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Teaching Your Child How to Be an Upstander Through Play

When we read about bullying, we often find a lot of information to prevent it or to help the victim. We explore ways in which we can teach children and teens how to avoid bullying others. And we encourage parents to talk to their kids – early and often – about the emotional consequences bullying can have in victims. However, what are we doing to teach children how to be upstanders and make a real difference when witnessing a bullying situation?

According to Davis & Nixon (2010) – as mentioned in a statistic report by Pacer’s National Bullying Prevention Center  – “students who experience bullying report that allying and supportive actions from their peers (such as spending time with the student, talking to him/her, helping him/her get away, or giving advice) were the most helpful actions from bystanders.” This is what sets a difference between a bystander and an upstander.

So, how do you exactly model this with your children? How do we seek out opportunities during our playtime to teach our children how to intervene and help someone in need? To use their voice to make a difference in someone’s life and maybe even contributing to stopping the bullying cycle.

Set up as-if situations in their play

In play therapy, we talk about non-directive and directive play. Non-directive play is when we let the child lead the playing session. They take control, make up the stories, and our role – as adults – is to listen and follow along. Directive play, on the contrary, is when adults take control of the situation, set up the scenarios, and give roles to characters. Both types of play are necessary and can be helpful in different situations. Directive play is best when wanting to address a specific issue, problem, or teaching.

Setting up “as-if” situations in their play around a bullying situation can be incredibly helpful to open up a conversation about this. Some ideas to do this include:

  • Using stuffed animals to showcase a situation of one of them saying mean things to the others.
  • Using toys to showcase a situation of one of them physically hurting the others.
  • Using dolls or other character toys to show a situation where they’re using technological devices to spread rumors about another character.

Remember to direct any exploratory questions to the actual playing session. Asking questions like: “I wonder how that character feels when this other one hits him?”, “what do you think the ones who are watching can do to stop this?”, or “how would telling a parent or teacher make this character feel?” The more questions we ask – trying to do it without shame or judgment – the more you can grasp how much your child knows about being an upstander.

Exchange the roles between you and your child

Make sure that the playing session involves as many different roles involved in a real-life bullying situation: the aggressor, sidekicks, the victim, the bystander, and the upstander. Even more important, make sure you exchange these roles with your child. Offer to take up a certain character, or suggest they play a different role.

Always keep in mind that the end goal is to empower them to become upstanders, so offer guiding questions about the specific role of the upstander. Questions like: “what’s one way they can support someone who is getting picked on?”,  “how can they redirect a bully from picking on someone else?” or “who is someone trustworthy and safe they can talk to about this?”

Make the playing session a teachable moment

The most important thing of drafting this playing scenario is to apply it into real life. As mentioned in other blog posts, the wonderful thing about play is that it gives children the freedom to go into their imagination and, unknowingly, display their motivations, fears, desires, and wishes in the stories they craft. Our role is to translate what they’re putting in their play into real life actions.

Some real-life questions you can ask or statements to open the conversation include:

  • Have you ever felt like any of the characters in the games we played today? If so, which one? 
  • What did you do when you faced that type of situation? 
  • Do you think you could use any of the strategies in a situation like this at school? 
  • Who can you talk to when you spot a bullying situation? 
  • How can you support someone who is being picked on? 

And then see where that conversation takes you. Practicing these strategies and conversations – even if your child hasn’t faced a bullying situation yet – strengthens their emotional toolbox. When we practice with them at home these “as if scenarios” we are actually preparing them for real-life scenarios. What better way to showcase “as if” than through play?

Teaching Your Child How to Be an Upstander Through Play

Mariana Plata

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APA Reference
, . (2018). Teaching Your Child How to Be an Upstander Through Play. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 5 Oct 2018
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