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Do You Know the Antidote for Bullying?

When I was in the 4th grade, I was terribly, horribly bullied.

A few girls that had been my close friends for years, suddenly and unexpectedly threw me out and excluded me from the group; I was subjected to taunts, put-downs, and ridicule.

Recess every day was pure and utter hell.

I had no idea why or what had happened, but I remember coming home from school many days in tears, collapsing into my mom’s arms.

It got so bad my parents moved me to a new school.

Fortunately, I thrived in that new school and made friends there that I cherish still today. But that experience will always be a part of me; surely it shaped, in part, who I am, and it likely has shaped who I am as a parent, as well.

So in doing research for my free 5-day event “How to Bully-Proof Your Kids” running this week, I was fascinated to learn the antidote for  bullying. The ONE thing that helps raise kind kids not cruel ones.  The ONE reason that some kids will stand up and be buddies, not bullies.

It’s not state anti-bullying laws (though those are appropriately on the books). And it’s not a school assembly to address bullying among students (though kudos for trying).

The answer is much simpler—and also more complicated than that.  The number one antidote to bullying is Empathy.  Yup—empathy.

Research shows that kids who engage in bullying are lacking empathy and moral engagement.  And those most likely to stand up to bullies—UPstanders—are those most skilled in the art of empathy. They are, as Michele Borba, E.D describes it in her book UnSelfie, the “Empathetic Elite.”

So how do we raise empathetic kids?  Like I said, the answer is both simple and complicated.

There are no step-by-step guarantees to instilling empathy, but there are some things that give you a darn good shot at it.

Here’s what my research and experience has revealed:

  1. Focus on CONNECTION and RELATIONSHIP.  When we put these at the center of our parenting, as opposed to education, discipline, extra-curriculars, punishment, or the like, we create rich opportunities for attachment.  In focusing on connection rather than correction, we demonstrate to our kids that everything comes back to relationship; the way we treat others—and our understanding of them—matters.  And it matters deeply.

  2. We need to look for opportunities to help our children turn on their empathy muscles.  When we use real-world situations to invite our children into empathy by asking them how they think the people involved feel about something, and help give them language for those emotions, it allows them to truly start seeing things through the eyes of another.  And by helping them realize how very much they have in common with others—even those they don’t know, don’t look like, or don’t sound like—it helps deepen their connection to the larger community.  In other words, it builds empathy.  We also need to teach them to think about the perspectives of others.  They get in a fight with a friend?  What would it look like to try to understand that fight from the friend’s perspective?  By making this a regular requirement for your kids, you teach them that how we understand others matters.

  3. Parent authoritatively.  So many of us are so focused on trying to survive the day, that we just want our kids to do what we want them to do.  We make the focus of our parenting shutting down undesirable behavior and getting them to “obey.”  And while the myth of the easy kid is certainly alluring, parenting in this way sometimes leaves forgets that simply by virtue of being human our children are entitled to respect and dignity.  And when we give that to them, we actually get much farther in building connection.  If we thread the needle by striving to be both kind and fir, by showing empathy, and drawing boundaries, research shows our kids are less likely to be a bully and more likely to stand up to one.

  4. Learn to be an emotion coach.  Dismissing your child’s emotions—even the ones you think are overblown or bordering on the ridiculous—doesn’t make them go away.  It just tells your child that you are not a safe place to be vulnerable.  By recognizing, however, that there are no bad or wrong emotions—just inappropriate ways of managing them—we help our children develop emotional literacy.  And by helping them identify their emotions—giving them vocabulary to match what they are feeling—we make it easier for them to calm down. Dr. Dan Siegel calls this technique “name it to tame it” and indeed, when we give a feeling a name, it makes it so much easier to learn how to process it and manage it.

  5. Read books and movies that focus on empathy and that provide you with a springboard into discussions about empathy, emotions, and perspectives.  Select media that cover a wide variety of experiences and together ask questions, examine the facial expressions, and use emotional words to describe characters’ experiences.  Don’t shy away from difficult discussions, and let your children share honestly what they think.  Letting them explore emotions through fictional, but realistic, characters can help them empathize with others they see in their daily lives outside of books.

I’m a believer that empathy could change the world.  It could change our political discourse.  Our schoolyards. Our workplaces.  And our families.  Empathy—that is, the ability to be empathetic—really is a superpower.

So what are you going to do TODAY to help your child become one of the Empathetic Elite?

Note: To access fantastic complementary resources on bullying and bullying prevention, please access The Heartful Parent’s online resource center. If you are already a member of our community, refer to the private email link sent to you. If you’d like to gain access, please join us by subscribing below—we’d love to have you!

Christy Keating fun headshot

Christy Keating is a certified parent coach,  positive discipline educator, and motivational speaker. She is the founder and CEO of The Heartful Parent Collective, which includes Heartful Parent Coaching, Savvy Parents Safe Kids, and Heartful Parent Academy.

The mother of two amazing daughters, Christy strives to build a happier, healthier world - one child, one parent, and one family at a time.

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