Active Bystander Training for Teens

Active bystanders for Teens.

What do you object to?

Levels of Aggression

Bullying: Bummer/microaggression, Aggression, Bullying — Aggression is a single act. Bullying involves repeated attacks on a particular person. Violence/abuse/extreme bullying – Involves ongoing physical threat, or use of weapons, or enough intensity to trigger the target to consider suicide or violence towards others to make it stop.

Anti-racism: Microaggression, Racist bullying creates an environment of hate that puts a racial group or ethnicity at a disadvantage.


Forced invisibility

Symbols and threats of violence

Violence involving any member of either group


What words do little kids use when they are being aggressive? (Make a list)

Why are they hurtful?

What are the adult words that do the same thing?

Personal homework: Make a list of words/concepts that you want to stand up for. What is important to you?


What are your strengths?

Bold and reserved –

Strengths of bold people:

Willing to step up

Not easily intimidated

Often come up with something to say

Recover quickly from insults


May underestimate the intensity of the situation. More inclined to put themselves in danger.

May jump in too soon and make things worse.

More inclined to argue.

More inclined to talk over another person.


Strengths of reserved people:

Tend to plan social interaction and not speak spontaneously.

Act deliberately around people, think before they act around people.

Many have cultivated a “social voice” that carries authority (a “parent” or “teacher” or “boss” voice.)

They have authority when they speak because their speech is more organized.


They are less likely ask a stranger to help.

They avoid confrontation and conflict.

They may hesitate and miss a chance to help.

Anyone can do these things in a tense situation: Talk too much, Freeze


Personal homework: Are you bold or reserved, most of the time? Decide what your biggest strength is. Figure out a way to avoid your biggest shadow trait.


Responding to Conflict, level 1

Part 1 involves people you know. They may be people in your workplace, your neighborhood, your family, or your friends.

  1. Verbal:
  2. I messages. “It bothers me when you call other women by that term” “I don’t like when you use that term.” “That term hurts me.” Neutral words you can use: Bothers me, doesn’t seem right. Avoid judgement words: annoys me, offends me, is offensive.
  3. Name the behavior, out loud. “You are yelling.” “You are hurting my arm.”

“You are touching me.” (What words have judgment attached? Crowding, cornering, being pushy, intimidating…)

Make a request: Authority voice. “Please don’t use that term in front of me.” “Please don’t make jokes about blah blah in front of me. I don’t appreciate them.” You can also name the behavior out loud. “You are yelling, stop.” “Don’t sit so close, please.”

  1. Deflecting insult aimed at you. “That might be so…AND…”
  2. Change the subject. “We are not going to agree on this, can we change the subject?” “You and I are doing this project together, so can we agree to disagree about this?”
  3. Phrases to be agreeable while not agreeing.

Structure: repeat the offensive comment in a neutral way, then state your objection succinctly and neutrally. “Yes, restate a summary of the other person’s belief, but state something true about your beliefs, when necessary or possible.

 “Terrorism is real. It is designed to make us afraid and it works.” (AND don’t blame only Muslims in front of me.)

I agree that there are natural cycles of the planet that cause some of the natural disasters we are experiencing. I think it’s happening more now. I accept a different explanation for these changes.

Tips: Say: yes, I agree, nod, I am sorry you feel that way…Find: the part of the statement that is true.

  1. Words and phrases that don’t work: Fact, studies show, the Constitution says, any educated person knows, your statistics are wrong, you don’t get the big picture This creates the backfire effect.

Personal homework: practice these techniques and choose some sentences that feel natural to you. Try them next time someone says something that disturbs you.

  1. Physical:

ID places where personal tension shows in the body. Breathe deeply when you are tense.

Steps: Notice. Ground. Breathe. Notice. Ground. Breathe.

Aggressive people have strong expectations as to how their target will behave. If you manage to behave differently- in a nonthreatening manner — you can interrupt the flow of events that could have culminated in an act of violence. You must create a scenario new to your opponent.

Maintain as much eye contact as possible.

Make no abrupt gestures. Move slowly. When practical, tell your opponent what you are going to do before you do it. Don’t say anything threatening, critical, or hostile.

Don’t be afraid of stating the obvious; say simply, “You’re shouting at me,” or “You’re hurting my arm.”


Part 2. Aggressive situations that could get worse.

Remember your strengths and use them. Check yourself and your environment before approaching someone who is upset.

Verbal tactics: When you are talking TO someone who is very upset:

We all can intervene directly with some aggressors. Most adults have done so with children and adolescents. Adolescents do so with peers and sometimes with adults, if they have confident allies.

  1. The calm, direct, confident, assertive-but-not-aggressive style of engagement works best for situations in the beginning stages, where emotions haven’t been stirred up too much and things are still relatively under control.

Practice –Pacing.

  • Slow down your speech.
  • If someone is really wound up, try speeding up to their speed, then slowing down.
  • This video exaggerates the point, but shows how ineffective a calm voice is when the patient is that wound up.

Practice – Turn up the intensity. The aggressor touches, crowds, or threatens to push or punch.

Practice saying “No,” calmly and firmly.

You cannot.

You may not.

You must stop.

Note: “I” messages do not work with strangers. They do not care what you think.

Stepping in with strangers

The overall goal is to defuse the situation and separate people who are hostile to one another.

The target of the aggression is being threatened. You aim to help, while allowing the target autonomy and control.  

  1. Notice: Be alert. Headphones, hoods, phones, books. Be attuned to body language and how it changes.
  2. Decide if interaction is appropriate, or problematic: Trust your gut. Survival skills/reptile brains. Feel danger. Look for signs: racing heart and pulse, dilated pupils, and muscle readiness.
  3. Before you step in, scan your environment. Look for aggressive postures: Violation of personal space. Loud and hostile language. Where are their hands? Cues that there are weapons available to the aggressor.

Discuss: Studying posture. Name the most hostile/maybe too dangerous to probably OK/doesn’t need intervention.

Personal homework: Spend some time in a public place with someone else. People watch. Who looks calm? Who looks tense? Who looks potentially aggressive?

Sometimes the best option is not to act at all. How many allies do you have? Is there a way to run away?

When not to act alone. In almost all potentially violent interactions. Your best tactic is always to have three or more people acting, if a stranger is behaving in a potentially violent way.

  1. Take responsibility:

Decisions you can make ahead of time about what actions you are in a position to take, and which you cannot.

Consider these beforehand:

  • Am I feeling well today? Am I clear-headed? Given that, what can I do today?
  • Who am I with at this moment? Could I endanger them?
  • Am I doing something that could cause me to be injured or arrested?

Then, in the moment, you know what you can commit to.

Acting in an aggressive situation:

  1. Prepare!

Act confident. Try to react with your head, not your heart.

Exercise: Grounding, preparing

Before moving a muscle, slowly breathe OUT, then in, five times.

Body language: keep your chin lifted, your spine straight, feet planted, knees slightly bent.

Voice: calm and firm as possible. Slow it down. Control the volume to slightly loud.

Eyes: Alert. Maintain direct eye contact, but without malice.

If you have to imagine yourself playing a role—think of the most confident, graceful person you know, fictional or real life, do it.

Approach as assertive (but not mutually aggressive), confident, and as calm as you can, that’s the first step toward defusing a situation.

Tactics when a stranger is hostile in public:

Disregard the aggressor. Assertive ignoring: This is suitable for responding to street ranters and street harassment. Maintaining your space, calmly. Keep a confident posture and keep moving. Refuse to engage.

Exercise: Assertive ignoring One person start ranting. Everyone else, figure out how to assertively ignore.

Distract The goal is to change the focus of people in the space. This may ease the tension, overall. It may give the target time to get away. It may give the aggressive person a second to reconsider their anger.

The aggressor:

  1. question about directions, or some other neutral topic. (This works best when the bystander is a larger, white man, but it can work with other bold people or groups of interveners.)
  2. faking a fall or dropping a lot of things, then making a lot of noise about it. Everyone is distracted. Works better in crowded places.

The target:

  1. Involve the target in another conversation.
  2. Keep a respectful personal space. Don’t crowd the target. Don’t touch or physically guide.
  3. Ask if you can sit there/stand there. Introduce yourself by name.
  4. Do you need help? Is this person bothering you?
  5. Suggest that the targeted person move away, don’t demand it.

Follow the target’s instructions – he or she does not need more disempowerment! If you are good a play-acting, pretend you know the target and see if you can get them to play along.

Draw attention The goal is to make other people in the space aware that a problem may be brewing, or that there is a problem. Having more bystanders aware will increase the likelihood that bystanders will actively help.

Ask people in the space to look up. Use your style! If you are comfortable with stranger, be bold. If you are reserved, ask people around you quietly.

Practice samples:

“Does that woman look ok? Do you think she needs help?”

“Can you look over there? That seems wrong to me.”

“Hey everyone, that man is yelling at that woman, please look up!”

Delegate (bring in other people to help get a person in trouble to safety.)

Practice samples:

“Would you come with me to ask her if she’s OK? I am not comfortable doing it myself.”

“Do you think we should go over there? She looks scared.”

“We should do something. Are you in?”

“Let’s go! That woman needs someone to stand with her.”

Distance Separate the aggressor from the target, physically, by asking the target to move or having a group to surround the target and turn their collective backs on the aggressor. This is commonly effective in stranger interactions in closed spaces, like public transportation.

In open spaces, walk the target away from the aggressor. Continue to speak loudly, calling for people to “look up.” “Look up, this man is bothering us!” “Help, this man is bothering us!”

Practice notes: When separating people, plan where you are going before you approach. Do not block exits for yourself or the target. Keep your gaze on the target, but make sure you can see the aggressor in your periphery.

How would you stand to accomplish this, in this room if ___ and ____ were being aggressive?

Delay When at all possible, check in with the target after the incident is over. This is true of hostile shouts, stares, or prolonged aggressive incidents. You can validate the personhood of the target by acknowledging that you saw what happened. He or she may be stunned and need a friend at that moment. He or she may need medical care or not feel safe enough to get home alone.

Putting it all together.

Practice: Role play:

Who: Five people. Aggressor, target, and three bystanders. Aggressor begins bothering a target. Bystanders distracts either the aggressor or the target.

Where: In an pizza place. Bystanders notice an adult man crowding a teenage young woman that they don’t know. They don’t know if the man and the young woman know one another. They might be a couple, or might not.

Bystanders:  What should you do?

Debrief: How do you figure out what to do? What are you looking for in the body language of the two people? What would say to the young woman that might want help? If you think she needs help, what tactic would you try?

Beyond Intervention. What can you do to make your world a better place?

  1. Do not fight your natural inclinations.
  2. Develop sources of quality information.
  3. Focus on what matters most to you. Trust that others will be doing their part.
  4. Get support to maintain balance. This is going to be a marathon, not a sprint.

Bystanders can do good after the aggression has ended. 

Getting help, doing first aid for someone who is injured, calming the other people, locking an aggressive person out of the building…

Bystanders can remove hate graffiti in public place, so the targeted group don’t have to see it.

Bystanders can tell their stories to encourage other people to stand for their own principles.

Personal homework: What are you going to do to be ready to be an active bystander in the face of bullying or other aggression? What are you willing to do to support the values that are important to you?


Web links:

Active Bystander Training for Teens

Resource list. Voyagers