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By high school, most students will have played a variety of roles in the bullying cycle. For example, at different times in your life you may have seen bullying, been bullied, or bullied someone else.

“Bullying is happening every day,” says Matthew Endlich, an anti-bullying specialist at Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey. “Just because it’s not reported doesn’t mean it’s not happening. If you see something, say something.”

Explore some of the emotional and psychological inner workings that take place “behind the scenes” of bullying. No matter what your role is, understanding what’s really going on can help you stop bullying at your school.

Matt’s story

Matt is very quiet. He plays soccer and has a solid group of friends from his team, but he doesn’t really talk to other kids outside of his teammates. He doesn’t think it’s worth his time to get involved in other people’s problems.

Matt's behavior

Matt is in the cafeteria when Becky bullies Ryan, but he continues to eat lunch with his friends as if nothing is happening. Every once in a while he turns around to see what’s going on between Becky and Ryan, but he mostly ignores them, as do the rest of his friends.

Matt's beliefs

Matt doesn’t like to see Ryan being bullied, but he doesn’t think there’s anything he can do to stop it. He’s never spoken to Becky, so he assumes that she wouldn’t listen to him anyway. He thinks that staying silent won’t do any more harm, since he’s not actively encouraging Becky to bully Ryan.

Matt's truth

Staying silent might seem like a good option, but it can encourage the bullying to continue. Anyone who is watching Becky bully Ryan becomes part of her audience, and having an audience often encourages students who bully to continue their behavior. Some states have laws that say bystanders who stay silent during a bullying situation can even be considered responsible for the bullying. Becky may not listen to Matt if he tells her to stop, but it could “break the ice” for other students to openly discourage Becky’s behavior.

Help for Matt

Here’s what Matt can do to help stop the bullying:

  • Invite Ryan to sit at his table during lunch
  • Tell a trusted adult about the bullying situation
  • Start an anti-bullying pledge at his school
  • Find others who also want to stop Becky’s bullying and tell her (in a kind and respectful way) that what she’s doing is wrong

Find out more about how Matt can take a stand against bullying.

Iman’s story

Iman moved at the beginning of high school and didn’t know anyone. She was in a class with Becky and they started to become friends. Iman saw that being friends with Becky made her more popular, which made her feel better about being in a new school. All the friends she has now were Becky’s friends first.

Iman's behavior

Iman doesn’t bully Ryan directly the way Becky does, but she encourages Becky by laughing at the mean things she says to Ryan. Whenever Becky says something particularly hurtful, Iman will say, “Yeah, you’re totally right!” She ignores Ryan any other time she sees him.

Iman's beliefs

Iman thinks that by supporting Becky in her bullying, she will stay popular because Becky is popular. She also thinks that if she’s not saying anything mean directly to Ryan, she’s not bullying and therefore it doesn’t make a difference. Iman thinks she’s just being Becky’s friend by laughing at what she says and agreeing with her.

Iman's truth

Even though Iman isn’t directly bullying Ryan, she’s hurting him by agreeing with Becky’s comments. Her agreement is also encouraging Becky to keep bullying, because Becky wants an audience for what she’s doing. It makes Becky feel more secure to have someone agreeing with her, and it makes Ryan feel even worse. Actively supporting someone who bullies can be just as bad as doing the bullying yourself.

Help for Iman

Here’s what Iman can do to help stop the bullying:

  • Talk to friends, such as Ellie, who don’t support Becky’s bullying
  • Join a club or after-school activity to make other friends besides Becky
  • Support Becky in other ways, such as having her stay over for a weekend
  • Stop laughing, making comments, or encouraging Becky’s bullying; instead try to walk away or show that she’s not interested the next time it happens
  • Tell Becky privately that she doesn’t agree with her bullying behavior

Find out more about how Iman can stop encouraging Becky’s bullying.

Becky’s story

Most of the time, Becky’s parents don’t pay any attention to her. Her dad is always at work and her mom is usually out with her friends. When her mom is home, she’s always telling Becky to lose weight and to wear more flattering clothes. This makes Becky feel bad about herself, and she judges other people more harshly to try to raise her own self-esteem.

Becky's behavior

Becky is making fun of Ryan for being overweight. She “moos” like a cow whenever he walks by her table at lunch and makes a joke about the amount of food he’s carrying. When a teacher tells her to stop her behavior, she stops during the day, but then she yells at Ryan on his walk home and shares insulting posts about him on social media.

Becky's beliefs

Because her mom bullies her, Becky thinks that her bullying behavior is normal and acceptable. She sometimes hears her mom talking down to people and has seen her say bad things about other moms on social media, so Becky learned to treat people in a similar way.

Sometimes Becky cries about the mean things her mom says to her, but when her mom sees her cry, she tells her to grow up and stop acting like a baby. This taught Becky to pretend that it doesn’t hurt her feelings. She acts tough to make up for the fact that inside she feels hurt and insecure. 

Becky also hopes that making fun of Ryan will make her more popular, especially when she sees other students laugh at her jokes.

Becky's truth

When Becky makes fun of Ryan, people laugh because they don’t want to be the next target of her bullying. Some students do what Becky tells them to do, but only because they’re afraid of being bullied. A lot of students think Becky is good-looking and popular, but they don’t really like her because of the way she acts.

Even though Becky is popular, she feels very insecure. Deep down, she believes that what her mom says about her is true. She’s constantly afraid that people will see her as overweight, unattractive, and not worth their time. In reality, Becky’s mom insults her daughter to try to make herself feel better. She has her own insecurities and issues, and has experienced bullying and rejection throughout her life. For Becky and her mom, the cycle of bullying will continue, until they each get help. 

Help for Becky

Here are some things Becky can do to get help:

  • Talk to a counselor or an adult she trusts about her issues at home and school
  • Find a healthy outlet that will help her focus on other things, such as sports
  • Spend time with friends who don’t encourage her bullying behavior
  • When she feels the need to bully Ryan, remind herself how it feels to be bullied and insulted

Find out more about how Becky can get help to stop her bullying behavior.

Ryan’s story

Ryan has had trouble making friends since he moved to a new town and new school. He’s always been a little overweight, but it was never an issue at his old school, where he had lots of friends that he’d grown up with and where he got very good grades. In his new school, he’s lonely and insecure about his appearance, and Becky’s bullying makes it worse. Because he’s so smart and gets good grades, some of the other students think he’s a “teacher’s pet,” which has made it even harder to make friends.

Ryan's behavior

Because Ryan is often bullied at lunch, he tries to avoid the cafeteria. Instead, he eats in the library or sits in a classroom. This means that on the days he doesn’t bring his lunch to school, he often doesn’t have a chance to eat.

Ryan tries to find different ways to walk home because he’s afraid that Becky and her friends will follow him if he takes his usual route. He also stopped doing some of his homework, in hopes that other students will stop making fun of him for being a teacher’s pet.

Ryan used to love school, but now he’s afraid of being bullied. Sometimes he pretends to be sick so he can stay home. At home he’s become more withdrawn, and is quiet when his parents ask him about his day. He knows they’re worried about him, but he’s too embarrassed to tell them what’s going on.

Ryan's beliefs

Ryan has started to believe that he deserves to be bullied. When the bullying first started, he thought that if he was nice to people, he would make friends and Becky would stop bullying him. But now his self-esteem has dropped, and he’s not sure he’ll ever have friends at school. He doesn’t think that teachers or other students are able to stop Becky from bullying him, even if they wanted to. Since Becky bullies him in front of other students nearly every day, he’s worried that other students will start to bully him too.

Ryan's truth

Ryan doesn’t deserve to be bullied; nor does anyone else. Nothing he does or the way he looks changes that. A lot of other students think that Ryan is nice and would like to be his friend, but they’re scared of Becky. Because they’re scared, most of them don’t try to stop her from bullying him, even when they want to. Teachers stop Becky when they see her bullying, but most of the time they don’t know about it.

Ryan just wants to feel safe at school and be accepted for who he is, which is what all of us deserve. 

Help for Ryan

Here are some things Ryan can do to ease the bullying situation:

  • Tell an adult he trusts about the bullying
  • Join a club or after-school activity to find friends who share his interests
  • Try to show Becky kindness, despite her bullying
  • Find others to walk home with
  • Practice confidence: pretend not to hear the bully, act like what she said doesn’t bother him, and walk with his head held high
  • Show others respect and avoid name calling or bullying back
  • Avoid places where the bullying usually happens

Find out more tips for how Ryan can stand up to Becky and her bullying.

Ellie’s story

Ellie is friends with Becky, but lately she thinks Becky has taken her bullying too far. Becky’s jokes at other people’s expense used to seem funny, but Ellie heard someone crying in the bathroom after she and Becky made fun of her, so she started to realize that their teasing was really hurting people.

Ellie's behavior

When Becky laughingly calls Ryan fat for the second time that week, Ellie tells Becky that calling someone fat is mean and hurtful. She points out that Becky doesn’t even know Ryan and that he has never done anything wrong to deserve her bullying. Later that day, Ellie asks Ryan if he wants to eat lunch with her, and they go sit at another table together.

Ellie's beliefs

Ellie has wanted to stop Becky’s bullying for a long time, but she’s been afraid that if she says something, Becky will start to bully her. However, after a few more weeks of watching Becky bully, Ellie’s desire to stop what’s happening outweighs her fear of Becky. As Becky’s friend, she thinks that she’s in a good position to try to get Becky to stop bullying.

Ellie isn’t sure who exactly to go to, so she tells her older sister what’s been happening. Ellie’s sister tells her, “No matter how much you like Becky, being friends with a bully isn’t worth it. If you’re associated with someone who acts like that, people will think badly of you too, and you’ll probably end up losing friends.” Ellie’s sister also tells her that not only is standing up to Becky the right thing to do, but she’ll be better off because of it. This conversation helps Ellie realize that she doesn’t want to lose her other friends, get in trouble, or get a bad reputation. This helps Ellie have the confidence to stand up to Becky.

Ellie's truth

Most other students are happy that someone tried to stop Becky’s bullying. Seeing someone popular who’s friends with Becky take a stand against the bullying makes everyone else feel more confident about their ability to stand up to Becky. They hope that more of Becky’s friends will speak up because she might start listening to them and change her behavior.

Becky was embarrassed and upset when Ellie called her out for bullying Ryan. Becky isn’t talking to Ellie right now, but Ellie is ok with that. Ellie has other friends she can turn to who are understanding and who don’t agree with bullying. Ellie hopes that she and Becky can eventually be friends again, but only if she stops being a bully.

How Ellie can help

Here are some things Ellie can do to help stop the bullying:

  • Tell an adult about the bullying situation
  • Apologize to Ryan for her role in the bullying
  • Invite Ryan to eat lunch with her and her friends
  • If she sees Becky bully Ryan, turn her attention to something else to show that she’s not impressed or interested
  • Be a role model by treating all students with kindness and respect
Find out more about what Ellie can say to Becky to get her to stop bullying.

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Article sources

Matthew Endlich, transition coordinator/counselor, Columbia High School, Maplewood, NJ.

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