Bullying. Mean girls. Aggressive behavior.

It’s the terms du jour right now, and everyone has an opinion on it. Some parents think it is just part of life, and others believe it is crushing our kids.

I think it just sucks.

Unfortunately, I do think bullying and mean behavior will never go away; but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stop trying.

Recently in response to an article I wrote about BS Excuses Parents Give for Mean Girls, someone commented that the incident between a seventh grade girl and a group that ostracized her could have been diffused if one brave student had stepped in to intervene on her behalf. One brave student acknowledging the behavior or getting up to sit with the girl left alone could have sent a powerful message to the “group.”

This got me thinking. While I put the onus on being a brave parent, I didn’t continue to connect the dots…one brave parent can create brave kids. Brave kids make good things happen.

A few years back all three of my girls were having sleep overs at our house with good friends. While they were eating their pizza, some of the older kids started discussing how they knew a girl who lied a lot. The conversation started getting really mean-spirited, so just as I was about to intervene, a little voice piped up and said, “That girl is my neighbor. I know her, and she isn’t lying about those things and I think it’s mean for you to say that.”

BAM! That little six-year-old pip squeak shut it down. It was very brave of her and I admired her courage to stand up for her friend despite being the youngest in the group.

Recent efforts to combat bullying have been focused on the role of bystanders.  Some research even estimates that fifty percent of all bullying events stop when a bystander decides to intervene. Unfortunately, 88 percent of the time bullying happens in front of other kids, but only one in five kids will intervene.

Ugh.

It’s a tough call as a parent. I worry about my child’s safety, but I also want them to stand up for what’s right, and especially for those that can’t stand up for themselves. But standing up to someone who is seen as either more popular or more powerful is a pretty big ask of a kid.

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And it’s not just kids that face this problem. In 1964, Kitty Genovese was brutally murdered despite the fact that dozens of witnesses heard the attack. Psychologists called this the Genovese Syndrome or Bystander Effect. Simply put, as the number of witnesses to a crime increases, the chance that anyone will intervene goes down. Most people assume that someone else will help, and it ends up that no one does.

Famed novelist and juvenile protection advocate Andrew Vachss said this: “Life is a fight, but not everyone’s a fighter. Otherwise, bullies would be an endangered species.

Someone has got to fight back.

Most kids want to do the right thing, but aren’t sure how to do it. According to Ken Rigby, author of Children and Bullying: How Parents and Educators Can Reduce Bullying at School  you should start a discussion with your child, but don’t push too hard.“Parents should not tell their children what to do as a bystander. Instead, they should listen to their children and ask them what they would do in certain situations — sort of wondering out loud, to spark a conversation.”

So how do we encourage our kids not to be bystanders yet remain safe? Here are a few tips:

+ Don’t join in.  Yeah, this is easier than it sounds otherwise the term “mob mentality” wouldn’t be used so regularly.  Make sure your child knows that laughing at or encouraging mean behavior is as bad as doing it. And simply by watching it happen is subliminally telling the bully that it is okay.

Take away the attention. Some kids are bullies merely to get attention or make their friends laugh. Encourage your child to walk away (and bring her friends) from a situation where one kid is picking on another. Merely taking away the audience can often stop an incident. If they say something sarcastic like “There’s nothing to see here” even better.

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Reporting is not tattling. Encourage your child to report bullying incidents to a trusted adult. If they are worried about being viewed as a tattle-tale or ratting out their friends, encourage them to do it anonymously. Another option is to give teachers, coaches, etc. a heads up that bad things are happening without giving specifics. For example: “You should watch the girls locker room after fifth period, but please don’t mention that I told you.”

Some studies have shown that kids do not believe their teachers or other adults will do anything about the bullying incidents. Encourage your child to continue to report to other adults and build a case documenting the situation because at the end of the day, they could eventually be a witness to a crime and not just poor behavior.

+ Bullying is not private. Some research states that kids do not get involved with bullying incidents between other children because they believe it is none of their business. Stress that if another child is being threatened physically or verbally, it is not private and someone should step in. Also, encourage empathy by talking to your child about how he or she would feel if they were the target of bullying and no one intervened.

Stick up for victims, but not directly. Sometimes sticking up for the bullying victim can make the situation worse. For example, a girl defending a boy or a younger kid stopping an incident for an older kid can further increase the teasing a victim receives. Encourage your child to step in but they don’t have to defend the person. A simple, “Hey, the teacher wants to see you” then leading the victim away can change the course of an event.

+ Physical altercations should never be ignored. Kids should assess the situation and determine whether he or she should get an adult or try to distract the bully. Sometimes a loud, “Hey, what are you doing” can be enough to diffuse a situation; however discourage your child from intervening physically.

Safety in numbers. Bullies often target those they think are weaker or a kid they feel is a loner. Sometimes the best way to prevent bullying is to be a friend to a potential target. This could be as simple as walking to class together, sitting with them at lunch or hanging out before school.

Not sure how to talk to your son or daughter about bystander behavior? Visit Reachout.org for more information. ReachOut is an information and support service that uses evidence based principles and technology to help teens and young adults who are facing tough times and struggling with mental health issues. All content is written by teens and young adults, for teens and young adults, to meet them where they are, and help them recognize their own strengths in order to overcome their difficulties and/or seek help if necessary. The Inspire USA Foundation oversees ReachOut.

 

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