Teaching Your Child Not to Be a Bystander

By Pam Henderson

I finally found a term that describes the situation when an individual leaves the toilet paper roll empty, ignores the cats’ depleted food dish and refuses to discard the box after eating the final cracker. It’s “diffusion of responsibility.” This occurs when one thinks that someone else will take care of the problem, and therefore doesn’t personally address it.

I came across this term when I was trying to understand what causes some people to act, and some people to stand by. My husband recently slid on the ice at a gas station, and no one came to help. He wasn’t hurt; still, I couldn’t believe that not a soul came over to see if he was okay.

McCombs School of Business at Texas writes “Diffusion of responsibility occurs when people who need to make a decision wait for someone else to act instead. The more people involved, the more likely it is that each person will do nothing, believing someone else from the group will probably respond. Diffusion of responsibility makes people feel less pressure to act because they believe, correctly or incorrectly, that someone else will do so. And, when we don’t feel responsible for a situation, we feel less guilty when we do nothing to help.” The writers go on to say, “So, in this way, diffusion of responsibility keeps us from paying attention to our own conscience.”

Another expert, Alex Lickerman, MD, wrote “The Diffusion of Responsibility” which appeared online in Psychology Today. (June, 2010) Dr. Lickerman had an experience similar to my husband’s. He was at a public park and came upon a man lying unconscious on the ground; several people were standing around, but no one called 9-1-1.

Dr. Lickerman tried to rationalize why no one helped this man who was obviously injured. He came up with the conclusion that “We’re all busy with our own lives and don’t want to get involved. We may not believe we’re the best person to assume responsibility. We may not care about the issue involved. We may be lazy.” No four words in the English language are ever easier to say than: it’s not my problem.

The diffusion of responsibility not only occurs in medical emergencies or when the paper towels are emptied and not replaced. It occurs on the playground as well, and in the locker room and around the neighborhood, when children observe bullying. The fact is that 70.6% of young people say they have seen bullying in their schools. (Bradshaw et al. Bullying and peer victimization at school: Perceptual differences between students and school staff, 2007). As a result, most of our children, at some point, have been a victim, a bystander, or a perpetrator.

The diffusion of responsibility doesn’t have to be the norm when it comes to responding to bullying. Dr. Michelle Borba, a psychologist and parenting expert, came up with the mnemonic BUSTER to help children remember how to respond to bullying. Dr. Borba explains:

  1. B-Befriend the Victim

Bystanders often don’t intervene because they don’t want to make things worse or assume the victim doesn’t want help. But research shows that if witnesses know a victim feels upset or wants help they are more likely to step in.

Wave other peers over“Come help!”

Ask if the victim wants support: “Do you need help?”

You can also encourage students to befriend a bullied child after the episode. “That must have felt so bad.” “That happened to me, too.” “Do you want me to help you find a teacher to talk to?” It may also help other children recognize there are safe ways to defend and support a targeted child.

  1. U-Use a Distraction

The right diversion can draw peers from the scene, make them focus elsewhere, give the target a chance to get away, and may get the bully to move on. A bully wants an audience, so bystanders can reduce it with a distraction.

Dr. Borba shares this story: “One of the best distractions I’ve ever seen was a teen who saw bullying but did not feel safe stepping in to help (and most children as well as adults do not). So he got crafty. He unzipped his backpack and then walked nearby the scene and threw the backpack to the ground. Of course, he made it appear as though it was an accident, but it was a deliberate and brilliant act. “Oh no,” he said. “All my stuff is on the ground and the bell is going to ring. Can anyone help?” And the teen drew the audience from the bully to help him pick up his papers. The target also had a chance to sneak to safety.”

  1. S-Speak Out and Stand Up!

Speaking out can get others to lend a hand and join you. You must stay cool, and never boo, clap, laugh, or insult, which could egg the bully on even more.  Here are a few possibilities:

Show disapproval: Give a cold, silent stare.

Name it: “That’s bullying!”

Label it: “That’s mean!”

State disapproval: “This isn’t cool!” “Don’t do that!” “Cut it out!”

  1. T-Tell or Text For Help

An active bystander could:

Find a trusted adult. Keep going until you find someone who believes you

Call for help from your cell phone.

Send a text to someone who can get help.

Call 911 if someone could be injured.

  1. E-Exit Alone or With Others

Stress that bullies love audiences. Bystanders can drain a bully’s power by reducing the group size.

  1. R-Give a Reason or Offer a Remedy

Research finds that bystanders are more likely to help when told why the action is wrong or what to do. Bystanders could:

Review why it’s wrong: “This is mean!” “You’ll get suspended.” “You’ll hurt him.”

Offer a remedy: “Go get help!”

The tips from Dr. Borba are just one of many ways to help your child feel confident and safe in addressing bullying or a situation where someone needs help. Talk with your child’s school to see how they are working to prevent and respond to bullying, and check out these websites for more information:

Dr. Lickerman reminds us, “We can live with the consistent assumption that we’re here to help others in whatever way we can, stepping up constantly to whatever plate life thrusts before us without being asked. It only takes is practice. People who think this way don’t ask, “Who will do it?” They just assume if a problem finds them it’s theirs to help solve.”