What Should Your Teen Do If They Witness Bullying

Have you ever been in a situation in which you were so surprised that you didn’t know what to do? Afterwards, you might have thought, “I should have done something.” You feel like kicking yourself that you reacted poorly. The problem is that, when we are confronted with a situation we never expected, it takes us longer to figure out the right reaction. If that’s true for adults, it’s only more true for teens. It’s a great exercise for parents or teachers to throw out hypothetical situations for conversation about a variety of subjects. If teens have to think through their reactions beforehand to experiences they may encounter but have never actively thought about, then they will be better prepared to make a good decision in the moment. Along these lines, we recommend that parents and teachers open a discussion about what you should do if you happen to come across someone bullying another person.

With all the attention that bullying has been receiving, one might ask why it still is prevalent. Although some teachers have taken stronger disciplinary action, they unfortunately are not always aware of the problem. Bullying occurs in the company of peers, not in the arena of teachers, and only rarely do the children tell. More distressing is that bullying has almost become a spectator sport. Long ago, bullying took place guiltily where no one was around. Today, bullies revel in their audience, and the observers either enjoy the spectacle, laughing or whipping out their cell phones to record and post the event, or watch in a curious, but detached, manner.

In a recent survey, researchers report that the reasons children gave for not helping a victim fell into four categories. (1) It’s not my business. (2) They might start bullying me. (3) The victim should stand up for himself. (4) Nothing I could do will help. A few actually reported being attracted to the violence.

Research shows that witnesses of a bullying incident – not the bully or the victim, but simply the bystander – report higher rates of depression, anxiety, and drug abuse. Bullying impacts everyone. More and more, studies are showing that effective anti-bullying programs must enlist the support of the children. Peer pressure is a powerful source of inspiration. If the bully does not have an appreciative audience, there is no incentive to continue the bullying. If bystanders group together and state their disapproval (they do not have to get physically involved in any fighting), research shows that the bullying will stop.

To stop bullying, everyone needs to pitch in. First, be sure to define bullying. Your teen may believe that physical violence is bullying, but not other more prevalent forms, such as mean words, spreading nasty rumors, damaging property, or posting spiteful content online. After you have a good working definition, there are three things parents and teachers should teach children to do if they witness bullying:

Report the bullying to an adult. Even if it’s a little scary for kids to tell an adult about bullying that they see, make it clear that it’s the right thing to do. Encourage them to get over their fear by asking a friend to go along with them. They can request to remain anonymous. Inform your child that telling an adult is not tattling. Tattling is when a student tells an adult what another student did simply to get him or her into trouble. Telling is when a student tells an adult what another student did because that student’s actions were unsafe or hurt another person. Help your teen identify trusted adults they can tell, such as the principal, school counselor, social worker, nurse, teacher, coach, or parent. Your child should be prepared to tell the adult exactly what happened – who was bullied, who did the bullying, and where and when it happened. Remind your teen that most adults really care about bullying and they can help. If your child told an adult and they don’t think the adult did anything about the bullying (or if it isn’t getting any better), encourage them to find another adult to tell.

Support someone who is being bullied. Sometimes the best thing you can do for a person who is being bullied is just to be there for him or her and be a friend. Offer your teen suggestions for how they can help the victim, such as walking home with him or her after school, sitting with him or her on the bus or at lunch, trying to include him or her in school activities, or just spending some time with him or her and trying to understand what he or she is going through. Although these may seem like small things to your teen, they will show someone who is being bullied that someone cares about him or her and the problems he or she is facing.

Stand up to the person doing the bullying. If your child feels safe standing up to the bully, they should intervene. Tell your teen to keep it simple by telling the bully that what he or she is doing is wrong (or against the rules) and that he or she should stop. This works best if your teen can get a couple of friends to join him or her. When bullies realize that the other kids don’t think it’s cool, they are more likely to stop. This option is not for everyone, and you should never insist your teen to stand up to a bully. It would be foolish to ignore the misgivings that some children will have about intervening in potentially risky situations. It is sensible to identify and discuss situations that may be dangerous, and explain that it may sometimes be wise to get outside help for the person who is being bullied—for instance, by informing a teacher. It’s not easy to stand up to kids who may be bigger than you or really popular, so please reiterate that if your teen is not comfortable doing this, that’s okay, but in that case, they should tell an adult as soon as possible.

Final Thoughts….

Tell students that, when they witness bullying, they should never encourage the bully or join in the bullying. Laughing at the victim or watching in a detached manner are both forms of encouragement. Instead, they should use one of the three methods listed above to discourage bullying. Their behavior will have a major impact on whether their school, as a whole, tolerates or eliminates bullying.

As for adults, it is extremely important that the person who is told about the bullying is there for the youth. If a youth comes to you and tells you about an incident that he/she has witnessed, you need to do something about it. Do not dismiss it or tell the youth to ‘ignore’ it. Reporting the incident was most likely a very difficult thing for the teen to do. He/She needs to be listened to, applauded for coming forward, and taken seriously. You, as the adult, need to take action on behalf of the youth who reported the incident and do what is necessary to help rectify the situation. If we are trying to help youth deal with these situations, we need to be there for them, every step of the way.


  • Someone close to me was cruelly beaten by four strong teenagers — two beaters and two enablers — the enablers intervened between the bullied and the bullies. The beating was witnessed by 10 to 20 strong teenagers who left the victim, also a strong young teenager, on the floor of a locker room in a high school. When the bullied teen returned to school after healing from serious facial injuries, he became the victim of a vicious shaming campaign participated in by virtually the entire student body. Neither the school administrators and teachers nor the bullied student’s family knew anything about this. Yes, those who witness bullying need (or should be required to) participate in some kind of program, as they are damaged by what they have witnessed and they are further damaged when and if they get recruited into a vicious shaming campaign. This level of damage cannot be candy-coated.

  • This is a good article. I haven’t really thought about the bystanders and what they can do to help stop the bullying. The guidelines you have listed is pretty much accurate on what you should do. Though, standing up to a bully is a difficult task but as what the article mentioned, if many stand together then they may be able to stop it. And adults, more like teachers from the school (since this happens in school most of the time) should definitely take any reports seriously and be responsible enough to investigate and then stop it if deemed true. Great article and this will really help the bystanders to know what they can do to help. 🙂

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