Why Kids Often Don’t Speak Up Against Bullying

My office isn’t far from Sayreville, NJ, where the superintendent recently cancelled the football season after hearing allegations of severe hazing on the football team. Apparently, according to news reports, senior players would start howling, the lights would be turned off, teammates would grab a freshman player, multiple people would hold him down, then he would be lifted and a finger would be forced into his rectum. The allegations are that this happened repeatedly. I’ve heard some statements—which may or may not be true—that it went on for years.

If these allegations are true, what happened with the Sayreville football team definitely constitutes bullying, because the behavior is not only cruel, there is also a clear power difference between the perpetrator(s) and the victim(s).

Whenever there’s a terrible case of bullying in the news, people wonder, “How could this happen?” and “Why didn’t any kids come forward earlier to stop this?” There are no easy answers to these questions. In part, kids say nothing out of fear—because they don’t want to be the next one targeted! But here are some of the beliefs and psychological processes that can lead kids to turn a blind eye to bullying.

Belief 1: “Everyone one else is okay with this bullying, so I’ll be weird if I don’t go along with it.”

Research tells us that adolescents tend to overestimate how comfortable their peers are with bad behavior. Psychologists call this pluralistic ignorance. Adolescents usually hate to feel “weird” compared to their peers, so boys, in particular, are likely to shift their attitudes in the direction of what they think everyone else believes. Whether it’s heavy drinking, hooking up, or bullying, we can end up with everyone doing something that no one really wants to do.

Belief 2: “It’s not my job to stop this bullying.”

Psychologists call it diffusion of responsibility, when everyone assumes that someone else will intervene. In general, the bigger the group of bystanders, the less likely people are to intervene to help someone in need. But we know from research that intervention from bystanders—either speaking up directly, if it’s safe to do so, or informing responsible adults—is key to stopping bullying.

Belief 3: “This doesn’t count as bullying.”

Rationalizations are things we say to ourselves to excuse bad behavior. They could include comments such as: “I survived it, so it’s not that bad.” “He deserves it, because he’s weird (or younger).” “She did something worse than I did, so what I did isn’t so bad.” “I was getting even. He did something to me, first.” “We were just joking around.” You may want to mention some of these common rationalizations, and see if your child can explain why they don’t excuse cruel behavior.

Belief 4: “This bullying too awful to be true.”

This is simple denial. Sometimes we just don’t want to believe things that shake our assumptions about our kids, our community, or even our world. We expect bullies to be kids who are bad all the time, but they’re usually not. Kids think, “I couldn’t possibly be a bully!” or “My friends would never do that!”

Parents tell themselves, “My kid would never do something cruel!” but almost all kids are sometimes mean or make bad choices. If the social pressures are strong enough, a lot of kids will give in to either participating in, laughing at, or silently witnessing bullying.

As parents, we can’t erase our kids’ mistakes, and it’s generally not helpful to excuse or minimize them. They need to understand that they have the power to hurt others and to be able to imagine how a peer might feel when they act cruelly. They also need to know that they have the power to do what’s right.

When our kids make a mistake and hurt a peer, we need to help them move forward in kinder ways. This might mean offering a sincere apology, doing something to make amends, and/or promising themselves that they’ll do the right thing from now on.

Sometimes people dismiss anti-bullying efforts as “prissy political correctness” or trying to “feminize” boys. But there’s nothing weak or “girly” about compassion! Caring about others can inspire heroism, altruism, generosity, and teamwork. It takes true courage to speak up against—and refuse to participate in—cruelty to peers.



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© Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD.