I take my boys to an indoor playground once in a while. A few weeks ago, we were playing in the ball pit when one of my boys, Polar Bear, made a break for it (he’s a bit of a runner). I chase after him and on my way back through the mesh that separates us from my other son, Grizzly Bear, I see another boy push Grizzly Bear down to the ground.
Not only was I upset, but Grizzly Bear was devastated. It was our first negative encounter with another child. I probably reacted a little strongly by lecturing the other child before letting him leave, making him give an apology, but I learned very quickly that my child needed support and love before being able to interact with that child again.
Bullying or Dispute
Now, I’ve seen my two youngsters go at it over a toy, and at times, I’ve made an impeccable referee. But there is a difference between a dispute or fight between kids and an act which can be a form of bullying.
You may be thinking that children so young, within the preschool age category, could not possibly be bullies. They are just kids being kids, correct? Sadly, this isn’t the case, and all parents should be aware that kids three years and up have the cognitive ability to feel empathy, meaning they are able to understand another’s point of view, and meaning that they should know better. Please never dismiss an act of bullying as “kids being kids.” Ignoring it will certainly have an effect on the victim, as they are extremely vulnerable to confidence and self-esteem issues, as well as the bully, who will likely develop issues regarding any kind of friendship or relationship in later years. Intervention is required during the smallest of incidents, not only to prevent immediate escalation, but to teach lessons and prevent life-long issues.
So how to recognize bullying? Not all confrontation is a form of bullying. Kids are impulsive and have disputes over objects all of the time. They have wrestling matches and friendship squabbles. My two kids are the best of friends one day and the worst of enemies the next. These forms of disputes make kids stronger, help them learn the ins and outs of relationships, and teach them compromise and forgiveness. However, bullying does the exact opposite. Bullying lowers self-esteem and confidence through systematic acts of aggression such as negative physical or verbal behaviour.
To determine if an action was a form of bullying or not, the best way is to scrutinize the intent of the action. Tug-of-war over a toy is purely for the possession of the toy. Stealing the toy and threatening further harm after possession of the toy implies the child intends harm. If two children are squabbling and both are upset, that is likely conflict. If one child inflicts harm and smiles while doing it, that’s bullying, a very serious kind in fact.
Sneaky or secretive behaviour also implies bullying. This signals that the child knows he is doing something wrong and does not wish to be caught. Recruiting other children to aid in the negative act, such as shunning, is also a sign of bullying.
It’s also hard to recognize bullying if the victim strikes back. If after being taunted, the child retaliates, it is hard to identify if the confrontation was a squabble between the two or a reaction from the victim.
To learn more, click here.
Discussing Bullying with Your Child
The ball pit incident was a very minor event in comparison to systematic bullying, but knowing that children are very vulnerable at all ages, I felt setting up a structured course of events expected to occur even after a small event would help him in later situations. Therefore, I showed and completed actions that would follow greater bullying experiences (click here).
The important thing to do after your child experiences any bullying is to listen to him. I witnessed what happened but it was still crucial that Grizzly Bear should talk about what happened and know that I cared about his account of the story. He was given the opportunity to tell me everything that was on his mind, and feel and know that it was okay to show his emotions. I helped him recount the story by trying to summarize the event (as he is still quite young and doesn’t have the vocabulary to identify everything that occurred), praised him for not retaliating, and let him know that I would do everything I could to help and support him.
After he had successfully told me everything he felt he needed to share, and letting him know he did the right things, I proceeded to give him a few other pointers on what he could do the next time it occurred. I told him to stand tall and tell the bully to go away in a loud voice. Just acting brave and drawing attention to the situation is sometimes all it takes to discourage a bully. I even had him practice on me a few times. I also told him to tell an adult right away. It’s the best way to get support and stay safe. Other ideas I will share with him as he grows are to ignore bullies as some bullies only act a certain way to get attention, and to stick with friends to avoid being isolated with a bully.
Grizzly Bear did encounter the same boy again during our playdate together. I did notice his stance seemed stronger and he did stand taller, eyes narrowed in, and the other boy did keep his distance. I admit to being mother vulture hovering over the situation (while Polar Bear made another attempt at freedom), but was endlessly proud of my son, and told him so later in the car.
Discussing Bullying with Your Preschool/Dayhome
After discussing bullying with your child, it’s important to bring the situation to the attention of the other adults involved. If that involves an organization, set up a meeting with the teacher or dayhome staff. Calmly present your concerns and be specific about your knowledge of the facts. If the others are unaware of the situation, it’s not necessarily a sign of a bad caregiver, just a good bully. Ask for the caregivers views, the plan going forward, and the organization’s teachings on emotions and treating others. By being assertive, not accusatory, you will likely see the ultimate result, a safe place for your child. Additionally, keep in touch with the caregiver. While picking up your child, ask how everything went that day. This will keep tabs on the situation and let your child know he has your full support.
The child that pushed Grizzly Bear was unaccompanied by an adult in the ball pit. I did watch him for some time move about the jungle gym. He knew I was watching him and deliberately avoided his parents so that I would not know who they were. It was about 25 minutes before he finally made contact with them and I did go over to tell them what I had seen. Fortunately, his mother was a very kind woman, very embarrassed about the situation, and did correct it by having a talk with her son. I could tell my son was watching me and felt better emotionally. He also seemed to understand the consequences of being a bully were negative, which I felt was a fringe benefit of the event.
Recognizing the Signs
After reading this blog and you’re not quite sure if this applies to you or your child, here are some things to think about while reminiscing about past conversations you’ve shared. Preschool children can’t quite articulate what they are going through (and older kids just don’t want to for that matter). A few scenarios that may indicate your child is facing bullying outside of the home are: previously liking preschool or dayhome but now he no longer wants to attend, even making excuses not to go; no longer wanting to play with a child he used to; says that a child is bothering him or bugging him; suddenly becomes fearful, clingy, quiet, or depressed; makes negative comments about himself; or, cannot explain bruises or marks on his skin.
Similarly, here are a few scenarios that may indicate your child is being a bully: your child likes feeling powerful and in control of situations, often telling adults what to do; he is quick to resort to anger or aggression; he does not apologize and feels he has not done anything wrong; he shows little empathy for others; or, he has shown aggression towards adults.
If you feel like your child may be a bully, don’t fret. There are methods to improving a child’s behaviour and helping him move away from negative actions. Firstly, talk to him about playtime and continually remind him what it is like to feel someone else’s feelings. Empathy may be a great way to discourage bullying. Discuss consequences such as other children not wanting to play with him and how teachers will view him. Always make your child correct wrong actions. If he stole something, make him give it back and apologize. If he pushed someone, make him give them a hand up and apologize. Always praise his positive actions and encourage new and existing relationships.
I’m sure Grizzly Bear knows his personal vulture won’t be around forever, but I feel he is confident with his new tools to discourage bullies and his support network at home. If your child indicates not liking another child or not liking a certain place, don’t dismiss it, follow up on it. It could be their little kid way of identifying a bullying situation. Give them the tools and support they need to prevent and diffuse negative situations. Then follow up with the other adults involved.
If you need further help to prevent bullying, Alberta has helplines and online chats with trained counsellors. Find them here.
Likewise, call on your social support network. If you are surrounded by love and support, so is your child.