Non-Immigrant Children May Have Different Response to Bullying, Study Suggests

illustration of kids bullying

Verywell / Catherine Song

Key Takeaways

  • New research sheds light on the possibility of varying responses to bullying in children of immigrant experience and non-immigrant children.
  • Children of immigrant experience may be less likely to respond to bullying in ways that can be perceived as negative.
  • Children of immigrant experience are more likely to not agree with anyone being mistreated
  • Non-immigrant children were shown to be less likely to intervene if they witness bullying.

A recent study in Child Development sought to identify potential differences in how bystanders may respond to childhood bullying depending on their background. Specifically, researchers found some differences in how children of immigrant experience responded to bullying compared to non-immigrant children.

What the Study Showed

The participants of this study were all kids in the 6th or 9th grade, with 79 of the 179 total individuals being of immigrant experience. For this study, the immigrant experience is defined as having at least one parent born outside of the United States. The other 100 kids, defined as non-immigrant, came from two parents both born in the U.S.

The methodology included asking the children to read examples of varying situations, and then to share their thoughts and how they feel they would have responded to each situation. Situations included examples of “social bullying,” which is a tactic that includes abuse that is emotional rather than physical.

Situations presented to study participants included the following, meant to replicate real interactions on the playground:

  • A non-immigrant child bullying an immigrant child because of his or her immigrant status.
  • A non-immigrant child bullying an immigrant child for being shy.
  • A non-immigrant child bullying another non-immigrant child for being shy.

Immigrant youth in the fictional scenarios were born outside of the U.S.

The results of the study showed that while a majority of the children disagreed with anyone being bullied, the immigrant children felt that way across the board. Non-immigrant children, however, were found to be more accepting of bullying and less likely to intervene in scenarios where a child of immigrant experience was being bullied.

It's notable, however, that in cases where a non-immigrant child had friends of immigrant experience, they were less likely to accept bullying behavior.

Kimberly Gomez, BSW, Afro-Latina social worker and case manager says, "Immigration status introduces another level of ‘other’ where people don't have to access their empathy. Especially when the word 'illegal' gets thrown in front of it—now this person's existence becomes inherently criminal which in this society means they're not worthy of protecting."

Kimberly Gomez, BSW

We have been conditioned to adhere to certain norms when in public or around other people, even if being 'normal' contradicts what you would usually do or what you value. It can be seen as easier or safer to fade into the crowd and not assume responsibility.

— Kimberly Gomez, BSW

What Is the Bystander Effect?

While children tend to acknowledge that bullying is wrong, that doesn't always mean they will take action, regardless of who is being bullied.

The bystander effect is a phenomenon that results in a group of individuals choosing not to take action. There is generally a fear of repercussion for intervening, as well as an expectation that someone else will take responsibility.

Gomez says, “We have been conditioned to adhere to certain norms when in public or around other people, even if being 'normal' contradicts what you would usually do or what you value. It can be seen as easier or safer to fade into the crowd and not assume responsibility.”

This opting out of action and diffusing of responsibility is potentially a Western idea. Flor Lopez, a language justice consultant and case manager with the Virginia Anti-Violence Project says, “This country has a deeply rooted culture of 'not getting in other people's business,' which seems to be normalized here in a way that is Latino cultures from my own experience, and [in] communities from other Latino countries I have gotten to know."

Lopez says that personal space and boundaries can look very different between different cultures, and that getting into someone's business may not be considered an intrusion or sign of disrespect, but rather a sign of caring and a way to offer a helping hand.

For children of immigrant experience, however, hesitation to intervene may come from a desire not to cause any trouble, or potentially a fear of being further ostracized.

“Let's look at it from the perspective of the immigrant child: the more instability and insecurity I feel of my own safety...the more vulnerable and afraid I am of anything or anyone that can bring attention to me," Lopez says. "Let's remember, immigrants many times come fleeing violence, hunger, and in many occasions they were victims of direct targets of persecution and threats/attempts of homicide."

Lopez notes that standing up to a bully can feel like much more of an existential risk for some children of immigrant experience who feel it's safer to stay quiet and not escalate any problems.

What Can Be Done to Support Youth?

“I think first, we need to acknowledge that all stories of coming to this country are different and hold various levels of trauma," Gomez says. "Some youth may be here without a parent or family member. Some may feel immense pressure to provide for their family because of lack of opportunity, and some may have a family that has completely assimilated and now they have their own trauma surrounding that."

Gomez stresses the need to meet all children where they're at, asking what they need, and meeting those needs without imposing any judgment or shame. "Also, I can't stress the importance of representation enough," she says. "We need to create opportunities for these youth to see people who look like them being successful in all ways—not just through the stereotypical opportunities afforded to them."

Gomez discusses the importance of self-empowerment and support for individuals who have experienced discriminatory violence. “To support our healing, I think empowering people to reclaim traditions and cultural norms can be very powerful. It can be a way to build confidence, self-acceptance and a deeper connection to their ancestors who also had to deal with their own share of violence."

She also supports the idea of creating safe spaces where people can feel seen, heard, and protected, an experience that can be transformational. "Feeling safe in your physical environment is the first step to healing," Gomez says.

Data like this can aid in how we navigate conversations with our youth. There is ample discussion around the idea of “If you see something, say something,” but this refrain does not speak directly to children of immigrant experience, nor does it push youth to stand up for folks who may not look or sound like them.

Lopez suggests that there are ways to combat these issues directly:


Get into other people's business when you feel it is the right thing to do, to either care for their physical or mental health well-being.

Befriend Your Classmates and Neighbors of All Backgrounds

You don't have to be best friends with everyone, but simply being friendly is a huge start to making others feel welcome and safe. Lopez says, "As an immigrant, when I go out of my house, I'm used to assuming people dislike me or don't even want me around them, unless I'm shown otherwise; and I know that is a feeling many of us immigrants constantly deal with."

It's important to make it obvious that you are welcoming someone into your community, whether that's a friend group at school or a neighborhood in your town. "Let's tear down walls, and let's instead build bridges in our communities one to another as neighbors," Lopez says.

What This Means For You

Gomez says, "A lot of times as an immigrant, you're asked to minimize yourself and not make much noise for the safety of your family. Because of this, there may not be much space or time for kids to even think about how to self-advocate, so being able to share concrete ways for them to communicate effectively and assertively will go a long way."

2 Sources
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  1. Gönültaş S, Mulvey K. The role of immigration background, intergroup processes, and social‐cognitive skills in bystanders’ responses to bias‐based bullying toward immigrants during adolescenceChild Dev. 2020. doi:10.1111/cdev.13476

  2. Darley JM, Latané B. Bystander intervention in emergencies: diffusion of responsibility. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1968;8(4):377-383. doi:10.1037/h0025589