I hate bullying. I have been privy to hundreds, and likely thousands, of stories of the devastating effects of it in the children that have come through my office doors. However, I think sadly most of our attempts to stop bullying miss the mark.
Years ago one of my favourite professors and a well-respected expert on children’s behaviours told me that I should never tell a child to do something a dead person could do. What he meant by this is that children are designed to think in terms of action and not inaction. Rather than telling them to stop doing something we should give them something active to do.
Instead of telling kids to stop bullying we need to tell them what to do instead. I think the thing we need to be asking our children to do and training them in is empathy. Simply put, empathy is imagining the experience of others. Through practicing empathy kids get better at it. We all do.
Empathy allows children to know when they are being hurt and know when those around them are being hurt. Empathy makes bullies aware of potential harm and less likely to act in ways that hurt. Empathy helps children process their own feelings if they have been bullied. Empathy helps children stick up for those who are being hurt and support them in healing from the emotional injuries of bullying.
Empathy is active. It is sitting in the moment and looking outward. It is asking children whenever possible “what do you think the world feels like for that person?” It is taking time as parents to sit with our children and imagine their experience. When we do that we show them what it feels like to have someone try to look at the world through their eyes. We show them how to do it.
To learn it well I think empathy needs to be broken into two different abilities: 1) the ability to sit in the moment and 2) the ability to imagine the experience of others.
Sitting in the moment is commonly referred to as mindfulness. When we are mindful we are in our bodies and minds wherever they are and focussed on the present. There is no future and no past. There are no preconceptions of meaning over the people, place or the tasks around us- there is only the moment and our bodies and minds in it. It sounds hippy dippy but the science around the benefits of learning to sit in the moment is strong. Below are three simple and fun activities that can help build the ability to be mindful in children.
• Staring contests. I love staring contests for kids. A staring contest is simple. You start with your eyes closed- both open them at the same time- maintain eye contact with the opponent and the first person to blink loses. Reset and play again. These are an instantaneous fun grounding opportunity that places kids in their body. To do well at a staring contest requires attunement to the body.
• Describe a rock. Have a selection of rocks that a child can choose from. Ask them to choose a rock and close their eyes. Ask them to describe the rock to you. Help them to walk over the rock with their fingers describing its shape and textures. Ask them to describe the temperature of the rock. Have them roll it in their hands and describe how it moves. Slow your words down to let them sit in the moment with the rock. This is also a fun one to do outside.
• Five colours/Five sounds. You can do this with any senses but I like this quick combo. Pick a colour and ask your child to find five items in the room that are that colour using just their eyes and share these with you when they have found them. Then ask them to find five different sounds in the room. While remaining quiet they can list them in their head and share them with you when they have found them. This activity forces them to be in their senses in the moment. This is an especially powerful exercise for kids who have a hard time managing arousal.
Looking out is the skill of imagining the world through another’s eyes. It is about watching and wondering. It involves actively wanting to know what the world of another is like. When done well, it comes from a place of compassion, curiosity and non-judgment. We can do this simply by finding opportunities to express our own internal world to children, help them explore their own internal worlds and then coach them in exploring the world of others. Here are examples are how all three might be actively done:
• Parent’s world: “I felt really angry when that car cut in front of us. I felt angry because I was scared about our safety. I would feel sad if we were to get hurt and that anger is to protect me. We are safe now so I don’t need that anymore.”
• Childs world (Only when a child is calm): “How are you feeling right now?” “Why might you be feeling that way?” “When did you start to feel that way?” “What might those feelings be trying to tell you?”
• Other’s world: “How do you think that child is feeling right now?” “Why do you think they might be feeling that way?” “What might those feelings be trying to tell them?”
(Disclaimer: Do not use this when trying to discipline or redirect behaviour. Use this initially to explore the world of someone or something not emotionally connected to the child such as a stranger observed at a park or a pet.)
These simple activities are practice for the active ability to better see our world and the world of those around us. They are the building blocks for safe and rewarding love and the enemy to bullying or any other practice that hurts those around us without consideration to their experience.