One common theme in advice about how to respond to a child who is bullying another is to concentrate on teaching empathy.  That task is easier said than done, and it can be particularly hard with a child who has suffered trauma.  If you find yourself in that situation with one of your children, there are some important principles you need to keep in mind.

• First Things First

Empathy is a higher-level process, and it requires a strong foundation of other emotions.  It requires, for example, that your child feel emotionally safe and sheltered.  Until your child believes that your home is a safe one, don’t even try to talk to them about caring for other people.  Until they feel safe, they will not have any emotional resources to spend on anyone else’s problems.  You will be either wasting your time or making the problem worse.

Empathy also requires that children have mastered, or at least have a good handle, on more basic skills such as controlling their emotions.  So you may need to concentrate on self-regulation before working on empathy.  Also remember that trauma can set back a child’s emotional growth, so don’t assume that your child is old enough to know better.  Just like academic skills, you may have to drop back and start with very elementary emotional skills for your child.

You also need to help a child find words for the emotions they are experiencing, and then apply those words to the children they are harming.  Many traumatized children have learned to shut drown and deny their emotions, so they are not likely to be able to understand what someone else is going through.  Until they can develop a vocabulary for their own emotions, they will not be able to understand anyone else’s.

•Avoid Labels

One unfortunate aspect of the emphasis on bullying prevention is that “bullying” has become an all-purpose word that carries a lot of complicated connotations.  Adults, particularly school officials, throw it around so much that children think of a “bully” as a terrible person, akin to the villain in a fairy tale.  So if your child hears an adult say that they have been bullying or harassing someone, they likely will hear that as saying that they are terrible people.

That level of shame doesn’t move children toward empathy.  Several mental health studies actually show that shaming tactics backfire.  When a child hears adults saying they are terrible people (i.e., “bullies”), then they almost always respond in one of two ways.  They either reject the label entirely, including everything else we say, or they internalize it and give up.  After all, if they are terrible people, then there is no point in trying to be anything else.  Traumatized children are particularly likely to develop the latter attitude, which then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  They often double down or react aggressively.  

So, start with describing their actions rather than their character.  Saying “that wasn’t a kind thing to say” is much better than saying, “you are not kind.”  Another technique is to describe their actions as not living up to good standards.  In other words, “what you said was not kind” is better than “that statement was mean.”  Negative adjectives sound very close to describing their character.  Descriptions such as “not kind” or “not patient” sound less threatening and remind them of the standards that they want to live up to.

• Show What’s In It for Them

Children who have suffered trauma tend to concentrate on taking care of themselves.  It will take time to make them feel secure enough to think of others.  In the meantime, we can make more progress if we explain how being empathetic will benefit them.  For example, we can explain that people who notice how their classmates feel have more friends.  Or that kind people have people more willing to help them with problems.  If you make your explanations concrete and the benefits short-term, your kids are more likely to pay attention to what you have to say.

• Show, Don’t Tell

Finally, we have to model empathy in our everyday lives.  Our children need to see empathy in action, and we are the people they will learn from.  If we spend our time complaining about our coworkers, for example, they will not see much difference between that habit and their trashing peers on social media.   We don’t need to portray our jobs as all rainbows and unicorns.  We simply need to be sure that when our children hear us trying to understand the perspectives of the difficult people in our lives.  If they don’t see us acting with empathy, then they aren’t going to pay any attention to our lectures or advice.

Teaching empathy can be difficult, and it is particularly challenging when we are parenting traumatized children.  We have to step back, understand that our children may be reacting to past trauma, and patiently walk with them one step at a time as they learn new skills.


Debbie Ausburn

Helping foster parents and stepparents learn how to be the person who is not supposed to be there.