The extreme example of children who are not thinking of the welfare of others is the bully. If your child is frequently the target of bullies, it may be a sign that she is less socially competent and, therefore, has fewer friends and is seen as vulnerable. It turns out that children who are more socially competent and who have more friends are less likely to be bullied.
Researchers have determined that both the bullies and the bullied tend to have certain typical characteristics: The majority of victims, for instance, reinforce bullies by giving in to their demands, crying, assuming defensive postures, and failing to fight back. Victims tend to have a history of overly intrusive parenting, with parents who are controlling and overprotective. These parenting behaviors prompt anxiety, low self-esteem, and dependency, which combine to radiate vulnerability. Bullies often bank on their victim's dependency and vulnerability; they know the other child won't fight back. This makes the bully feel powerful. Of course, bullies have their own social deficits. They tend to come from families where there is little warmth or affection. The families also report trouble sharing their feelings. Sometimes parents of bullies have very punitive and rigid discipline styles. Finally, bullies feel less discomfort than average children at the thought of causing pain and suffering.
So what can be done for bullies and their victims? Preschools and kindergartens where peer socialization is integrated into the curriculum are good places to start helping them. Anxious, withdrawn children will benefit greatly from developing just one good friendship. And even when they have conflicts with their peers (yes, conflict is inevitable), they'll be learning valuable lessons in how to interpret social cues accurately. But in addition to the teaching of social skills at school, it's also important to evaluate the relationship you have with your child, especially if you suspect that he's a bully. Remember: Bullies tend to come from families where there's a lack of affection or little sharing of feelings. Take the time to ask your child how he's feeling and to really listen to his answer. When he expresses anger or rage, work with him to help him regulate his negative emotions and find peaceful ways to resolve them. Finally, when he talks about problems he's having with his peers, brainstorm with him to come up with skillful ways he could resolve them.
Finally, children who are not bullies or victims have a powerful role to play in shaping the behavior of other children. Teach your children to speak up on behalf of children being bullied. "Don't treat her that way; it's not nice." "Hitting is not a good way to solve problems. Let's find a teacher and talk about what happened." For more examples and role-play situations, check out Sherryll Kraizer's The Safe Child Book.
Make space for social time.
Children sometimes just need to hang out with others or to be by themselves. It might seem as if they are doing "nothing," but there's a lot to learn from unscheduled time on their own or with other children. Children need to be able to be spontaneous -- to be able to just goof off! Creating playdates for our children helps them diversify their social world and develop additional social tools for dealing with a greater variety of social challenges. And social interactions give you opportunities for discussing emotional situations and others' perspectives. This cannot be obtained on the fly, in the car between activities, but only from real social interaction that you are present to observe and comment on and coach as the occasion arises.
If your child is in child care or preschool, be sure to build strong connections with your child's caregiver or teacher. You want your child's emotions taken seriously when he is not with you, too, and you want that emotional coaching going on whenever a conflict comes up. If you talk with the caregiver on a daily basis about how your child is doing and ask questions about how he gets along with his peers and how disagreements are handled, you'll have a better sense of whether emotional coaching and mentoring is going on. Get in the habit of building strong ties to the people whom your child spends time with just as it makes a difference when children get consistent messages from their parents, it's important that the messages they receive from their child care providers are consistent as well.