It is very alarming for parents to realize their child is a bully or exhibiting bullying tendencies, but the good news is that teaching empathy to children can curb this behavior and, fortunately, empathy is a learned behavior. There are various ways to teach it and it is an important quality to pass on to each generation of children.
Empathy Means Learning to Feel Compassion for Others
When you feel empathy, it means that you understand and share the experiences and emotions of another person. It is more than just having the capacity to see and understand them from another person’s point of view, it also means that you value and respect the point of view even if you don’t agree with it.
Naturally, there are degrees of empathy that can be strong or weak. Peer pressure and prejudice can block expressions of compassion even when they are genuinely experienced and, therefore, may not always be obvious in children. However, to prevent bullying and cruelty, parents and teachers and society must make every effort to teach empathy and help children develop strong enough skills that they can help others in distress rather than following a bullying crowd.
It is important to understand that empathy is not something that you have or you don’t have. You are not born a bully.
Why Some Children Become Bullies
You can be born with a desire to be a leader or to be on top and bullying is a tool that can be used to get there. Pleasure, therefore, is the reward for children who feel very little empathy and like to dominate, are possessive, enjoy power, and succeed in exerting themselves; however, learning self-control and compassion induces guilt for causing—or failing to stop—harm, and reduces the pleasure. Bullying stops when empathy is developed.
Children don’t develop normal degrees of empathy when:
- their own emotional needs are not being met
- they don’t feel valued or respected
- they may not have role models in their own families who are empathic, or who encourage empathy in children
- they have very little emotional self-control and become angry at slights or perceived slights
- they don’t notice similarities between themselves and victims, and fail to understand feelings and experiences from the perspectives of others
You Can Teach Empathy and Reform a Bully
Rather than thinking of empathy as a talent, think of it as a skill that can be learned, and one that can be learned from you, the parent.
- Make sure that you empathize with your child when he is unhappy to demonstrate how compassion is shown to others. If you react with empathy, it makes your child feel valued and respected and he is more likely to show sympathy and concern for others.
- Talk to your child about the ways our feelings influence our behavior and point out when you see opportunities for people to feel sympathy and concern. If you are reading a book together, watching a TV program, or discussing a real life situation, point out when someone is suffering. Suggest how it must feel to be hurt, to be unhappy or victimized. Ask him how he would feel in that situation, and what he would want to have happen. Talk about what can be done to show support for people when they are suffering.
- Talk to your child about how our beliefs and feelings can dictate our behavior and what we can do to control ourselves and not hurt others. Use ordinary, everyday opportunities to point out situations where we should control ourselves and when sympathetic responses are appropriate.
- Teach your child how to deal with defeat, losing, and being bullied or treated unfairly—in some cases, by an adult—so that he knows what you and what society expects as a suitable reaction to negative situations. If he works on being “a good sport” and is rewarded by that response with your approval, he is less likely to turn to bullying to make himself feel better. If he is dealing with an adult bully, your intervention is needed.
- Resist providing an actual “reward” for good choices because it defeats the development of the internal sense of right and wrong. It is important for moral choices to be based on this sense and it can be developed in your child though explanations by you on correct choices and the natural consequence of his feeling guilty when you explain how his bad behavior has affected someone else.
- Make sure that your child understands that self-control isn’t a matter of resisting temptation and being strong. It is also about being smart and avoiding temptation: just as he should go in his room and turn off his cell phone to get his homework done, he should stay away from people who enjoy bullying others.
- Encourage your child to read fiction, which will absorb him in a way that watching TV doesn’t, and will teach him about empathy for others outside his circle of family and friends.
The key to preventing or curbing the tendency to bully in children is to teach them empathy and how to look at life from other perspectives, to respect people, and to feel compassion for suffering.
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