The parenting a child receives greatly influences their tendency to be a bully, be bullied, or to be an ineffective bystander. Here are some ideas for fostering an empathetic child who will not be any of the above, but who will instead know how to respond to a bullying situation in an empowered way.

Aim for a balanced parenting style: I was not surprised to learn that the authoritative, or as Barbara Coloruso, author of The Bully, The Bullied and the Bystander, calls it; the “backbone parent” is the preferred mode of operation. Compared to the “dictator” or “jellyfish” parents, these folks are neither too strict nor too lenient. (Read more about parenting style in: Who’s the Boss from the Jan/Feb issue of Parent & Family). These even-handed, consultant-type parents are likely to set boundaries and follow through from a place that is both firm and loving. Parents who discipline by “working with” and not “doing to,” as Alfie Kohn so aptly put it, will have children less likely to bully.

Promote emotional literacy: Don’t squelch troublesome feelings at home. The expression of the messy and loud, and less socially acceptable emotions such as grief, rage, and fear is vitally important for the growing brains of children. Shutting down these feelings does not banish them, it creates a deeply rooted well of unexpressed hurts. I like fellow parenting educator Pam Leo’s quote: “Crying is the healing, not the hurting.”

Teach empathy: The ground-breaking Canadian program, The Roots of Empathy, provides opportunities for youngsters to interact with newborn babies as a way to promote empathy. Part of the curriculum is to ask the children what they believe the babies might be feeling—this gets them thinking outside their typical “me, me, me” zone and to a place where they can truly consider what a smaller, helpless being might be experiencing. Powerful stuff.

Play with power: Role reversal is an excellent tool for allowing children to feel powerful when they usually do not. Play games where you allow them to be feisty and rebellious—angry even. My three-year-old loves to play these types of games. A recent favorite is to set a pillow on my lap and say in an exaggerated, inviting tone: “Oh my, I’ve got this pillow just where I want it. I certainly hope no one comes along and messes it up!” Joshua runs over with delight, grabs the pillow and throws it vehemently on the ground. “Oh no,” I exclaim, “My poor pillow— I have to put it right back here where it belongs!” This type of play where he gets to “win” is more satisfying to him than I could have ever imagined. My theory is that when I allow for him to have power-over a pillow, he will not feel such a need to have power-over another child.

Model assertive behavior: A coworker of mine recently described children as “little anthropologists.” Even though they aren’t carrying around steno pads and taking notes, they are serious students of adult behavior. Use this to your advantage and stay mindful or the example you are setting. Always stick up for yourself (and your child) when the situation calls for it. It is possible to give someone compassionate feedback in an assertive manner. For instance, “Sir, I recognize the fact that you have a long line of people here, but I’d appreciate it if you used a different tone of voice with me.”

Bullying is a problem—a HUGE problem—a life or death problem. Use these suggestions to do something about it. Change begins at home.

First printed in the July/August 2011 issue of Parent & Family