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How to Handle Preschool Bullies

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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..."

Whoa there, little fella, back up. Back way up. A bully? In a preschool class of 3- and 4-year-olds? Don't bullies have to be older—or at least capable of opening their own milk at snack time? I scrutinized the image of the brown-haired, blue-eyed boy standing in the back row in the photograph. He wasn't scowling, and he didn't have Bluto-like muscles bulging underneath his ordinary little T-shirt. The "bully" didn't look like a bully at all; he looked like a little kid.

Still, the mama bear in me wanted to march right over to the school, grab that pup by the scruff of his neck and tell him that if he kept harassing my kid, he wouldn't live to see his fifth birthday. Rest assured, I did no such thing. But my protective impulse was fueled by Kevin's stories of being banned from the playground pirate fort and pinched during circle time. Maybe not life-threatening things, but definitely not nice either. And as it turns out, my son is not alone.

Not too young to be a bully

With school bullying consistently in the media spotlight, most parents are aware that it's a serious problem. That's encouraging—but we're forgetting about our youngest and most vulnerable age group, the toddler and preschool crowd.

We once thought these kids were too young for the kind of tormenting we associate with bullying. But sadly, that's just not true—and because little-kid bullying is so surprising to many parents, it's not noticed as readily as in older kids, says Henry D. Schlinger, Ph.D., director of the applied behavior analysis program at California State University at Los Angeles. Adults dismiss it as "kids being kids."

It doesn't have to be that way, and that kind of attitude ignores the very real developmental leaps kids make in late toddlerhood. Before age 3, kids don't have the cognitive ability to feel empathy, says Brenda Nixon, a mom, former preschool teacher, and author of The Birth to Five Book. So a child might hurt another kid emotionally or physically, but he doesn't really get how that feels to his playmate. You can't really say that he's being mean. 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.

The reasons kids bully vary, says Schlinger. "Often kids this age are imitating behavior they've seen before" from a parent, sibling or friend, he says. Other kids turn to bullying to get attention, either from adults or peers. Still others bully for more complex reasons. "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."

Too often, parents and even teachers take a wait-and-see approach with preschoolers. That's not helping anyone—the bullied kid or the bully. "The problem with ignoring smaller incidents is that intervention doesn't happen until it reaches a crisis point or someone gets hurt," says Schlinger. Ouch! I was guilty of this. Before showing me his school picture, my son had told me time and time again that a boy was "bothering" him, and I'd dismissed it.

But when is it just a fight?

Here's how experts define bullying: It's intentionally aggressive behavior, usually involving an imbalance of power and repeated over time. It can be:

  • verbal (put-downs, taunts, name-calling)
  • physical (pushing, kicking, punching)
  • relational (rumors, social rejection, exclusion)

Not all confrontational behavior can or should be defined as bullying, though. Kids are active and impulsive, and they're going to have spur-of-the-moment scuffles, friendship spats and wrestling matches that occasionally get out of hand. Everyday play-related conflict can make kids stronger because they learn through experience how to compromise, negotiate, and forgive.

Bullying, on the other hand, does the exact opposite. It systematically undermines kids' self-esteem; whether it's 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.

One way to tell the difference between conflict and bullying is to look at intent. A playmate might accidentally cause harm during a "That's mine!" "No! I saw it first!" tug-of-war over a shovel in the sandbox. A bully, on the other hand, might snatch the shovel away and tell the other child that she'll throw sand in her face if she tries to get the shovel back. One possible sign of a bully? He's smiling during a dispute, says Barbara Coloroso, author of The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander: From Preschool to High SchoolHow 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.

Another sign to watch for is sneakiness or secretive behavior: A bully doesn't want grown-ups to catch him in the act, so he'll carry out his bullying covertly; he knows what he's doing isn't right. Also, 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. When 3-year-old Dayna Donovan tried to join another group of girls running around the playground equipment, they deliberately ran away from her, says her mom, Suzanne, of Bedford, MA. To Suzanne's dismay, Dayna kept running after the girls. They taunted Dayna and told her she wasn't allowed to go down the slide, and threw wood chips on it when she attempted to slide down. "My heart broke when I could see from the look on her face that she understood what was going on," says Donovan. "Those little girls were being downright mean."

Bullying can be hard to identify because it can spark bad behavior from the "good" kid, too. Brisja Riggins's 3-year-old son, Brown, was taunted mercilessly by a boy in his nursery-school class. The boy would chant "Browny towny, Browny towny, Browny towny" over and over, until finally Brown got so angry and frustrated that he struck back and got in trouble. "There's only so much taunting a little boy can take before he's pressed beyond his ability to behave," says the Fredericksburg, VA, mom. That's where you come in.

How to protect your child

Delilah Mason, a Hudson, NH, mom of two girls, was angry and upset when she discovered one of her daughters was repeatedly being bullied (bossed around and shoved). "I felt that I had failed her as a parent by not being able to protect her and by not preparing her for this situation," she says. Here's what a parent can do:

STEP ONE: Find out what's going on

If you suspect it (see "Is Your Kid Being Bullied?" above), 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: No matter what your child tells you, even if it makes your blood boil, keep that mama bear under control and 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 shouldn't 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. It's a great way to help a little kid learn, and it'll boost your child's confidence. Tactics she can try:

  • Stand tall and act brave. Sometimes just acting as if the bully doesn't bother you can stop him. Tell the bully "Knock it off!" or "Stop that!" in a loud voice and walk away.

  • Ignore the bully. Some experts believe that if you don't give him attention, he'll eventually stop.

  • Stick with friends. Bullies try to isolate certain kids so they can pick on them. As the saying goes, there's safety in numbers. If your child doesn't have many friends, try to help her make some through new playdates or activities.

  • Tell an adult. The best way to stay safe is to tell a grown-up what's happening. If you're not there, she should go to the teacher.

STEP THREE: Take action yourself

If your child attends daycare, nursery school or preschool, set up a meeting with the teacher or caregiver. She may be unaware of the situation—and that's not necessarily a sign of a bad teacher, just of a good bully. 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 and you know the parent fairly well, you could try talking to her. Say, "Our kids aren't getting along very well. Have you noticed?" Don't be surprised if she seems unconcerned about it. Often, parents are in denial or don't see their child's behavior as problematic (as the proverb goes, "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree"). Sometimes the best solution may be to avoid that child or find a new playground.

What did I do about Kevin's bully? Believe it or not, we invited him over. I told Kevin that deep down most bullies were just regular kids who wanted to be liked and have friends, just like he did (which, at this young age, is true). I asked Kevin how the kids at school treated the bully, and he said, "Everyone runs away from him." Then I asked what he thought about inviting the boy over. I told him I would be there the entire time (to be honest, I couldn't wait to see this kid in action), and that if he still acted like a bully at the playdate, at least we'd both know that we'd tried to be kind and forgiving. That one-on-one playdate changed the dynamic between them. The boys didn't wind up best buddies (sorry, no Hallmark ending here), but the bullying did stop. And while I might not recommend this course of action for older kids, with little ones it can be effective (even if the only positive outcome is that you gain better insight into the problem).

Don't get me wrong; the time when Kevin was being bullied was heart-wrenching, but in hindsight I'm not sorry we had to deal with it. Most kids will face bullying at some point, and now Kevin's ready to deal with it again if he has to. Plus, the experience made him a stronger little kid—and me a wiser mama bear.

Is your kid being bullied?

There were signs that my son was being bullied—I just didn't recognize them. Here's what to watch for:

  • Your child loved preschool but now doesn't 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 doesn't 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 pediatrician if there's a therapist you can see. It's worrisome behavior, 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 doesn't 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

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