Most of us have a story or two about being bullied. When I was in 5th grade, I was friends with the most popular girls in school who were bullies. So, to fit in, I acted like a bully until one day they turned on me. For a week, they tormented me on the bus, ignored me at school, and wouldn't eat with me in the lunchroom. It was horrible. I cried every day. It was the most painful experience of my early childhood, and one I remember even today, 50 years later.
The thing about being bullied is that it is a trauma that can impact our lives in so many ways including our mental health, our confidence, our relationships, how we treat others, and how we raise our children.
October is National Bullying Prevention Month, so there couldn't be a better time to raise awareness of not just the impact on the victim, but how we can heal the bullies and prevent bullying for our current and future generation.
The hard part is there are a lot of grown-up bullies out there setting a bad example for our children. The anger and divisiveness that permeates our society in politics, social media, and what I call "tribal media" is adding fuel to the fire. However, we can provide social-emotional support tools for our youth in schools and at home by cultivating one thing - empathy.
What is Bullying?
Before we get into how we prevent bullying, we need to understand what bullying is. In a 2015 study from the James Madison University Graduate school, "The Effects of Mindfulness on Empathy," bullying is characterized by impulse and a lack of empathy. Plain and simple.
A Matter of Life and Death
The effects could be drastic. Frontiers of Psychology reports that victims of bullying are 3-5 times more likely to be depressed and 5-8 times more likely to have thoughts of suicide. In addition, a U.S. national survey shows that 22% of students who reported frequent bullying also reported academic difficulties because of the bullying. (Roth, Coles, & Heimber, 2000; Aluede, Adeleke, Omoike, & Afen-Akpaida, 2008).
Mindfulness & Empathy
There aren't a lot of studies correlating the specific effects of mindfulness on bullying, but there are a ton of studies that show how mindfulness practices like meditation can foster compassion and empathy, which is what the bully is lacking.
According to Mindfulschools.org and author Janice Houlihan from the University of Massachusetts: “Mindfulness practices help the bully, victim, and any witnesses involved develop a deeper awareness of themselves, resilience, compassion, and a greater ability to regulate their emotional responses.”
What is Mindfulness?
As I've mentioned in other blogs, mindfulness is about paying attention to the present moment, without judgment of what you're thinking or feeling. Being in the moment helps us become aware of those thoughts and feelings, and instead of allowing them to hijack our minds, we observe them from afar. When we become aware of what we think and feel, they no longer have power over us. Once we detach from them we can let them go.
This can help both the bully and the victim. A consistent mindfulness practice such as conscious breathing, meditation, and yoga gives us the ability to know ourselves and pause before we act. It stops impulsive behavior for the bully, and it helps the victim remove the powerful grip that the trauma holds on them.
Awareness is Key
To stop bullying, we need to first become aware of our own behavior, and why we behave a certain way. Once we recognize the origin of our own emotions, we can identify with others who might be feeling the same way. We can choose not to act in a hurtful way because we know what it feels like to be hurt. That is empathy in a nutshell.
When we teach our Mindfulness in Motion program in Physical Education classes to middle and high school students, we don't just teach yoga poses. We also teach the students about developing a Strong Mind, Brave Heart, Wise Body, and Noble Spirit. Each of those pillars is the foundation for cultivating a compassionate and whole human being who can see beyond their own needs and into the global community. At our core, this is our mission.
It Starts with YOU
For those of you who care for children, cultivating empathy starts with you. Here are some tips to get you on the path for your own well-being.
Parents, take notice of your own behavior. Is it helpful or hurtful? Your children will mirror you, so as Crosby, Stills, and Nash so brilliantly said..."Teach Your Children Well." If you find that you act out in a hurtful way, stop and identify what your emotion is and where it is coming from. The transformation begins with a pause. Then you can choose how you want to act. Create space in your day for a mindfulness practice like conscious breathing. Even just 5 minutes of stillness can clear your mind, so you can choose your actions towards compassion rather than act out impulsively.
Teachers, social-emotional curriculum, and practices are becoming more of a staple in many public, charter, and private schools. That's wonderful news. But, you should also lead by example. As educators, you are natural nurturers (say that 3 times fast!), so you tend to give, give, give and forget about your own needs. This can cause sleep disturbances, compromised immune systems, irritability, and feelings of resentment towards those you are caring for. Creating time for your own daily mindfulness practice will help stabilize your emotions, so you can continue to be the rock for your students. In some cases, you are the only person in a child's life who offers them stability and comfort. You are on the front line. Take care of yourself. You deserve it.
Administrators, it starts with you. You set the culture in your school and district. Not only should you create your own time for mindfulness, but encourage your staff to do the same. Give them the time and space for their own self-care. Your staff will love you for it, and so will your students.
When you create an environment that is safe, caring, and compassionate, the ripple effect will transcend to your children, their friends, family, the community, and beyond.
For my story, the hardest part for me was being cast out of my group. Inclusivity for an adolescent is so critical to healthy development. We all need to be on alert on the playground, in the lunchroom, at home, and wherever kids gather. For an adolescent, it is part of their developmental cycle to find a new tribe away from home, so they can begin their ascent to adulthood. They need their friends. Let's all do our part to cultivate empathy and compassion first in ourselves, so we can be there for our kids and make the world a kinder, gentler place for all.
Footnote: A Tool for Understanding Bullying
I found a really cool tool online called "31 Questions for National Bullying Prevention Month" from the Pacer Center for Children with Disabilities. The 31 self-reflection questions are designed to get people thinking about what bullying is, how it affects others, and how to prevent bullying from happening. There are 31 questions because they are to be answered one per day during the month of October. The questions can be given to yourself, your staff, and your students. Click HERE to download the questionnaire.
Author, Phyllis Smith, is the Co-founder and CEO of Live Free Yoga, which provides yoga and mindfulness programs for youth and adults who serve them. She is also the co-creator of Lighter Being, a transformative mindfulness video series to help you find more balance, self-love, and a lighter state of being. Photo by Kathy Tran