Innocent Bystander? Bullying as Peer Pressure

Recently I wrote about the normal ages and stages of adolescent development.  If you read those posts, you may remember that as teenagers mature, their loyalty moves from their parents to their peers, with peer relationships becoming increasingly more important. Though acceptance from peer groups becomes principal in your teen’s life, the association can lead to undesirable outcomes.

Unfortunately, a teen’s peer loyalty can be detrimental. We know what can happen when a teenager aligns with a peer who is involved in destructive behavior: he or she will have a high risk of committing that same set of destructive behaviors.

Bystanding: bullying by default ?

While your teenager may not be a bully, as a peer issue, he or she may still be participating in bullying.

group of teens
Peer acceptance motivates teens

For instance, if your teen witnesses a friend (or friends) who is bullying someone, he or she is a bystander to the episode. Consequently, as a bystander, he or she is learning not only how to bully but is supporting the action of bullying. Further, because teens tend to be impulsive, he or she may not be fully aware that bystanding is supporting bullying by association. Instead, your teenager may be considered assisting the bully, though he or she may actually be thinking that this is a fun way to be a good friend (peer acceptance).

Peers often encourage risk-taking or destructive behavior as a test of loyalty to the group.  By observing, laughing or mocking the one who is being bullied, by default or decision, teens are in fact reinforcing bullying and aligning with the behavior of the bully.

Fear can be paralyzing

Fear of not being accepted by peers leads to bystanding if the teen is aware of a bullying situation and decides to stay away or not get involved. He or she may be avoiding the situation because of fear of being bullied or humiliated, too, or due to fear of retribution should he or she intervene.

concerned teen girl
Deciding what to do can be a struggle

Bullying is often hard to deal with among teenagers, particularly in light of the subtlty of bystanding. For parents and caregivers, it is so important to be knowledgeable of what teens are facing in their lives.  I always think it is a good idea to:

  • show up at some of their events
  • get to know their friends by name
  • build relationships with their friends
  • have discussions about being a “partner” of a bully (whether assisting, reinforcing or avoiding a bullying situation)

Teens find it so hard to know what to do, especially in instances of bullying, because of the strength and significance of peer relationships. These struggles are intense, and those of us who care for teenagers need to be cautious, careful and sensitive to a teen’s developmental issues as we communicate our concerns about bullying.

Parents and caregivers, it is important to have your emotional and relational antennae up with teens and be ready to process with them some of the struggles they may experience as a bystander of bullying.

As we listen without judgment, process with them and then help them come up with strategies as to how to deal with these confusing situations, they will have a much better perspective on their role in bullying.

Gerry Vassar, President and CEO, Lakeside Educational Network

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