A 9-year-old girl came to me with a difficult problem. In a class of over 20 kids, one girl was continually unkind to the other girls. She teased them in whispers when the teacher couldn’t hear. She made jokes at their expense to get a laugh from the other kids at the table. She excluded others during recess.
The young girl in my office felt upset but about the teasing, but she also felt guilty. She knew that the other girls were hurting. She knew that the girl in question was making poor choices. She was, however, afraid to speak up. She didn’t want to be the next victim. Despite the worry and feelings of guilt, she watched as the other girls were teased and taunted, hoping that her turn wouldn’t come next.
This story plays out over and over again in schools. The teaser gets a laugh and gains social status, so the teasing continues. The victims feel powerless. And the bystanders freeze up, caught between self-protection and wanting to help others.
In her new book, UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, educational psychologist Michele Borba explains the importance of raising “upstanders.”
I love to encourage kids to think about their inner superhero.
“Kids are more likely to help if they believe that their parents and friends expect them to support those in need,” explains Borba. That begins with modeling “upstander” behavior. According to Borba, “Kids who watch their parents stick out their necks to help others are more likely to do the same.”
The question is, how do we encourage kids to make the shift from bystander to “upstander”? It can be difficult to stand up to negative behavior, and often children fear either becoming the next victim or getting in trouble for their efforts to protect the child in need.
Borba provides numerous opportunities for practicing courage in stressful situations, and many of them involve the whole family. Try a few of these of these strategies to encourage your child to act as a leader in spreading empathy and kindness.
1. Dispel the 'Superman Myth'
“Many kids assume they need to look like the Incredible Hulk to be courageous,” says Borba. “Dispel that myth by sharing stories of people who changed the world with their quiet, nonphysical courageous acts.”
I love to encourage kids to think about their inner superhero. Ask my daughter to identify her superpower and she’ll say, “Empathy.” When we talk to kids about the quiet powers that we all possess, we empower them to make positive choices.
After talking about leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Rosa Parks, ask your child to draw himself as a superhero and see what he comes up with.
When kids use visualization, they work through their feelings of anticipation about the event. They practice the 'what ifs' to prepare for 'what is.'
2. Start a book club
You might think that book clubs are just for moms, but kids actually love getting together to talk books. Choose titles that explore opportunities to act as “upstanders,” such as “One” and “Enemy Pie.” Add a fun craft to go with the story and lead a discussion about times that kids feel left out or teased.
Kids learn a lot by meaningful discussions in small groups. This is a great way to strengthen friendships while working through difficult peer issues.
3. Practice visualization
“Mental rehearsal (or 'visualization'),” explains Borba, “Is reviewing an activity in your mind repeatedly so that when the real situation happens, your body has a less stressful response.”
When kids use visualization, they work through their feelings of anticipation about the event. They practice the “what ifs” to prepare for “what is.”
I encourage parents to take an extra step and practice social stories with their kids. Have your kids come up with distressing situations and practice using different solutions to work through the problem.
The bottom line is that the best way to raise kids who are willing act as “upstanders” in the face of bullying and teasing is to teach empathy and compassion and practice the art of standing up for others.