In my previous post about bullying, I wanted to acknowledge the developmental impact of bullying and set the stage for how to protect children. While it often feels like we cannot control our child’s environment beyond the home, there are certain ways we can position children from potentially experiencing bullying, bullying, or mitigate the intensity of its ramification.
Parental modeling of acceptable or unacceptable behavior is rooted in a child’s natural inclination to learn from observation. In fact, Albert Bandura, a social cognitive theorist, posited that children learn from others by observation, imitation, and modeling. We may all be familiar with the idiom “Do as I say, not as I do”. In other words, listen to my words, but don't follow my actions. Childhood acts and behavior often stem from parental modeling – they are astute at picking up on cues given within the home that shape mimicking behavior. It is important to “Do as I do”, and with that social signal it is imperative that children’s positive behavior is rewarded and reinforced and negative behavior is arrested. It is confusing when a child is disciplined for behavior that is unacceptable yet they have witnessed the same acts of others, especially those delving out the punishment. Additionally, observing aggressive behavior within the home, and the choice of disciplinary measures may influence the child to act-out – or displace – his/her aggression on peer substitutes with whom he/she may reign.
Modeling is also relevant to self-regulation and impulse control. Children and adolescents tend to lack filters as well as the ability to delay gratification. They say and do what they want, when they want. Learning to sit with feelings, and to know the appropriate time and place to communicate or discharge them is an art form many of us may not master even into adulthood, if that. The ability to manage strong emotions and impulse control comes with the ability to self-soothe. How do we learn to self-soothe? It begins with having the experience of being soothed. And, it goes back to the process of internalization. When we have warm memories and experiences, we “take these in”/internalize them, make them our own, and then can subsequently externalize them when needed. For instance, a friend with three young children under the age of five, exclaimed exasperation at having taken them to the zoo. Overtired and overwhelmed, she posed the question” Will they even remember this day?” I told her that they may not have the literal memory of seeing elephants, tigers, and bears (oh my!), but they were integrating the warm memory, and by having that day, she was fueling them with good feelings.
The process of soothing starts in infancy. Donald Winnicott, a pediatrician and psychoanalyst termed the “holding environment”. He was referring to the role of therapist with a client, but it is based on the idea of the mother-child relationship and the facilitation of the child’s transition to autonomous functioning. Wilfred Bion, another psychoanalyst developed a theory of containment. This is based on the idea that the infant’s upsetting, painful, or intolerable feelings are projected onto its mother. The mother provides a “holding environment” for these feelings, and rather than reacting to them, serves as a container, returning to the child the feeling of adaptation so that now the child can reintegrate the soothed feeling as an emotion of its own.
So, if a parent is able to soothe a child when in distress, the child learns how to utilize these coping skills and in essence, manage their own strong feelings. Consider the person you know who blows up at the slightest infraction. Now consider the person you know who is able to remain relatively calm and collected in tense situations. It is likely that the latter person had a soothing home environment. With this idea we can begin to consider bullying prevention. When the tools and experiences are provided for a child to thrive and self-regulate, it is likely they will not have a need to project their discomfort and unhappiness onto others, which is often the precursor to bullying. As well, a victim of bullying is likely to be less traumatized when they have a strong home holding environment.
We have a greater chance of providing soothing to children when we have had the experience of being soothed, and have been able to then self-soothe. This does not mean one cannot learn to soothe and self-soothe. Many parents, and individuals in general are not metaphorically “fed”, making it challenging to feed children. What is the answer? Cultivate support. It is reasonable to assume that without support we are prone to feel drained and overwhelmed. Build social capital: we all need help. It’s not a sign of weakness to ask, despite some cultural propagations.
Children thrive in an atmosphere of warmth, acceptance and support. This doesn’t mean that they should never be disciplined. It means that they know where they can go for comfort. When your child is in distress, listening is more important than advice giving. There is a reason that hallmark doesn’t make empathy cards: empathy is felt, it is an experience. Sympathy is feeling badly for someone. To empathize, you must truly understand another’s experience, or attempt to. We are all familiar with those, who when sitting with someone’s pain, want to make it go away; to relate a familiar experience or to silver-line the feeling, for example “at least you’re not homeless” or “things will be better soon”. We may even be inclined to tell someone how to overcome the experience, and this may, in the right context, serve as useful. However, conveying empathy not only makes a child feel metaphorically emotionally “held” or contained, but also allows him/her to develop empathy for others.
We are often so busy thinking about what we want to say next when others speak, that we don’t truly HEAR. Most beginning therapists, for example, want to “fix” their clients; to have something concrete to offer so that the client can walk out feeling better. And that can be helpful, if not at times, necessary. But the power in healing is also through sitting with someone in their vulnerability. The truth is, most folks feel better having been listened to; most people are quite hungry for that; and a lot of people are not able to tolerate strong, and painful feelings in others. We are kind, and we don’t like to see others in distress, especially loved ones. It’s not easy! We want to soothe, to problem-solve. But the value of listening cannot be undermined. Listening itself is reparative. Humanity is conveyed through listening. Warmth, support, and acceptance are conveyed through listening. And, there is a cathartic aspect of being given the room to be heard.
Empathy should be taught at home and in school. It is not something that is a literal teaching point. It is about conveying empathy through interaction: the interaction I discussed above, or interaction in the classroom. Rather than only making a child apologize for their actions or behavior, when a child offends another child, consider asking the offensive child how he/she thinks the offended child may feel by what is said; how would the offensive child feel if someone said the same thing to him/her? With these reflective questions, the child is likely to develop the ability to put him/herself in another’s emotional place.
Part of empathy includes taking in someone else’s perception. Why are so many youth missing school, self-harming, or even committing suicide due to bullying? It is a response to a traumatic situation that overwhelms the ego before the child has developed the ability to self-soothe, regulate emotions, and learn effective coping skills. They must feel that there is no escape from their pain and the pain is too unbearable to manage. It does not mean as parents you have failed your child. Although it is natural to want to get to the truth about incidents of bullying and what incites such torment, it is also incumbent upon us to tend to the victim’s perception of their experience, certainly when it comes to a school environment and creating a safe space. This is another way of “holding”; and providing empathy. If a child feels mistreated, it is likely they are being mistreated. It is imperative to caution that allowing a child a voice is not the only pathway to prevention. Schools must cultivate and enforce a climate of civility.
It is also important to cultivate empathy for diverse individuals, whether at home or at school. Being open to your child’s friends in all of their variations is critical to embracing differences. The more you have diversity in your life, the better able you are to also model this attribute. Just like it’s hard to cultivate empathy in another if we are not empathic, it is hard to expect certain behavior to be learned without parallel modeling. We grow from exposing ourselves to new experiences and to people who look different than us. We are living in a culture where we are drawn to sameness. Often time differences breeds discomfort if not contempt. And, this may be in fact the basis of bullying.
As a culture, we tend to underestimate the impact of sibling relationships. Rather, we focus on parent-child interactions and its potential influence. Siblings are paramount in serving as a model for peer interaction. Sibling relationships help to cultivate a preferred manner of relating and distinct style of communication. Sibling rivalry is healthy: it can foster competition, cooperation and negotiation. Sometimes one child is at an advantage; sometimes the other is at an advantage; there is generally no intent to harm. Whereas sibling abuse involves insistent, consistent messages of inferiority through emotional denigration and/or physical assault; it involves the intent to cause harm and an unequal opportunity for advantage. Sibling abuse damages self-esteem and elicits problems in interpersonal relationships.
Although conflict is inherent in any close relationship, how conflict is resolved in sibling relationships can foster or hinder peer interactions and influence socialization. Because social and familial norms may encourage expressions of aggression among siblings, it can result in its normalization and lead parents to view aggression as “good training” for their child to learn to handle themselves. When sibling abuse occurs and it is not addressed in the home, the child who is the abuser may continue to enforce his/her “status”/role amongst peers. For the victim, an emotionally denigrating or physically violent experience elicits vulnerability to one’s well-being. An individual with low self-esteem has the potential to lack assertiveness, social skills, and the ability to resolve interpersonal conflict, resulting in a susceptibility to further victimization .
Sperling and Berman found that adolescents who felt they had a secure relationship with their siblings exhibited higher self-esteem and emotional well-being; they were less depressed and had less social anxiety than those who perceived a lack of support from parents.
The sibling abuse experience including the absence of modeling effective communication and provision of parental soothing seriously affects victims’ ability to regulate their own affect and manage strong emotions of others. Additionally, being the target of intense anger from an object of love in this case a sibling leads victims to fear intense feelings and interpret these emotions as inevitably leading to rejection and abandonment. The emotional rejection from siblings contributes to a fundamental perception that they are incapable of being accepted and loved, and puts one at risk for further alienation from peers.
Although the family climate can make a child susceptible to bullying perpetration or victimhood, peer bullying may also increase the likelihood of sibling on sibling aggression. Most parents are upset to learn that sibling abuse occurs under their roof; they may be unable to manage the behavior; or they may feel helpless to address it. They may even be unaware of it as it occurs during unsupervised times. It is important to recognize multiple variables within a family that can unintentionally create hostile sibling relations and result in the perpetrator carrying out this behavior into the school setting, and the victim being either an easy target of bullying at school, or displacing their upset from a sibling onto a peer.
As parents, it is imperative to recognize potential family conditions that may elicit hostile sibling relations. And teachers may also have a proclivity to relate to some students differently than others – it’s the human condition. Please be mindful of the following:1. Children as caregivers
Sometimes parents are overwhelmed and need help with tasks. That is ok! However, children should not serve as a substitute spouse or parent. Children, especially from single-parent homes, tend to be burdened with the caregiving of younger siblings. This breeds resentment and the child is apt to displace his/her anger onto a sibling or peer. Additionally, the child caregiver feels entitled to utilize a sense of authority that they are not prepared for. Does this happen in the classroom as well? Is there one or a few children that are often the “helpers”? Does this vary and alternate around the class? Are messages being sent of competence and incompetence?
In families where there is a single parent, or the parents are not unified in parenting customs, the parent feels alienated. This can create an emotional reliance on a(n) older child to support the parenting role. As with a child who is a caregiver, the implicit role ordained sends a message that the child has the right to discipline, and that the parent will support however that child deems necessary. It can also appear as a special friendship or bond between one child and the parent whereby the isolated child feels ostracized and the abuse imparted by a sibling is supported by a parent, thus creating a “double whammy”.
Granted, each child cannot be treated the same all the time. However, it is important for caregivers and teachers to recognize the strengths of each child. When a child feels another is favored, sibling – and peer - aggression can emerge.
4. Parental/Teacher Modeling & External Stressors
Parents who are overwhelmed are not able to provide emotional support to their children. Build social capital. We tend to have shorter fuses when we are stressed leading some parents to have difficulty tolerating a range or intensity of emotion in their children. This can create a negative atmosphere of criticism and judgment, and a lack appropriate modeling of stress reduction. Do teachers bring their stress into the classroom? Are you able to modulate your own emotions and contain them until the end of the school day? How might external stress impact the ability to provide emotional support to others?