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What do you do? – Effective bystander intervention

Laci Green, a well-known vlogger and sex educator, tackles an important question in this video—what do you do if you see some kind of abuse happen in a public place? What do you do if the abuse happens to (or is perpetrated by) someone you know?


No one wants to get involved in someone else’s business or make the wrong assumptions about a situation they don’t fully understand. However, one of the reasons abuse happens in the first place is that the abuser thinks what he or she is doing is normal and acceptable, even if to an outsider they appear brutal, abusive, and cruel. One of the ways to challenge the idea of abusive behaviors being normal is through bystander intervention.


Here’s a guide to what to do if you find yourself witnessing an act of abuse.


When It’s Between Strangers


If you see someone at school, at the mall, or at another public place that appears to be in an abusive situation, there are several steps you can take to be a proactive bystander.


First, ask yourself if the situation is safe. If the circumstances are already violent or appear to be escalating quickly, call the police or the proper authorities (a teacher or principal at school, the security agents at the mall). Putting yourself in the middle of a violent conflict in an attempt to “rescue” someone could not only put yourself in danger, but the victim as well—there’s a high chance the victim will be punished later or be less likely to seek help in the future.


If the situation is nonviolent, try these strategies


  • Distract: Ask for directions, to borrow a pencil, or ask about a lost item. The goal is to prevent the situation from getting worse or, even better, to get a moment alone with the victim to ask if they’re okay. Tell the abuser that someone wanted to speak with them, that they dropped something important, or anything to ask the victim, “Are you okay? I saw what happened, and do you need help?”
  • Direct: Simply approach the people involved and ask if everything is okay. While it may be more satisfying to tell the abuser exactly what you think of their behavior, this could be dangerous for the victim later; the best approach is to ask the victim if they are okay or if they need help. Don’t judge or offer advice; even saying something brief like “no one deserves to be treated like that, and I want to make sure you’re okay” can be helpful.
  • Delegate: Even though you may not know the people involved, someone else might—ask them to check up on the situation later to make sure the victim is okay. Tell a teacher, guidance counselor, your parents, or a trusted adult friend what you saw. They may be in a better place to intervene effectively than you.


If It’s Someone You Know


Whether a friend discloses abuse to you or you witness abusive behaviors, knowing how to respond can be difficult. Above all else, remember that your friend needs support, love, and respect.


If you witness abuse, here are guidelines on how to have a conversation with your friend about what they are going through.


  • Express concern. Let them know you are worried about them and their safety—“I saw this happen, and I want you to know that I am worried about you. Is there anything you want to talk about?” would be a good starting place. If your friend denies anything is wrong, don’t push or insist that they are in danger, but remind them that you are always available to talk if they need anything.
  • Listen, and assure them that what is happening isn’t their fault. Just having a nonjudgmental ear to listen to can be incredibly useful. Tell the victim that the abuse (whether physical, emotional, social, or technological) is never, ever their fault.
  • Offer them resources. Although your friend may not be ready to take any steps to leave the relationship, remind her that there are options for getting help and staying safe. The dating abuse hotline (866-331-9474) or the Georgia 24-hour Statewide Hotline (1-800-33-HAVEN) are good numbers to give them. Remind them that hotlines and shelters can help them take measures to stay safe (like a safety plan) even if they decide to stay in the relationship, and can offer them resources should they decide to leave. Remind them of adults in their life and yours who love them and would help if asked. Tell them they are not alone.
  • Support them in their decision, even if it’s something you don’t agree with. It can be hard to not give advice to a friend who you feel is in danger, but you cannot control your friend’s actions. They need to decide what is best and safest for them in that moment and on their own terms, and they are the only person who can do this. They need your support, even if they decide to do nothing or stay with their abuser. Think of it this way—they already have someone in their life who is controlling them; why would you want to be another person trying to control their life?
  • Keep it confidential. If you believe your friend is in immediate danger, contact the proper authorities (the police, a teacher, etc.). But don’t spread rumors or talk poorly about your friend to other people. Particularly in a school situation, the knowledge you have can be hurtful if spread to other people. Your friend needs support, love, and respect—and gossiping about their relationship (particularly if it’s abusive) is the opposite of that.


While abuse happens between individuals, individuals are influenced by the community. Through safe, effective bystander intervention, the community—whether that’s your classroom, your school, your neighborhood, or your town—can become a safer place for everyone.

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