Are Preschool Bullies Really a Thing?

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A mom of a four-year-old reached out for help. Her daughter, it seemed, struggled to connect with her peers in her preschool. This mother explained that her daughter had a tendency to be “controlling” in that she preferred to play with one friend at a time and felt hurt when friends joined other groups. But she hoped that the preschool environment would help her daughter learn to play in groups.

Six months into preschool, her daughter came home in tears because another child called her a “bully.” Was her daughter acting like a bully? What could she do to prevent this behavior from happening again? She was concerned about her daughter’s behavior at school. But she was also concerned that her daughter was being labeled the classroom bully at age four.

Are preschool bullies really a thing?

Research shows that “relationally aggressive behavior” does occur among preschool children. And it is seen more in girls than boys.

Relational aggression (which can include gossip, excluding, threats to end a friendship, and building allies – to name a few) is a form of bullying. In preschool, however, we can’t ignore the fact that many kids lack sophisticated social skills. They will mimic what they hear and see at home, in the community, and in media. But what they need is help, not a label. Some of that behavior might very well be intentional. But putting preschoolers in a box and calling them bullies doesn’t actually teach them how to relate to their peers in a positive way.

If we take an honest look at these behaviors early on and help kids learn to use positive alternatives, we can set them on a course of empathy and compassion for others as they grow. Left unchecked, this behavior has the potential to increase (or at the very least remain constant) as kids enter elementary school and middle school. However, if we tackle this behavior head-on as it emerges and provide lessons in empathy and reasonable solutions, we change the course of childhood with a focus on positive relational skills.

Bullying doesn’t have to be a part of life that we simply accept. We can eradicate it, but we all need to work together to do so.

Talk about feelings.

Kids need to learn how to label and verbalize their emotions. These are essential building blocks of emotional development that can make the difference between lashing out in a relationally aggressive way (“If you don’t play with me I will never be your friend again!”) and working through their big feelings without hurting others in the process.

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Use feelings charts, role-play, and daily feelings check-ins to talk about emotions, what triggers different emotions, and how to cope with them.

Teach empathy.

It’s never too early (or too late!) to teach kids to think about how others feel, what others experience, and how it might feel to be in another person’s shoes. Resist the urge to comment that another child is being “mean”, or “isn’t a good friend”, or “is a bully.” Play detective, instead. Ask your child a few questions to help uncover the trigger beneath the behavior.

  • What was happening when your friend got upset?
  • How do you think she might have been feeling?
  • What was your role?

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I often tell kids (yes, even the littles) that when we zoom out and look at the scenario from a different perspective, we find that kids who hurt are also hurting. 

Discuss coping skills.

The preschool years can be a bit of an emotional roller coaster. Kids tend to experience shifting emotions. They can argue one moment and declare a best friendship the next. This is all part of normal child development. It’s also a great reason to work on coping skills early and often.

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What can your child do if a friend doesn’t accept a request to play? Can she join another group? Can she ask the teacher to help her join a group?

Preschool children sometimes blurt out hurtful responses when they’re feeling hurt. But if we help them learn to use “I feel” statements (ex: “I feel sad when I can’t find a friend” and consider solutions (ex: try another friend, join a group at play, ask for help) we teach them to replace negative responses with positive ones.

Have you had any experience with bullies?

What do you think?

Are Preschool Bullies Really a Thing?

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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