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Can Bystanders Stop Bullying?

How to Intervene When Others are Mean

The role of the witness or bystander to aggression, is one that’s often called into question.  Research shows that those who intervene can often stop mean behavior in the moment.  If this is true, what lengths should children go to stop mean behavior and what is the cost?  Is it really their responsibility?

So-called anti-bullying experts have long labeled those witnessing aggression as “disengaged onlookers” and “not-so-innocent bystanders”.  William Burroughs says, “There are no such thing as innocent bystanders.  What were they doing there in the first place?”.  I’d argue that perhaps they needed to ride the school bus or wanted a place to sit at lunch.  One shouldn’t assume that a child chose to be in the wrong place when witnessing aggression.  This happens everywhere!

Often bystanders can escalate the conflict by getting involved, putting everyone at greater risk.  In August of 2021, 13-year-old Bennie Hargrove was killed while “trying to deescalate a violent confrontation between classmates” according to Albuquerque Police Chief Herold Medina.  Hargrove approached the aggressor and told him to stop bullying and punching a smaller boy, who then shot him. In Arlington Texas, a 16-year old was shot and killed days after breaking up a fight.  How bystanders intervene is key.  Since bullying is an imbalance of power, trying to take away power from the aggressor can be seen as a challenge and further escalate the conflict. In many cases, they aggressor will begin trying to dominate the bystander.  This is where things can get dangerous.  Would you want your child in this position? 

While some schools still instruct students to “be an upstander”, many have abandoned this method, due to the liability and backlash from parents.  It would be unreasonable for your boss to expect you to settle the stop one of your colleagues from calling the other names.  It’s not your problem and you likely don’t want the stress of figuring out their differences added to your plate.  If it’s not fair for adults, why do we require this of children?  We should not place the responsibility on children to resolve others social problems.  Asking them to intervene can be counterproductive and should only be done if the child is ready.  This means that they comfortable saying something, know how to maintain their own safety, and have the social and emotional skills to do so.

If you want to begin teaching a child how to intervene, role play the most common scenarios they may face.  It’s important that you act out situations that escalate to violence so that they can practice how to maintain their safety.  Rehearing various situations creates mental muscle memory and builds confidence.

Stay Safe

Don’t put yourself in physical danger and don’t be mean to the aggressor.

A wise proverb says,
“A person who is passing by and meddles in a quarrel that’s not his is like one who grabs a dog by the ears.”

Some things are best left alone, and only get worse with your involvement.  Don’t treat the aggressor like an enemy. 

girl getting bullied while others laugh

Support Don’t Challenge

Instead of confronting the aggressor, support the person being targeted.  Compliment them, change the subject, or invite them to leave with you.  It may be possible to pull them out of the conflict, with little effort.

This approach helps keep kids safe and is more likely to de-escalate aggressive behavior.  In this way, the child is a supportive friend.  It removes the pressure to investigate, choose sides, or resolve the conflict.  Their role is simply to support the person who’s feeling bad and may need a way out.

Get Support

Witnessing aggression, whether you engage or not can be traumatic.  It’s just as important for bystanders to get support as it is for those being targeted by the aggression.  They may feel guilty that they couldn’t stop the mean behavior, afraid of the aggressor, or angry.  A trusted adult can help them process these feelings.  It’s important not to set an expectation that the child will resolve other’s conflicts.  That’s an unfair expectation.  Instead, they should do the best they can to be a supportive friend.

SOURCES USED:, “The Bully, the Bullied, and the Not-So-Innocent Bystander” by Barbara Coloroso, Psychology Today, Proverbs 26:17, Time Magazine, Fox 8 News.

About the Author: Jeff Veley is an award-winning youth motivational speaker and education consultant who specializes in resilience education for social aggression. Over 1 million people have been impacted by Jeff’s peace-making strategies.  As a result, he’s received two international awards for effectiveness in conflict resolution and excellence in bullying prevention. He is officially recognized as a Peace Ambassador by the United Nations.