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The Power of Empathy vs. The Power of Bullies

“How would you feel if that happened to you?” If bystanders can truly understand what it's like to be a victim of bullying, they are more likely to intervene, offer support, or seek help.

“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
of bullies!

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.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Molly July 16, 2012 at 11:39 AM
Is there a difference between raising children today and those raised forty years ago? Yes & No - I would like to think I've tried to raise my children with similiar values as my parents but the difference I see is the influence of tv, the internet, cell phones, etc. Weekly my 16 yr old daughter relates the "drama" involved with her group of friends. Their ability to create problems out of nothing amazes me. I am constantly telling my daughter (and now her friends) to act with grace and just because something is true it doesn't necessarily need to be said (as in that is the ugliest shirt, hair do, etc). I recollect my childhood as a place where my parents stressed certain behaviors because it was the right thing to do - be fair, honest, helpful to others. Many in society today look at bad behavior as an entertainment source. My hope is that my kids will grow up with the ability to be discerning, polite but strong adults who will help as needed, stand up to unfair treatment and learn to steer clear of those with behaviors that are wrong.
Really? July 16, 2012 at 02:47 PM
Molly brought up an important point: is there a difference in raising children today than (I will change the time since I am a grandmother!) 25 years ago? Yes. There definitely is. Parents today cannot possibly monitor the type & rate of varying influences bombarding their children's lives. Parenting, in my opinion, is much more difficult today. In addition, we have seen a cultural deterioration of what is deemed "entertainment": reality television reveling in abhorrent behavior & mistreatment of people. That being said, I still believe we can raise strong & moral children because THEIR parents are strong and moral. The messaging and teaching needs to come from home. I will also add that the most vicious and sustained bullying one of my children experienced was at the hands of two different teachers. Absolutely nothing can be done to change that. They have tenure. In fact, one is still in District 67 and one recently retired. It has been 15 years. When children are in an atmosphere where the adult in control sets the tone that it is okay to ridicule, I'm not sure how much coaching on empathizing is going to matter.
Oreo Pie July 16, 2012 at 06:47 PM
My daughter was intensely cyberbullied by 10 kids in 3 HP middle schools and one Catholic school. Yes, there is a big difference in bullying now versus 25 years ago. 25 years ago, kids might get bullied at school but once they got home, home was a sanctuary away from the bullying. Now, with facebook, instant messaging, etc. there is no escape from the bullying. I was also bullied when I was younger and no one did a thing about it. My parents told me to ignore them. Now that I am a parent, I would NEVER tell my child to ignore the bully. Why should the bullies get away with tormenting other kids? If these were adults, the police would charge them with stalking, harrassment, etc. Why should it be any different for kids? The harm is intense. When my daughter was at the Highland Park in-patient unit, all of the kids had been bullied. When I went to a program at Alexian Brothers, kids who had gone through their in-patient, partial hospitalization and other programs spoke up and talked about the emotional damage they suffered at the hands of bullies. Thank goodness they were there to talk about it. The speaker spoke about, and showed photos, of young kids who took their own lives because they saw no way out.
Stewart Levine July 16, 2012 at 08:02 PM
Actually kids shouldn't use computers or cell phones until they are much older. Cell phone radiation lobotomizes the neocortex (higher thinking segment of the brain), and many prestigious private schools where filthy rich send their kids to school, do not allow the kids to use computers or internet, unless it is for a class assignment research program. Perhaps that is extreme, but obviously this technology is all relatively new given we have only had it for a few decades now and have seen massive new cases of ADHD, and autism. Mark Zuckerberg from facebook actually called users of his website idiots for using the site. Given that it is a complete breach of privacy and you are no longer allowed to delete your account. There are alot of people waking up who are anti genetically modified foods too (GMO), Monsanto that makes poison(s) that kill insects has found ways of binding the pesticides inside of the crops to make them more profitable and thus it is causing cancers and more problems on human health. California may be the first state in the country to make it law to label whether or not a product is genetically modified or not.
Laura Vaillancourt August 30, 2012 at 01:41 AM
Mimi! I want to bring "Ease the Tease" to where I live now--Florida! I don't know where to start? PTA or school first? Would love to know how you brought this awesome programming to Elmhurst. Starting music class in a few weeks with my third girl...:)

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