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How onlookers contribute to bullying

Jen Klein is a New England-based technical writer and mother of three. When she isn't asking her kids to stop bickering, "caramelizing" the dinner or actively ignoring the dust bunnies under the couch, she enjoys knitting, gardening, pho...

No innocent bystanders

If your child sees someone being bullied, does he know the right action to take? With the (unfortunate) prevalence of bullying in our society much energy has been directed to help both the targets of bullying and the bullies themselves manage situations. This is all very important and appropriate. But what about the people who observe the bullying - and do nothing? Are they truly innocent bystanders?

No innocent bystanders

Bullying is a community problem, and should also have a community response. It's more that the two main players. For many bullies, having an audience is part of their power play and bystanders unwittingly contribute to the escalation of the behavior - either by actively encouraging the behavior or by doing nothing at all. Silence can, for the bully, feel like complicit agreement with their actions.

How do bystanders contribute?

When someone observes bullying, whether it's a child or an adult, one of several things may be running through the observer's mind. The observer may feel fear that the bully will turn on them, they may think they can't do anything to help - or they may be actively entertained or somehow "agree" with the bullying. If the bully is a friend, they may not know how to contradict or counteract this behavior; they may be shocked into silence by the behavior.

All of these behaviors may reinforce the bullying behavior, and may embolden the bully to go farther, to bully more.

What can a bystander do?

Standing up to a bully can be a very hard thing to do, whether one is a target or a bystander. It can seem to much easier NOT to say anything. But that is wrong, too. The target of the bullying needs help and support to end the dynamic as quickly as possible - and the bully probably needs another kind of support to address the underlying issue that induces him or her to bully.

Sometimes the best thing a bystander can do is just blurt out, "Stop!" In one word this lets the target know that there is support nearby, and lets the bully know that their actions are not okay. Many time this can end the situation

If that doesn't feel possible - or safe - finding help immediately for the situation can be the best option. A child can run and get a grown up - and (this is important) asking for help in this kind of situation is not tattling!

Resolutions for all

When bully situations are on-going, in spite of multiple attempts by more than one person to stop it, it may warrant further conflict-resolution interventions for all involved. Many school districts have anti-bullying curriculums and strategies in place to help all those involved in such situations. Guidance counselors and school psychologists in particular may have specific training in this type of issue.

Resolving bullying dynamics is difficult for everyone involved: the target, the bully, and the bystanders. Just as targets need to be reassured that they did nothing wrong, when bystanders speak up, they need to be assured that they did the right thing.

Standing up to bullying in all its forms is the right thing to do. It can be hard, but it is the right thing to do.

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