We all know that bullying can start at frighteningly young ages—the behaviors can show up as early as preschool. But even little kids can be taught lessons that help prevent the problem from getting worse, says Ingrid Donato, the co-lead in bullying prevention at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): "The preschool age is so incredibly pivotal."
It's crucial to spot what Donato calls "pre-bullying behavior"—actions like grabbing toys away, pushing kids, or isolating them from group play. While this isn't technically bullying (which is defined by StopBullying.gov as an imbalance of power, whether physical, emotional, or social, exerted repeatedly) these behaviors need to be stopped early on.
For example, if you have an overly aggressive child, it's important to intervene when hisactions are harmful, and explain why the behavior is unacceptable. Then come up with solutions—like steering him toward high-octane activities to burn off extra energy. If your child is on the receiving end of bullying behaviors, Donato suggests arranging for her to spend time with a more confident child, who can act as a role model.
But strategies aren't always enough. To help parents deal with these situations, and just in time for Bullying Prevention Awareness Month, SAMHSA has released KnowBullying, an app for iPhone and Android that provides parents, educators, and caregivers with information on how to effectively communicate about bullying with kids. "We were finding out from the research that kids were reluctant to talk to adults about bullying," Donato explains. "One of the reasons was they weren't confident that the adults would know what to do. And when we talked to parents, we learned they were very nervous about talking with their kids because they didn't know what to say."
The app has conversation starters to discuss bullying with kids, broken down by age. Suggestions for ages 3 to 6 include: "Share one thing that happened today," "What makes you angry? What do you do when you're angry?" or "What rules do you follow at school? Why?" These questions don't deal directly with bullying, but they do help children talk about situations that could progress to bullying.
"We found one of the most powerful ways to reduce the effects of bullying as kids get older—as well as many other negative things that could happen—was to have supportive, regular, engaging conversations with an adult," Donato says. That may seems like a small step, but it's an important one that KnowBullying hopes to inspire parents everywhere to take.
Image courtesy of SAMHSA.