Empowering the Bystander: Give your Kid the Courage to Stand Up to Bullying

There are no innocent bystanders.


According to Barbara Coloroso, parenting expert and bestselling author of “The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander: From Preschool to High School–How Parents and Teachers Can Help Break the Cycle,” the bystander is one of three roles played out in any bullying situation. Whether passive or active, willing or unwilling, a bystander is a participant in the bullying. Only when we teach and empower our kids to stand up and speak out can we break the cycle.

For many kids witnessing a bullying incident, it’s easier to look away and not step in—either because they’re afraid of becoming a target themselves or it’s easier to ignore the incident and let it go. Often a child doesn’t know how to stand up against a bully. Sometimes the bully is a social peer, and kids are afraid to stand up and risk their own social standing.

Even worse, some bystanders encourage or join the bully, causing more distress to the targeted child and fueling the bully’s fire. Yet through these acts of omission and commission, as Coloroso defines it, our kids are putting themselves and other bystanders at risk of becoming desensitized to cruelty, stereotyping, prejudices—even discrimination.

“Of course it’s easier to ignore it,” says Coloroso. “Standing up to a bully can be difficult and risky. But kids underestimate their ability to be a potent force in demonstrating that bullies will not be looked up to and cruel behavior won’t be tolerated.”

So how do you teach your kids to stand up?

  • Be a positive role model. Remind your kids that conflict is a natural part of life, bullying is not. If a relative makes a bigoted comment at Christmas dinner, have the courage to tell them you are offended. Don’t just ignore it and excuse “crazy Uncle Eddie.”
  • Teach your kids to own their problems. Don’t step in and rescue your child every time he or she has an issue. If he breaks the neighbor’s window, have him tell the neighbor. Instead of paying for it, suggest ways he can earn money to fix it. If your daughter has a fight with her friend, don’t call the child’s mother to try and mend the friendship. Let your daughter put together a list of topics she needs to hash out with her friend, and offer your time so she can practice the conversation.
  • Demonstrate that actions have impacts—both positive and negative. Talk about real life examples of bullying, and the role the bystanders had in the tragic circumstances.
  • Develop a sense of community and humanity. Teens in particular are overly focused on “Me.” Model respect and kindness toward all individuals, from the checker at the grocery store to the waitress who got your order wrong. Exposing your children to those who face real adversity can give them the ability to see and understand the needs of others.
  • Role play with your child. Ask him about a bullying incident and brainstorm together on how he could best handle that situation in the future. Let him know that with simple statements like “That’s mean,” or “Cut it out,” he is demonstrating courage and inviting others to stand up too. As Coloroso reminds us, make sure to target the behavior with your statements, never the bully (“That’s mean” not “You’re mean”).
  • Talk about the role of social media in bullying. Remind kids that teasing through IMs, Facebook and email magnifies meanness and the words and images will exist forever. Even though your child may not forward a message, they are still consenting to the bullying if they ignore it. Responding with “I don’t want to be part of this” or “That rumor is way out of line” can send a strong message back to the bully and quickly end your child’s involvement in the bullying.
  • Make sure you and your child know the anti-bullying policies and procedures of your school, and reassure your child that you will keep them safe.

Thanks to the Deerfield Parent Network, Coloroso shared these insights and more recently with over 500 teachers and administrators. Further information about her books and programs is available at kidsareworthit.com.