Mental and Emotional Karate - an inside out approach to bullying

The website for Mental and Emotional Karate is:


Most school approaches to bullying are outside-in.  Teachers and schools officials appeal to their students' humanity. Students are rightfully made aware of the potential tragic consequences of "bullying".  This is often backed up with zero tolerance, increased vigilance, consequences, and strict enforcement.   

Schools have an obligation to provide a safe environment for every student.  To not do the above would be negligent.  However, even when such programs are executed as well as possible, "bullying" often still occurs.  It just goes under the radar and some students still suffer quietly.  Once in a while, it ends in a "bullycide", or school shooting. 


We also need to take an inside-out approach to bullying.  We can and should teach students Mental and Emotional Karate - to defend themselves mentally and emotionally against verbal, written or cyber attacks just like some learn to defend themselves against physical attacks in real karate classes.

We'll probably never stop all bullying.  However, we can "harden the targets” and minimize or even eliminate its tragic consequences.  In doing so, we give all young people the RESILIENCE to deal with any adversity in their lives. 


When I was a kid, we were taught to respond to bullying with “Sticks and stone may break my bones, but names will never hurt me”. That was a scientifically accurate statement. Depending on their size, and who is using them, and how, sticks and stones could be a real threat to us physically. People still get stoned to death in some parts of the world. Names never will be. People expelling air from their lungs through their voice boxes in a way that creates sound waves that we recognize as words will never be a threat to us physically.

But they could be perceived as a threat to our symbolic self. The symbolic self is that image a person has of the person he/she wants to be, and be seen as by others. For example, if a young girl wants to be pretty and be thought of as pretty by others, and someone calls her ugly, that will be a threat to her symbolic self. If a young boy wants to be and be seen by others as strong, someone calling him a wimp or weakling could be seen as a threat to his symbolic self.


However, others uttering such derogatory comments is not by itself enough to cause the hurt we so often see in kids who have been bullied. Suppose a kid’s first thought after being called a name was, “You’re delusional. That’s not even close to being true. You're whacked.”? Would they feel hurt by the comment? Of course not. But kids images of themselves typically are not well established enough to respond in that way. They are still largely susceptible and vulnerable to suggestions from others. They also do some things in their own minds that make what others say or do a bigger deal than it is, or needs to be.


I like to use the metaphor of a filing cabinet for the brain. Kids “file cabinets” are relatively empty compared to what they’ll be like later in life, so when something gets put into it, it’s more likely to stand out, and be easier for them to retrieve. However, as a file cabinet gets really filled up, each new thing that gets put in will be less noticeable. In this way, an adult who has had a lot of affirmations and positive experiences in his/her life will be relatively unfazed by a stranger’s derogatory comment. Of course, it depends on what kind of comments from others and experiences have been filling up a person’s filing cabinet over the years. If they’ve been largely positive, a passing derogatory comment from someone could be of little importance. On the other hand, if kids’ file cabinets have been filling with derogatory comments, it could have quite the opposite effect.


There a rule about feelings that comes into play. The greater the difference between your expectations and reality, the more emotion you’ll generate. In the case of bullying, the greater the difference between what someone is saying about a student, and his/her symbolic self, the bigger threat it will be seen as, and the more potential there will be for hurt. The bigger the perceived threat, the more likely kids are to plug into their fight or flight response. It’s why we get kids who cower and even try to run away when attacked verbally, but often just get pursued and trapped in some way. But we also get some who lash out verbally or even physically at others.  The words of those doing the bullying are specifically designed to create the biggest gap possible. They’re intended to find someone’s “Achilles heel”. The more emotion negative comments can arouse in other kids, the greater the sense of power and control those doing the “bullying” get to have over the person being bullied.


That’s what bullying is really all about – power and control, and often revenge as well. The more immediate and the bigger the emotional reaction kids can get out of those they choose to bully, the bigger the payoff – the more power they believe they have, the more in control they seem to be, and the greater sense of revenge they get. The revenge motivation often stems from the mere fact that the way the victim is in some way is perceived as a threat to the bully’s symbolic self by comparison. For example a “bully” would like to get along with teachers but for whatever reason ends up in trouble a lot. His victim is someone who never gets into trouble and teachers always treat nicely. Or a student would like to be smart, but struggles with school work, and his victim always gets really good grades on everything.


The brain’s primary function is to protect people from threats of any kind. Once they encounter one, be it a physical threat to their real self, or simply a verbal threat to their symbolic self, the brain will be on heightened alert for any recurrences. What typically happens is people will replay what happened many times in their minds afterward. This makes sense in terms of future protection. They’d want to vividly remember what happened so they’d be more likely and quicker to spot an impending recurrence before it actually happens again.

Going over and over what happened in their minds is called ruminating. The definition of ruminate is "to think carefully or a lot about things". In animals it means to bring food up from the stomach and chew it again. The human cognitive equivalent is to recall and relive what's happened and try to make sense out of it to avoid a recurrence. We all do it, especially when we perceive something that happened to us, or that might as a threat.

Concern, and it’s stronger cousin anxiety are intended to be protective. Both are figments of imagination – about things that could happen, but haven’t yet, and often never do. But when people start to spend an inordinate or unhelpful amount of time imagining potential threats, they can end up with anxiety disorders, or even phobias. That’s what ruminating can lead to. Kids who are bullied can end up in a chronic state of fight or flight, dread and worry. 


Here’s the problem. When we rehearse and practice thoughts, feelings and actions, we create cognitive, emotional and behavioral “ruts” in our brains. Once we create “ruts”, the thoughts, feelings and actions they give rise to become automatic. These "ruts" are as easy to slip into, and as hard to stay out of or get out of as real ruts on a dirt road.

E-motion is energy to move – energy designed to ultimately help avoid or defend ourselves against threats. By ruminating – replaying and reliving what’s happened – two things happen. One, simple opinions, like what others said about them, can start to seem like facts. This is even more likely if they hear the same things repeatedly, and from multiple sources. Two, their emotional reaction is more likely to be overdone. There’s a saying that an overreaction is an age regression. That simply means that when people generate more emotion than is helpful or necessary, it’s often because something about the present reminds them of something threatening that’s happened in the past. As I noted earlier, this makes sense in terms of survival. The problem is that having derogatory things said about them is not really a threat to kids. They might understandably choose to see it as a threat to their symbolic selves. But even that doesn’t happen without some help from them.

That's always been a problem for human being throughout our history. We have fight or flight built into our bodies - we're hardwired to plug into it. But we can needlessly plug into it simply by the way we choose to look at things before, during or after they happen. That's why we say people have anger problems and anxiety disorders. It's also why we've seen so much needless stress, abuse, suffering and even death throughout human history, and still do.


So if all the things I've said about are true, then what can we, and should we do to help them? There’s nothing wrong with taking outside-in approaches – trying to stop the bullying. It'd certainly be nice if we could. We have an obligation to try, and would be negligent if we didn’t do everything we could in our power to provide a safe environment for every student in our charge. However, no matter how well we execute such efforts, there can still be, and often will be bullying (and unfortunately racism, ethnocentrism and religious intolerance). Those who engage in it just find ways to be more covert about it.


With kids who are being bullied, I usually start by asking, “What do you think kids who bully others get out of doing it? What do they think they have over other kids if they can get a rise out of the kids they bully anytime they want to?” It doesn’t take them long to answer “Power” and/or “Control”. Then I ask, “How would you like me to teach you how to take that power and control away from them, and keep it for yourself?” That always gets a smile.

I make some simple but important promises to students I speak to, whether it's about dealing with bullying behavior or not.  One is to teach them how to have REAL power and control in, and over their lives. I tell them REAL power is not getting angry, saying or doing things to others, getting physical, or doing things others tell you not to. That just usually invites others into their lives, and gives others opportunities to do things to them that they won't be able to stop. In the end, they end up with even less power and control over their lives.

REAL power is being able to choose whether they’re going to get upset or not. It’s being able to choose to feel the way they’d like to about themselves, regardless of what other people might say or do. REAL power is being able to choose to feel as good as possible regardless of what happens. It’s being able to keep other people out of their heads, and to finally defend themselves against those who have lived there much too long already. Finally, it’s being able to have their lives turn out the way they'd like them to be.

I also promise to teach them to be smarter than most other people walking the planet in some very important ways. Many who get bullied have felt like others have been smarter than them much of their lives. Even the smartest among us get many simple things about life wrong, i.e. how their feelings come about.


This approach of offering to teach students to have REAL power and control in and over their lives can also be effective with bullies. They often have the “mistaken” goals of power and control. "Mistaken" because what they say and do to other kids doesn't really help them get what they might REALLY want in life.  They can get the short term sense that they have power and control over those they “bully”, but if discovered, they typically end up giving away power and control over their lives to authorities of some kind, be they parents, school officials, or even law enforcement. It's more like some kind of consolation prize because they don't believe they can get what they really want. Teachers often say kids who do things to others like what they do. I like to say they settle for it, because that's the best they think they can hope for.

Having the "mistaken" goal of power and control (and even revenge) often stems from a deep sense of powerlessness, which can stem from having abusive adults in their lives. It’s fairly common for those who bully others to have been bullied or abused in some way in their own lives. But the sense of powerlessness can come simply from not being able to have their lives turn out as they’d like, i.e. grades, or not being able to feel the way they’d like to.  

Empower them in the ways I promise, and you can see the bullying behavior disappear completely. I saw it with my “Tool Time” group kids. When we first started, I’m quite certain they were more likely to be on the giving end of bullying than the receiving end - though many probably felt bullied by adults in their lives. As they acquired the power I promised them, they stopped dishing out misery to others, and even became quite protective of those on the receiving end of it.


The first thing I do is teach and encourage them to have USA or Unconditional Self-Acceptance. It’s to combat the shame that is so often present. Shame comes from believing you don’t live up to expectations. Kids who struggle to deal with bullying will typically shame themselves for not dealing with it better. It's why they so often keep the fact that they're being bullied secret - they fear it would reflect badly on them if others found out they were struggling to deal with it. Dr. Albert Ellis always said “Shame blocks change”. It keeps kids who are being bullied from seeking or accepting help that is available to them. Teaching and encouraging them to have USA is the solution to this problem with shame.


Shame also causes them to keep what they think and feel secret, for fear that if others found out what they do think and feel, it would also make them look bad. By keeping what they think secret, it allows them to ruminate about what was said or done without challenge. They play the derogatory comments of others over and over again in their minds like “broken records”. They do the same with their evaluations of their experiences. For example, “It’s really awful that they do that to me. I shouldn’t have to deal with this. I can’t take this anymore.” Both others comments and their evaluations are simply opinions, but they start to feel like facts simply from repetition and rehearsal without challenge. This can even end tragically.

When simple opinions about their experiences like the ones above start to feel like facts, they can become the “irrational logic” for unhealthy behavior like staying home from school, destructive behavior like bringing a gun to school, and even self-destructive behavior like suicide. By "irrational logic" I mean that what they do is irrational – it makes their lives worse instead of better and that never makes sense. But it starts to make sense or seem logical to them if they start to treat simple opinions like the three above as facts. That happens when they keep secrets and simply ruminate without challenge.


Kids who bully others often have a history of being told, and believing they don’t live up to adult expectations, and feeling shame. Shame can play out as anxiety and/or anger. I tell teachers and parents that you can end up with "turtles" who suck into their shells, "jackrabbits" who run, or "rattlesnakes" who coil, rattle and even strike out with venom at others. In many ways those who bully others are "rattlers". The important thing to remember is that all three posturings, including the "rattler" are defensive - a response to perceived threats. When kids feel they don't live up to expectations, everyday life events can start to feel much more threatening than they are, or need to be. As noted earlier, those who bully others can see those they bully as a threat to their symbolic self by comparison. Kids have an innate tendency to always compare themselves to others around them.

So teaching and encouraging them to have USA can also help those who "bully" others as well. By helping to dissipate shame, they feel less threatened by life events and others. Unfortunately, adults too often try to use shame and guilt to curtail bullying behavior. This often ends up being like trying to force alcohol on an alcoholic to get them to stop drinking. It can have the opposite of the intended effect. Those who "bully" others often end up lashing out even more, especially at other kids who in their minds make them look bad by comparison. Disciplining students publicly can also make them pariahs with other students, especially those trying hard to get along with teachers. But that just makes such students more likely to be the targets of those who were disciplined.


The most important thing we can do is to teach students to have an internal locus of control. Like most other people walking the planet, most kids have an external locus of control. They wrongly believe that it's what others say and do, and what happens that really causes how they feel, or makes them feel the way they do. Looking at things this way puts them at the mercy of others and their life events. By looking at things this way, people give others power and control over how they feel that others really don’t have, and give away the real power and control they do have without realizing it. It usually causes them to feel worse than is helpful or necessary, for longer than necessary. Perhaps more importantly, it often causes them to miss many opportunities to feel better. The only thing worse than actually being bullied, is feeling worse than you need to afterward, and to miss opportunities to feel good in spite of it. This simply gives those who bully others a bigger payoff. 


We teach kids all kinds of formulas that help them see how life works. We also teach them how to use that knowledge to their advantage. There’s a formula for how feelings really come about. Unfortunately, we rarely if ever teach students this formula, and how to use it to their advantage. I didn't learn it until after I had a Masters, and I was an undergraduate psych major. We don’t teach it even though it governs every waking moment of their lives in one way or another. That formula is:


What other kids say and do is technically an EVENT in this formula. That’s true for anything others say or do, or that happens to any of us. It’s really what we choose to think about such EVENTS that really determines how we feel. Thoughts cause feelings, not events.

That should be very good news to everyone. If it were really what others said or did to us, or what happened that dictated how we ended up feeling, we’d be at the mercy of such EVENTS. We’d have to hope others or our life events changed for the better so we could then feel better. But it’s not the EVENTS of our lives. It’s what we choose to think about them. Unfortunately, because people see others and what happens as the cause of how they feel, it puts them at the seeming mercy of such things.


At some point, we all are taught the algebraic formula, a + b = c, where a is a constant, and b is a variable. If a stays the same, and we change b, c changes. Likewise, if an EVENT stays the same, and we change our THOUGHTS about it, it changes the way we FEEL. That means that even if bullying continues, those being bullied can choose to think about it, or look at it in new ways that will allow them to feel better, and better cope or deal with what they may not really be able to stop.


We all have a host of cognitive choices we make all the time, usually without being aware that we are, that really determine how we feel. For example:

How we LOOK AT what happens, others, life and ourselves

What MEANING we attach to what happens

What we FOCUS on

What we COMPARE things to

What we REMEMBER at any given point in time

What we IMAGINE will happen in the future

What we EXPECT of ourselves, others and life

How much IMPORTANCE we attach to what does happen

We're usually relatively unaware that we make such choices constantly because we make them so automatically from prior practice and rehearsal.

There's always more than one way to make any of these choices. Some ways we might will make us feel better, others worse. Some ways will make it easier to deal with things that happen, others harder. But we always have choices. And there will often be emotional consequences for the way we do.


These choices are the source of the REAL power and control I promise to teach students to have. It's the REAL power and control we all have all the time over our emotional destiny. The reason is that no one can make them for us, unless we let them. They’re really just thoughts we generate somewhere deep in our brains. Others wouldn’t even know where to begin to look for the specific nerve cells involved in generating the thoughts we do, let alone how to control such nerves cells in ways that would result in us thinking the way they want. People let others seemingly make such choices for them all the time, especially when young and ganged up on. However, with good coaching and practice, people can learn to stop giving others power and control over how they make these cognitive choices, and retain that power and control for themselves.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “No one can make you feel bad about yourself without your permission”. That’s scientifically true because of what I’ve just said.


How we feel is really determined by how we choose to think about or look at things. And, we always have a choice as to how we want to think about, or look at anything, including ourselves. Therefore, logically, it's also our choice how we want to feel about anything, including ourselves.


Dr. Victor Frankl survived the Holocaust and wrote a book about his experience. Most people found his survival quite astounding given what had happened to him. He was asked how he was able to survive, and his now famous response was:

"Everything can be take from us but the last of human freedoms. To choose one's own attitudes in any given set of circumstances. To choose one's own way".

Dr. Frankl often gets quoted by others trying to help people deal with adversity, including other peoples verbal attacks. The short version is “your last freedom is your attitude”.

What Dr. Frankl really taught us all is that no one can get inside our heads unless we let them. People let others get inside their heads all the time, and it’s perfectly understandable that they do because of what I discussed in the beginning of this article. That’s especially true for kids for reasons I noted earlier as well. But kids can be taught to survive bullying just like Dr. Frankl learned to survive the Holocaust. Like anything else, it just takes some good coaching, and practice and rehearsal. Consider all the amazing things we see young children and teens do through practice. They can learn to have a suit of armor against others comments and actions as well. It just takes practice like anything else.

It's very much like practicing the lines of a school play until they become a child or teen's automatic response to what other characters in the play say. Protective cognitive and verbal responses can become automatic as well.


An adult version of the “I’m rubber, you’re glue” strategy would be:

“You can think and say whatever you want about me. That’s YOUR choice. But it’s MY choice how I think about or look at myself, and feel about myself. And you don’t get to make those choices for me, unless I let you. And I choose not to”.

If kids practice and rehearse this like they do lines to a school play, or poem, these words will become just as automatic as those things do. They’ll be at the “tip of their tongue” so to speak – ready to be used when needed. It’s analogous to a kid being taught karate moves, and practicing so much that it will be his/her automatic response if attacked physically.

If someone walks down a scary street, and doesn't know karate or how to defend themselves, they can get very anxious. That's not necessarily a bad thing. There might be some real threats lurking somewhere. But when someone has a black belt in karate, they won't feel as threatened because they feel confident in being able to deal with any threats that might arise. Becoming proficient in Mental and Emotional Karate can have the same effect on students walking the halls of a school, or surfing the internet and social media sites.

Those taught mental and emotional karate can still be caught off guard by derogatory comments, just like kids who know real karate can be blindsided by a physical attack. But the more proficient either becomes in the “moves” for defending themselves, the quicker and more effectively they will regain their balance and being able to defend themselves.


I have real concerns about telling young people "It hurts their feelings when someone does that" or "names do hurt". Are we telling kids the truth? Are we telling them the way things really work, or perpetuating some erroneous notion or falsehood that actually makes them more likely to be victimized by others derogatory comments?

Have you ever seen a feeling? Not what someone looks like when they have a feeling, but an actual feeling? Of course not, no one has. There are machines that can measure physiological changes that occur when people have feelings, but there’s no real way to see an actual feeling. Have you ever held a feeling in your hand? Has anyone? Of course not. They are a biological, electro-chemical phenomena that occurs within the brain, and that manifest in the body. So if we can’t see one, and can’t hold one in our hands, how can we hurt feelings? The answer is that we can’t.

A scientifically correct way to describe what happens is that sometimes (but not always), because of what people choose to think about other people and what those people say and do, people make themselves feel what we call hurt. What they choose to think is understandable because they're human, fallible, and sometimes kids, and what they've been through in their lives and are going through. But it's not "cast in stone". They can be taught and learn to think differently, and feel better, and cope and deal with things better.


Being called a name is just an EVENT in the formula given above. It’s what people choose to THINK about any EVENT that really determines how they FEEL. For example, people could be totally joking in saying something to or about others, but those on the receiving end of their comment could choose to look at what they said in a way that causes them to feel hurt. On the other hand, people could be intentionally trying to hurt others, but those others could choose to see it as a joke and not be hurt by it.

The specific thought(s) people have in response to name calling are the real determinant of how they end up feeling. For example, if their response is “How dare you call me that? That’s a terrible thing to say” they’ll feel hurt, and perhaps anger. However, if they instead thought and said out loud “I know you are, but what am I?” like we often did as kids, they would be impervious to name-calling. I have very vivid memories of childhood friends calling other friends all kinds of names, and those others just shrugging them off with a smile as they said “I know you are, but what am I?” But if for even just a moment they instead thought or said out loud, “How dare you call me that?” or “You can’t call me that”, they immediately felt hurt, and often got angry.


As I noted earlier, when we were kids, we were told to respond to name calling with "Sticks and stone will break my bones, but names will never hurt me".  If we did, and stuck with it, it created a proverbial suit of armor for us. So did repeating “I know you are but what am I?”  During the cold war, military officials used the term “harden the targets” to describe what they did to protect our nuclear missile silos from attack. That’s what we can and do with students before and after they get bullied. Harden the targets against imcoming attacks.

The scientific truth is that it’s really what we choose to think about others, and what they say or do that really determines how we feel – not what they say or do, or any names they call us. What most kids do think when bullied is understandable, even if it hurts them. I suspect many adults would think the same things kids do when attacked.  Lucky for us, most other adults just don't do that to us. Kids are especially likely to think things that cause them to feel hurt if it’s an adult or a bunch of kids saying or doing it to them repeatedly. But with good coaching and practice they can be taught to create a proverbial suit of armor for themselves. They can get as good at defending their symbolic self against verbal and cyber attacks as kids can get at defending themselves against physical attacks using real karate. Kids can earn black belts in Mental and Emotional Karate just like they do in real karate.


Teaching kids, or reinforcing the scientifically incorrect idea that people can hurt others feelings, that their feelings can be hurt, and that names actually do hurt people creates two potential untoward effects. One, it encourages and perpetuates a mindset that puts them at the mercy of others comments and actions. If they look at things that way, it can make them feel like a victim, helpless to defend themselves. That’s never good, and can end tragically in a number of ways we've seen too many times already. Two, it also lets those who are bullying others know that it works. This contributes to the false sense of power and control they seek and  get from bullying. That only makes them more likely to do it.


Remember, it’s what people choose to think about the EVENTS of their lives that really determines how they feel. It can also help to teach them to recognize some common irrational thoughts they might have about being bullied. It's always better to teach this proactively before students are being bullied. But they can be taught to recognize and correct it even in the midset of a crisis. We just have to tread carefully.

I like to teach students Dr. Albert Ellis’ model of irrational thinking. Dr. Ellis said that when people disturb themselves emotionally more than is helpful or necessary, they engage in four basic types of irrational thought: DEMANDINESS, AWFULIZING, CAN’T STAND IT-ITIS, and LABELING AND DAMNING.


This is a common type of thinking kids being bullied will have. There are a lot of things that happen in life that are unpleasant, or inconvenient or uncomfortable in some way, and to some degree. The mistake people make, according to Dr. Ellis, is that they start to think and tell themselves that what is happening to them is AWFUL, as in the worst possible thing that could be happening to them at the moment. It’s like there is a THINK-FEEL thermostat in their heads. By turning their THINK thermostat up from UNPLEASANT to AWFUL, it turns their FEEL thermostat up as well.

There is no question that being bullied as some kids are can be very unpleasant, or even inconvenient and uncomfortable. But there are a lot worse things that could happen to them. For example, having leukemia or a brain tumor, like some kids do. Losing your parents like some kids do. I grew up surrounded by adults who had just lived through the Great Depression, WWII and the Korean War. Whenever I would awfulize, the would always say "It could always be a lot worse. You don't know just how bad things can get". They were right.

People can set their THINK thermostats wherever they want to, but there will be emotional consequences for where they do set them. Set them at AWFUL and you’ll feel much worse than if you simply set it at UNPLEASANT, or perhaps I DON’T CARE.


People have a right to like or dislike whatever they want to. Kids certainly have a right to dislike being bullied. The mistake people make according to Dr. Ellis is that they turn their THINK thermostats from DON’T LIKE IT up to CAN’T STAND IT. If we truly couldn’t stand something happening to us, we’d die. For example, go without air for just a few minutes and you will die. That would be proof that you truly COULDN’T STAND not getting air.

But no young person has ever died simply from being called names or having derogatory things said about them. Some have been beaten to death physically, but words, no matter how venomous, will never kill anyone. Yes, there are kids who take their own lives after being bullied – giving rise to a new term “bullycide”. However, the direct cause of them doing so is not what was said to them. It’s what they choose to think about being bullied.

A common thought they have is that they CAN’T STAND what has, and is happening to them, i.e. “I CAN’T TAKE anymore of this”. As noted earlier, when kids repeat such thoughts to themselves over and over again  without challenge, a simple opinion like this starts to feel like a fact. It can then become the “irrational logic” for suicide.


There’s a science and an art to challenging such thinking in kids, just like there is in so many other things that we do with them. If we’re not careful, they can easily start to think we’re saying something’s wrong with them for AWFULIZING or telling themselves they CAN’T STAND what other kids are doing to them. It's easy for them to start thinking we're discounting how they feel, and dismissing what has happened to them.

It’s always important to keep reminding them that whatever they choose to think about what’s happening to them is understandable, even if it does make them feel worse than is necessary or helpful. They certainly won’t ever be the first or last person in human history to do that to themselves. They’ll always have a lot of company no matter what their specific thoughts are. That should tell them that what they think is part of being human, and nothing to be ashamed of.

At the same time, we want to help them seeing that they are choosing to turn their THINK thermostats up, and only making themselves feel worse by doing so. Again, welcome to the human race. But by doing that, they actually give those bullying them more power and control over how they feel than those others really have or deserve to have.


The last thing we ever want is for them to start thinking we’re being judgmental of them for the way they think. We’ll cease to be a potential resource for them if they do. So at the same time we encourage them to see whatever they think as understandable, we can also suggest they simply ask themselves some simple questions. For example:

1)  What do you really want?

Variations of this question are:

How do you  want to feel?

Do you want these other kids to continue to have seeming power and control over how you feel?

2)  How’s  it working for you to think or look at things the way you do now?

Is it allowing you to feel the way you’d like to?

Does it take that power and control away from those other kids, or given them even           more?

3)  If you keep thinking or looking at things the way you are now, will it be easier or harder to feel the way you’d like to in the future?

Again, we have to tread slowly, lightly and carefully when doing this kind of challenging. On the other hand, I was taught and have always believed that when kids are AWFULIZING about what is happening to them, the last thing they need is someone agreeing with them, or giving them more opportunity to rehearse and practice such thinking without challenge. The same is true for when they tell themselves they CAN’T STAND what is happening to them.


When kids are AWFULIZING, we can simply, and softly ask:

“Is it AWFUL, or just UNPLEASANT?”

When kids are telling themselves they CAN’T STAND what is happening to them, simply, and softly ask:

“You CAN’T STAND IT, our just DON’T LIKE IT?”

The goal is not to get them to not care about what others kids are saying or doing to them. The goal is simply to reverse what they’ve done with their THINK thermostats. To turn them down from AWFUL to just UNPLEASANT, from CAN’T STAND IT to just DON’T LIKE IT. This will turn their FEEL thermostat down. It will also make it much less likely that what’s happening to them will play out tragically, as it does for some kids. 


People have a right to WANT, PREFER and DESIRE whatever they want to. Kids have a right to WANT, PREFER and DESIRE that other kids not bully them in any way, and just leave them alone. The mistake people make according to Dr. Ellis is that they start to think they NEED things they simply WANT, start to treat their simple PREFERENCES as NECESSITIES, and start to DEMAND what they simply DESIRE.

The reason this is important is the rule about feelings that I noted early in this discussion. The greater the difference between peoples’ expectations and reality, the more emotion they’ll generate. For example, if kids simply WANT, PREFER and DESIRE for kids to leave them alone, i.e. “I just WANT them to leave me alone”, they’ll be FRUSTRATED, IRRITATED or ANNOYED when other kids bully them. But if they think other kids NEED to leave them alone, i.e. “They NEED to stop doing that”, that’s it’s a NECESSITY that they do so, i.e. “They HAVE TO leave me alone”, and DEMAND that they do, then they’ll get ANGRY instead. This is why we get some kids bringing guns to school and shooting classmates who bullied them. How much of any of these emotions they generate will depend on how much or badly they WANT, PREFER or DESIRE for other kids to leave them alone, or think they NEED to, HAVE to, and DEMAND that they do.

People can make DEMANDS of others, themselves and life. Which they make demands of will determine what feeling they end up with. DEMANDS often come in the form of SHOULDING on others, themselves or life. Depression often becomes a factor in bullying cases. Depression comes from making DEMANDS of life that don’t get met. For example, “This SHOULDN’T (CAN’T) be happening to me” and it is. Or, “I SHOULDN’T have to deal with this” and they do. If they simply thought instead “I just WISH I didn’t have to deal with this”, they’d simply be SAD. Turning their THINK thermostat up simply creates a bigger than necessary or helpful gap between their expectations and reality, and causes them to get more upset.


Once again, there’s a science and an art to getting kids to turn their THINK thermostats down from NEED, NECESSITY and DEMAND down to WANT, PREFER and DESIRE. Once again we want to tread slowly, lightly and carefully. One way is by constantly reminding them that turning their THINK thermostats up to NEED, NECESSITY and DEMAND is part of being human. Affirming their preference before challenging their thoughts is another way. For example:

“I can’t understand why you wouldn’t like them doing this to you. I wouldn’t like it either. I understand completely why you want them to stop. I’d want them to stop if they were doing it to me, and l’ll do everything I can to get them to stop. But why do they NEED to stop? Why do they HAVE TO? They HAVE TO, or you just really WANT them to?”

Once again, the goal is not to get them to turn their THINK thermostats down to I DON’T CARE. It’s simply to get them to reverse what people so often do in their minds. To simply turn it down from NEED, NECESSITY and DEMAND to simply WANT, PREFER and DESIRE.


One strategy I've used successfully is simply to ask those being bullied:

"Is what they said about you a fact, or just their opinion?"

The real problem is that kids being bullied will start to treat what others say like it is a fact. We all hear at some point in our lives something to the effect that "Everyone's entitled to their own opinion". Sometimes it's in colorful ways like "Opinions are like #&&*%#@. Everyone has one". So the next questions I ask are:

"Are other people entitled to their opinions?"

"Are you entilted to your own?"

"Do theirs have to agree with yours?"

The goal is to get them to the place where they simply think or say out loud "You're entitled to your own opinion. But so am I"


When I taught my students to have an internal locus of control, I noticed that many of them started saying to each other “Chill out, it’s JUST AN EVENT”. They often did it as a way to tease me, but I started  realizing that them doing that was actually a healthy thing. As a teacher, I adopted that exact attitude about all the many things we have to deal with as teachers. Teachers are often too quick to think they have a “problem” with students. My response became:

“It’s not a problem. It’s JUST AN EVENT. It’s just something I have to deal with. Just like other people do. Just like I have many other things in the past. And just like I’ll probably have to many times more in the future.”

Then I took pride in learning to do so better than I did before, and better than other teachers dealt with the same things. I strive to get students who are being bullied to this same place. Again, there’s an art to doing so, and you have to tread slowly, carefully and softly.


I also had a counselor tell me something that changed my life. I was complaining about what some kids I had in class had done during class. He finally said, “Look Ray, it’s  your choice how you want to feel”. That didn’t go over well at all, but when I calmed down, he explained what I have to you. The reason that’s true is because we always have a choice as to how we want to look at anything that happens. So I asked him, “How am I suppose to look at  it?” He said:

“Right now you’re looking at having those kids in your class as a problem. Why not look at it as a challenge, or opportunity to prove your as good a teacher as you and I both think you are?”

For that day forward, that’s exactly how I chose to always look at having troublesome kids in my classes. It made all the difference in the world to my mental health as a teacher.

This is another attitude I try to get kids who are being bullied to adopt regarding the adversity in their lives. Once again though, there’s an art to doing so. That’s not something I can pass on to other teachers in this format. However, I think it can be helpful to help teachers see where we might want to get kids to with regard to how they look at being bullied. The art will develop with practice. But teachers should always tread slowly and carefully, and be ready and quick to fall back on letting students know they have Unconditional Other Acceptance and encouraging them to have USA.

To read more about teaching Mental and Emotional Karate, please visit:


My mentor, an REBT therapist name Terry London, collaborated with his fiancee Amor Monjes, a 1st-2nd grade teacher, to develop a program for children they called "Rough Spot Training". It does basically the same things I've talked about, but is more age appropriate for younger kids. 

They use a balloon as a prop and blow it up to reflect how big a rough spot is for a child. Then they talk about HOT and COOL thoughts, teaching the important connection between thoughts and feelings as they do. The goal being to shrink the size of the balloon, or the child's rough spot. 

You can obtain a book about this approach from Terry by calling him at:

219-365 4316

Terry is the director of the Chicago Institute for Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT)

What me may be up against


I've always believed that there's an innate cognitive tendency to recognize similarities and differences between us and others. I believe it's rooted in our ancient history when gene pools were so much more important to survival than they are now. Ancient peoples were much less mobile than people are today, and probably stayed relatively "close to home" their entire lives. Gene pools would get refined and improved through natural selections to make survival, reproduction and proliferation more likely. Any obvious difference in a phenotype could be very threatening to the survival of a clan, tribe or population. When resources became scarce, it would become even more important to spot "others".

Cultures get refined by natural selection as well. So do religious beliefs. Natural selection over time taught ancient peoples what worked best for their survival. Anyone introducing divergent beliefs could be a threat to an existing culture or religion. I think this ancient cognitive tendency remains within us all, and is often the basis of racism, ethnocentrism, religious strife and wars, and bullying.


Skin color for example is a product of how much melanin someone produces. In ancient times, having the right amount of melanin was much more important to survial than it is today in an age of better clothing, suncreens and international travel. It's also a difference that's easy to spot from one person to another. I don't offer this theory in any way to justify racism. I simply offer it as a reason why we may always struggle to eradicate it. The same is true for bullying, ethnic cleansing and religious strife. That in no way means we shouldn't try. It just means we should recognize that people may always have a tendency to fall back on this cognitive tendency, especially in times when resources of some sort become relatively scarce. Resources not only include things like air, water, food and shelter, but also attention, approval, respect, love, etc.


I believe this innate tendency plays a role in bullying for a number of reasons. One, from having been on the receiving end of bullying and having other kids be so adept at spotting something about me to latch on to and attack me for. Two, from having watched how kids treat each other in schools for over 30 years. They always seem so adept at spotting even subtle differences between their victim and those they hang around with. In many cases it's something they perceive as a "weakness" of some sort. It always reminded me of how animals sometimes treat the weak among their populations as a way of trying to strengthen the gene pool and survival of the herd. Three, even as a teacher, I would sometimes have a student blurt out "Why are your arms so long?", or certain kids would create a nickname for me based on some subtle physical characteristic. The essence of all of this was "You're not like the rest of us". 


Adults and the media also create many ideal symbolic selves for kids. Many boys are told what a boy or man SHOULD be like. They should be tough, strong, pushy, aggressive, quick to defend themselves, never let people get away with things, etc. Girls often have symbolic selfs created for them as well. They should be pretty, well groomed, make themselves attractive to boys and men, etc. Many kids will struggle to live up to these ideal symbolic selves that get created for them. As a way to deal with their own perceived shortcomings, they will often spot and attack what they perceive to be similar shortcomings in others around them. In their minds, attacking "weaknesses" in others somehow puts them "one up" on their victims and eases their perceptions and anxieties of their own shortcomings. The logic seems to be that if they can tear someone else down, they get to move up the ladder somehow. Tearing others down doesn't make them better. They just get to feel they are by comparison. 


25.11.2015 13:56

sharon Borst

Wonderful information..I am an elementary school counselor and teach character traits monthly. While doing so, I mix in a lesson on self-talk and automatic thoughts and how it affects our beliefs.

25.11.2015 14:05

Ray Mathis

Thanks Sharon, sounds like you do some of the things that really need to be done. Kudos for your efforts. Our best bet is always to "harden the targets".