Your first clue that something is up might be when your preschooler says, “Kids are mean to me” or “I hate so-and-so, and I don’t want to play with him anymore.” In my case, the eye-opener was when my son, Kevin, brought home his preschool class picture. As he pointed from one smiling child to the next, he told me, “That’s Thomas, that’s Riley, that’s Jenny, that’s…” (ominous drumroll, please) “My bully, that’s…”
Not too young to be a bully
Before age 3, kids do not have the cognitive ability to feel empathy, says Brenda Nixon, a mom, former preschool teacher, and author of The Birth to Five Book. After 3, that changes: “The brain has the ability to understand another point of view, so that’s the age that premeditated and purposeful aggression could begin,” says Nixon. In other words, these little troublemakers should know better.
Why kids bully?
- Imitate behaviour they have seen before from a parent, sibling or friend.
- To get attention, either from adults or from peers.
Still others bully for reasons that are more complex. “It’s much more concerning when a child bullies because it makes him feel good to see signs of injury, fear or misery in his victim,” says Schlinger. “That type of bully can be hard to stop.”
“The problem with ignoring smaller incidents is that intervention does not happen until it reaches a crisis point or someone gets hurt,” says Schlinger.
But when is it just a fight?
Here is how experts define bullying: It is intentionally aggressive behaviour, usually involving an imbalance of power and repeated over time. It can be:
- verbal (put-downs, taunts, name-calling)
- physical (pushing, kicking, punching)
- relational (rumours, social rejection, exclusion)Bullying, on the other hand, does the exact opposite. It systematically undermines kids’ self-esteem; whether it is physical or emotional, it can cause hurt feelings, fear, and anxiety—even beginner bullying between little kids. Being picked on, pushed around, and shunned is not acceptable at any age.
And bullying can have consequences for bullies, too. They may have a hard time forming real friendships, which can lead to problematic relationships in all parts of their lives. Daily play-related conflict can make kids stronger because they learn through experience how to compromise, negotiate, and forgive.
Conflict or bullying ?
- Look at intent. A playmate might accidentally cause harm during a tug-of-war over a shovel in the sandbox.
- The child is smiling during a dispute, says Barbara Coloroso, author of The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander: From Preschool to High School—How Parents and Teachers Can Help Break the Cycle of Violence. If two boys are fighting over a book and both boys are upset, that’s conflict. If a child bashes your son over the head with a book and grins as your son cries, that’s bullying, explains Coloroso. Not all bullies act this way, but most kids who do are bullies.
- Sneakiness or secretive behaviour: A bully doesn’t want grown-ups to catch him in the act, so he’ll carry out his bullying covertly. A bully will act as a ringleader and recruit others to join her, not just at school but at playdates or on the playground, too.
Bullying can be hard to identify because it can spark bad behaviour from the “good” kid, too. The boy would be bullied over and over, until he finally got angry and frustrated that he struck back and got in trouble.
How to protect your child
STEP ONE: Find out what’s going on
Ask your child pointed questions like “Did someone hurt you?” or “Can you tell me exactly what he did?” Kids this age may know that what’s happening makes them feel bad, but they may not have a label for it or know how to talk about it. But remember: remain calm and reassuring for your kid. The more supportive you are of his feelings, the more details you’ll get about what happened, how he feels about it, and how serious the situation is. The message you want to send him is “I love you. I’m here for you. Together, we’ll work on a solution.”
STEP TWO: Help her figure out how to respond
Children should not be expected to deal with bullies on their own, but usually, bullying happens under the radar. So role-play with her, says Joel D. Haber, Ph.D., author of Bullyproof Your Child for Life. Tactics she can try:
- Stand tall and act brave. Sometimes just acting as if the bully does not bother you can stop him. Tell the bully “Knock it off!” or “Stop that!” in a loud voice and walk away.
- Ignore the bully. Do not give him attention and he will eventually stop.
- Stick with friends. Try to help your child make some friends through new playdates or activities.
- Tell an adult what is happening. If you are not there, she should go to the teacher.
STEP THREE: Take action yourself
- Set up a meeting with the teacher or caregiver. She may be unaware of the situation.
- But if you don’t get help, don’t give up. Apply pressure until a solution can be found (even if it means moving the bully or your child to a different classroom or, in some extreme cases, a different school).
- If the bullying is going on at a playground or playdate, you could try talking to the parent. Say, “Our kids aren’t getting along very well. Have you noticed?” Alternatively, avoid that child or find a new playground.
- Deep down, most bullies were just regular kids who wanted to be liked and have friends. Invite the boy over and that if he still acted like a bully at the playdate, at least we had tried to be kind and forgiving. That one-on-one playdate can be effective.
Is your kid being bullied?
There are signs that a kid is being bullied. Here’s what to watch for:
- Your child loved preschool but now does not want to go.
- He complains of bellyaches or headaches before being dropped off at a playdate, daycare or preschool.
- He no longer wants to play with a child he once liked.
- He repeatedly tells you a certain kid is “bothering,” “bugging,” or being mean to him.
- He suddenly becomes withdrawn, depressed, fearful or clingy.
- He makes derogatory remarks about himself, like “I’m a loser,” “I’m stupid” or “No one likes me.”
- He has unexplained boo-boos. Little kids get bumps and bruises when they play, but if your child seems to have more than a normal amount or “forgets” the details of getting hurt, it might warrant a closer look.
Is your kid the problem?
- Does your child need to feel powerful and in control?
- Is she hot-tempered or quick to resort to aggression?
- Does she feel she does no wrong?
- Does she show little empathy for others’ feelings?
- Is she aggressive toward adults?
- Don’t panic if you answered yes to any of these questions. It does not necessarily mean your child is a bully. But a child with these traits can turn into a bully, so pay close attention. The biggest red flag is if your child seems to enjoy insulting, shaming or attacking other kids. If so, ask your paediatrician if there is a therapist you can see. It is a worrisome behaviour, but it can be dealt with. For any kid who gets close to or crosses the line:
- Talk about playtime. A few reminders about empathy and kindness may tame the insensitive antics. If that does not work, try time-outs or cutting playdates short.
- Discuss consequences. Explain that if the bullying continues, the other kids won’t want to play with him.
- Have him right the wrong. For instance: The boy who bullied my son could have invited my son to play in the fort or made him a construction-paper pirate hat.
- Praise his efforts. Be specific: “I like the way you invited someone new to play.
Deborah Carpenter, a mom of two, is the author of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Dealing with Bullies