If Bullying Occurs: How to Respond


The term “Bullying” can be used to describe a wide range of situations, from subtle verbal interactions to dangerous physical aggressions—the common denominator is that the behaviors are repeated over time, and involve an imbalance of power between the bully or bullies, and the victim(s). For more on what bullying is and how to prevent it, please see our previous articles:

For the purposes of this article, we'll be focusing on how to respond to bullying once it has occurred. And doing so requires attention to the victim, the bully and also the bystanders who may have witnessed any incidents.

The Victim
Assure the victim that the bullying is not their fault and that a personal attack is actually about the bully’s desire for attention, an impulse to repeat learned behaviors, or an insecurity within themselves. Help them understand that the behavior is a reflection of the bully—not the victim.

Consider the following to show the victim that you are there for them and that you care:

  • Remind them they are not alone and that many people have been bullied at some point in their lives. If appropriate, share a personal bullying experience to foster this connection. Highlight that being bullied is not only frustrating but can be scary as well. Recall your own solutions, and teach the victim that ignoring offensive language or using humor could deter bullying behaviors. Rehearse ways to confront the bully in a calm yet assertive manner. And while these strategies may work in some situations, make sure the victim understands how to recognize when to confront a bully, and when to ask for help.
  • In the event that you decide to involve other adults, make sure the victim is aware of the plan and is comfortable with it. When you exclude a victim from conflict resolution, it can compound feelings of insecurity and emotional harm. Use discretion. If the victim was not present when the bullying was addressed, it may be best to inform them that this situation is being handled, but keep them removed from the conflict management process altogether.
  • Make a call to the victim’s parents/guardians and document all conversations and observations of bullying. This lets the victim and their parents/guardians know that you see bullying as a serious and significant issue.
  • Work to rebuild the victim’s self-esteem. Encourage them to develop new friendships, and provide them with opportunities to do the things they are good at and enjoy.

The Bystander
Always follow up with bystanders after bullying has occurred. This has been a frequent misstep. Giving bystanders the opportunity to share their perspective can promote future intervention in bullying by creating a culture where bullying is not tolerated. Below are ways you can help bystanders move from passive observation/acceptance to advocacy and prevention:

  • After a bystander has stood up for a victim—let them know they made the right choice—and that you are proud. A bystander that has been encouraged to advocate once is likely to advocate again.
  • If the bystander did nothing to stop the bullying, set aside sometime to meet with them privately. Talk about what they did or did not do to support the bullying and how they could have acted differently. Help them understand how being passive and doing nothing encourages bullying as much as laughing cheering and pointing does. Explain how silence communicates to the bully and the victim that bullying is ok.
  • Encourage the belief that bullying is morally wrong, and that adults expect bystanders to intervene. Educate bystanders on how to intervene by discouraging/redirecting the bully, and rallying support from peers. Emphasize the importance of seeking help from adults and reporting what they saw.

The Bully
Hold a bully accountable for their actions and assist them in taking responsibility. Bullying is a choice and owning up to that choice takes honesty and integrity. Follow through on consequences. And ensure that discipline is logical, graduated in nature and consistent for everyone. Even minor bullying behaviors are significant and can be addressed by doing the following:

  • Speak with the bully apart from the victim—never together.
  • Bullies may try to downplay their actions by saying they were, “just kidding” or “[the victim] is okay with us doing that”. Explain to the bully that their viewpoint does not negate the fact that what they did was wrong, unfair, or hurtful.
  • Partner with parents/guardians to identify reasons for bullying and to develop solutions that will last. Bullying can result from lack of impulse control, empathy, or attention. It can also be prompted by a longing to fit in or gain popularity, and a desire for power or the need to restore self-worth. Acting out in response to prejudices and disparities in social paradigms are additional factors that can trigger bullying. Knowing why a child is bullying can help you identify ways to encourage behavior change.
  • Being careful not to reward negative behavior—show the child you are here to help them and provide them with necessary support. Support for a bully may look similar to support for a victim. Both the bully and the victim need the chance to discuss their issues with adults they can trust, and to be taught skills for building a healthy self-esteem.

Creating an environment where bullying is taken seriously and addressed in a timely manner at all levels of your organization is the single most important thing you can do to prevent such behaviors. It's a good idea to post a code of conduct in a visible place, and to review it with children on a regular basis. The code of conduct can also be provided to parents/guardians to make sure that anti-bullying practices are discussed and supported at home too. That way, when you do respond to bullying, you'll be doing so based on a shared understanding of what are, and what are not, accepted behaviors at your organization.

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