Advice for young people

How to respond to bullies - practical tips for being assertive

Body language illustration

When you are being bullied, it's really hard not to show that you are upset or angry, we are human after all. But by not giving the bully the reaction they want, you will be able to take back the control and stop the bullying cycle in its tracks. How can this be done? By learning to be assertive!

What does it mean to be assertive?

Being assertive is about being at ease and feeling confident around others without being forceful or aggressive. Although this does come easier to some, nobody is born assertive - it is something that is learnt. First of all, look at the different styles of communication. Generally they can be divided into three main categories:

  • Being passive is to behave as if other people's rights matter more than yours;
  • Being aggressive is to behave as if your rights matter more than other people's;
  • Being assertive is to respect yourself and others equally.

People usually behave in a mixture of the ways described above. However, those who are mostly aggressive are likely to bully others, and those who are mostly passive are often likely to be a target of bullying.

Speaking assertively

The following methods can be used to respond to bullies when they say something offensive. Remember, the key is to be assertive, which means not getting aggressive or insulting back.

Start saying no: Before you can try out any of the methods below, you must learn how to feel comfortable saying no. For a tiny word, it can feel very hard to say, but it's completely within your right to use it. Most importantly, say 'no' as if you mean it. Say it forcefully, clearly and loud enough to be heard. To be most effective, it must be backed up with the assertive body language explained in the next section. 

When someone asks you to do something: Keep saying no until the bully gets the message. This method is based on repetition, and is something Kidscape refers to as the 'broken record' technique. 

When someone says an insulting comment: No matter how hard it is, try not to let the comment upset or anger you. Pretend you are surrounded by a protective bubble or fog that swallows up the words  before they can touch you. If the comment is based on truth, respond "that's right". If the comment is false, respond "it's possible" or "that's your opinion". We like to call this 'fogging'.

Remember to stay safe! These techniques should only be used when you feel safe. If you feel under threat, always YELL to attract attention, RUN away from danger and TELL an adult immediately. If you are being threatened for a possession, hand it over. No object, no matter how new or expensive, is more important than your safety.

Using body language

Being assertive isn't just about how you respond to others verbally, but is also apparent in your body language - i.e. the way you hold yourself physically. Bullies pick on people who they think won't stand up for themselves, and will often target those who look nervous. Here are a few simple things you can do to 'stand tall' and appear confident (even if you don't feel it!).

  • Keep your back straight;
  • Hold your head high;
  • Walk with purpose;
  • Take a deep breath and relax your shoulders;
  • Unfold your arms and try not to fidget;
  • Hold eye contact.

Using an assertive voice

When you use a verbal response with a bully, it's important to use an assertive voice, one that is strong, calm and sounds confident. Take a deep breath before speaking and don't let the bully rush you.

Being assertive

Practising these skills

Being assertive has been proven to drastically reduce bullying. However, practising is key. These methods may not work instantly, but with regular use they will make a huge difference to the way that others treat you. There are some exercises you can do with your parents/carers or a trusted friend or teacher.

Role play: Team up with someone to role play typical bullying scenarios; getting them to play the bully. Discuss what the bully might say, prepare an action plan, and then practise your assertive response (saying no, broken record and fogging). You might want to role play further responses to any comebacks you might get from the bully.

Mirror work: Look at yourself in a full length mirror. How are you standing? Practise the assertive body language that is outlined above. Once you are feeling confident (or if you don't have a full length mirror), get someone else involved. Ask them to mirror the way you are standing, and judge how you think they appear.

Eye contact: Look someone in the eyes in a relaxed, non-aggressive way. Have a competition to see who looks away first. You can also practise this privately each time you have a conversation with someone you know and feel comfortable with. If you find eye contact difficut, you can look at the bridge of someone's nose instead.

We teach all of these assertiveness skills and more within Kidscape's ZAP workshop for young people. Talk to your parents about joining us for a session. 

What about cyber bullying?

Cyber bullying is the misuse of digital technologies or communications to bully a person or a group, typically through messages or actions that are threatening and/or intended to cause offence, anxiety or humiliation. If you are dealing with this kind of bullying, there are ways you can respond assertively online too. While the techniques are slightly different, the concept is the same.

Stop and think before you react to bullying texts, emails or comments. Don't respond, unless it is to say or type 'Stop'. Remember your fogging technique and don't let the bully get a reaction. Report the bullying, block the bully and keep social media profiles set to private. Tips for different apps, games and other media can be found at

Say no to friend requests from people you don't know or trust.

Shout out and tell an adult what has been happening. Don't suffer in silence as there are many people who can help. Schools have a responsibility to protect their students from bullying, even if it happens offsite, on a phone or over the internet.

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