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'Poke back': Why one psychologist says parents should tell kids to fight bullies

This Irish psychologist says children will actually benefit if they are given permission to fight back when they are physically bullied.
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

A playground bully shoves your kid. Should they shove back?

An Irish clinical psychologist is giving advice that many American parents dare not say out loud, at least in front of their children's school principals.

In an opinion piece for the Irish Independent, David Coleman says yes, kids should fight back. Instead of ignoring or walking away from physical aggression, Coleman says children actually benefit from striking back.

“Children feel better if they stand up for themselves and are less likely to be targets the next time,” Coleman told TODAY Parents.

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Coleman, a father of three himself who specializes in working with children and teenagers, outlined his reasoning for telling kids to push, trip, or poke back when they are bullied at school or the park. “In my experience, and the experience of many of the youngsters that I have worked with, if an initial physical attack is not met with some degree of physical response, then it tends to happen again. If another child discovers that they can push someone around, they often continue to do so,” he wrote.

kid being bullied
Should you encourage your child to fight back against bullies?Getty Images

In his article, Coleman differentiated between physical abuse and psychological, cyber, and verbal bullying. “Each of those are separate and discrete experiences that children might suffer and there are separate and discrete ways of responding to them too. Responding, like for like, is not the best way of dealing with these kinds of bullying,” he wrote.

Coleman stresses he does not advocate violence, but, he wrote, “I think it is fine for children to hear that fighting has its place. I think it is fine for children to believe that it is acceptable to push back against someone who has intentionally pushed them.”

He also suggests that schools can protect children from bullying behavior by creating policies that “ensure that the core attitude and ethos in the school is that children are welcome, and encouraged, to tell if they see bullying in action,” he told TODAY Parents. “This empowers both the bystanders and the child being targeted and gives them further alternatives in terms of potential responses. It also reduces the ‘invisibility’ of most forms of bullying.”

kid being bullied
"Children feel better if they stand up for themselves," said Coleman.Shutterstock

Coleman believes schools should support children who fight back against physical aggression by refraining from punishing them for it. “If someone reacts by pushing back or hitting back when they have been physically attacked, then I don't think they should be punished,” he said. He added that if an attack is a one-time occurrence, he doesn’t necessarily believe the aggressor should be punished either. “They need understanding and an opportunity to stop their own proactive hitting behavior,” he said.

TODAY Tastemaker and child development expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa disagrees with Coleman… sort of. “Responding physically to physical attacks is not the right first response,” she told TODAY Parents. “However, I must agree with Coleman in that we cannot allow children to become victimized. If a child tries a verbal deflection and is met with physical threats, he or she needs to know that they have the right to defend themselves physically.”

Gilboa acknowledged that this permission makes many adults uncomfortable because it “often represents that we have failed a child in that moment by allowing them to come to harm.” But, she said, “Even so, limiting the ways in which a child may defend themselves from attack due to our own discomfort is unreasonable.”

In his article, Coleman admits that this suggestion could lead your child to face unpleasant consequences, even if they aren’t punished for fighting back. “One possible consequence is that physically defending yourself against an attack might lead to a fight. Your child might lose that fight. They may get hurt. The attacker may get hurt. The teachers, mentors or adults in charge, may get involved. Your child might get sanctioned for fighting,” he wrote.

“But I think it is worth it if it prevents your child from being further poked, pushed or hit in the future.”