Bullying & the Behavior Window: The Bystander & Prevention, Part 3/3

Bullying & the Behavior Window:

The Bystander & Prevention, Part 3/3

In this third and last installment, I start with the fact, again, that these distinctions are fluid. And yet, there is no doubt that bystanders play a key role, and many parents yearn to raise kids who are willing to intervene. 

The Behavior Window can help clarify ways to support our children in moving out of passivity and avoiding, to the extent possible, becoming bullies or one of the bullied themselves.

When Our Child is a Bystander, Who Owns the Problem?

Child Owns the Problem?


We won't know that she has passively witnessed a bullying incident unless she tells us or we hear from a third party -- another parent, say, or the school administration -- and the child confirms that she did.

If she appears unsettled, guilty or distraught, then she has a problem.

If she reports with no upset, then she doesn't; the behavior falls under our Line of Acceptance. 

No Problem?


Parent Owns Problem?


This box covers instances where the child is unbothered and we are unable to meet our concrete and tangible needs. 

Both Own Problem -- Conflict of Needs?

No. Again, as in the Parent Owns box, our needs are met.

Both Own Problem -- Values Collision?


If our child seems unfazed, or is disquieted but -- despite being Active Listened to -- chooses to remain a passive bystander (a solution that we don't agree with), then we have a Values Collision.

Using the Skills

Helping Skills

Say our daughter is unusually quiet and, with furrowed brow, is pushing around the food on her plate.

Parent: "You look like something's got you worried. Wanna talk?" (Door-Opener)

Child: "Something bad happened today."

Parent: "Oh," (Acknowledgment) turning our body to her (Attending) and waiting in Silence.

Child: "Yeah."


Child: "Deedee was making fun of Caitlyn's bag and then started pouring all the shavings out of her pencil sharpener onto it, saying it couldn't get any dirtier than it already was." 

Parent: "I see." (Acknowledgment)

Child: "She's always either picking on Caitlyn or Edwin. Caitlyn was trying not to cry but I could tell she wanted to. She was trying to get her bag but Deedee kept kicking it away."

Parent: "That sounds like it was hard for you to watch." (Active Listening)

Child: "Caitlyn didn't deserve it. She's actually very nice. Quiet and not the smartest, but nice. But Deedee's really mean and scary. She kept saying 'Oopsies!' like anyone would believe it was a mistake that she was dumping all that stuff out!"

Parent: "It really bothered you to see Caitlyn being treated like that for seemingly no reason." (Active Listening)

Child: "Yes. Daddy, what should I have done?"

After her emotionally flooded state is calmed, the child is now ready to put on her thinking cap to examine her options. We can guide her in solving her own problem.

Facilitating a Problem-Solve

In this type of Problem-Solve, we let the child drive the process.

1. Define Problem in Terms of Needs

The first step is comprised of Active Listening, which we've already done.

"Ok. I'd like to help you solve your problem. From what I've heard, you seem to need support, purpose and safety. You're open to thinking about different ways you might take action and, at the same time, you'd feel best if you knew it was safe for you given what Deedee is like. Does that sound about right?"  

2. Brainstorm

Parent: "What are some ways you might meet these needs?"

Let her first think of solutions. If she can't, that's ok. We are still encouraging her to realize that she always has the power to brainstorm. After she's done, we may add our own ideas, drawing on what we know about bullying, the role of the bystander (keep reading!) and our own daughter.

3. Evaluate, 4. Choose & 5. Implement Solution

Let her take the lead in deciding what to do. We can assist her using Door Openers as invitations to thoroughly consider the consequences of any actions. 

6. Decide on a time to check in

We will be here to touch base to see how her chosen solutions worked out.

What if the child decides to take no action? If we value standing up against bullying, then we can use the skills for Values Collisions. 

A value is a belief (or an ideal) that shapes behavior. Here, the beliefs might include:

I can't make a difference. 

The smartest strategy is to mind my own business. 

Standing up for Caitlyn or asking for help will just make the situation worse. 

To help her change the beliefs driving her behavior, we might choose to Consult. (For those of you familiar with the other Values Collision skills, I'll deal with those globally in the context of prevention.)


We can be powerful consultants if our children are warmly connected to us and feel we listen to them with empathy. Here is Dr. Gordon's guidance:

1. Get Hired

This entails choosing a good time for the discussion: "Hey, when you have a light homework load this week, I'd like to talk to you about what's happening between Deedee and Caitlyn."

If she's none too thrilled, we can AL that: "Oh, you're not into this and would rather put it out of mind."

After we acknowledge her resistance, she will be more open to hearing why this conversation is important to us. 

2. Be Prepared with Facts & Figures

This can include our own stories of how we stood up as a bystander or how grateful we were when someone on the sidelines got involved on our behalf. We might even relate how we were about to bully someone but how a bystander's actions deterred us from doing so.

It could be powerful to share Dr. Laura Markham's info that bystanders have the power to cut bullying more than half the time and within 10 seconds, as well as some best ways to intervene:

Partner with the victim and remove her from danger - Go stand with the victim physically, turn the victim away from the bully and walk her off in the other direction — towards adult help. Say “You look upset” or “I’ve been looking for you” or “The teacher sent me to find you.”

Get help - Bullies love an audience. Get the other kids on your side by waving them over to you, yelling, “We need your help.” Confront the bully: “You’re being mean.” Then walk away: “C’mon, let’s go!”

And of course, if you’re at all worried about safety, shout for a teacher or dial 911 on a cell phone.
— Laura Markham, Ten Ways to Empower Your Child Against Bullying, http://www.ahaparenting.com/parenting-tools/safety/helping-bullied-child

3. Leave the Decision with the Client

This can be hard and yet no good consultant nags or hassles -- after all, we want to be considered for the next job, right?


While there is no guarantee the issue of bullying won't touch down into our lives, the good news is that P.E.T., in and of itself, is preventive.

Children learn behavior through their parents. Being exposed to aggressive behavior or an overly strict environment at home makes kids more prone to bully at school. Parents/caregivers should model positive examples for your child in your relationships with other people and with them.
— American Psychological Association, Bullying: How Parents, Teachers and Kids Can Take Action to Prevent Bullying, http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/bullying.aspx

The four types of P.E.T. skills -- Helping, Relationship, Confrontation and Conflict Resolution -- create strong attachment with parents which, according to Michael Thompson and Lawrence Cohen, "is the best predictor of good peer relationships." (Mom, They're Teasing Me: Helping Your Child Solve Social Problems, page 38.) Their list of the "essential" friendship skills dovetails nicely with the goals of the course:

  • The enjoyment of the company of others
  • A capacity for reciprocity, turn taking, cooperation and sharing
  • Empathy
  • Realistic, generally positive expectations that allow you to approach the world with confidence
  • Problem-solving ability
  • The ability to regulate aggressive impulses and other emotions
  • The ability to read emotions, especially subtle and mixed emotions
  • The ability to tolerate frustration
  • The ability to "hold others in mind"
  • Trust that others can and will hold you in mind
  • Self-disclosure -- the willingness and ability to show vulnerability

-- page 39

In particular, each time we model or actively coach our child to use assertive confrontation -- e.g. as we mediate a sibling conflict -- we make it easier for him later to reach for some I-Messages of his own: 

  • "I prefer my real name. I don't like you calling me by the wrong name."  
  • "I can't reach my desk and I don't think anyone deserves this."
  • "No, thanks, I think not." 

This is crucial! Researchers have found that bullies begin with verbal harassment and a calm, firm response with eye contact can make all the difference:

How the “victim” responds to the first verbal aggression determines whether the bully continues to target this particular child. If the aggression gives the bully what he’s looking for — a feeling of power from successfully pushing the other child’s buttons — the aggression will generally escalate. It’s imperative to discuss this issue with your child BEFORE he is subject to bullying, so he can stand up for himself successfully when a bully first “tests” him.
— Markham, Ten Ways to Empower Your Child Against Bullying, http://www.ahaparenting.com/parenting-tools/safety/helping-bullied-child

While such a talk would be helpful, daily modeling lays an even stronger foundation for assertiveness!

Let's develop some of the other strategies -- since we are trying to prevent a problem, that means we are in the No Problem area -- a little further.

Honest Communication through I-Messages

Positive I-Messages 

  • "I love spending time with you."
  • "Thank you for being the special person you are."
  • "I enjoy talking to you about soul stuff."  

Be liberal with these expressions of love and appreciation. Experts recommend that, to counter humans' natural negativity bias, we balance less than optimal interactions with at least 5 positive ones.

Declarative I-Messages

  • "It's been hard for me to stand up for myself but I am working on it and it feels so good."
  • "I'm trying to get better at listening. I'm open to you telling me if you don't feel heard. It's important to feel like you matter."
  • "I regret not challenging the class bully when I was in high school; I still remember how hard Matthew's life was and how alone he was."

Here we give our kids the chance to observe a human being in progress; hopefully, they will feel freer to admit their frailties and feel optimistic about growing and changing themselves.

Why is self-disclosure -- one of the friendship skills listed above -- so useful for relationships?

Probably the greatest reward that comes to a parent from being transparent is the relationship it promotes with the child. Honesty and openness foster intimacy — a truly interpersonal relationship. My child gets to know me as I am, which then encourages her to reveal to me who she is. Instead of being alienated from each other, we develop a relationship of closeness. Ours becomes an authentic relationship — two real persons, willing to be known in our realness to each other.
— Thomas Gordon, Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children, pages 136-137

Modifying the Environment

Add to the schedule time for playful connection

Lawrence Cohen, in his section on aggression in Playful Parenting, makes a strong case for us to join in the play. In lieu of banning violent symbols like pretend guns, he says to help kids to transform aggressive impulses by letting them experiment in our supportive presence.

Cohen provides heaps of guidance for those of us for whom play -- especially the kind he deems so important: roughhousing -- is a pretty foreign thing. Getting over our own resistance and self-consciousness, though, can help inoculate our kids against bullying:

I see children who are scared, timid, and intimidated. They are fearful of speaking their own minds or even thinking their own thoughts. I also see plenty of recklessness, bravado, violence, nastiness, and bossiness, but none of those is really self-confidence. . . Playful Parenting helps children out of the traps of powerlessness and pseudo-power, tipping the balance in favor of true power, confidence, and competence.
— Lawrence Cohen, Playful Parenting, pages 60-61

Create opportunities for socialization

Set up playdates and be available to intervene to meet needs before problems occur. This is not to say we should micromanage our kids' social lives, but we do have a protective role to play. Read an example of how to walk this fine line here

Wow, we've come to the end of this series!

By putting the issue of bullying under the P.E.T. lens, I am grateful, as always, for the boost in clarity and direction. Parenting can be so overwhelming, especially with such a sensitive and threatening issue.

I hope you have found these three posts illuminating. I'd love to hear any comments, queries or additions.

Wishing you peace in P.E.T.,

Catherine xo

Credits: Kids in solidarity (http://dingo.care2.com/pictures/greenliving/uploads/2011/10/4_Care2-Change-bullying_443x267-web.jpg)