Help young people move from being passive bystanders to powerful allies – part 2

Talk with kids about action they can take when they see others being targeted by bullying behaviors.

Bystanders have a powerful role to play in situations where bullying and other hurtful behaviors occur. A key element of bullying prevention efforts involves helping young people (and adults!) learn ways to move from being passive bystanders to powerful allies – people who move forward to take action when they see others being harmed. As a parent or other significant adult in the lives of young people, keep in mind the important role you play in helping kids interrupt bullying situations. According to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Early Adolescence, elementary and middle school students were more likely to use their voices if they believed that their peers and parents valued and supported taking positive action to interrupt bullying situations.

Although people may have a variety of valid and compelling reasons for not getting involved with these situations, young people who have been the targets of bullying have provided helpful information for potential allies. The Youth Voice Project identified young people in grades 5 through 12 who had been targets of these behaviors and asked them to share things their peers had done that were helpful when this happened. The actions they found most helpful were when their peers spent time with them at school (such as walking the halls with them), talked to them at school and gave them encouragement and advice, helped them get away from these situations, and helped them tell an adult what was happening to them. While having their peers confront the person doing the bullying (either politely or angrily) was rated as less helpful, some experts have stressed the importance of providing young people with a menu of strategies they can use in these situations – including safe ways to speak up and use their voices.

How can adults help? Have a conversation with the young people in your life about some of the actions they can use as allies when they witness bullying and other kinds of harmful behaviors happening. For example:

When stepping into a bullying situation:

  • ŸPut safety first. Stress that young people should always consider their own safety, the safety of the person being targeted, and the safety of anyone else who is present. If there’s any doubt related to staying safe, a young person should immediately alert an adult about what’s going on.
  • Stay calm. When we see someone being harmed, it’s easy to lose our cool and react quickly out of anger or fear. Encourage kids to remind themselves to stay calm (perhaps by taking a deep breath) and become aware of their thoughts and feelings before moving to action.
  • Don’t retaliate. Even though our first thought might be to do something back to the person who is being hurtful, remind kids not to react by using the same kinds of negative behaviors – which can make a situation much worse for everyone.
  • Get the person away from the situation. If it’s important to help someone get away from a situation right away, a young person could step in and say something that interrupts what’s going on in an attempt to get the person being targeted to safety. This could sound something like, “There you are! Ms. Williams has been looking for you and wants to see you in her classroom right now!”
  • “Name it” publicly. If it makes sense for the situation, confront the person doing the bullying by calmly, clearly and respectfully saying something like, “Please stop what you’re doing – that’s really hurtful” or “I would never stand by if people were treating you like this. You need to stop.” Depending on the relationship with the person doing the bullying, it may even make sense to ask if they want to go someplace else to cool down and talk.
  • Confront privately. Instead of confronting a person publicly, it may be more effective to talk with the person doing the bullying privately. You could let the person know that you’re not only concerned about how they’re treating other people, but you’re also worried about what might be going on with them.
  • Use “softening statements.” Softening statements can help people from getting defensive because they can help others understand that you care about them and that you’re concerned about their behavior. For example, you could start out by staying, “Zachery, I care about you and don’t think that you want to intentionally hurt other people – and I’m concerned about how you’ve been treating Jackson on the bus.”
  • Look to your friends for support. Keep in mind that when it does make sense to use your voice to interrupt these situations, it may feel less scary if your friends are alongside you. Talk with your friends and see if they’d be willing to do this with you.

 When supporting those who have been hurt by these behaviors:

  • ŸMake it clear that you don’t support what’s been happening to them. If you have been able to use your voice to interrupt a hurtful situation, it will be clear to the person being targeted that you don’t support what’s happening to them. If that wasn’t possible, find a way to follow-up with the person to let them know that you care about their safety and that you don’t support the negative behaviors.
  • Connect with and spend time with the person. Think about ways you could spend time with the person – walk with them during class breaks or to the bus stop, invite them to sit with you at lunch, listen to them, and share ideas and advice. Ask them what would be helpful if they continue to be bullied – and make sure you’re honest about what you can and cannot do to be supportive. Also, keep in mind that when allies provide this kind of caring support, it doesn’t mean that they need to become best friends with the person (although this connection just might develop into a friendship).
  • Help them get help. Keep in mind that young people report that having someone offer to go with them to talk with an adult about a situation can be very, very helpful. This can be especially true if you’ve witnessed things happen to someone when no adults have been present.

Having ongoing conversations about the actions of caring and courageous allies is important, but don’t stop there! Create opportunities for kids to actually practice putting these skills to work in response to scenarios that could happen within their school, other youth settings or online. If kids ask about actions they could take when they witness adults bullying young people, help them explore specific strategies for dealing with adults who bully. And, within any of these conversations, help young people explore differences between bullying and harassment and the importance of using their voice to interrupt both these kinds of hurtful behaviors.

More information on bullying education and prevention is available through the Michigan State University Extension Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments initiative, which is designed to help adults and youth work in partnership to address these issues. These efforts include the Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments curriculum, which can be used within both out-of-school time youth settings and middle school settings.

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