Preparing Children to Stand Up for Themselves and Others

It seems impossible to get through voluntary playground duty without witnessing a child running with tears streaming down his or her face at recess time. This day was typical with one glaring exception. Walking up alongside the teary-eyed child, I spotted an upstander taking action. A second-grade girl was beginning to cry in a group of other girls. I watched her back up ready to run when another girl swooped in, locked arms, and walked her away. She saw an act of injustice and she swiftly and simply took action. And I’m guessing that the girl who was being picked on felt differently about her experience because of it.

Indeed, in a recently released survey by Highlights for Children of 2,000 U.S. children, ages 6-12, most said they would take action when they witnessed something hurtful happening.1 Most younger children would ask an adult for help, and a number of older children would try to stop the injustice on their own. 

It seems the desire to help is present in our children. We are raising compassionate kids; kids who notice others, feel their pain and want to do something to alleviate it. So the question then becomes, how can we offer them support in what they can say and do to act as skilled change-makers?

The recess drama that unfolded may have been a one-time incident. But if it actually was one of a series of increasingly harmful attacks by another or a group, then those actions could be considered bullying. You might wonder how much your child could make a difference in that kind of power-over situation. But did you know that more than half of bullying situations (57%) stop when a peer intervenes on behalf of the student being bullied? 2 That’s a powerful peer intervention.

In addition, we, as caring parents, want to be certain our children are ready if they encounter mean words and actions. We want to know they can respond in ways that are confident, constructive, and draw a clear line against abuse. 

The following are some ideas for helping your child understand what she or he can say and do when under attack or witnessing another needing help. 

Ask and Listen.

Have you talked with your child about how peers treat one another at school during their free time? Did you know that more than one in five children (20.8%) report experiencing bullying at some point?3 In a study of U.S. students, grades 3-12, fewer than half told a parent about the fact that they were bullied.4 The reasons a child might not tell a parent are varied including blaming her/himself for the bullying, fear of punishment or judgment, and also, fear that the parent will go after the bully and that might make matters worse for the child. Assure your child that you are a safe person to talk with. You won’t judge your child or her friends but want to understand and help her stay safe. Also, it’s important to look for signs. If your child has repeated tummy aches and doesn’t want to go to school, ask if there are troubles they want to avoid. If your child seems depressed and you are unsure why then spend time hanging out together and just listening. Your demonstration of openness and trust may raise the subject that might otherwise remain a secret.

Explore Options Together.

What can your child do or say if he witnesses cruelty to another classmate? Talk about potential options by asking, “What could you do to stop the action without harming anyone?” Could he go over to the child who is being picked on and show he’s a friend? Could he walk that child away with him as I watched the girl at recess successfully do? Could he help guide her to an adult? What if your child is attacked? Practice some simple statements he can use. “Stop! You know you are wrong.” could be one. 

In the case of cyberbullying, you can encourage your child to take steps to stop the attacks. Learn together how to block a “friend” or “follower.” If you are unsure, each social media outlet has its own method. Research it together and if you cannot figure it out, contact a friend or help support to figure it out with you.

DO NOT encourage your child to fight back with words or fists. And do not model a verbal attack inadvertently by criticizing the attacker. A hurtful retort (referencing character, calling names) could escalate the conflict and put your child in immediate danger. Hold back on your own comments even if they are flying through your mind and keep your child safe. If your child is in physical danger, contact school authorities right away. Coaching him to fight back will be leading him into harm’s way – by the hand of the attacker AND in getting caught and reprimanded by the school.

If your child has been dangerously threatened with severe harm, do not follow these steps. Instead, call the school and involve the child’s teacher, the school psychologist, the vice principal – someone at the school level who will take it seriously and pursue the issue immediately. All schools by law are supposed to have an anti-bullying policy in which they have a clear procedure for dealing with it. Severe harm can be identified if there is a weapon or threat of a weapon involved, if hate has been voiced (racism, homophobia), serious bodily harm has already occurred or been threatened, sexual abuse or threat of, or illegal acts are involved such as, robbery, destruction of property, or bribery.

Secure a Safety Buddy.

Does your child have a pal he’s hung out with and counted on for years? If so, build on that friendship by assigning each other the roles of safety buddy. Even if there are new friendships built in the current school year, initiate a playdate with one and talk about the critical role of a safety buddy. These friends can look out for each other. If they see the other being picked on, they can immediately join forces, tell the offender to stop, and walk off together. If they see that the situation is physically dangerous or threatening, they can go find the closest caring adult to enlist their support. 

Stop Rumors from Spreading and Stop Name-Calling.

Do you recall how hard it was not to stand in agreement when rumors were spread as a child or when other children were harshly judged? Your child can walk away with your encouragement that it will truly make a difference. Emphasize that stopping rumors is showing leadership. Your child can help put an end to untrue stories spreading. 

It’s also easy to call others names when all your peers seem to be doing the same. But for the child who has been labeled, those names can hurt and stay with the person. Use the following activity entitled – “Our Hearts” – Teaching Kids about Name-Calling – to help your child understand the impact those words have on others.

Reach Out to New or Marginalized Students.

Also, encourage your child to reach out to new and seemingly different classmates. Is someone new this year? Make introductions when you are at pick-up time and drop-off so that you have the chance to model what that looks and feels like for your child. At home, role-play introductions and encourage your child to show interest and care. Find common ground with others and express curiosity for those who might have different skin colors, belief systems, or appearances. For more ideas on other ways to teach your child to be inclusive of others, check out Expanding the Circle: Teaching Children the Values and Actions of Inclusion.

Practice Assertive Communication. 

Asserting needs with a peer or a teacher or standing up to bullying behaviors is challenging. Practice being assertive by role-playing among family members and offering short and simple language your child can use. “I don’t want to do that.” or “You know that’s not right.” You can also offer simple chances to practice everyday speaking in public, for example, encourage your child to order for himself at restaurants. Or help him practice spending money by purchasing his own toy and talking through the transaction with the cashier with your support. At home when communicating between family members, use I-messages to constructively share upsets. “I feel frustrated when you talk over me because what I have to say is important.” This will offer valuable modeling and practice in dealing with conflicts.

Create Reflective Opportunities to Cultivate Empathy and Compassion. 

Find ways to demonstrate empathy and compassion for others. Families can offer service to others in simple ways like writing letters to senior home residents or making meals for house-bound neighbors. Build upon your children’s natural ability to be reflective and consider other’s perspectives. When you reach out to help someone, reflect on how the experience feels and how your child thinks the person benefitting experiences the help. And when another child acts in harmful ways, in addition to preparing your child to get out of harm’s way, reflect on why that child might be angry or hurt. Their actions are indeed wrong but there’s always a hurting child behind the actions. Help your child find compassion for those individuals too.

It’s National Bullying Prevention Month so it’s an ideal time to consider these important issues. Our children have told us that they have the building blocks for kindness and compassion. Now, it’s our turn to prepare and support them with the words and actions that will turn their positive intent into change-making actions.



Highlights for Children. (2018) 2018 Highlights State of the Kid Survey. Highlights for Children.

Hawkins, D.L., & Pepler, D.J. (2001). Naturalistic observations of peer interventions in bullying. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2016). Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2016. U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from

Limber, S. P., Olweus, D., & Wang, W. (2012). What we are learning about bullying: trends in bullying over 5 years. Paper presented at the meeting of the International Bullying Prevention Association. Kansas City, MO.

#StateoftheKid #NationalBullyingPreventionMonth

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