The How and Why of Kindness
“Unexpected kindness is the most powerful, least costly, and most underrated agent of human change.” — Bob Kerry
There are several definitions of kindness that resonate an organization that defends bullied children and helps rebuild lives. First, being kind means that you think about the needs and concerns of others. Kind people volunteer, they help others, and they contemplate issues that impact their community. Individuals who exhibit compassionate thinking and generous acts will also demonstrate kindness. However, probably most importantly is that kindness is considered to be the psychological opposite to bullying and victimization.
Years ago, upon speaking to my son’s former school about the bullying he endured, I was informed by a school counselor and former teacher that kindness cannot be taught. I was appalled. I knew that could not be true. Kindness can be both instinctual and can also be learned. In fact, stopbullying.gov tells us that there are key elements in teaching kindness in schools:
- Include gratitude activities
- Include volunteer activities or service learning
- Include students to develop activities to help others
- Facilitate respectful conversations
- Generate open-ended discussion questions
- Encourage working together
- Teach and model naming and expressing emotions
Yes indeed, experts tell us that kindness can be taught. The outcomes of teaching kindness with students is astounding. Stopbullying.gov states that when elementary students are taught kindness they are more empathic, more socially aware and connected, and they receive higher grades too. Young children tend to help each other and that desire to help seems innate. They do so without an expectation of praise as the act itself has the built-in reward of feeling useful. Children who engage in acts of kindness tend to be more connected, have higher levels of peer acceptance and are less likely to bully others. Kindness helps children in particular see how they are similar rather than how they are different.
In Signe Whitson’s book 8 Keys to End Bullying, she advises “instead of the focus on all of the Thou Shalt Nots of bullying, student-led initiatives can promote building school cultures of respect by encouraging fun ways that kids can show kindness to each other. The trick in these sorts of initiatives is making sure that the students who would benefit from kindness the most do not end up left out in the cold, while students who already enjoy high social status shower each other with adoration. Adults play a key role in making sure that acts of kindness for some do not end up functioning as acts of exclusion for others.”
Kindness is deeply intertwined with physical and mental health. The positive impacts of kindness include:
- Pain – Endorphins are released in the brain which is a natural painkiller.
- Stress – Kind people age slower and have lower stress.
- Anxiety and Depression – Kindness will improve mood, depression and anxiety. Kindness will stimulate the production of serotonin which will heal wounds and increase happiness.
- Blood Pressure – Blood pressure can be reduced through acts of kindness. The hormone oxytocin is released which causes another chemical, nitric oxide, to increase which will dilate blood vessels and reduce blood pressure.
- Pleasure – Dopamine is released in elevated levels which causes the brain’s pleasure/reward centers to light up. (This is sometimes referred to as a “helper’s high.”)
- Self-Worth – Kindness will cause one to feel good about themselves and thus increase their self-worth.
- Relationships – Kindness reduces the distance between individuals thus improving relationships of all types.
The benefits of kindness are endless. It can be taught and modeled to others. It is contagious. Experiencing an act of kindness can improve our mood and also increase the likelihood of spreading that kindness to others. Individuals who perform acts of kindness are much less likely to bully others. Kindness causes happiness. The act of kindness not only positively impacts the giver and receiver, but anyone who witnesses it.
Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.
By Dru Ahlborg, Bullying Recovery Resource Center
Bullying Recovery Resource Center focuses on the bullying of school-aged children. That is where our expertise lies and that is where we can make the biggest impact and changes.
The fact of the matter is that bullies are everywhere. They reside in companies, families, colleges, board rooms, and in our political system. No matter where they do their dirty work, their mission is the same. Barbara Coloroso, internationally recognized speaker, author, and bullying expert informs us that “bullying is a conscious, willful, deliberate activity intended to harm, induce fear through threat of further aggression, and also to create terror in the target.” Bullying always includes an imbalance of power, the intent to harm, and a threat of further aggression. An additional element occurs when it is unabated and that is terror. A bully that reaps no consequences and can reach the point of inducing terror on his or her target(s) comes to a point where they can act without fear of recrimination or retaliation. This should send chills down our spine.
Bullying is not about disagreements, anger or conflict. Bullying is about contempt where the perpetrator has intense feelings of dislike toward somebody or a group whom they consider to be worthless, inferior, or undeserving of respect. Bullying is not innate, but rather a learned behavior. Barbara Coloroso explains in her book, Extra Ordinary Evil, a Brief History of Genocide, that “once human beings feel the cold hate of contempt for other human beings, they can do anything to them and feel no compassion, guilt, or shame; in fact, they often get pleasure from the targeted person’s pain.” We unfortunately are hearing about instances of this level of contempt in our news with great frequency these days.
Bullies also rely on bystanders to carry out their acts of aggression. Bystanders come in varying forms and have different roles. Some bystanders will stand by and watch, some will actively inspire the bully and possibly join in, and some will choose to look the other way. The bystander may offer words of encouragement to the aggressor or may dismiss the acts of a bully by stating, “he’s learned his lesson and won’t do it again.” These acts of omission or commission actually fuel the fire of a bully. The bully feels emboldened when no one stands up to him or her. These acts also effect the bystander as they become desensitized to the cruel acts of the bully. The bullying becomes normalized. Bullying and creating terror are never normal and they need to be called out and stopped.
“Far more, and far more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience that have ever been committed in the name of rebellion.” – C.P. Snow
It is not acceptable to let the bully continue. It is not okay to brush bullying under the rug and hope it will end on its own. It will not. Standing up to a bully and labeling their behavior as hurtful and unacceptable are not easy feats, AND they are necessary. To let bullying continue allows the perpetrator to feel that their actions are acceptable and warranted, desensitizes all who are witness to the violence, and cause great harm and distress for the target.
It’s time to make a different choice instead or normalizing such destructive behavior.
1. Find courage. “Pay attention, get involved, and never ever look away.” This is a quote from a Holocaust survivor. Standing up to bullying behavior, especially if it has gone on for some time will require a stiff spine and resolution to speak up. Labeling it as bullying and harassment is important and necessary. Bullying in the schoolyard and from a podium are damaging acts that require us to stand up and say, “no more!”
2. Become an upstander. An upstander is a person who speaks or acts in support of an individual or cause, particularly someone who intervenes on behalf of a person being attacked or bullied. An upstander will not only stand up to bullying behavior but will also come to the aid of the target. Make it a point to be the individual who does not stand for abusive behavior. Let others know you are there to help and support them.
3. Become a role model. The more that we as individuals walk in the path of compassion, inclusion, and kindness as well as standing up and speaking out about bullies and their behavior, the more likely others will follow suit. This is not a sprint but a marathon.
The normalizing of bullying and deviant behavior needs to stop. Become part of the solution and encourage your friends and family to do the same. Kindness and respect can be modeled to others and it can start with us today.
“Gratitude turns what we have into enough.” – Aesop
As we wrap up this very eventful year of 2020, I wanted to take this opportunity to express my deep gratitude to the BRRC community.
In March, BRRC hosted a community event, “Connect Through Magic”, just two weeks before residents were instructed to shelter in place. We gathered with friends new and old and were treated to the inspiring magic of Scotty Wiese and delicious pizza from Mod Pizza. The day was truly magical, and it was wonderful to watch our families and friends mingle and support one another.
To say that from March going forward has been challenging for any of us is probably an understatement. For us as a charity, much of our advocacy work was put on hold. Our collaborative work on a Colorado anti-bullying bill of rights (Jack’s Law) was put on hold for a while. Work with many Douglas County families who were subject to gender bullying and harassment were also temporarily sidelined. With the transfer to online schooling for our children we learned that cyberbullying was on the rise, and some children were struggling with their new school day. Other kids welcomed a break from facing their tormentors in the school buildings and playgrounds. The emotional stress for students, parents and teachers is ongoing and exhausting.
Through all these months it is apparent that our services are greatly needed and there is much work to be done to stop bullying. The phone continues to ring and we have aided families in Colorado all the way to New Jersey who are in the midst of bullying. We have met many allies this year who are deeply passionate about stopping bullying and our mission of advocacy and recovery. The inroads we are creating in Colorado and beyond by assisting in giving voice to targets of bullying is meaningful. We have made a good start. But there is more to be done.
As we trek into a new year, BRRC has lofty goals to aid more children and their families who are targets of bullying. We are currently on boarding more advocates to aid families who are in the midst of bullying. We look forward to gathering our youth in peer recovery groups to grow and move beyond the torments of bullying. We have plans in place to reach more individuals and organizations who support children and their families and make them aware of our services. We look forward to hosting community gatherings either online or in person to continue to build a community where families can gather to rebuild and recover together. We also endevor to make meaningful state-wide changes in bullying laws and create transparency and policies for schools so that every bullied student and their family can be treated with the care and respect they deserve.
I am so grateful to all the wonderful people I have met on this journey. I am inspired by the passion, strength and stamina exemplified in my colleagues, the families I have met, and by those who connect with our mission to defend bullied children and help rebuild lives. Thank you for doing your part and being an upstander.
Dru Ahlborg, Executive Director, BRRC
By Dru Ahlborg, Bullying Recovery Resource Center
Before I delve into this topic, let me first state that the vast majority of teachers, coaches and educators are wonderful people. Individuals who choose this profession generally do so because they have a vested interest in educating the next generation and are drawn to working with young people in helpful and formative ways. Teaching is a noble profession whose perks strike at the heartstrings versus the checkbook.
Most of the time, when bullying is discussed about children, it is assumed to be child on child bullying. Very little research has been conducted on teachers bullying students. Unfortunately, some adult teachers and coaches engage in bullying behavior with their students or athletes. Alan McEvoy, professor of sociology at Northern Michigan University and author of topics such as bullying and violence in schools defines teacher bullying as “a pattern of conduct, rooted in a power differential, that threatens, harms, humiliates, induces fear in or causes students emotional stress.” Examples of adults bullying children can include humiliating students in front of their peers, singling out students who do poorly on a test, choosing to give athletes more aggressive workouts for no apparent reason, and verbal abuse.
Teacher bullying has special circumstances that can make it incredibly difficult for the target. Bullied students oftentimes feel shock, shame and report feeling powerless. Being bullied by an adult can cause other students to jump on the bandwagon and join in the abuse. Furthermore, when young people or other adults confront adult bullies such as teachers or coaches the results can garner more humiliation, being given unfairly low grades, loss of playing time or less involvement in special activities.
When a child reports being bullied by an adult in a position of authority caring adults have a responsibility to take the situations seriously and to intervene carefully. Several strategies can be helpful. Janet Olsen of Michigan State University offers the following suggestions:
- Listen deeply and probe for more information. It is important to respond in a way that shows your care for the child’s safety and well-being. It is a time to ask thoughtful questions and start to create a written account of what has happened with dates, times and potential witnesses.
- Stay calm. This is an opportunity to model thoughtful action for the child involved. Reacting quickly and out of anger can cause greater harm.
- Ask the child’s opinion before taking action. Remember, the child is the most at risk for further consequences and it is important to balance their concerns and have them be part of the solution going forward.
- Meet with the adult and their supervisor. Be prepared, respectful and clear. It is important to prepare ahead of the meeting. The school handbook should be consulted to see if there is policy or code of conduct related to adult behaviors at school. At the meeting, share what your child has reported to you. Describe how the situation is affecting their ability to learn or participate fully. Report how the behaviors relate to the school policy. If the teacher/coach seems concerned, regretful and apologetic, ask how they plan to follow up with your child. If your conversation and concerns are dismissed or not taken seriously be prepared to take your concerns to the next level such as the school board or consider contacting an attorney or Bullying Recovery Resource Center.
- After taking action, follow-up with your child. Your child needs to know what to expect going forward. They may also need additional support from a counselor.
Experts agree that with any bullying, and especially bullying involving an authority figure it should not remain silent. Letting teacher or coach bullying “blow over” allows the cycle of harassment to continue and silence ultimately enables the bully. The adult who engages in unabated bullying behavior may feel that their behavior is acceptable and label it as “discipline” or “motivation”. If the bullying continues after reporting it, the child should be removed from the classroom or the team.
As a charity, we have worked with many families whose children have been targets of bullying by a teacher and/or a coach. It is a phenomenon that is generally not properly addressed by the education profession. In general, bullying by educators is:
- Rationalized by offenders
- Normalized by students
- Minimized or ignored by collogues who remain silent
- Enabled by inaction of school systems
- Undetected by outsiders in many cases
Bullying Recovery Resource Center believes it is always the responsibility of adults to STOP bullying. It is no less important when a teacher or coach is the aggressor. We feel it is the duty of school officials to care for their students and take appropriate action when a trusted adult is bullying children. This very likely requires policies that directly address teacher conduct, procedures that address how complaints are handled and investigated, proper training of all school staff about bullying and proper student discipline procedures, formal tracking of all bullying complaints, a process for parents to address grievances, and policies in place to reprimand educators in positions of power who bully children.
If your child has been the target of adult bullying and the school has not properly addressed the problem, please contact us. No child ever deserves to be bullied.
(it’s a skill we can all work on, especially now!)
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Atticus Finch quote in To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.
An upstander is someone who recognizes when something is wrong and takes action. It’s a person who stands up for others and has the courage and empathy to make a difference.
We as a charity talk a lot about upstanders and how their actions can drastically help a bullied child. Two traits are highlighted in the definition above: courage and empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and experience the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another person. It involves being able to think in someone else’s shoes and share those same emotions. Research tells us that empathy is not a fixed trait and it can be fostered. Empathy is a set of skills that are cultivated over time and the more we practice, the better we are.
In her book, Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, Michele Borba shares, “Empathy can be instilled, and it is composed of teachable habits that can be developed, practiced, and lived. Empathy is what lays the foundation for helping children live one essential truth: We are all humans who share the same fears and concerns and deserve to be treated with dignity.”
Cultivating empathy in our children is incredibly valuable not only for becoming an upstander, but for living a life rich with relationships and experiencing other’s journeys with a genuine understanding. Learning empathy as a child enables them to grow up and become caring, responsible adults who shift from a “me” mindset to an “us” mindset.
Here are some ideas to help our children, and possibly for ourselves to become more empathetic and caring, especially in this time of political unrest coupled with a world-wide pandemic.
- Learn to Listen: Learn to listen intently when people are speaking with you, especially during heated topics. Recognize if you, as the listener, are forming your response before the other person has completed their thought. (Hint: That is not intently listening). Becoming a good listener might mean to slow down, and to truly consider the speaker’s motivation behind his or her words. Asking follow-up questions can aid in better understanding the speaker’s intention. Being an active listener and repeating back key ideas of what you heard will also help that the message they are delivering is clear and understood. You don’t have to agree with the speaker but listening intently opens the door for empathy.
- Model how to value feelings: This is an area I believe many adults need to work on. Our behavior as parents is being watched by our children constantly. Modeling empathy involves acknowledging and valuing other’s feelings (even if we don’t agree with them). It involves showing understanding and sympathy when another is sad, upset, frustrated or in need of help. Modeling empathetic behavior is a 24/7 endeavor and needs to be expressed at home, in public and also online.
- Teach children to identify their own feelings: Labeling and discussing feelings allows children to recognize emotions in others and connect with them.
- Respect and validate the feelings of our children: Identifying feelings is the first step and validating those feelings in your child is just as important. Some feelings can be troublesome for a parent to hear however by providing a safe space for a child to express their discomfort helps foster compassion and trust. The more that we as adults empathize with our children, the more they can learn to show empathy to others.
- Encourage different viewpoints: Here again, I think this is an area that many of us can work on. Children can begin to learn at a young age that the world is not always black and white, but rather multi-faceted. It should be encouraged at times to seek differing opinions and discussions to see issues and opinions from different angles.
- Expose children to people and experiences different from theirs: Challenging our children and ourselves to actively pursue different experiences can require courage and often times takes us out of our comfort zones. Volunteering is a great way to fulfill this idea and ultimately foster empathy for others.
Educational psychologist Michele Borba recommends brainstorming empathetic ideas with you child, even if it is after the event. These brainstorming sessions provide great teaching moments to learn how to validate and care for another person. She also recommends offering examples when you did not offer empathy or were not an upstander for another person and discuss how you would handle to situation differently now.
In Caroline Bologna’s article “How to Raise an Upstander”, she encourages parents working with their children to see where they feel comfortable being an upstander. There are many different ways to be an upstander and understanding your child’s temperament level will allow you as a parent to better understand, role-play and recommend ways to intervene on behalf of a target of bullying. Some children will feel more comfortable befriending the target and offering comfort and support. Other children will be better equipped to create a distraction that removes the focus from the bully, and some will be empowered to intervene during the bullying event and speak directly to the bully and tell him or her to stop.
Another key piece of advice Bologna suggests is to teach children to be the first. Social science research tells us that when even one person is willing to speak up about something that is wrong, others will often follow. If no one is willing to say something or confront the perpetrator, the bullying will very likely continue. Being the first can entail stepping in and saying something directly to the bully. Being first can also be the child who reports the event to a trusted adult or the first child to come to the aid of the target.
Becoming an upstander is a learned behavior. Discussing and validating feelings, learning to listen more intently, modeling compassionate behavior and stepping outside of our viewpoint and comfort zones allows us to foster empathy and raise children who are empathetic, compassionate and upstanders.
“Don’t let someone who did you wrong make you think there’s something wrong with you.” –Trent Shelton.
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which a person or group covertly sews the seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or group, making them question their own memory, perception, or judgement. It often evokes in them cognitive dissonance and other changes including low self-esteem. Gaslighting involves a pattern of abusive behaviors with the intent not just to influence someone, but to control them.
As bullying is an exploitation of a power imbalance with the intent to harm, gaslighting is a method the aggressor can choose to bully someone else. These tactics are sometimes difficult to identify, especially in relation to a bully and his or her target. Highly successful bullies are crafty at manipulating and can be masters of gaslighting. Additionally, gaslighting can be employed not only by the bully and his or her henchmen, but also by school officials who want to deny bullying.
Gaslighting techniques and examples of them are as follows:
Withholding – The abuser feigns a lack of understanding or refuses to listen or share their emotions. Bullies will use this as negative peer pressure and bait the target into believing they are a friend and asking the target to do things they don’t feel comfortable doing. The target will refuse to listen to rational thoughts or reason why the target is unwilling to do the act for their friendship.
- “I’m not going to listen to that.”
- “You’re trying to confuse me!”
Countering – The bully will call into question the target’s memory in spite of them having remembered it correctly. Countering also includes blaming or scapegoating. The tormentor will twist the words of the target and can actually change the narrative so that they now become the wronged party.
- “You said that last time and you were wrong.”
- “That’s not what happened.”
- “You remember that wrong.”
Blocking and Diverting – The perpetrator changes the conversation from the subject matter to questioning the target’s thoughts and controlling the conversation. Many times, the bully will belittle the target, especially in front of others.
- “Quit complaining.”
- “Where did you get a dumb idea like that?”
- “You’re paranoid!”
Trivializing – The bully attempts to make the target believe that his or her thoughts aren’t important. Name calling and shaming in front of others often occurs as well.
- “It’s not a big deal!”
- “You’re a crybaby!”
- “You’re too sensitive!”
Forgetting and denial – This is when the bully pretends to forget things that really occurred.
- “You’re making that up.”
- “I don’t remember that.”
- “That’s not what happened.”
- “Where did you get that idea? You’re lying.”
Gaslighting is emotional abuse and can create deep and lasting scars. It can cause the bullying target to begin to doubt their own thoughts, memories and actions. Gaslighting left unabated can cause children to feel confused, hopeless, second-guess themselves constantly and have their sense of self-esteem torn down.
This form of manipulation can ultimately blame the target of bullying for the actual act. When gaslighting is perfected, especially by a high-status, social bully, the target can be the child who is ultimately punished for being bullied. A child who has high-status in the school with his or her peers and also with teachers and administrators can gaslight their target and ultimately have others believing that the bullying was caused by the target, or even worse, that somehow, they deserved to be bullied.
This form of bullying is not just dispensed by children in schools, but also by adult school officials and administrators. Putting a stop to bullying takes much work, effort, and time. When schools don’t want the stigma of bullying identified with them or the trouble and work of dealing with it, they will often turn bullying into conflict to avoid issuing effective consequences. Conflict occurs with two equal parties where bullying always involves in imbalance of power and is dealt with entirely differently. Schools that don’t properly investigate, issue effective consequences and blame the target are in actuality gaslighting the target. Furthermore, school officials and administration can also do this to families of bullied children as well. We have witnessed school officials and administration relying on their credentials and experience in lieu of proper investigation and putting a stop to the bullying.
Gaslighting is insidious and was implemented by the children and the school administrators that bullied my son and our family years ago. Being gaslit by a group of people with more power and status caused almost an entire community to turn on our family. We are not the only ones. Many of our families that we have helped over the years through BRRC have been subjected to gaslighting as well. This type of psychological warfare can further harm the bullied child and tear a family apart.
Another group who are frequently gaslit are upstanders to bullying. (An upstander is a person who speaks or acts in support of a person being bullied.) Upstanders are frequently told that they don’t understand what they witnessed and are making a bid deal out of nothing. One of the children who defended my son and attempted to report the bullying was later told he was mis-informed and what had happened to my son wasn’t what he thought it was.
Gaslighting can be extinguished and recovered from. If a target realizes they are being manipulated in this way and that they are not misinformed or crazy, that can begin the healing as the manipulation will no longer have the same effect on them. It is important to note that bullies who employ gaslighting techniques successfully will likely not change their behavior. Putting time and distance between the bully and the target will help as well as working on self-esteem and finding a safe, trustworthy adult and friend. Sometimes professional help is warranted. When gaslighting has torn away a strong sense of self and brought on feelings of hopelessness and depression, a professional is needed to help rebuild and rebound.
Understanding and realizing that you or your child has been subject from this form of manipulation by a bully is the first step at getting away from it. When a child realizes they didn’t deserve to be bullied, and they have been harmed, they are not wrong or crazy then they can begin to heal. Bullying of children in any form should not be tolerated and needs to be stopped by adults.