​Roles that kids play in bullying

​Bullying occurs within interpersonal relationships, usually within a peer group. Like all relationships, these can be complex and variable.

Within a group, individual students may take on different roles in bullying on different days, in different circumstances or with different peers.

The roles within bullying are:

  • as the person being bullied
  • as the person bullying someone else
  • as a person who witnesses bullying happening or knows about someone being bullied.

Read below how the labels 'bully' and 'victim' are unhelpful and can cause additional problems.

It is more helpful to describe the role, rather than to label the child.  A student who is bullied in one context may do the bullying in another, and a student who sees bullying in one context may be bullied in another.


Most of the time bullying takes place with students (and others) present. People who witness bullying are called by​standers. Bystanders can play a number of roles:

  • assisting the students who are bullying and actively join in
  • encouraging or showing approval to the students who are bullying
  • doing nothing or being passive
  • defending or supporting the student who is being bullied by intervening, getting teacher support or comforting them.

The actions of a supportive bystander can stop an incident or help a student to recover from it.  When bystanders defend or support a student who is being bullied, often the bullying stops quickly.

Bystanders who are passive (take no action) or behave in ways that give silent approval (watching, nodding, walking away) encourage the behaviour to continue.

When talking to students about ways to be supportive bystanders, parents and teachers need to be aware of (and respect) the reasons that students may not step in. They may:

  • fear for their own safety (now and later) or position in the group
  • think that someone else will help
  • be worried about making things worse
  • not know what to do
  • think their actions won't make a difference
  • think it's none of their business
  • think the student being bullied deserved it
  • think it's fun to watch.

Promoting safe and supportive bystander responses is the key to preventing bullying.

Avoid labelling students

Using the terms 'bully' and 'victim' to label students is not recommended for schools.

Instead, clearly identifying and labelling the inappropriate behaviour is more constructive,​ achieving positive and lasting solutions for everyone involved.

Although these terms are often used in research and the media, they can cause additional problems for schools.

These labels can imply that bullying is due to unchangeable things about the students involved. In reality, students can change the way they behave with support from the school and others.

Unfortunately, the labels can 'stick', and make it harder to change. ​

Using such labels involves making a judgement about a person's character (both those ​who are bullying others and those who are targeted) rather than their behaviour.   The labels of 'bully' or 'victim' can also cause further harm if a child accepts them as part of their personal identity. ​