Thursday, December 5, 2013

Building Friendships and Healthy Peer Relationships

These days, it is impossible to turn on the television or read the headlines without hearing about a reference to bullying. Talk of bullying seems to have grabbed the national spotlight and is often the focus of news stories involving young people. The frequency of these stories, coupled with their lengthy coverage, often describes bullying as an “epidemic,” when in reality, about 20-30% of students nationwide in grades 6-12 reported experiencing bullying (

Nevertheless, this is still a prevalent and serious problem for many young people. Reports indicate that most bullying occurs during the middle school years, with students engaging in verbal and social types of bullying ( However, it is important to realize that there is not a single profile or type of student who “bullies.” Young people who engage in this behavior can be either well connected socially or marginalized. In addition, those who are bullied sometimes bully others. Because persistent bullying can increase feelings of isolation, rejection, depression, and anxiety, those who bully others and are bullied themselves are at the greatest risk for mental health and academic problems (

Teaching Tolerance, an organization founded by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 1991 and dedicated to “reducing prejudice, improving intergroup relations and supporting equitable school experiences for our nation’s children” recently published an article titled, “There are No Bullies” ( The article points out that the word “bully” is an ill-defined word that “paints the kids who are bullies as ogres or monsters.” Those who are labeled as bullies and are met with strong disciplinary approaches are often left with a fixed identity that is difficult to change:

“Bullying is a behavior, not an identity... by doing this, we’re really doing everyone a great disservice. We’re missing a golden opportunity to teach them. We need to remember that kids and teens who [bully]...are still growing up. When we help them, we’re also helping those they target - and those who might have been bullied by them in the future.”

Rather than dwelling on stories about bullying behavior and its outcomes, parents, teachers, and other adults can help prevent this behavior by teaching children about empathy and relationship choices. Experts and educators alike recommend comprehensive programming “designed to promote social and emotional competencies” as well as mentorship groups or buddy programs to help students develop relationships, navigate transitions more successfully, and teach new students about the school’s values (

Schools can prevent bullying behavior by establishing a culture of respect for all students, and rewarding individual students when they demonstrate those values in the classroom, with adults, and most importantly, with their peers. Teachers can also hold weekly classroom meetings, to focus on specific topics and problem-solve issues that arise outside of the classroom - ultimately leading to solutions and building trust and respect between students.

At home, experts recommend talking to young people about healthy relationships, behavior, and choices ( This includes talking to children and teens about their behavioral role models and the strategies they’re using in their relationships with others. Find out if these strategies are working for them, and discuss some of the long-term consequences of these choices. Rather than delivering the information as a threat, parents can encourage their student to use this information as a tool to help them take control of their choices and their future.

Empathy is also a key component to this issue. Parents, teachers, and adults can talk to students about cultivating kindness and generosity at home and in the large community. Another article from Teaching Tolerance (, titled “Kindness Isn’t Just for Elementary School” recommends that all educators begin integrating social-emotional learning into their curricula:

“Encourage students to give specific compliments to classmates during peer reviewing or presentations, write positive comments on a class blog, or conduct a kindness experiment where they can plan and carry out random acts of kindness as a homework assignment.”

This article also discusses the latest research in compassion, which shows that the brain can be trained for kindness:

In a University of Oregon study, economist Bill Harbaugh and psychologist Ulrich Mayr found that charitable generosity activated the reward center of the brain, indicating that our brains are naturally made for kindness. Furthering this research are studies on compassionate meditation such as one conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which illustrated that through repeated practice of mindful generosity, we can increase empathetic responses to others."

Ultimately, children and teens engaging in bullying behaviors need the opportunity to learn that what they put into a relationship - kindness, respect, understanding - they will receive in return from their friends and peers. Providing all young people with opportunities to experience positive social interactions and practice empathy is the key to preventing bullying behaviors. The more tools young people have to navigate their relationships with peers, the better prepared they will be to handle difficult social situations throughout their lives.

Please visit the Parents Page for a new list of Reading Recommendations related to empathy and building healthy relationships.

Wishing you a Happy Thanksgiving and many things to be thankful for!