UPSTANDERS – The Why and How

By Dru Ahlborg, Co-Founder and Executive Director of BRRC

A bystander is someone who is present at an event or incident and does not take part. In the realm of bullying a bystander is someone who witnesses bullying either in person or online and does not get involved. Bystanders often have an opportunity to make a positive difference in a bullying situation and become an upstander.  An upstander is someone who sees what happens and intervenes, interrupts, or speaks up to stop the bullying.

“In the end we will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”   Martin Luther King Jr.

Adolescents who are targets of bullying often feel even more alone because there are witnesses (bystanders) who do nothing. When no one intervenes, the person who is targeted will feel that the bystanders don’t care of worse, that the bystander agrees with the bullying that is taking place. It is estimated that 80% of the time bullying occurs it is in the presence of bystanders. Bystanders intervene less than 20% of the time.

Why do children who witness bullying, know it is wrong and not intervene? There can be many reasons. They may be afraid of retaliation or becoming the next target of bullying. There may be a fear of negative social consequences. Maybe they feel like the bullying behavior is somehow okay. They may feel that the target did something to deserve the bullying.

There is also the theory of the bystander effect. The bystander effect occurs when the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening in an emergency situation, against a bully, or during an assault or other crime. The greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is for any one of them to provide help to the person in distress.

Moving from a witness/bystander to an upstander takes work, courage, empathy, and a desire to disrupt inappropriate behavior. Lehigh University documented 5 steps to take when witnessing to a problematic or potentially problematic situation:

  1. Notice the event – Pay attention to what is going on around you.
  2. Interpret if it is a problem – Sometimes it is hard to tell if someone is in need of help. Error on the side of caution and investigate. Don’t be sidetracked by ambiguity, conformity or peer pressure.
  3. Accept responsibility – Do not assume someone else will do something. Have the courage to be the first to respond. If it isn’t you, then who?
  4. Know how to help – Don’t put yourself in harm’s way but do attempt to do something. Tactics can be direct or indirect.
  5. Implement the help.

The month of October is Bullying Prevention month and BRRC has included a post everyday about upstander behavior. (#31daysofupstanders) I encourage you to look at our BRRC Facebook or Instagram page to learn more facts, actions and benefits of being an upstander. The best reason is that upstanders can save lives.

Moving from being a bystander to becoming an upstander may not happen overnight. It may start with becoming more aware of bullying behavior and how it is affecting the lives of our peers.  Upstanders are able to see the pain the target experiences and take action. offers ways to bridge behavior to becoming an upstander:

  • Don’t laugh
  • Don’t encourage the bully in any way
  • Don’t participate
  • Stay at a safe distance and help the target get away
  • Don’t become an “audience” for the bully
  • Reach out in friendship
  • Help the victim in any way you can
  • Support the victim in private
  • If you notice someone being isolated from others, invite them to join you
  • Include the victim in some of your activities
  • Tell an adult

We can model and speak to our children about upstander behavior.  Doing nothing about bullying sends a message to the bully that their behavior is acceptable.

Talk to your children about what it means to be an upstander.  Ask them if they have witnessed bullying.  Brainstorm ideas about how they might engage the next time they see someone in need of an upstander.  When we all feel empowered to take action – even a small one – we build a world of upstanders.

It is important to deal with the bullying your child is going through. Looking the other way or ignoring it can be incredibly detrimental. The process of working through the bullying and stopping it can be long, challenging and tedious. We recommend always placing the needs of the bullying target first and make sure they are safe. Consider obtaining mental health services if your child is depressed, anxious or suicidal. We recommend never ignoring the threat of suicide as it is always a cry for help.

At BRRC, we are here to help when your child is being bullied and the school isn’t doing the right thing, or anything about it. We are here to help empower you to hold the school responsible to stop the bullying. We are here to assist you in supporting your child.

We stop bullying today to begin recovery tomorrow.