Proactive Bystander Intervention for Peer Aggression

Proactive Bystander Intervention for Peer Aggression

By; Dr. Melanie Hetzel-Riggin

Prevention efforts geared toward bullying and peer aggression are now adopting a bystander intervention paradigm. In this model, a bystander is someone who witnesses violence, has the opportunity and means to intervene, and who chooses to try to help the victim or stop the peer aggression.

Bystander intervention prevention suggests that everyone has the responsibility to take action when they witness someone being hurt or bullied. Bystander intervention seeks to challenge underlying assumptions and norms that support violent ideology.

Important components of bystander intervention (McMahon & Banyard, 2009) include:

  • increasing knowledge of peer aggression
  • decreasing ambiguity
  • increasing efficacy
  • increasing skills
  • providing opportunities to practice intervention strategies

Burn (2009) described five specific steps in the bystander process that must be addressed when teaching someone to be an active bystander:

  1. noticing the event
  2. interpreting the event as an emergency
  3. taking responsibility
  4. deciding how to help
  5. acting to intervene

Let me discuss specific ways we can help people become active bystanders at each of these steps.

FIRST: Notice the event. During this step, it is important to learn more about what peer aggression looks like.

For example, signs someone is a victim of peer aggression include:

  • unexplainable injuries
  • frequent headaches or stomachaches
  • lost or destroyed clothing or other possessions
  • changes in eating habits
  • difficulty sleeping
  • declining grades
  • feelings of helplessness
  • self-destructive behaviors
  • loss of friends and avoidance of social situations

Signs someone might be engaging in the mistreatment of others includes:

  • increase physical and verbal fighting
  • friends who also mistreat others
  • increased aggressiveness
  • unexplained extra money or new belongings
  • positive views about violence and excessive competition
  • low parental involvement or poor home conditions
  • a tendency to think badly about others and blame others for problems

We can teach parents, teachers, and children about these risk factors though the sharing of knowledge, quizzes, and interactive statistics activities.

SECOND: Bystanders must interpret the situation as an opportunity to intervene. Bystanders must understand the difference between being rude, being mean, and being a bully. Good intervention programs should identify and challenge myths about peer mistreatment, such as bullying isn’t that serious or bullying always includes physical aggression. Discussion of social norms, or the unspoken rules that a social group has about acceptable behavior, is needed, as well as a discussion about cultural and social contexts that influence social norms (e.g., acceptable behavior in the classroom v. the lunchroom v. the playground; gendered beliefs about norms).

Bystander intervention programs try to change these social norms in order to change individual behaviors, since changing social norms changes the acceptability of peer mistreatment behaviors. This can be taught through matching and fill-in-the-blank activities, labeling scenarios, myth-busting activities, and social-norm changing activities.

THIRD: Bystanders must be able to take responsibility for acting in the moment. Prevention programs must assess barriers to intervention, such as:

  • cognitive and moral development milestones
  • world assumptions (e.g., bad things only happen to bad people)
  • diffusion of responsibility
  • the fundamental attribution error (or the tendency to think others suffer consequences because they are bad people while we suffer consequences because of the mistakes of others)

We can teach people how to more easily take responsibility for intervening through skits, privilege line activities, challenging world beliefs, increase empathy, and increasing ownership.

FOURTH: Bystanders must develop appropriate skills for intervention. Bystanders must be trained in skills in how to distract the bully, delegate to authorities who can make change, and safely intervene directly with both the victim and the bully.

This can be taught with:

  • role-playing scenarios
  • critical thinking exercises
  • modeling
  • puppet shows
  • coping cards
  • appropriate books


FIFTH: Bystanders must choose to help. This can be incredibly different because of true concerns for safety and for possible damage to friendships and one’s reputation. Often bystanders are concerned about being wrong and getting someone into trouble. At this stage, it is important for people to understand their barriers, validate them as real, and identify and practice ways to intervene that take these barriers into account. In addition, the use of coping cards and the development of a personal creed that bystander intervention is a core part of one’s identity can increase successful intervention.

Taken together, these strategies can lead parents, teachers, and children to become successful, active bystanders when they are confronted with peer mistreatment. When everyone becomes an active bystander, then peer mistreatment will no longer be tolerated and all members of the social groups will thrive.



Burn, S. M. (2009). A situational model of sexual assault prevention through bystander intervention. Sex Roles, 60(11-12), 779-792.

McMahon, S., & Banyard, V. L. (2012). When can I help? A conceptual framework for the prevention of sexual violence through bystander intervention. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 13(1), 3-14.

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