Challenging Bullying Language

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There are three people involved in bullying situations – Targets, Bulliers, and the Witnesses. Three roles, three words which are very important when we communicate about bullying.

TARGET rather than victim. The term “victim” implies helplessness. Terminology can be empowering. Many years ago, females who were abused by their husbands were known as “battered women.” That label gave way to the term “survivor” because it was important for women to think of themselves as survivors rather than victims. Target as an archery term describes the object of an arrow. Not all arrows, even though released, make a connection with the target. Some are even deflected when the do make contact. Students need to feel they can have the power to deflect physical or verbal attacks.

BULLIER rather than bully. The term “bully” is a label. It dehumanizes a child or student and puts the sum of all of their behaviors into one stereotype. As one mother said to me: “If you would meet my child, you would never think of him as a bully. He is respectful and kind but I know that on occasion he has bullied someone. Does he deserve to be labeled a bully?” Her question requires a thoughtful response. Consequently, I am now using the term “bullier.” A bullier is a person who engages in bullying behavior. Some bullying behaviors are directed to one person, some to many people. If someone is bullying everyone they have a serious problem that most likely requires counseling. Many bulliers were targets before they resorted to bullying as a defensive strategy.

WITNESS rather than bystander. Bystander, a common term in the literature, is a passive word and does not demand any action on the part of the observer. When students are asked to define a witness, they refer to the law programs they have seen on TV and they describe a witness as “someone who sees what happens and has to tell the truth.” How empowering is that! A major challenge is to persuade students to report the tormenting that they see occurring day after day. Since most bullying takes place when adults are not present, motivating witnesses to take action is key. Students have shared actions that a witness could take, from high risk – challenging the bullier, including a target in your have many options, to lower risk – distracting a bullier, they can choose not to support a bullier, they can empathize with a target. Telling an adult is a crucial option. Some students find that to be high risk – others low risk. I would like to hear from you about the terminology I am suggesting.


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