By Ceri MarshUpdated Apr 04, 2017
Illustration: Jamie Piper
When a kid who is full of beans on weekends starts complaining of Sunday night stomach aches, what should a parent think? With so many of us on high alert for bullying these days, you might ask her if someone is picking on her. But that might be the wrong question altogether; your kid might be su ffering because of a bullying situation in which she’s not even involved.
Everyone agrees that bullying is out of control and that more must be done, both to protect at-risk kids and teach them that aggressive behaviour isn’t acceptable. But what about the ones who aren’t the bully or the bullied, but have front-row seats for the sad spectacle? Both educators and social scientists are shi fting their focus to this group, known as bystanders, and looking not only at how they contribute to the culture of bullying, but also at their power to shut it down.
Read more: School bus bullying>
Although some bullying happens in private, a study published in the Canadian Journal of School Psychology found a whopping 85 percent happens in front of an audience. Most kids merely watch as bullying takes place, and their silence becomes a kind of approval. Others may encourage or even cheer the bully on. And only the smallest group of kids actually intervene. You might feel like you’re dodging a bullet if your child isn’t being bullied, but studies show that even those who witness it are a ffected emotionally.
Shona Anderson, author of the book No More Bystanders = No More Bullies, says, “Even kids who aren’t directly involved in bullying experience negative consequences, such as anxiety, fear, stomach aches and not wanting to go to school, because they fear that they’ll be next.”
Where to start
My husband and I have always encouraged our six-year-old daughter to watch out for her little brother and her friends. We’ve made it clear that it’s not enough to be kind to others, but that she should stick up for friends if they’re being mistreated. At this point in her school career, I don’t think it’s too much to ask, but what about in a few years when bullying really amps up?
The story of the bullying and suicide of Halifax teen Rehtaeh Parsons has been picked up around the world. The harassment she endured a fter allegedly being raped included not only a photo of the assault circulating around her school, but ugly texts calling her a “slut” and demanding sexual hook-ups. Days before her suicide, she posted this quote from Martin Luther King Jr. on her Facebook page: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
Read more: Cyberbullying>
While the Parsons case is tragic in the extreme and bears no comparison to the mean-girl-ing most of us imagine when we talk about bullying, her family is insistent that cyberbullying was a contributor to her suicide. If this type of situation is the theoretical potential end point of a bystander culture, then teaching young kids to stop bullying seems more important than ever.
Did you know that when a bystander intervenes in a bullying situation, the harassment stops within 10 seconds in more than half the instances? Which isn’t to say the problem is solved, but it can buy enough time for an adult to step in or for a victimized child to remove herself from harm’s way. Given how much more power adults have than children, it’s surprising to learn how e ffective peers can be in stopping bullying. “Peer intervention has more power in changing the cycle,” says Anderson. “Adult intervention is necessary if the bullying is too intense or big for a kid to handle. But peer pressure to change behaviour is very powerful.”
Lea Blust of the Family Resource Facilitation Program in Calgary agrees. “A lot of the time, what children are looking for is social validation. And whether children are actively cheering the bully on, or just there providing an audience, there’s a social aspect to it. If suddenly your audience is gone or doesn’t like what you’re doing, there’s a whole lot less reinforcement. That social power is pret ty strong.”
Becoming a defender
But what does it mean? Can we really ask our kids to step into situations that adults can’t seem to manage? Intervention doesn’t have to mean getting in a bully’s face (although it can mean that, too). Kids who are bullied are o ften socially isolated, making them an attractive target. Bystander kids can make a difference by including the child who usually eats lunch alone to join the group, inviting her to join in a game at recess or to sit together on the bus. If a bystander notices another kid getting picked on, he can shut it down without even addressing the bully, by whisking that kid away to play elsewhere. And also, a child who witnesses bullying can try to make a di fference by reporting it to an adult.
But sometimes none of these options are immediately available, and a kid might find himself standing up for others in a more direct way. Seems like the right thing to do, right? But parents still might find themselves in the strange position of defending a child who intervenes.
Karly Hribnak of Okotoks, Alta., has always made it clear to her kids that watching as someone else is bullied isn’t OK. Her eight-year-old son, Coltan, took that lesson to heart. “He stepped between the bully who was kicking the victim on the ground,” she recounts. “Heaven forbid, he braced his arms against the bully’s chest and told him to stop. The principal wanted to give my son detention for ‘putting his hands on’ the bully. I nearly lost my mind! The vice-principal completely agreed with me that an active bystander should always be encouraged, while maybe redirecting the way he handled it. He was in no way violent or aggressive and the principal eventually came around.”
Karen Humphries had a similar experience when her 11-year-old, Kevin, stood up to some kids who were picking on an autistic boy. Kevin first went to the principal for help. “ The principal didn’t want to do anything about it. So, I went back out and told those guys o ff,” he says. Humphries promptly got a call from the school about the colourful language Kevin had used when standing up to the bullies. “I think I high-fived him in the car on the way home!” says Humphries. More importantly, the bullies left the classmate alone from then on.
When kids are older, the social dynamics become more complex, and many feel less inclined to involve adults at all. Codes of silence build up easily within teams, clubs or classes — nobody wants to be a snitch. Teaching older kids the di fference between reporting and tattling is key to making them comfortable with coming forward. Blust explains it this way: “When you’re telling on someone, you’re hoping to get them in trouble. When you’re reporting something, you’re hoping to get someone out of trouble.”
Arm your kids to help
But before we can expect that our kids become schoolyard superheros, there needs to be some preparation. Naturally, many kids fear that if they stand up to a bully, nothing will change and that they may become the next target. Several decisions have to take place in the mind of a kid who’s going to intervene — recognizing bullying when they see it, deciding to step in and knowing what to do — and it’s a lot to process in a moment of possible stress. By talking about it at home, you can help your child do the right thing. Discuss what bullying is, how hurtful it is, and give your kids the tools they need to intervene. Anderson recommends role-playing di fferent situations so that your child isn’t improvising. Have a conversation about when it’s appropriate to speak up in a conflict and when it’s safer to get an adult to help. The main thing is to make your thoughts explicit — that doing nothing is actually doing something when it comes to bullying.
One of the worst results of bullying is the helplessness that it instills in kids — even among those who simply witness it. Helping your child take charge, even in some small way, is a powerful antidote. “I think that the one who speaks up is as scared as the ones who don’t,” says Blust. “But it’s empowering to see that something is going to change by virtue of your actions. And the child who was being bullied will likely have a positive reaction to the person who got involved, so they’re perhaps starting a new friendship or strengthening one that was already there. That feeling of being part of a community is important, because bullying can make people feel isolated — even bystanders.”
kidshelpphone.caThere are separate sites for parents and kids with resources and information on bullying. Kids can call 1-800-668-6868 for confi dential free counselling.
erasebullying.caThe British Columbia Ministry of Education anti-bullying site has tons of practical tips, including an Internet-slang dictionary to help parents decode those nasty online conversations and texts.
stopabully.caIt offers an anonymous reporting of bullying incidents for Canadian schools that have signed up to be site members.
pinkshirtday.caThis is ground zero for Pink Shirt Day, an anti-bullying initiative that was started in 2007 by two Nova Scotian teenagers when one of their male schoolmates was bullied for wearing a pink shirt. Now schools across Canada run anti-bullying days where everyone is encouraged to wear pink.
canadiansafeschools.caHome of the Canadian Safe School Network.
A version of this article appeared in our June 2013 issue with the headline "Stand by me," pp. 61-64.