The Bully, The Bullied And The Bystander

The Bully, The Bullied And The Bystander

Usually happy to go to school – they suddenly don’t want to. Grades have dropped alarmingly – with no good reason why. They’ve got torn or missing clothing – but a lousy explanation. They complain of stomach aches and headaches on school days – but not on holidays.

The Bully, The Bullied And The Bystander

Do you remember when you were at school?

Were you a bully? A bullied kid? Or just a bystander?

Educator, author and parenting expert, Barbara Coloroso claims that bullying has become one of the most worrying issues of our day. It’s not just an American problem … or a Kiwi problem … or a problem in the West. It’s global. And the consequences are appalling.

Suicide is not uncommon. And victims are sometimes driven to extreme violence. But bullying, more often, results in intense personal misery that can ruin a life forever.

Can we do anything about this? Can we keep kids safe? Do we even know if our own kids are being bullied – or doing the bullying?

We asked Barbara to share some of the wit and wisdom that she’s famous for. After all, she’s just published a brand new book on the subject …

GRAPEVINE: So it’s a big problem – right?

BARBARA: Yes, it’s everywhere. It’s worldwide. And there are more ways than ever that kids can be targeted. Things like cyber-bullying. In earlier days you could at least go home and escape the torment. But today’s young people can’t get away from it anywhere.

An example: a young student recently had a romantic encounter in his bedroom – a very private, personal thing. His room-mate videotaped it and then posted it on YouTube. A joke! But the victim knew it would never go away. It’d gone viral – around the globe. And he ended up jumping off a bridge.

At least today we’re far more aware of the damage bullying causes. When I was little, it was just seen as part of growing up.

GRAPEVINE: The school shootings we hear of, like Columbine – can they be the end-result of bullying?

BARBARA: Very much so. Those two kids were very normal young people until they got to a school where this group of football players ran things. That school was a well known ‘jockocracy’ …

GRAPEVINE: A jock-what?

BARBARA: A jockocracy – a place where ‘the jocks’ rule. They called Eric and Bill ‘fags’ and ‘queers’ and smeared them with ketchup. Kids shouldn’t have to put up with that.

Not many targeted kids end up as shooters, thankfully. Most kids turn the message in on themselves …


They start believing what the bullies say about them. They write themselves off as losers or loners. They drop out of school. Or they end up committing ‘bully-cide’ – because they can no longer face the torment.

GRAPEVINE: What makes someone become a bully?

BARBARA: Good question. And the short answer is: you have to be taught!

We mustn’t mix up conflict and bullying. Conflict is normal, and our job as wise adults is to teach our kids to handle the conflicts in their lives non-violently.

I’m alarmed at the number of anti-bullying programmes that have ‘conflict resolution’ as a way to settle things between the bully and the target. We just re-victimise the target when we insist that they sit down together and “work it out”. The bully in this scene will typically say: “I didn’t realise those rumours would go all over the Internet,” or “I didn’t know I was locking you out of the chat-room,” or “You tripped over my foot – I didn’t stick it out!” And the nastiness gets sanitized by the adults.

Bullying happens when the aggressor shows contempt for another, when they can do anything to victims and feel no shame or compassion.

GRAPEVINE: You identify three types of bullying: verbal, relational and physical …

BARBARA: Yes. And we often dismiss the first of these: verbal bullying. You know the old adage: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me …”? Well, it’s a lie!

Donna Wesley hanged herself with a dog leash at 14. She left a note naming the three girls who had verbally tormented her. The last thing she heard before she hanged herself was a phone message from one of them saying, “We’d all be better off if you were dead!”

If you have a child who’s been physically bullied, I guarantee he or she has been verbally bullied first.

Sadly, it’s often the victims who end up in trouble with the authorities. When they finally strike back, when they just can’t take it anymore, then the school takes it seriously (and not till then).

GRAPEVINE: Physical bullying is the shoving, pushing, tripping up – that sort of stuff?

BARBARA: Yes. And very few boys resort to it. They threaten a lot – but that’s verbal, really. And they fight a lot, but that isn’t necessarily bullying.


An even smaller number of girls resort to physical bullying. They have a far more powerful weapon: relational bullying … shunning, rumour, gossip and exclusion. And the Internet has made this worse.

We had an incident here where a group of 11- and 12-year-old girls made an animated video about the top six ways to kill their classmate, Piper. They even put music to it! And they posted it on YouTube. “Hang her; throw her off a cliff, poison her!” And when Piper’s mother called the parents of these girls, one of them responded, “Well, that’s just the way girls are at this age!” Another parent said, “I can’t deal with this now, I’ve got to put on dinner!”

I’ve got to tell you, if my daughter had made an animated video on the top six ways to kill a classmate, and put it on YouTube, dinner would be a long time in coming!

GRAPEVINE: So bullying can be quite deadly?

BARBARA: Absolutely. Of course, when the bullies are confronted, they say, “Oh we were just teasing!” But no, you weren’t – you were taunting!

Teasing is what friends do – taunting is what bullies do. Teasing is two-sided: we’re basically having fun, we’re both laughing. Teasing’s friendly. And if one of you calls “Stop!” – you stop.

But taunting’s just the opposite. Only one is laughing, and the more the target calls “Stop!” the harder the bully goes at it. There’s no friendship here, and the bystanders often join in.

Teasing is innocent in motive – it stops as soon as the other person shows any sign that it’s not welcome. But taunting is sinister in motive – and it escalates if the targeted kid objects or is distressed. It’s a conscious, wilful, deliberate, hostile activity intended to harm. The bully’s getting pleasure from somebody else’s pain.

GRAPEVINE: Why are children often unable or unwilling to ask their parents or other adults for help?

BARBARA: Mainly because they’re ashamed. Most targets are caring, sensitive kids who’d never dream of doing this to anyone. And bullies target them because of … well, their race, their religion, their gender, their physical or mental abilities, their economic status – something they can’t change that’s at the core of who they are.

They’re afraid to retaliate because bullies often threaten: “You tell anybody and we’re gonna make it worse for you!”

They’re outnumbered and overpowered. And they don’t really believe that adults can or will help. Because we adults say useless things like, “Oh well, just walk down another hallway! Find another place to eat if you can’t handle the lunchroom.”

That puts the onus on the target. We’re implying that this is all part of growing up, and they should get over it. They believe – from grim experience – that, if they tell an adult, things will only get worse.

GRAPEVINE: Which is exactly what happens sometimes, right?

BARBARA: Often! We adults tear into the situation … we ‘take on’ the bullies … we make them sit down together and demand an apology. Stuff that simply doesn’t work. And we don’t really hold the bully accountable.

GRAPEVINE: What are warning signs that a child’s being bullied?

BARBARA: It’s often simple things that may indicate kids are being targeted …


Usually happy to go to school – they suddenly don’t want to. Grades have dropped alarmingly – with no good reason why. They’ve got torn or missing clothing – but a lousy explanation. They complain of stomach aches and headaches on school days – but not on holidays.

Or maybe they’re on the Internet or cellphone – and suddenly, without saying why, they get all withdrawn or sullen.

GRAPEVINE: So, what can we do?

BARBARA: First, we need to keep the target safe. Second, we have to keep any witness safe. Third, we have to deal effectively with the bully and any bystanders that have participated. As William Burroughs the English author said, “There are no innocent bystanders!”

GRAPEVINE: So a bystander who knows what’s going on is either part of the bullying or part of the resistance? They’re not just bystanders?

BARBARA: We think of the bystander as somebody who just stood there and didn’t or couldn’t do anything, but that’s only one role.

Another role is the henchman – the kid who’s out to please the bully, and will often do the bully’s bidding.

Then there are the active supporters – the kids who’ll cheer the bully on, even hold the kid down while the torture happens.

Then you have passive supporters – the ones who go down the hallway laughing: “Ha, ha – did you see what those kids were doing to that girl? Wasn’t that wild?” They’re not actively bullying, but they’re certainly getting pleasure from the target’s pain.

At the very bottom of the circle is an ugly group – the disengaged onlookers, who say, “They just need to grow up!” or “Take care of it yourself, it’s none of my business!”

There’s the potential witness – the kid we’ve tried to raise to act with integrity and compassion. But he or she is scared of the bully – afraid that, if they intervene, they’ll be next.

But at the very top is the witness – a resister and a defender, roles we adults need to model for our kids. When a bully says, “I don’t like that new girl,” she’s the one who makes the conscious choice to go and sit next to the newcomer – even at a cost to herself.

GRAPEVINE: How do we produce young people like that?

BARBARA: Well, we first need to walk our own talk and talk our own walk. I say to adults, “How do you treat your employees?” “How do you treat someone who looks or acts different or is from a different community?” “How do you deal with a bigoted relative who’s telling sexist or racist jokes and everybody’s laughing?” Do your children see you standing up to that and saying, “No, that’s racist!” or “That’s cruel!” – even when the relatives roll their eyes and say, “Can’t you take a joke?”

It mightn’t impress your relatives, but you’ll have had a big impact on your children. They now know that you don’t exclude other human beings.

GRAPEVINE: In your book ‘Kids Are Worth It’ you cite three approaches to family discipline – the Brickwall, the Jellyfish, and the Backbone. Surely there’s a connection between family background and bullying?

BARBARA: Yes, there is. The BRICKWALL family is hierarchical – in control. People who grow up in brickwall families can become bullies because they’re modelling the parents who bullied them. They’re also more likely to succumb to bullies, and less likely to intervene if they witness bullying, because they’ve been taught to follow.

Brickwall families use bribes and threats, rewards and punishments to gain compliance. So it fits right in when a high-status kid says “If you want to be in my group …” (a reward) “… then you won’t eat with the new girl!” Kids from a brickwall family often don’t know how to make good decisions – and they never experience the real consequences of what they’ve done wrong, because they just get punished and move on.

The JELLYFISH family is the opposite. It bends with every flow and ebb of the tide. Where the brickwall parent imposes a rigid, inflexible structure, the jellyfish family has none.


Some parents are so lost in their own lives (maybe it’s alcohol abuse or drugs or they’re so busy working) that they let their kids run wild. Jellyfish kids often long for some structure. And who’s going to give them that? The bully!

Bullies teach them about staying-in-line and getting recognition. That’s why gang leaders can attract kids who’ve had missing-in-action parents These kids want a family – they want some connection, some order in their lives.

However, BACKBONE parents give kids responsibilities – and let them make choices and decisions – that are age-appropriate and ability-appropriate. They don’t have to be blindly obedient. They do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.

Backbone parents don’t rely on bribes and threats or rewards and punishments. Instead, they use encouragement and feedback, plus unconditional love and discipline.

GRAPEVINE: But many parents see discipline and punishment as the same thing?

BARBARA: True. We often use those words as though they’re interchangeable – but they’re not.

Punishment is adult-oriented, and imposed from without. It arouses resentment, and basically teaches kids to respond with three ‘F’s: fear, fight-back or flee. They flee into themselves (afraid they’ll make a mistake) – or they’re out the front door,

Discipline, on the other hand, gives life to a child’s learning. It helps kids see what they’ve done wrong and why it’s wrong. It gives them ownership of the problem and ways to solve it. And, most importantly, it leaves the child’s dignity intact.

Parents might say, “Well, if I don’t punish them, they just run wild!” But all they’re seeing is the two extremes – the jellyfish or the brickwall.

Backbone parents, on the other hand, hold kids accountable. And they also provide an environment which counteracts the three ‘viruses’ that are ripping apart our humanity:
• hating other human beings with utter contempt
• hoarding – ‘me, mine and more’ instead of ‘us, ours and enough’
• harming – by lying and cheating and stealing.


Backbone parents model the antidotes to those things by caring deeply … sharing generously … and helping willingly. They teach that to their kids. And the child learns compassion and kindness towards others.

Kids who’ve been raised in a deeply caring environment are less likely to target someone else, and are much more likely to recognise the other person’s uniqueness. They’re also more inclined, from a very young age, to share.

Kids with their own computer, their own TV, their own everything, never have to learn to share. But when you share you feel good. It’s a natural high. And bribes and threats simply aren’t necessary.

Backbone kids are much less likely to be willing bystanders. Instead, they’ll stand up against injustice. They saw their parents do it, they were given opportunities to do it themselves, and they were held accountable if they ever hurt another human being.

GRAPEVINE: What can parents do if their kid is being targeted?

BARBARA: Well, some don’ts – and then some do’s:
• Don’t minimize, rationalise or explain everything away: “It’s just part of growing up …” or “You need to harden-up …” Those mean I’m not listening.
• Don’t rush in to solve everything: you’ll probably make it worse, and then they’ll quit telling you.
• Don’t tell the kid to avoid the bully: I’ve seen that in lots of anti-bullying programmes. Why should the targeted kid have to eat lunch under a bush somewhere? Why should he have to find a new route to school?
• Don’t tell your kid to fight back: it’s not a fight. But by all means teach them self-defence – and encourage them to say something assertive: “That was mean. I don’t need this. I’m out of here!”

• Do encourage your kid to respond to the behaviour, not the bully: “That was mean.” “That was odd!” “That was weird.” One response I suggest to older kids is, “That comment was beneath both of us.”
• Do reassure the targeted kid: “It’s not your fault.” I worked with a lovely young girl who had flaming red hair. She said, “I never realised till I read your book that this wasn’t my fault. In Year 9 those girls held me down and set fire to my hair.” They hair-sprayed her and ignited it! But her teachers and parents all challenged her: “You must’ve done something to make them so mad at you?”

I see a lot of families whose kids have attempted suicide and not succeeded. They get some counselling maybe – and sometimes they move to a different school. But often the parents say, “It’s still not working.”

I’ll ask them, “What’s your child doing?”

“No, you don’t understand – my child’s the victim!”

I say, “No, no. Is he working in a soup kitchen? Or helping younger kids? Or volunteering with Habitat for Humanity?”

“Why should I get him to do that?” they ask.

“Because bullying isolates you and tells you’re a loner, a loser. But when kids who’ve been targeted get out and help others, it develops their sense of self-worth and repairs that awful hole which bullies tear in their victims.”

GRAPEVINE: So how should a school handle bullies who get caught?

BARBARA: The school must hold them accountable – with discipline. Kids make mistakes … they create mischief … and sometimes they cause mayhem. And all bullying (including verbal bullying) counts as ‘mayhem’.

Let me give you an example: A kid’s walking down the hallway with a marker sticking out of his back-pack, and he accidentally marks the wall. That’s an accident, a mistake. He has to own it, fix it, learn from it and move on.

Another kid draws noughts and crosses on the wall – that’s mischief. So we apply the four steps of discipline:
1. we show him what he’s done wrong
2. we give him ownership of the problem
3. we give him ways to solve it
4. and we leave his dignity intact.

But if it’s mayhem, you take those four steps and, on the third step, you add in three ‘R’s – restitution, resolution and reconciliation. In other words he’s got to own what he did and fix it – that’s restitution. If you’ve spread an ugly rumour around the Internet, you’ve got to send a note to everybody you shared it with. You won’t ever totally get it back – but you’ve got to try.

Then resolution: “You called a kid a gross name. How are you going to address this from here on in?”

“Oh, I won’t ever call her that again!”

“No – that’s not enough. What will you do?”

What you want to hear is: “I’ll call her by her full name without sarcasm. I’ll also help her feel safe in class by sitting in a different place.”

Finally, reconciliation. If the target feels comfortable, I say “Would you like to sit down with this bully, now, because he’s ready to own what he did … tell you how he tried to fix it … tell you how he’s going to keep it from happening again … and make an attempt to heal things with you?”


When this all works out, you’ve empowered the target, and humbled the bully. Humbled, but not humiliated. He’s now less likely to target the kid again. However, I also want to nurture the bully’s empathy, because that’s been buried under lots of muck.

I want to teach him friendship skills. (Bullies don’t have those; they have leadership skills.) And I want to give him energising activities that don’t involve harming other kids.

GRAPEVINE: Have you seen much success in this area?

BARBARA: Oh yes. I’ve taught seriously troubled kids, some of whom were bullies. Some were bullied bullies. And some were in trouble because they struck back when nobody else would do anything.

In reforming a bully you have to hold them accountable. You can’t just slap their wrists and say, “No, no – don’t do that!”

Ultimately, we try to bring them full-circle. Remember: it was a new kid he targeted originally! Now another new kid is coming in. So we say, “You’ve really grown through this and we trust you. We’d like you to buddy-up with this new kid so he doesn’t get targeted.” We’re now putting him in the role of witness, resistor and defender.

Which is coming full-circle.

GRAPEVINE: So kids can grow past being bullies? It’s not something they’re stuck with?

BARBARA: All of us are originally hard-wired to care. All babies – boys and girls – will cry in a nursery if another baby’s in distress. An 18-month-old child will rush to the side of a baby in distress and try to help.

A two-and-a-half year-old will go running to his mum or dad if another kid is hurt.

By the time he’s four, a child who’s living in a deeply caring environment and is given a cookie and notices another child doesn’t have one, he’ll break his cookie in half. This happens before the child’s had religious education programmes, character-building programmes – any of that.


We’re hard-wired to care. But, from as young as four or five, we can be TAUGHT to bully. We can be TAUGHT that it’s okay to be mean to kids who look different. And that conditioning can smother our inborn empathy.

However, we can grow beyond that – yes! We can learn to do good because it’s good to do – and because it feels so good.

I want schools to ask themselves: Does our school community have a sense of entitlement? Is there any one group that feels more entitled than another – where one group of kids (often athletes) are put on a pedestal and treated as special? Maybe it’s Board Members’ kids, or kids with a particular skin-colour, or kids from a particular faith-tradition – and it gives them a sense that they’re allowed to exclude others.

Are there lots of cliques in the school (rather than clubs)? Is there intolerance towards those who are in any way different?

If so, you’ve got fertile soil for bullying. And having an anti-bullying policy isn’t enough. You need to make sure those danger signs aren’t there.

GRAPEVINE: Any final thoughts on putting an end to bullying?

BARBARA: There’s a man who has these numbers tattooed on his arm – he was a death-camp survivor at Auschwitz. And he was asked, “How can we break today’s cycle of violence?”

He said we must do three things:
• pay attention to what’s going on around us …
• get involved …
• and never, ever look away!


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