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The challenge of teaching empathy to stop bullying

Students at a Cambridge, Ont., high school have a group hug as they participate in a day-long anti-bullying program. presented by Phil Boyte Apr. 25, 2012. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

Moe Doiron/Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

Empathy is Canadian education's best weapon against bullying, but it is a flawed tool.

The prevailing wisdom, backed by experts, is that children are less likely to pick on peers if they understand the damage they can do. But kids aren't born empathetic, they're more susceptible to impulses, and worse, one experts points out, the lesson meant to tame the bully may have the opposite effect.

"Reading and math is amazingly simple to teach compared to learning how to get along with others," said Debra Pepler, a York University professor and psychologist. "We expect children to learn this by osmosis and they don't."

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She said lectures can help, but the real learning happens in more everyday settings, in students' moment-to-moment interactions with teachers and other adults.

Early intervention and repetition, then, are essential. Empathy can be taught, but people under the age of 26 are especially prone to bully because their brains aren't wired for impulse control, according to Joanne Cummings, a clinical psychologist at blueballoon health services in Toronto.

"Often kids, their empathy appears to go out the window and that's because they get so caught up and excited in doing things with friends that they become de-individualized and they have sort of a mob mentality," she said.

The trick is getting kids to think before they act, she said, which is not the kind of lesson that comes from a one-day seminar.

More alarming is the idea that some bullies are actually egged on by one-off lessons on empathy. Youths who have flawed relationships with their parents can be motivated to pick on the weak, according to Vancouver clinical and developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld.

He believes that children who lack a secure relationship with a dominant adult – usually a parent – will try to dominate their peers. These youths are often motivated by the hurt they cause.

"Saying that something hurts should elicit tenderness," Dr. Neufeld writes in his book, Hold On To Your Kids. "In the eyes of the bully, however, such unabashed vulnerability becomes like a red flag to a bull, inflaming the urge to attack."

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Parental relationships may be a key problem. Canadian children rank near the bottom relative to their peers in developed countries for how often they have a meal with their parents, and third-last for how often they spend time "just talking" with their parents, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Parents of bullied children can do everything right and still be powerless to make it stop.

"My parents were in talking to my teachers almost every day, but I felt really abandoned at school," said Kelsey Burton, a 22-year-old student at the University of Waterloo who grew up in Caledonia, Ont.

In Grade 7 and 8, she was ostracized by the girls in her class. Her teacher forced her to sit next to the boys who used to taunt her and call her ugly on the basis that she was a good student and would be a positive influence. "The focus wasn't on me, it was on my bullies," Ms. Burton said.

Kathy Brooks of Toronto did everything she could to stop her daughter's high-school tormentors, including talking with her teachers and visiting her school regularly. After two years of escalating name calling and social isolation, Ms. Brooks moved her daughter to Inglenook Community School.

The school is one of several alternative programs within the city that cater to students who have been bullied. It's small, with just 90 students in Grade 11 and 12, and staffed by teachers who are handpicked for their compassion and attention to students.

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"They're watchful not just about grades, but about how the kids are doing," Ms. Brooks said.

Her daughter, now 19 and a biochemistry student in Britain, thrived at Inglenook. Ms. Brooks says she doesn't know if her daughter, who received counselling for contemplating suicide, would have survived another year at her old school.

"You've got to get the kids out of that situation because that child is suffering every day and it takes a long time for things to change," she said.

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