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How do you teach kids to defend themselves, without becoming bullies? I'm talking about younger kids (1.5 to 3yo) who are not mature enough (or old enough) to take self-defense classes.

My son is two and a half, and he's a bit on the small side; he has a lot of older cousins (and younger cousins) whom, for lack of a better word, get physical him.

Having them take his toys or food is ok. But what I'm talking about is when they:

  • Hit him
  • Hit him hard
  • Bite him (he has scars from one bite-mark)
  • Push him down (especially if he's running and he falls)

What can I teach him to defend himself, but without becoming a bully? In the past, two techniques that worked adequately were:

  • Leaving the situation (running from biters)
  • Complaining to an adult

However, these are both dependent on a parent being available immediately to assess the situation (and see who's the wrong party), and in the long-term, this will make him dependent on external authority to hold his own.

Looking forward, if he goes to school and gets into a tough fight, I don't want him to be "easy pickings" for bullies or to always be the losing end of the (hopefully very rare) fight; I want him to have the skills and confidence to hold is own. Without degenerating into becoming a bully.

What techniques have you used on your kids which worked?

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Also its better to teach children and even adults how to spot a dangerous situation before they need to fight. that is the best art of preservation, better than any block or kick. teach him great social skills! –  Natalie Jun 2 '14 at 19:20
I feel like running away, just from reading about all this roughhousing.... But I wanted to share a little story with you that my mother used to tell me. She said that her older brother was quite a bully, and there was no adult supervision. But when he broke her arm by putting all his weight on part of it at the edge of a sandbox, and she got a cast, she got the upper hand (until the cast came off).... By the way, I would NOT encourage the use of self defense in school. School is more civilized than the home situation you've described. –  aparente001 Apr 19 at 1:47
@aparente001 although I tend to agree with you about schools being civilized, in general, teaching them to use authority to resolve conflict is the most peaceable. But sometimes, it's not sufficient. –  ashes999 Apr 19 at 2:51

7 Answers 7

up vote 15 down vote accepted

In general, at this age, it's not the child's responsibility to defend himself/herself, it is the parent's responsibility to make sure that the play environment an surroundings are safe so that the child does not get hurt.

The thing you can focus on is teaching all the kids who are playing together to say STOP and NO when they're being hurt or in an uncomfortable position. Teach all the children who are playing together that stop means stop, and if they continue after someone asks them to stop they will be put in timeout. Also make sure that you model this behavior. For example, if a child says stop when you're tickling them, then you should stop immediately and say, "OK you asked me to stop, so I stopped right away."

A common clever response you'll hear from older kids is, "I didn't stop, because he didn't ask nicely". My response to this is, "he doesn't have to ask nicely when he's defending himself." Then I put the child in timeout because they broke the rule.

Teaching these sorts of boundaries are particularly important for children to learn early on. For example, this lays the foundation early on for boys to know (when they're older) that its not OK to continue when a girl says stop or no.

Sometimes the safest and best thing to do is to segregate older kids from younger kids. If possible, have them play in separate rooms. With our 18mo twins, we will sometimes have to put them in their play pen to keep them safe when our older kids are playing too rough, or when there are too many older kids over at our house. I would recommend a larger play-pen (just search on Amazon and you'll find some for $50-$100 USD).

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-1 for implying a mis-attribution of the causes of date rape. If you edited this out, it would be the start of a good answer. –  HedgeMage Apr 9 '11 at 18:30
Excellent advice; STOP and NO seem to be the way to go. But how do you prevent this from back-firing -- for example, when washing his hands after going to the washroom, he says NO or STOP? Or likewise if he's say, cranky/sleepy, but refusing to sleep? –  ashes999 Apr 9 '11 at 18:37
@HedgeMage - Absolutely not. I didn't refer to date rape specifically, I just referred to disrespecting boundaries. Additionally, there is no mis-attribution; lacking a proper foundation for respecting other people's boundaries is a huge factor in why things like date rape occur. –  Javid Jamae Apr 9 '11 at 18:45
@ashes999 there is a big different between saying no when you don't want to do something and saying no when you are defending yourself. The response when they have to do something is, "it's not a choice, this is your warning". –  Javid Jamae Apr 9 '11 at 18:46
@HedgeMage: It's unfair to bring that up, let alone to make such an assertion, out of the context that Javid established. Fundamentally it's about being genuinely concerned for the feelings and well-being of others, a skill that does begin at an early age. –  Jon Purdy Apr 11 '11 at 2:47

Take them out of that situation. It sounds like the child is being abused and you need to protect them. They are too young to protect themselves. Remove the child from their cousins and anyone else that may abuse them. Then when the child is old enough put them in a self defense course.

It's not the child's fault they are being abused, it is not their responsibility to protect themselves yet.

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He's definitely not being abused. It's a wonder what four years of experience can do to give you perspective. Also, removing him from cousins isn't practical; do I remove him from all kids at school who bully him? –  ashes999 Apr 18 at 22:32
Hi Kat, and welcome to Parenting.SE. I've edited your question somewhat to focus on just the advice. Please refer to our "Be Nice" policy if you need further information on why I did so. –  Erica Apr 18 at 22:38

I agree that's far too young for anyone to be expected to defend himself, and that the problem is entirely with the older children, their parents, or both. I would talk to the other parents about the problem immediately. Then I would teach the other children to play nicely with him, and if any of them did such a violent thing as you say, I would remove the attacking child from the room, and give him a stern warning or have him stand in the corner for a few minutes. A child only two-and-a-half still needs to be watched by somebody responsible all the time, or to be in a playpen while the responsible person is nearby, such as doing a chore in the next room.

However, you ask also what to do when he's older. We have our kids in a Jiu-Jitsu program called 'Bullyproof' (there is more too, including a program for entire schools), which means they practice in each class what to do if they encounter a bully. First they have to assertively talk to the bully, telling the bully firmly to stop bothering them. Second they have to tell adults, and if it's in school, as many as possible, so the adults will have the bully under surveillance and feeling scared. Third, if the bully tries to attack them, they use purely defensive Jiu-Jitsu moves on the bully. They are taught how they can protect themselves from attack without ever hitting or punching or kicking (this was one reason we transferred them to it from Tae Kwon Do): the bully, even a larger one, is put into an uncomfortable position and is forced to negotiate and promise to leave the bullied child alone. The child who is bullied thus deflects bullies, learns fighting doesn't solve anything, doesn't become a bully himself, and is particularly unlikely to get injured or suspended from school.

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We've had good results telling our three year old to put the hands in front of her (not really pushing but creating a physical distance between her and and aggressor) and yelling loudly "no" (mostly to alert the adults nearby).

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Well its not possible for a parent to be around a 2.5 year kid all the time. Like my son he goes to school. Since there are other kids playing around it is possible for the child attender to lose control for may be few seconds and that is enough for a push or pinch. Here neither my child is wrong neither the other child because they are learning and self exploring. I cant totally blame the child attender for this too. So fortunately my child can speak and understand's danger so we asked him to shout NO loudly and push.(he cannot push hard so that the other kid may get hurt but hope that the push helps to make it clear its not comfortable). Its a trial from today. Hopefully this will work for my small looking kid.

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it would probably be best if you talked this problem over with your child's teacher or principal. –  aparente001 Apr 19 at 23:05

Your attitude kind of concerns me. A 2.5 year old doesn't have the skills to deal with a gang of older relatives bullying him. Instead of asking what your child should be doing, if I were you, I'd be asking what in the world the cousins' parents are teaching them that it's okay to take toys and especially food from a baby.

Instead of teaching him not to rely on externals, I'm concerned that you're teaching him that he's thrown to the wolves, and his response is going to be to become a bully himself. If he is constantly picked on with no one teaching him that it's wrong, and the only one who experiences consequences is himself (he learns how to cope with the situation but no one tells the older kids off) then he's going to learn that bullies come out ahead.

If I were you, I'd make darn sure an adult was with him all the time, because obviously the other children in your family are not mature enough to show a shred of common courtesy to someone smaller than them. You have a responsibility to your child above whatever else is currently distracting you from being present to ensure your child is not physically harmed. Your child has a SCAR from a bite from a family member, for heaven's sake. There is something seriously wrong with these other children and their parents for thinking this is acceptable. You have a responsibility to protect your child from abuse. Whether that abuse comes from another adult, or another child. Especially when there's a track record of lasting physical harm.

Beyond that, as an assistant martial arts instructor, I'd suggest checking out a Tot Kwon Do program at your local park district; some dojangs also teach them. They are typically designed for short toddler attention spans and teach the basics of learning the parts of the body, responding to instruction, and general coordination and focus.

But I think even this will not truly solve the situation; at best this would be something you'd do alongside telling the parents of the other kids to teach their children not to be bullies. Your child needs help, not a "sink or swim" lesson, before he gains more scars from more abuse. Your child doesn't have a problem; the other children do. You have a right to say something about it as the parent of a child who bears a permanent mark from this problem.

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Great answer !. –  TheIndependentAquarius May 15 '13 at 9:50

Most kids under four just aren't equipped mentally for meaningful self defense. This is why few dojos take children under four outside a therapy setting.

You are correct that every time your child flees, or seeks outside authority for assistance in one of these situations he/she is getting closer to a pattern of learned helplessness and being a ready victim. To raise a strong, confident child who is not an easy target in the future, you must prevent the bullying from happening in the first place. You cannot always do this with an older child, but it is necessary in infancy and toddlerhood.

A responsible adult (or equally responsible older child) should be monitoring at all times, so that problems can be stopped before they start. For example, nobody should be roughhousing in the vicinity of toddlers, period. It should never get to the point of a toddler getting dragged in. If your extended family cannot set boundaries such that their children wouldn't dream of hurting their cousins -- let alone littler ones who cannot hope to defend themselves -- you should have a serious talk with them about whether their children should be around yours at all.

Once a child is four, give or take, they should be enrolled in proper martial arts study so that they can learn both how and when to defend themselves and others. Though, if this ever becomes a necessity with one's own family, I think you have bigger problems to worry about.

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Not a bad answer; but it's not easy to always have someone around. He has around 15 cousins, and there are not enough adults to supervise when it becomes more than 4-5 kids in the same house at the same time. Hence my dillema. –  ashes999 Apr 12 '11 at 17:04
@ashes999 I'm not really sure what to suggest in this situation. The way we handle it in my family is that the older children reliably look out for the younger ones, addng some much-needed manpower to the situation. I know that this isn't happening in your family, but I'm not sure how you can change that unless all the parents are on board. Have you talked to the other adults in your family about trying to create the kind of environment, as a family, where the kids look out for one another as a matter of pride? –  HedgeMage Apr 12 '11 at 17:22
nope; some parents try to teach their kids, but by and large, every kid watches out for themselves -- with some older kids sometimes looking out for some younger kids. –  ashes999 Apr 12 '11 at 18:13
I guess I have high hopes for our oldest son when he gets into Kindergarten this fall. He was defending himself on the playground by the age of 3. His first reaction was always to hit back, then come crying to mommy and daddy. He has a tendency towards being overprotective of his little brother though. –  Ernie Jun 1 '11 at 17:40

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