Millions of children around the world are affected by bullying. In Australia, an estimated 25% of children are bullied and 10% are perpetrators at some point in their lives. In the US, reported rates of victimization range from 10% to 28%. One global dataset found an even higher rate: 32% of boys and 36% of girls. Cyberbullying, in particular, is on the rise, affecting up to 57% of children worldwide. Certain groups of children, such as members of the LGBTQI community, are more vulnerable than others.

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Bullying is unwanted aggressive behaviour that involves a power imbalance, is repeated or likely to be repeated, and causes harm or distress to the victim. Among young people it is sometimes seen as a kind of “coming of age” initiation that helps to toughen a child up for “real life”.

That’s completely wrong, says Antonella Brighi, a developmental psychology professor at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano in Italy who has researched the phenomenon for nearly 15 years. “We’re talking about a form of violence,” she says. Accepting bullying, Brighi points out, “means that we agree to accept violence in our lives. This is not fair. It is not in keeping with the civil rights of all people, including children. It is a problem that can hinder children’s participation in school life, and can leave long-lasting effects.”

Some of the consequences of bullying can last into adulthood. Victims are more likely than their peers to have health problems, including psychosomatic symptoms like stomach aches or insomnia, and mental health issues like anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation—even as adults. Bullies themselves may be at increased risk of health problems, and of exhibiting anti-social behaviour and delinquency in adulthood.

As a result, bullying is increasingly seen as a public health issue that requires prevention and intervention.

“Much of the bullying prevention work starts with understanding who is at risk of becoming a bully.”

Much of the bullying prevention work starts with understanding who is at risk of becoming a bully. In terms of the “big five” personality traits, bullies tend to be low on agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness, and high on extraversion and neuroticism. Children who are neurotic are more predisposed towards emotional instability, which can include feeling angry or insecure; children who are less open tend to be rigid in their thinking and less likely to consider other points of view. It’s easy to see that when these traits are combined, they could make such children more predisposed to bullying. Bullies also generally have lower emotional intelligence and poorer emotion regulation compared with their peers.

Brighi was curious about how these characteristics might overlap – and whether emotional traits could be improved, for example through emotion coaching. Could helping children to develop higher emotional intelligence in general, or empathy in particular, reduce their risk of becoming bullies? And could this be especially helpful for children with the higher-risk personality traits described above? If so, the payoff could be big: Emotional intelligence-based interventions might actually help prevent bullying.

“Emotional intelligence and empathy helped counteract risk factors for certain personality tendencies.”

Brighi and her colleagues found that in eight- to ten-year-olds, emotional intelligence and empathy helped counteract risk factors for certain personality tendencies. Children who were less emotionally stable, for example, were more likely to be bullies – but not if they had a higher level of emotional intelligence. Similarly, children who were less conscientious were more likely to be bullies – but not if they had higher levels of empathy.

“The good news is that while each of us has certain individual personality characteristics, some skills can be learned,” Brighi says. Brighi suggests that helping children develop empathy and emotional intelligence could diminish the likelihood that they will become bullies.

It is especially exciting that these effects were in children as young as eight to ten, says Brighi. This means that intervening at such young ages may well reap long-term benefits.

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That’s particularly true, she says, because children learn from the behaviours of those around them. If they witness bullying, they experience “a kind of progressive learning of aggression, and a modality for interacting with others that puts violence and abuse at the centre of their relationships,” she says. “If we don’t interrupt this kind of vicious circle, then we risk allowing the problem to become much worse.”

Based on these findings, Brighi is now testing an anti-bullying programme to deliver to teachers. But caregivers and teachers who want to make a difference don’t have to wait for a structured bullying intervention. Simple strategies such as mirroring a child’s facial expressions and talking with children about how they feel, or asking them where in their bodies they feel an emotion, can help develop emotional intelligence. “You can start teaching empathy just by helping children to understand the point of view of another person,” Brighi says.

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