Junior high was an awkward time for me - a time when I was trying to find out who I was and still fit in at the same time. I wasn't part of the popular crowd, but I wasn't unpopular either. Instead, like most kids my age, I was somewhere in the middle - that strange place in the junior high social hierarchy where you're not quite a social outcast, but you're not quite "in" either. It's also the place where I would imagine you would find most of the bystanders to bullying.
In fact, I was a bystander to bullying more than once. But there was one incident at a junior high dance that still lingers in my mind, rearing its ugly head and reminding me that I should have done something.
It occurred in the girl's bathroom - far from the eyes of any chaperone or teacher. Like all teenage girls, I went to the bathroom with a group of friends. We were standing in front of the mirror giggling and primping when Shelby* followed Megan* into the bathroom. She was yelling and pushing her.
I don't really remember what she was upset about, probably a boy - but I do remember what she did next. She grabbed Megan and forced her into the stall and stuffed her head in the toilet while we all watched. She continued to dunk her while Megan cried for her to stop.
Shelby finally told Megan she would stop only if she kissed her shoe. Naturally wanting the assault to end, Megan complied and did in fact kiss her shoe. Shelby walked out of the bathroom after that, shoulders thrown back and quite pleased with the power she had over Megan. Megan, meanwhile, was crumpled in a crying heap on the floor.
I wish I could say that I was the type of bystander I hope my kids will be. You know, the person who steps up and tells the bully to stop. But I didn't say anything. Instead, I stood there like every other girl in the bathroom with my mouth gaping and watching the entire event unfold before me.
For me, I was filled with a wide range of emotions. I felt horror over what was happening and compassion for Megan. I wanted it to stop, but I wasn't sure what to do. On the one hand, I felt like it wasn't any of my business and it would be best to stay out of it, no matter how horrible it was. I also wondered if I intervened if Shelby would turn her rage on me.
But the emotion I have been plagued with all these years is guilt for not doing or saying something. Why didn't I do or say something to make it stop? What kept me frozen in my place? Why didn't I leave and tell an adult?
Unfortunately, my reaction to witnessing bullying is not uncommon. Kids who see bullying at school, online or at a social activity experience a wide range of emotions including everything from guilt and anxiety to fear and uncertainty.
Yet, like me they often don't so or say anything to make it stop. Not because they don't want to, but because they don't know how. For this reason, parents and educators need to teach kids how to intervene in safe ways in order to prevent bullying from continuing.
For more information on empowering bystanders and how they are impacted by bullying, see my articles How Witnessing Bullying Impacts Bystanders, Teach Kids How to Respond When They Witness Bullying and How Empowering Bystanders Can Prevent Bullying.
*Names have been changed to protect their privacy.
Photo courtesy of iStockphoto