How To Stop Bullying When You See It

By Sarah Fader |Updated July 29, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Merlena James Leger, LPC

This article contains mention of actions that are considered abuse. Abuse is never okay, whether it is physical abuse, emotional abuse, financial abuse, or another form of abuse. Please contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) if you or someone you know is experiencing abuse. Experts are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  

As much as we would like to believe that bullying is rare, it is still a common occurrence in schools, online, and in the workplace. In the United States, statistics indicate that around 20% of kids between the ages of 12 and 18 have experienced bullying. And adult bullying is still prevalent in a variety of contexts, though it frequently shows up in different ways. No matter how old or young you are, it’s important to know how you can help stop bullying when you see it. Bullying can have lasting impacts on the person who experiences it, and some people even develop PTSD from bullying

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Just as we may want to believe that bullying is rarer than it is, most people would likely say that they’d step in if they saw bullying take place; but not everyone knows what to do when the time comes. Because we aren't always trained to handle or navigate bullying, it can be easier to do nothing than to take action. If you want to know what to do if you are ever confronted with a problem like this, here is how you can stop bullying when you see it.

  • Understand The Different Ways Bullying Can Happen

Again, although we might picture preteens, teens, and children when we think of bullying, it doesn’t only affect minors. How many adults face bullying? Research says it’s about 31%. Additionally, bullying isn’t limited to name-calling or talking down to someone, which is what many of us think of when we picture this kind of behavior. It can also take the form of rumors, purposeful exclusion, destruction of personal property, cyberbullying, and physical acts.

Friends, co-workers, employers, and other students can all be bullies, though this is by no means an exhaustive list. When you know the different ways bullying can take place, you may be able to better recognize it when it happens to you or someone else.

  • When Safe, Attempt To Separate The Person From The Bully

If you’re able to do so, engage the person who is being bullied. Start an unrelated conversation with them to get them away from the situation (e.g., “Hey, did you get the instructions from our boss earlier? I need help. Can you talk for a minute?”). This can work in scenarios where you and the person being bullied are physically safe. You can then check in with them, ask if they need anything, and help out if applicable. For example, if this is taking place in a work environment, you might ask if they want you to go to the human resources department to talk about it with them.

  • Tell Someone Who Can Help

One major issue that occurs today is that, sometimes, people stand around and watch or even record someone being bullied rather than take action. Even when this isn’t the case, someone might know that bullying is happening and ignore the situation. If you see someone being bullied, there are almost always steps you can take to help alleviate the situation. Even if all you’re doing is reporting the behavior, taking action can make a big difference. Keep in mind, though, that while you may be able to step in, this isn’t always the best or safest option, especially if this is a recurring issue.

If you are not able to do anything or if it isn’t safe to take direct action, walk away and contact the proper authorities. If you are a student, tell a teacher. If you are an adult, talk to a higher-up or another person who has the power to address the matter.

  • If You Have Power, Use It

Just as it’s crucial to reach out to someone like a professor, boss, or HR professional when you notice bullying, it’s imperative to use that power yourself if you have it. When you’re in this position, you can make real change and act in an ethical, truly beneficial way that poses as little risk as possible to the person facing bullying. For example, if you’re a professor or teacher, you have the power to speak with the bully after class, report the incident, or take any other appropriate action given the unique circumstances of what you witnessed.

Research shows that some of the best bullying prevention methods, using school settings as an example, rely on the staff and others to create a safe space. For example, it’s important in schools to talk to both the students and the staff about bullying. Create a safe environment and make anti-bullying efforts a priority, whether you work in a school setting or somewhere else.

  • Be Kind To The Person Being Bullied

There are two reasons showing kindness can be helpful. First, positive and supportive social relationships are correlated with better mental and physical health, both of which bullying can be detrimental to. Second, bullying might be less intimidating for the individual if they have someone on their side. You may even make a new friend.

Similarly, if you’re the one being bullied, consider trying to surround yourself with friends and acquaintances in situations where you expect that you might encounter the bully or bullies. This could limit opportunities for the bully to act and provide you with emotional support when you need it.

  • Get Help After The Encounter

Let’s say that you step in and pull someone who is being bullied aside, successfully getting them away from the person who was bullying them. Although you may have ended that situation, the behavior of the bully could continue. Once you have created a safe space and have stopped a bullying situation, look for ways you can better address the situation so that it can be prevented going forward. This usually means finding people in charge who are equipped to deal with bullying and can ensure this behavior doesn’t happen again. It can be uncomfortable to talk about certain kinds of behavior, but in many circumstances, it is vital; and if it’s handled correctly, it might prevent someone else from experiencing the same or worse.

  • Make An Effort To Play No Part In It

There are times when people let bullying continue without meaning to. For example, you might hear someone make fun of their friend or their partner, and instead of saying anything, you stay quiet. Or you might pretend that you don’t hear a boss saying something out of line, discriminatory, or cruel about an employee. In certain situations, particularly if the individual making those statements is a friend or family member, you might say something like, “That isn’t funny,” or, “That isn’t okay.” This can go a long way toward making the individual realize that this behavior is not acceptable. People don’t always expect to be called out on their behavior, and in some circumstances that might be all that it takes for other people to stand up and help the bullying stop, too.

Of course, it’s crucial to mention that there are times when it will not be safe to do this. If a bully is engaging in physical acts of harm, for example, the most important thing is safety. Call for help and monitor the situation so that you will be able to provide information once the proper party arrives. Prioritize everyone’s well-being over fighting back or engaging with the bully.

How Does Bullying Affect Adults And Children?

Some people are quick to brush bullying off, whether due to the misconception that it’s uncommon or the idea that it isn’t as harmful as it actually is. Bullying is often a source of trauma, and it can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It’s important to know that, if you face bullying at any age, it’s not something you deserve. There are a number of known effects of bullying, both short and long term, which can include but aren’t limited to:

  • Decreased engagement and productivity at work and school
  • Heightened risk of depression and anxiety symptoms
  • Greater risk of substance use disorders*
  • Higher risk of eating disorders**
  • Lower self-esteem
  • Physical health concerns, such as trouble sleeping, tension or pain, and headaches

The good news is that these concerns are treatable, and if addressed, they can improve tremendously. No one signs up for bullying, and the behavior of a bully is never justified. To cope with the effects of bullying, try utilizing self-care techniques, finding new environments where the same treatment isn’t tolerated, making positive connections, and asking for support from medical and mental health providers. Not everyone is able to access all of these things, and change can take time, but practicing some of these tips can go a long way. You have a right to a life where bullying is no longer present.

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*Please contact SAMHSA at 1-800-662-4357 if you or someone you know is affected by a substance use disorder or might be.

**If you or someone you know lives with an eating disorder or might be, visit the NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association) website or contact the NEDA helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

Find A Therapist Or Counselor

Bullying is not the fault of the person who experiences it. As outlined above, though, it can have lasting impacts. If you’ve been bullied, it’s possible to move forward. Therapy can help with concerns related to bullying, self-esteem, stress, difficulty at work or school, family issues, and mental health conditions like anxiety disorders, PTSD, and depression. You can quickly and easily find a qualified, licensed therapist to work with online through a platform like BetterHelp. BetterHelp makes it easy to start seeing a provider sooner rather than later, and the licensure of every provider on the platform is verified. Regardless of how you find someone to work with, you deserve to have a positive support system and people around who uplift you.







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