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July 04, 2019 Thursday 04:21:12 PM IST

Help Children Develop Compassion To Prevent Bullying


There is an alarming rise in the incidence of bullying and violence among young people. Behavioural sciences are actively involved in finding the root causes of this malady and are seeking ways and means to redress the same. One important discovery is that as children grow in empathic behaviour, they tend to be more efficient academically, emotionally and excel in pro-social behaviour.  Many studies have been conducted with inter-disciplinary cooperation to discover the implications of compassion on the brain and the heart through research in neuroscience, psychology, economics, and contemplative traditions (Doty J. et al.).

In a study that was conducted in Switzerland in 2017 among children aged 6 to 12, to find out the co-development of sympathy and aggression, it was found that children who have an underdeveloped sense of sympathy for others tend to elicit increased levels of aggression towards others. This is seen in behaviour that are both physically and emotionally aggressive. It is pointing to the fact that bullying behaviour occurs when children do not have the cognitive or empathic ability to better understand the perspective of others. When a child lacks empathy for others, they may lack the ability to practise self-compassion as well. The resulting behaviour could be violent and erratic. Lower self-efficacy and self-esteem further impact the child and all of those around him. Understanding that underdeveloped empathic ability results in anti-social behaviour makes the deeper understanding of this subject vital. Early intervention in this area is the key to building appropriate and effective interpersonal relationships.

 Research by the American Psychological Association in 2013 has shown that teenagers are inheriting the stress habits of adults. The higher the stress level, the lower the levels of dopamine. A human in a compassionate state has higher levels of oxytocin, which in turn increases the levels of dopamine, allowing the subject to relax.

Teach compassion at home

Children develop various levels of empathy at different ages. The development of empathy is necessary for development of compassionate behaviour as well. Teaching compassion, therefore, starts at birth. In the first year, kids develop global empathy. They match the emotions that they witness. When a mother picks up her child and soothes him by singing, the child calms and reacts to the facial expressions of his compassionate mom. The child is learning compassion in these foundational interactions. During the second year, kids actively offer help. Parents who encouragethe helping behaviour reinforce their desire to continue it. By the age of three, kids become aware that the feelings of others can be different than their own feelings. This change comes with a deeper understanding of language. Teaching compassion to children must be done in age-appropriate opportunities. This malleable time of childhood is a profound area to improve mindfulness and pro-social activities. The capacity to regulate emotion and attention are indicators of school readiness.

The most important step in children’s understanding of compassion is modeling the behaviour. Kids utilize ‘mirror’ neurons readily. If a parent is consistently criticizing and judging others, the child will learn to do the same. Be mindful of how your behaviour influences the behaviour of your children. They listen and internalize your behaviour more than you realize. Finding a child’s compassionate strengths in behaviour is a great way to teach and reinforce compassion. Children will show compassion in different ways, just as adults will. Look for the following types of compassionate strength in behaviour and help kids grow it in real life settings. Congratulate them on what they already do and encourage growth.

Notice when the child….

  •    Does nice things for others without expecting something in return.
  •     Says encouraging things to cheer others.
  •     Shows interest in others by intentional reaches in pro-social (helping) behaviour.
  •     Participates in active listening.
  •     Respects privacy and avoids gossip.
  • The best way for children to learn compassion is through watching models of this behaviour. Their parents, teachers and other adults need to behave this way for children to see it as valuable and find approval in copying it.


    Teach compassion at school

    Kids need definitions of compassionate behaviour explained in words that they can understand. A first step in understanding what they already know about compassion would be to have them define the following words: sympathy, condolence, mercy, philanthropy, empathy, generosity, benevolence, kindness, humanity, understanding. Helping children take the perspective of another is important in understanding compassion. When a classroom is set up with this as a priority from the start, it creates an environment where cooperation and community are valued over competition. Compassion within classrooms is related to increased cooperation and better learning (Hart & Kindle Hodson, 2004). Since higher the level of compassion in a classroom, predicts higher levels of student engagement, having teachers who regularly practise compassion is vital. Since teachers are under a great amount of pressure to produce higher test scores, some of the stress factors have reduced the levels of compassion in our classrooms. 

    Cultivating compassion in children could be an antidote to the epidemic of bullying and aggressive behaviour. It begins in our homes. Parenting is not an easy task, but focusing energy on helping our children to better understand and mirror pro-social behaviour is where a real-world change begins. Modeling compassion on a daily basis is the best possible way for children to better understand what this behaviour means in real-world settings. 

    Classrooms have opportunities to further increase the reach of pro-social behaviour by creating environments of cooperation. A deeper understanding of each individual’s role in the greater good in his or her community will build more socially resilient and successful adults. Again, modeling is essential for children to better understand what compassion means.

    Parents and educators together can help improve incidents of compassion taking place among children, rather than continuing to cringe at the incidents of bullying. We have a chance to educate the next generation on the importance of cooperation and kindness in everyday life. What we focus on, we find. Focusing on cultivating compassion is vital to the improvement of successful adults of our future.

    Dr. Jose Cletus Plackal

    Licensed clinical psychologist, BET-MRT, Jeevas Centre, Aluva, Kerala.

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