Bully Bystanders: Why You Need to Teach Your Child Not to Turn Away

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“Bystanders can play a powerful part in an anti-bullying culture,” notes Ann Lagges, Ph.D., pediatric psychologist at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health.

We all like to think that if our child sees a wrong being done, she’d be quick to offer some help. But when it comes to bullying, studies show that kids are often too shy to step in. That’s why educators are increasingly placing an emphasis on the role of bystanders to help curtail bullying.

“Bystanders can play a powerful part in an anti-bullying culture,” notes Ann Lagges, Ph.D., pediatric psychologist at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. It’s especially effective when more than one child gets involved, she adds. “When people act as a group it takes a lot of the bully’s power away.” In fact, studies show that more than half the time bullying stops within 10 seconds of a bystander stepping in to help.

Of course, bystanders can also play a negative role. Some actively join in or instigate the bullying, but even passively accepting the attack can be a problem, since it can give the bully the audience that she or he craves. Kids are often reluctant to get involved, says Lagges, either because they fear drawing attention to themselves or because they may feel powerless to stop the bully. Many schools are working to educate kids about what they can do if they witness bullying, either in or out of school. Here’s what you can also do to encourage your child to play a positive role.

  1. Know what a bully is. “There’s a big difference between a child who is acting rudely and one who is being a bully.” A bully is one who uses intimidation—either physical or social—with the intent to control the other person, explains Lagges. “It’s important to help kids distinguish between the two.”  Bullying isn’t just saying something rude. It’s more of a consistent behavior that is persistent and targeted against a particular child.”
  2. Encourage your child to get others involved. “It’s a lot easier to have an effect on a bully if there are several children who step in or say something,” says Lagges. That not only helps to reduce the threat of individual retribution (some children worry the bully will pick on them next) but also makes a powerful statement. “If a few people say the behavior needs to stop or even physically surround the child who is being targeted, that’s enough to intimidate the bully into pulling back.”
  3. Explain the difference between being a tattletale and helping out. “If you’re just trying to get someone in trouble, like telling the teacher he’s not paying attention in class, you may be acting like a tattletale, but if there’s some real harm being done, then it’s important to encourage your child to tell a teacher or trusted adult,” says Lagges. And while some parents may say they don’t want their child to be called a snitch, think of it this way, she adds. “You’d yell for the police if someone was getting her purse stolen—it’s basically the same idea.”
  4. Be social media savvy. Today, a good portion of bullying is done virtually through social media sites like Instagram or Snapchat. So it’s more important than ever to be aware of what apps your kids are on and what kind of social media presence they have, warns Lagges. “Stay up to date or as much as you can and talk to other parents to stay in the loop,” she notes. “Social media can be a lot of fun, but it can also be dangerous, so you need to know what your child is doing and saying.”
  5. Ask your school to get involved. Most schools today have some kind of anti-bullying programs in place but stay in touch with your child’s educators and find out what kind of outreach they are doing, says Lagges. “If they don’t already have a program in place, encourage them to start,” she adds. “When institutions are involved, it puts much of the burden of change back on the bully.

-- By Alyssa Shaffer

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