School is finally in. And unfortunately, so is bullying.

Bullies go shopping in September, and it’s not just for school clothes or supplies. They shop for targets.

By the end of October, most bullies will have found their prey. These bullies aren’t looking for someone to fight. They profile kids they can overwhelm, who wither when criticized and mocked. Here’s how you can help defend your child against this intentional and repeated form of abuse from those with superior physical, verbal or social power.

The main quality most bullies look for is non-assertive and weak body language, which can include fearful or anxious facial expressions, rocking side-to-side when standing, slumped shoulders, little if any eye contact, short strides, and kids who don’t smile.

The main quality most bullies look for is non-assertive and weak body language, which can include fearful or anxious facial expressions, rocking side-to-side when standing, slumped shoulders, little if any eye contact, short strides, and kids who don’t smile.

1. Help them “fake it till they make it.” Coach your child to appear more confident and relaxed on the outside, even when they don’t feel that way on the inside. Remind them to stand taller, breathe deeply, hold their chin level, make more eye contact, lengthen their stride, and put a slight smile on their face.

A slight smile not only gives your child an air of confidence, it may also beneficially alter your child’s body chemistry as well. Harvard University’s Amy Cuddy has explored this dynamic through what she calls “power posing.” Students were told to stand in front of a mirror and strike an assertive pose, such as the famous Wonder Woman pose: hands on hips, legs slightly apart, shoulders back, and with a confident and slight smile on their face. The chemicals in their body associated with self-confidence increased after just a few minutes.  

2. Forge friendships. Maintaining and growing friendships are essential for children, since bullies seek isolated prey. Help your child forge at least one meaningful friendship, but ideally three to five. Many targets are shy, and shy kids often need help with friendships. Remind your child to ask other children questions about their lives, to share their toys, and remember other kids’ birthdays. Have your child’s classmates into your home, and try not to contaminate their play by intervening too much. For some kids, especially boys, helping them forge more friendships will mean less video game time, so be prepared for this battle ahead of time.

3. Avoid the edges. Bullies want a public display of pain or anguish from targets, but they don’t want to get caught by authority. So they roam the edges of rooms and groups. Encourage your child to stay toward the front and middle of groups. Encourage them to ride toward the front of the school bus, where it’s easier for the driver to see them.

4. Memorize verbal comebacks. The vast majority of bullying is verbal, not physical. When your child cowers and says nothing in response, this can encourage bullies to keep going, and even escalate their attack. Help your child to practice resistance without war. This resistance can be offered through just one word: “Whatever.” It’s a great comeback because it’s dismissive, but it’s not a fighting word, which could get your child sent to the principal’s office.

Such a comeback involves more than just what your child says. It’s also how your child says it. Coach him or her to speak with confidence and then walk away. Too many targets try to reason with their bully through long, drawn out conversations. This is almost always a waste of time.

5. Be good at something. Kids who get bullied are often on the bottom rung of the social ladder, where kids are known as “nobodies.” Assess your child’s interests, then help your child explore those interests. Since many targets are shy, you will probably have to push them in this direction, but without shoving them. For example, being good at an instrument can help your child be a “somebody,” especially if they choose a popular one, such as the guitar.

With all that said, no child is bully-proof, and most targets don’t talk.

This week, promise your child that you will not run to the school and make things worse if he tells you about bullying, which is one of a target’s greatest fears.

Tell your child that you will come up with a game plan together, one that includes documentation.

Above all, tell your child that what is happening is wrong, that there is nothing wrong with him or her, and you will always be by their side.

Paul Coughlin is an expert witness regarding bullying and the law, a former newspaper editor and is the author of numerous books, including Raising Bully-Proof Kids. He is the Founder of The Protectors: Freedom From Bullying-Courage, Character & Leadership for Life, which provides a comprehensive and community-wide solution to adolescent bullying in schools, summer camps, faith-based organizations, and other places where bullying can be prevalent.