When children are socially isolated from one another, it creates an ideal environment for bullying behavior to flourish. Adults can help prevent bullying by encouraging friendships and positive social interactions among children.
“As human beings, we are social animals,” says Michael Anthony-Nalepa, licensed psychotherapist and creator of The Psychology of Bullying course at Antioch University, the first such course in the country. “So, if children are feeling isolated, sometimes bullying is a way to connect to another person.”
To tackle this, an adult in authority may recognize a child who is competent in social situations and team them up with another child who might be experiencing social challenges for one reason or another. The first child can serve as a mentor to the other, providing a good model from which to learn appropriate ways to behave.
In some cases, a children’s school or environment can add to a sense of isolation. “Some kids have very specific needs that aren’t getting met and it puts them on the attack,” explains Nalepa. “For example, maybe they’re very sensitive and artistic, LGBTQ, or the only kid of color in their entire class. It’s not always about what’s wrong with the kid or what’s wrong with the parenting. It’s about asking, ‘What’s wrong with the culture that this kid travels in’?”
2. Lack of Empathy
Young children often go through a stage of egocentrism; autism and other mental health conditions can make it difficult even for an older child to see past his or her own situation and empathize with others. Adults need to explain how the child’s behavior makes others feel. One way of doing this is by asking, “How would you feel if someone did the same thing to you?”
It’s important to include yourself in the empathy equation as well.
“It’s okay as a parent to tell kids how their actions make you feel,” says Nalepa. “As a parent, we very rarely say, ‘When you said this to me, it made me feel hurt,’ or whatever the emotion may be.” Parents have feelings, too, and it’s good to remind your children of that from time to time.
3. Poor Modeling
Sometimes children bully because that’s the behavior they learn at home from parents and/or older siblings. Family counseling may be effective at helping everyone learn to relate to one another in a more constructive way.
Nalepa would also put societal influences under the category of poor modeling. “It’s not just taking after your parents, it’s more of a societal conversation,” he asserts. “They pick up cues on how to be powerful from the world around them so you see things like the Mean Girls narrative or the jocks in the back of the bus who bully the smaller kids. Society tells boys, ‘You have to be tough to be a man,’ while it might tell girls, ‘You have to be a mean girl to be popular.’”
So how do you reject those patterns of behavior that seem embedded in our culture? By showing kids there are different ways to be. “You can model masculinity that incorporates kindness or a femininity that incorporates kindness,” suggests Nalepa. “You can also give them opportunities where they are encouraged to think outside of the themselves, like volunteering for a local charity.”
One more tip on modeling; watch what your kids are watching. “What are the jokes on the TV shows they’re watching. How do the characters treat each other?” offers Nalepa. “It’s hard to monitor everything kids are watching, especially with teens, but if you’re watching with them, you can give feedback, like, ‘Huh, that neighbor character seems pretty racist. What do you think of that’?”
4. Negative or Inaccurate Thinking
Psychiatric conditions can sometimes cause inaccurate or negative thinking, but these can occur even when no such condition is present. In either case, a specific type of talk therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy is often very effective at correcting negative and/or inaccurate thinking and can usually be completed successfully in 10 to 20 sessions.
It’s also important to help your children develop skills for dealing negative thoughts and feelings on their own.
“If a child has a feeling and they don’t know how to process it themselves, they often make their feelings everyone else’s problem,” says Nalepa who is also the Executive Director of the Anonymous Initiative, an organization dedicated to helping people overcome their inner bully. “It’s about giving them tools for self-soothing and calming themselves down. You can start by sharing how you deal with your feelings when you get upset.”
5. Low Self-Esteem
Some children don’t feel good about themselves. So, they believe they can lift themselves up by putting others down. It’s important to encourage the kind of behavior you want to see in a child even while adopting a zero-tolerance policy toward bullying. And because no child misbehaves 24 hours a day, parents and teachers can find something praiseworthy in the most enigmatic child.
Often, several of the above factors can be at work simultaneously. Regardless, Nalepa says the first step in changing the behavior is to get curious about it.
“As parents, we have to take a step back and ask ourselves, ‘If I was living in this kid’s life, would I have a reason to be angry? Would I have a reason to lash out’?”
The more you know about where the bullying’s coming from, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to change the situation.