Have you ever been frozen in place, unable to take action as a bystander of bullying? You want to speak up for what’s right, but you just don’t quite know what to do. It’s a helpless feeling.
As I’ve presented reACT to Bullying to over 170 schools and more than 200,000 people, I’ve noticed two great needs: to define bullying and to provide action steps for those who experience bullying behavior. These steps are powerful for victims and bullies alike, but there are also similar steps for an often-overlooked person – the bystander.
The Three Actors
Typically, there are three actors in a bullying situation: bully, victim, and bystander. Although research is moving away from permanently labeling individuals, for the purpose of this article, we’ll use these terms to identify traditional roles.
When considering the three roles within a bullying situation, it stands to reason that the majority of people fall into the category of bystander. Peer bystanders provide an audience in 85% of instances of bullying. While some encourage the bully in their behavior, others do nothing except observe, unsure of what to do.
Bystanders often give numerous reasons for their inaction:
- It’s none of my business!
- I don’t want to be a tattletale.
- What if the bully turns on me?
- I can’t stop this.
- I’m embarrassed by this.
- I don’t want the attention.
- Someone else will take care of it.
Still, most bystanders want to do something to help. How can they get past being frozen in place?
The Freeze Response and the Bystander Effect
Being frozen with fear or indecision is part of the brain’s hard-wiring. We’ve all heard of the “flight or fight” response. The Freeze Response is another instinctive reaction thousands of years in the making. Our prehistoric ancestors knew that freezing in place might mean that the big, scary T-Rex might not notice you and eat you.
Still, no matter how modern and advanced we might be nowadays, we still freeze in an uncomfortable situation. Witnesses to bullying often find themselves rooted to the spot, watching the drama unfold, unable to offer assistance. In a public space, especially, we find it difficult to intervene on someone’s behalf.
It might not surprise you to learn that psychologists have studied this peculiarity of human nature and given it a name. The Bystander Effect describes the collective inaction of members of a group when witnessing a disturbing event. For bystanders, inserting themselves into a bullying situation takes awareness and courage.
Strategies for the Bystander of Bullying
It’s been my experience that most bystanders want and need solid action steps. Giving them the tools they need to intervene can help stop bullying.
- Be a friend to the victim. Simply walking up and having a conversation can break the communication cycle which the bully and victim have established.
- Walk away with the victim. There may be an opportunity to physically walk away with the victim.
- Speak up to the bully in a calm and confident manner. Simply calling out the bullying behavior is sometimes very effective.
- Reach out for a difference maker. Look for those people who can make an immediate difference, like an adult. Remember, it’s not tattling.
A common thread in this list of strategies is the bystander’s willingness to step outside of their comfort zone to help diffuse the situation. By breaking the cycle of the freeze response and the bystander effect, it’s possible for the third actor in a bullying situation to have an impact on all involved.