A lot of the thinking and actions around addressing bullying concerns either the bully themselves or the person who is the victim of the bully. A bullying bystander is one who observes bullying but gets less attention, and they’re an important part of the equation.
Bullying affects them too. Bystanders to bullying often experience fear and anxiety as a result of what they witnessed, and they may also feel guilty about not acting to stop the bullying.
While a bullying bystander may feel certain that bullying is wrong, they often feel uncertain about what they could do to stop it, or whether anything they could do would be effective in stopping it.
Bullying situations frequently involve one victim and one offender, or one victim and a small group of offenders, but they often also involve many witnesses. This is true even when it comes to cyberbullying, much of which happens on public or semi-public platforms where there could potentially be hundreds or thousands of witnesses.
Teaching teens what to do when they see bullying occur can empower them to take action, relieving them of their fear, uncertainty, and guilt.
Take a look at some of the things that you can teach your teen to do when they witness bullying.
Stand up to the Bully (If It’s Safe to Do So)
There are a number of reasons why children and teens sometimes behave like bullies. But they usually have one thing in common – in the moment, they think they can get away with the behavior.
A bully may know what they’re doing is wrong and they may know that the people around them don’t like it, but they don’t expect anyone to try too hard to interfere.
Sometimes just the surprise of being called on their behavior can cause a bully to stop in their tracks.
One option for bystanding teens is to simply stand up to the bully (if it’s safe to do so. Stress to your teen that it’s better for them not to risk physical injury.)
The bullying bystander doesn’t need to be violent or confrontational themselves — it’s better if they remain calm. The idea is to defuse the situation, not start a fight.
Your teen can say things like:
- “Hey, that’s not OK,”
- “We don’t do that here,” or
- “Why are you doing that?”
Directly addressing the bully might surprise them into dropping it and walking away. If there are other bystanders around, there’s a good chance that after the first person addresses the bully, others will join in.
People can sometimes feel paralyzed or unsure when they see bullying happening, but once one person speaks up, others will feel safer speaking up as well. And even a bully who didn’t back down when one person spoke up is likely to back down when many people speak up.
A Bullying Bystander Gives the Victim an Out
What if your teen is in a situation where they don’t feel safe standing up to the bully, or simply don’t feel capable of doing so? What if they have a reason to believe that confronting the bully directly will only make things worse?
In that case, another option is to simply give the victim a way out.
There are a number of ways to do this, and a lot depends on the situation. If your teen sees a classmate sitting alone in the lunchroom being picked on by a bully, they might be able to give the victim a way out by interrupting to ask the victim to come sit with them.
Bullies choose people they perceive as outsiders as victims, so by inviting the bullied teen to sit with them, your teen can not only rescue them from the immediate situation, they may cause the bully to lose interest entirely if they see that their intended victims have allies.
Your teen could also interrupt a bullying situation at school by saying something like “Hey, [victim’s name] the English teacher is looking for you, she’s coming this way.” This interrupts the situation without directly confronting the bully, and gives the bully the impression that an authority figure is nearby, which will hopefully cause them to drop it and leave the area.
Another option that can interrupt the situation and give the victim an out involves distracting the bully. Your teen can pretend not to realize what’s happening and directly address the bully about some unrelated matter.
“Hey, [Bully’s name], can I borrow your notes from Algebra class?” This can give the victim a chance to get away without putting your teen at risk.
A Bullying Bystander Reports the Event (If Necessary)
Teen bullying victims and bullying bystanders both may avoid seeking adult intervention because they believe that bringing an adult into the situation will only make things worse.
And while you might want to encourage them to always tell an adult, the problem is that they’re right – sometimes bringing an adult into the situation does make things worse for the teen.
When a parent or teen intervenes on behalf of a teen bullying victim, the bully – and sometimes other potential bullies – can perceive this as a sign of weakness and ramp up the attacks.
What’s more, some types of bullies are good at bullying in ways that are difficult for adults to see.
What’s even more difficult is that adults don’t always do the right thing either – and in fact, sometimes adults are bullies too. For example, some LGBTQ kids may be bullied by their peers and may also have homophobic parents or teachers.
A teen in that situation may be less safe if their situation is reported to an adult.
However, while reporting bullying to parents, school authorities, or other adults may be tricky, the fact remains that some problems are too big for your teen to handle alone. If your teen witnesses a bullying situation and can’t figure out a way to defuse it on their own, you want them to report it to an adult.
You can help by being a safe, nonjudgmental adult in your own teen’s life.
That way, at least, if your teen is a bullying bystander to a situation that they can’t figure out how to help with and they’re also worried that reporting it to an adult might worsen the situation, they can at least come to you for help and advice on how to proceed.
As most adults know, a bullying behavior is something that anyone can encounter at any age.
It happens in workplaces and neighborhoods, not just in schools or online.
Helping your teen learn how to be an active bullying bystander by taking positive action will benefit them for the rest of their lives.