Bystander Behavior: What do other children do when they witness bullying?

You can just imagine it. Your son or daughter is on the playground, and a bully comes up to them. They start picking on your child, and soon, one of your child’s friends steps in to defend them. The bully walks away, and the confrontation dissolves. Sounds likely, right? Wrong. 

The fact is that most children think that bullying behavior is wrong. However, surprisingly few of them step in to intervene, or take even less risky measures to stop the bullying (such as anonymous reporting). There are many reasons bystanders (adults and children) steer away from helping in situations they know are wrong. Think of a time you, as an adult, witnessed someone being taken advantage of or harassed. Did you feel uncomfortable? Did you act? Did you feel safe in acting? Did you think the target should have stood up for themselves? Or perhaps you were too busy to give any thought to what was happening. All of these reactions are felt by students who witness bullying at the hands of their peers.  

So what can you do as parents to prepare your children for witnessing bullying behavior?

First, introduce them to the concept of bullying. If their school doesn’t have a bullying prevention program in place, the term and its definition may be completely foreign to them. Ask them for examples of bullying and how being bullied might make them feel. Ask them if they’ve seen other students at school get bullied. What do most kids do when they see that kind of behavior? Does your child think those reactions are right or wrong?

Next, teach them that everyone has a responsibility to report bullying because it’s unsafe and could end up hurting someone. Sometimes, younger students are afraid of being a tattle tale. Teach them that telling an adult about bullying isn’t tattling because it’s helping someone who may be hurt. We need to work to erase the “tattling” stigma and to encourage reporting what we know to be harmful. 

Third, show students how encouraging bullying can impact them. Help them understand that when they observe bullying and choose not to be part of the solution, they are allowing the behavior to continue, and in the eyes of the targeted, they’ve contributed to the misery. If targets turn to retaliation, it’s likely those students who stood by and did nothing are also at risk. Remember this, when your advice to your children is to ‘just walk away” or ‘not get involved.” 

When students observe bullying, they have many positive options. If they feel comfortable, they could remind the aggressor of the school’s anti-bullying rules. Sometimes just physical proximity to the target can be helpful, so they aren’t alone with the aggressor. If they don’t feel safe stepping in, the student(s) can tell an adult immediately about what they’ve observed. If the adult at school doesn’t help, they can enlist help from a trusted adult at home or in the community.

Keep in mind that bullying isn’t always direct or physical. Spreading malicious gossip about someone else is also bullying. If you child hears someone gossiping or saying mean things about another child, or sees cruel or damaging posts online, teach them to refrain from spreading what they’ve heard or seen, and to again report what they’ve seen to an adult.  

Remember how difficult it can be in adult life to step in and do the right thing when someone is being targeted. Have honest conversations with kids about empathy and what it means to have compassion for others- even if they are in different friendship circles. Assure your kids that you will support them in their actions to put an end to bullying and to work for justice. 

Have you had this conversation with your child? What motivated you to do it? Do you think the rise in social media usage among children is contributing to bystander behavior?

Published on: March 14, 2013
About the Author
Photo of Shiryl Barto M.Ed
Shiryl Henry Barto works for the Center for Health Promotion & Disease Prevention (CHPDP) at the Windber Research Institute as the director for bullying prevention initiatives.
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