“As a therapist, I have worked with hundreds of children and families. Some of these children are the victims of bullying, and some are the friends of chronic victims at school – the bystanders. Sometimes whole sessions are filled up by a teenager trying to explain the pain he feels at seeing his friend being threatened constantly at school, trying to figure out what he can do, what he is capable of doing to intervene. …The bystanders are filled with anxiety, helplessness, and shame. They feel, at some level, that it is their responsibility to intervene. And they know two things – that they don’t know how to intercede and
they don’t have enough power to make the bullying stop.”
– Ellen deLara (Garbarino & deLara, 2002, p. XIII)

Bullying has an effect on all children who experience it in their environment, and not just the ones who are being targeted at the moment. Bullying also has a negative impact on the children who witness it, and this damage can come about in a variety of ways:

1. Bystanders to bullying are harmed through vicarious injury

Seeing another child being bullied may trigger personal insecurities in the children who witness it, and so even though they are not the one being targeted, the verbal/emotional abuse might hit upon a sensitive issue and leave them coming away feeling almost as bad as the child being bullied. This is one of the most commonly overlooked aspects of bullying, yet it’s as potentially damaging as the direct effects, because it has the potential to impact a much larger audience.

For example, Girl A witnesses Girl B being bullied for being a “fat pig.” Girl A may not be the bullies’ target, and isn’t as overweight as Girl B, but she nonetheless could stand to lose a few pounds herself and is insecure about her weight. So every time she overhears Girl B being harassed about being fat, it strikes a nerve deep down in her own psyche, though she pretends not to take notice.

Or let’s say Boy A is relentlessly called gay and bullied about being a “queer.” Boy A isn’t actually gay, he’s just small and doesn’t like sports and seems a little bit “off” to the kids who bully him, and thus he’s been assigned the label. But while this heterosexual youth is being gay-bashed, his classmates, one or two in every class who actually are (secretly) gay, or others who may have bisexual tendencies and sometimes struggle with homosexual feelings, are stung by every cutting remark. Yet this vicarious injury extends even further. You see, sexuality is much more diverse and colorful than we pretend. Though not possessing a same-sex orientation, studies show that anywhere from around a quarter to half of all adolescents will nonetheless have a same-sex sexual encounter, either out of curiosity or experimentation or simply because that’s what circumstances made available at some point in time. So these children can also feel mental anguish when they hear a classmate go on a tirade about how sick, sinful and evil such acts are, or about how all queers should be dragged into the street and shot. If you were to extend this to those kids who might have had same-sex crushes or fantasies, the list of those potentially affected grows larger still.

It’s in this way that bullying is a master at breeding shame and insecurity in ALL kids. No matter what subject a bully decides to attack, inevitably there are other children around witnessing this torment who are personally injured by this taunting, because it will strike upon a trait or experience that is personal to them. Witnesses to bullying may not be the targets themselves, but they can nonetheless come away from the situation feeling anguished and insecure.

2. Witnesses can feel guilt or shame for not intervening

Many kids – especially those with high levels of empathy and moral character – will feel bad for not standing up for the bullied child after witnessing an incident of bullying. There are numerous reasons to keep quiet: fear of having the group turn on you and being targeted yourself, wanting to maintain a friendship with the person doing the bullying, or not feeling you have the social clout to intervene. Whatever the reason, those who see it as wrong but don’t intervene can feel guilty or cowardly later on for not having done so.

This may be a bigger problem than people realize. After conducting surveys of school children, Garbarino & deLara (2002) report that “our research indicates that upward of 75 percent of children say they themselves feel ‘ashamed’ when they witness someone else being bullied. Other studies indicate that adolescents say they ‘feel bad’ or are ‘uncomfortable’ seeing someone get the brunt of verbal or physical bullying. This is made worse if the bullying goes unchallenged by those in authority on whom the children count for protection..”

3. Witnesses to bullying suffer fear or anxiety

Just as seeing someone next to you get shot can decrease your own feelings of safety and security and lead to elevated fear and anxiety, an environment where bullying is commonplace makes every child feel unsafe and insecure. Research has consistently shown, for example, that children who witness domestic violence or conflict in the home are damaged just as much as children who are abused directly. (Perry, 1997; Hygge & Ohman, 1978; Jenkins & Bell, 1994) The stress that comes from living amidst hostility, conflict, aggression, and a highly volatile environment takes a severe toll, and this effect is especially pronounced when it comes to seeing someone you know and care about being victimized.

When it comes to bullying, the environmental stress isn’t nearly as strong as that which comes from conflict in the home, but the affective principles work just the same. Spending your day in a hostile, abusive and potentially violent environment, one that is volatile and unpredictable, can take a toll even on children who are not themselves targeted.

4. Bystanders may face pressure to participate in bullying

“If a kid stands up for her principles, she can end up outside the cool circle. Yet going along with what she knows to be wrong can lead to self-disgust.”
-Annie Fox, author of Middle School Confidential (Larsen, 10-1-2009)

Many witnesses to bullying may face direct peer pressure to participate in it themselves. These kids can find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place; pressed under the enormous weight that is peer pressure while being shoved in the other direction by their conscience. They may come to resent themselves if they cave in to this peer pressure, or resent others for applying this pressure. If they oblige they sin against their character, if they don’t they may find themselves out of favor with friends. It’s a lose-lose situation for those with a conscience.

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No matter which way you measure it, there is no escaping the consequences of bullying. It impacts every child, even those who are not directly involved