When Babies Bully: 6 Tips to Bully-Proof Young Children
My five year old daughter came home from the first week of Kindergarten saying that another girl, we'll call her Georgia, spat on her on the bus. My daughter was confident enough to tell Georgia to stop. Georgia continues to calls out my daughter's name but, as my daughter says, "I think she's too immature since she's still spitting on other kids. So, I just ignore her."
Kids as young as three are picking on other children, making fun of them, excluding them, and even assaulting them.
Dr. Steven Pastyrnak, Division Chief of Psychology at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital in Grand Rapids, MI believes that “kids are becoming more aware of individual differences at an earlier age than in the past. Perhaps this is due to increased access to social media, more mature themes in the shows they watch or a parenting trend to be more permissive of kids.”
Even first graders have developed the sophisticated psychological warfare of social ostracism, as Melissa Taylor (Imagination Soup) found out when her daughter's peers started "locking her out" from playing at recess. Despite contacting the ringleader’s mother and the school, Melissa’s daughter “ended up reading instead of playing at recess that year.”
If bullying is a problem that starts earlier than ever before, how do we bully-proof our kids?
1. Define bullying:
Very young kids tend to latch onto words and phrases without a deeper understanding of their meanings. How can we expect kids to stand up to and report bullying if they do not know what it is? Dr. Deborah Gilboa of AskDoctorG.com suggests making a two-column list with the headers "Friendship is..." and "Bullying is..." Use children’s shows or books as springboards for conversation and have the child illustrate behaviors you discuss on the chart.
2. Keep communication open:
Dr. Pastyrnak recommends that parents and teachers routinely ask, “How are you getting along with your classmates?” He explains, “Kids do not necessarily seek out help on their own, nor should they always be expected to.”
Michelle Anthony, author of Little Girls Can Be Mean, suggests sharing what you “notice” with your child: “Say, ‘I notice that after you play with this friend, you have a stomach ache or go lie down in your room.’ Sometimes they do not notice until we do.”
Denise Daniels, a developmental psychologist, also recommends clarifying “the difference between reporting bullying behavior and tattling on peers”.
3. Do your research:
While it can be tempting to charge right into the school and demand the bullying be stopped immediately, Anthony recommends a more holistic approach. As long as no one is in immediate danger, Anthony says the first step is to observe the dynamics of your child’s social interactions. Anthony adds that this is a good time to involve the classroom teacher in a “proactive and productive way”. A parent can say, “I'm trying to understand the dynamic. Can you help me?”
4. Model and guide problem solving:
Many experts recommend building up your child’s own social skill-set as the best long term bully-proofing solution.
Anthony urges parents: “Resist the urge to fix. Slow down and back-up and try to understand the situation from a child's perspective.”
Anthony shared an example of a seven year old in a dysfunctional friendship: “You could just forbid the friendship but then you have missed the opportunity to teach skills. You’re working against your child instead of giving her the tools she needs … to recognize unhealthy relationships and make new friends.”
Instead, brainstorm a list of possible solutions, writing down every possible response, no matter how outlandish. According to Anthony, this process not only validates your child’s ideas but also shows her “this impossible problem has a whole bunch of possible solutions.”
When a Pre-K classmate called Stacie’s (The Divine Miss Mommy) daughter’s outfit a "baby shirt", Stacie allowed her child to toss the top in the garbage. “After we all left the kitchen, she went back and got it out. She told me later that it wasn't the shirt [that was the problem] but that girl at school, who wasn't being very nice.”
Remember that modeling problem solving is an ongoing process. As Anthony points out, these are not inherently easy skills.
5. Support the solution:
Once you have narrowed down the list of possible solutions to a few workable ones, allow your child to decide where to begin. Anthony says that children will almost always start with the smallest steps but this is essential in building their confidence.
Very young children will likely need adult support in taking these steps. Jessica (Look Who Found the Marbles) had nothing but praise for the way her second grade son’s principal handled a recent issue. Two of his friends were “heckling” him for reading on the bus. Because the adults involved listened instead of jumping in to fix, they found out that the two friends couldn’t chat because Jessica’s son was sitting in the aisle. Now, when her son wants to read, he sits by the window and his two friends can talk to each other.
Because most kids spend a big part of the day in school, you will most likely need teachers, principals, and coaches on your anti-bullying team.
Who is not part of that team? The parents of the other child. Anthony explains, “I am often asked when to contact the other child’s parents and my answer is: almost never. Unless you have an established relationship, go through school or other adult instructors.”
6. Teach the golden rule:
A few friends on Facebook were discussing some pretty horrific bullying incidents and directing a lot of anger towards the aggressive kids. Experts, however, hesitate to label very young children as “bullies”.
“Before the age of eight,” explains Anthony, “children are egocentric. They think that the way they think and feel is the way everyone thinks and feels. They cannot take multiple perspectives unless guided. They literally cannot preview how their actions will affect others.”
While it may not be much comfort to know that your child’s classmate did not foresee how hurtful her actions would be, understanding this can help diffuse the situation. Dr. G recommends acknowledging the aggressor’s feelings while being assertive: “Emphasize pushing the focus back on the child who is behaving badly. Keep these sentences simple and easy to remember, like ‘I'm sorry you're having a bad day, but don't be mean to me!’”
Natalie (Great Contradictions) used this technique to help her kindergartener son transform himself from victim to “upstander”: “He had really bad separation anxiety until we dealt with it. I told him: ‘Just look [the other child] in the eyes, tell him you don’t like that, and then ask him to play.’ At the bully’s birthday, my son was the only one to show up. They may not be best friends, but my son being direct and nice changed the tone of the relationship.”