Following our last blog, Bullying, Victims and Onlookers, there have been many interesting communications and some really heartrending stories.
I am glad that this response was evoked – Bullying is terrible for children – whatever role they play in the encounter. Being pro-active as parents and schools is important – we can make a difference.
What has particularly teased my little grey cells has been the interest and questions about the ‘Onlookers’.
Q What is wrong with being a bystander?
A Onlookers provide the bully with an audience and so with more incentive to carry on. The presence of bystanders also increases the drama, can increase the emotional temperature and significantly increase the chances of the encounter escalating.
Q Does it really matter that Onlookers do nothing?
A There are four important reasons why helping Onlookers change their behaviour really matters.
1. Bullies are given more power when Onlookers don’t intervene, the fact that they don’t almost gives Bullies permission to carry on and even to escalate. The more power bullies get the more diminished the Victims of bullying become – and these victims include the Onlookers.
2. Research suggests that almost half of all bullying encounters stop when Onlookers decide to take action – shout Stop, shout out that they are going to get Help and run to seek it etc. With the Rule of Conformity, it is rare when one Onlooker decides to take action that others don’t quickly follow suit. How empowering is it for children to have been taught and so know what to do in such situations. To have learned how best to take action and even practiced this is in the safety of role play situations lays down those positive automatic patterns of behaviour when they find themselves in such situations. To be able see that what they did made a difference helps avert the escalation of bullying situations develops confidence and provides them with vital life-long skills! A word of caution here, a later blog will explore the teaching we give our children but in no way are we are advising that they whale in themselves or put themselves into any personal physical danger.
3. The longer Onlookers go on in their Onlooker roles doing nothing the more damaging it is for them. They know that they have done nothing to stop the situation. The more they do nothing, the more comfortable they become in continuing to do nothing until it becomes completely okay for them. This sends their own self-governing guidance systems completely off course.
4. Understanding that Onlookers are also victims of bullying is essential. If nothing changes they can get locked in these behaviour patterns. They can face negative life-long consequences as a result; we as adults cannot ignore our responsibility to these children.
As we have seen, a bullying situation is likely to involve more than two individuals. The act of commission by the bully needs to be dealt with, both bully and victim need teaching in order to prevent or at least significantly reduce the likelihood of it happening again but we cannot afford to ignore our responsibility to meeting the needs of the Onlookers in these situations.
Q. Why did you call them ‘onlookers’ rather than the more commonly used term ‘bystanders’?
A. It was a considered choice as there are real differences between those who are looking on during a bullying encounter.
There is a whole world in the tiny nuances the definitions of the two words.
Onlooker: one who looks on, a passive spectator.
Bystander: a person who is present at an event without participating.
In psychological terms the Bystander Effect is associated with choice, the choice to take action, the choice of not taking action or and the choice not to get involved.
Onlookers is a wider definition and so can encompass the broader range of motivations and brain states that are likely to be present in a group of children present in bullying situations.
By focusing on Bystanders alone we leave out an important group of children who are present but do not have any capability of making any choices at all.
To differentiate between the different Onlooker behaviours I have given them descriptive characteristic names.
Walk-On-By Onlookers may deliberately ignore the encounter entirely. They may walk by taking the view that they have no connection to the situation; they choose to disassociate themselves from the situation believing that it has nothing to do with them. These children believe it is someone else’s responsibility to deal with it so they feel it is okay to see what is happening but still distance themselves from it and from any of the results that may happen to children who are involved. This group can actually stop very close by the centre of the action and observe yet still keep the mind-set that tells them that they are not present or part of the situation.
Follow-the-Herd Onlookers may be there in body but they also deliberately ignore the encounter because they see others ignoring it and choose to do the same, to ‘conform’ to what the majority are doing by following their example.
Both of these behaviours are not just part of childish behaviour – adults do the same! The Bystander Effect and so has Diffusion of Responsibility. These have been well documented in Psychology research but for quick ways of seeing it in operation watch these two YouTube videos!
Scent-Danger-Flee-Danger Onlookers may have learned to distance themselves from uncomfortable situations. Their eyes and ears are constantly scanning for trouble and if they spot it they glance off at a tangent. These children may be completely unaware that they are doing this. Experience has taught them that this is safer for them. At a deep level they feel that it is better to ‘steer clear’ from trouble as a general principle; hyper-alert, these children override their natural curiosity and simply move away from anything that looks to be in any way threatening their fragile status quo.
Nobody-Will-Do-Anything-Anyway Onlookers have the fundamental belief that involving anyone in Authority is pointless. They may believe that adults are insufficiently interested, powerless or have had experience in which involving adults either made no difference or actually made the situation worse.
At-Least-It’s-Not-Me Onlookers are just so relieved that they can witness the encounter with an overwhelming sense of relief. Sadder still for some, their interest is caught and they watch with almost clinical interest as their relief extends further to ‘at least it isn’t me this time!’
It’s-None-Of –My-Business Onlookers are usually very clear as to what is the appropriate action to take but, when confronted with the bullying encounter, they consciously choose not to take appropriate actions for a number of reasons:
• they feel that this could lead to being targeted themselves in future
• they may have very mixed messages about telling tales running through their heads and so can argue themselves into inaction
• they are very low in empathy and cannot imagine themselves in that situation so have no idea how it would feel
• they are getting a vicarious, second-hand buzz from being in the proximity of the ‘show’! These Onlookers view it as spectator sport; they may be fascinated by the drama, exhilarated by the tension and relish the excitement. This group are often the ones starting the chant of “Fight! Fight! Fight!” and when they do so others are drawn into joining in the chorus.
Henchmen-Onlookers again covers a wide range of children, Some of these may be almost fully-paid up members of the bully league; they may even vying for position with the bully. Others may be the moving up this ladder and are getting their kicks and kudos by association with the bully. Moving down the pecking order there are the children who are accepted by the bully and whose motivation is often linked to their poor self-image. They have a desperate need to have acceptance from someone they see as dominant in order to achieve a sense of their own identity. They seek to gain borrowed reputation through being in the gang. The last element of the unholy alliance of Henchmen is the gang-ready Hangers-On.
All of the Henchmen-Onlookers, unless they are showing disengagement or even sociopath tendencies, will have issues over power and particularly powerlessness. All of them need help – but that is for another blog…
The Rabbit-In-The-Headlights Onlookers rarely make the Psychological Journals or the Educational Guidelines on the subject but they are the reason why I choose to use the over-arching term of ‘Onlookers’.
These children are simply transfixed, often mesmerised and usually completely incapable of action let alone choice. They have moved into the survival brain state of immobility and freeze like ‘rabbits in the headlights’. The other Onlooker groups have at least a degree of choice. They may follow habits of behaviour attracting them towards the ‘henchmen’ end of the spectrum or they may dwell in one of the other types of Onlooker behaviours, but they do know what they are doing and are often quite eloquent giving candid reasons later as to why they stood alongside and did nothing to help prevent it. The Rabbit-In-The-Headlights children are very different. They can rarely give any reason as to why they behaved the way they did. Usually, the moment the encounter is mentioned, they downshift straight back into that very same brain state. Their response to any questioning is likely to be monosyllabic and confined to repeating “Dunno” and often a hopeful “Sorry” but as to what they feel ‘sorry’ for they have no idea.
Understanding which group Onlookers fall into and that even within these there can be such variation and blurring of motivations is vitally important for those working with children and young people.
Focusing only on the Bully and obvious Victim ignores the fact that unless action is taken to help the Onlookers they are often yet another invisible set of ‘Victims’ of the bullying encounter.
Onlookers need to understand that doing nothing has consequences.
None of the descriptions I have given of the roles of Onlookers are healthy and contribute to positive self-image, confidence and the child’s long term well-being. It is vital that adults understand the different motivations and brain states that are involved.
‘Punishment’, without ensuring that the children have a clearer understanding and information, breeds resentment and wouldn’t solve anything.
Sanctions need to be differentiated so that they can be appropriate and clearly related to each type of Onlooker role. When the sanctions are understood and believed to be reasonable by children they help consolidate learning. As powerlessness is at the root of these behaviours, sanctions must be respectfully applied. Children will need to build on the adult’s confidence in them and on the adult’s belief that they can and will learn from this experience.
Helping all of the ‘players’ in the bullying encounter to understand that they are not ‘bad children’ and that they can learn from these situations is vital.
Such bullying situations provide important life-lessons for all the Onlookers and can also give valuable - and safe - learning to others who were nowhere near this scene!
Teaching tailored to the needs of each Onlooker group is far more likely to have a longer term positive result.
Ignoring the fact that Onlookers chose not to take action or were unable to take action is likely to result in them continuing and becoming further fixed in these roles. Treating Henchmen and Rabbits-In-The-Headlights in the same way makes no sense. Sweeping judgments, blanket punishments and insensitive teaching will also bring about the same results - no learning, no change, repetition of the same behaviours and greater unhappiness as they grow older.
Onlookers need information and to gain an understanding of the dynamics and reasons behind bullying. With understanding comes a greater ability to manage effectively in such situations.
Onlookers need to realign their own sense of power, powerlessness and self-control. They need to gain greater confidence in themselves as autonomous individuals and as important members of their community. Onlookers may need help in increasing or even in some cases starting to develop empathy. Only when they are well on this journey of self-discovery will Onlookers be able to develop their own effective internal guidance systems.
It bears repeating – the targeted Victim, bruised by words or fists needs our first attention but we need to remember that he or she is not the only casualty in bullying situations - Onlookers are victims too!
Coming soon... Help your child learn how to judge a bullying situation and to know how to intervene safely.
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