Bullying affects everyone - those who are bullied, those who bully, and those who witness the bullying.
Studies show that raising kind kids is a top priority for parents, and researchers tell us that kindness stretches beyond being nice alone to include empathy.
What would happen if we taught our children to empathize with others, even those who didn't always lead with kindness, all the while teaching them skills to maintain healthy boundaries at the same time?
What if we taught people to care not only for those who are being bullied but also for the person doing the bullying as well?
What We Know About Bullying
According to a study by the Cyberbullying Research Center conducted in 2019, over half of students (52.3%) experience some kind of bullying in school. This is a 35% increase from the numbers they polled in 2016.
- 79% reported verbal harassment such as being called names, insulted, or teased.
- 50% experienced social harassment and were the subject of rumors or left out on purpose.
- 29% reported physical bullying such as being pushed, shoved, tripped, or spit on.
- 25% experienced cyberbullying.
It is easy to call perpetrators “bullies” and those who are targeted "victims," yet professionals urge parents and educators to drop the labels.
When children are labeled as bullies or victims, it fails to recognize the multiple roles children might play in different bullying situations. In a recent national survey of students in grades 6-10, 13% reported bullying others, 11% reported being the target of bullies, and another 6% said that they bullied others and were bullied themselves.
Psychologists say that instead of labeling the children involved, parents and educators can focus their attention on their behaviors. When we start to focus on the behavior, we move away from the notion that a child’s behavior is fixed, and that their behavior defines who they are.
Digging Deeper Into Bullying
Newer research aligned with the positive parenting paradigm says that all behavior is communication, and sometimes that communication is a cry for help. When we see bullying as such, we begin to break the cycle where trauma begets more trauma, and create room for love and kindness to those who likely need it most.
Looking through the lens of empathy, we ask, what could be underneath the behavior of someone who bullies? Here is what professionals in the area tell us:
- Children who bully are often recipients of hate or abuse themselves and can feel powerless or unsafe. As a result, to feel a sense of control, they may try to assert power over someone else.
- Children who did not create secure bonds as babies and toddlers, who were not taught about their emotions, and who had little guidance/involvement from parents are at greater risk for engaging in bullying behavior.
- An extremely permissive or excessively harsh parenting approach to discipline has been linked to an increased risk of teenage bullying.
- Sometimes bullying is an outlet for extreme stress or change in the child’s life.
- There is a tendency for some teens who have been victims of bullying to look for ways to retaliate or to seek revenge. These kids often feel justified in their actions because they too have been harassed and tormented. When they bully others, they may feel a sense of relief and vindication for what they experienced. Sometimes these kids target someone weaker or more vulnerable than them and other times, they will target the person who bullied them directly.
Overall, professionals stress the importance of teaching children about their emotions from a young age and teaching the skills of empathy. According to Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., empathy includes three phases:
- Emotional sharing: feeling distressed when seeing another in distress
- Empathetic concern: motivation to care for others who are in distress
- Perspective-taking: consciously putting oneself in the mind of another to better understand their feelings, thinking, and actions
Instead of bullying the person who bullies, what if we loved them, heard them, and truly saw them? Maybe then we could teach them a new way.
Brooks Gibbs, national spokesman for the foundation “Be The Difference. Speak Up Against Bullying!” and author of the anti-bullying book Love Is Greater Than Hate says, “The ones who hurt us need our love the most. In fact, I believe that this is the ultimate pathway to healing – to turn the hate that you feel towards someone into genuine love and care for them. This goes against our most basic instincts, but when you love those who hurt you, like someone who bullies, everything changes.”
Leading With Love Through Bullying
Love is more powerful than hate and is very likely the answer to ending the bullying epidemic. Here are some ways to show love toward someone who has bullied, and to reverse the destructive cycle of abuse:
1. Shift Your Perspective
Typically, when someone does us wrong, we hurt, and a normal thought pattern is to think negatively about them, dwell on it, or magnify it. However, when we become curious as to why someone may bully, we can create a small space between what they are doing and who they are. Hold this person in your heart, cancel the negative thought you may have, and replace it with one positive thought about them. It isn’t always easy yet where your thoughts go, your feelings will follow. As Gibbs says, “Love will open your eyes. You will gain the ability to see past their masks of hate and see a heart full of hurt.”
2. Look To Your Actions
Love isn’t just thinking about bullies differently, love also requires a change in actions. Consider doing a small, kind gesture for the person who bullied you. Write them a note, offer a smile, or give them a sincere compliment. Mother Nature programmed us to treat other people the way they treat us. By extending the olive branch of kindness, it may just spread and grow.
3. Forgive And Set Boundaries
Forgiveness is a skill, and it isn’t always easy. Gibbs says that unforgiveness re-victimizes us upon every remembrance, yet when we learn to forgive, we begin to heal.
“Forgiving someone sets us free from letting them hurt us over and over again.”
As you lead with love for someone who has bullied, also lead with love for yourself by setting boundaries. Make agreements with yourself based on what you want, and state what you will do. Be firm and clear in your physical and emotional limits.
By setting goals for your thoughts, words, and actions, you begin to feel more powerful, safe, and connected, and can better spread kindness to others.
Change begins with love - love for yourself, and love for another. When we learn to hold kindness and empathy for those who have bullied while remaining firm in our boundaries, hate is stifled, and healing begins. We cannot control the actions of another, yet we can choose our own thoughts, words, and actions. And what we choose ripples in ways far bigger than we could ever imagine. Love is always the answer.
Words that can help you connect with someone who is showing bullying behaviors.
You seem like you’re hurting.
Stop! Why would you hurt him like that?
You are love and you are loved. It is ok to be sad, angry,confused,etc..It is not ok to hurt others with our words or actions.
You are such a bully.
You are safe. I am here for you.
Go away, no one wants to be around someone acting like this.
You are not defined by your behaviors. I believe in you.
You are not nice … kind … good.
Can you help me understand what’s going on?
What is wrong with you?
Helpful phrases for setting boundaries with someone who is showing bullying behaviors.
- I am going to choose to walk away.
- What you're doing feels hurtful. I understand you are hurting, too.
- When your voice is calm, I'll share my thoughts and feelings.
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