Jim Bisenius, MS, remembers the “ah-ha” moment 10 years ago when he realized what it takes to stop a kid from bullying. A child and adolescent therapist in central Ohio, Bisenius was working with two sixth-grade boys, one who was a bully and another who was the target.

“I asked the kid who was bullying why he did it, what made him choose the kid he was picking on and what would make him stop,” Bisenius recalls. “He went into detail about how the other boy would look scared and respond with fear in his voice.” The bully thought his behavior would make other kids who witnessed it try harder to be his friend. But instead of making him more popular, it made him more feared.

“I began researching the body language of fear so I could teach my targeted client how to take away everything the aggressive kid wanted as a response,” Bisenius says. “It worked. Not only did the kid stop picking on him, restoring the balance of power between them helped the two boys become friends.”

Bisenius now dedicates his time to his program, Bully-Proofing Youth. He speaks at school assemblies to teach students in grades one through 12 how to handle bullying. He notes that bullying has shifted over the years from beating kids up on the playground to cyberbullying and excluding kids socially.

Related: Is your Teen Being Cyberbullied?

When your child is the target

If your child is being picked on, contacting his tormentor’s parents may seem like a good idea. However, says Besenius, that tactic can backfire.

“For kids under third grade it sometimes can be helpful,” he explains. “But with older kids the bully simply drops below adult radar. He’ll get even crueler and threaten his target with more humiliation and pain if he tells again.”

The child then tells his parents that things are fixed, Bisenius says. “Parents think they were effective, but now the kid is afraid to share anything else with them.”

Related: How to Tell If Your Child Is the Class Bully

Bully-proofing 101

Since it’s virtually impossible to scare a bully into being nice, Bisenius recommends parents of targeted kids focus on empowering their chidren.

Start by modeling kindness and respect, suggests Irene van der Zande, author of “Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe” and executive director of Kidpower

If your child is being excluded socially, it’s crucial he have someone who’s got his back, Bisenius says. Help him develop at least one close friendship rather than a circle of acquaintances.

Bisenius and van der Zande also suggest teaching kids these strategies. 

  • Keep your chin up. Your child is less likely to be picked on if he’s calm and confident. “Projecting a positive, assertive attitude means keeping one’s head up, back straight, walking briskly, looking around, having a peaceful face and moving away from people who might cause trouble,” according to van der Zande.
  • Don't be there. “The best self-defense tactic is called “target denial,” says van der Zande. If kids are slouching against the wall badgering your child, teach him to say “See you later” in a neutral voice and walk away.
  • Create an exit. Teach your child what to do if a bully traps him. Poke him gently in the back as if you were the bully, and have him turn around and say “Stop!” while holding his hands in front of him like a fence. Also pretend you're a bully blocking a doorway. Have your child say, “Stop! Get out of my way. I want to leave.”
  • Use your voice. If someone pulls your child’s hair or pushes him, van der Zande says he should say loudly, “Stop! I don’t like that!”. If he feels he’s in physical danger, he should yell, “Stop! Get out of my way! Get the teacher! (Name) is bullying me!”
  • Get help from adults if necessary. The Kidpower website suggests that if a teacher or playground aide calls your child a tattletale, he should say, “I don’t feel safe here because…..” or “Please listen to me: This is making me feel bad about going to school.”

How do you know if your child is being bullied, especially if he keeps things to himself? Van der Zande advises paying attention to warning signals such as symptoms of depression or sudden resistance to going to school.

Most important, make sure your child knows you care and want to help, and that it’s not his fault he’s being bullied.

“What I say during my assemblies is that there’s nothing you’re doing wrong that makes you deserve to be targeted,” Bisenius says. “Instead there’s something really wrong with the person picking on you. They have a problem, but unfortunately it becomes your problem. And waiting for them to be nice is not the solution.”

Related: How to Triumph Over the Workplace Bully

Susan LaCroix is a writer, editor and psychotherapist living in Berkeley, California.