Rener Gracie with jujitsu students
Photo: Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy
The rise in youth suicides has prompted school administrators to be more proactive in the fight against bullying. But schools can only do so much. Rener Gracie believes "bullyproofing" starts at home. Building on his experience in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, his family business, Rener co-created Gracie Bullyproof, a youth confidence and character development program. Here, he shares what you can do to ensure that your child never becomes a victim of this pervasive problem. 
When I met 7-year-old Mathew, he seemed like any other child on his first day at the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy—a little nervous and shy. His mother, Maria, sat on the couch in the lobby filling out the new student registration form, and he sat beside her, quietly, staring at the floor. I introduced myself and then reached out to Mathew.

"Hey champ, my name is Rener. What's your name?"

He sat motionless.

I pressed, "How old are you, buddy?"

He continued to stare blankly for several seconds before mumbling, "I wish I was on flight 800."

It took a moment before I realized that he was referring to the airliner that exploded over the Atlantic Ocean killing all passengers. I will never forget the feeling of utter and total emptiness that swept over me when Mathew shared his dark outlook with me. I pulled his mother aside and asked what could cause a child of such a young age to feel this way. She explained that an older boy had been bullying Mathew at school for several weeks. The bully was always well behaved in the presence of teachers, but as soon as they disappeared, he would drag Mathew by the ankles around the bathroom floor. Mathew never spoke of this harassment, but eventually refused to go to school for fear of the bully.

Upon learning of Mathew's plight, Maria notified the school principal. The principal spoke to the bully and his parents and arranged for Mathew to meet with the school counselor. The counselor quickly discerned the depth of Mathew's anguish and recommended that he see a psychologist. The psychologist tried to help Mathew understand that the bullying wasn't his fault and that he should confront the other boy to get him to stop. But, without self-confidence, there was no way Mathew could muster the courage to act on this sound advice. His world was crashing down inside of him, and he desperately needed help. On the advice of a friend, Maria brought her son to the Gracie Academy in a last-ditch effort to restore Mathew's confidence and help him regain control of his life.

How bullying affects young children like Mathew
Rener Gracie with jujitsu students
Photo: Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy
I suggested Mathew attend two kids' group jujitsu classes per week, and I informed Maria that I would give him special attention in the classes to ensure he had fun and learned quickly. She believed Mathew was so traumatized that he wouldn't interact with other children. Realizing what was at stake, I told her that I would train him for free until we could bolster his confidence and then ease him in to group classes.

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
Rener Gracie with jujitsu students
Photo: Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy
I was able to "bullyproof" Mathew quickly and effectively by teaching him a few simple self-defense techniques. After just five lessons, he had so much confidence in the techniques and his reflexes that he no longer feared getting hurt by the bully. Now that he was fearless, he could walk strong. When he returned to school, the bully must have sensed Mathew's newfound confidence because the harassment came to a screeching halt.

Martial artists will tell you that the best-prepared students also tend to be the least likely to find themselves in a fight. Predators look for signs of weakness when selecting victims. People who have the confidence to deal with physical aggression not only possess technical skills for neutralizing an attack, but also exude confidence in their bearing and mannerisms. These people are both less likely to be attacked and, interestingly, are less prone to initiate a fight because they have nothing to prove. This especially applies to children during their vulnerable formative years. For these reasons, millions of parents enroll their children in martial arts programs.

Most martial arts programs discourage fighting among students. A student who initiates a fight—not to mention bullying—can be expelled from the training. Some self-defense systems rely on striking the attacker with punches, kicks, knees and elbows; however, this method provides no way to control the level of violence: "You punch me, and I'll punch you harder. You push me, and I'll kick you in the head." While a strike may have its place in a life-threatening street fight, it has no place on the playground and will always do more harm than good. Essentially, you're fighting fire with fire. It's unnecessarily violent and rightfully unacceptable to school authorities. It can even turn victims into bullies.

Sooner or later, most children will be the target of some form of harassment—verbal, physical or psychological. You can't control how other people treat your child, but you can control how your child responds.

As a parent, you have an important decision to make: Will you need to react to the bullying after the fact, or will you start "bullyproofing" your child today?

It's all about self-confidence. As you would not expect your child to stand up on a surfboard without first learning how to swim, you cannot expect your child to stand up to bullies without first learning self-defense. To give your children self-confidence, rooted in the knowledge that no children can harm or intimidate them, is a priceless gift with the potential to shape their entire lives.

Rener Gracie is a third-generation master of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu and the co-creator of Gracie Bullyproof, a multimedia confidence and character development program that is taught in hundreds of self-defense academies worldwide as well as select public schools. To learn more about how you can "bullyproof" your child from home, please visit

More on bullying
How to deal with kids who bully other kids
Remembering Phoebe Prince and the high cost of bullying
The truth about school bullying
The tragedy of bullying


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