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Does it Matter Why Bullies Bully?

Empathy is undeniably good for kids, but the reason parents should ask bullying victims why their bullies hurt them is also about reducing shame and gaining information.

Bullies are often urged to consider the feelings of their victims and victims are often, perhaps increasingly, urged to consider the feelings of their tormentors. With the current emphasis on emotional intelligence, empathy is often the default mode for educators and parents. But this seems somewhat unfair. After all, victims of bullies didn’t ask to be singled out and requiring more emotional labor of them seems like an unfairness layered on an unfairness. It’s not, but not for any touchy-feely reason. Putting aside all that, it turns out that talking to victims of bullying about a bully’s motivations is important and helpful because it helps the victims understand that they did not provoke the behavior. Children are always liable to accept blame for their own suffering.

“You start by saying, ‘This is inexcusable. You never deserve to be treated like that nobody should treat another person like that. Then you ask, ‘Why do you think hey did that to you?” explains Dr. Michele Borba, author of Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About Me World. “This gives the child who is a victim an understanding that this isn’t his or her problem, it’s the bully’s problem. That alone is the value. You want to get the guilt and shame off the child who’s the victim.”

Borba notes that there’s no right or wrong answer to the question about motivation — in a sense it’s unknowable. Every single kid (and every single adult) has a different motivation to be a bully. That said, victims are generally pretty perceptive. After all, bullies often select empathic victims and there is a sort of intimacy to the bully-victim relationship, which is rarely as uncomplicated as punchee/puncher. And there’s something empowering about understanding someone else’s secret motivations or triggers.

“It’s not an easy conversation, but it could be a very powerful conversation because what you’re trying to do is help the child process it internally,” Borba says. That processing can move a child away from internalizing blame. A kid that believes that they were somehow deserving of bullying can often find themselves feeling powerless and losing self-esteem. But taking a bully’s perspective, which is part of the empathetic process, makes the reasons for bullying external to the victim by default.

That said, empathy does not necessarily have to lead to forgiveness. Borba notes that perspective taking is about trying to understand a person’s motivations. It’s not about agreeing with them. And attempting to understanding those motivations can help provide a parent and child with an idea of how to react the next time they come in contact with the bully.

And while looking empathetically at a bully’s motivations certainly isn’t some magical cure-all for bullying, Borba notes she has witnessed some striking results, “Some kids actually befriend the bully,” she says. “It’s a rarity, but I’ve seen it turn into a positive.”

Still, there are limits to empathy. Like doctors and triage nurses, it can interfere with a kid, causing them to freeze because they can’t stop seeing the world from another’s perspective. “Sometimes children become so empathetic they try to solve the world’s problems and that’s not a good thing,” says Borba. But in the case of a bully, a guided, empathetic conversation about a bullies motivations can make all the difference in moving on from victimhood.