We all identify with the victims. We want to tell them that they are loved. They are valued. They are important. Bullies are not bullying you because of who you are, they are bully you because they are emotionally damaged.
We fail to realize is that bullies (in the schoolyard) are children too. They are a short decade or so away from being adults. They will be in the workplace, in the military, they will be bosses, teachers, doctors, friends, and parents in a few short years. If we truly want to break the cycle of bullying, we need to start looking at bullies as more than one-dimensional bad guys. Their victimization of others is a sign of a deeper problem. A bully isn't just going to grow out of it and become a compassionate, well-adjusted human being. The problem, whether they are punished for it or not, isn't going away on its own.
If a child or teenager is identified as a serial bully, we adults need to look for solutions beyond simple punishment and look to solutions like family therapy to solve deeper issues. For more ideas on how to handle having a child who has been identified as a bully, read "My Child is the Bully" from the Huffington Post.
We talk a lot about how to help our kids avoid becoming victims or how to recover if they were victims. We fail to talk about the other half of the equation: How do we keep our own children from becoming the bully? No one wants to admit that their child could indeed be the one who is bullying others. It's hard to imagine that our own little ones could do such a thing. Some do. Some of us did when we were kids too.
One prevention technique is relatively simple: Start early teaching children empathy. It may come as a surprise to parents that empathy is a skill can be taught.
Increasingly, neuroscientists, psychologists and educators believe that bullying and other kinds of violence can indeed be reduced by encouraging empathy at an early age. Over the past decade, research in empathy — the ability to put ourselves in another person's shoes — has suggested that it is key, if not the key, to all human social interaction and morality.
Read more: School Bullying Prevention: Teach Empathy at Young Age - TIME
How Do You Teach Empathy to Children?
- Refer to the Golden Rule , "Treat others as you want to be treated." Talk about how our actions may hurt other people's feelings and what we could do differently next time. I've begun to sound like a broken record at our house, but I think it's starting to sink in.
- Example: "Sissy is sitting on my train tracks! She broke them!" *cue crying hysterically* Parent to Sissy, "Wow, that wasn't very nice. Those train tracks are special to your brother. How would you feel if he broke your favorite Lego tower?" Letting the child imagine how it would feel to be treated that way is the most basic form of empathy.
- Model empathy. When a child is hurting, sad, or frustrated, parents often say things like, "Get over it," or "Those are just crocodile tears." Firm limits are an important part of parenting, but empathizing with our kids when they have difficult emotions is the first step in teaching them how to empathize with others. When passing a homeless person on the street, try to imagine what that person's life is like and explain it to your kids. Letting them hear you empathize with other people is an important part of learning to do it themselves.
- Example: "It sure is cold outside today, I bet he is really cold sitting out there and his sign says that he is hungry. I wonder what we could do to help him feel a little better?" Let the kids give some answers and then follow through with one of them. "Yes, I bet a hot cup of coffee (gift card for food, sandwich, granola bar, etc) would help a little, let's grab him one at the drive-thru and bring it over." Then DO it. It feels good to help others and kids want to be a part of that good feeling.
- Secure attachment - Communicating to our children that they are loved unconditionally is key to teaching them empathy for others.
- Example: Little Joey broke something he wasn't supposed to be playing with. After explaining why you, the parent, are saddened by his actions, it's important to communicate through tender hugs and words of affirmation that although he did a bad thing, he is not a bad boy and nothing he could do could make you stop loving him. It feels a bit awkward at first, but these small steps help to keep our children feeling securely attached.
More tips on teaching our children empathy can be found at ParentingScience.com.
I'd love to hear what other tips you have to prevent your child from becoming a bully.