In this posting, I will discuss the most substantial long-term solution to bullying. The best way to combat bullying is to support the capacity for friendship and children’s development of empathy. Empathy is a function of “theory of mind”, that is, the ability of the child to imagine the thoughts and feelings of another person and to realize that other people have minds of their own.
For example, the 5-yo boy (let’s call him “Sam”) described above was having trouble imagining the mind of his classmate (“Ben”). I discovered that earlier that day in playground time Sam had been involved in a running game with Ben and some other boys. Ben, who is a fast runner, was leading the pack. Sam has some motor insecurity that has held him back, and he has not developed the strength and skill to keep up with the other boys in running games. I am guessing that he was feeling like a “loser”, and his way of making sense of those “loser” feelings was to perceive Ben as being the cause of his “loser-ness” by claiming to be older than Sam was. Ben actually hadn’t said anything of the sort, but Sam’s feelings were so strong and unmanageable that he completely lost his 5-yo capacity for self-reflection (“mentalization”). He did not link his very sad and angry feelings to having been left in the dust in the running game of minutes before. He really perceived Ben as trying to best him by claiming to be older and thereby causing him to feel bad.
Empathy is a complex competency that begins in the early infant-caregiver relationship when the baby first comes to recognize and resonate with the emotions of the caregiver. Parents and teachers can continue to support the development of empathy by valuing empathic responses, by making “being a good friend” a family (and school) value. If this “family value” is established, parents and teachers can always fall back on it as a support when they are confronting bullying behavior. “In this school, we do not believe in treating others that way.” The reason this kind of explanation is such a showstopper is that you can’t argue with beliefs. Empathy can even be extended to the bully.
I would not call Sam a bully – nor do I think the term is appropriate for such a young child – but his behavior was definitely intimidating to Ben. If called into this situation with Sam puffing out his chest threateningly to Ben and calling him a baby and Ben quaking in his boots, his parent or his teacher might try to scaffold the recovery of Sam’s self-reflection, and therefore his empathy. They might try to help him imagine how Ben felt, and they might even elicit Ben’s help in doing that (“Tell Sam how you felt when he said that to you and stood so close to you”).
However, there is a potential pitfall. If Sam is too stressed, the adult’s words – kind and helpful though they might be – will not sink in. Sam cannot take in information when he is dysregulated. The kind words – if they are addressing the source of his distress – might even escalate his dysregulation, The adult must first help Sam (and Ben) calm down, feel safe, and then – maybe twenty minutes later – try again. There are many good children’s books that have friendship as a theme. Some classics are George and Martha, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, and Freddy the Pig.
Brooks, Walter R, Freddy the Detective, Overlook Juvenile Press, 2010.
Marshall, James, George and Martha (especially, the story of “Split Pea Soup”), HMH Books for Young Readers, 1974.
MacDonald, Betsy, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, Harper Collins, 2007.