Baby Bullies or Lessons on Friendship?


It seems that talk of bullying is everywhere right now, and for good reason.  The statistics are staggering, the lack of response is concerning, and kids simply don’t know where to turn to get help.  When tragic stories hit the news, awareness is raised.  And while awareness is a crucial first step toward making great change, it can also cause parents to panic.

Although it seems that some parents sweep bullying under the carpet, others seem to be looking for it around every corner.  I can’t blame them.  When you hear the stories about kids who were taunted and teased for months and years with little support from the school – you shudder.  The truth is that no one is immune to bullying, and that’s a scary fact for parents to face.

But not every child who teases a few times is a bully and not every negative peer interaction is part of a larger problem.  Sometimes kids just don’t get along.

I’ve heard a few stories about “preschool bullying” lately.  When one child struggles in preschool, parents seem to quick to label that child a bully.  And while I agree that bullying can and does happen in the sandbox, I worry that we might be too quick to slap a label on children when what is really needed is help.

Preschoolers are impulsive by nature.  When you look beyond the race to academic excellence for just a moment, you are reminded that the purpose of preschool is socialization.  It’s a first school experience – a time to learn to relate to others.  Yes, there are letters, numbers, and a little bit of writing thrown in for good measure.  But preschool, when you really break it down, is about learning social skills.

Before we start labeling kids bullies, we might want to step back for a moment and refocus our efforts on teaching social interaction skills.

Bullying, by definition, consists of an imbalance of power.  It includes unwanted, aggressive behavior and is repetitive in nature.

Impulsive behavior seen in preschoolers can include hitting, biting, yelling, kicking, and grabbing.  It might seem as though one child is targeting another, but it’s important to address the social skills before labeling a child.

Teach empathy:

We can’t simply expect young children to think about others before they act, we have to teach them to do so.  We have to use simple language to illustrate what happens when one friend hurts another.  “When you kicked John it hurt him and he thought you didn’t want to be his friend.  Kicking hurts.”  Long explanations are generally lost on preschoolers, but short and to the point helps them connect the dots.  “When you say you’re sorry, John knows that you care about him.  When you help him up, he feels happy.”  Kicking hurts but helping feels better.  That’s a lesson a preschooler can internalize.

Basic rules:

Most preschools have a few basic rules for kids to follow.  Look around the classroom or ask the teacher to find out what rules are being followed at school and reinforce them at home.  Consistency is essential to internalizing positive behaviors.  When kids know what to expect and how to proceed, they feel confident and make positive choices.  Try to use the same language your child’s teacher uses when talking about friendship and feelings.

Increase the playdates:

If you feel that your child is being targeted by another child, playdates are probably not at the top of your to-do list.  The truth is that preschoolers need practice when it comes to being a good friend.  While they have time to socialize in the classroom, they also need smaller group play to work on the fine details of sharing, keeping their hands and feet to themselves, and using friendly words and voice tone.  **Note:  Preschool playdates require close supervision – put the smartphone away!

Saying no:

There are times when kids need to use a strong voice to say “no”.  When kids are taught to say “no” in a firm voice when others are hurting them, they are more likely to stand up for themselves.  Role play (or use puppets to illustrate) different scenarios when it is acceptable to say no.  Don’t just talk about it, show your child how to use body language and a firm voice.

Getting help:

Somes kids are quiet and prefer to fly under the radar.  These kids might be reluctant to seek help when something goes wrong at preschool.  Encourage your child to signal the teacher when he needs help, and help him practice asking for help.  Again, use role play or puppets to actually show your child how to seek help.

And, by all means, don’t expect your preschooler to advocate for herself just because you practiced.  Ask for a meeting or phone call with the teacher so that you can share your concerns and figure out a plan.

Talk to the other parents:

If there is a problem between your child and another, talk to the parent.  Reach out and try to problem solve.  You never do know what someone else is dealing with until communicate.

Increase the compliments:

Compliment your child often and teach her that compliments make others feel good.  Practice complimenting other people and point out the smiles that people have after being complimented.

Read a few books:

There are some great books available that address early friendship skills.  Get them.  Read them often.  Keep increasing your social skills library!  Below are a few of my favorites (but I could go on for days):



About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)