Creating a Culture of Compassion

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.” That old adage just isn’t true. Teasing, name calling, gossip, rumors, exclusion, and betrayal are forms of cruelty sometimes referred to as social aggression. Social aggression starts at a surprisingly early age, during the pre-school years. Ever hear a 3 year old adamantly declare, “You can’t be in our club!” You’ve just witnessed the pre-school version of social aggression. It was your child who shut out her friend from the club? That happens–a lot. So what’s a parent to do?
Normal or worrisome?

No parent wants their child bullied. Most parents are disturbed to learn their child has been mean to others. Dr. Michael Thompson, expert on children’s social development, points out that children have a job to do as they grow. This is their time to figure out what it means to be part of a social community, to have friends and belong, and to wield social power. Children experiment. They wear different hats. Before school, Emily may do something mean to a friend because it will make her look cool. At lunch, Emily may be the target of someone’s mocking or rejecting anger. After school, she’s a bystander, witnessing the harassment of another child she cares about. Clumsy and cruel social dynamics are common on the playground and in the after school scene. The fact that kids are often mean doesn’t make it acceptable. On the contrary, adults have a responsibility to help children and teens learn positive ways to deal with friendship conflicts and social cruelty and to rein in the impulse to be mean.

The Ultimate Goal

As a psychologist and educator, I believe the ultimate goal is providing secure, safe home and school environments where children can learn and practice friendship, compassion, and inclusion skills. We can and should work from the inside out and the outside in.

From the outside in: Research shows that positive home and school climates really make a difference. Treat children with kindness and respect at home if these are the qualities you want them to express in the world. Empathy and compassion are more difficult to express when we are anxious and worried, or feel disconnected from others. That’s true for our children as well. Help children feel secure in their environments; it will make a difference. Support your school’s efforts to foster students’ social development in a safe environment. Find out what your child’s school is doing to create a positive school climate, address bullying and harassment, and equip children with skills. The school may have way for parents to get involved. Consider it.

From the inside out: I’m big on empowerment–equipping children and teens with the skills they need to navigate social ups and downs. Research and experience show that some important skills are: 1. communication (verbal and non-verbal); 2. conflict resolution skills; 3. character qualities–like empathy and compassion; 4. tools for dealing with strong emotions like anger and hurt. When children have the tools to advocate for themselves, it’s a huge benefit to them. Work on this together. Get involved in an activity or organization that can help raise consciousness and foster inclusion. Create a Culture of Kindness bulletin board at home. Post current events, pictures, personal writings, and drawings that reflect acts of kindness, compassion and/or respect. Discuss acts of compassion at the dinner table. Observe out loud the negative effects of people being mean to each other. Share stories about people who have been resilient and bounced back in the face of social adversity.

Encourage Children and Teens to Reach Out: When children and teens have adults who listen it really helps. But many kids tell us they won’t go for help–to their parents, teachers, or school counselors–because they’re afraid the grown ups will “make it worse.” How can adults make it better?

1. We especially want our children to come to us, no matter their age, if they are in danger or being physically threatened. Ensuring children’s safety, with the help of the school team, is critical. Don’t hesitate to engage in family conversations about the kinds of situations that warrant reaching out for help–so children can protect themselves as well as seek help for their peers when danger is a factor.

2. Parents can assist young children to figure out what to do for themselves. What does your child want to do? Say “no?” Leave the mean scene and play with other welcoming friends? Ask a teacher or school staff for help? Help your child prepare. Perhaps they’d like to role play the situation. Use puppets, a stuffed animal or the family dog to help them talk through what they want to say to their friend or teacher. Help them calm their strong feelings. What do they think helps them feel more relaxed–a back rub, a game of tag, watching a favorite tv show together? Consider alerting your child’s teacher about the challenge your child is facing. The teacher may be able to help your child successfully negotiate the current situation.

3. Middle school students and high school teens are often even more reluctant to seek out adults. They say they want an adult who will listen. Yet our alarms go off and we want to jump in with sage advice and protective measures. Or we react–we are so angry about what we hear that we go off. Our kids, who were already feeling overwhelmed by the situation, now have our strong emotions to deal with as well.

4. Talk to the school staff. Administrators, counselors, and teachers can give you helpful information about the school’s policies and actions for dealing with bullying, harassment, and mean behavior. They can also share their observations about your child–do they see your child being targeted or being mean to other children? They can give you feedback about how your child gets along with others and who his/her peers are. You can share your concerns. An approach that has worked well for some parents includes: 1. Emphasizing that you want to work with the staff to find win-win solutions. 2. Giving factual information about what your child has shared. 3. Coming up with an action plan.

5. If you are concerned that your child is the “mean one” or the bully, get involved. Learning to stand in another’s shoes is one of the best defenses against the mean kid syndrome. Look at the ways you model respect and empathy. If you think you can improve on that, do so. Have some sit down time to talk about acts of kindness as well as the ways that mean behaviors hurt others. Help your child get involved in positive social activities where he or she can develop her talents and strengths. Let your child’s teacher know your concerns and see what his/her observations are. Sometimes it can help to seek counseling with a trained professional.

There is no “end date” for the project of compassion building. If you want your family to be part of the culture of compassion, remember–there’s no quick fix. It’s a life-long practice.

Books and Websites for Caring Adults

Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children by Michael Thompson, Ph.D. and Catherine O’Neill Grace. New York: Ballantine Books. 2001.

Mom, They’re Teasing Me: Helping Your Child Solve Social Problems by Michael Thompson, Ph.D., Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D., with Catherine O’Neill Grace. N.Y.: Ballantine Books. 2002. Go to the section called “My Life” to read about helpful solutions. The CDC sponsors this site for older elementary and middle school youth. Great to look at with your child.

National Center for Victims of Crime: Click on the Teen Victim Project for resources for teens–includes info on harassment, hate crimes, gang violence, date rape, stalking, and other crimes effecting teens. Information, skills, games, and animated webisodes to help teens deal. Sponsored by the US Department of Health and Human Services. Great to look at with your child.

My Favorites for Educators

Bullying Prevention: Creating a Positive School Climate And Developing Social Competence by Pamila Orpinas and Arthur Horne. (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2005).

Teaching Children to Care: Classroom Management for Ethical and Academic Growth by Ruth Charney (2002).

You Can’t Say You Can’t Play by Vivian Gussin Paley.

Resources For Elementary School Children

My Secret Bully by Trudy Ludwig.

Say Something by Peggy Moss. Tilbury House, Publishers (Maine).

Simon’s Hook; A Story About Teases and Put-downs by Karen Gedig Burnett. Click “Kids,” then “Dealing with Feelings.” You can learn more about getting along, bullying and harassment. It discusses reasons school violence happens, what people are doing to prevent it, and what kids can do about it. This website provides a lot of helpful advice for building confidence, making friends, talking to grown-ups, and overcoming shyness. Click on “Chit-Chat” for more examples of phrases you can use to start and continue conversations. The site also has a lot of cool links to other sites where you can learn about social activities and groups.

Resources for Middle School Students

Speak Up and Get Along!: Learn the Mighty Might, Thought Chop, and More Tools to Make Friends, Stop Teasing, and Feel Good About Yourself by Scott Cooper. Free Spirit Publishing. 2005. Information, skills, games, and animated webisodes to help teens deal. Sponsored by the US Department of Health and Human Services Go to the section called “My Life” to read about helpful solutions. The CDC sponsors this site for older elementary and middle school youth. Cool site about girls’ social, emotional and physical health and well being. Beneficial for older middle school and high school girls. Check out this section on friendship and bullying:

Resources for Teens

Respect: A Girl’s Guide to Getting Respect & Dealing When Your Line Is Crossedby Courtney Macavinta. (Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Press, 2005). Information, skills, games, and animated webisodes to help teens deal. Sponsored by the US Department of Health and Human Services Cool site about girls’ social, emotional and physical health and well being. Beneficial for older middle school and high school girls. Check out this section on friendship and bullying:


Copyright © 2010
An earlier version of this article appeared in the online newsletter Orange CAT (2010)

Please note: Nothing in what you find here should be construed as medical advice pertinent to any individual. As is true with all written materials, and especially information found on the internet, you must be the judge of what appears valid and useful for yourself. Please take up any questions you might have regarding the content of this website with your psychotherapist or physician.

We use cookies to improve your experience on our website. By browsing this website, you agree to our use of cookies.