You've seen it in movies: A girl walks through an isolated parking garage. Suddenly, an evil-looking guy jumps out from behind an SUV. Girl jabs bad guy in the eyes with her keys — or maybe she kicks him in a certain sensitive place. Either way, while he's squirming, she leaps into her car and speeds to safety.
That's the movies. Here's the real-life action replay: When the girl goes to jab or kick the guy, he knows what's coming and grabs her arm (or leg), pulling her off balance. Enraged by her attempt to fight back, he flips her onto the ground. Now she's in a bad place to defend herself — and she can't run away.
Many people think of self-defense as a karate kick to the groin or jab in the eyes of an attacker. But self-defense actually means doing everything possible to avoid fighting someone who threatens or attacks you. Self-defense is all about using your smarts — not your fists.
Use Your Head
People (guys as well as girls) who are threatened and fight back "in self-defense" actually risk making a situation worse. The attacker, who is already edgy and pumped up on adrenaline — and who knows what else — may become even more angry and violent. The best way to handle any attack or threat of attack is to try to get away. This way, you're least likely to be injured.
One way to avoid a potential attack before it happens is to trust your instincts. Your intuition, combined with your common sense, can help get you out of trouble. For example, if you're running alone on the school track and you suddenly feel like you're being watched, that could be your intuition telling you something. Your common sense would then tell you that it's a good idea to get back to where there are more people around.
De-Escalating a Bad Situation
Attackers aren't always strangers who jump out of dark alleys. Sadly, teens can be attacked by people they know. That's where another important self-defense skill comes into play. This skill is something self-defense experts and negotiators call de-escalation.
De-escalating a situation means speaking or acting in a way that can prevent things from getting worse. The classic example of de-escalation is giving a robber your money rather than trying to fight or run. But de-escalation can work in other ways, too. For example, if someone harasses you when there's no one else around, you can de-escalate things by agreeing with him or her. You don't have to actually believe the taunts, of course, you're just using words to get you out of a tight spot. Then you can redirect the bully's focus ("Oops, I just heard the bell for third period"), and calmly walk away from the situation.
Something as simple as not losing your temper can de-escalate a situation. Learn how to manage your own anger effectively so that you can talk or walk away without using your fists or weapons.
Although de-escalation won't always work, it can only help matters if you remain calm and don't give the would-be attacker any extra ammunition. Whether it's a stranger or someone you thought you could trust, saying and doing things that don't threaten your attacker can give you some control.
Reduce Your Risks
Another part of self-defense is doing things that can help you stay safe. Here are some tips from the National Crime Prevention Council and other experts:
- Understand your surroundings. Walk or hang out in areas that are open, well lit, and well traveled. Become familiar with the buildings, parking lots, parks, and other places you walk. Pay particular attention to places where someone could hide — such as stairways and bushes.
- Avoid shortcuts that take you through isolated areas.
- If you're going out at night, travel in a group.
- Make sure your friends and parents know your daily schedule (classes, sports practice, club meetings, etc.). If you go on a date or with friends for an after-game snack, let someone know where you're going and when you expect to return.
- Check out hangouts. Do they look safe? Are you comfortable being there? Ask yourself if the people around you seem to share your views on fun activities — if you think they're being reckless, move on.
- Be sure your body language shows a sense of confidence. Look like you know where you're going and act alert.
- When riding on public transportation, sit near the driver and stay awake. Attackers are looking for vulnerable targets.
- Carry a cell phone if possible. Make sure it's programmed with your parents' phone number.
- Be willing to report crimes in your neighborhood and school to the police.
Take a Self-Defense Class
The best way — in fact the only way — to prepare yourself to fight off an attacker is to take a self-defense class. We'd love to give you all the right moves in an article, but some things you just have to learn in person.
A good self-defense class can teach you how to size up a situation and decide what you should do. Self-defense classes can also teach special techniques for breaking an attacker's grasp and other things you can do to get away. For example, attackers usually anticipate how their victim might react — that kick to the groin or jab to the eyes, for instance. A good self-defense class can teach you ways to surprise your attacker and catch him or her off guard.
One of the best things people take away from self-defense classes is self-confidence. The last thing you want to be thinking about during an attack is, "Can I really pull this self-defense tactic off?" It's much easier to take action in an emergency if you've already had a few dry runs.
A self-defense class should give you a chance to practice your moves. If you take a class with a friend, you can continue practicing on each other to keep the moves fresh in your mind long after the class is over.
Check out your local YMCA, community hospital, or community center for classes. If they don't have them, they may be able to tell you who does. Your PE teacher or school counselor may also be a great resource.
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: April 2009