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Bullying in high school hall

AUBURN UNIVERSITY, Ala.—Parents might feel bullying does not affect their families if their child is not a victim or the bully.  But an Alabama Cooperative Extension family and child development specialist said that young people who are present when bullying happens contribute to these negative behaviors, whether they intend to or not.

“Research shows that bystanders are present in 80 percent of bullying incidents,” said Adrienne Duke. “While most young people will say they are against bullying behavior, they tend to act in ways that can actually encourage it.”

Duke, who is also an Auburn University associate professor in Human Development and Family Studies, said that bystanders fall into several specific groups.

“First, there are assistants who help attack the victim, but there are other bystander types that cause hurt in other ways,” she said. “Reinforcers encourage the act by laughing, cheering or recording it on their phones and sharing on social media, while outsiders see the situation but do nothing to stop it.”

“Finally, there are defenders who act in ways to stop the bullying and to comfort the victim,” Duke said.

She said it is also not uncommon for youth to ignore victims and appear more like the bullies in order to fit in with their peer group.

Duke acknowledges that while it may be challenging for youth to feel willing and able to defend those being bullied, having both empathy and confidence in success can increase the likelihood that they will help.

She said it is important that all youth develop empathy towards others who are being harmed.

Duke offers suggestions for parents and other adults working with children and teens.

Encouraging Empathy 

  • Model empathy. If you observe someone in distress when they are around, talk with your teen about how that person must feel.
  • Help youth to discover what they have in common with other people. People tend to feel greater empathy for others they feel is like them in some way. Help youth to see similarities between themselves and others, even across differences.
  • Teach youth that being kind is who they are at the core. The practice of telling youth that the reason they are kind, helpful, and care about others is because it is their nature is a powerful way to increase empathy.

Building Confidence

Adults can also inspire children to become defenders by guiding them to believe it is important to help someone in need. This can help them leave their comfort zone and increase the likelihood that they will defend a victim or report a bullying incident.

Adults need to help youth create a plan for defending others. Start with a plan that does not involve direct conflict.

  • Talk to victims after they have been bullied and make sure they are OK.
  • Tell victims that you do not agree with what happened to them and that it is wrong.
  • Go with victims to tell an adult what has happened.

“Adults must understand that bystanders are contributing factors in bullying,” said Duke.  “To reduce bullying, it is vital that adults help everyone involved and not focus solely on the victim and the bully.”

For more resources on ways to reduce bullying, visit Alabama Extension.

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