Never too soon for Bullying - How to help your child

When we hear the term bullying, we imagine a group of teenagers using their physical power or popularity to harm other kids. However, bullying is not a middle-school problem, it could start much earlier and continue forever. While most parents are aware that bullying in school is a serious problem, new parents could be caught unaware when it manifests for very small children.  We want to protect our children, especially when they are very young. However, we have to let them step into the world beyond protective cocoons, and eventually without us to look out for them. 

Read on to find out more about this issue and how you can prepare your child to face it whether in preschools, day cares, playgrounds, or even within the family.

How to spot bullying?

Toddlers and preschoolers are exposed to different environments quite early. Playgrounds, preschools, day cares, or play dates are essential for their development. Our main concern when they are out and about is to protect them from hurting themselves physically. It may never cross our minds that someone might bully them, or even worse, they might bully someone. 

So, how to spot bullying?

Not all confrontational behavior is bullying, though. Kids are impulsive and yet to learn social skills like sharing. Minor scuffles and shouting matches are bound to happen. In fact, 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; can cause hurt feelings, fear, and anxiety.

Look out for these signs to identify bullying.

  • Intentional or Accidental: 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.
  • Are they enjoying or upset: If two kids are fighting over something and both boys are upset, that’s conflict. If a kid hits another and seems happy/unperturbed as the latter cries, that’s bullying. Not all bullies act this way, but most kids who do are bullies.
  • Sneakiness or secretive behavior: A bully doesn’t want grown-ups to catch them in the act, so they’ll carry out all the bullying covertly. As they know what they are doing isn't right.
  • Repetition and Behavioral Patterns: Bullies often identify triggering behaviors and single out targets to bully. Look out for the same kid repeating the same pattern to initiate the fight. 

Bullying can be hard to identify because it can spark bad behavior from the “good” kid, too. Be sure to assess the issue in its entirety before you intervene.

How early can it start?

Unfortunately, bullying cannot be wished away, so, it is important to understand and prepare rather than ignore and avoid it.

According to studies, before the age of 3, kids don’t have the cognitive ability to feel empathy. So, they cannot understand how their behavior affects their playmate. After 3, the brain slowly starts to develop empathy and causation, so that’s the age when purposeful aggressive behavior could begin.

Toddlers and preschoolers are like sponges and learn what they see. While they may pick up good habits, they could also learn hurtful or problematic behaviors. Kids may learn bullying from other bullies, at the playground, school, or at home. It could even come from well-meaning grown-ups scaring the kid with statements like - “I will take your mom away”. 

Other kids start bullying to get attention, either from adults or peers. Some kids might hurt other kids and find it funny. There could be so many sources, beyond our control, hence, early identification and dealing with the issue is essential.

Too often, parents and caregivers take the wait-and-see approach with preschoolers. They tend to ignore smaller incidents and do not intervene until it turns into a crisis or someone gets hurt. They fail to realize that this attitude is not helping anyone—the bullied kid or the bully.

You have identified bullying - how can you help?

1. If your child knows that you will always listen, they are more likely to share with you. Prioritize your relationship with your child, and keep those lines of communication open, no matter what.

2. Act on the concerns: If you notice problematic behavior and don’t do anything about it, eventually your child may stop sharing. This could also encourage the bully to repeat the behavior. It could be a tough conversation with the bully or their guardian, but your kid will feel reassured that there are consequences for bad behavior. 

3. Your child is learning from watching you, more than you can imagine. Find ways to assert your own needs or rights while maintaining respect for the other person, and model treating everyone with respect, even when you disagree.

4. Lookout for warning signs: Generally preschoolers and toddlers are accompanied by a grownup and more or less familiar faces. It is important for you to know the crowd and known bullies. Periodically speak with others to understand what is happening as your child may be too small to communicate effectively.  

5. Trust your instinct, if you suspect bullying, ask your kid open-ended questions, and don't push for answers. Young kids may not know to label everything but asking different types of questions may let a way through.

How to prepare our kids?

Toddlers and preschoolers are too young to be expected to handle the bullying all alone by themselves but we as parents can prepare the child for bullying.
  1. Teach them to be brave- Best done with personal examples, show them how to push back and voice out when uncomfortable. 
  2. Help them process the emotion, but also teach them to ignore bullies and let it not affect them. This deters them as they crave attention.
  3. Help them make friends through compassion and kindness to create a group that will stand by their side through thick and thin.
  4. Assure them that they can come to you to talk about anything and they will have your support. In cases when you are not available, they can reach out to their teachers. 

What if your child is displaying bullying behavior? 

Be kind to yourself, bullying could creep in from unexpected sources and it doesn’t reflect on your parenting. 

Bullying has consequences for bullies, more than anyone else. They may have a hard time forming real friendships, which can lead to problematic relationships as they grow up. 

We may be overlooking the symptoms, especially in our kids, thinking they are too young to start bullying. However, such behavior, if not noticed and corrected, can eventually encourage children to continue bullying in their later years.

Much of what to do if your child is being bullied is applicable if you find your child bullying as well. Open communications and involvement often help nip it in the bud. 

If you find your kid is bullying others- talk to them right away. Be sure to stay calm, avoid any shameful language, and show your concern—but make it clear bullying is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. 

Find out what exactly happened and speak to them about the importance of healthy friendships and how to not give in to peer pressure. You could also tell them about the consequences they will face if they continue and how eventually they might end up alone without any healthy relationships.

Bottom line:

Can you bully-proof your child? 

Unfortunately, no.

There will always be people and situations where your child may feel threatened.

You cannot insulate your child from unpleasant experiences, but you can support them to develop the awareness and skills to protect themself when necessary and to seek help when he's in over his head.

As the saying goes, You can't child-proof the world, you have to world-proof the child.

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