Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Making yourself less of a target for Bullying

So far we've looked at the different ways in which bullying can manifest itself and discussed some options for damage control once it starts. Some people however present more of a target to bullies than others. In this post, we'll look at some things you can do to reduce your chances of being bullied.

Being Different
Like many aggressors, bullies often have an intense "dislike for the unlike". This means that if there is something about you that is different, they will seize upon it as an excuse to bully.

If you're an aspie, you'll already be fighting an "uphill battle" because NTs can somehow sense our differences within minutes of meeting us. It's mostly to do with our body language and while it's possible to learn how to hide it from others in occasional conversation, there's very little that you can do when you're in constant daily contact with a potential bully.

This means that you'll have to work all the harder to blend in. You shouldn't work against yourself by "trying to be different". I know that it seems to be a matter of expressing your individuality and basic freedoms but you need to set sensible limits. For example; a guy who regularly wears pink shirts in a homophobic school is really "asking for trouble". The same goes for people who regularly have "branded accessories" marked with special interests which aren't necessarily age appropriate.

Having a star wars lunchbox in primary school is cool. It's not so cool to have one in secondary school. You may think that spongebob is the height of culture but constantly talking about him or wearing spongebob apparel is going to get you noticed. Save that stuff for home.

Do your best to blend in and appear "one of the crowd" and you'll attract a lot less attention from bullies.

Don't Lose Your Temper
Bullies love getting a reaction and there's no reaction that thrills them more than a meltdown or a temper-tantrum.

Once a bully has seen that kind of reaction from you, they'll keep trying to provoke "bigger and better" ones and in front of progressively larger groups. As the victim's reputation for outbursts grows, they will attract greater numbers of bullies. Even kids who normally wouldn't be bullies themselves will try to get a reaction.

If you're an aspie, then social anxiety and meltdowns are a part of normal life for you. You probably won't be able to control them entirely but you should be able to detect your triggers and remove yourself from situations. If you're at school, you'll probably need to get your parents to talk to your teachers about the issue to establish a protocol for you to signal an overload and withdrawal condition without drawing undue attention to yourself.

Keep your head. Know your triggers and remove yourself from situations immediately if you feel a meltdown is imminent.

Don't Provoke Bullies
We've all heard the saying; "it won't bite you if you don't annoy it". That's not exactly true of bullies. They'll find you and they'll attack without warning regardless of what you do. What is true however is that if a bully isn't currently attacking you, then stirring them up will certainly cause them to focus on you.

Occasionally, you may find that your bully ends up in a situation where the tables are turned. Perhaps they've had a bad day or something embarrassing has happened to them. You may be burning for revenge but try to resist the urge to get involved. Bullies have good memories and when they're back on top, they're bound to come looking for you.

Just leave the bullies alone. Stay out of their life and you'll significantly reduce their incursions into yours.

Don't Just Defend Yourself - Attack!
I've often heard parents giving their children advice to "hit the bully back" and indeed, assuming you're strong enough to win a physical fight, that often does the trick. Of course, in these situations, you can't hit first or you'll be seen as the agressor.

Bullying usually goes on for a long, long time before it becomes physical and by the time it does, a lot of damage has already been done. For this reason, establishing a good verbal defense is critical.

It's not enough to simply "block" negative comments. You also need to strike back.

Consider this conversation (note: for clarity I've added points in brackets);

Bully: Hey moron! you've got a fat head! (3 points)
Victim: No I haven't (0 points)
Bully: Man, your head is so fat you probably can't get it in the gate. (1 Point)
Victim: I can, I came in the gate this morning (0 points)
Bully: Aw gee, for someone with such a big fat head, you're so dumb. (3 points).

I've allocated points on the following basis;
1 Point for unexpected attack.
1 Point per attack word

You'll notice that the victim has wasted his lines by simply defending himself (denying allegations). The bully hasn't been attacked at all.

Now, consider a different exchange.

Bully: Hey moron! you've got a fat head! (3 points)
Victim: Aw shut up you stupid clown, go bother someone who cares (3 points)
Bully: Man, your head is so fat you probably can't get it in the gate. (1 point)
Victim: Yeah well at least I don't have an ugly mug like yours or a pathetic and stupid personality to go with it. (3 points)
Bully: Well, your head is fat. (1 point)
Victim: Oh quit it with the stupid head fixation and grow up you sad little sack of camel dung (5 points)

If your exchanges go this way, the bully will soon leave you alone.

Parents; If your child is being bullied at school, you might want to role-play these sorts of comebacks until they're natural responses.

A neutral defence is useless against bullies. Always make your verbal responses count.

Be Less Visible
There's an old saying "Out of sight, out of mind" which means simply that if the bully doesn't see you, they'll find some other victim instead. I'm not suggesting that you hide from the bully but simply that you try to reduce your interactions and ensure that you're not near the bully when they have free time.

Become part of a group
Another good saying; "There's safety in numbers". Bullies prefer to attack when the odds are in their favour. Find a group, any group - a nerd group is fine - and stick with it. If you've got other people with you, the bully is more likely to decide that the risk is too great and leave you alone.

Believe in yourself
Bullies will say lots of hurtful things but they're usually just lies aimed at throwing you off balance. The bully wants to destroy your self esteem. You need to spend time thinking about your good points and work hard to boost your own self esteem. This will only happen if you can believe in yourself. Talk to people who care about you and ask them for their opinions - don't just take the bully's lying words to heart.

Don't believe anything a bully says.

Get help when necessary
There may come a time when you feel that "you simply can't take it any more". Don't let things get to this point. Seek help and stand up for your rights. If you've reported a bullying incident and nothing has been done to correct it, then go to a higher authority. If you're a child and your parents don't seem to understand then see the school social worker or refuse to go to school. You need to ensure that they understand how serious the problem is.

Don't bottle your feelings up. That's how people explode.

If you find yourself contemplating self-harm or taking weapons to school then you need to get your support network involved.

Don't stay at inappropriate places
Some places are home to large numbers of bullies. Some schools not only tolerate bullies but seem to actively encourage it. The same goes for some sports teams and social clubs. These places won't react well to allegations of bullying and may even react by making life harder for the victim. Don't try to fight a losing battle. There are other schools, other clubs and other workplaces. Look after number one (yourself) and protect your valuable self-esteem.

Don't put up with it, just leave - and if you still want to take action, do it from outside the group. This could be in the form of a letter to a newspaper about a school which encourages bullying or it could be as simple as joining another sports team and delivering a crushing defeat to your ex-bully team.

If you can't seem to get anything done about bullying, then get out. Don't stay in a harmful environment.

Next time
We'll look at the bullies side of the story and conclude this series.


Hak, o anĂ£o said...

That`s ridiculous. So, to don't anoy a bully, you have to anule yourself and became invisible? That`s just not fair. I have the right of pick a strange lunchbox or anything like and don't be bothered or spanked by some coward. To vanish any trace of individuality can't be the best option that exist to don't be bullied. People have the right to be different.

Sorry the poor english, i'm a foreign reader.

Just another Mom said...

Making yourself less of a target for bullying is sad, but very wise advice. It is actually more than wise advice, for anyone that has ever been the victim of bullying they know that this is necessary for survival. The unfortunate reality for many if not most people that are in environments were they encounter bullies is that they do not have a choice in relocating to a new school or work place. Many schools in my area have anti-bullying campaigns to change unacceptable behaviors and improve the safety of their students. However, bullying still happens. We all have the right to be and express our unique individual style and personality, it seems harmless enough. But in certain circumstances it can and does put a huge target on a person. And another sad reality is no matter how many rules/laws that are written bullies will still attack knowing full well they will be punished if caught, they don't care plain and simple. All children will benefit from learning when it is time to blend-in and be invisible, and when it is time to stand out and shine. We live in an imperfect world that is not always safe, even in the places that should provide protection. I am not saying that the vulnerable should curl up and hide. I am saying that until the last bully on earth is successfully reformed, the advice in this post is spot on. Know when to show off your individuality and know when to keep it to yourself. Great post Gavin!

Gavin Bollard said...

There were a few lines in that post that were very difficult to write, so I'll clarify...

There's a fine line to walk between expressing your individuality and being "over the top".

Everyone is an individual whether they like it or not and you shouldn't feel compelled to hide that individuality.

You do however need to know how far to go with your expressions of individuality in order to strike a balance between attracting bullies and expressing yourself.

The exact mix will depend on what is suitable for you and your environment.

If you're feeling repressed, then let loose a little. Know that it will increase the risk of bullying but make the choice to accept that risk.

Similarly, if you're having bullying issues, then it might signal a need to rein in your self-expression.

It's all about balance, it's about YOU personally and it's about your environment.

Stephen Borgman said...

It seems as though there is a fine line between parents advocating for their kids, and for the child to be able to learn how to handle the bullying. Gavin, have you ever heard of children with asperger's being involved in martial arts as a way to learn to defend themselves, both non-verbally and verbally?

Anonymous said...

I agree with this post too Gavin. My little one is only in grade prep (kindergarten) but we are establishing that 'sometimes the rules do not apply', so that at school she follows the school rules, she practices her social skills, she takes turns, she listens, she waits, she wears the school uniform. Then after school, at home she can change into her clothes she loves and can be as 'Aspegers' as she likes (and we love!'...So the rules at school dont apply at home. Its a nice balance and so far she isnt having any trouble with bullys any more than other kids at the school. Also to add, noone escapes bullying at school, its important to teach the difference between 'jolly' teasing and 'mean' teasing, thats a balance...

Sheryl said...

It is sad that a child hide who he is just so he won't get bullied but it is the best thing if it's for his safety.

Stephen, thanks for the martial arts tip, this is something I might look into.

John Elder Robison said...

These are some good thoughts here, Gavin

meerkat said...

Too bad we didn't have the internet when I was in grade school. I only got the short version, "Ignore them" + "Stay away from them." Don't know if the longer version would have done any more good.

All this "erase your individuality" part reminds me a lot of dressing for a job interview.

William said...

There's one BIG one I disagree with on here: fighting back verbally. You NEVER fight back unless you see a great opportunity to make him look stupid.

No, tell your kids THIS: You respond to ANY insult by trying not to care, and making it look like you don't care at all about what the bully is saying. That doesn't mean ignoring him, it means giving him a blank expression and saying "Ok, whatever dude."

It's also good to know how to recognize when someone from NY or Philly is just trying to banter with you rather than seriously insult you. You can't laugh along with him or get angry or you'll become the "guy who always gets ripped on". You're supposed to smile and say "Pssh yeah okay, coming from the guy who..." and insult him about something he won't get offended about, lightly.

outoutout said...

Oh boy does this post bring back memories. I spent most of 7th and 8th grade hiding in the toilets during recess so the bullies wouldn't find me. I was tripped, kicked, chased, had gum put in my hair, called "tomboy", "dyke", "Chewbacca" (because I had an overgrowth of hair on my legs), "Popeye legs", etc etc. And it only got worse, not better, when I changed schools and went to high school.

So when I read comments like this one:

"Similarly, if you're having bullying issues, then it might signal a need to rein in your self-expression."

..it kinda smacks of blaming the victim, y'know?

Don't get me wrong, I do think the advice is essentially correct. "Don't want to be bullied? Then avoid being alone, learn some snappy comebacks, and above all else, learn to hide your differences." Of course, like many other things, it's easier said than done. Some things are impossible to hide. Some things can be hidden but with extreme personal cost. Sometimes we can choose to accept the risk, sometimes it all becomes overwhelming. Have you heard of the "It Gets Better" project? Or "Wear It Purple" in Australia? They exist for a reason. Cripes, if it were only as easy as 'keeping it to yourself', there wouldn't be so many damn teen suicides! I guess it's hard to relate unless you know what it's like to fear going to school each day, to hate who and what you are, to wish you were dead. I do.

And thank GOD the Internet was not widely popular when I was in school. I can only imagine the hell I would've been put through on a grand scale.

Ahem - sorry, I wish I had some better advice. I wish we lived in a better world. That's all.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I'm confused. I don't understand why you say that you shouldn't provoke them, but that you should attack them. Further, in the primary school bullying article, you said that hitting them back doesn't work. Aren't these contradictions? I mean, I suppose you could take the approach in the clip below:


but there's no guarantee of that technique actually solving the problem and not aggravating the bullying.

Gavin Bollard said...


Sorry for the confusion. I can see how that may seem contradictory.

First of all, that youtube video is a great example of precisely what NOT to do. If you were the victim, you could be badly hurt. If you were the aggressor, you could be sued, jailed or otherwise affected. The little guy could have had bigger brothers who would escalate the situation.

That kind of reaction leads to increased violence and is the primary reason why we have so many issues with children taking guns to school.

1. You do not retaliate in violence unless you are entirely certain that it will resolve the problem or if you are in an otherwise life-threatening position.

2. You do not simply accept the abuse as part of your life. It is not.

3. You must always make it clear that the bullies behavior is not acceptable. This should be done clearly and verbally. It should at least be in the form an instruction to "get lost and leave me alone!". If you've got something witty that a bully will understand (they're often quite thick) you can say that too but don't engage in swearing if you can help it.

4. See a teacher, particularly if the problem is on school property. If it isn't dealt with quickly, tell them that you want things escalated. Get the principle involved. Don't be afraid to remind them that it's their job and reputation as well as the reputation of the school.

5. If you think a counselor might help, don't be afraid to ask the school to provide one. Again, it's their obligation.

6. If you get no satisfaction, contact the media. You have certain human rights and the school is required to uphold them.

Doing these things is "fighting back" and standing up for your rights.

Anonymous said...

why doesn't the bully work on hiding the bully in him (or her), instead of us wonderfully creative individuals having to become completely invisible.. Bullying behavior is way more socially unacceptable than most of the "awakard" social behavior that people with aspergers show that "single them out"

Anonymous said...

"All this "erase your individuality" part reminds me a lot of dressing for a job interview."

Yes, and it reminds me of camouflage too.

Anonymous said...

"Having a star wars lunchbox in primary school is cool. It's not so cool to have one in secondary school. You may think that spongebob is the height of culture but constantly talking about him or wearing spongebob apparel is going to get you noticed. Save that stuff for home."

Also, remember that you are a whole entire human being, not merely a customer of Star Wars or Spongebob products! :D

Since you are a whole entire individual, you don't need to express *all* of your individuality *all the time* in order to express your individuality.

For example, even when you don't display a product labeled with your favorite figment of someone else's imagination (George Lucas made up Star Wars, you didn't), you can still display some other parts of what makes *you* special. :)

Special K said...

YOu want to know what's bullying? A year ago today I was in the hospital dying and now I am in recovery.As a heart patient, I had to relearn to breathe, talk, sit up, eat everything and still in rehabilition. My stress levels are low and my chances of survival depend on it- yet people use me as their scapegoats for their drinking, their relatives dying, ect. How sad and pathetic is this?

Anonymous said...

Sarcasm is an ever-ready sword.

KassieMac said...

This is the biggest load of BS I've heard since grade school. Conflicting, contradictory advice at both extremes, then offering the explanation of having to walk a fine line?? Aspies don't know how to do that, it's part of the very definition of Aspergers! Blend in, fit in with the crowd ... but accept & love yourself, develop your self-esteem -- which one is it? Pick a side, don't just blame Aspies for not walking the fine line properly when you can't define for us exactly how to do it.

And there's also a huge assumption here that we have support from others ... stay with a group, talk to your family, talk to the school ... it's also in the definition that we tend to have a smaller support system, all the way down to a sum total of ZERO. This is perpetuated by articles like this that focus on telling us how to react instead of addressing the problem of bullying. If a child's friends, parents, and school officials are too intimidated by these bullies to address them directly, what makes you think an Aspie would be able to deal with them any better??

If you turn on a light and see roaches (bullies) scurrying, don't turn off the light ... and don't send your ill-equipped Aspie child in (without clear instructions) and blame them for not solving your problems. Go take the bullies on yourself! Make the world a better place, instead of trying to offload your own issues onto a handy scapegoat.

Miguel Palacio said...

This almost seems like the advice I got from the State Department on how to avoid being kidnapped and decapitated by a terrorist. =P

"Blend in, be the grey person, don't stand out, pick a different route to and from work every day, don't tailgate, always have an escape route, avoid being a soft target, travel in groups, don't flaunt your foreigness or wealth, don't wear that cowboy hat to the bazar." XD

Miguel Palacio said...

Hmmm... WWTMD? What would the Mosad do?

"If a bully terrorizes you, surely, there must be a way to terrorize the bully and their cronies seven times fold!"

...and the escalation continues, until there is an all-out war. xD

As the bullied become the bullies of future bullied bullies bullying future bullies, and so on...

Miguel Palacio said...

Surely, a discrete yet decisive blow to their eye socket, wind-pipe, temple or kneecap may suffice, depending on the severity of the bullies' offence. But de-escalation should always be the 1st policy, then verbal response, then in the presence of backing peers then authorities and if all else fails do like the game of chess: flee, shield by juxtaposition or attack. But, at this point, this is where the attacks of those who have been bullied often become nookuler.

Then you have those school shootings where those who were bullied snap and lash out at indiscriminate targets.

Best policy is one of heightened situational awareness amongst staff members and educators, and early intervention and a zero tolerance rule against bullying.

Miguel Palacio said...

I became a purple belt in Karate and orange belt in Philipino martial arts. I kept it to myself. But a persistent bully went too far one day and pulled my chair out from under me in front of the class. This time the teacher was looking and I had her consent. I turned around. He was much taller than me. He taunted me to "go ahead, do something about it". I calmly walked up to him and then swiftly applied a flying kick to his chin. He fell to the ground bleeding and required stitches.

From that moment on he then chose other people to pick on, but he did so less because he felt humiliated and humbled.

This was before there was zero tolerance for bullying, as well as fighting back.

I had been keeping the teacher informed of his bullying until then but she had never witnessed. She told me that the next time he pulled a physical stunt on me and if she happened to be watching that I had her permission to try to get back before she officially "stopped the fight".

Today I'm much more non-violent. Understanding that recurring to violence is the failure of other diplomatic means.

One thing must be said about autistics tho, and that is that we often precisely lack the gift of diplomacy, so, in essence, we may be failed in this respect from the start. What does this leave us with? Fleeing, hiding, or striking back. Sometimes, when we strike, if we feel overwhelmed by the situation, we may be inclined to go ballistic. Sometimes the response is the result of injuries which have pent up and mounted over time. Like a battery storing much potential energy, sometimes resulting in the volatility of a lightning strike or explosion.

A person lacking the resources may experience difficulty dampening the wrath of this accumulated rage. And autistics are often theightnjng rods of such pervasive and constant bullying and humiliation.

I am by no means excusing the resulting outburst, but I am explaining the precursors for such actions and some of the resulting consequences.

As in many models, systems may be very sensitive and subject to initial conditions. Some conditions can be like the perfect storm.

As part of an autistic's conditioning, it is very important to inculcate coping mechanisms as much as possible to dampen the effect that bullying and teasing has on us, while also evolving society towards a plane in which bullying and ill intended teasing is simply unacceptable.

instead of egging the bully on, let peer pressure be what stops the bully and keeps the bully in check. So that those who are different won't have to roam the world in terror afraid of the shadows of a potential strike every time they turn the corner.

Miguel Palacio said...

Sounds like me at work. Then when I get in my car and drive away, that's when I really punch out of the clock and am once again free, free, free... ...until my next social encounter with people who are not of my confidence.

Miguel Palacio said...

Your comment reminded me if this girl in my class who grew tall and skinny. She also had hairy legs. People nicknamed her Olive, the character in Popeye. Well, she finished growing up to become an astoundingly beautiful woman. The guys that teased her regretted having done so in college as they had no chance with her. Boy did she have the last laugh!

Russell Johnson said...


I feel that your quote below is priceless. I have been searching the web for quite some time for this idea/concept to be explained so eloquently. Thank you for this.

As someone who was bullied a great deal when growing up, I identify with this completely. These words, in this order, wouldn't have made sense to me until I was an adult.

"...There's a fine line to walk between expressing your individuality and being "over the top".

Everyone is an individual whether they like it or not and you shouldn't feel compelled to hide that individuality.

You do however need to know how far to go with your expressions of individuality in order to strike a balance between attracting bullies and expressing yourself.

The exact mix will depend on what is suitable for you and your environment.

If you're feeling repressed, then let loose a little. Know that it will increase the risk of bullying but make the choice to accept that risk.

Similarly, if you're having bullying issues, then it might signal a need to rein in your self-expression.

It's all about balance, it's about YOU personally and it's about your environment"

Miguel Palacio said...

That's why if one is rich and powerful one can afford to be "eccentric", but if one is poor and weak bullies say "get him!".

Anonymous said...

So basically, as a "grown" aspie, I can tell you it does NOT get better. You're not going to be there for them forever. Unless they are EXTREMELY well adjusted (this means a VERY solid circle of friends who can teach the AS social skills and emotional adaptability) there is no way to deal with bullies. They own businesses. They run the government. They are the Sheriffs. They have the say, and we just exist in their world unless we have a "Skill" that makes us useful.

Either find them their skill, or smother them before they're 18.

IDGAF how selfish this sounds, think about every person living under a bridge without food or clean water IN THE USA because they have Aspergers. Take goddamn responsibility for yourselves, NTs.

Miguel Palacio said...


I'm an Aspie. That skill can be your special interest. I found an employer who is not a bully who appreciates me for my skill (one of my special interests). This special interest is Space Technology. Tho I once lived in a $900 trailer, I have been a director for more than a couple of years. And I'm currently director in a national space program. So, it is possible. And things can get better. And people do respect me for the knowledge I have accumulated, thanks to my special interest. And I appreciate my bosses, colleagues and people I work with. Plus, we all enjoy and share a special interest: Space Technology. This is beautiful.

Next week I travel to a Space related event in Chile. Can't complain. It's what you make of it. It's how to channel your strengths, while managing the shortcomings. Both things put together and an aspie can even do better than a typical NT, and not live under a bridge.