The not-so-innocent bystanders are the ones who give the child who is bullying the ability to do what they do without getting caught.

They do this in a number of ways.  One kind of bystander will stand idly by and do nothing to stop the bullying behavior. They will look away and allow the behavior to continue.  Another type of bystander actively encourages the bullying, but never joins in.  Instead, they act as a lookout, often cheering on the bullying behavior.  The third type of bystander will not start the bullying, but will join in later.

Bystanders contribute to additional stress for the child being bullied. But you may be surprised to hear that standing idly by can also have negative impact for the bystander as well.  When injustices are overlooked or allowed to continue, it affects the self-confidence and self-respect of the bystanders because they are wrestling with fear of getting caught but also having the understanding that by doing nothing, they are abdicating their moral responsibility to help the target. 

The Bullying Circle, originally created by Dr. Dan Olweus, shows us that there are multiple bystander roles to be played in the bullying scenario.  The ‘henchmen” (or women) who do the bidding by taking an active part in the bullying behavior, but they do not plan or instigate the bullying.  The “active supporter cheers the bullying behavior on and seeks to reap the social or material gain that they think will result from the bullying. The “passive supporter” enjoy watching the bullying go on, but never openly show support.  They get pleasure from watching someone else’s pain. The “disengaged onlooker” turns a blind eye and pretends that nothing bad is happening. Finally, the “potential defender” opposes what they see going on, knows they should help the target, but takes no action to help.

All of these bystanders make bullying possible. By taking on any of these roles and being complacent, the bystander comes to believe that the bullying behavior is acceptable and sees nothing wrong with it.  Children begin to believe that they have no personal responsibility to stop the bullying.  In a sense, the child who bullies and the bystander who does nothing form a cruel partnership.

There is a myriad of reasons (and excuses) why children do not intervene to stop the bullying or help the target.  Even children who say that they would never instigate bullying indicated that they would ignore bullying behavior if they saw it happening. Bystanders have more excuses than valid reasons for not intervening.  The excuses they give only serve to create a negative social environment where the bystander sides with the bullying child and eventually becomes the one doing the bullying.

Here ae a few valid reasons that children most often give for not intervening: they are afraid of getting hurt themselves; they are afraid of becoming a target themselves; they are afraid of doing something that could make the situation worse or they do not know exactly what they should do. Unfortunately, these fears and lack of skills can often turn to apathy and ultimately, to contempt which is the basis for all bullying.

Bystanders have more excuses that valid reasons for not intervening.  Here are the top nine excuses that children give for not intervening: the bully is my friend; it’s not my problem; the target is not my friend; the target is a loser; they deserved it; they asked for it; the code of silence among children; bullying will make them tougher; they don’t want to ruin their social status and it’s too much to think about.

When a child sees bullying and does nothing to stop it, it erodes at the very civility of childhood interactions.  Civility is replaced with entitlement and intolerance. The diminishing civility takes away a child’s ability to communicate, negotiate and compromise which are the very skills they need to stand up to bullying behavior.

Bystanders are really acknowledged for their involvement in bullying nor are they recognized for the potential they have for preventing bullying in the first place.  Much of the bullying that happens goes on under the radar when no adult is present or nearby.  That means that the bystanders can be a potent force against the bullying behavior.  They can also rally together to come to the aid of the target.

By standing up and showing bullies that their behavior will not be tolerated or condoned, they are helping both the target of bullying and themselves.  These children are known as upstanders.

There are three actions that a child must take to move from a bystander to an upstander: pay attention, get involved and never look away.  Children do not automatically turn from being bystanders to upstanders.  Children do not automatically learn civility, morality kindness or compassion, just like they don’t magically learn their academic subjects.

Children learn these traits by emulating adults, especially parents and educators, who model the behavior and who stand up for what they believe in.  Children need to see the adults in their lives stepping in, speaking up and taking action against injustice.  We must walk the talk in the family room, the board room, the classroom and out in the community.

Going beyond modeling the behavior, parents and educators can give children opportunities to flex their upstander muscles.  We can teach them that they are the only ones responsible for their own behavior.  We can hold them accountable for their actions.  We can help to build their self-confidence and their ability to make good decisions and we can teach them to stop and think about their own behavior.

Create opportunities for your child to do good works and help them to recognize opportunities to do good for others.  Teach them what empathy and compassion look like. Engage them in constructive conversation about these topics every day. Teach them how to be a good friend and how to look for social cues. Teach them what to say to a bully and how to report bullying when they see it.

It is never easy to stand up to a bully or to defend a target. 

If you are ready to learn more about what you can do to help your child go from bystander to upstander, check out our latest e-book called “Bullyproof”.  It’s full of ideas on how you can take small steps to empower your child to stand up to bullies, to keep the lines of communication open and help your child to become more empathetic and compassionate.

Subscribe to our email list at the end of this post and you’ll get the FREE e-book delivered to your inbox.  Then you will be notified when new blog posts are published, receive our newsletters and monthly Random Acts of Kindness calendar plus other helpful information about bullying.

If you are interested in receiving information about our parent and/or student classes, have any questions or just need a place to vent, send us a message and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can.