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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.

What do you do when your Boss is the Bully?

How to Handle Aggression from Authority

The core definition that constitutes “bullying” is an imbalance of power.  The challenge when we experience aggression from authority is that a power imbalance is a structure in which professional relationship exists, especially in the case of a manager and an employee. No matter what you do or say, there is a boss to answer to.  When you experience aggression from a superior, you may be tempted to fight back, quit, or go to their boss for support. 

If the aggression is extreme and you’re in danger, taking action in this way may be necessary.  Most of the time though, it’s the small conflicts and rude behaviors that build over time stressing you out.  You already know that your boss has power over you but respecting this social structure is important to keep in mind.  If you try to take power (no matter the means), it can create an inappropriate dynamic in the relationship.

So, how do you resolve the conflict?  Here are some steps…

1. Understand what Conflict is:  

Aggression/conflict comes from an unmet need or one person’s need getting in the way of another.  When we remind ourselves that a person’s needs are not being met, it can expand our compassion and grace for their behavior (when it’s aggressive). 

If the conflict is becoming unsafe, understand that you may not be the person or be in the place to address it.  That’s fine.  Move onto step two and see if that changes after some time.


Boss bullies employees

2. Build Support & Safety:

Setting boundaries and coping are important before taking the next step.  Start by dealing with your anxious thoughts, feelings, and fears.  Take some time to “get it out” in a way that’s relaxing and helpful.  This could be journaling, taking a walk, or going for a bike ride.  The goal is to be honest about how you are feeling so that you know where your personal starting line is.  It’s helpful to talk through this with someone who’s outside of the situation such as a counselor, therapist, or pastor.  Your spouse or friends may take sides.  Try to find someone who will both support and challenge you. 

Remember that emotional resilience is developed by leveraging adversity for psychological growth.  It’s awesome to think that you could benefit from even “elephant-sized” issues.  The greater the conflict, the greater the opportunity for growth. This could actually be good for you, in the long run.

Ask yourself…
a. How could this be worse?
b. Will this matter in the future?
c. What good could come from this?

When you’re emotionally ready…

3. Lean into the Relationship: 

Look for ways to add value to the person who’s troubling you.  This could be a series of gifts, compliments, etc.  The goal is to change your mindset and theirs – from enemies or unpleasant associates to one that is friendly (and hopefully) a bit trusting.  You don’t need to be friends with this person but you should be friend-ly TO this person. It may feel like “emotional yoga” (a stretch).  That signifies growth.  Leaning too far will feel like a strain.  If this happens, review step two and lean back in when you can, as far as you can.  Remember that feelings don’t equal truth.  You may be 100% even though you feel unsafe.  Don’t let your feelings boss you around. Put your thoughts on trial and examine them for truth.  Not “your truth”.  The truth.  Look at the facts with an outsider who’s non emotionally impacted be the outcome.

4. Discuss Needs:

This isn’t the time to address the conflict but you’re getting closer.  Ask the person what they need.  You might start with telling them that you’ve been feeling anxious or unhappy and mention that it seems that they might be feeling that way too.  Be vulnerable before asking them to be vulnerable. 

Your goal is to walk away with an understanding of that person’s needs and share yours; if they’re willing to listen.  Seek to understand before being understood.

5. Address the Point of Conflict: 

Okay, you’re getting ready to address the conflict head-on.  To make this discussion easier, take these baby steps.

Before you address the conflict…
a. Reflect on your “Needs” discussion

b. Identify the point of conflict – this is where your needs got in the way of their needs
c. Think through what a win-win would look like.  You must want both of you to win for the conversation to go well.
d. Set it up for success – People are more likely to get defensive if they feel like you’ve set up “The Talk” or scheduled “The Meeting”.  No one likes staring across the table in the boardroom. This is likely to put both of you on edge.  Take the pressure off by setting up the discussion in a way that feels casual and non-threatening.  Take a walk, grab a coffee, or bring in your favorite dessert to share.


The conversation should flow like this…
Reflect – “I’ve been thinking about what our conversation (on needs)”
Respect – “That’s really important to me.  I respect your position and know it comes with many challenges”.

Responsibility – “I’m sorry for… I’d like to commit to… I think I make things easier on you by…”
Resolution – “I’d really like to solve this.  What do you think about…?  Would you be willing to…?” 

Try to walk away with a plan or an agreement.  If this happens, it will be a weight off your shoulder.  If the discussion doesn’t go well, remind yourself that it takes time and practice.  Few people hit a home run, their first-time at-bat.  Don’t give up.   Repeat steps 1-4 and return to step 5 again when the time seems right. 

If progress isn’t happening, you may need a mediator.  If possible, choose someone together that can help you work through the conflict.  If they refuse, you may need to reach out to someone above them.  In some cases, you must place a hard boundary or leave your position.  If a company policy has been violated, it may need to be addressed. Your job is to “treat them the way that you want to be treated”.  Don’t villainize or try to get them in trouble.   You wouldn’t like it if they did that to you.  Do all you can to work peaceably with them.  

Why Bullying Awareness Isn’t Enough: Finding a Solution to the Bullying Problem

Bullying is nothing new. From the infamous Phoebe Prince case a decade ago to the recent news that mega-producer Scott Rudin is stepping back from Broadway due to allegations of workplace harassment, bullying extends from the schoolyard to the office.

The question is, why does bullying continue to plague our society? For years, schools have hosted anti-bullying assemblies and teacher trainings. The news cycle is filled with stories of children who were bullied to death, actors and directors who mistreated their colleagues, and managers who created toxic work environments. Everyone knows that bullying is bad and it seems to be getting worse.

So, why hasn’t it ended? The war on bullying started when the first shots rang out at Columbine High School in 1999. Now 22 years later, people are well-aware of the problem but still vague about the solution.

Social aggression expert and youth motivational speaker Jeff Veley has some ideas about why we’re stuck — and how to move forward.

Why is bullying still a problem when there are so many anti-bullying programs and laws?

Because an “anti” bullying programs tell people what we already know: bullying is bad. It’s not providing any framework to actually stop bullying or help victims negotiate the situation.  Furthermore, these tend to label aggressive people rather than the behavior as bad.  Painting children with this broad brush based on a few incidents is both unhelpful and hypocritical.

Most of the time, these initiatives are started by wonderful people who want to make a difference but aren’t aware of how to solve the core problem. That’s why these movements can gain traction quickly but die out or turn negative on social media. We see it after every tragic case of a kid who commits suicide after being bullied. In some cases laws are passed but they are rarely psychologically sound.

So, there’s an anti-bullying initiative that gets people fired up — but it keeps the focus on stopping the bullying rather than empowering the child who feels like a victim.  Some actions expose and humiliate those who are exhibiting aggressive behaviors.   This perpetuates the behavior and results in additional victims.

This is happening right now in Dayton, Ohio. A young man just attempted suicide after years of being bullied, so the school made an anti-bullying task force. Which raises two questions: what was the school doing before, and why are they using anti-bullying strategies, which are proven to fail?  We’ve seen so many of these initiatives launched, and yet children feel ill-equipped to respond to mean kids and manage emotions.  A different approach is needed.

Many schools and workplaces have zero tolerance for bullying. Is that a more effective option?

Not at all. People who create those programs and policies are often mis-educated or misinformed. That old anti-bullying methodology, the zero-tolerance approach, has been proven to make things worse. It’s not as simple as telling people to “stop bullying.”

Yet I meet parents and educators every day who claim zero tolerance is the best path. We have years of research to prove that this only raises hostility and decreases trust between students and grownups. It’s simply not effective. And often, it ends up punishing targets who attempt to fight back. Other times, the behavior moves off campus and online, causing a cyberbullying problem that can be nearly impossible to track or control.  Once again, we haven’t solved the core issue.

Are bullying awareness programs effective?

You may think that If kids and adults learn to recognize bullying behavior and the harmful impacts, that it would stop.  When it comes to bullying, we don’t need awareness. We need solutions. But well-meaning people who want to stop bullying don’t really know how to fix it. We can tell people to just not bully others, but ultimately that doesn’t work. Aggressors know that they’re bullying others.

Those that don’t have a solution to bullying find creative ways to re-communicate a known problem. They’re hoping that by making workshops, or documentaries, or theatre plays, or whatever about bullying, that they’ll strike the right chord — and maybe convince someone not to be a bully.  While we’re wasting time scolding aggressors and marching through communities, the targets are wondering what they can do to actually make it stop.

Why it it hard to stop bullying?

By definition, bullying is social aggression. It’s an imbalance of power where one person gets pleasure from having power over another. It’s a game.  The school’s mean girl isn’t going to stop as long as she’s winning just like a gambler won’t pull their bucket away when they hit a jackpot. There’s an emotional payoff that keeps the cycle going.  It can be addictive. Until the reward stops, the behavior continues.  So how can we empower the target to respond?  What is the best approach to stop bullying?

We need to stop focusing on awareness and “anti-bullying.” Awareness and bystanders doesn’t stop victimization. Empowering targets with the right skills does. Bullying doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s social aggression. There’s a reason the person is continued to be targeted. It’s not their fault, but they are the one who can turn off the reward for their enemy.  When they do, the game is over.

Empowering targets corrects the power imbalance.  It allows them to keep their power, instead of it being taken from them.  As a result, they grow in confidence and learn how to resolve their own social conflicts.  This moves them from victim to victor.  They become the hero of their own story and can even use their experience to help others.  Through skills training, a multiplication effect can take place where students educate their peers, and a group (or school culture) grows in resilience.

Research shows that strategies like The Peace Sign Approach are the most promising solutions to social aggression. These approaches show kids — and adults — how to manage their emotions, navigate social challenges, and respond to adversity in a healthy way.  It’s all based on social and emotional learning and resilience education.

SOURCES USED: middle-schooler-attempts-suicide following-allegations-of-bullying

About Jeff & The Approach

Social & Emotional Learning without the Planning

Plug and Play Lessons for On-Campus & At-Home Learning

.When you consider all of the challenges this school year, teachers and counselors are in need of simple ways to engage students.  During COVID-19 it’s especially important that we teach social and emotional learning skills along with resilience education.  Still, it can be difficult to find curriculum that works both at-home and in the classroom.

As a social skills educator myself, I know how important it is to have engaging curriculum that’s EASY to facilitate. 
Imagine pre-made lesson plans and professional content where you can simply push “Play” and then have a class discussion.  Below are options for schools that are seeking fun new ways to teach SEL (without adding to planning time).

SQUABBLES SEL Curriculum Cover


Your Game Plan for Aggression

Golden Rule Ambassadors SEL Curriculum Cover

Golden Rule Ambassadors

Student Leadership & Campus Culture

Is Anti-Racist the Answer?

Why the Anti-Racist Movement May Increase Hate & Violence

The desire to stand against racism is one that’s being felt, across America and around the world.  As we reflect on the tragic murder of George Floyd and many others, movements for justice and equality are gaining traction and support.

In addition to Black Lives Matter, there is a larger movement that is growing in popularity – the anti-racist movement.  How you interpret this article is largely based on whether you define “racist” as an adjective or a noun.  This article shall use the latter.

Is “Anti” the Problem?

After watching the anti-bullying movement for 10 years, I’m repelled by most “anti” movements. Why?  It tends to paint a negative light on a people group instead of directing positive attention towards those being advocated for.

Anti-bullying programs, for example, often focus on stopping aggressors on as the sole solution for helping targets.  Youth that are targeted often have little hope, other than telling the authorities and hoping things change.  I’ve spent my career empowering targets of aggression (in the same way I wish someone would have helped me in that situation). 

Anti-Racist Versus Pro Civility

If your mindset is to be “anti-racist”, you may look for racists to stand against.  If you take a stance of fighting for civility, equality, and the equity of all people, it better positions you as a positive advocate.

While my brief description is simplified, my point is that it’s a better leadership decision to stand FOR something than AGAINST something.  If positive change is to be had, the majority of our energy should be spent standing FOR people and not AGAINST people.

Anti-Racist black white

Becoming What You Hate

Over time, it’s easy to reciprocate the behavior that you desire to stop and, ultimately become what you hate. In the end, the anti-bullying movement was more about “hating” and “rallying against bullies” (who are usually targets of aggression, acting out aggressively – ironically) than empowering targets of aggression.

After research showed that anti-bullying programs increased hostility and aggression, the Department of Education recommended that schools abandon these practices.

A Positive Solution to Racism?

How are schools handling social aggression (commonly referred to as bullying) now?  Research shows that the most promising solution includes resilience education, social and emotional learning, and conflict resolution skills.  Can these lessons apply to those impacted by racist remarks?

Resilience education reduces the importance of the overall offense – therefore helping the student guard their heart and leverage adversity for psychological growth.  Social and emotional learning teaches students how to manage emotions, interact with other people, and make responsible decisions, even in challenging relationships.  Increasing one’s ability to resolve conflicts empowers a target of aggression with several options to defend themself.  Instead of feeling overpowered or powerless, a target of aggression feels prepared to navigate challenges, engage in conversation, and resolve conflicts peacefully.

Our society should continue to speak out and take steps to eradicate systemic racism.  Still, we know that systems will not change overnight.  If we want to help those that are suffering, we must offer a solution that empowers them today, not years later.  In conclusion, schools have abandoned the us vs. them approach to aggression and embraced a model that helps all people resolve issues civilly.  Do you think the “anti-racism movement” will follow a similar path?


Jeff Veley is a popular speaker and resilience educator, specializing in social aggression and conflict resolution.

He’s the recipient of the Civility International Award and Diversity Award for his global impact in the education and mental health fields.  As a result, the United Nations officially recognizes him as a Peace Ambassador.

How to Stop People Who Want to Hurt You

Simple Solutions to Stop Aggression

An often misunderstood form of aggression is “joking” behavior.  Over time, a simple insult can grow into days or even years of comedic insults that drive kids crazy!

The following article is based on the SQUABBLES® Theory of Aggression & the Peace Sign Approach to stop bullying.  Understand that the advice below is for those that try to hurt your feelings.  If someone tries to hurt you physically it’s important to defend yourself, get away, and contact the authorities.  Most aggression, though starts with a simply squabble that kids can learn to solve on their own.


Why do People Hurt squabbles hurting emojiOthers?

Often people that hurt others feel hurt themselves. They feel like a victim.  It may have nothing to do with you or they could have a reason for feeling hurt by you.  Maybe you did something or said something.  If you did, don’t be surprised when they act out and try to get even.

Hurting people when you’re hurt for some reason makes one believe that it will ease their pain. But two wrongs never make a right.   Instead of retaliating, take a moment to ask “Are you mad at me?.”  This lets you know if you may be a part of the problem.

How to Stop a Fight

Recently, I was on a flight to Orlando.  It was a full plane, and the last seat left was the middle seat right beside me.  As we got ready to leave, I I saw this man walking down the aisle. This man did not look like he was having the best day. In fact, he looked terrible!  His hair was disheveled, clothes were thrown together. The man just looked out of sorts, and angry on top of that.

As I watch the man walk towards me, he becomes very upset when he realizes the middle seat next to me is the only one left.  He tries ordering me to move to the center with a loud voice.  When I kindly offer him the middle seat instead, he steps towards me and tries to start a fight.

Next he steps right up to my face, like he is going to punch me and begins yelling.  Instead of fighting, I listened to what he was saying. It became obvious that I was dealing with a victim.

As the discussion progressed, I agreed that no one like a middle seat and that it has to be frustrating to know that they almost left without him.  I told him I was sorry that he was having such a hard day.  The key was to listen, empathize, and apologize.

Instead of escalating the situation, I helped him with his bags.  Within minutes he apologized for his behavior and tried befriending me.  A sincere apology was like water on his angry fire.

Why Victims are Dangerous

The scary thing about a victim is that they WANT to see you hurt.  They don’t care if you are badly hurt or sometimes even killed.  Hurting people, hurt people.  They feel angry and want to take it out on you.

How do you stop somone who is trying to emotionally hurt you? De-escalate the situation by using a humble apology.  Find something that you can apologize for and say “I’m sorry”.

Apologizing doesn’t guarantee that your aggressor or will like you or that they will stop.  Remember though, it is VERY hard to continue being mean to someone who is humble, honest, and kind.

Ten Words to Resolve a Conflict

The next time someone is hurt by you remember these ten words…
Are you mad at me?  I am sorry for that.