In Expert Interviews

Dr Kate Roberts on Helping Bullying Bystanders

bullying bystanders

What about Bullying Bystanders?

Dr. Kate Roberts has done more than sixty interviews on television, newspapers, and online and traditional magazines. Most recently Time Magazine, Parenting magazine, Scholastic Magazine, Parents Magazine, Boston Metro, Working Mother magazine and Disney In addition to all of this Dr. Kate is published in a number of articles in professional journals and writes the bi-weekly parenting column Dr. Kate’s Parent Rap in the Salem News. 

Dr. Kate welcomes questions from reporters and writers and has been interviewed on a wide variety of family and parenting topics, from the Boston bombings, to Columbine shootings, bullying and children addicted gaming

 Dr. Kate completed her undergraduate degree in psychology from Boston University and her doctorate in clinical psychology from University of Rhode Island. She completed her pre and post doctoral training at Brown University and Butler and Bradley Hospitals. 

 Dr. Kate has worked as a consulting psychologist to school districts throughout Rhode Island and Massachusetts. She held a faculty position at the Brown University Medical School, Department of Psychiatry as a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry. Currently Dr. Kate works full time coaching children and families in her private practice outside of Boston and through institutions such as Massachusetts General Hospital.

Dr Kate Roberts Talks to’s Founder, Ciaran Connolly, on All aspects of Bullying and Bystanders. 

The interview on Bystanders can also be found here and here.

Below is a transcript of the Video Interview on Bullying and Bystanders:

Dr Kate Roberts: I’m Dr. Kate Roberts. I’m a psychologist and I’m specialized with children and parents. I have been doing this for 25 years. I have affiliations in Massachusetts with different schools and I have my own practice and I’m very aware of the issue of bullying and have been exposed to it as a parent as well as a professional. So, I think that in terms of my knowledge of bullying, there are some things that I can say have been consistently present for the duration of my career and then there are things that are newer in terms of bullying which are more recent which have to do with technology and other types and means of communication. So, I think that bullying is as prevalent today if not more so than ever and it certainly is pervasive in my practice.

The Problem of Bullying Bystanders

Ciaran Connolly: Do you think bullying today is as big a problem, a challenge for young people and even for adults, as it was 10 or 15 years ago?

Dr Kate Roberts: I do and actually I think the researches supports that. The National Center for Education Statistics indicate that it has increased since 2003 and the data from 2010 I believe for this country talks about 29% and I believe that’s under-reported. I think that one of the major concerns that we have with bullying is that children have a hard time articulating and understanding peer relationships and they don’t really understand what’s a bully and what isn’t and so there is more education about that and I think that could be related to the increase statistically as children have become more outspoken with the term at schools and there is, you know I’m sure you are familiar with the federal laws here in this country as well as the state law against bullying, anti-bullying laws. So, I think that it is a combination of more reporting as well as an increase in pressures creating, you know, more stress manifested as bullying.

Ciaran Connolly: Do you see a different way of bullying today? You were saying in your introduction that you have seen more technology in use. Things have changed than in the last few years?

Dr Kate Roberts: I think that I see it both. I do see a fair amount of traditional bullying for sure because there is something more gratifying for the bully in some ways especially when you are talking boys; to be doing it face to face with physical confrontational aggressiveness. I think with females, they have always been more sneaky and more behind the scenes with bullying and so the internet and social media just feeds into that. For them, it gives them a playground in which to act these bullying tendencies through tweeting negative things or posting or messaging; all sorts of things that they don’t have to take as much accountability for those kinds of actions.

Physical Bullying Bystanders

Ciaran Connolly: Very good and when you are talking about the physical bullying, that still tends to happen in school or out of school? Or the more traditional way?

Dr Kate Roberts:It can happen in school in terms of any sort of unstructured time. I think that as much as schools monitor it, first we need to define bullying. I mean, I see bullying as any sort of intimidation with the intent of putting down another child so it doesn’t have to be a dramatic impact or assault. It can be subtle to intimidate or lessen the other child. So, when that component is there, it can be a variety of settings most of them in school or unstructured. There is lots of passing time in the hallways and at recess and waiting for things to happen and if you are talking about anywhere even from 15 to 25 students per adult in a school, a lot of this stuff goes unnoticed. The other thing is that children into teens are reluctant as adults to speak up. You know, they don’t want to be the whistleblowers so to speak in the school setting or on the sports field or in front of their peers on the bully and so you will find a bunch of students thinking the exact same thing about that bullying student and no one is confronting that person.

Bullying and Bystanders 

Ciaran Connolly: And even bystanders; do you still see that most bystanders don’t get involved? I know that would be one way that would help a victim but the people still tend to ignore for their own self preservation.

Dr Kate Roberts: I think that’s for sure the natural tendency. I think certainly with the anti-bullying laws in Massachusetts, the schools and students have had a clear message that if we are going to fight this, it has to be bystanders.  Bystanders are actually the most critical person to be a deterrent for bullying because they are people that aren’t the target so they are not seen as weaker and yet if they are confronting and assertive, the bully will be very likely to back down. So, they are very crucial in this process and that it is only recent that they have been identified in that way and defined as really essential to stop this bullying trend.

Ciaran Connolly: Very interesting and you are obviously a specialist and a parent coach and you are really trying to help parents help their children. For any parent that’s watching this or listening to this video, what advice would you give them and how should they approach the topic of bullying with their child to ensure that they are able to stand up for themselves but also understand the consequences of bullying that they don’t become a bully themselves?

The Consequences for Bullying Bystanders

Dr Kate Roberts: Right. So, I think there is different aspects for a parent. I think the first thing is to make sure that you are communicating openly. Like I said, I think it’s under-reported. I think there is a certain sense of shame if the student is a target, especially in a repeated way, it’s hard sometimes they feel responsible, they can internalize that negativity. So, I think the parent has to communicate the message of you know “You need to talk. You need to be open” and encouraging them to speak without feeling like they are going to be tattle telling on the bully or anything like that so that the first thing.

The second thing is, I think, promoting confidence through different sorts of behavioural activities. For example, really trying to encourage the child to recognize their voice and learn to say “Stop” and even practice that through a tape recorder and learn the difference in the voice when it’s authoritative and assertive versus scared and pleading and role-playing bully-versus-target and videotaping those if possible. So, a lot of exposure to fear, which is the bullying, or simulation of that is going to help a child to become less avoid-ant. What happens with a bullying or a fear situations is that the person’s avoidance behaviour becomes as big of a problem as the fear itself. So, it’s almost like “Oh! Here is that person who is bullying me. I’d better walk the other way” without even thinking about the fear; it becomes habitual.

So, what parents need to do is they really need to start working with their child and breakdown that fear and get some techniques in a safe settings so that then they can start to generalize those in other settings you know with peer’s help and with the school’s help and things like that. I think it is a very big societal and cultural problem, but I do think that the individual victims need to take some control in order to feel like they can manage themselves even when adults aren’t around and they have to do that by learning some strategies because it is not easy for them.

Ciaran Connolly: It’s a very good point because these are skills that will help a child develop through life and they will use long after in the work relationship and in their own personal life. So, having these life skills are critical for any young person. Do you think that, we are talking about parents, do you think that schools are obviously and the community are all stakeholders and all have responsibility trying to ensure that the kids have these skills?

Dr Kate Roberts: I definitely think they have a responsibility and I think the government and the policy makers have tried to make that point by creating these anti-bullying laws. I know from being in schools, you know I’m going to be fair and say that, I think that when it’s a parent, when it’s obvious to them, they will step in. However, I think that the main focus in Massachusetts where I work is curriculum. It’s curriculum before anything else and so it’s hard to be enforcing the curriculum to the standards that we have as well as attempting to build these life skills and all these other aspects that are really important.

Families and Bullying

Ciaran Connolly: And this is it. Everyone is under pressure to deliver their own imaginable objectives and maybe these skills aren’t high enough on the radar for the schools or the priorities aren’t obvious there which is understandable when you have 20-30 children in front of you and grades are very important. Have you seen some severe cases then in your own practice where bullying has impacted families and children?

Dr Kate Roberts: I definitely have seen that and I have seen both sides of it. I mean, I have worked with bullies and I have worked with targets. There is one case in particular that you mentioned cyber bullying versus you know previous to that and this was girls in middle school where one girl was friends with a whole group of girls and one of the girls in that group wrote a note and she said that my client had written it and it was kind of nasty about everybody else. So, it was a traditional note-passing kind of thing and this girl had lost all of her friends and the families had a very strong reaction because the parents had wards and her lifestyle has changed a lot as a result of it and it happened 2 years ago and you know we are still talking about it.

So, it is not like it was you know a bully-cide attempt or something, but she did have hospitalization after it and it was very traumatic for her because you know in middle school you have your group of friends. I think middle school is prime territory for bullying and the kids are really vulnerable and you have your group of friends and you are just sort of finding your way and here you are, you know, ostracised and excluded for something that you didn’t do and I know why she is a target. She has some vulnerabilities, she fits the profile of what a target would be but you know it had a severely significant impact and then I have seen the other more cyber bullying with girls around you know the tweeting out.

One girl that I worked with was tweeting out the whole community that she was pregnant when she wasn’t, you know, that kind of thing. So, now she has the whole reputation and it’s not even true at all and so those kinds of things happen and I have seen it with boys. It’s more like joking and even as a parent quite frankly. When I have had a carpool my kids around, there are certain kids that are more in that profile and they can be more aggressive and you know you are listening to what they are saying and how they are talking in general about people and how they are talking to the other kids in the car and there is something that you know. It’s a leadership quality but it’s a negative leadership and I think that this goes back to the question about the schools and how much they intervene because I think that some of these bullies, not all of them but some of them, are you know positive students; they have the leadership quality that the teachers appreciate and so it’s hard for them to then confront them in this bullying position when they have these other qualities with adults. So, it’s mixed in that way too but yes. I think it’s very pervasive and I think the other way that you know there is another sort of shade to bullying and it’s the Frenemy. I’m sure you have heard that term.


Ciaran Connolly: I haven’t actually, no.

Dr Kate Roberts: Frenemies. Ok, so that’s friends that are really enemy;” frenemy”. So, it’s when they don’t get their way, they act like a bully. So, it’s kind of love-hate relationship but there is always one person in that dyad that’s the one down that doesn’t have the control and the bullier is a friend if it’s convenient and it works well. So, it’s just another version of bullying but it’s masked.

Ciaran Connolly: Wow. Amazing and you in your own practice, you have actually helped bullies themselves try and understand and deal with what they are doing. Is there a way to change bullies’ view to stop them bullying? I guess my question is: do bullies, if they don’t seek help, our help and understand the consequences of what they are doing, are they likely to bully for life and is there a way to try and stop that cycle?

Dr Kate Roberts: Well I think that there are a few things; I mean:

They are likely to bully for a long period of time unless there are consequences which will modify their behaviour. So, sometimes they can learn just from consequences but the better way to make it more of an internal versus an external process for them is most of them have been vacant in some way themselves in terms of feeling powerless, feeling helpless, whether at their homes with their parents or maybe with an older sibling or some other situation at school and so as a result of that powerlessness, they are aggressive towards those they perceive as weaker. So, the job with them is to get them to recognize how they feel powerless over a certain situation and how that’s related to hurting other people you know and you see it when it’s done to you, how do you think it feels when you do that for someone else? The first step is getting them to acknowledge that they have done it and most of the time, that’s not an easy thing to do but once you can get them, either they are caught doing it or you have a report you know will be honest, then it’s the question of developing empathy and it’s hard to develop empathy if those initial connections at home haven’t been real strong and positive and I find for a lot of bullies that this is the stem of it. This is where it originates.

On Schools and Teachers and Bystanders

Ciaran Connolly: Of course and I will ask you one last question if you don’t mind. Schools and teachers, what should they be doing? Or what do you think is the best way for them to try and encourage an environment where we don’t have a problem with bystanders and the kids are encouraged. Are there things in school that you have seen work and you’d like to see it in another schools or you think all the schools should have them?

Dr Kate Roberts: Well, I think the zero tolerance policy really sends a strong message. Ok, so it supports the anti- bullying laws for that sort of a cultural phenomenon that happens in school. Now, in the classroom, how is that implemented? Well, I think that what’s really important is for teachers to really be positive about positive interaction with students and to really be very strict about things that could be perceived as bullying or “frenemy” type behaviour, really sending the message home because I think early on, set that tone the first few days of school, really make it clear because I think that bullies will do whatever is going to meet their needs. So, if they can get away with it and get positive attention, then they will do that but if they have to behave to get that same level of recognition and be positive, they will do that sure because it’s really about feeling in control when getting that attention and if they get rewarded for the positive behaviour and that’s the standard of a classroom, then you are going to feel a lot more of that but teachers really in the beginning of the year have to be vigilant about those stuff to let students know. I mean, it’s like “Let’s work overtime the first 2 weeks” to let students know they mean business with those stuff and don’t let anything slide and really put the curriculum, which is mostly review anyway, aside until they set that tone for their classroom and once it’s set and the standards are there, kids are very quickly to adjust and they don’t mess with it.

Ciaran Connolly: Very good. So, instilling the skills that will last for lifetime in the children. Excellent thank you very much for your time today, Dr Kate. It’s very much appreciated and some brilliant insight into l guess life of the bully and a victim and what we can do to help them and again you are obviously specializing as a parent coach and helping parents understand and get the best in life for their children. If someone wanted to actually reach out to you or to get some more advice or to read some of the articles you have written, is there somewhere we can send them?

Dr Kate Roberts:Yes. They could go to my website which is, they can email me there at [email protected] and I do use Skype work, Skype coaching and things like this. So, I’m happy to work with anybody anywhere. I just really want to help.

 Have you been a bullying bystander? is your friend a bullying bystander?

What do you think is the deal with bullying bystanders? what is the deal with bullying and bystanders? Are your friends bullying bystanders? Tell us below…

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