Bullying, Empathy, and Reflecting Upon Ourselves

Published October 9, 2017

By Um Abdu Rahman

A Netflix documentary, Inn Sai, The Power of Intuition, features a school in the U.K. where children are taught about the brain and how it functions, about mindful awareness, positive psychology, and social-emotional learning. One young boy’s story stands out. He was a friendly boy but he would at times get a little rough with his peers on the playground during recess. He didn’t understand why the boys were put off by his behavior. When the class started a curriculum called MindUp, they learned about the amygdala, the part of the brain where the “fight or flight” response is located. The children achieved an understanding of how stress of any sort can trigger the amygdala and, when that happens, other parts of the brain are shut out of the action. That includes the pre-frontal cortex, the area that controls higher brain functions including attention and orientation, self-awareness, maintaining information in the working memory, changing behavior to suit the demands of a task or circumstance, and decision-making.
Prefrontal Cortex Dysfunction and Impulsivity, an article published in 2012 on the Center for Science & Law blog, states, “The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is an area of the brain associated with the regulation of impulsive behavior, helping see the future consequences of one’s actions rather than seeking immediate rewards. Studies have established that damage to the PFC causes patients to be oblivious to future consequences and focus only on immediate reward, unable to regulate their behavior to be in accordance with long-goals. The PFC’s connectivity to other brain regions gives insights to the means by which it may regulate impulsive behavior. For instance, it has an inhibitory projection to the amygdala, a subcortical structure associated with violent behavior.”

The children in the U.K. school were taught the practice of slowing down, breathing deeply, and staying focused and aware. This puts more time between an experience that might trigger stress or negative emotion and the child’s reactivity to that experience. This helps other parts of the brain, like the pre-frontal cortex, to maintain command. The young boy, mentioned above, had impulse control issues that were not the result of injury to his brain but the common behavioral trait of young children. After his class was taught about the different parts of the brain and what they control, and how to practice mindfulness, his habit of teasing and harassing his classmates changed significantly. Because he understood what was happening in his brain (even if only in an elementary way), he did not so easily slide into frantic, over-excited behavior that involved him in annoying or intimidating his peers. Over time, with practice, he strengthened his mindfulness like one strengthens a muscle, and became a more self-aware and emotionally intelligent young man. In the documentary, he, along with others from his class, were interviewed. Their ability, though very young, to verbalize an understanding of regions of the brain and the behaviors and capacities they controlled was quite impressive.
Many studies have looked at both the behaviors and personalities of bullies. Not surprisingly, those who bully others lack prosocial behavior. Their self-concept is typically, on a conscious level, a positive one, but bullies do not have healthy or satisfying relationships with either peers or parents. Perhaps a young person who bullies others has himself or herself had many stressful experiences which invoked a chronic heightened state of alert, of feeling existentially threatened, with the amygdala in control. In that state in which the “fight or flight” instinct is so easily triggered, important aspects of development get sidelined. Only when the amygdala is calm and quiet can a child learn, whether cognitively, emotionally, or socially.

Bullying Is Everywhere

Bullying is a world-wide phenomenon. is a clearinghouse of educational material aimed to bring attention to this issue and help stop bullying in all its forms. They cite statistics and studies done around the world about the prevalence of bullying in schools. For example, a study published in the International Journal of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine in 2016 looked at bullying in Saudi Arabia. In “Bullying in early adolescence: An exploratory study in Saudi Arabia,” by Fadia S. Al Buhairan, Majid Al Eissa, Nourah Al Kufeidy, and Maha Al Muneef, the researchers write, “In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), bullying has only been addressed very recently. Some large-scale epidemiological studies have been conducted in recent years and have provided national estimates for the prevalence of bullying. Jeeluna, a national study addressing the health needs of adolescents in the KSA, found that 25% of students had reported being exposed to bullying within the past one month preceding the study. Males were more likely to engage in bullying compared to females (27.1% versus 22.7%). Adults in the KSA reported their adverse childhood experiences, including exposure to bullying during the first 18 years of their lives. It was found that 21.5% of adults reported exposure to peer violence during their childhood, with males reporting this more often than females (28.2% versus 14.7%). Although there appears to be insufficient awareness of the issue, bullying is apparently prevalent in KSA, as is the case in other parts of the world.” In Saudi Arabia, bullying tends to be centered around identifiers of tribe or foreign nationalities. Another study, commissioned by Microsoft, focused on the pervasiveness of online bullying around the world. It found, for example, that among youth in Egypt, 8 to 17 years old, 27 percent responded that they had been victims of online bullying, and 63 percent indicated that they had been bullied offline (schools and other locations).
What this means is that Muslims also bully. Of course they do — Muslims are human and imperfect like every other person. Power dynamics infuse all human relations. There is a tendency for the more assertive personality to want to control the other. More egalitarian relationship dynamics do exist when both parties are aware of relationship dynamics and are more interested in establishing harmony than in one or both seeking to excessively influence or dominate the other. The issue of healthy vs. unhealthy power dynamics also exists between parent and child. When we think of bullying, we automatically think of school-related, peer-on-peer bullying. Sadly, however, too many parents bully their children. The bullying parent uses humiliation, intimidation, insults, and other threatening behavior to cause discomfort to the smaller, weaker individual, in this case the child, or force them to do something like do their homework, get good grades, or clean their room. The parent who bullies his or her child might not cross the line to physical bullying. But emotional and mental bullying has just as injurious effects. The parent who bullies most likely thinks he is just disciplining the child, or trying to motivate or “get through” to the child. Unfortunately, bullying from a parent destroys a child’s sense of safety and breaks down their feeling of worthiness. This sets the child up for a lifetime of dysfunctional relationships. And the child might himself or herself become a bully, whether with peers or as an adult with his/her own children.

To Bully or to Empathize — or Both

We might wonder how an adult could act in a mean, threatening way with his or her own child. Do they not see and feel how the child cowers and feels pain in being treated in such an insensitive and harsh way? Where is the parent’s empathy? It’s interesting that some studies suggest that bullies don’t necessarily lack empathy, they just choose to use their ability to identify with and understand another person’s thoughts or feelings in a destructive way. Paul Ekman, a psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of California, San Francisco, describes three types of empathy — cognitive, emotional, and empathic concern. Those with cognitive empathy are able to sense how another person thinks and to understand his point of view. Narcissists and sociopaths have this type of empathy. In fact, they use this astuteness to know how to harm their victim, which buttons to push, how to best manipulate or control. Then there are those who have a capacity for emotional empathy and are able to feel what another person is feeling. That, however, does necessarily mean they will be able or willing to help the other person. In fact, emotional empathy can sometimes lead to the individual feeling distressed and overwhelmed him/herself so that they cannot maintain the broader, calm, and focused mindset needed to help another in distress. To come to the aid of another requires, according to Ekman, empathic concern. Beyond understanding another individual’s perspective and being able feel their emotion is the intentionality and capacity to help that person.

Empathy in Its Fullest Sense

For our purposes, we can use the word “empathy” in the fullest sense — encompassing cognitive and emotional capacity to sense or know the thoughts, attitudes, or feelings of another person, as well as empathy by which concern for the other leads to action of some sort. Some people are naturally empathic and others must cultivate and nurture this trait in themselves. Empathy is an important aspect of emotional intelligence and is essential to the establishing of healthy and satisfying relationships. Understanding and caring about another person’s emotional reality or the distress they are experiencing is the foundation for the desire to extend kindness, to inspire, and to influence others in a healthy way; and to have intention to relieve whenever possible the suffering of another human being. Empathy is essential in in the marriage relationship and in the parent/child relationship. In fact, if parents do not model empathy for their children, the children will likely not feel secure, loved, or warmly cared for. And they too will grow, possibly, with lesser capacity for empathy in its fullest sense.

To care about other people, to advocate for social justice, to have harmonious relationships, to raise healthy children, we need empathy. With empathy, we can serve!

People who are high in empathy are highly aware of their own emotional reality and willing to enter into the domain of another human being’s emotional reality. A wonderful example of an empathic individual is Imam Hassan Al-Banna (may Allah SWT have mercy on his soul). Consider what he said: “I believe that the best souls are those who see their happiness in making other people happy. This soul derives its joy from increasing the joys of other people and protecting them from any harm. This virtuous soul is able to penetrate to the deepest core of their hearts and feel their pain and contribute to their healing and to understand what is in society which has disturbed their well-being. This soul feels nothing but mercy for all the sons of Adam and has a sincere and pure desire to exert whatever efforts will cure their ill hearts and expand their chests with joy. I believe there is no happier moment than rescuing any creature from the abyss of misery and guiding him to the path of uprightness and happiness.”
He sees his happiness “in making other people happy.”

He listens to others and is able to “penetrate to the deepest core of their hearts and feel their pain and contribute to their healing.”

He feels “nothing but mercy for all the sons of Adam and has a sincere and pure desire to exert whatever efforts will cure their ill hearts and expand their chests with joy.”

He takes action and his “soul derives its joy from increasing the joys of other people and protecting them from any harm.” And further his action is in “rescuing any creature from the abyss of misery and guiding him to the path of uprightness and happiness.”
There are numerous verses in the Quran and instructions from the Prophet (peace be upon him) about helping the needy, being compassionate, and acting in ways that alleviate the difficulties and sufferings of other people. The Prophet said, “The most beloved people to Allah SWT are those who help and benefit others the most…” (Al-Tabarani).
Bullying is in diametrical opposition to helping and benefiting others. Certainly, all efforts must be made to prevent and stop bullying in schools. That, however, will be incomplete if we don’t engage in self-examining. Do we seek to unduly control others, whether family members or friends? Do we ever use intimidation, threats, or insulting, demeaning words or actions with our children? Do we tend to want to influence others, “teach them how to live,” but think that we do not need to be influenced by other perspectives or viewpoints?

A project of the Harvard University School of Graduate Education, Making Caring Common, emphasizes the need to “create caring and inclusive schools.” In a report, “Bullying Prevention: The Power of Empathy,” the authors stress the importance of “building empathy at home and in school.” They did a survey with 10,000 student respondents in 35 middle schools and high schools nationwide and “found that in schools where students reported having more empathy, students also reported fewer experiences of bullying and were more likely to try to stop bullying. Students who reported more empathy also reported fewer experiences of discrimination, threats to physical safety, teasing, and bullying at school. Higher reports of empathy were also associated with student reports of feeling more connected to their school and being more influenced by school values.”
To care about other people, to advocate for social justice, to have harmonious relationships, to raise healthy children, we need empathy. With empathy, we can serve. How essential and worthwhile is that? — Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said, “The highest level of the intellect, after eman, is to be of service to the creation.”

Um Abdu RahmanAuthor Um Abdu-Rahman is a free lance writer for The Message magazine.

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