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Bullying: teaching your kids not to be a bystander

Many of us who were bullied in childhood look back on those days with anger, sadness, and pain. We know how horrible it can be. For many that were bullied, it was truly a traumatic experience. Now, that we are adults, those days are long gone. However, now, we are the parents, and unfortunately, even though we may not have to worry about bullying for ourselves, we must now think about it in regards for our kids.

Bullying is defined as unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Both kids who are bullied and who bully others may have serious, lasting problems.

Some of us were the unfortunate ones that were the victims of bullying, some of us were the bullies. Some of us were lucky enough to slip by, under the radar, unnoticed, and essentially, untouched by this phenomenon. Although bullying can occur at any point in life, even in adulthood, it usually happens in childhood. Middle and high school students seem to experience it most often.

There are three parts people play in a scenario where there is bullying: The Bully, The Victim, and The Bystander. The role that seems to receive the least amount of attention is The Bystander. We are all familiar with what bullying is and most of us can probably name some typical characteristics of someone who might be bullied. But, who is exactly is a Bystander?

The bystander is someone who stands by and watches the bullying occur. Chances are, most of us have been bystanders at some point in our lives. I know that I can remember times where I witnessed bullying and did not say anything. The bystander can either negatively or positively effect the bullying by how they choose to respond. Someone who stands by and does nothing, laughs, or eggs on the bully can have just as big of a negative effect as the actual bully. A bystander who intervenes by speaking up against the bullying or defending the victim has a huge impact on decreasing the instances of bullying.  According to a research study done by Craig and Pepler in the Canadian Journal of School Psychology, “More than one-half the time, bullying stops within ten seconds of a bystander stepping in to help”.

So, how do we do it?  And how do we educate others, including our kids, to do it, too?

  • Say something. Teach your kids to speak up when they see someone mistreating someone else, and consequently, practice what you preach. Role play with them and give them examples of things they could say. Statements like, “Hey! Leave him alone. You are acting like a bully” is simple and true. The basic act of calling a bully a “bully” can force the issue out into the open and put a name to an inappropriate behavior.
  • Talk about it! Tell your kids about a situation where someone was being bullied.  Make it up, or talk about something that really happened. Ask them what they think about it and what they should do. Ask them what they would want others to do if someone was bullying them.
  • Make a safety plan.  Putting oneself out there to be a helpful bystander increases the risk of becoming a target of the bully. Talk about this with your child and encourage them to always talk to trusted adults about a bullying situation so that they are not going it alone. Discuss who your child’s most trusted adults are. Most kids will identify their parents and other family members, as well as adults that work in their school. Do everything you can to limit time when and where your child is without adult supervision. For example, if your child goes to day care after school, encourage them to always be aware of where the teacher or staff member is that is watching them. That way, if a bullying situation arises, whether they are the victim, or a bystander that tries to help, help is not far away.
  • Review “Reporting” versus “Tattling.” Kids are often discouraged from a young age not to “tattle.” Our society values teaching kids to be independent and handle their own problems, especially little problems. Some children start to go to great lengths to avoid letting an adult know about a problem, because they do not want to tattle. Tattling elicits teasing from other kids and sometimes reprimanding from adults. We must educate our children that when it comes to bullying, letting an adult know is not “tattling,” it’s “reporting.” Calling it reporting redefines it into something that is valued, appreciated, and important, not something trivial. This helps to validate the message that talking about bullying itself is important and not something trivial.
  • Be an advocate.  If your child communicates to you concerns about bullying, hear their concerns and take appropriate actions to help them deal with it. Learn about how bullying is handled by the leaders at your child’s school. Talk to the staff at their day care, the coach of their sports team, and teachers of their extracurricular activities. The more informed you are about everyone else’s plans to combat bullying will help you become better able to know how to intervene when needed.
  • Be a friend. Encourage your child to be the one to reach out to someone who is being victimized. Doing so helps children learn how to empathize and care about others. For the victim, having someone be there and support them can decrease their feelings of embarrassment, anger, or loneliness.
The looming question always seems to be, “How can we stop bullying from happening?”  Well, there are many things that families, schools, and communities can do to decrease bullying. Families can become more involved in their kids’ lives. Schools can adopt “No Bullying” campaigns for their campuses and train staff on how to effectively intervene.  Communities can follow guidelines similar to the schools.

However, stepping in and saying something remains an effective intervention (and often unused) in bullying. Assertively letting someone know that bullying behavior is not accepted, especially if there are others present that agree, quickly lets a bully know that their actions are not condoned. When a group (whether it be children, teens, or adults) collectively decide not to accept the attempted intimidation of the bully, the bullying will likely decrease. It thrives in secrecy and grows when the behavior is tolerated. Every time someone looks away, walks away, or laughs along, it is just like saying, “I am ok with this.” Let’s make our kids’ environments safer and happier for them by teaching ourselves and our kids to play an active role in stopping this behavior.  Let’s encourage our children to support those that are victimized by bullying.

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