This week, National Bullying Awareness month comes to an end. As a parent, a school counselor, and an author on the subject of bringing an end to bullying, it is my hope that these past few weeks have shined a helpful spotlight on a painful, often shameful issue among school-aged students. Likewise, my fingers are crossed those in a position to make a difference in the lives of young people have benefitted from the month-long media blitz of information, advice, and strategies on stopping unwanted aggression.
Even as the month ends, however, those of us who work and live with kids know that it’s worth taking extra time to acknowledge that stopping bullying is not as easy as it sounds on a tip sheet. For kids, who are often in the very best position to stop the bullying that occurs in their midst, the barriers to intervention are very real and quite formidable.
What follows are six of the most frequently cited reasons that young people give for why they choose not to intervene to stop bullying:
1. “Someone else will surely step in.”
Over the years, there has been quite a bit of research on the “diffusion of responsibility theory” which says that if a person believes that someone else will step in to stop a troubling situation, then they tend not to do so. Within schools, teams, and other youth-oriented groupings, kids often assume that adults will take full responsibility for intervening to end bullying. As such, they feel freed of the responsibility to do so.
The trouble with this assumption, however, is that most bullying occurs where adults are not present. Hallways, buses, cafeterias, locker rooms, and social networking sites are among the most frequent venues for bullying, and share in common the absence of consistent adult supervision. When educating kids about being good bystanders, adults must make a priority of teaching kids not to look to others to intervene but to understand that stopping bullying is their personal responsibility.
2. “If I say anything, he’ll turn on me next!”
For young people, it is a very real possibility that doing the right thing for someone else will equate to doing the wrong thing for their own social status. As Barbara Coloroso (2008) points out in her book The Bully, The Bullied, and the Bystander, young people are keenly aware that kids who bully are quick to disparage and malign anyone who tries to intervene. The intimidation factor is forbidding.
3. “I don’t like what she is doing, but she is still my friend.”
It is not at all unusual for a young person to witness an incident of bullying at the hands of a good friend. Recently, a middle school student shared with me a story about a friend who started a slut-shaming rumor about another classmate. When I asked her what she thought about the situation, she replied plainly, “I mean, I don’t agree with what she did, but she is still my friend.”
As I searched my brain for what to say (quickly filtering past stern finger-wagging and a conversation-ending rebuke), I watched her face. I sensed that in her gut, she knew that what her friend did was wrong and that she felt ashamed of her own non-action. She stammered to explain—in her own set of words—that the pressure to avoid a fight with her friend was paralyzing. Helping kids find ways to surmount this pressure and to sustain relationships even in the face of conflict is a key role of helping adults.
4. “I would say something, but she and I aren’t really friends.”
The 7th grade girl who told me about the rumor knew with certainty that the bullying she witnessed was wrong, but was also able to rationalize that the girl being bullied was not her friend. In that way, she could convince herself that it was not her place to defend her and stop the bullying. This private logic is related to the diffusion of responsibility theory—the young girl justified that someone who was better friends with the bullied classmate would likely step in, so she was excused from doing so.
5. "You're asking me to stand out on purpose?"
Most tweens and teens spend the majority of their waking hours trying to blend in with the crowd. Even kids who excel in academics, sports, theatre, or other particular interests tend to want to "be normal" when it comes to hanging out with their peers. Well-intentioned adults often give lip-service to the idea that kids should "stand up for their peers" without giving enough weight to how challenging it is for kids to stick their necks out in a cut-throat social world.
6. “I just don’t know what to do to make it stop.”
Oftentimes, adults feel helpless when it comes to bringing an end to a bullying situation. They feel that they don’t know what to say or how to intervene to make aggressive behavior stop. This is all the more true for young people. While news stories about bullying-related tragedies abound and bully-free zone posters adorn many school hallways, specific instruction on how to intervene effectively is not as widely available. Kids need explicit instruction on how to report, what to say, and who to talk to about common bullying situations. They need adults to listen to them thoroughly, take them seriously, and believe them when they find the courage to speak up about bullying among their peers.
The barriers to intervening in bullying situations are both real and powerful for young people. To empower kids to speak out and stand up for their bullied peers, professionals and parents must be aware of these frequently cited challenges and help kids overcome them. It is important that all young people:
• Understand that stopping bullying starts with them; that it is their job to intervene, rather than someone else’s responsibility.
• Feel connected to bullied children in a compelling way. Whether or not their relationship is a bona fide friendship, kids need to be able to empathize with targeted children and believe that no one deserves to be mistreated.
• Accept that conflict is a normal part of life and that while they may feel nervous about challenging a friend’s bullying behavior, they must also be confident that a healthy friendship can withstand some disagreement.
• Believe that their actions will positively impact the bullied child and, at the same time, have minimal negative personal consequences.
Signe Whitson, LSW is a school counselor, author, and national educator on stopping bullying. For workshop inquiries, including information on empowering kids to become effective bystanders, please visit www.signewhitson.com