Bully Blocking Basics for Parents and Children

Ideally, we want kids to follow this basic formula: use common sense before self-defense. That breaks down into a fairly simple process that I call the T.A.C.T. method. More about martial arts for kids.

Prevention, awareness and avoidance are 99% of self-defense. Knowledge of the issue and avoiding aggressive people is the first step in prevention. Learn how to make friends. When there is an argument communicate,  try and work out your differences. Empathize. Realize that bully’s aren’t born they are made. As teachers and parents we can take situations like this and roll play them, building our student’s responses so that they feel more confident when conflict arises. This builds confidence. Teaching them that it’s not just o.k. to walk away but that walking away isn’t cowardly it’s brave and bold.  Choosing to not be drawn in by the bully’s attempt at creating an angry, emotional reaction is a good thing. Teaching kids that bully’s do this to entertain themselves, and to make themselves feel better by making the victim feel worse is the first step in not being a victim.

Talk: Communicate. Perhaps by using empathy, humor, or misdirection you can create an opportunity to escape.  However we want to teach kids not to engage. Often, there is a time at the first hint of violence that you can increase distance and move on to the next step, asking an adult to step in and resolve the situation.

Ask: Ask for help. Reporting bullying isn’t snitching or tattling. It’s asking for help. Unfortunately, many reports of bullying are disregarded. Adults often dismiss these incidents with a kids will be kids mentality. Teach your kids that you are there to listen and to help. Teach them to keep asking for help until they get it.

Confront: Every adult and ever child wants know what to do if cornered by an aggressive person and knowing what to do in a worse case scenario grants the confidence needed to use non-violent tactics.


Children are often left alone to their own devices in a large and threatening world. Let’s give them the skills they need to deal with confrontation.

  However, facing the bully may be the only way to end the cycle of violence. This is a last resort but If you are cornered and can’t leave then it’s time to control the situation enough that you can evade or escape.  If you can’t increase the distance then you must close the distance. This is what boxer’s do when they are tired or out classed. They clinch or grab the opponent in a body hold. This prevents punches and can give you a chance to consider your options.

Tactics:   If you can’t deescalate the situation, and you’ve tried to evade it may be time to defend yourself.  Knowing how to defend yourself gives you the confidence you need to use the verbal tactics.  Avoidance first, verbal tactics to gain distance and disengage, and then knowing what to do in an emergency builds confidence. We don’t want to teach kids that striking is the first option especially to vital target areas like the eyes, throat and groin, some of the most effective for life or death emergency are likely overkill in a schoolyard confrontation.   But a quick distraction slap followed by an effective tackle can bring a bigger opponent down and with proper positioning put you in place where you can wear down your opponent while avoiding any further damage.  This is exactly what our little ninja did in his situation mentioned in my last post. It doesn’t always work out that you win but resisting demonstrates that you are not an easy target and reminds you that you don’t have to take it. This is an emergency and self-defense is often not an injury free activity. You have been pushed to the limit of your safety and you are taking the chance that by fighting back you will improve your chances of escaping that particular assault.

Consequences: Because chronic bullying is constant, retaliation can feed into a cycle of violence. Often children don’t just retaliate because they are scared and angry they seek revenge, lashing out with any advantage they can find and that includes ganging up on the bully or using weapons. Hurting another person is rarely the best way to solve a problem. You don’t improve people with your fists. You may prevail, pounding the bully into pudding and then face the wrath of a gang of his friends the next day.  It’s better to address the problem early and create a community effort of parents, educators and other children that are aware of the problem and are working to defuse it.

The consequences of bullying and retaliation can be long lasting. We’ve seen this problem (click this link for statistics and more information about bullying) escalate into school shootings, suicides (some now use the term bullycide) and a lifetime of stress, fear, anxiety and feelings of inadequacy. The best lessons are the ones that empower the victim to take control, that lead to security and support so they may fight the problem not the bully.  Our job is to do everything we can to prevent our playgrounds from becoming battlegrounds.

Junior Jiu Jitsu Justice: Bullying Incident- A 6 year old faces off against an aggressive bully.

  A  6 year old faces off against an aggressive bully.

I teach martial arts to children and adults and often come across these stories of violence and retaliation. The purpose of our school is not to teach violence as a means of conflict resolution but kids do fight. For parents we are often split on how we want to teach our children to respond to violence. Many of us have memories of being harassed, threatened or injured by other children so part of us may want to teach our kids to stand their ground, fight back, punch that bully in the nose. This often is not the best solution and leads to more problems, with the other parents involved, the education system and even legally. On the other side we want to teach non-violent conflict resolution,  arming our kids with; communication skills , awareness, empathy, compassion and reason. Let’s teach talking before tackling.


Unfortunately, there are so many situations that are in between. As the father of the child in this incident told me, he was conflicted upon hearing how his 6 year old son recently retaliated against a bully’s aggression. On the one hand he was glad that his son stood up for himself on the other he doesn’t want to teach his son that fighting is the best way to deal with conflict. As a father myself, I want my son to have the physical skills to escape or takedown anyone who might lay a hand on him but to use every available skill to resolve the conflict without violence. It’s a double edged sword.

This is an incident that recently happened to one of our 6 year old students. I have adjusted some of the details to include similar situations from other students past to bring to light the complex nature of violence and bullying among children.

Our little ninja (let’s call him Tommy)  was out on the playground playing with friends when one of the bigger more aggressive kids began to single him out.  He verbally harassed him and teased him, trying to get a rise out of him. As per our student’s training he attempted to move to a different part of the playground.  He told the bully to back off and that he wasn’t interested. He walked away. Then he was pushed.  He told the aggressor to stop and the bully pushed him again or rather attempted as Tommy had stepped back into his self-defense stance and had some distance and time to respond, he side stepped and tackled the bigger kid to the ground. He then moved into a position of advantage, straddling the bully in the top mount position and held him down.  The bully struggled but didn’t know how to free himself. From there Tommy  began to ask the bully if he was done yet. The bully defiantly replied “no.” So after a bit of more unsuccessful struggling to free himself, Tommy asked the bully again, “Are you done yet?” At that point the exhausted bully began to plead, “Get off of me.” Tommy said, “no,” and again asked “are you done yet?” Finally, the bully said yes and Tommy cautiously let him up and stood back with his hands up. The tired bully ran away and Tommy went to go tell a teacher what had happened.

It being said that Tommy’s dad doesn’t want him to be violent, he is also proud of his son. Tommy stood up to the bully but didn’t injure him or threaten him and once in a position of advantage didn’t take advantage, he simply neutralized the threat.  I can say as a martial arts teacher that I’m bummed that Tommy had to use his skills to take on another kid this way but that of all the ways to handle it physically this was one of the best methods for a bad situation.  There were no bruises, no blood, no broken noses and there is a chance that a good teacher can help the boys move to a handshake resolution.  That’s why I favor a more comprehensive approach to bullying. Even when it comes to physical response, we have a choice in how to teach our kids to respond. We can teach them options so that they can regulate their response to fit the situation. It doesn’t have to go from 0% to 100% aggression. Martial Arts when combined with this approach gives kids more tools for defending themselves without going straight for the throat. What did the kids learn from this situation? What can we?

Bruce Lee’s Philosophy of Water

busiek waterfall

Buseik State Park: Photo by Theron Sturgess

What does the philosophy of Water as popularized by Bruce Lee  have to do with martial arts?

By devoting ourselves to the practice of rigorous training we will absorb the lessons of the ancients and find a spiritual path? Perhaps. One thing martial arts does is help us to think in metaphors. Our whole practice is a metaphor for facing conflict, within and without.  The water metaphor helps students of martial arts to guide their movements and in so doing guide their thinking. The qualities of water remind us to flow, adapt, to fill space, to crash and to change state.  Martial arts teaches us how to face challenges and when we engage in the study of the combat science of motion, a study of crime and violence, and understand the physics of motion we experience our minds and bodies in a unity rarely demanded of us in today’s world.  When you are practicing dangerous and precise movements there is a level trust and focus beyond most people’s daily experience.

When engaged in combat sport and someone is trying to hit you or submit you, you aren’t thinkingabout the mortgage, and if you are, you’re probably bleeding or tapping out. That’s on the competition, confrontation, and resistance side, but on the cooperative side of martial arts another type of Zen crouches in the shadows, when you are practicing kata with hundreds of memorized movements, shadow boxing, practicing that kickboxing combo/focus mitt drill for the 1000th time, when you are learning to parry weapons, control and counter, or doing breakfall after fall after fall, you are hammering steel into a sword. By using our training to confront imagined enemies we are learning to confront the internal enemies that distract us from a more fulfilling life. We test ourselves and strengthen our will through the fire and determination of our practice. The meaning of the training evolves into a life practice.

For many, their interest in martial arts begins with fear.  It could be about personal health, fear of violence, a sense of being out of control in an out of control world. They are looking for something a sense of confidence, vitality, health, control.  In studying the realities of self-defense we transcend self-protection as we realize that physical confrontation and violence are rarely called for or necessary in today’s world. It’s the study and preparation for violence, emergency and fighting that the value emerges.  We study violence and eliminate the need to be in constant fear of it. We learn to use fear as a guardian. We study the discipline of mastering human motion for self-defense so that we move through all life’s challenges the way a master martial artist fights, like water.  We flow, cascade, and adapt, we are still like a pond and crash like a wave. Bruce Lee’s be like water remix


27 years practicing martial arts have taught me a few things.

This year I’m celebrating my 27th year practicing martial arts. One thing I’ve come to realize is that my daily life has become my martial arts practice. I still want the vitality and skill of a warrior that I sought as a 15 year old but I also seek the serenity of the sage. I find the way through life’s challenges, twists, and turns through my martial arts practice. Part of my practice is teaImageching, part is learning and part is testing.
Life tests me everyday. These tests teach me, and I learn from them. Martial arts helps me to recognize those tests and appreciate them as a type of training. It’s not a problem, it’s a challenge, it’s spiritual push ups.
Martial arts concentrates the attention, unifying the mind and the body. It’s not just about self-defense or fighting.  Learning to face an opponent is a metaphor for overcoming life’s obstacles. Self-control, respect, precision, balance, focus, self-reliance, awareness, these are high ideals and useful principles when dealing with personal relationships, an angry boss, a frustrated customer or any time you are in conflict.  The physical training is linked with principals, concepts, philosophy and lessons that turn the frustrating moments of daily living into opportunities to practice.
We study martial arts in a Dojo, translated as “Way Place”.  The Dojo is a school of martial arts where the student seeks to find “the way.” Do is the Japanese word for the Chinese concept of Tao meaning way, path or route, also sometimes evokes the meaning of principal or ideal. The way is the path to self-mastery. Being more patient with your loved ones, your friends, strangers, even yourself is a type of spiritual training. The patience required in the dojo comes from long hours of practice that chip away at goals that take years to achieve.  It takes grit, determination, and perseverance, all the things a good marriage, career, or friendship requires. That time on the mat can be leveraged for your health, and a more confident, adventurous approach to life. The value isn’t from learning to kick, strike, hurt or control others, it’s in learning to control one’s self.

As warriors and scholars we strive to take what we learn on the mat into the practice of our daily lives, where we can practice being more focused, more effective, confident and calmer,  more attuned to the present moment, more patient and compassionate, more healthy and happy.  It’s not an easy path and the training is challenging but that’s where the value is.

If this speaks to you and you want to try a fresh approach to ancient ways of warrior training click here for more information about our classes. 

Theron Sturgess is the founder and lead instructor of Dynamic Edge Martial Arts in Springfield, Missouri, USA.