You were at school. You know how bullies work. And you know that at certain stages even the great kids can become bullies. They rarely strike when there is a teacher around and when they do, it is so subtle, that even if the teacher has a whiff of it, it is almost impossible to identify and name. It is tone, it is a raised eyebrow or an insincere compliment that is actually mocking. And it is so painful when you’re the bullied child.

Yesterday I got an email from a mum who is deeply distressed by the bullying her 13-year-old daughter is dealing with at school. She is desperate. She has spoken to the school, her family, other parents, read all the books and is now reaching out into the abyss that is the internet.

This mum is gutted by what she believes to be the teachers’ lack of action. “Why aren’t they stopping it?” She asked me. “It’s their job to stop it.” And it is. Our first obligation, as schools, is to keep our students safe from harm and fear. The problem lies in how.

Even if we had eyes on kids at all times we wouldn’t be able to stop bullying. Especially with the advent of smartphones, devices and their accompanying digital warfare. That is, unless…we were able to teach all kids to be empathetic. It is very hard to be a bully when you are empathetic.

What is empathy?

Empathy is the ability to place yourself in the shoes of another person. The ability to understand how another is feeling, even if you aren’t in the same situation as them.

It involves emotionally connecting with people, which makes us a bit vulnerable. To be empathetic we have to reach into our own bank of emotions and find that same feeling. Sometimes having those emotions is uncomfortable.

Empathy is the greatest gift we have as a species. It connects us to one another. It ties us together and ensures we help each other to survive. Unfortunately, in the era of the individual and everybody wanting to be special, it’s almost counter-cultural.


Two types of empathy

There are two types of empathy, affective empathy and cognitive empathy.

Affective empathy is also called ‘shared empathy’. It is the kind of empathy that we are all born with. This is where we naturally react to another person’s display of emotions. If someone is upset we feel upset too. If someone else smiles, we instinctively smile too. You know you have it when you watch a movie that makes you cry or you feel joy for someone overcoming hardship.

We don’t all have affective empathy in equal amounts, but we all have it…even sociopaths. They know how victims feel, they just don’t care! So, they switch their empathy off, like a light bulb. Unfortunately, we all choose to do that sometimes.

All kids experience empathy, but we need to encourage them to switch it on. This is difficult for teens, and they need our help, for a few reasons:

  • They do not have adult-state brains
  • They often have undeveloped emotional intelligence
  • They have to make themselves vulnerable
  • They might have to choose empathy over belonging, and we all know that belonging is so important to them

Santa Maria psychologist Jane Carmignani says, “Bullying and friendship issues gather speed because kids depersonalise. They justify their actions or ignore how the other child feels. They will carry on with hurtful behaviour because there will be some short-term gain for them. Usually, the gain is in developing their own status, sense of belonging, reputation etc. They don’t naturally consider the consequences of their actions.

“This depersonalisation is made worse if life for them is particularly challenging at the time. Then they are even less likely to pay attention to how others feel. Their focus is on themselves and meeting their own needs.”

That’s why we need cognitive empathy. Cognitive empathy or ‘perspective taking’ is when we decide to really try to take someone else’s point of view. It is beyond what comes naturally.

Cognitive empathy is when we’re attempting to feel what the other person feels in order to better understand and relate to them. It’s deliberately trying to make our empathy light brighter. This is the empathy that we can teach our kids. It is a skill they can learn. It will make them better people and it will serve them in their future work and relationships.



So how do we teach kids to make their empathy light brighter?

  1. We teach the definition of empathy. This alone will begin the process of self-awareness. Am I an empathetic person? Could I be more empathetic?
  2. Teach what empathy is…
    • Listening to understand
    • Allowing new ideas in
    • Making ourselves vulnerable enough to feel what someone else feels
    • Feeling with someone, not for someone
    • Seeing others as equal to ourselves
    • Removing ourselves from the picture and focusing solely on someone else
  3. Teach what empathy is not
    • Judging or feeling pity
    • Silver lining someone’s misfortune. Empathy never says, “At least…”
    • Hijacking the conversation. Comparing their sad experience or joy with yours by telling your own story
    • Waiting for your turn to talk instead of listening
    • Empathy never puts people down
    • Educating or telling people what they should do
  4. Model vulnerability. Carmignani says, “Modelling vulnerability is how we begin to develop emotional intelligence in our kids. Vulnerability is more honest and more authentic than what they are seeing on television and on social media.” They need to see it in the significant adults in their lives.”
  5. Develop the ability to actively listen and read body language, give feedback and check they’ve understood what the other person is saying and feeling.
  6. Reduce social media use. Digital interaction allows kids to distance themselves. Connection is what is needed.
  7. Practise from a young age and continue…forever!
    1. Start with pets and siblings with little kids. “How does Meow feel when you pull his tail?”
    2. Build up to friends and characters on television.
    3. Gradually get kids to think about people of different ages and in completely different situations to themselves.
  8. Read to them a lot and often when they are young, and even when they are older, so you can discuss what is read. Then pump them full of fiction. Fiction is particularly great because it trains kids to take someone else’s perspective.
  9. Travel. Travel. Not 5-star hotel travel. Your worldview isn’t changed by being in the Hilton in every city. I mean ‘get amongst it travel’. You don’t find many bigots and bullies who are well travelled. People learn that the world is large and they are a tiny part of it. They learn how others live and why others are valuable. They see other lives…and there is no going back from there.
  10. Make sure kids are involved in service.  Getting to know people who are living with disadvantages such as disabilities and poverty builds empathy. It also feels good to show compassion and help, so the process is positively reinforced.

The reality is empathy has to compete with the need to fit in and the fear of not being good enough and dozens of other disappointing human drivers. But…it is definitely a step in the right direction. Empathy can be the light in the dark space of bullying. We just need to make it shine brightly.


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Linda Stade has worked in various teaching and management roles in education for twenty-five years. She has worked in government and private schools, country and city, single-sex and co-ed. Currently, she is the Research Officer at Santa Maria College, Western Australia.