Do bullies lack empathy? Or is it something else?

Last weekend my daughter had 8 girls over for a slumber party to celebrate her 9th birthday. Slumber is certainly relative as there was little of that. More like an over-amped herd of elephants running through the house.

By keeping the list at just 8, she had to be selective on who she invited. During the deliberations, she talked about how she wanted the friends she could just be herself around. The ones who didn’t create the drama – the mean “popular” girls. Except for one. Her mother (who we really like) mentioned she was including “G” on her birthday invite and said how “Sally” really thought G was always kind and a good friend. Yet beginning in first grade treated her extremely poorly – and became one of the mean girls after being a good friend in kindergarten.

It was tough to watch the bullying start in first grade – we didn’t recall the level of meanness when we were there. Are kids meaner today because of the immersion in technology and media? Because life happens faster and more complex? Or are we just selective in our memories?

First grade was brutal with G coming home nearly every day from school in tears. In second grade, we requested that she not be placed with a couple of the girls – including Sally – who caused the most grief. She wasn’t and had a great year.

This year it seemed Sally was nicer. So G invited her to her party. But then she ignored G. Only talked about where she was going next. It was very me focused (not that kids aren’t often me-focused) And told another girl that she could no longer play their game because she’d left the room. We intervened, not tolerating disrespect of any kind. One on one, Sally is kind to G. In a group, not so much.

So why do the “mean” girls – like Sally – have so much pull? Is it the allure of being in the ‘it’ club? Wanting something that doesn’t come easily? I wonder if that’s the pull bullies have over the kids they bully. When they’re sometimes nice, they’re given the benefit of the possibility that maybe they’ll be a friend. Maybe. It keeps kids like G off guard – wondering where they stand, trying hard to make sense of it all.

Bullying can be subtle. As a parent, you might not always recognize it. Observing the dynamics of just one girl out of the eight creating drama introduced a level of tension that otherwise wouldn’t be there. I think G regretted then inviting Sally.

And what causes a child to become a bully? You can’t make a generalization that it’s just their upbringing. Sally has two delightful parents. Parents that expect her to respect other adults – which she does more than some of the others. We’ve often talked about why Sally bullies. Where does she get it? Her mom once told us that she doesn’t have empathy – can be really mean to her dad at times.

And there’s another bully who has a good home – her mom did admit that she spoiled her too much – but where does she get it? She often treats her mom just as bad as other adults and kids. But her mom always invites G to her daughter’s events. But G didn’t want to invite Elena. Said she’d just cause problems. Again, why? Is it a lack of empathy? Always getting what she wants? We can only speculate.

As a dad with a daughter, I can only speak to bullying among girls. I don’t exactly know what the experience is for the boys. Other than those my daughter says are mean. But they seem to be more overt – more physically mean than mental. Bullying among young girls is incredibly mental – games that rip and shred others’ emotions like bungee cord.

All I can surmise is that you can’t generalize. Bullies come from good homes and bad. And span all socio-economic classes. In order to help our kids as parents we need to look at each situation individually. See it through both our kids’ eyes as well as our own. And be willing to acknowledge if it’s our kid doing the bullying – to not brush it under the rug.

Patrick Prothe

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