What Should a Child do if They are a Bystander to Bullying?

Article by Jamie Rhiannon Fehribach, MSc., Social Media Coordinator

When bullying is involved, we know there are the roles of both bully and victim, but often  there is a third role involved, too: the bystander. A bystander can be someone witnessing the bullying in person, hearing about it, or seeing it on online environments. So much focus goes towards supporting kids who are experiencing bullying (victim or perpetrator), and rightfully so, but what about the witnesses? Annaleena and Kate, two of our therapists at The Expat Kids Club, took the time to answer some questions about supporting kids who are witnessing bullying.

1. When a child sees another child being bullied, what should they do?

“The best first step is to go tell an adult about the situation,” Annaleena says.  “Adults can help beyond just getting someone into trouble; they can also help assess the situation and determine if it’s a teasing or argument scenario (which would require conflict resolution support), and/or if the scenario has safety concerns and therefore intervening is a must (not to mention because this would require additional social and emotional skills, which younger kids may not yet have).”

2. Will a child be at risk for bullying if they stand up to the bully?

“I think that that's always a possibility, but just like any other challenging (social) situation, it offers the possibility to learn value-congruent behavior, problem-solving, and other important (social) skills,” Annaleena explains. “The potential for social connection with supporting another person, as well as the possibility that the bullying will stop, are both possible outcomes that would be greatly beneficial for any child.” Kate adds to the conversation: “In other words, yes, there is risk, but a child learning how to act based on values and morals is gaining life experience which is leading them towards living a more fulfilled life.”

3. Should a parent encourage their child to act independently in these situations, or to get an adult to intervene?

“It depends on the age of the child and social skills,” Annaleena tells. “If your child feels confident and wants to stand up to a bully, perhaps first explore the thoughts and feelings a bit further and then - when it feels OK to do so - support the standing up behavior safely. If your child feels less confident, but still wants to intervene in some way, a better action may be to let your child know that it is now an adult matter that needs adult-attention. What’s most important is a child feels seen and heard, and of course safe in getting the help of an adult or a parent. Let your child know that you are a resource for situations which are complicated and that you will support them in navigating these situations. You should aim to not jump in to resolve the scenario, unless safety is of concern.”

4. What if the bullying is happening online? Does this change how a child should act as a bystander or witness to the bullying?

“No, it doesn't, though it can make the situation a lot more complicated to solve,” Annaleena says. “I'd still encourage teaching kids to stand up for bullying, which, in such a situation, could mean getting an adult involved so it can be safely taken offline.”

5. What should parent recommend their child say to a bully? To the person being bullied?

“It really depends on the type of bullying,” Annaleena answers, “and again a lot depends on age and social skills. In terms of supporting the victim, connecting outside of the immediate situation can go a long way - for example, choosing to take a seat next to someone at lunch or inviting them to play are supportive options. Even if your child doesn’t have the social skills (yet) to navigate an in depth conversation about bullying, they are more likely to be able to relate to the idea of including a friend who is feeling lonely.”

6. What if a child is feeling very anxious due to witnessing bullying and feels too anxious to intervene? What could a parent do or say in this situation?

“First acknowledge the feelings that are present by exploring them some more with open curiosity,” Kate says. “It’s important that your child knows they are your priority.” Annaleena continues: “Sometimes a parent can help a child by modelling how to intervene in such a situation,” Annaleena says. “For example, you can share examples from your own experiences and ask if your child thinks something like this could be helpful.”  Try to encourage your child to learn how to cope and behave in alignment with morals and values, even when the difficult emotions that are present,” says Kate. “This, just like any other anxiety-provoking situation in life, is, after, all a great opportunity to become empowered," Annaleena reminds.

Is your child experiencing anxiety due to issues related to bullying?

Our excellent team of therapists are available to help navigate tough topics. To learn more about our services, including our new teen group therapy, visit either our teen services page or our child services page.