Committee for Children Blog

Empathy and Bullying

Recently, a friend told me an endearing story about empathy. It took place the day before Blue Shirt Day last year (October 1st), on which people are encouraged to wear blue shirts to make a commitment to “Stomp Out Bullying”. My friend’s son received a call from his cousin the night before, reminding him to wear his blue shirt. The boy’s cousin was worried that he might forget to wear one and be picked on for being different.

So, what is empathy? Empathy comes in many forms, and it includes skills such as being able to understand one’s own feelings; recognizing, understanding, and accepting others’ emotions and differing perspectives; and, at a deeper level, being able to feel what another person is feeling. In the above story, the boy’s cousin showed empathy with his concern about protecting his cousin’s feelings.

Consequences of a lack of empathy

People who lack empathy often have more difficulty with relationships and may be less inclined to treat others nicely, or to feel bad after doing something hurtful to someone. There is research that suggests that children who bully lack empathy for others:

·         For both males and females, low affective empathy was related to frequent bullying behavior (Jolliffee & Farrington).

·         Children high on Callous-Unemotional traits were lowest in affective empathy and highest in direct bullying (Munoz, Qualter, & Padgett).

·         Prosocial children showed greater empathic awareness than children who bullied (Warden & Mackinnon).

·         Prosocial children and children who were bullied responded more constructively to socially awkward situations than did children who bullied (Warden & Mackinnon).

·         Bullies were less aware than prosocial children of the possible negative consequences of their problem-solving strategies (Warden & Mackinnon).

Empathy and bullying: A continuum

A colleague of mine, who has done a lot of work in the area of bullying prevention, talks about the relationship between empathy and bullying as part of a continuum. There is a subgroup children who display chronic and severe bullying behavior, some of whom have serious mental health issues, who have minimal to no empathy. These bullies are certainly in need of some pro-social skill training, but they present us with the unique challenge of building empathy from the ground up. On the other hand, there is seemingly a larger group of children who have some level of empathy and may become involved with bullying for any number of reasons. These are the children who may most likely benefit from being coached in self-reflection, self-evaluation, and understanding of the impact this behavior has on others, because tapping into their empathy can reduce some students’ bullying behavior.

Although there is still so much more for us to learn about the complex nature of bullying (what causes it and how to prevent it), there is hope that by fostering empathy in our students we can begin to lessen bullying.   


Jolliffe, D., & Farrington, D. P. (2006). Examining the relationship between low empathy and bullying. Aggressive Behavior, 32 (6), 540–550.

Munoz, L.C., Qualter, P., & Padgett, G. (2011). Empathy and bullying: Exploring the influence of Callous-Unemotional Traits. Child Psychiatry & Human Development, 42, 183–196.

Warden, D. & Mackinnon, S. (2003). Prosocial children, bullies and victims: An investigation of their sociometric status, empathy and social problem-solving strategies. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 21, 367–385.