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Girls Bullying, Source: Emily Kidd2012// Flickr Creative Commons

Understanding, Preventing and Dealing with Bullying Today

Dr. Joel Haber discusses the causes of bullying, how we can prevent it, and how empathy can help reduce bullying in our schools.

By Erika MacLeod

Erika is a graduate of George Washington University with an M.A. in Global Communication. At GWU, Erika served as the communications and web manager for the Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service. During her high school years and undergraduate degree, Erika was invested in increasing accessibility of low-cost music lessons to local school children. While with the Ashoka USA and Empathy Initiative teams from 2012-2013, Erika used her communications skills and interests to contribute to fundraising initiatives, writing and online media.

January 16, 2013

Editor's Note: Start Empathy's Erika MacLeod recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Joel Haber, expert bullying speaker, clinical psychologist on bullying and author of Bullyproof Your Child for Life. Dr. Haber's thoughts and experiences in dealing with bullying in today's soceity are unearthed in this conversation.

1. How did you become interested in anti-bullying awareness and prevention? What motivates you to speak out on this topic?

As a child I was bullied by a bigger kid on my block and always wondered why my real friends wouldn’t help when I was picked on.  I have always been interested in these dynamics and learned that power dynamics are responsible.  I then took time to become more of an expert in domestic violence training to help those victims and realized that children may learn either to become victims or bullies themselves from these incidents.  I have been and am passionate and dedicated to helping those who have been affected by these circumstances find recourse and resilience.
2. Please describe a success story from your 20+ years of practicing bullying intervention.  

There are many success stories that keep me motivated and pushing forward.  However, I remember a tween boy (age 11) who was picked on severely because of his love of theatre and dance.   He was ready to give up his pursuit of his dreams at the hands of a bully who would make fun of him incessantly.  He was despondent and despaired and felt little hope that he could ever find a way to pursue his passion.  We worked hard to find ways to build his esteem and teach him techniques to defuse the bully's remarks.  After role-playing a number of comebacks and behavioral strategies to look and feel confident, he came to me one day with a huge smile on his face.  He described one of our role-plays that really worked and got the bullying youth to stop.  After being taunted for his interest, he finally stood up to the bully and said, “You are so interested in my dance performances, more than any other kid in school.  How would you like to be my manager for my dance career?”  At that point, the bullying boy looked shocked and never bothered him again.
3. How can empathy building in schools and at home help to prevent bullying?

Empathy is the cornerstone of human behavior and an antidote of bullying.  When children learn empathy and choose to use it when they see bullying, it changes the way peers feel safe.  The challenge for me has been to give students ways to use their empathy so they do not feel that they will become the next targets of the bully if they intervene.  Helping children utilize empathy in a way that they would like others to use empathy with them is the key.  Every child needs support and encouragement even after bullying.  When children feel supported by others, even if it is after a bullying situation, they do not feel the isolation and pain that others feel without support.  Teaching empathy scripts in pre-school, elementary, middle and high school helps build the brain networks to utilize empathy when most needed.

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4. Why do people bully?

People bully to generally gain social acceptance and power up the social ladder.  They look for supporters to join them as they move up the social ladder by putting others down.  If they get support from others by marginalizing those below them, then their power grows, thus enabling them to take more risk to build more power at another's expense.

5. What tips can you offer on how to prevent bullying before it starts?

Bullying prevention is really about good parent training, role-playing and reinforcing values that do not marginalize others, respecting differences in other people, and celebrating those differences without negative judgment.  When parents model acceptance, empathy, and compassion, and do not gossip, exclude others, or use their power in negative ways, their children learn what is important.  Even when parents make mistakes by using bullying behavior at times, they can own it, apologize for their behavior and use it as a teaching tool to their children.  Schools can set this same message in their cultures by teaching children about empathy, concern for others, inclusion, acceptance and celebration of differences to build social character and values.
6. What should someone do if they are being bullied? What should someone do if they witness bullying happening around him or her? How should parents intervene if their children are bullied?

This question really deserves much more space, and I would ask people to read my book for all these answers.  However, here are a couple of key things:  Children can try to diffuse or deal with bullying on their own first, unless it is severe and they are hurt in a significant way, emotionally or physically. Encourage children to try to find solutions with adult help if needed.  If it works out, they will build their own confidence.  If they fail and try again and again, and it works, that is great.  If they cannot find a way to work, adults need to intervene and create safe places for these targets of bullying to share their stories, feel safe, and seek help. Parents can always contact schools with objective information on the specifics of any bully situation. We should also teach kids in schools to step up and be true leaders by helping targets either during or after a bullying situation so the targets don’t feel ostracized and alone.  
7. Do you think bullying has become a bigger problem in recent years, or has it long been a concern?

It has become a problem that we are all aware of since so many kids try out these behaviors at least once.  Cyberbullying has added to the numbers because children use technology as part of their communication now, so bullying through technology has made this problem even bigger.