Find out why telling your child to ignore bullies is one of the worst things parents can do.

Have you told your bullied child to “just ignore it”? Ignoring bullies is no more effective than ignoring sexual harassment in the workplace.

Ask anyone who’s ever been sexually harassed on the job and has ignored it: It doesn’t go away; in fact, it gets worse.

“When a bully locks onto a victim, they are invested in demonstrating and continuing to demonstrate their power over the victim,” says Rona Novick, PhD, who developed the BRAVE bully prevention program.

A clinical psychologist, Dr. Novick has worked with schools nationally on the issue of bullying, and is director of the Fanya Gottesfeld Heller Doctoral Program at Yeshiva University, NY.

“Especially because bullying often has an audience of peers, demonstrating this power in front of peers is important.”

So true. When I was in junior high, a bully, “Paula,” delighted in making her victim, “Annie,” cry in the presence of several onlookers. I was one of those onlookers.

Why Ignoring a Bully Won’t Make It Stop

“So when a victim responds to a bully by ignoring, the bully is very likely to escalate his/her violence, trying to get the expected response,” says Dr. Novick.

This is exactly what Paula was doing with Annie, who initially was ignoring the bullying.

“Violence” doesn’t always mean physical; Paula never laid a hand on Annie and didn’t even threaten her physically, for that matter; it was all psychological.

“Even if the victim ignores once, twice, three times, eventually, the bully’s escalation will become intolerable and the victim will react, once again signaling to the bully that he can control the victim.” And Annie sure did react: by beginning to cry.

Interestingly, this made Paula retreat, but not without first facing the onlookers with a proud smirk and sneering, “She’s crying!” Paula sauntered away only after a lot of damage had already been done, job accomplished.

Bullies should not be ignored.

There’s the case of another student whose last name sounded kind of like “gargoyle.” Kids called this boy gargoyle and he did not think it was funny, and his attempts to ignore the frequent teasing failed to stop the harassment.

Another Reason Ignoring Bullies Fails

In the case of “the gargoyle,” this child tried his best to “just ignore it.” He’d keep his eyes on his books and keep his mouth zipped, but his body language was powerful.

Most victims are “selected” as targets because of their emotional reactivity, Dr. Novick says. This trait of reactivity, largely based on inborn temperament factors, is difficult to change.

“These are children who blush and cry easily, who wear their hearts on their sleeves,” Dr. Novick continues.

“No matter how much such a child tries to appear untouched by a bully’s harassment, the impact is often written on their face.”

Ignoring the Bully Can Escalate the Behavior

Often, a victim will attempt to ignore.  The lack of response from a victim who has responded in the past does not result in the bully ceasing his efforts, Dr. Novick explains.

“Rather, a bully will try something new, something more extreme, to get an indication that they still have power over the victim”.

In a junior high school class, I witnessed a boy verbally bullying another boy; the victim kept ignoring it, back facing the perpetrator.

This was so inviting to the mean boy that he took an eraser, soaked it with glue and smeared it on the victim’s back, who continued to ignore the harassment.

Many adults, thinking it will be helpful, advise victims to “ignore it and it will go away.”

Dr. Novick cautions that this is a bad move for adults, who, in offering advice that will not work, lose their credibility and may no longer be seen by children as a reasonable resource for bullying problems or other life challenges.

What parents and educators need to offer victims is an array of strategies, including telling adults, or using distraction.

Dr. Novick is recognized for her expertise in behavior management and child behavior therapy. She has published scholarly articles on school applications of behavior management, children and trauma, and bully prevention in schools.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.