We’ve all been there – witnessing someone else’s unkindness in a bullying situation, feeling torn between staying safely but regretfully quiet, or putting ourselves in the line of fire by speaking up to help. You’re just one person, right? How can you make a difference? What’s a bystander to do?

The truth is that bystanders have the most power when it comes to bullying situations. Even though directly standing up to a bully can be scary and takes a lot of courage, you have other options that can be just as helpful to the kids who are being targeted. Start small: When you see kids in the hallway who you know are often hurt by peers, smile or say hello. Seemingly small gestures can mean so much to someone who feels alone or left out – you might be offering them the highlight of their day, the only kind gesture they’ll receive for the day. You can also cause a distraction from the bullying situation. If you’re friends with one of the people involved (be it the bully or the target), you can jump in with, “Hey, my locker’s stuck, can you come and help me get it open?” or “I have a couple of questions about the homework from last night, I need your help before the bell rings” or “Hey, the teacher just asked me to find you because she needs your help.”

The fear of standing up to a bully directly by telling him or her to stop the behavior can be huge. But this fear leads to silence and dismissal, and creates an atmosphere that condones bullying behavior. Have you ever wondered how many of the people around you wish they could speak up, too? You’re not alone if you struggle with this dilemma. The majority of kids who are interviewed in studies about bullying say that they wish they could stop it from happening, and that they feel distressed about witnessing such cruelty. In fact, studies have shown that many bystanders experience the same negative effects as the actual targets of bullying. We often think about “safety in numbers,” and assume that staying quiet when we witness hurtful acts is the best course of action. But what if “safety in numbers” meant that EVERYONE voiced their dissent about bullying, EVERYONE could feel safe walking through the halls at school, and EVERYONE felt they could depend upon their peers for support? The longer you stay quiet, the harder it is to find your voice, and the more helpless you feel to change anything. Trust yourself. Be genuine. Be confident. Speak up, and others are likely to follow – they’re just waiting for the right leader.

Link of the Week: The Kindness in Small Gestures is Contagious

View my blog on the “Six Things Every Parent Needs to Know about Bullying