Say you know someone who’s constantly making fun of someone else. Excluding the person, posting cruel lies or exaggerations about them, making them feel isolated, hopeless, trapped—maybe even scared, depressed, or suicidal.
What do you say to the aggressor to help them realize the harm they’re causing?
What might be the most important thing of all is to come in with a nonjudgmental approach. To do that, you need to take one very important first step.
First, think differently
The term “bully” is, in and of itself, a judgment. When placing this label on a person, we cast a black light on them, judging them to be bad. But the truth is, bullying doesn't happen in a vacuum. The behaviors you see are coming from somewhere, and when you try to dig deep, you can find out what those behaviors really mean.
Next, dig for the root
All behaviors are a form of communication. Your job as you try to intervene is to figure out what the person is really trying to say through the behaviors you see.
There’s a reason why a person bullies
, says educator Dr. Kathleen Briseno. As she explains in “Grabbing a Bully by the Horns,” ask yourself these questions to get to the root of the person’s behavior:
- What’s going on in their life that makes them turn to bullying?
- What do they have to gain?
- What do they have to lose?
One thing to consider is this:
Bullying is a learned behavior. Sometimes the people who have been bullied at one point go on and use those same behaviors themselves.
Special educators often use a tool called a Functional Behavior Assessment to look for root causes of behaviors. This tool allows staff to look at what function the behavior is serving for the person, then helps build strategies to develop more productive replacement behaviors that help fulfill that function.
Understand both sides
It’s also important to place some attention on the person who’s been on the receiving end of the bullying. Dr. Briseno recommends asking yourself:
- What is it about this person that makes them a target for bullying?
- Can (or should) they do anything differently?
- What can they do to protect themselves?
Consider how you treat others too
- Can I change how I treat the aggressor?
- Can I change how I treat the victim?
Think about what experts would say
We asked 31 School Bullying Prevention Difference Makers
how they would respond when they see someone bullying. These experts’ responses are focused on kids and teens, but keep in mind that their words can speak to anyone at any age
. Here are 7 (out of 31!) of their answers:
Dr. Justin Patchin, Cyberbullying Research Center and Pernille Ripp, Global Read Aloud
“Stop. We need to talk.”
Jim Dillon, The Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention
“You don't need to be this kind of person. You have the power to make the world better, so let's figure out how you're going to use that power.”
Emily Lindin, The Unslut Project
“Stop doing this—no one deserves to be treated this way!”
Ross Ellis, Stomp Out Bullying
“Imagine if someone just said (or did) exactly what you just did to someone you really love and care about.”
Rachelle Lohmann, author, The Bullying Workbook for Teens
“What you're doing is hurting someone, but I understand you're struggling too.”
Deborah Temkin, Child Development Scientist
“Though I cannot assure you that I can fix this immediately or completely, I will not give up on helping you if you do not give up on me while I try to help you.”
Michael Dorn, author, Weakfish: Bullying Through the Eyes of a Child
So how do you talk to someone who's bullying?
Start by trying to think of them not as a bully
, but as someone who needs your help. The first step is to overcome our own assumptions when we want to label someone a bully. There are many reasons why a person might exhibit bullying behavior, and you have a real opportunity to connect with that person to find out why, and to help them make better decisions.