Tuesday, August 7, 2012

When You Witness Bullying

When we think of bullying relationships, we consider the person who is acting as the bully and the person they are targeting. But often the person overlooked, the witness, can be the one with the most power. Witnesses can halt a bully incident in it’s tracks or even prevent one from occuring in the first place. Consider this – bullies often pick on others to gain control or power. Usually, it isn’t simply physical power that they seek, but social dominance. They get it by humiliating another in front of an audience. If the audience turns the tables and condemns those specific actions, and disparages the bully for using them, the behavior is not getting them power but diminishing it.

People who witness bullying and do not stop it can carry the guilt for years. In their book “Banishing Bullying Behavior” by SuEllen Fried and Blanche Sosland, the writers give several personal stories of after adults who were haunted by the bullying they witnessed as teens. One woman reported that she became an anti-bully activist after as an adult, she discovered a girl she witnessed being bullied in school later committed suicide. The fact is, bullying impacts many people, and those who witnesses can be plagued memories of not only have witnessed the events, but the guilt that they stood by and watched.

Whether you call them witnesses, bystanders or onlookers, those who witness bullying and do nothing about it are not all cut from the same cloth and can have a wide range of reasons for not stepping in. The following is a list of profiles created by SuEllen Fried:

· Blockers: Often very sensitive and easily overwhelmed emotionally, some people will instinctively back away from unpleasant things and barricade their emotions.

· Self-protectors: As bullying events unfold, some will do anything and everything they can to protect themselves against becoming a target themselves.

· Judgers: Many students may feel anger towards the victim and frustration that they are not sticking up for themselves.

· Voyeurs: A few people may derive pleasure at seeing another tormented.

· Accomplices: Those that either directly or indirectly support the bully. This can be done by laughing, cheering, or standing in audience.

· Empathizers: Many students feel sorry for the target and wish that they could help them, but they lack the confidence to do so.

· Champions: Those rare individuals with the confidence and wherewithall to intervene on behalf of the target. The more people who can do this, the less power a bully has over their victim.

A study conducted over three years by the US Department of Education and the US Secret Service examined many instances of severe bullying and discovered that 75% of the time at least one person besides the bully knew about the attack before it happened but did nothing to try and prevent it. In fact, most of the time, a bully will tell a friend, sibling, classmate or peer what their intentions are.

Knowing what an impact bullying has on those who witness it, and how much control they can have over a situation, why don’t more people intervene? I’m sure you can think up a couple of answers right off the bat. But the reasons can be just as varied as they many types of people who witness.

· Someone else will step in. This is a very common mentality, and it not only applies to bullying situations. Anytime people witness an incident that requires assistance and no one comes forward, most of them say it was because they were waiting on someone else to do it. Be it a traffic accident, a physical attack, even a person lying on the street in obvious need. We all always seem to be under the impression that superheros are waiting in the wings, ready to rescue those who need it and it’s not down to us.

· Lack of coping skills. We all have different degrees of sensitivity. Some kids, when either witnessing brutality, learning it will happen, or hearing about it after the fact, can become completely overwhelmed with their feelings of dread and fear. They cannot proccess their own emotions, let alone form cognitive plans to halt or report the behavior.

· Fear of retaliation. It is most common for kids to fear bullying. When they become aware of it, their instinct is to protect themselves before others. They don’t want to make themselves a target. Often these kids will go to great lengths to become invisible.

· “Not my problem” mentality. Some kids might assume that if the target would only stand up for themselves, or stop getting so upset, the bullying would stop. They may feel angry or annoyed at the target. They expect the target to fight their own battles and feel that intervening would be pointless, the target will just get picked on again the next day.

· Positive feelings gained by bullying. Some kids may find it exciting to see someone else bullied. Usually this is a strong indicator of insecurity, as they may feel relieved that the bullying isn’t happening to them, and even thrilled to be “let in on” the act. They feel superior to the target simply because they are not the target.

· They wish to participate. Accomplices, voyeurs and others who actively support the bully may have their own agendas. These are often the friends or familiy members of the bully who feel the need to display unwavering loyalty and wouldn’t dream of betraying them. In many cases, a target is chosen by a bully due to some percieved insult or threat they pose to the bully. In these cases, a bully and their accomplices feel justified in punishing the target.

· Not having authority. Most communities, whether they be a school body, home or neighborhood, have a heirarchy. Whether or not it is established vocally or in some way official, it is certainly felt and percieved by all. Those in the middle or the low end of this “chain of command” tend to go with the flow. They know that by not doing so, they will invite bullying from the higher ups in order to put them back in their place. They may often feel awful about the bullying that is happening, but are too uncomfortable of stepping out of place and upsetting the status quo.

So what can kids do? What, as parents, do we need to advise them to do in order to help a person who is in trouble? All of the literature points to three options.

Report to an adult. Kids who are being bullied often feel very isolated to the point that they feel no one is on their side and on one can or would want to help them. They fear going to an adult will only make the bullying worse, and often, this is true. But for a witness, especialy multiple witnesses to report the behavior, not only keeps the target from being blamed but it sends a strong message to the bully that their behavior is not only unacceptable but it will have peer induced consequences. You’ll see in many neighborhoods in the US certain signs that read, “We report to the police!” Adults understand that by letting criminal offenders know that their crimes will be reported is a good way to deter crime in their areas. Many law enforcement officials will tell you that the worst crime happens in neighborhoods where the reisidents are too afraid to speak out against, name, or report those who break the law even when they know exactly who did it. The same can apply towards bullies in schools.

Support someone who is being bullied. Even if you’re too afraid to go to an adult and inform them of the bullying, a sure way to help someone who is being bullied is to be kind to them. As I said above – a target can feel incredibly alone and isolated. They may begin to feel that no one likes them. Bullying can have a very damaging effect on a persons self-esteem and they might even come to the conclusion that everybody who sees them sees what the bully sees. Paying them a compliment, offering to walk home with them, letting them know that you don’t agree with the insults can be a huge relief to a person who is coming to question their own self worth.

Stand up. This can be a very difficult thing to do, but it is often extremely effective. It doesn’t need to be a valiant act of chivalry to include stepping in and taking punches for someone. Often, bullying can be diffused at it’s start with a simple remark, like, “That’s not cool,” or “cut it out.” Again, the more people who reiterate this line of thought, the more effective it is. You can choose NOT to witness. “This is dumb,” and then either walk away or turn away so the bully senses a complete lack of support for what they’re doing or are about to do. It doesn’t need to be confrontational but it sure can be effective.

Witnesses are so very important to the dynamic of bullying and have a great deal of potential to prevent it. There is almost always a witness, if not several of them and many of them probably want to help but either don’t know how or are afraid. It’s certainly understandable. But it’s imperitive to teach our kids in that in those situations the bully will likely not stop until someone stops them and those who are aware of bullying behavior can either support the behavior or help put a stop to it.

What did you do if you saw bullying when you were in school? How is that different from what you would do as an adult, if you witnessed bulling in public, workplace or social gathering?

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