“How would you feel if that happened to you?”
This question opens the door to teaching children about empathy. Empathy is recognizing, understanding and caring about how someone feels, or being able to “put yourself in someone’s shoes. “Treat others the way you want to be treated” is the modified golden rule that conveys empathy.
Empathy is a key ingredient in families, friendships and other relationships. How can empathy reduce teasing and bullying? How can empathy weaken the power of bullies?
Imagining and trying to see a situation through someone else’s eyes can help kids get a much clearer picture that teasing and bullying behaviors are cruel and hurtful, and at times very painful. Many children truly don't realize the power
and impact of their words or actions on others.
A quick lesson in empathy can instantly curtail mean comments some kids make to others, once they learn and understand that “words hurt.” A deeper understanding of the negative effects and consequences of bullying can result in empathetic reactions when kids witness or observe bullying situations. It is empathy that causes a bystander to either stand up to the bully (if he or she feels safe to do so), offer support to the victim, or seek adult help.
Yet, why is it that so many observers and witnesses of bullying don’t immediately have or show empathy for the victim? Many bystanders do nothing, which often gives bullies the message that what they are doing is OK. For some bystanders,
bullying is their entertainment for the day, and they admire the bully’s power.
We see too often that many bystanders automatically and instantly video record the events that are perceived to be “sensational” in nature. Posting them to social media within seconds is the very next step. The good news is that most videos provide documentation about what actually occurred. Nevertheless, this common behavior leads to many questions:
- Why don’t more observers and witnesses take a stand against bullying?
- Why don’t they speak out rather than take videos or stand by and do nothing?
- Has the prevalence of entertainment media violence desensitized today’s kids and diminished their ability or motivation to convey empathy?
- Has the “me-first” mentality or the huge sense of entitlement, that many kids feel stifled a greater capacity for caring about others?
There is definitely power in numbers, and bystanders have the numerical advantage.
Bullying is characterized by a power imbalance. In most cases, bullies are either bigger, older, smarter or stronger verbally and/or socially. Bystanders need to assess if they feel comfortable and safe to intervene. Can they engage other onlookers for support? A few examples of bystanders’ reactions include: “What you are doing is not respectful or cool.” “That’s so wrong!” “What you are saying is so mean.” “Stop it!”
If a bystander fears it may be risky to intervene, reporting the situation immediately to a trusted adult is the next step. Adult intervention can end the bullying!
Empathy can also empower bystanders to offer support to the victim. It only takes one person to take the first important step and others will often follow. “Let’s leave.” “Don’t listen to them.” "No one should be treated this way!” “Let’s
go report this to our teacher. I will go with you.”
Continued and meaningful support could include following up with the person who was bullied to see how he or she is doing, making plans to do something together, including him or her in an activity or just listening and offering comfort. It is important for bystanders to convey the message that no one deserves to be treated that way!
We must begin to plant the seeds of “doing the right thing” early. My work with elementary students includes consistently and routinely talking about and role-playing various scenarios regarding bystanders. Some of the scenarios include:
- A classmate is teasing another student about his lunch.
- A new student is being excluded from a game.
- A bully is making fun of a friend of yours about being short.
- You are asked to join in the bullying.
Rehearsing and reviewing bystanders’ options and choices, in a pro-active manner empowers students and gives them confidence to effectively use them in “real-life” situations. We routinely prepare our children for fire and weather safety in schools; let’s prepare them for bullying safety as well!
In my school social work practice, I have repeatedly seen that it only takes one or two children to take a stand against bullying in each situation to make a HUGE
difference. The “silent majority” (the bystanders who don’t like what is going on, but are reluctant or afraid to do anything) frequently follow suit. The courageous
and confident kids who stand up against bullying are heroes in my book! They always feel awesome about doing theright thing—and their parents overflow with pride and joy!
If kids can truly understand what it is like to be a target or victim of ridicule, taunting or bullying, they will more likely make a choice to intervene, offer support or seek help. The power of empathy can significantly reduce the power
Do you know any kids who have shown empathy in bullying situations and have done the right thing? Let’s celebrate their making a difference!
Stay tuned for my next blog, “Teaching Empathy to Children.”
About the blogger:
Judy S. Freedman, a licensed clinical social worker and bullying prevention
specialist, is the author of "Easing the Teasing – Helping Your Child Cope with
Name-Calling, Ridicule, and Verbal Bullying." She lectures and conducts workshops for parents, educators, and mental health professionals throughout the
country. She recently spoke at the National PTA Convention in San Jose, California. Learn more about Judy and her work at www.easingtheteasing.com.