The Power of Empathy During Bullying Prevention Month

By Judy S. Freedman, M.S.W., coauthor of Ease the Tease

The Power of Empathy During Bullying Prevention Month“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 they want to be treated” is the modified golden rule that conveys empathy. Empathy is a key ingredient in families, friendships, and other relationships. So, how can empathy reduce teasing and bullying?  And how can it weaken the power of those who bully?

Imagining and trying to see a situation through someone else’s eyes can provide kids with a much clearer picture that teasing and bullying behaviors are cruel and hurtful, and, at times, very painful. Many children truly do not realize the power and impact of their words or actions on others. A quick lesson in empathy can instantly curtail the mean comments some kids make, 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 bystanders to either stand up to someone who is bullying (if they feel safe to do so), offer support to the victim, or seek adult help.

Why Don’t Many Bystanders and Observers Show Empathy?

Yet, why is it that so many witnesses and observers of bullying don’t immediately have or show empathy for the target? Many bystanders do nothing, which often gives children who bully the message that what they are doing is okay. Yet some kids who don’t intervene or show support feel sad or guilty about their passive behavior. Many are afraid that they will be the next target if they speak up. For some bystanders, bullying is their entertainment for the day. We see too often that many bystanders automatically and instantly record 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. Many mental health professionals have suggested that the prevalence of entertainment media violence has desensitized today’s kids and diminished their ability to convey empathy. Lastly, many kids have a “me-first” mindset or an inflated sense of entitlement which can impact their capacity to care about others.

Strength and Power in Numbers

There is power in numbers, and bystanders have the numerical advantage. Bullying is characterized by a power imbalance. In most cases, the child who is bullying is bigger, older, smarter, or stronger verbally and/or socially than their target. Bystanders need to assess if they feel comfortable and safe to intervene. Can they engage other onlookers for support? A few examples of ways bystanders can react include: “What you are doing is not respectful or cool.” “That’s so wrong!” “What you’re 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.

Empathy can also empower onlookers to offer support to the victim. It only takes one person to take the first important step, and others will often follow. Kids can say: “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 calling the person who was bullied to see how they are doing, making plans to do something together, including the person in an activity, or just listening and offering comfort. It is important to convey the message that no one deserves to be treated that way!

Preparing for Bullying Safety

We must begin to plant the seeds of “doing the right thing” early. Parents and educators can encourage their children and students to stand up and speak out when they see bullying or teasing rather than stand by. Creating role-playing scenarios is a great way to practice effective reactions when witnessing teasing and bullying. Some scenarios might include:

  • A classmate is teasing another student about his lunch.
  • A new student is being excluded from a game.
  • A classmate repeatedly makes fun of a friend of yours about being short.
  • Someone is teasing someone else you don’t know very well about her good grades.
  • You are asked to join in with the bullying.

You can also suggest that the child make up their own scenario. Rehearsing and reviewing the choices children can make in scenarios like these, in a proactive manner, empowers them and gives them confidence to effectively use the responses in real-life situations. We routinely prepare children for fire and weather safety in schools; let’s prepare them for bullying safety as well!

Courageous Kids are Heroes

It only takes one or two children who take a stand against bullying to make a HUGE difference. The “silent majority” (those onlookers 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 feel awesome about doing the right thing . . . and their parents and teachers overflow with pride and joy!

So . . . What Is More Powerful?

If kids can truly understand what it is like to be a target of ridicule, taunting, or bullying, they are more likely to make a choice to intervene, offer support, or seek help. The power of empathy can significantly reduce the power of bullying!

Judy Freedman | credit: Michael Lee PhotographyJudy S. Freedman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W., is a licensed clinical social worker with more than thirty years of therapeutic and educational experience with children, adolescents, and adults. During her more than two decades as a social worker in elementary schools, she created the Easing the Teasing program, which empowers kids with essential skills and strategies to handle teasing incidents, and which was the basis for her parenting book Easing the Teasing: Helping Your Child Cope with Name-Calling, Ridicule, and Verbal Bullying (Contemporary Books/McGraw Hill). She gives presentations and workshops to parents, educators, mental health professionals, recreational personnel, and students. Judy received the Illinois School Social Worker of the Year Award in 2011. She lives in the Chicago area with her family.

Ease the TeaseJudy is the coauthor of Ease the Tease

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