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Supporting Youth to Stand Up to Bullying

By Laura Lambe, MSc, PhD student, Department of Psychology, Queen's University

If you’ve ever seen bullying, then you’ve probably also heard people telling you to “stand up to bullying” or to “be an upstander”. Many bullying awareness campaigns use catchphrases like this to encourage bystanders – the people who aren’t directly involved in bullying but see it happen – to intervene and defend the person who is being victimized. But what does defending actually look like?

This is the question I’m hoping to better understand in my PhD research at the Bully Lab. We know from existing research that defending tends to be really effective in stopping bullying. However, we also know that it can be really tough to stand up to someone who might be bigger or more popular than you are. By understanding what defending actually looks like, we hope that we can better support youth to defend in ways that are effective and safe for everyone. 

So far in our research, we’ve learned that youth tend to defend using 4 different types of strategies, including:

  • Solution-focused: using action to try to stop the bullying. This includes trying to sort out the problem by talking to the people involved or asking the person to stop.
  • Reporting: telling an authority figure about the situation, such as telling a teacher.
  • Comforting: offering emotion-focused support to the person being victimized, such as trying to cheer them up or trying to include them if they’re being left out.
  • Aggressive: using verbal or physical aggression to stop the bullying. This includes seeking revenge on the person doing the bullying.  

Bullying situations are complex and unique social interactions. So, youth probably need many different types of defending strategies to pick from in order to select the one that is the safest and most effective for them in a given situation. The first three of these strategies are thought to be adaptive, healthy ways of defending, whereas aggressive strategies can be risky for the defender.

The good news is that almost all youth we have surveyed in our research report defending at least once over the past couple of months! This suggests that most bystanders feel some responsibility to intervene when they see bullying. The most popular type of defending is comforting, probably because this strategy doesn’t require you to directly confront the aggressor. Reminding someone that you care is a simple and easy way for everyone to stand up to bullying.

We also know that there are some gender differences in the ways in which boys and girls defend their peers. Girls are more likely to defend by offering comfort, whereas boys are more likely to use aggressive defending. Because boys tend to use riskier defending strategies than girls, it’s possible that defending may be more challenging for them, as indicated by some of our previous research. Boys might need more support than girls to defend in ways that are safe for them.

So this Bullying Awareness and Prevention Week, I challenge educators and students to get specific on what defending looks like in your classroom! By teaching and practicing specific defending behaviors, youth might become activated and know how to defend safely the next time they see bullying. For example, you might want to brainstorm and role play solution-focused, reporting, and comforting responses.

Tweet us @PREVNet to share how you stand up to #bullying.

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