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Bullying and The Adult Bystander

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, January 21, 2014

In reading some information on bullying recently, I was reminded of an Oprah show from a number of years ago, that was a tag-on to the ABC Primetime series "What Would You Do?"  This particular show included a gang of girls bullying another girl (all actors) in a public park.  The question put to the audience was: what would the "innocent bystanders" in the park do?

Interestingly, many men looked over at the commotion, but few (if any) stopped.  A couple of women kept walking, but for the most part, the women came over and confronted the bullies.  What was disturbing to me, though, was as the bullies became belligerent with the bystanders, the behaviour of the bystanders escalated in childish ways.

The most alarming trend was that a number of the bystanders stepped in, tried to get the bullies to stop, and when the bullies wouldn't back down, the ladies started behaving like the girls: mimicking the girls, raising their voices, pointing aggressively at them, and even insulting them and calling them names.  Great example to set! 

The actors were given strict instructions not to swear.  That didn't stop a number of the adult ladies from swearing at the girls -- who were probably in the 13 to 14 year old age range.  Nice.

A couple of these women were on the Oprah show afterward and were asked about their behaviour.  Reassuringly, they both seemed somewhat embarrassed and sheepish, but one did say that she didn't remember behaving that way.  What a fascinating statement.  She got so caught up in the drama of the situation, that she automatically reverted to meet the girls where they were at, dropping, in a sense, to the lowest common denominator, instead of stepping up and trying to provide a healthy example for them.  And she didn't even realize she was doing it!

I think there's a lot to be learned from this little experiment.  And an important question to ask yourself is, if you were in that situation, what would you do?

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Andrea Ramsay Speers • Psychotherapist & Parent Coach • Oakville Family Institute • 175 Glenashton Dr., Oakville ON • Tel.: 905-491-6949

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