How to prevent bullying: What studies tell us about empathy and laying blame

How to prevent bullying? We need to change the behavior of bystanders, and we need to understand what causes kids to repeatedly intimidate, harass, or physically harm their peers.

What works? Condemning the behavior, and arousing empathy for the victims. What doesn’t work? Condemning the bully as a person, and attempting to shame him or her. 

5 young boys sitting together on a bench, each holding their faces and making angry or disturbed facial expressions

Whether or not it satisfies our sense of justice, personalized condemnations and blame do not seem to motivate bullies to change their behavior.

When researchers have analyzed anti-bullying tactics in schools, they’ve found that blaming and shaming had no effect on a child’s intentions to stop bullying.

What did change a bully’s intentions was a clear condemnation of the behavior, and attempts to make the bully feel empathy for the children he or she harmed (Garandeau et al 2016).

But what about other things? Like fostering social skills? Self-esteem? Problem-solving? Impulse-control? A less hostile view of the world?

There is indeed more to the story. Here’s an overview of the research tells us about anti-bullying strategies: What has worked, what hasn’t worked, and what might work in the future.

Why it’s hard to prevent bullying in school

Researchers have tested a number of school-based anti-bullying strategies. Unfortunately, many of these strategies have performed rather poorly.

The best track record is associated with “whole school interventions,” programs that battle bullying on multiple fronts. Typically this includes adopting and enforcing strict rules against bullying. It also includes training teachers, introducing anti-bullying curricula in the classroom, sharing anti-bullying information with parents, and offering individualized counseling to students .

But while “whole school interventions” show more promise, they aren’t terribly successful. Yes, a few interventions have reported impressive, lasting effects. But most have not. They’ve either failed show any effect, or had the effect of increasing bullying among some students (Silva et al 2017).

Why haven’t school-based programs been more successful?

Maybe the ideas were good, but the execution poor. In support of this idea, researchers who interviewed kids after one intervention found that students “sometimes misunderstood or misused specific intervention skills, especially problem solving and empathy” (Farrell et al 2015). With better implementation, kids might have mastered these skills, and used them to prevent bullying.

But there is another possibility. Maybe the interventions are focused on the wrong activities.

For instance, some anti-bullying interventions seem to assume that bullies will mend their ways if they are taught social skills, or conflict resolution techniques, or self-confidence-building exercises.

The implication is that most bullies misbehave out of ignorance or incompetence. They victimize others because they don’t know how to make friends, and they have low self-esteem.

As we’ll see, these assumptions may be valid for some bullies. But research suggests that other bullies aren’t lacking in social savvy. They may be socially well-connected, and have high self-confidence. The cause of their misconduct lies elsewhere.

So I think it’s important to take a closer look at the origins of bullying. If we want to know how to prevent bullying, the first step is to understand what types of children are at risk for becoming perpetrators.

Pure bullies and “bully-victims”

two children seated together, each wearing wooden abstract masks

Research suggests there are at least two types of bully:

While they may share some traits in common, they are distinctive in other respects. Let’s consider the similarities first.

What bullies have in common

Not surprisingly, children who become bullies may show early tendencies to resort to aggression — more than is usual for children their age (van Dijk et al 2017). But there are other commonalities.

Children who bully may be less adept at feeling the emotions of others — an ability that researchers call “affective empathy.”

Some of these kids might be good at a kind of “cool” reasoning about another person’s perspective (also known as “cognitive empathy”). But studies indicate that many bullies fail to empathize on a more visceral level.

Bullies — especially male bullies — are less likely to score highly on tests of “emotional intelligence” or “emotional literacy.” Coaching kids in these abilities may schools prevent bullying (Knowler and Frederickson 2013; Lomas et al 2012; Peachey et al 2017; Lee et al 2015; Renati et al 2012).

Children who bully may have experienced aggression of bullying at home.

Although bullies may come from a variety of family backgrounds, they are more likely to have parents who use authoritarian discipline, an approach that attempts to control through fear and threats of harsh punishment (Espelage et al 2000).

They are also more likely to have experienced child abuse, or to have witnessed domestic partner abuse (Baldry et al 2003; Bauer et al 2006). Kids who bully outside the home are more likely to bully their siblings (Wolke and Samara 2004; Tippett and Wolke 2015).

Early behavior problems tend to increase a child’s risk of subsequent trouble.

Aggression, social deficits, and attention problems may set kids on a path towards bullying.

For example, when researchers tracked children over a decade, they found that kids demonstrating aggressiveness in preschool were more likely to get involved in bullying later in life — both as bullies and as victims (Jansen et al 2011).

Another long-term study has reported that British five-year-olds with poor mental perspective-taking skills were at higher risk for involvement in bullying at age 12 (Shakoor et al 2012).

Bullies tend to endorse the Machiavellian attitude that “the end justifies the means.” They also rely on something that psychologists call “moral disengagement.”

What’s a mechanism of moral disengagement? It’s an excuse we use to justify behavior that might otherwise make us feel guilty. It was just a bit of fun. The victim deserves to be treated like that. It’s not my fault because I was pressured into it. I didn’t behave as badly as the other guy.

Kids who bully tend to jump to conclusions about the nefarious intentions of others. They tend to assume that other people mean them harm.

It appears that bullies get caught up in aggression more often because they are prone to assume that other people mean them harm. Compared to other kids, aggressive children are quick to attribute hostile intentions to other people (see Orobio de Castro et al 2002; Yaeger et al 2011).

Bullying can be a sign that a child is at risk for develop a psychiatric disorder, including anti-social personality, a condition that is sometimes called “sociopathy” or “psychopathy.”

In one study, researchers screened 8-year old boys for psychiatric symptoms. Among boys who acted daily as “pure” bullies, 80% screened positive for possible psychiatric disturbance. Among bully-victims, the number was 97% (Sourander et al 2007).

So much for the common risk factors and experiences. How do pure bullies and bully-victims differ?

Pure bullies — the bullies who don’t get victimized themselves — tend to have good social skills, high self-esteem, and high social status (Pallastri et al; Andrews et al 2017).

They be more careful and risk-aversive, characteristics that could help them avoid getting caught by authority figures (Poon 2016).

They may impress teachers as being sociable, popular, and self-controlled. Teachers may fail to perceive their aggressive tendencies (Dawes et al 2017).

And they don’t seem to suffer difficulties in the long-term, not if they are free of childhood psychiatric problems and family hardship. In one study, child bullies meeting these criteria were no more likely to experience “poor outcomes in adulthood” (Wolke et al 2013).

But for bully-victims, things are different.

Bully-victims — the bullies who also get victimized by other bullies — are more likely than pure bullies to have deficits in social skills and self-esteem. Peers are more likely to rate them as unfriendly or unhelpful (van Noorden et al 2016).

As indicated above, bully-victims may be at greater risk for developing a psychiatric condition. And the same may be said for other psychological problems, including anxiety and clinically high levels of arousal, which may make it harder for kids to learn in a typical classroom setting (Juvonen et al 2003; Graham et al 2006; Woods and White 2004).

Bully-victims tend to have poorer adult outcomes (Wolke et al 2013), and they may develop particularly cynical views. One survey found that bully-victims were much more likely than other kids—including “pure” bullies—to endorse cheating (Glew et al 2005). Another study found that bully/victims reported the least faith in human nature (Andreou 2004).

What does it all mean?

These aren’t cheerful discoveries. But they can help us understand why anti-bullying programs fail. Kids bully for different reasons, and will probably respond differently to the same intervention.

If we look at what many bullies have in common, it’s clear that we need to teach children that bullying is unacceptable. We need to induce empathy for victims. We need to confront children’s Machiavellian beliefs and mechanisms of moral disengagement. We need to teach them new ways of thinking, so they don’t assume that other people are hostile. And we need to support children in their everyday lives — help them cope with family adversity, and screen them for psychological troubles.

But to prevent bullying, we must also avoid lumping together different types of children.

For some kids, the biggest problem may be that they fly under the radar. They are well-adjusted in many ways, and their bullying may go undetected by adults. They need to be identified, and held accountable for changing their behavior. And their non-bullying peers need to get the message, too: Bullying must not be tolerated, no matter how prestigious or powerful the perpetrator.

Other kids — the bully-victims — may need a lot of additional help. They may benefit more from training in social skills and conflict management. They may need support for attention problems, hyperactivity, or anxiety. And they probably need help making friends.

How to prevent bullying: Evidence-based suggestions

Tip #1: Stop bullying incidents in progress, and make it clear that bullying will not be tolerated.

Adults need to take a stand. Even kids can stop a bullying incident in progress.

In one study, 57% of bullying incidents on an elementary school playground ceased within 10 seconds of another child getting involved—by either verbally or physically defending the victim (Hawkins et al 2001). To prevent bullying, all that was needed was a single act of solidarity.

Tip #2: Don’t demonize the bully. Focus on condemning the behavior.

As noted in the introduction, attempts to personalize the condemnation don’t appear to motivate bullies to change. This is consistent with research on non-bullies. Most people don’t respond well to being shamed. They don’t think “I will turn over a new leaf, and strive to behave better.” Instead, shaming tends to make people angry, resentful, or indignant. If we shame children, we might also send the message that we think they are intrinsically or innately bad. This can make kids feel that change isn’t possible.

If we want children to stop bullying, we’re more likely to succeed by distinguishing the behavior from the individual. The behavior is bad, and won’t be tolerated. The person can grow and change. For more evidence on this topic, see my article about correcting behavior.

Tip #3: Screen bullies for psychiatric conditions and serious behavioral problems.

This is the recommendation of psychiatrist and bullying researcher Andre Sourander (Sourander et al 2007). If bullies have psychiatric problems, they should get the help of specialists trained to handle these problems. Let’s stop asking teachers to perform as therapists.

Tip #4: Start conversations about the experiences of victims.

Not every bully is ready to empathize. Some may suffer from psychiatric problems that make empathy more difficult. But many bullies are perfectly capable of feeling empathy for others, and research shows that inducing empathy helps motivate them to change. For help, see these evidence-based tips for teaching empathy.

Tip #5: Teach kids about moral disengagement.

Bullies harbor anti-social beliefs and rationalizations that make it easier for them to behave in cruel or callous ways. And everybody, including kids and adult bystanders, might rely on mechanisms of moral disengagement to avoid getting involved and speaking up for victims. For more details, see my article about Machiavellian beliefs and implications for how to prevent bullying.

Tip #6: Help aggressive kids re-interpret the apparently hostile intentions of others.

Research suggests that it can be done. For example, in a controlled, experimental study, primary school boys were enrolled in a training program designed to teach kids to avoid attributing hostile intentions to peers.

After the intervention, boys who had been identified as aggressive showed marked improvements. Teachers rated them as less aggressive, and, when tested, the boys were less likely to assume hostile intentions in ambiguous situations (Hudley and Graham 1993).

More recent studies have reported similar results. Training programs helped adolescents change their attitudes about aggression. For instance, after training, kids said they were less likely to take offense if someone bumped into them. They were more inclined to assume the collision was accidental, and less likely to think they should retaliate (Yeager et al 2013). Read more about this and other tactics for handling child aggression here.

Tip #7: Teach stress management.

Research has identified effective relaxation therapies and stress management techniques. Bully-victims with clinically high levels of arousal might benefit from them.

Tip #8: Promote helpful parenting practices.

Authoritarian parenting seeks to enforce a kind of unthinking obedience. It also features punishments that may seem overly harsh or arbitrary.

By contrast, authoritative parenting encourages kids to regulate their own behavior. It’s about setting clear limits, explaining the reasons behind the rules, being responsive, and treating kids as independent, rational, cooperative family members.

Studies show that children are less likely to bully if their parents are warm, communicative, and involved. Kids who perceive their parents as authoritative may be less likely to bully their peers (Rican et al 1993). And a meta-analysis of studies published between 1970 and 2012 found that warm, communicative, involved parenting had a small-to-moderate protective effect against the development of bullying behavior (Lereya et al 2013).

Tip #9: Encourage family counseling.

Studies suggest that some forms of family counseling—sessions that address how to improve communication between family members—may help reform adolescents who bully. After 12 weeks of a program called “brief strategic family therapy” (BSFT), kids report fewer acts of bullying and less anger. They may even have changed their patterns of stress hormone secretion (Nickel et al 2005; Nickel et al 2006).

Tip # 10: Protect kids from trauma, abuse, and bullying at home.

The more kids get abused or experience other adverse life events, the more likely they are to develop anti-social personalities.

So not only is protecting kids a matter of morality, it’s also a way to disrupt the cycle of violence. 

More on how to prevent bullying

For more evidence-based information on this topic, see the following articles

References: How to prevent bullying

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Portions of this article are derived from an earlier piece, “How to prevent bullying: An evidence based guide.”

Content of “How to prevent bullying” last modified 10/17/17

Image credits for “How to prevent bullying”:

Image of boys making faces copyright Jani Bryson / istock

image of of masked boys by Cliff Parnell / istock