For parents, students, and schools, bullying is a significant cause for concern, and rightly so: in the United States, nearly a quarter (22%) of students between the ages of 12 and 18 have been bullied at school, according to research cited by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Compounding the problem is the fact that most bullying takes place when adults aren’t around; and, as young people get older, they are increasingly unlikely to tell adults about experiencing or witnessing bullying.
Because of this, it’s very important for parents, teachers, and other guardians and caregivers to help young people learn how to stop being a bystander and start being an ally when it comes to bullying. As part of its “Table Talk” educational resource series, which provides families with tools and strategies for productive conversations about current issues, ADL offers a number of important suggestions about how adults can talk to kids about allyship and taking action against bullying.
Help kids understand what bullying is.
For most young people, learning how to recognize bullying is the first step toward becoming an ally. ADL defines bullying as repeated actions or threats, intended to cause fear, distress, or harm, that are directed at someone by one or more people with greater power or status (perceived or real) than their target; bullying can be physical, verbal, and/or psychological. For younger, elementary-age children, bullying can be defined as a person or a group doing things, on purpose and over and over, that make another person feel afraid, hurt, or embarrassed.
ADL stresses that it’s important for young people to understand the difference between bullying and isolated behavior that is mean or harmful, like being rude in a conversation or pushing someone once. This is not to say that these actions aren’t problematic or don’t need to be addressed, but rather that bullying is a specific type of behavior that has its own particular consequences and interventions. Discussions of bullying should therefore emphasize the three components of bullying described above: repeated actions or threats, a power or status imbalance, and a deliberate intention to cause harm.
Focus on the aggressor, not the target.
Many bullying incidents fall into the category of “identity-based” bullying, which refers to bullying related to any aspect of a person’s identity or perceived identity group. For example, when a bully targets someone because of their race, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability status, or physical appearance, this is identity-based bullying. When talking about identity-based bullying, it’s very important to emphasize that the aggressor’s bias is the problem, not the target’s identity; in other words, young people need to understand that targets of identity-based bullying didn’t do anything wrong, or “ask to be bullied,” just by being who they are.
Teach kids some simple ways to be an ally.
Young people who witness a bullying incident might want to help, but it’s not always easy to know what to do or what “helping” looks like. The following actions ADL offers are all simple ways that young people can be an ally to targets of name-calling and bullying. In discussing these actions, make sure that would-be allies know that their own safety comes first in any bullying situation, and that it’s okay to choose not to act if action would make them feel unsafe.
Support targets, even if you don’t know them—If you see that someone is the target of bullying, show your support by asking if they’re okay or offering to get help or tell someone about the incident. Isolation is a big problem for targets of bullying, so letting them know they’re not alone is an important way to help.
Don’t participate—Some bullying takes place in public in order to get a response from bystanders. If this happens, simply refuse to participate: don’t laugh or cheer for the bad behavior and don’t stare at the target. This helps send a message to the bullies that their behavior isn’t funny and that you don’t think it’s okay to treat people that way.
Tell aggressors to stop—If it feels safe, tell the aggressor to stop his or her bad behavior, either in the moment or in private later on. Many bullies have never had their actions called out before; doing so could make them think twice about picking on someone.
Inform a trusted adult—Many witnesses (or targets) don’t report bullying because it carries a stigma of “snitching” or being a “tattle-tale.” But asking for help for someone who needs it is never “tattling.” Telling an adult you trust—like a parent, teacher, coach, or guidance counselor—about bullying is an important way to get extra help to make it stop.
Get to know people—A lot of bullying, and standing by when others are bullied, is based on the judgements we make about people because of how they look or the way they act. To be a better ally, try looking beyond these superficial judgements and getting to know people for who they really are; you might be surprised to learn that you have more in common with them than you think.