Bullying: Help kids learn to respond assertively if they’re the target

Setting boundaries through assertive responses is a good strategy for confronting bullying behaviors.

If your child is the target of bullying behaviors, you can help them feel empowered, confident and prepared to respond in effective ways. An important part of this is learning to set and maintain clear boundaries. This means developing the ability to say “no” appropriately and to stand up for oneself when necessary. People who bully others may be less likely to approach strong kids with good boundaries; instead they tend to seek out those who seem defenseless.

One strategy for setting boundaries is learning to respond assertively rather than aggressively in the face of other’s bullying behaviors. Assertive responses are more likely to defuse situations, while aggressive reactions are more likely to inflame and provoke others and make the situation worse. In addition, passive aggressive (repressing, denying or having your feelings come out “sideways”) or submissive responses (giving in or allowing the abuse) don’t tend to interrupt the abuse by others either. Each time a young person (or adult) practices an assertive response, fearful and helpless thoughts are replaced by strong and confident ones.

Michigan State University Extension offers programs and education on healthy relationships. Differences between assertive and aggressive responses:



Positive anger responses

Negative anger responses


Hurtful to others

In control

Out of control

Standing up for yourself

Demeaning others

Setting good boundaries

Kicking people to the side

Relaxed facial expression


Respecting the person

Calling them names

Standing tall

Raising your fist

Hands at sides

Hands on hips or pointing fingers

Confident, calm voice

Yelling and screaming

Asking for what you want

Making threats

Defending one’s rights

Blaming or shaming others

Defending the rights of others

Being disrespectful

It’s important to help kids understand the difference between assertive and aggressive responses. You may also want to create opportunities for them to practice assertive responses to hurtful or threatening scenarios they may find themselves in, so that they can feel more prepared. Model for young people effective and appropriate responses and provide opportunities to share constructive feedback with each other.

Remind kids that they need to carefully assess their safety and decide when it’s safe to stand up to someone who is bullying them. Seeking support and help from a trusted adult is often a good idea in these circumstances. When we do feel safe enough to practice assertive responses our fearful, helpless thoughts can be replaced by strong and confident ones.

For more ideas for helping kids develop resiliency and keep themselves safe in the face of bullying situations, read Is your child the target of bullying?

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