Mathew stood in the middle of the private training room with his head down. Maria watched intently from the corner. Mathew wouldn't talk to me, so I grabbed him and gently started playing with him like my father did with me when I was a child. At first it was like grappling with a lifeless rag doll as I moved his arms and legs for him. Even though I was responsible for all his movements, I made sure he was still "winning" the game. At one point, he put his hand out for balance at just the right time, and I lavishly praised his effort. Eager for more, he began to initiate the simple movements I had subliminally introduced to him. Within a few minutes, Mathew cracked a begrudging smile, and before the class was over he was laughing aloud. More significantly, he didn't realize that he was learning essential self-defense techniques that would enable him to stand up for himself the next time he had to face the bully. By the end the first lesson, Mathew and I had become friends. I looked over to Maria, and her quiet tears of joy acknowledged that the transformation had begun.
Mathew went home that day a different kid than when he came in. We met daily for one week. At the end of the fifth session, Mathew unexpectedly burst out with the details of the harassment he had endured at the hands of the bully. The key that released his pent-up fears and frustrations was having the confidence to face his tormentor. Mathew no longer feared the other child. The next week, he joined the group classes where he made lots of new friends. Most importantly, Mathew went back to school and, as expected, never again had any problems with the bully.
Bullying—the act of physically, verbally or psychologically intimidating another person—is commonplace among children, and fear is the source of the bully's power. Without inducing fear in a victim, bullies have no power advantage. They seek victims who lack self-confidence so they can exploit their weaknesses and break their spirit. The only reliable way to stop bullies is to confront them. Dr. Susan Lipkins, a child psychologist who specializes in bullying, tells us: "Fifty percent of the time, if you just say no a bully, they'll stop. So, we need to teach kids how to protect their space, how to be firm and how not to be a victim." However, that's often easier said than done.
Children's inability to stand up to bullies is rooted in profound fear for their personal safety. The victims know they must confront the bullies and would like nothing more than to stand up to them. But, they simply can't follow through for fear of the physical harm that backs the bullies' actions. And, therein lies the challenge—how do you instill in victims of bullying the confidence to face the tormentors, look them in the eyes and back them down? The answer is simple—teach the victims to defend themselves against physical attack, and the rest will follow.
What the martial arts can teach us about bullying