullying is characterized by three factors: 1) It is repetitive (not a one-time event in the hall, but a regular ongoing problem). 2) It is unwanted (not two-way teasing where both parties are having fun, but instead a situation where someone is on the receiving end of taunts and aggression). 3) It takes place in the context of a power imbalance (a bigger kid against a smaller kid, or multiple kids against a single kid, or a kid with more social capital against a kid with less social capital).

When multiple kids are targeting one child, the situation can feel completely overwhelming. Felicia Garcia, a 15-year-old New York student, threw herself in front of a train in October, allegedly after being taunted by multiple football players at her high school. How would it have helped her to simply punch one of them? It would not have done anything, except possibly put her at risk for physical harm.

And earlier in October, Canadian teen Amanda Todd committed suicide after making a YouTube video detailing her history of being bullied mercilessly, online and in person. Both girls were allegedly the victims of sexually explicit bullying, which is not something easily combated by punching the bully in the face.

Kids who are already suffering from psychological conditions such as panic attacks or depression are particularly vulnerable to the negative emotional effects of bullying, Barbara Coloroso, who speaks internationally on bullying, told me: “As severe bullying continues, an element of terror is created. The bullied child is rendered so powerless that she is unlikely to fight back and she will not even tell someone that she needs help. The bully, who can act without fear of retaliation, counts on bystanders to either join in or at least do nothing to stop it.”

In trying to get the bullying to stop, targets may avoid the location where the bullying is happening. They might change the way they dress or act in order to minimize the bullying, but then they suffer pangs for not being true to who they are. Kids who are afraid to be themselves can become anxious and depressed.

When a parent or a teacher tells a child who is being bullied to stop tattling and fight back, it can make the situation worse. Those kids who are unable to fight back may end up feeling blamed for the bullying. Their already fragile self-esteem is further weakened, as they wonder, “What is wrong with me? Why can’t I make this stop?”

Even if a child does succeed in hitting back (whether through physical intimidation or verbal taunts or cyberbullying), what message does this send? It teaches kids to out-bully each other, rather than to focus on restoration and restitution.

As a result, the antisocial behaviors simply continue into adulthood, where they play out in a different arena. In Massachusetts, lawmakers are working to make workplace bullying illegal. Research from the Workplace Bullying Institute estimates that as many as a third of employees endure bullying in the workplace. This bullying can take the form of sabotage and undermining, as well as the more obvious yelling and screaming.

The costs to society extend beyond workplace bullying, because chronic bullies are also more likely to end up in prisons, and our already taxed budget will end up paying for their care, according to Michele Borba, author of several parenting books, including Building Moral Intelligence.

“A repeat bully by age 8 has a one-in-four chance of having a criminal record by age 26,” Borba said.

It is a lot easier to inculcate kindness and acceptable social behavior into an 8-year-old than an 18-year-old, and the earlier our schools implement social emotional skills building and bullying prevention, the better.

The focus of bullying intervention needs to shift. Instead of teaching the victims to hit back harder, let’s teach the bullies not to hit in the first place.

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Do you think bullied kids should fight back? Or do we need to concentrate on reforming bullies? Share your take in the comments section below.