How to Handle Preschool Bullies
Protect your child from bullying at daycare or preschool
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 School -- How 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.