Help young people move from being passive bystanders to powerful allies – part 1

Talk with kids about reasons why people don’t take action to interrupt bullying behaviors.

Fall is a busy time for many young people who balance school and afterschool programs such as sports teams or youth programs like Scouts and 4-H. As they go about these activities, we often give them lots of reminders about their safety, health and wellbeing – we say things like, “Be sure to eat a healthy lunch today,” “Take care walking home from the bus stop,” or “Have fun with your friends today!” As you think about what you might say to your children as they leave for school in the morning, you might want to add a reminder about the powerful role they can have as an ally to other young people who might be the targets of hurtful behaviors like bullying.

When situations like bullying take place – whether this happens face-to-face or online – there are often people present who are silently witnessing what’s going on. These bystanders have the potential to become a helpful ally, which is a person who recognizes the struggles that someone else is going through and decides to find a way to try to make a positive difference. When young people who are allies see others being harmed by hurtful behaviors, they might choose to use their voices to interrupt the behavior, or they might choose to let the person being targeted know that they care about them and what they’re going through – or they might choose to do both of these things. Adults can be powerful allies as well but the role of adults goes deeper (whenever adults observe or learn about bullying situations, they always have a responsibility to take action).

Before talking with young people about some of the specific actions that allies can use, it’s important to have a conversation about some of the reasons why people might choose to be silent bystanders. Ask the kids in your life why they think people may be unwilling to speak up or take action when they see someone being bullied, and you’ll likely hear a range of valid and compelling reasons or concerns like the following:

  • ŸIt might not be safe – using my voice could put me in danger or at risk in other ways. Speaking up could result in retaliation, such as being physically attacked or having one’s reputation damaged. Also, if my friend is the one who’s carrying out the mean behaviors and I do speak up (talk with my friend directly or follow up with an adult about the situation), I could risk losing the friendship.
  • It might make the situation worse. It could get worse for the person who’s being targeted, as well as for others who are nearby.
  • ŸIt might not matter if I speak up or take other kinds of action. It’s not uncommon for kids to think that their actions will have limited or no impact. This can be especially true when young people are in settings where they believe that adults know that negative behaviors are happening but neglect to take any action.
  • ŸI think the person being targeted deserves it. Young people (and adults) sometimes think that a person who’s being targeted somehow deserves what’s happening. Consider how often we hear statements like, “If she just wouldn’t dress like that” or “He brings it on himself because of the way he acts.” When no one else steps in to interrupt these situations, this kind of belief can be reinforced – especially when kids see adults witness these situations and fail to intervene. In your conversations with young people, it’s important to stress that it’s not okay to blame anyone for the harm that others inflict on them.
  • I’m afraid to take action by myself. Speaking up in the moment or following up with an adult about what’s going on can take a lot of courage. Young people sometimes mention that they’d be more willing to do these things if they had the “safety in numbers” – support of friends or other peers.

It’s also common for young people (and adults) to say that they’d like to be helpful when they witness hurtful situations taking place, but they don’t know what to do or say. There are a variety of strategies that you can share with young people. Learn more about these actions for allies in Helping Kids Move From Being Passive Bystanders to Powerful Allies – Part 2.

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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