Bullying is a national epidemic; in the news and on the net. Lady Gaga has established a foundation, President Obama has weighed in, and students and celebrities are sharing their own personal stories on Facebook and Twitter. Without question, raising awareness of the problem is an important first step. To date, much conversation has focused on meting out harsh punishment which, at best, is a stop gap measure, not a long-term solution. As a parent, educator and child psychologist, I would like to see the conversation move from punishment to prevention. We need to start at the beginning, making changes in society’s youngest members; firstly, we must improve the way we communicate with our children and secondly, we need to help them build the skills associated with emotional intelligence.
We need to communicate with our children; openly, honestly and frequently. It is important to note that bullied children feel very isolated and alone. Without intervention, these victims can fall through the cracks or worse. According to dosomething.org, a victim of bullying is twice as likely to commit suicide as their peers. We must be available to listen to our children, to accept their feelings, and work with them to formulate a plan of action; appropriate and constructive solutions that give a sense of support and control.
The second key to bullying prevention is found in teaching children the skills of emotional intelligence (E.I.). E.I. is an enhanced self-awareness, the ability to manage and deal with the intensity of one’s emotions, and sensitivity to the emotions of others. It is crucial that these emotional competencies be taught at an early age, most effectively during the first three years of life; this window of time is the period of greatest growth and development of the brain in all domains- emotional, neurological, social, creative, cognitive- when the brain is most impressionable and the day to day experiences can impact and shape the emotional and social circuitry (R.P. Weissberg 2007).* During this time the executive functions of the brain can be significantly developed; these are very necessary skills such as concentration, reasoning, and impulse control.
Why else is E.I. so vital? When children are stressed, they typically use up much of their energy in anxiety and distress. Being aware and in control of their emotions helps children free up this energy and use it in more constructive ways, such as for learning and problem solving. In the specific case of the bullies, bullies will gain better self-control, empathy, and compassion and bullied children will develop the self-confidence, resiliency, and problem-solving skills needed to successfully manage complex interpersonal relationships. In bullying incidents, E.I. encourages non-violent ways to respond to conflict by reinforcing these important qualities in children; enabling them to better understand and communicate in difficult situations.
I know that these skills can be taught at an early age because I see it firsthand being put into practice at Beginnings School. Infants and toddlers, sometimes with the help of sign language, are able to begin to manage and communicate their feelings; they are also able to learn to demonstrate empathy for others, communicate their needs effectively, and use words (or signs) to deal with their frustrations. Older toddlers and preschool age children learn ways out of distressing situations and that their upset feelings can be managed. Alongside the academic basics of ABC’s and counting, empathy and emotional awareness is an important part of the daily curriculum.
Prevention is essential in promoting a new attitude and culture. While we teach our children to tie their shoes, ride their bikes, and read books, we must also teach them and ourselves to become emotionally aware and competent at home and at school. It is crucial to remember that we, as adults, parents, and educators, need to set the example. We must help our children learn by what we say and by what we do. Building these emotional competencies at a young age goes hand in hand with education for character and moral development; this is the most effective way to change society fundamentally and to prevent bullying. We have to stop this terrible cycle of bullying so that generations to come can live in a safe and more humane place.