Assertiveness better response to bullies than violence

Being assertive means that I have a clear idea of what I might want or need to fulfill my goals. | Getty Images

Q: Last week, our young son came home from the school playground with a bloody nose. This is not the first time this has happened.

Apparently, two or three other boys in the neighbourhood are into bullying and using not only my son, but some of the other kids in the school as punching bags for their behaviour.

My husband is upset. He wants to teach our son how to hit back. He thinks that all it takes is one hit from our boy and those who are into bullying will abruptly leave him alone.

I understand my husband’s anger. I am pretty mad as well. However, I am not sure that hitting back is the most rational thing at this point. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

In retrospect, as much as I despise violence, I am not sure what our son’s options are.

A: Your husband is suggesting that your son answer the call of aggression with aggression, to bespeak violence with violence.

While that might have some short-term effect, perhaps if your son did punch one of the bullies in the nose the bullies might leave him alone, but only for a while. And, of course, it might not work and they might not leave your boy alone at all, and then what does he do?

It strikes me that before you go out and encourage your son to adopt aggressive and therefore destructive behaviour, you might want to explore some of the characteristics of assertion, or shall I say assertive behaviour.

Being assertive means that I have a clear idea of what I might want or need to fulfill my goals. Once I am clear about that I can go ahead and figure out some strategies for pursuing what I need to pursue. That might include being aggressive, but that is not likely.

Being aggressive means that I am trying to achieve what I want to do by getting another person to either submit to my demands or to change whatever it is that he or she is doing. The emphasis on aggression is always on another person, on trying to change or influence that other person, and that necessarily makes it a weak proposition.

The strength of assertion is different. The emphasis in assertion is on myself, on being clear within me of what I need or want. Bullying such as your son is experiencing is a great example of this whole aggressive/assertion paradigm. Bullies when they bully are not necessarily out to hurt other people. Their goal is more likely to impress all of those who they think are watching.

To some extent they are successful, but only for a while. It does not take a lot of time for those kids whom the bully is trying to impress to lose interest in the whole scenario and to abandon their interest in a bully. Bullies can increase their drive to aggression, they can be more obtrusive than ever, but it doesn’t matter. In the long run, they still lose.

If on the other hand you, your son and your husband pick up on the drive to assertiveness, get some clarity on whatever it is that your son wants from other kids with whom he would like to hang, he stands to gain self-respect for himself, credibility and respect from and for the other kids, and most of all that peace on the playground, which he must surely crave.

From here on in it is more a matter of strategy than prowess. My guess is that your son has never sat down and figured out how best he can let other kids, maybe even big kids or adults, know that he respects and appreciates them. You might want to work with him on this. It is a great project, and it leads to a marvelous cycle: your son learns to respect himself, to then respect other people, who in turn respect him, and the next thing you know he has a peer group that by its very nature discredits bullies on the playground.

Jacklin Andrews is a family counsellor from Saskatchewan. Contact:

About the author


Stories from our other publications