We all know that bullying, which has become a national epidemic, is being addressed by school districts, individual schools, parents’ groups, religious organizations, the media, and even government policy makers. Most of the focus has been on the child who is the target of the bullying and on the bully himself – understanding the personalities and needs of each, providing assertiveness and social skills training for the victim, and helping the bully develop empathy, legitimate power, and true friendship.
However, there are other players who have been ignored in the bullying dramas that play out in schools and playgrounds: the vast majority of children who may be aware that a peer is being targeted and yet do nothing to stop it.
Consider the following facts about bullying:
- It has been estimated that 75% – 90% of students report having been a victim of a bully at some point during their childhood and 15% of students are severely traumatized by peer abuse. (Olweus, Bullying at School)
- Children report a higher incidence of bullying than is indicated by adults, suggesting that much of the bullying occurs under the radar of adult awareness.
- Experts in the field believe that the bully derives much pleasure and satisfaction from his cruel behavior through earning the admiration, and sometimes fear, of his peers.
Observers Can Become Reporters
These facts suggest that the children who are not the perpetrators but who are aware of bullying incidences can become a potent deterrent to this unkind behavior. If a bully loses his support and audience and if his peers communicate that bullying is not acceptable and won’t be tolerated, he will be deprived of the status and power he derives from his harsh attacks.
One way to take a stance against bullying would be to change these observers into reporters: children who are willing to stand up and speak out against injustice and malicious behavior toward others. But this is not an easy thing to do; it takes courage for children to resist the tide of peer pressure.
Children can come up with many reasons to avoid owning any responsibility for hurtful things that might be happening to another child:
“The bully is my friend.”
“It is not my problem.”
“She (the target) is not my friend.”
“He’s a loser.”
“He deserved to be bullied. He asked for it.”
“Being bullied will toughen him up.”
“Who wants to be called a snitch or rat?”
“It’s better to be in the “in” group than to defend the outcast.”
“It’s too big a pain.”
These excuses contribute to the overall erosion of decent behavior in our society and suggest a lack of empathy on the part of these children. But there are also reasons why kids who are generally empathic don’t speak up even if they want to. They may:
- fear getting hurt themselves.
- fear becoming a new target.
- fear doing something that will make the situation worse.
- not know what to do.
Even if your child is not the target of a bully, he can be harmed by indirect exposure to such assaults, especially if he feels at risk if he tries to do something to stop it. There is something called vicarious victimization, which implies that onlookers to traumatic situations are themselves traumatized. They can feel threatened themselves, feel powerless if they did not make an effort to intervene, or eventually develop a tough skin to other people’s pain.
It does take a lot of courage for a child to stand up against the forces that support the bully. But if your child learns to “take the high road” by defending a victim, he will build strength of character, he will learn to act on his empathy, and he will brush off feelings of helplessness. By seeing himself as able to face challenges head on, he is less likely to become a victim himself.
Teach your child to do what is right even though it may be difficult by:
Modeling: Children do not magically learn morality, kindness, or decency. They mature into decent and responsible people by being treated respectfully and with empathy by the adults important to them. By seeing parents act courageously according to their principles and values, children are provided with a vision of how people stand up for their beliefs. Let your children know if you refuse to participate in an activity that discriminates against a particular group of people. Let them see you extending kindness toward a less fortunate relative. Let them hear you defend a friend who is being verbally attacked by another friend. Let them know that you sometimes have different opinions from most of your neighbors and you aren’t afraid to voice them.
Talking about the ethics of speaking up: It is helpful to discuss with your children the issues involved with speaking up. During these talks, parents need to show empathy by listening to their children’s concerns and fears about taking a stand. You can talk about overestimating the comfort and safety of siding with the bully, since the bully could easily turn on them. Examining what it means to be and to have a real friend can help a child make good social choices. By encouraging children to think about what actions can be taken in support of a bullying target, parents can reinforce empathy, activism, and good decision-making skills.
Giving children chances to practice being a witness: Encourage your child to display acts of kindness and empathy toward family members, friends, and even pets. Recognize when he does show caring behavior; for example, when he reaches out to a child who is not accepted by his peer group.
What Can Children Do?
Parents can talk to their children about the wide range of actions they can take to help the victim and in the process help their children to develop an ethical code of conduct. These responses range from those that involve the least amount of risk to those that require the greatest courage:
- Not repeating a rumor
- Refusing to be a party to the bullying (i.e. – walking away)
- Not laughing at a derogatory joke
- Supporting the target privately
- Offering kindness and concern to the target
- Inviting the target to socialize outside the larger group
- Talking to the bully privately if the bully is a friend
- Intervening on behalf of the target by telling an adult, standing with others against the bully or stepping in alone against the bully.
One child at a time, parents can collectively enlist the power of the vast majority who are observers, supporting and encouraging them as they become outspoken advocates against bullying. As Robert F. Kennedy said, “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope.”By Audrey Krisbergh, Certified Parenting Educator
For more information about bullying and what you can do to help your child, check out the following books. Purchasing from Amazon.com through our website supports the work we do to help parents do the best job they can to raise their children.
If you found this article helpful, click here to make a donation to The Center for Parenting Education. Your support will enable us to continue to provide quality information free of charge.