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Section 13
Bystander Intervention

Question 13 | Test | Table of Contents

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In the last section, we discussed seven steps in parents objectively assess their child if they suspect their child may be involved in bullying.  We also discussed the Disarming technique for helping parents interrupt their child’s bullying behavior.

In this section... we will discuss six brief strategies and techniques that can help students who are usually bystanders to bullying intervene in a constructive manner.

6 Strategies for Intervening

♦ 1. Don’t Watch, Don’t React
A first strategy bystanders can use is don’t watch, don’t react.  I explain to my clients that a bully is usually looking for an audience.  Walking away robs the bully of that audience.  Clearly, in some situations a student will not be able to withdraw, such as being in class or on the bus.  In these times, I advise student bystanders to refuse to laugh or endorse the bully’s actions.  This refusal of an audience may be enough to shut the bully down.

♦ 2. Combating Gossip
A second strategy is combating gossip.  I find it important to remind students that even if they did not start a rumor, passing on the rumor can hurt feelings or escalate the conflict.  Clearly, gossip can take on a life of its own and seriously damage a student’s reputation.  One example I use with students is that calling a girl a ‘slut’ may not only hurt her feelings, but can make her a target for boys, outside of the original conflict, who really believe her to be ‘easy’. Challenging peers who are spreading vicious gossip can help slow or stop the rumor mill.

♦ 3. Offer Support to the Victim
In addition to don’t watch, don’t react and combating gossip, a third strategy is to offer support to the victim.  My client Sally, age 15, had expressed concern over a bully’s treatment of a girl named Natalie.  Sally stated, "Natalie comes from a poor family, and her clothes are always out of date. This girl Melissa always harasses her every chance she gets.  I hate to hear it, but I don’t know what I can do to help when Melissa and her friends are standing around Natalie in a big group." 

I stated to Sally, "Sometimes, moving to stand with Natalie may be enough to dissuade Melissa.  Or, it might be necessary to say something to show that someone is supporting Natalie.  You might ignore Melissa and state to Natalie, ‘you know, I have a skirt like that, but I haven’t worn it in a while.  I’ll dig it out and wear it soon. Sally stated, "That sounds kinda scary.  What if I’m not brave enough to stand up to Melissa like that?"

I explained to Sally that if she did not feel up to standing up to Melissa publicly, she could offer Natalie support in private.  I stated, "Even talking to Natalie later on will let her know you care.  Try telling her frankly how you feel, that Melissa’s comments are mean and unfair.  You might offer to lend Natalie some clothes that are more in style if you feel comfortable doing so.  Or, you could invite her to hang out with you and your friends outside of school.  Knowing people care about her may help Natalie feel more able to stand up to Melissa herself." 

♦ 4. Gather Others
A fourth strategy for helping bystanders intervene is to gather others.  I stated to Sally, "Melissa will probably have a more difficult time tormenting Natalie if several people leap to Natalie’s defense.  You might talk to some of your friends in the class about the problem, and plan a response.  For example, you might say, ‘Melissa’s always picking on Natalie at lunch.  What do you say we all eat with Natalie today so Melissa will stay away?"

♦ 5. Create a Distraction
A fifth strategy is to create a distraction.  As you are aware, sometimes a bully picks on others to draw attention to her or himself.  I explain to students that if this same bully has to compete with a bystander who has created a diversion, he or she may lose focus and stop the teasing.  I stated to Sally, "You mentioned that Melissa often makes fun of Natalie’s brown bag lunches.  What do you think would happen if the next time Melissa tried to draw attention to herself that way, you drew attention away from Melissa by telling a joke?" 

Using humor in general can be an effective way to make a bully lose focus.   Since Sally was fairly popular, I suggested that she could divert Melissa’s focus by making herself, rather than Natalie, the subject of a joke.  For example, I suggested that one joke Sally might use could be, ‘Gosh, if she doesn’t like Natalie’s skirt today, wait till she sees me in my grandpa’s old overalls tomorrow!’

♦ 6. Confronting the Bully
In addition to don’t watch, don’t react, combating gossip, offering support to the victim, gathering others, and creating a distraction, a sixth  technique for bystanders is confronting the bully.  Some students may be a position to confront the bully in a friendly manner.  Lynne, 17, was friendly with Molly, who often picked on new students.  Lynne was able to approach Molly and state, "Molly, I heard you saying some cruel things to the new girl, Sue. Sue lives near me, so I’ve gotten a chance to get to know her.  I think if you knew her better, you’d like her too.  I’ve invited Sue over on Friday for a pizza and movie night.  Do you want to come?"

Clearly, Lynne’s approach will not work for all bystanders.  Sometimes, students may find that a more assertive approach is needed.  If this is the case, I strongly advise my clients to do so cautiously, as the bully may retaliate against them.  I advise students not to approach a bully alone, and to make sure a teacher is nearby in case immediate adult intervention becomes necessary. 

After I discussed confronting a bully with Tom, age 13, Tom contacted a group of his friends to help him confront Jeff, a classmate who had been pushing around smaller boys in gym class. After one gym class, Tom and his friends approached Jeff near the locker room.  Tom stated, "What you did to Kevin during class was mean.  It made a lot of us upset."  Tom’s friends indicated their agreement, either verbally or by nodding their heads.  Tom went on to state, "We all think you should think before you do something like that again."  Tom later reported that Kevin was having a much easier time in his classes.

Think of your Lynne, Sally, or Tom. Which of these strategies or techniques would be the most helpful to help her or him stop acting as bystander, and start intervening in cases of bullying?

In this section... we have discussed six brief strategies and techniques that can help students who are usually bystanders to bullying intervene in a constructive manner.

- Sapouna, Maria; Wolke, Dieter; Vannini, Natalie; Watson, Scott; Woods, Sarah; Schneider, Wolfgang; Enz, Sibylle; Hall, Lynne; Paiva, Ana; Andre, Elizabeth; Dautenhahn, Kerstin; Aylett, Ruth; Virtual learning intervention to reduce bullying victimization in primary school: a controlled trial; Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry, January 2010, Vol 51 Issue 1, p104.
Reviewed 2023

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:

Casey, E. A., Storer, H. L., & Herrenkohl, T. I. (2018). Mapping a continuum of adolescent helping and bystander behavior within the context of dating violence and bullying. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 88(3), 335–345.

Gini, G., Thornberg, R., & Pozzoli, T. (2020). Individual moral disengagement and bystander behavior in bullying: The role of moral distress and collective moral disengagement. Psychology of Violence, 10(1), 38–47.

Hamby, S., Weber, M. C., Grych, J., & Banyard, V. (2016). What difference do bystanders make? The association of bystander involvement with victim outcomes in a community sample. Psychology of Violence, 6(1), 91–102. 

Menolascino, N., & Jenkins, L. N. (2018). Predicting bystander intervention among middle school students. School Psychology Quarterly, 33(2), 305–313. 

What are six strategies and techniques that can help students who are usually bystanders intervene in a constructive manner?
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Section 14
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