Bullying and the preschool child

Suggestions for helping preschoolers who are bullies or being bullied.

Some people would be surprised to hear that even 3- and 4-year-olds can be bullies or bullied.
Some people would be surprised to hear that even 3- and 4-year-olds can be bullies or bullied.

October is National Bullying Prevention Month. Bullying is defined as an act of aggression, intended to do harm and repeated over time, and involves a power imbalance. Some people would be surprised to hear that even 3- and 4-year-olds can be bullies or bullied. Bullying can happen at any age and as parents, it is natural for us to want to protect our children, especially young preschoolers. After all, what could they possibly be bullying about? A classmate's new Dora the Explorer tennis shoes, not getting an invitation to a birthday party, someone took their spot at snack or circle time? Well, yes! Henry Schlinger, PhD, from California State University at Los Angeles says that “little kid bullying is so surprising to adults, it is often just dismissed as kids being kids.” While it can be more “obvious” with older kids, it can sometimes look like rough and tumble play, typical of this younger age group.

Bullying cannot really start until the age of 3. Children don’t feel empathy until this age. Any action a child does to hurt another child, either emotionally or physically up to this point, should be calmly redirected. What happens next, however, is the brain can begin to see another person’s point of view. At this point, aggression can be on purpose. Remember that 3- and 4-year-olds are still developing social skills and can be very physical, so some behavior may look like bullying. If the behavior is targeted toward a single child, repeated and intense, then it is considered bullying.

Bullying behaviors become learned behaviors when they work. If the behavior or threat is successful in getting the child what they want, the behavior is reinforced. Without options for more appropriate behavior, the bullying will continue. Bullying has to come from somewhere. Bullying behaviors are directly taught by adults who yell, threaten, shame and punish children rather than set limits, problem-solve and follow up.

Regardless of the age, bullying behavior is a means of communication. The child shouldn’t be seen as naughty, mean or bad, but as feeling emotions that are overwhelming. It is behavior with a goal that is used to get attention, scare someone or get what they want. Any child that exhibits bullying behavior needs limits and help with problem-solving. Also, bullying is often seen in areas of the classroom or home where expectations are less defined such as the playground, water table or block area. Set consistent expectations and follow through.

Michigan State University Extension has the following suggestions for helping preschoolers who are bullies or being bullied:

  • Parents and child care providers should encourage skills such as sharing, helping and including others. This will prevent bullying from occurring, reoccurring or intensifying.
  • Offer praise when witnessing children in the act of relating well with peers. When we make an effort to notice and praise young children for random acts of kindness, we are developing self-esteem and confidence to help them now and in the future.
  • Set limits and clear rules for behavior. Adults need to be ready to quickly stop aggressive behavior or redirect it before it occurs. Kids may need constant reminders.
  • Children at this age who feel they are being bullied should be taught to say “STOP” and immediately tell an adult.
  • Instead of focusing on the term “bullying,” caregivers and parents can talk about behaviors that hurt others and show you value kindness.

Is your kid being bullied? Recognize the signs:

  • Your child loved preschool, but now doesn’t want to go.
  • They complain of bellyaches or headaches before being dropped off at a playdate, daycare or preschool.
  • They repeatedly tell you a certain kid is “bothering” them.
  • They make derogatory remarks about themselves, like “I am a loser” or “No one likes me.”

Is your child the bully?

  • Do they need to feel powerful and in control?
  • Are they hot-tempered or quick to resort to aggression?
  • Do they feel they do no wrong?
  • Do they show empathy for others’ feelings?
  • Are they aggressive towards adults?

Some research suggests that bullying is more common among young children than school-aged children. You and your child are not alone. A young child is learning to regulate their emotions and developing social skills. Give them appropriate ways to do so and practice. Regardless if your child is the bully or getting bullied, developing healthy relationships is a major developmental milestone that needs your support and encouragement as much as any other.

For more information about bullying, visit Stop Bullying.

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