Bullying: What can be done?

Bullying is ever-present in our society and we need to speak out and stand up against it. Working together we can end bullying.


By Dr. William Copeland, Clinical Psychologist and Epidemiologist at Duke University Medical Center. He is Dr. Mary Ellen Copeland’s nephew.

As a society, more needs to be done to prevent bullying wherever and whenever it occurs. This includes implementing multi-faceted prevention programs within schools and strict policies within the workplace to prevent a hostile environment. Even new media giants like Facebook have instituted policies to allow for reporting of online harassment and to provide resources for the victims of online or cyberbullying. All of these efforts are important, necessary, and can reduce the number of people affected by bullying, but individuals also need to know how to act when confronted with bullying.

Few people are bullies. Even in childhood, only a small percent of people are responsible for most of the bullying that occurs. Yet most of us have observed bullying or been victims ourselves. As bystanders, we are often either uncomfortable or unwilling to speak up when we see others mistreated. When this occurs, the bully assumes this behavior is acceptable and the victim assumes that others agree with the bully. But this is not the case. Studies show that most bystanders do not condone the mistreatment and many feel sympathy for the victim and wish to help. Sometimes bystanders are worried that if they speak up then the bully will turn his/her attention to them. Sometimes bystanders simply don’t know what to do and silence seems safe. Speaking up to the bully and reaching out to the victim can be very powerful. Speaking out can be as simple as saying “stop treating Jimmy like that”, “this isn’t cool or funny”, or just “quit it”. This is often enough to stop the bully in their tracks. Bystanders can also help by distracting the bully or getting help from someone one in authority. Finally and perhaps most importantly, bystanders can always support the person being bullied by letting them know that they don’t agree with what is being said and offering their support to keeping it from happening again.

What if you find yourself being bullied? Is there anything you can do when you are mistreated? First, it is important to remind yourself that it is not your fault. Bullies are the only one responsible for their behavior. No person – woman, man or child – deserves to be mistreated. Ever. Next, some people feel comfortable speaking back to the bully, but it is most important to keep it from happening again. If that means simply walking away or avoiding the bully, that is great. Sometimes it means telling someone in authority such as a teacher or boss. Human resources departments typically have policies for employees to anonymously report such misbehavior. Without intervention, bullying can happen again and again. It is imperative to prioritize protecting yourself. Even after it ends, however, bullying can continue to do harm. Coping with bullying may be difficult and it is important to get help along the way. Recovery is never solitary. It may be difficult to talk about this experience with friends and loved one, but having the support of others is a key predictor of minimizing the long term consequences of this experience.

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