Natalie Frank (Taye Carrol), a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, publishes on topics in health, behavioral science, writing and other fields.
Jennifer Lawrence was repeatedly forced to switch schools. Sandra Bullock and Christian Bale were beaten up. Miley Cyrus was trapped in a bathroom stall for hours at a time. Jessica Alba had to be walked to school by her father to avoid being attacked. Winona Ryder had her head slammed into a locker. Brittany Snow was told ways to kill herself by peers every day.
Not even the biggest celebrities were immune from bullying. While we hear about these famous individuals and how they’re doing just great now, that’s not always the outcome of bullying. Many of those bullied as children end up with long-term emotional and health-related problems.
The Action or Inaction of Bystanders
Bullying situations rarely include only the victim and the bully. Often there are also bystanders—other children who watch the conflict or hear about it from friends and peers. Although most bystanders believe they have nothing to do with the situation, they rarely are neutral. They usually contribute either to a solution or, more frequently, to the problem.
Some bystanders may provoke the bully into acting out against another child by prodding them and getting them riled up. Others may reinforce the aggressor by laughing, cheering them on, or making comments that increase the bully’s onslaught. Some will join in the bullying after it has begun and it can be seen that the victim is not fighting back. Most, however, stand by passively, watch the event unfold, and do nothing.
Even without the other types of bystanders, passive onlookers provide just the audience the bully is often looking for. While this audience does nothing and may not realize their contribution to the situation, their presence without voicing opposition is seen as tacit acceptance of the action by the bully, the crowd, and the victim. This makes the vocal elements of the crowd less inhibited, escalating their encouragement of the bully, as well as further disinhibiting the bully—again increasing the violence.
The silent audience can also make the victim feel either that everyone is against them or that there must be something wrong with them if everyone supports this treatment. While initially they don’t understand why the bullying is happening, over time they come to believe it must be their fault somehow. Bystanders contribute as much if not more than the bully to this impression.
Bystanders almost never play a neutral role in cases of bullying, though they may believe the opposite. Bystanders rarely understand the role they play in bullying. Unfortunately, the least likely thing a bystander will do is help.
Children and teens can find information about what they can do to avoid being a bystander that contributes to the problem.
Real-World Example: Responding to Bullying With an Act of Kindness
This was not the case, however, when a high school senior noticed a younger classmen being bullied about his worn-out shoes. Jared Newby, a sophomore, had gotten used to the remarks, which usually began with his old worn-out shoes then progressed to more brutal remarks. It wasn’t as if Jared didn’t realize how worn his shoes were. To the contrary, he was already aware every minute he wore them since they hurt due to the grit and pebbles he was forced to stand on as the soles on the inside had completely come out.
There was no money to replace the shoes, which was a common occurrence in his household, and he didn’t think much about what he didn’t have, being thankful for what he did. Yet this didn't help him deal with the bullies' taunts. He had no reply he could use, plus he felt it was better to remain quiet and try to ignore them. Despite trying not to let his distress show on the outside, inside their comments hurt, making him feel like he didn’t belong and like he wasn’t as good as the rest of the students.
A Gift of New Shoes
However, things would be different when a senior in his French class decided to do something about the bullying. Luckily, Yaovi Mawuli loved shoes and often traded them or purchased pairs just because they were unusual. Upon seeing Jared bullied, Yaovi felt he had to do something to help and immediately decided to give Jared a pair of brand-new shoes. The bullying incident hit home with Mawuli, who himself couldn’t afford sneakers when he first immigrated to America from Togo, a French-speaking country in Africa. He remembered being made fun of for wearing shoes that were two years old and had the date printed on them.
The decision to give Jared the shoes wasn’t the end of Yaovi’s concern, however. He didn’t want to further embarrass Jared, not knowing what message Jared and others might infer from the gesture. Additionally, he was worried about the responses of those children who were bullying Jared should he present the shoes to Jared personally where others might observe. Unsure of how best to handle the situation, he turned to his online friends on Facebook, asking them how best to accomplish his goal without making Jared feel bad. He took the group’s advice and left the shoes with school personnel, asking them to give the shoes to Jared.
Making a Difference by Doing the Small Stuff
The next day Jared was called to the school counselor’s office where he was handed a brand new pair of Air Jordans. The staff let Jared know who had provided the gift and Jared made sure to let Yaovi know just how much the shoes meant to him. They talked for a while and for the first time, Jared felt like he had a place at the school. Yaovi and Jared took a picture together which quickly went viral. The publicity involving Jared being associated with a popular senior contributed to Jared no longer being bullied. When asked about how he felt regarding helping another child, Yaovi said that it wasn’t a big deal. In fact, he said it was something extremely small, so small that anyone could and should be able to do something like it every day.
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“We can make the world a better place just by doing the small stuff,” Yaovi said.
Effects of Paying It Forward
The principal of the school the two boys went to spoke out after the incident occurred. Principal Williams said he was attending to the teasing that was aimed at Jared. He added he has a zero tolerance for bullying and intends to focus more on the problem to ensure if it happens it is brought to light and dealt with severely. Yaovi was honored several times, according to the principal.
“We celebrated Yaovi with an announcement over the intercom, but we didn’t make it too big of a deal, because this type of kindness, paying it forward happens a lot in our school.” He said, noting that the story took on a life of itself after the photo of the two classmates was shared all over Twitter. The publicity and public recognition had an effect both at the school and outside the school. Principal Williams said that after the incident that other students in the school began to help each other out such as with lunch money.
Yaovi’s act also spread to other schools. An almost identical incident happened less than a year later in South Carolina when a student bought a peer a pair of shoes after seeing him bullied because of the way he dressed.
Ways That You Can Help Stop Bullying in Your Child’s School
There are things we can all do to help make our children's schools safer from bullying.
Increase Your Knowledge and Awareness
The first step is knowing when bullying is occurring and understanding the extent of the problem and its source. This will help you gain an idea of how to start addressing the problem. What is the school atmosphere like? Is it respectful, caring and safe for all students? Is there appropriate supervision? Is there adequate support and training to address bullying? See the bottom of the article for a link for additional training on how to prevent and stop bullying.
Talk About the Topic With Your Child and Model Empathy
The best way to teach behavior is to model the way you want your child to act. Children, especially teens, often don’t listen to parents “lectures” so keep talks short. Include the major points of the lesson you want to teach them but then show them how to put the action into place on a daily basis without pointing out. Just let them observe you acting the way you expect them to act in real life.
Show how to be sensitive to and understanding of how other people feel. Show how being compassionate to others and putting them first when the need is there does not mean your own needs aren’t met as well. Ideally show the benefits that come from caring about others well-being and how it is reciprocal, how friends you are there for when they need you are there for you when you need them. This will help prevent your child from becoming involved in bullying others.
There are resources available to help you talk to your children about bullying.
Respond Forcefully Yet Respectfully
Keep in mind that your reactions provide a context for how the children involved or observing bullying will respond to the situation. When children see adults acting powerfully yet respectfully in response to problems they view them as more effective and in control of the situation. Overreacting will increase the likelihood the children will become upset and avoid talking about future problems or see the adults as out of control and feel no need to do what they are told.
Seeing adults taking a “no tolerance” approach to bullying will show them they cannot get away with bullying others and that adults find the behavior to be a significant enough problem to intervene in strict and uncompromising manner. You can also learn how to stop bullying on the spot when you encounter it.
Teach Your Children Coping Skills
When children have strong friendships, this helps prevent bullying in terms of both being bullied and becoming bullies. Ensuring your children that they have the strength of character, confidence, control and power to walk away from any situation helps them learn that there are situations from which they should walk away. If they are being bullied walking away, changing seats or stepping out of line sometimes can make it stop. If the bully is intent on continuing the behavior impress upon your child the importance of getting help and the need to be persistent even if they don’t get a response the first time.
Also make sure your child knows they can count on you to help them determine the best way to handle the situation. Don’t forget to impart the role of bystanders when others are being bullied and how walking away in that situation may help others feel they can walk away as well. When the bully feel they are losing their audience they may stop. If not tell your child to get help.
Sometimes adults may not believe certain children are bullies or may not catch it occurring. Yet the bullied child will know there are those who refuse to participate even implicitly in their bullying and who will help protect them by getting help. This can help begin to empower the child bit by bit.
Know what other parents and adults in your community are doing to stop bullying. Get other parents together to discuss the problem and how it affects the children in your child’s school. A group of parents is more likely to be listened to than an individual one. Go as group to discuss bullying with school officials and make sure there is a mandatory district-wide anti-bullying policy. The policy should include education for all staff members on diffusing and recognizing all forms and types of youth bullying.
Write to your county- and state-level officials telling them of the seriousness of bullying and demand they make it a top priority in their campaigns. Gather signatures from those in your group and as many other parents as well.
Get Additional Training
If you want to learn more about how to prevent and stop bullying, take this training course from the CDC. Professionals can earn continuing education credit for completing it. Even if you don’t want credit, the skills taught are invaluable in helping to stop bulling not only for just your children but for other children in your community.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2017 Natalie Frank