Is empathy and emotional regulation the answer to bullying?
Consider the story of Cinderella. Step into her scuffed shoes as a mistreated and bullied stepdaughter and describe how it might feel to be rejected. Put your foot into the glass slipper and describe how it might feel to be accepted. Now try to step into the shoes of the stepmother who bullied Cinderella and allowed her two daughters to do the same.
Would Lady Tremaine, Drizella, and Anastasia have bullied Cinderella if empathy skill-building had been taught in their village?
An old adage states, “Before you judge me, walk a mile in my shoes.” Empathy is about putting on the shoes of other people in order to see what they see, feel what they feel, experience what they experience, and understand their view of problems, issues, concerns, and situations. It’s about sensing the pain of others and letting them know that you care and share their humanness and hurts. Of course, we cannot totally experience what’s on the inside of another human being and we cannot feel their exact emotions, but we can try to put on their glasses for a while and view the world as they view it.
Being empathetic does not mean we have to condone mistreatment of others, violence, or an invalidation of human rights. We can evaluate a person’s behavior as right or wrong without judging the person’s worth as a human being. Empathy says the bully needs help as well as the victim. However, bullies still need to be held accountable and need to make restitution.
Definitions of Empathy
“Empathy is the ability to identify with another person’s feelings. The ability to see and feel things as others see and feel them is central to competent parenting and successful social relationships in all stages of life,” writes Mary Gordon, Founder of Roots of Empathy.
Empathetic responding is about being able to step into another person’s shoes without judging, criticizing, accusing, and condemning the individual. Empathy is about trying to understand a person’s opinion, ideas, desires, needs, wants, perspective, values, moral code, interests, personality traits, and attitude without thoughts of superiority and disgust.
“Emotions matter, and they matter a great deal in school…emotions also are at the heart of bullying—a major public-health problem facing our nation’s schools,” says Marc Brackett and Susan Rivers, authors of RULER, a program designed to teach skills for recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing, and regulating emotions.
Brackett and Rivers define emotional intelligence as the ability to recognize emotions in self and others; understand the causes of emotions and their consequences for thinking and behavior; label emotions with a vocabulary; express emotions in socially appropriate ways; and regulate emotions effectively.
Five abilities comprise emotional intelligence (EQ) according to Daniel Goleman: knowing our emotions, managing our emotions, motivating ourselves to achieve our goals, recognizing emotions in others, and managing relationships with others.
Programs to Teach Empathy and EQ
Roots of Empathy, an evidence-based classroom program, has shown significant effect in reducing levels of bullying and aggression among schoolchildren by raising social/emotional competence and increasing empathy. The program reaches elementary schoolchildren from Kindergarten to Grade 8. Nine separate studies have shown that Roots of Empathy has helped reduce bullying at school and increased supportive behavior among students. Visit www.rootsofempathy.org
RULER has helped more than 500 schools integrate emotional intelligence into their daily routines. A step is for school communities to write an “emotional intelligence charter.” A tool, the mood meter, builds emotional self-awareness, helping everyone gauge their feelings throughout the day, set goals, and develop self-regulation strategies. The Feeling Words Curriculum empowers students and teachers to describe the range of human emotions. Visit www.ei.yale.edu.
Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy, a book by Emily Bazelon, interviews three victims and their bullies.
Dr. Missy, Ph.D., is a feelings helper, child therapist, play therapist, and child trauma therapist. She provides therapeutic services at Affirmations, Columbus, Ohio.