How Do I Tell Another Child to Stop Picking on my Child?

Combatting those Mama Bear instincts is never easy. Especially when your kid's upset. advice columnist weighs in on how to handle a playground bully when other parents aren't around. 

illustration of mother blowing whistle and giving time out signal to kids
Photo: Illustration by Yeji Kim

Concerned Playground Mama

I was in the park teaching my 3-year-old daughter to ride her new bike when another girl, around 4 or 5, asked my daughter to ride with her. Since my daughter was just learning, she declined the invite. This girl told my daughter that she shouldn’t even have a bike if she doesn’t know how to ride. This happened four times as the other girl zipped through the park and crushed my daughter’s confidence. The other child’s parents were not there so I couldn’t speak with them. How do I tell another child to stop picking on my child?

— Concerned Playground Mama

Dear Concerned Playground Mama,

There’s nothing that gets the Mama Bear instinct revved up quicker than seeing your child getting picked on. That instinct is wired in our Mom brains for excellent evolutionary reasons—to protect our vulnerable DNA-bearers. If we pause for a second, though, we know this older child picking on our child is NOT a saber-toothed tiger threatening the life of our young. So after a deep breath to calm down and hold back a response that might get us in trouble in civilized society, what should we DO with this older child?

As a child psychologist, I’m very aware of the many reasons a child may act the way they do, and those reasons have nothing to do with wanting to be mean or hurtful to another child. A child may have neurological differences like being more impulsive than most children, having difficulty understanding social cues, or having delays that mean they are functioning younger than their actual age and appearance. Remembering all of this helps me think more as a coach than a fired-up Mama Bear.

Not only is this an opportunity to teach a child in the moment, but it’s also a chance for my own child to watch and learn. If I follow my first primal instinct, my child would likely watch me do something I wouldn’t want her to repeat later! If I manage the situation calmly, then my child also feels safer and less distressed.

Even if the other child looks a little older and bigger, they are still a child learning the ways of the world. In the case of not seeing their parent around to check in with first, you want to approach the child in a way that doesn’t turn all the grown-ups’ heads at the playground!

To get the older child’s attention in a way to help them actually listen, kneel down at eye level and say who you are and why you are talking to them: “I’m that kid’s mom (pointing to be clear), and it looks like she’s upset after what just happened.” Even if you’re pretty sure it’s a cut and dry case of your poor baby being wronged, a show of curiosity instead of anger can be powerful: “I’m not sure I saw the whole thing. I wonder what happened?”

Then you use the child’s answer in your Mom Jedi-mind-trick way to turn it back to the message you want to deliver: “Oh, I saw this happen, and when you say those things to other kids, they are not going to want to play. If you do want to play and have fun, use nicer words and that will work out better.”

Even if you are not making monumental changes in this one interaction, at the very least, you are slowing it down and helping both children simply stop and think. The bigger, older child knows you are watching and paying attention, and will likely skip away to leave your child in peace.

An even more satisfying possibility is finding out the other child wanted to play or have fun with your child and made a mistake. Giving that child the opportunity and gentle coaching on how to get your child’s attention in a more positive way can be a meaningful moment for everyone.

We talk about how raising children “takes a village.” In this scenario of an older child picking on our child, we can be that village and treat the other child how we would want ours to be treated, all while keeping our primitive Mom brain in check.

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Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

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