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Beat the Bully, Bolster the Upstanders

March 17, 2014
Original Author: Keren Perles


Empowering these children to ‘stand up’ for their peers is now recognized as being the key to stopping these behaviors.

Karen Siris


Stand Up

So there’s the bully, and there’s the bully’s target. But if your child isn’t either, does that mean that bullying has nothing to do with her?

The answer, according to bullying experts, is no. Bystanders – like your child – may be the key to stopping a bully in his tracks.

About 85 percent of children are bystanders, according to bullying prevention expert Karen Siris. Siris has also coauthored a children’s fiction book entitled Stand Up, which introduces kids to the concept of rallying together to defend a target of bullying.

“Empowering these children to ‘stand up’ for their peers is now recognized as being the key to stopping these behaviors,” says Siris. “It is important to give these children the tools to turn from ‘bystanders’ to what many now call ‘upstanders.’”

The Theory of Bystanders

So why do children become bystanders? One reason is their fear of being the next bullying victim, or of losing their social status. “Ask any child, even as young as kindergarten, why they don’t intervene or stand up for their friends, and they will answer, ‘I am afraid that he/she will be mean to me or hurt me, the same way he/she is doing it to Johnny,” explains Siris. “Children learn this very early.”

Dr. Juan Herrera is a California Poet Laureate, as well as the creator of iPromise Joanna, a bullying-awareness organization. He believes that children today often balk from taking action because of what he calls the “bystander culture” – the exposure to videos, television, and video games where violence is taken for granted. “They see the bullying for what it is,” explains Herrera. “But their cultural training is the opposite, so they suffer a great internal conflict which paralyzes them.”

What Bystanders Should Do

Standing up to a bully is hard for all kids, and for some it can be all but impossible. Children with the confidence, popularity, and status to take an active stand against a bully may be able to pull it off, as long as they don’t fear any physical retaliation from the bully, says Dr. Joel Haber, anti-bullying expert and author of Bullyproof Your Child for Life. That might mean asking, “Hey, what’s going on here?” or just calmly but firmly telling the bully to “stop it.”

For those who are not willing or able to stop the bullying directly, bullying experts suggest that they find another proactive way to support the victim. That might mean helping the victim get out of the situation, calling a teacher to the scene, or encouraging the victim to report the bullying situation to an adult. Often, banding together with one or more other bystanders can give them the strength to stand up to the bully and can prevent the bully from attacking them as well. “What is most helpful is to invite the targeted child to leave the situation and come and join them in whatever activity they are doing,” advises Siris. Doing so can help stop the bullying without the bully feeling the need to retaliate.

Some bystanders might find it easier to support the bullying victim after the situation calms down. “Research reveals that the targeted child appreciates the attention from his/her helpful peers and also appreciates it when these peers check up on him/her at a future time,” says Siris. Even just telling the student after class that they are sorry that the bullying happened, or that they don’t agree with the bully, can help the victim feel less alone and excluded. “Less than 10 percent of children are strong enough to step in during a bullying situation, but will step up later to support a target if we let them know that this is important!” Haber maintains.