In today’s school age children, acts of bullying can begin as early as preschool years and continue to escalate throughout the elementary years and beyond. Bullying is a distinctive pattern of harming and humiliating others.1 Nearly a third of children 12-18 years old report experiencing bullying by being made fun of, insulted, made to do something they do not want to, excluded, or subjected to online rumors or harassment.2
While this may sound “normal” or just a part of growing up, the degree, extreme, and access to bullying has been elevated. Kids now are much more harmful in their degree of harassment, using after school, unsupervised times to bully through online forums and social media to a large, unfiltered audience. Teaching empathy and kindness in these times is essential to prevent bullying, give children confidence to deflect bullying and feel empowered to help others.
Teaching empathy and kindness begins in the first years of life. A toddler is not too young to learn how to respectively treat others and become a compassionate individual. In fact, children are born with inherent compassion and kindness that is easier to foster from a young age. Young children may not want to share, or may use their hands or words unkindly as a means of developing social skills; however, they can still understand how to hug someone who is upset and ask compassionate questions such as, “Are you ok?”; “Do you feel upset?”; or “Can I help you?”
Teaching children to be aware of others’ feelings or emotions begins in the preschool years and continues into the teen years. In the preschool years, develop an awareness outside of the child by showing them when someone is upset and asking how the child may be able to help; asking them to share with another child or adult who may feel sad; or asking them to offer a hug to someone who is upset. These are all ways to empower a child to feel confident using empathetic skills. Reading books about feelings, empathy, and kindness reinforces how to use these skills.
As the child ages into elementary, ask them to look for the children who may be playing or eating alone and practice inclusion. Open discussion about how the child feels when they are excluded or are verbally or physically hurt makes the child aware of feelings and effects of personal actions.
In the middle and high school years, continue these practices as well as asking how the child is being treated by peers. Many kids approaching or in the teen years are very hesitant to report bullying out of fear and embarrassment.
In addition to teaching empathy and kindness, openly discussing how to deal with bullying gives children early skills to ward off these behaviors. Bullies look for vulnerabilities to exploit. A child with confidence and who is not often alone, will have a lesser chance of experiencing bullying. A child who is bullied should be coached to walk away or find a friend when a bully perpetrates. In addition, teach children how to problem solve by having direct communication with friends and classmates. Give children key phrases and behaviors as tools for conflict management such as, “What you said or did hurt my feelings”; “I did not feel good when you wouldn’t play with me”; or for older kids, “I don’t appreciate how you are talking to me or behaving.” While these may seem like simple phrases, they can be hard to say when they are first learned but are very empowering sources of expression and conflict management and resolution.
Teaching children early about emotions, kind behaviors, direct communication and conflict resolution gives them life and social skills that enhances their total mental and emotional wellness for a lifetime. It also deflects potentially damaging interactions with peers.
Shannon Sinsheimer, ND, is a state licensed naturopathic doctor with a focus on fertility, family wellness, and pre-conception health and can be reached at Optimal Health Center in Palm Desert (760) 568.2598.
References: 1) Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/bullying 2) US Department of Education. “Student Reports of Bullying and Cyber-Bullying: Results From the 2011 School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey”. August 2013