Not long ago, the idea that a preschooler could be a bully seemed crazy to me. But my outlook changed when my son Nicky was 4. A bruiser of a boy in his class would chase girls around the classroom and pinch them for fun. He frequently punched and smacked kids, and I once saw him kick a child who was playing with a wagon he wanted. The teachers spent a lot of time reprimanding this boy and explaining what "okay" behavior was, but his menacing acts continued and Nicky learned to steer clear of him.
That was just the beginning. In kindergarten, Nicky encountered a handful of kids who bothered everyone during recess. Last winter, a classmate told a girl he wanted to cut off her hair with a knife. The vice principal set up meetings with each class during which the teachers explained that every child has the right to feel safe at school.
These examples may sound extreme, but they aren't. Bullying, the act of willfully causing harm to others through verbal harassment (teasing and name-calling), physical assault (hitting, kicking, and biting), or social exclusion (intentionally rejecting a child from a group), used to be something parents didn't need to worry about until their child was a tween. Now it has trickled down to the youngest students. In fact, some research shows that tormenting has become even more common among 2- to 6-year-olds than among tweens and teens. "Young kids are mimicking the aggressive behavior they see on TV shows, in video games, and from older siblings," explains Susan Swearer, Ph.D., coauthor of Bullying Prevention & Intervention.
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A National Epidemic
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Overall, bullying in schools has become a national epidemic. A study published in the Journal of School Health found that 19 percent of U.S. elementary students are bullied. And each day, more than 160,000 kids stay home from school because they fear being bullied, according to a survey by the National Education Association, a public-education advocacy group.
"Being bullied can have traumatic consequences for a child, leading to poor school performance, low self-esteem, anxiety, and even depression," says Parents advisor David Fassler, M.D., clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont, in Burlington. Research published in Archives of General Psychiatry revealed that kids who were bullied at age 8 were more prone to psychological problems as teens and early adults. Further, a University of Washington School of Medicine study found that elementary-school kids who are victims of bullying are 80 percent more likely to feel "sad" most days.
Harassment has become such a serious threat to kids' health that the American Academy of Pediatrics issued its first official policy statement on the subject last year. It encourages physicians to raise awareness in their local schools and to provide screening and counseling for child victims and their families.
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How A Bully Is Born
There's a fine line between thoughtless or selfish actions and true bullying among young children. Most experts agree that a child crosses the threshold if his actions are intentional and if they occur habitually. Why do some kids choose to inflict physical or emotional pain on others? "Bullies tend to have low self-esteem," says W. Michael Nelson, Ph.D., coauthor of Keeping Your Cool: The Anger Management Workbook, which is designed to help counselors who work with aggressive kids. "They lack empathy and have a need to dominate others."
Preschoolers are still mastering basic social skills and figuring out how to manage their own emotions, so their overly assertive actions may simply be a way of testing the boundaries of what?s acceptable. "Teasing and grabbing are part of every little kid's development," says Dr. Swearer. At this age, a kid acts less deliberately and is more likely to torment whichever child is around her at the moment.
By kindergarten, children begin to grasp the concept of social power among their peers, notes Elizabeth K. Englander, Ph.D., director of The Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University. That's when aggressive kids start to actively target others whom they see as vulnerable -- whether it's because they're shy, sensitive, small, or simply different.
Teachers tend to respond differently to a bully depending on his age. In preschool, they make an effort to instill kinder, gentler behavior. But by elementary school, their emphasis shifts toward protecting the victims. However, this overlooks the fact that it's not too late to reform a budding bully, says Dr. Swearer. "Some kids need guidance with conflict resolution well into middle and high school."
While teachers do their best to control bullying, they can't always be there to witness or prevent it. School administrators may not even be aware that bullying is occurring. Victims tend to keep quiet because they fear they might be treated even worse if they tattle. And in some cases, principals simply don't know how to deal with the problem. A recent national poll from the University of Michigan C. S. Mott Children's Hospital found that only 38 percent of parents would award their child's elementary school with an "A" grade when it comes to preventing bullying and violence; 16 percent rated their school a "C"; 6 percent a "D"; and 5 percent gave it a failing mark."
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The Right Steps to Deal with Bullying
Ultimately, it's up to you to help your young child deal with a bully. Be on the lookout for signs that something is bothering her, and gently encourage her to tell you about problems she's had with other kids. Then be ready to take the appropriate action.
- Talk to your child's teacher. If the harassment is happening at preschool or kindergarten, make administrators aware of the problem right away. Many schools have a specific protocol for intervening. When you report an incident, be specific about what happened and who was involved.
- Contact the offender's parents. This is the right approach only for persistent acts of intimidation, and when you feel these parents will be receptive to working in a cooperative manner with you. Call or e-mail them in a non-confrontational way, making it clear that your goal is to resolve the matter together. You might say something like, "I'm phoning because my daughter has come home from school feeling upset every day this week. She tells me that Suzy has called her names and excluded her from games at the playground. I don't know whether Suzy has mentioned any of this, but I'd like us to help them get along better. Do you have any suggestions?"
- Coach him to get help. No matter how your child is being targeted, fighting back usually isn't the best solution. Rather, teach him to walk away and seek help from a teacher or a supervising adult. To avoid being harassed on the school bus, suggest that he sit next to friends, since a bully is less likely to pick on a kid in a group. But you may need to get involved. When Karin Telegadis's daughter Grace started kindergarten, she had problems with a third-grader on her bus. "He gave Grace an 'Indian sunburn' and tried to make her kiss another boy," says Telegadis, of Princeton, New Jersey. When she learned that the boy had also bothered other kids, she complained to the school and asked the bus driver to keep an eye on him. He stopped misbehaving within two weeks.
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Encourage Positive Behavior
- Promote positive body language. By age 3, your child is ready to learn tricks that will make her a less inviting target. "Tell your child to practice looking at the color of her friends' eyes and to do the same thing when she's talking to a child who's bothering her," says Michele Borba, Ed.D., a Parents advisor and author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. This will force her to hold her head up so she'll appear more confident. Also practice making sad, brave, and happy faces and tell her to switch to "brave" if she's being bothered. "How you look when you encounter a bully is more important than what you say," says Dr. Borba.
- Practice a script. Rehearse the right way to respond to a tough kid (you might even use a stuffed animal as a stand-in) so your child will feel better prepared. Teach him to speak in a strong, firm voice -- whining or crying will only encourage a bully. Suggest that he say something like, "Stop bothering me!" or "I'm not going to play with you if you act mean." He could also try, "Yeah, whatever," and then walk away. "The key is that a comeback shouldn't be a put-down, because that aggravates a bully," says Dr. Borba.
- Erin Farrell Talbot, of New York City, prepped her 3-year-old son, Liam, on how to cope with two aggressive boys at day care. "We talked about how if one of them grabs his toy, he should say, 'No, stop! I'm playing with that!' in a loud voice," she says. "They stopped right away. I'm proud because he learned how to stick up for himself."
- Praise progress. When your child tells you how she defused a harasser, let her know you're proud. If you witness another child standing up to a bully in the park, point it out to your child so she can copy that approach. Above all, emphasize the idea that your own mom may have told you when you were a kid: If your child shows that she can't be bothered, a bully will usually move on.
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Is Your Kid the Problem?
When your child is the one teasing and threatening, you need to take action right away -- not just for the sake of the victims but to nip this behavior in the bud. If you're unsure, watch for these warning signs:
- She's impulsive and gets very angry quickly.
- He takes out his frustration by hitting or pushing other kids.
- She hangs out with other kids who behave aggressively.
- He fights bitterly or physically with his siblings.
- She has difficulty understanding how her actions affect others.
- He gets into trouble at school frequently.
If one or more of the above fits your child, have him practice techniques, such as taking deep breaths or counting to ten, to help control his negative emotions. When you see your child acting in a hurtful way, tell him to stop, remove him from the situation, and then talk about what he can do instead next time. However, if your efforts don't make a dent in his behavior, ask your doctor to recommend an appropriate mental-health professional.
Originally published in the October 2010 issue of Parents magazine.
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