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Empathy versus bullying: Part 3: Recommendations for students, parents, teachers and administrators

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Bullying: Recommendations for students

If one is being bullied, some guidelines are useful.; though no single, easy answer is available.

[Note: even though these recommendations directly address the “student,” they are intended to provide guidance to the parent or responsible adult on how he or she is to address the student regarding bullying. They are intended to inform the grown up, adult’s speaking and listening in the matter of bullying as the grown up engages with their student.]

First, these recommendations are about getting back your power—or at least some of your power—in the face of bullying. Sometimes that looks like making a tactical retreat, much as one might dislike doing so, in order to reestablish boundaries and integrity. The idea is to de-escalate the potential confrontation. What de-escalation looks like is different according to the situation. 

Second, this is not happening to you—the target of bullying—because you did anything wrong. Stop the negative self-talk (devaluing comments directed at oneself) about being to blame for the bad behavior of bullies. Such negative self-talk results in two problems, the bullying and your own negative self-talk. 

Previously there was only one problem, the bullying. Now two problems exist, the bulling and the negative self-talk. Reduce the problems by 50%; stop the negative self-talk. If you cannot seem to stop the negative self-talk, then get help from a parent or professional with doing so. 

Many different kinds of bullies exist—see the above typology—and it is not your job to be the bully’s therapist or policeman. 

There is probably no reply to the bully that is so powerful that the bully cannot transform it by using a sing-song, condescending tone of voice. 

Even if one says: “Thank you for respecting my privacy,” a statement that makes a great quotation in any subsequent police or administrative report, the risk is that the reply is going to come back at you like yet another confrontation. It might be worth a try, but no guarantees. 

The bully is behaving the way he does to “get a rise” out of the target. The intention is to make the target upset. That is a “pay off” for the bully. That is not to say that one should not shout back if shouted at or push back if one is pushed. That is a judgment call based on the situation and one’s sense that fighting back—otherwise know as “self defense”—may make a positive difference in establishing or maintaining a boundary. 

However, if one is out-numbered or the bully is physically larger and one’s power is diminished, engaging the bully in a back-and-forth exchange is not going to work. If one can maintain some measure of composure or equilibrium, then the process of escalation on the part of the bully may be short-circuited or at least moderated. The bully is “getting off” on upsetting the target, so, tactically speaking, being boring to the bully is a valid defense. You will be “less fun” for the bully, and he will move on to the next target. 

Another thing that is done—and is potentially life saving—is to keep a “bully log,” noting in writing, once one escapes, the occasion on which one was bullied and what exactly was said or done. In the case of cyber bullying, this includes print outs, with URLs and time stamps, or screen shots of devaluing comments from email, Facebook, social media, or text messages. 

I know, I know. The last thing that a kid stressed out by bullying wants to think about is documenting what is happening precisely so that one can escalate and get one’s power back. But that is what is required. One may prefer to forget about it all, but keeping a log with dates and times and names (or descriptions if one does not know the name) and what exactly was said or done, is going to be an important part of getting one’s power back in the face of bullying.

Civic and spiritual leaders such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King have famously pointed out that “no one can diminish you without your consent.” That remains true; and it is always a good reminder to oneself in the face of bullying. However, King and his followers actively trained and role-played non-violent resistance prior to engaging in demonstrations, civic actions, marches, protests, and sits-ins, in which they confronted bullying, hostility, and out-and-out violence. 

Civil rights activists practiced with colleagues, who pretended to be racists, hurling insults and ketchup at the would-be demonstrators in role playing. In turn, the would-be demonstrators practiced not responding with counter-aggression; and all this prior to their actually engaging in anti-segregation sit ins, public protests, civil disobedience, and so on. 

One should not have to undertake training in non-violent resistance in order to survive the ride on the bus to school or the school lunch room, and the fact that we are now discussing such a scenario means that something has already gone seriously off the rails. Attempting to transform a culture of segregation and colonialism as King and Gandhi did—or a culture of bullying—is not for the faint of heart. 

A group of middle or high school kids are not the KKK or the British Empire (though they may seem like it at times), and such kids cannot be forced to include an “outsider” when they really decide not to be inclusive. Thus, the coaching to the outsider is to keep looking for a group that is welcoming. Once again, it takes courage—and a support system—and is always easier said than done. 

People need friends, and, for people in middle and high school, relating to friends is an important part of the fun. It is a part of growing up and the non-academic learning that occurs. If you are with a group of people—also called one’s “peers”—and their behavior and speech towards you leaves you feeling “less than” or “upset,” then you may need to look at your understanding of what is a friend. If your inquiry to your “friends” as to what is really going on seems to elicit more of the same upsetting and “less than” behavior—then you need to re-examine their status as “friends.” I hope you will not shoot the messenger: it is time to move on and seek friendlier friends. 

One bullied LGBT teen made a difference by trying to join a Gay-Straight Alliance group activity at his high school. But there was one catch. Before he could join the alliance, he had to create it. It became a significant project, and a path to engagement for him and numerous fellow students both gay and straight. Never underestimate the power of one person with the courage to stand up and say “Enough—there’s got to be a better way!” 

Friends may argue. Friends may disagree. Friends may engage in drama over boy or girl friends. Friends may even decide to stop being friends and go their separate ways. But if one finds so-called “friends” treating one like an outsider, using de-valuing language towards one, or being mischievous in ways that are cruel, mean, or aggressive, then it is time to find new friends. If one’s peer group lets one down, then it is time to seek a new peer group. Once again, this is not easy to do when one is struggling against bullying. However, if one is unable to take action in the direction of finding new relationships because one is so paralyzed by the upset, then it may be because one is anxious or depressed, and the intervention of a caring third party is warranted. But where to turn?

If you have a good relationship with one or both parents, that is a good place to start. Here “good relationship” means that you can talk with him or her. It means the parent has the ability to empathize with your predicament and listen to your concerns. It also means you are not going to come away from the conversation feeling bullied. Older siblings can also be useful if one has a good relationship. 

The idea is not to have a grown up “fix” the problem for you, but to find a “trusted advisor” to work with you on what can be done to get back your power—or at least some of it—in the face of bullying. Though the analogy is imperfect, this is a tad like getting tutoring in geometry or science. Do not expect the tutor to do your homework for you; but together you work to acquire the skills, so you can not only survive the lunchroom or school bus ride, but also even have fun and prosper. 

If you do not have the kind of empathic relationship with a parent that makes you think the parent can help to improve the situation, then look for a trusted teacher at school with whom one has a relationship. (But see the caution below about teachers and staff being school-bullying-mandated reporters.) Once again, this should be someone who you believe will listen to you—use her or his empathy to appreciate you—and work with you to improve the situation. If neither your parents nor a trusted teacher at school can be mobilized to intervene, then you should look for someone in the community such as a coach at the art or sports center, a pastor at church, or coordinator of the LGBT group in the community with whom you enjoy a relationship of empathy and trust. 

If you are being harassed online, request that the web site take down the content, since the harassing comments violent the rules of most web sites. If the site is Facebook, report the abuse immediately via the dropdown item “this picture is of me and I don’t like it” [or words to that effect]. Facebook says that it is committed to taking the word of the reporter (you) about harassing comments. Print out the cruel or mean content or make a screen shot. Put all such stuff in a folder. You need to show others in authority what is happening. It is almost never useful to respond to the perpetrator. If you find yourself compulsively checking back for mean content, take a time out. Power down. Pull the plug. It is not worth it. It might be better to give online activity a break and drop out for awhile. Good friends will be able to reach you by phone or in person. 

Another word of caution is needed. If you approach someone in school—a teacher or member of the staff—then this person may be required by law to report the bullying to the school administration. This might be okay if the school has a program in place to deal with bullying. This is also where your written record detailing bullying that has occurred over the past period can be useful. I wish I could say that this would not result in further bullying with accusations of being a “snitch” occurring. But the risk of escalation is real and must be considered prior to taking action. 

If the reputation of the school is one of having a culture that seems to permit a certain amount of aggression and discourtesy, whether towards teachers or one’s fellow students, then the risk expands. Retaliation on the part of bullies for complaints about their bullying can become as significant an issue as the bullying itself. 

Once the school administration is involved, the process can take on a life of its own. The administration must (is mandated to) open an investigation, and the requirement to gather evidence of bullying can make you feel like you are inside the “hall of mirrors” at the carnival without, however, anyone having any fun. 

Grown ups are notoriously unable to distinguish adolescent drama from out-and-out bullying. This is sometimes due to grown ups’ lack of empathy, but not always. If the tweens and adolescents cannot tell these apart, why should the grown ups necessarily be able to? What seemed open-and-shut to the target of bullying can take on disturbing nuances once people are interviewed “on the record.” 

Trying to sort out a bullying report can become an exercise in forensic investigation with conflicting testimony full of “he said” and “she said.” Are witnesses denying an alleged episode of bullying—note the legalese “alleged” shows up—because they don’t want to be regarded as “snitches” or because the episode never occurred? 

The school system itself—no matter how empathic and well-intentioned—can seem to work unwittingly to punish all participants—or at least use all the time and effort of all implicated in a given incident in filling out forms, processes, procedures, and attending meetings. The process of determining what happened = x has now become something to survive—a potential breakdown in empathy and a breakdown in community. Ready or not, one has matriculated in the “college of hard knocks.” 

However, if the student is being physically assaulted or harassed to the point where the student’s school work is suffering (grades and so on), then it is best to “bite the bullet,” fill out the formal report—including the police report if appropriate—try to take charge of the escalation, share the suffering, and learn the lesson in community building. 

No one should have to suffer in isolation in the face of bullying. Part of the abuse consists precisely in the bully’s attempt to isolate the target. So the best outcomes are those in which one is able to take action to break out of one’s isolation: finding new and welcoming friends, martial arts lessons, founding a gay-straight alliance at the school, chess or science club, and so on. Once again, this is easier said than done, but it must be both said and done. 

If you are someone who is caught up in drama and you are tempted to bully someone, it is time to take a time out. Take a look at your own behavior. Do you really want to be known as someone who is mean or a bully? While “put downs” or “one liners” might seem like auditioning for a role in a reality television show, hit the pause button. There are better ways of getting into show business. Go out for theatre or sign up for an improvisation class. All the world is a stage, and an important part of the training for theatre—and for success in life—is role playing. Indeed acting is precisely role playing. Try taking a walk in the other person’s shoes. There are other, better shoes—and choices—than to bully or be bullied. 

Bullying: Recommendations for parents

If your child comes to you with an upset about bullying or you see that she or he is upset about something and the story sounds like bullying, then what should a parent do? 

This is where empathy goes a long way. Start by listening. Your job as a parent is to support your child and to help your child regulate the child’s feelings and behavior. Your job is to help the child regain an emotional equilibrium in the face of life’s vicissitudes, including bullying.

Parenting is about setting boundaries. Empathy is about navigating boundaries, and bullying about violating boundaries. Therefore, empathy is about restoring boundaries in the face of bullying. 

Be empathically receptive and responsive: “That’s really gotta be a concern.” “Try to tell me exactly what happened.” “Then what happened?” “Say more about that.” “Okay, but help me understand.” “He said what?!” Ask about the details in a concerned, empathic way. “Johnny is a jerk” may be true; but it is an interpretation. That Johnny said “You are a loser” while pointing at his forehead with his fingers in the shape of an “L” is a report of a devaluing comment. Do not be dismissive. It’s not “nothing.” Note it. Be concerned. Avoid finger wagging or moralizing. Though you are obviously “on the side” of your child, do not assume she or he is an angel. Likewise, if the child is known to have a “devilish” streak, do not assume he or she is the devil. A single example is not bullying in itself, but repeated instances start to form a pattern of concern. 

One word of caution to parents at this point. One issue that should not be overlooked is how the adult is inevitably confronted with his or her own fate as a child in the face of bullying. In short, if you had a bad experience in bullying that is still unintegrated as an adult, it is going to be there when your child comes to you. If you have unresolved issues around bullying in your own history, when your child comes to you about bullying, a challenging situation becomes all the more challenging for you. You have to distinguish the child’s problem from your own in order to do your job. As a parent, your priority is to solve the child’s problem, not your own. 

Now this does not mean the parent has precipitously to go back into therapy (though nothing is wrong with that as such), but that one must be prepared to identify and use one’s own experiences around bullying as a resource. These experiences, long past, will come up. Promise. This is where parental peer support can be essential. Consult with other parents with whom you have a relationship of empathy and trust. It is crucial this be a person to whom one can relate without moralizing or finger pointing. 

If one does have an unresolved issue around bullying, then acknowledge it, so that one can gain some distance and objectivity about bullying today. In a deep sense, bullying and human aggression have not changed, though they now have online technology at their disposal; but parenting norms, schools, school administrators, and community standards have shifted significantly since Baby Boomers and even Gen-Xers have struggled with bullying in a different world. 

If, when you were a kid, the guidance from your parent was “just hit him back,” and it worked, then you are going to be inclined to provide such guidance. If, when you were a kid, you told his mom about his bullying behavior, and it worked (as unlikely as that may seem), then your initial inclination is going to be to provide such advice. Even if you wished that you had “just hit him back,” but were not able to do so, you are also going to be inclined to provide such guidance. You see the dilemma? 

Our empathy for our children in the here and now is a function of our own fate as a child in what was (and is) not always the most empathic of worlds. If one is at a party for five year olds, tweens, or adolescents, then one is inevitably going to be present to one’s own experiences as a five year old, tween, or adolescent. That is a risk and an opportunity. Such experiences from one’s own childhood or teen years can be a useful resource and should not be overlooked. However, such experiences of surviving bullying are most likely to make a positive difference within the context of an empathic listening to the child currently being bullied, not the context the parent had to overcome long ago. [i]  

The point is to appreciate the distinction between your own experiences and those of your child. An outgoing or extroverted parent may have a shy or introverted child—or vice versa. Yes, certain kinds of bullying are such that a child may properly be expected to handle them on his or her own. However, if the child who used to enjoy school now dreads it, if grades are suffering, or if a once flourishing child is now floundering, and it is not clear what is going on, then intervention is required. 

A substantial part of the challenge for the parent is to re-create the context on the school bus, at school, in the lunchroom, or on the sports field. What seems at first to be an open-and-shut case of meanness or cruelty can turn out to be a complex example of drama, pseudo-sibling rivalry, or bad manners. Debates quickly emerge about “Who started it!?” or “he said” and “she said.” Try to determine who said what to whom and then what happened. You may quickly find yourself asking, “Is there a single fact here?” This, however, does not mean that bullying did not occur. As a parent, you want to document what you have learned, and you want to keep open the lines of communication with your child. Is there a pattern? 

In order to be useful in supporting your child, you must have a thorough grasp of what is going on. Get the entire narrative. If what is happening really is bullying, you will want to be as specific as possible in order to make a report to the authorities if the problem persists. 

This is where the difference between handing the child a fish and teaching him or her how to fish is the lesson. Even if the student is an adolescent, the student’s request may be to “fix” the problem and make the bully go away. Wouldn’t it be nice? Rarely is that practical. If the bullying is occurring on the way to or from school, and if one can take a different bus or route, by all means, do so. Band-Aids have their uses. Tourniquets are essential. Buy some time to figure out what is really happening. 

The tough job of parenting occurs at four levels: (1) providing guidance to one’s student on how to fend for oneself; (2) providing explicit training in self-defense or assertiveness if the student can be enrolled in the value of doing so; (3) reaching out to the parents of the alleged bully if there is any chance they are responsive people, who are able to have a civil conversation; (4) intervening with school authorities (or law enforcement) as a last resort if no other solution can be found.

(1) Share with the student the above-cited coaching in “Recommendations for Students” about the dynamics of bullying. Even if you have reason to believe that your child has been provocative and is engaging in drama, begin by asking, “What happened?” “Who said what to whom?” “What happened next?“ Do not begin by asking, “What did you do to cause this?” That can seem like blaming the victim. Do not be dismissive. Trust—but verify empathically.

Providing empathy means that one should provide examples of proper behavior on the part of “friends” and peers; friends do not use devaluing, hurtful, bad language or engage in aggression against one another; and broach the difficult subject that maybe one needs to find new friends or a suitable, different, extra-curricular activity if one is being harassed. One should provide assurances to the child, who is blaming himself, that the child did not do anything to deserve such treatment. 

(2) Time was when “bullying” meant physical aggression. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” We now know that devaluing names, too, are hurtful. This is especially so when the name calling occurs persistently across different environments—at school, on the bus, online after school, and so on. I know—I know. Why is it that parenting usually seems to require ever-increasing commitments rather than less? Yet intervention on the part of the grown ups is important., especially if the meanness is escalating.

If a student, who is being physically assaulted, sees value in boxing or Asian martial arts lessons, the parent may pick up the extra expense and effort of chauffeuring him or her. It may be worth it. Self defense remains a fundamental right. 

However, if the individual is up against a group or the size differential is substantial, such lessons might be good for one’s self-esteem (and the value of such a contribution is not to be underestimated), but it is of limited practical value in surviving an altercation. For some shy or socially awkward kids explicit training in social assertiveness is useful. 

(3) If one is part of a community where one has communications with other parents, then it may be worth the risk to reach out to the other parents. It is important to do so in a way that does not land like an incoming accusation or reproach. That such a conversation would initially be uncomfortable is no reason not to try. 

If you can work with the other parents, it provides an example to all the children of how to resolve conflict in a mature, adult way that benefits all involved. Such a lesson is worth its weight in gold—or at least an associate’s degree in counseling. However, if the parent turns out to be troubled or a part of the problem, then one has perhaps discovered the source of the bully’s misbehavior. One has to move on. Encourage one’s child to leave alone a “friend” who is making his life miserable. 

(4) If one has exhausted individual coaching to the child or outreach to other parents, and one still has concerns about the child’s safety or the impact of bullying on a child’s academic results, then it is necessary to approach the school authorities. Remember that these may be harried individuals. 

School authorities already have a long list of academic, administrative, and educational responsibilities. The state legislature has just mandated compliance with rules that schools take on the task of managing and improving a situation in which 10% of a school population (say) of 1,000 students is either a bully or a target of bullying over a given period of time. A budget increase to support the mandate is still pending, meaning doing more with less is again demanded. 

A parent may have a right to stand up in a school board meeting and express concern or even accuse officials of being indifferent to bullying. 

However, it does put one in mind of Dale Carnegie’s dictum: if you want to gather honey, do not kick over the bee’s nest. 

Rather identify an educator or administrator who has the empathy to hear your concern about your child’s emotional and academic well-being and its urgency. In a time sensitive situation, specific steps can be taken such as allowing the child to keep a cell phone with him at all times to call for help; a designated safe room (say next to the nurse’s office) that the child can go to in case he feels unsafe; a special hall pass or permission to arrive two minutes before class to avoid the bully; or assigning a grown up to accompany her or him through the hallway. It is important that all the relevant teachers and staff know about this or it will just become another breakdown, punishing the victim as the phone gets confiscated, and so on. 

In the case of cyber-bullying of tweens, parents may appropriately have access to the online passwords. Parents may usefully know what sites the children are visiting. Even if one has a phobia for technology, it is imperative for the parents of kids using computers to have a minimum of computer literacy to supervise the kids’ involvement with electronic media. It is a tad stealthy—but I would not rule it out—to have the child train you with her email or Facebook account, and then use what you have learned to monitor theirs. 

You would not simply give the kids the car keys and tell them, “Hey, keep in touch!” Funny. The Internet is different than the open road, but hazards and risks exist in abundance in cyberspace, too. Since no parent has enough time to monitor the totality of anyone’s online activity—it would be crazy to try—start out like the wise teacher who begins with strictness but eases up thereafter based on proper behavior and feedback. 

Manage by exception. Trust but verify. If spending time engaging online becomes an upset to the child, then an empathic inquiry as to what is happening is needed. Expectations for online behavior should be made clear: Just as one would not use devaluing language, ethnic or racial insults in person, so too one should not do so online. If one is the target of such behavior, then it must be documented, monitored, and neutralized through appropriate interventions. 

Why is it that people forget you can turn off the computer or not go to certain sites? Parents’ good examples of laying aside electronic devices and relating in person to other persons speak volumes to kids. So does any behavior that demonstrates a parent’s commitment to drama or using social media to drive personal conflicts. Business people and politicians now have a rule about email and comments on social networks (even if they do not always follow their own good guidance): Write every electronic comment or communication so that it could be published on the front page of the Wall Street Journal without creating an embarrassment. The reason? Because the communication will eventually migrate there! This is an essential rule of thumb going forward. 

Such is especially the case after the US election of 2016 where a seemingly endless stream of hacked emails—containing ambiguous and devaluing comments about the sender’s colleagues—got published periodically. In some cases, no hacking was required, since the candidate published the comments intentionally using Twitter. 

As this book is being published, reports are emerging that Russia—you know, the sovereign state or a clandestine unit thereof—has attempted to influence the US 2016 election by purchasing ads on social media that attempted to aggravate racial, social, and economic divisions, thereby driving voters towards one Presidential candidate rather than the other.[ii] A lesson for us all? The ability to think critically and for oneself has always been an essential foundation of any democracy or any middle school kid’s emotional well-being. Now more than ever. 

There is also a rule—at the level of Sir Isaac Newton’s ironclad Laws of Motion—that naked or compromising photos taken by a person migrate inevitably in the direction of social media. So don’t take any; and delete any that might already exist now—before it’s too late! 

The expectations of privacy are such that online communications can no longer reasonably be expected to be private. Perhaps they ought to be private. Perhaps the 4th Amendment to the US Constitution against unreasonable search and seizure still holds sway in courts and halls of justice in the USA. I hope it does. I believe it does. But cyberspace just does not work that way any more. Facebook is designed so that people are given incentives to broadcast their personal and private data. As Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, is supposed to have said: “Privacy is no longer the norm,” implying rather that publicity is. Here take my personal data—please! Here—see what I am eating, who I am befriending, who I am dating, what I am wearing (or not), what I am reading, where I am checking in geographically, what I like, what I don’t like, what I am thinking—and at all times. [iii]

If you really need to have a private communication, send a letter by US Mail. It does put one in mind of Miranda Lambert’s country western song: “If you had something to say—you’d write it on a piece of paper—then you put a stamp on it—and they’d get it three days later—before everything became—automatic.” Words to live by. 

This may sound a tad nostalgic; and I am not sure that I could explain it to an eleven year old. So, if your eleven year old is citing the 4th Amendment to you as reason for not handing over his password, congratulations! You have a Clarence Darrow for the defense in the making. I hope you can afford law school. But you then get to explain that “probable cause” creates an exception—and a parental search warrant. Hand the password over, buddy—or hand over the device!

Bullying: Recommendations for teachers and administrators

The media provide sensational, even tragic, reports about bullying, but they less frequently provide useful guidance or actionable information. We have to separate bullying from conflict and “drama” between peers of roughly equal power. Attention grabbing headlines have provided a “call to action” for educators in middle and high schools (and for state legislatures), who had been distracted by other priorities and looking the other way. 

A few dramatic, high profile suicides, and many low profile emotional breakdowns, not to mention major litigation from outraged parents, have persuaded school administrators of the importance of intervening on behalf of the most vulnerable, bullied members of the community. 

Yet it is also important to realize that grown ups are not the only source of relief from tween and adolescent bullying. In no way is it blaming the victim that the targets of bullying sometimes need to take crucial actions on their own behalf to improve the outcomes of unwanted assaults. 

The first empathy lesson for administrators is that empathy is on a spectrum that extends from being firm about boundaries all the way to “tough love.” As every administrator knows, education is impossible if a school that is “out of control” surrounds the class room. A school is a system, and the hallways and class room must be calm in order for education to work. Before we turn to the details of how empathy plays in this context, some background is useful.

In December 1982 three elementary school students (10 to 14 years old) killed themselves near Tromsø, Norway. All three had been bullied. For example, one had been called a “leper” because of his measles scars, an insult, frankly, that I had not previously heard. These tragedies galvanized Norway. 

Previously, bullying had been regarded as something that kids had to work out for themselves on the street. These tragedies provided evidence that the most vulnerable members of the community required intervention.

Dan Olweus, who had studied bullying extensively in nearby Sweden, but who was without popular support there for his research recommendations, was invited to come next door to Norway to help out. He surveyed 130,000 students. Some 15% were involved in bullying either as perpetrators or targets.[iv]

Olweus’ research challenged many assumptions. It challenged the assumptions that upper class high school students were less frequent bullies than their underclass peers or that urban kids were more likely to bully than their countryside fellows. Bullying was an equal opportunity issue. The targets of bullying were significantly weaker physically and more vulnerable to anxiety; but, for the most part, they did not look or dress significantly differently than others in the group. Space does not permit a comprehensive review of Olweus’ bullying prevention program; but its focus is on transforming the culture of the entire school, providing authoritative and positive role models, improved overall supervision, and intervention in individual cases. In the initial pilot, eight months after the program was introduced, there was 50% less bullying; but also significantly less vandalism and theft. 

Olweus’ approach anticipated the crime fighting approach of reducing major crimes by fixing the broken windows in abandoned buildings and arresting the petty turn-style jumpers on public transit. These are individuals who might escalate to more serious offenses, if they are allowed to get away with mirror ones. They are halted early in the course of their boundary-violating careers. Their relatively minor criminal behaviors get cut short before they can advance to more serious misdeeds. 

Norway devoted significant resources to the issue of bullying. Here in the USA legislative compliance mandates ordering schools to solve the problem of bullying without providing resources or money are taking the easy way out. And mandates to comply often do not work—precisely because a mandate without resources is at best a well-intentioned, but empty, gesture. To be sure, the indifference of some school administrators has been a cause for concern regardless of the (in)action of state legislatures. But the commitment of many, if not most, administrators is a cause for hope—and engagement. 

Emily Bazelon reports on a case study—a school, Old Mill North, that had a reputation for roughness and was demonstrably spiraling downward. But it was pulled back from the brink and turned around by a program inspired by Olweus. This is not a one size fits all narrative, but numerous lessons exist that can be generalized. 

No matter how inspiring or talented the individual teacher, education is impossible if a school that is out of control surrounds the class room. The hallways and class rooms must be calm in order for the process of education to get the traction it requires to produce educated students. 

Bullies are put on notice that teachers and administrators are decidedly not happy about their behavior. Such individuals have been poorly socialized, and it is going to catch up with them. They need to get in touch with their inner jerk—have a conversation for possibility about recognizing one’s peers as peers—and learn how to respect boundaries. They can do better. If one can get the peer group to validate the language of respect for boundaries, courtesy, an optimum measure of toleration, and empathy, then their behavior eventually catches up with the rhetoric of respect and improves.

As noted, empathy is on a spectrum that extends from being firm about boundaries, but nice about it, all the way to “tough love.” Some students are not interested in respecting the boundaries that mark a commitment to education, and they really do not belong in school. Some 52 kids were expelled from Old Mill North. Likewise, the teachers were assessed. If they were not committed to transforming the culture of the school in the direction of excellence in education, they were encouraged to seek positions at other schools in the system. They were not expelled, but were counseled out. Some 22 out of 66 left the school. 

How shall I put it delicately? This was no longer business as usual. At Old North, a significant minority of the student body was still more than a tad rough around the edges by the time they got to middle school. Some students literally did not know what to do when one student bumped into another student passing in the hallway. They needed to be taught to say, “Excuse me!” or “Pardon me,” instead of telling the other person, “Drop dead, loser!” Similarly, with common courtesy in the cafeteria. At Old North a broad intervention with the students provided explicit guidance in what was expected of them by way of behavior. Thus, the students were drilled in social skills such as acknowledging the feelings of others, making eye contact, and conflict management skills such as making a request, saying “no,” or agreeing to disagree. In short, they were trained in empathy. 

Some bullies are indeed thugs, and need to be removed from the community to protect the community from them; but other bullies are themselves survivors of abusive situations (e.g., at home). They exhibit mental health issues, have a diagnosable cognitive impairment, and require intervention. 

That is no excuse—there is never an excuse for bullying behavior. However, it does mean that to prevent repetition of the bullying after a suspension has been served, these individuals need guidance. Many need treatment. Whether such treatment is full-blown dynamic talk therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy, bullies may usefully undertake an inquiry into their own abusive behavior in order to shift out of a pattern that is creating misery around them. It is worth repeating: If it’s mean, intervene. 

However, intervention is not the same as automatic discipline. Suspension and expulsion should be used only when the immediate concern is safety; and followed up with evaluation for the individual for depression, anxiety, conduct disorder, other emotional issues, or problems at home. Extrinsic motivation was also applied at Old North. 

Using Positive Behavior-Based Interventions and Support (PBIS), along with the Pledge of Allegiance, the school day began with reciting the school commitment: “Be respectful, responsible, and on task.” That means: say “please” and “thank you”; do your homework; and participate in class. 

An internal currency of courtesy was introduced. “Patriot passports” were blue slips that teachers handed out when students were identified as doing something well. The teacher meant it as a recognition and statement: “I liked the way you did that.” 

A gimmick? Perhaps, but the underlying value was in building a positive relationship between student and teacher. Instead of handing out detention slips, getting into an adversarial role, teachers were in a friendly role of recognizing students for a job well done. Those teachers who used up all their blue slips got a gold star on their door—and more slips. The slips could be redeemed for PTA sponsored school supplies, ice cream at the social, a school movie, or getting to the head of the line in the cafeteria.

One word of caution. Peer mediation is not a good method for dealing with bullying. Peer mediation makes sense when the two kids are of roughly equal power. However, putting a bully and a target in the same room together is a bad idea. This is so even if a grown up is present to help mediate. Bullies are skilled at saying the right thing in the moment, and then retaliating later. If the students are roughly equal in power, and the infraction involved drama (not bullying), then peer mediation may perhaps make sense. But otherwise, it is just putting the fox to guard the chickens. Things are not going to go well.

Once a measure of calm was restored to the hallways at Old North, then those students who continued to be disrupters tended to stand out. They could be provided with the services they required to gain control over their behavior and emotions instead of missing even more academics by being sent to the principal’s office or suspended. 

Instead of being given a suspension and sent home, the disrupters were given confidential psychological assessments for depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and self-esteem. They were required to watch videos about bullying, and consider their own behavior in relation to what they saw. Teachers who were chronic yellers were trained in other methods of de-escalating conflict with students who were disrespectful or difficult. This was not a two week effort. 

Six years into the program, scores on standardized achievement tests had improved enough for the school to introduce the International Baccalaureate Program to further drive academic excellence. Reducing bullying is good for academics. 

In summary, schools that support such efforts find that bullying of all kinds is reduced, not merely that directed at kids who are eccentric, socially awkward, new to the community, or LGBT. Of course, if the school’s grown ups are still struggling ineffectively with their own homophobic issues, then survivors must look for alternative communities outside of school. These alternatives outside of school run the gamut from sports to book clubs. It is not blaming the survivor to say, “Hey, it’s gonna take something from you, too, in building a community that works for everyone.” Martial arts and boxing are powerful compensatory activities for people who tend to be shy; but such people have to overcome their own introverted tendencies even to sign up. The very behavior that is stopping them is also part of the behavior that is leaving them vulnerable to bullying. The breakthrough is already present in stopping procrastinating and taking action to get such training.

In conclusion, the lesson is that empathy builds community; and communities demonstrate empathy by being inclusive. Yet rare is theindividual who transforms the authenticity and integrity of an entire community in order to join a community with integrity and authenticity. What would an anti-bullying club even look like? It might look like a LGBT alliance; but it might also look like a jogging, biking, or history club. Don’t just be “anti,” as proper as that is in the case of bullying; but be “pro” engagement, inclusion, and community.

As Daniel Burnham said in different context: “Make no small plans.” Empathy is the foundation of no small community.


[i] Christine Olden. (1953). On adult empathy with children, Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 8: 111–126. 

[ii] See “The Facebook Files: A Wall Street Journal Investigation,” https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-facebook-files-11631713039 [checked on Sept 27, 2021]; see also (now “ancient” history): Mike Isaac and Scott Shane. (2017). Facebook’s Russia-linked ads came in many disguises, The New York Times, Oct 2, 2017: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/02/technology/facebook-russia-ads-.html [checked on Oct 15, 2017].

[iii] Bernard E. Harcourt. (2015). Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press: 90–93. 

[iv] Olweus 1973/1993 in Bazelon 2012. Dan Olweus. (1973/1993). Bullying in School: What We Know and What We Can Do. London: Wiley/Blackwell; Emily Bazelon. (2012). Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. New York: Random House. This post and the corresponding chapter in Empathy Lessons rely significantly on Bazelon’s journalistic synthesis of the literature and her incisive interviews; see also James Garbarino and Ellen deLara. (2002). And Words Can Hurt Forever: How to Protect Adolescents from Bullying, Harassment, and Emotional Violence. New York: the Free Press (Simon and Shuster).

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

Empathy versus bullying: The biggest bully in my life

[This is the first in a series on bullying and empathy.]

Listen to this podcast on Spotify (via Anchor): https://anchor.fm/lou-agosta-phd/episodes/Empathy-versus-bullying-The-biggest-bully-in-my-life-e16v57j

The biggest bully in my life

The biggest bully in my life was a member of my family, my father. Most of the time, he was a nice guy, a good neighbor with a lot of social skills. However, he had a nasty temper that would go off unpredictably. 

Dad would lose his tempter in unpredictable times and unpredictable ways about three times a year, and then there was hell to pay. I would get hit, pushed, knocked down, and called devaluing names. Over a period of ten years, between seven and seventeen years old, that adds up. A bold statement of the obvious: it was unpleasant. 

Persons (and therapists) who later heard about my struggles would ask: “Did he drink?” No, he just had a nasty temper that got triggered by what he (and apparently only he) perceived as narcissistic slights or injuries. His bad behavior satisfied the criteria of bullying in that it was verbal and physical aggression, occurring repeatedly, and in a context where the individuals were significantly unequal in power. 

I have documented the recovery process without describing my father’s behavior explicitly as bullying in an earlier book, A Rumor of Empathy (2015). As part of my recovery, I even published a book chapter on empathy and the treatment of domestic violence.[i]

The new information disclosed here is that Dad’s behavior improved significantly when, at the age of seventeen, having finally grown up physically, I hit him back. Just one punch. Well placed, it gave him a bloody lip. A technical “knock out.” It had a calming effect on him, and I never got hit again. The fight was called in my favor, by mutual agreement. However, do not make too much of it. I was heading out the door and off to college, never to look back, with my academic scholarships.

Dad only bullied members of his own family. To the neighbors and his colleagues at work he was a friendly, even wonderful guy. In years of dynamic psychotherapy beginning when I escaped to college, I explored a process of treatment that included recovery from domestic violence. 

I now believe that the triggers to Dad’s bullying outbursts were some slight provocations—real or imagined—to his narcissism. This means that he was not your typical school yard bully. The school bully may “go off” if one bumps into him in the play ground, but the school yard bully is both strategic and opportunistic in his aggression. With my Dad, he seemed to lack emotional regulation once his sense of self was knocked out of kilter—dis-equilibrated—by a real or imagined narcissistic injury. Dad was at the effect of his rage. He did not seem to be having fun. The people around him were definitely not having fun. 

Dad had a narrative about teaching me a lesson as he lashed out and described me with devaluing names. This was a self-serving narrative at best. Whatever distorted lessons might have been intended, they were not empathy lessons. His bad behavior was in the service of venting his emotions and restoring his own equilibrium. Everyone else around him was dis-equilibrated. As a boy, I was trying not to cry any more in order not to be given more of “something to cry about.” 

In those days, a college student on summer vacation could still get a relatively well paying job in a factory or working construction, and I never returned home. Dad and I patched things up years later. However, the years of misbehavior had taken their toll. There was neither a sentimental reconciliation nor a truth and reconciliation commission to frame the encounter between perpetrator and survivor. Dad never thought of asking for forgiveness and, near as I could tell, he never told the truth about how violently he had behaved. It seemed not to occur to him. 

Forgiveness is over-rated, thought I, at the time; though I eventually came to endorse Desmond Tutu’s approach and bought Tutu’s book based on its title alone—No Future Without Forgiveness. It is about a formal truth and reconciliation commission. The perpetrators have to stand up, face the survivor(s), and tell the truth about what they did to the victims (who did not survive) and to the survivors (who did) in such a way that they agree it is the truth. The perpetrators have to acknowledge what happened in such a way that the survivors recognize it. The process creates a set up—provides a clearing—to build a case for forgiveness. The survivor then gets to say whether he or she accepts the representation of what happened and whether the survivor chooses to grant forgiveness.[ii]

Self-forgiveness is an entirely different matter. Sometimes the hasty forgiving of others is a clumsy way for survivors to get to self-forgiveness, which is a worthy goal. The survivor may usefully forgive himself for incorporating the devaluing descriptions of the bully into the survivor’s low self-esteem. This is an important step, which, speaking personally, years of therapy helped me to attain. The benefit is to empower the survivor to put the past back in the past and create a clearing for positive possibilities going forward into the future.

In comparison to Dad, any school bullies that I encountered were “boy scouts” (with apologies to the Boy Scouts). Any bullies that I encountered at school were more like jumping in reverse back from the fire into the relative coolness of the frying pan. They were physically bigger, but I had other sources of power including humor, a rapier wit, a sharp tongue, and, most importantly, an ability to run amazingly fast over short distances. It worked well enough. 

I was still physically small in middle school; and I had potential as a target of bullying. However, I would speak out of turn in class, playing the class clown, so the tough kids were amused, even entertained. 

The tough guys saw that I spoke truth to power—or at least was not afraid to get an occasional punishment exercise from the teacher for trying to be funny. 

I gained a certain kind of reputation—not exactly popular, unless you consider the notorious outlaw Jesse James to have been popular. Think of “Wanted Dead or Alive” posters at the post office. So the tough kids—and there definitely were some in my pubic middle school—didn’t mess with me. By the time I got to high school proper, I was still below average in size for my age, but it was a private, all boys school. That was the main challenge.

Virtually without exception every kid at my high school was so afraid of the teachers, who were mostly Jesuits, that even the meanest of one’s fellow students seemed like an alter boy in comparison. There was no talking in the corridors between classes; and if one did talk, a teacher, who had been lurking quietly behind you out of sight, would suddenly emerge and bang your head against the lockers, which lined the hallways, making a formidable hollow sound. The locker, not the head, that is. 

Most classes in my high school would begin with the Our Father (the prayer)—nothing wrong with that—but you knew that The Lord—along with big brother (those were the Jesuits who were not formally ordained as priests)—were watching. If the tactics were to put the fear of The Lord into everyone’s head, creating an atmosphere similar to boot camp in the armed forces, then it seemed to have worked. This raises the delicate question whether the teachers were actually the bullies; and I am sorry to report that, yes, some were. 

Sadly, it was not empathy but a common oppressor (the teachers) that helped to build solidarity among the student body. I hasten to add that the majority of the teachers were humane and caring, indeed many were talented educators, creative and engaging. Many had a sense of humor, which sometimes extended to sadistic hijinks. Most would simply give one a week’s worth of detention for daring to talk out of turn. 

The boot camp atmosphere had a tendency to displace the bullying from school itself onto the school bus or the athletic field. I did see a couple of kids bullied on the school bus, and I am ashamed to say, I was not enough in touch with my courage to intervene. Indeed at one point a couple of the mean boys seemed to notice me, and hurled a couple of insults in my direction. I was anticipating a rough time; but then, without explanation, the bus route was changed, and the bullies simply disappeared—to another bus. 

Thinking back, I now believe that the rambunctious kids were motivated by the draconian atmosphere in the school to express their extra adolescent energies by participating in sports (which was perhaps the intention); or going home and raiding their well-to-do parents well-stocked liquor cabinets (not an option for me—Dad did not drink, he was just a bully); or seeking solace for their lack of social skills in their studies. The last was my favored approach. I did find someone to hang out with in the cafeteria—the food was so unpalatable that I further stunted my growth by not eating lunch for four years, though I ended up being an average height. 

After reviewing the research on bullying in depth, I have reached the conclusion that if kids have enough time for interpersonal drama and conflict, the latter often as practice for out-and-out bullying, then the kids have too much time on their hands. They are not nearly busy enough. They would benefit from more homework and extra-curricular activities. Note, however, that this implies the school has the resources to offer the extra-curricular activities, which is not always the case. Unlike Hollywood films of the depression era with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, many schools do not have the resources or organizational skills to say “Hey, let’s put on a play to raise money for the orphanage!” The kids are already the “orphans.” 

Empathy is the antithesis of bullying

Empathy is the antithesis of bullying. Where empathy lives, bullying is rare. Where empathy lives, bullying has no home. 

In environments where empathy is taught and practiced, bullying does not get traction. Situations in which empathy is valued are situations in which bullying is devalued. One might say exactly the same thing about common courtesy. 

In communities—whether middle school or high school or, for that matter, the US Armed Forces—where common courtesy gives way to disrespect in relationships, bullying expands and spreads; but where common courtesy holds sway in relationships, bullies head for the exit or at least hold their (lack of) peace. 

The point? Empathy and courtesy have in common a careful treatment of boundaries in relationships. What empathy and common courtesy share is recognition and respect for the boundaries between individuals in relationships. 

Another bold statement of the obvious: every bulling remark is a breakdown of courtesy—and of empathy. Every bullying gesture is some kind of a boundary violation. We have to be careful with words like “every,” “all,” or “never,” but in this instance they fit. “Please” and “thank you” and requesting permission are discarded. Pushing, shoving, and devaluing language are front and center. 

Empathy is about moving back and forth across the boundary between self and other in relating to other persons, and doing so in such a way that the boundary is treated with integrity. In contrast, in bullying, the boundary between persons is violated, and, so are the space and integrity of the target of the bullying. In bullying, the boundary between persons is crushed, and so is the emotional integrity of the intended target. 

The response of empathy to bullying is to engage in a process of reestablishing the boundary between persons in such a way that people are left authentic and whole. As we shall see, this is different than being nice or even trying to induce empathy in the bully.

Bullying defined

Before we say any more—and there is a lot more to be said—let us define our terms. We rely on the definition provided by the pioneer of bullying research, Dan Olweus, whose ground breaking studies in his homeland, Sweden (and Norway), have provided a rich source of further research.[iii] Olweus was thorough in his research interviewing some 1,000 children as well as their teachers and parents. He administered projective imaging tests (the “ink blot” Rorschach) to those he had identified as bullies or the targets of bullying. 

Olweus defines bullying as (1) aggression (either verbal or physical abuse) towards a person; (2) that occurs towards the person more than once over time; and (3) is between persons of unequal power (whether physical or social rank or both). [iv] The special thing about bullying is that kids do it especially when the targets seem helpless. Kicking someone when they are down is precisely an identifying feature of bullying. 

According to Olweus, what is most distressing about bullying to its targets is repeated domination to inflect pain. If the aggression happens only one time, it is aggression; and that is not good; but it is not bullying. If the people are of equal power or almost equal power, then the behavior is conflict, drama, or a fight, not bullying. 

The distinction between bullying and drama (conflict) is not always easy to determine, so look at physical size (height and weight), formal rank in school or professional status, and job roles. When someone who has power, whether formal or physical, over another is treating the other in such as way as to violate their dignity, that is a strong candidate for bullying. 

Olweus found that about 5% of the boys in his studies were bullies and about 5% were the targets of bullying, “whipping boys” as Olweus called them. 

What the latter had in common was they were physically weaker and anxious. Olweus studied only boys. The discovery of the “mean girl” phenomena still lay in the future. We now know that among girls, physical strength is less of a factor, and girls  have been known to bully by indirect means. 

When relationships become weaponized

When cruelty relies on what one knows about the other person or can plausibly attribute to them, then it is as if the relationship itself becomes weaponized. Insults, injuries, slights, discourtesies, racial and ethnic slurs, are used to deliver pain and suffering to the target. 

Since the bullying is a boundary violation, the way to reestablish empathy and order (where “order” means common courtesy) is to reestablish the boundary between persons. 

A word of caution upfront. Let’s say one is the adult hall prefect at a high school, and an act of bullying is perpetrated in full view in one’s presence. It is tempting to attempt to induce empathy in the bully by asking: “How would you feel if that (aggression) were done to you?” Ultimately such an intervention may be useful, however, not here. If Jack is calling Jill “Fatso!” it is precisely to make her feel bad; it is likely that he knows it; and that is exactly why he is doing it. 

One says to Jack in a loud voice: “Stop! I don’t like what you are doing.” Or “That behavior is unacceptable. Cut it out!” Jack replies: “But Jill doesn’t mind.” An obvious lie—or maybe Jill is so depressed that, in the moment, she is just numb. One clarifies: “I don’t care how Jill feels—I don’t like it. We do not talk to our fellow students that way. It is disrespectful.” Or words to that effect. 

There are numerous scenarios here. If kids are whispering in the presence of another kid such that the target is supposed to imagine devaluing things are being said, the response is similar: “It is impolite to whisper in the presence of others—stop it—it is discourteous” (said in a loud, authoritative voice). The point is to reestablish the boundary in the relatedness, so that even if people do not want to be empathic, they can at least be courteous. It may sound paradoxical, but that is the most empathic response one can provide. 

If the relationship between the bully and the intended target includes hurling insults, then the bystander establishes a “no fly zone” in one’s presence. The metaphor is telling. Stop the insults from flying around. Shoot them down. 

The bullying approach to relating is de-weaponized—at least in one’s presence. The bully may also be better off, at least indirectly, since he (or she) may be trying to use bullying to regulate his own de-regulated emotions. Think of the intervention as regulating the dis-regulated emotions that the bully is experiencing, but which, if only the bully had some interpersonal skills, he would be able to regulate for himself. While there is no silver bullet here, the intervention itself provides the regulation—in the form of a firm boundary to help the bully contain himself and regain an emotional composure without hurting anyone. 

If we use empathy as a method of data gathering about bullies, we may be surprised to learn that bullies are a diverse group of people:[v]

(1) The stereotypical bully: The stereotype really does capture features of the real world. Think of Bill Sikes (see Figure 5) from Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Bill Sikes beats his dog and his girl friend. The relationships of power are one-sided and physical violence is prominent. 

Other examples of classic bullies include Carrie’s schoolmates in the revenge movie of the same name; Nelson in the Simpsons; Malfoy in Harry Potter.

One person who reports in great detail on bullying, Emily Bazelon, calls the stereotypical bullies “thugs in training.”[vi] These bullies rely on superior physical strength. They trip you in the corridor, and steal your lunch. They exemplify the descriptions that bullies do poorly academically (except perhaps for Malfoy, who is all the more sinister for being smart and psychopathic). These bullies habitually cause conflict with others, Bazelon reports, and are 4 times more likely to become criminals. 

Bill Sikes bullying his dog in Dickens’ Oliver Twist

Figure 5: Bill Sikes from Oliver Twist, bullying his dog

According to Olweus, to whom Bazelon is indebted for the definition of bullying, 60% of childhood bullies have at least one conviction from breaking the law; 35% have three or more encounters with the police. These are the kids who may satisfy criteria for conduct disorder such as cruelty to animals, damage to property, casual disrespect in addressing others—along with bullying behavior. 

Many of these kids, stereotypical bullies, feel miserable, and, are attempting to regulate their disregulated emotions by making others suffer. Yet these bullies would not necessarily agree or endorse the judgment that they are unhappy. This is because they are out of touch with their feelings. They would have to be taught how to feel their feelings prior to asking them, hypothetically, how they would feel if something similar was done to them. If they are out of touch with their own feelings, it is likely that they are unable to get in touch with the feeling of others. They are out of touch with the grain of empathy, which we generously attribute to them. 

In most bullies, the bully’s conscience developmentally lags behind his age cohort. That is especially the case with these individuals. Even if they have a capacity for empathy, empathy is not effective in appealing to their conscience. The conscience is stunted or they dismiss its influence. They may have a trace or sense of empathy, even though undeveloped, but it is often misused to increase the suffering of the targets. 

Instead of tactically trying to induce empathy, external surveillance and behavioral incentives are likely to be most effective in reducing their bullying behavior. If they could find a positive role model to admire and imitate—someone who is not a member of a street gang or “bad boy” rap star—then they could get guidance from him or her. Admiration for a role model would allow the person to acquire ideals and ambitions, contributing to their integration into the community. It just might save their lives. 

(2) The clueless bully: The aggression of this kind of bully does plenty of damage. Yet, at another level, these bullies just don’t get it. He may be socially awkward, or even fall on the autistic spectrum. One kid who fell into this group called his targets “stupid.” He hurt the feelings of many, and, made some kids cry; but in the process he became extremely unpopular. If he thought bullying was a way to get ahead with his peers, it didn’t work. His status plummeted. 

Our empathy suggests that the empty wagon makes the most noise, and this kind of bully is one of those. He is not filled with sadism and malice, but definitely lacking social skills. This is small consolation to those whose days he wrecked, yet it does give one pause. This is the kind of bullying for which the adult’s advice to “fight back” makes the most sense. This is not easy to do. Taking “assertiveness training” or “boxing lessons” assumes the target of bullying lacks skill in one of these areas, and has incentive to develop it. 

The target has been selected precisely because this is someone who does not like to fight. The problem is that prior to assertiveness training, and so on, most targets of bullying are unable to act effectively on their own behalf—or assertively. Lack of experience and skill in dealing with hostility as well as out-and-out fear rarely improve the judgment of the person who is the target of bullying. 

The target of bullying ends up being a deer in the headlights when it comes to fighting. When the power equation is out of balance and a hostile environment exists due to physical size or social conditions (e.g., apartheid (“legal” segregation), anti-Semitism, etc.), fighting back can become a suicidal gesture, literally if not emotionally. Rarely does any benefit exist in getting into a back-and-forth with the bully. 

Still, this is precisely the scenario where the possibility of the would-be victim fighting back in self defense makes the most sense. In many bullying scenarios one may need to beat a tactical retreat or call for backup prior to engaging, since the power equation is so unfavorable. However, in this case, the idea of attempting to set one’s own boundaries by pushing back and confronting the clueless bully is potentially useful and self-empowering. No guarantees, but it might work. 

(3) The bully who is also a target: These bullies are vulnerable to peer pressure. They succumb to peer pressure to abuse others. Nor are they good at protecting themselves from bullying. Unlike the first group, who may satisfy criteria for conduct disorders (which used to be called “juvenile delinquency”), these kids do not feel okay about themselves. They do not subscribe to the philosopher Socrates’ maxim that it is better to suffer injustice than to commit it. These kids experience the worst of both worlds, but it feels less bad to bully than to be bullied. 

These bullies are relatively more in touch with their feelings than the first two groups, and here is a chance that an “empathy induction” might bear fruit. “How would you feel if this were done to you?” These kids are depressed or anxious or both. They experience a conflict between the fear of being bullied and the “easy way out” of succumbing to peer pressure and becoming a bully. 

Instead of intervening with a suspension from school for the bully, punishment has to be supplemented with treatment, rehabilitation, or guidance. With treatment such as counseling or therapy a possibility exists of improving the behavior once the student returns to the school community after the suspension. A continuum of interventions from online training to individual counseling to working with parents can produce positive outcomes. 

(4) The bully who is a “popular” kid: These individuals score high on social skills. They are good at reading the emotions of others. They have empathy skills, though often they lack the basic foundation of authenticity and integrity needed to use the skills to benefit others or build community. They find relating to other people is relatively easy, and they know how to say just the right things to make friends or placate the grown ups. If the reader is expecting me to say that they are secretly insecure or wracked by self-doubt, that is simply not so. On the contrary, these kids are popular and mostly happy with their lives. Often their parents are well off. The kids get gear and stuff. Yet something is amiss and missing. 

Here bullying occurs as a play for power and social status. A pecking hierarchy exists in which the most popular kid gets a minion to perpetrate the “dirty work,” the bullying. This is the Machiavellian moment. It is best for the Prince—I mean, bully—to be loved; but it is essential to be feared. Likewise for the Princess. When perpetrating wrong doing, one should nevertheless be perceived as being gracious and generous. What is the point of having power or status unless one is able to exercise it? 

Boys provide numerous examples of popular kids who can be mean—see McFly in the Back to the Future series of films—but this is where “mean girls” come into their own.[vii]

When relationships get “weaponized,” the discussion cuts across gender lines, though girls have provided the “poster child” for meanness in the popular press. While boys bully both boys and girls, girls mostly bully girls, bringing a sublimated aggression to the act. 

Up until the age of four, girls grab toys, hit, push, play rough, and shout as much as boys do. At some point, social expectations from parents, extended family, biological programming, school teachers, and so on, drive such behavior underground. 

Conforming to community standards, whether helpful or hurtful, about “sugar and spice and everything nice” requires that girls become stealthy in their aggression. Fisticuffs are out. Queen Bees are in. One definition of a “Queen Bee” is a popular girl, who collects various “minions” around her. The minions, in turn, conform to her expectations in behavior, dress, language, and bullying. 

Girls use threats, blackmail, gossip, rumors, attacking reputations, whispering in provocative ways, the silent treatment, or non-verbal gesturing. Opening up in relationships can leave one vulnerable to aggression from those one has trusted. Following the bad example of the grown ups, cliques of kids will “vote someone off the island.” Nor is it progress that, in some subcultures, girls are becoming almost as ready to throw a punch as the boys. 

This is where empathy may be misused to increase the misery of the target of bullying. Social skills enable the would-be bully to “get inside the heads” of their intended targets to inflict the maximum upset. 

One can find many, diverse examples in which the bully takes the perspective of the intended target, thinks about what would be most shaming or hurtful, and goes about implementing it. The bully has a sense of what the target is experiencing through a refined empathic receptivity. 

What one cannot find is an example in which calling someone devaluing names or giving them “the silent treatment” is an example of empathic responsiveness. While the point is controversial, I am calling this out as a breakdown, indeed a “pathology,” of empathic responsiveness. 

The description of empathy is crucial here. For advocates of empathy as a fundamentally “pro social” attitude, simply “getting” someone else’s feelings and perspective and then using this verbally to bully them isn’t really empathy. An empathic individual would recognize and anticipate the potential hurt, and, therefore, would not respond to the other person in a devaluing way.

The empathy lessons developed in this work takes account of the possibility that empathic receptivity, empathic understanding, and empathic interpretation can be misused to hurt people. But empathy without empathic responsiveness falls short of the definition of full functioning empathy. Such an approach fails and breaks down when empathic responsiveness is tested. One does not give back to the other person that person’s own experience in such a way that he recognizes it as his own. Instead one bullies the other. So empathy must be informed by one’s good upbringing and ethics not to misuse empathic responsiveness to hurt others. 

In conclusion, the recommendation and response of empathy to bullying – and in every case – is to set limits, establish boundaries, and get one’s power back in declining to take the bait of provocative gestures. Self-defense is always appropriate is one is the target of aggression, and so is retreating in the face of disproportionate unfavorable odds.

The challenges is to contain and disarming bullying without becoming an even bigger bully than the bully against whom one is struggling. The proposal is NOT to use empathy to get in touch with the bully’s suffering. Many bullies enjoy misbehaving and they get off on the conflict and making others suffer. Rather the recommendation is to use top down, cognitive empathy to put oneself in the place of there other person (the bully) in order to understand what might be motivating him so that one can deflect, defuse, or deescalate (including implementing a tactical retreat). 

Even if the bully is the boss at work or members of the local police force who have a monopoly on violence, the recommendation is still the same: set boundaries, establish limits, and try to defuse the situation. Note well: this is not a suicide mission – one may have to retreat, call for backup, and find other methods of restoring boundaries and integrity such as civil disobedience, finding powerful allies, documenting and escalating to sympathetic authorities in the establishment (if there are any), or seeking a personal solution in another context. The devil – and the empathy – is in the details and in further podcasts in this series on empathy and bullying, additional guidance will be provided. 


Notes

[i] Lou Agosta. (2015). A Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative, and Recovery in Psycho analysis and Psychotherapy. London: Routledge: 141–194.

[ii] “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” requires telling the truth about what happened and what one made it mean. In asking forgiveness one is required to say for what one is asking forgiveness. I ask: If the perpetrator does not think to ask forgiveness is one obligated to make an unsolicited offer? Forgiveness is a possibility and a recommendation, not an entitlement? 

[iii] Dan Olweus. (1973/1993). Bullying in School: What We Know and What We Can Do. London: Wiley/Blackwell. 

[iv] Ibid. 

[v] Emily Bazelon. (2012). Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. New York: Random House. This chapter relies significantly on Bazelon’s journalistic synthesis of the literature and her incisive interviews; see also James Garbarino and Ellen deLara, (2002), And Words Can Hurt Forever: How to Protect Adolescents from Bullying, Harassment, and Emotional Violence. New York: the Free Press (Simon and Shuster).

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Rachel Simmons. (2002). Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls. New York: Harvest (Harcourt). 

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD, and the Chicago Empathy Project