No parent sets out to raise a child who is unkind, and yet most of us have seen our kids engage in behaviors that seem breathtakingly cruel. Preschoolers rip toys out of each other’s hands. Tweens gossip. The siblings you hoped would support each other now fight so often, you’re a full-time referee.
Some of that is just growing up. Little kids lash out because they haven’t learned self-control. Older kids are thrown into complex social environments with relatively little control. Childhood can be really hard, and sometimes kids can, simply put, act like jerks.
The challenge for parents is figuring out whether a child’s unkind or aggressive behavior ― while perhaps not ideal ― is developmentally appropriate, or whether it’s a possible red flag.
“Our job as parents is not just to look out for protecting our kids from others, but also to make sure they’re engaging in appropriate behavior,” said Amanda Nickerson, director of the University at Buffalo’s Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention.
To start, parents need to know what bullying is.
Bullying is generally defined as behavior that is unwanted and aggressive, that involves a real or perceived imbalance of power, and that happens repeatedly. It’s important that bullying has emerged as a global public health issue, but experts say there is also now a tendency to use the term casually.
“We’ve become sloppy with the language,” said Sherryll Kraizer, author of “10 Days to a Bully-Proof Child” and founder of the child safety nonprofit Coalition for Children. “Bullying is not, ‘Billy was mean to me.’ Bullying is a deliberate, repeated act of aggression of some sort; it might be emotional aggression.”
That is different from conflict, which is an especially common part of early childhood. With conflict, there’s no power difference. Both parties are disagreeing over something ― like, I was playing with this first, and that’s not fair. Teachers sometimes get frustrated when parents classify typical day-to-day conflicts as bullying, Nickerson said.
How we talk about this is important, because it can help parents discern if and when their own child’s behavior is outside the norm. It also sets off a different chain of events for how schools deal with a particular child or incident. And it sends a message to kids: Labeling a child a “bully” is a big deal, and if they hear themselves described that way ― as opposed to something like, “He’s struggling to get along with other kids in a way that’s cooperative” ― there’s a risk it becomes almost a self-fulfilling part of a child’s persona, Kraizer said.
Look out for intentionality and repetition.
“Bullying is intentional aggressive behavior,” Nickerson said. “It usually happens over and over again, so that kind of pattern of behavior is definitely a concern.”
Get in the habit of asking short, specific and direct questions about how your child’s day went. Ask about places where bullying often happens, like the playground, the bus, or, if they’re a bit older, online. Say things like: “What did you do on the playground today?” “Who’d you play with?” “Who do you sit with?”
Then, as much as your schedule allows for it, try and directly watch your kids as they interact with other children. This can help you get a sense of these questions of intentionality and repetition.
“What we hear from them may or may not reflect what’s really happening,” Nickerson said. Watching can help.
If your kids are being unkind to others, talk to them about how it feels.
“Power feels good, and it’s self-reinforcing, so you have to call it for what it is, and compare it to the cost on the other side,” Kraizer said. She noted she’s surprised by how seldom we talk to kids honestly about what it feels like when they’re acting out.
For example, your preschooler might having a hard time sharing. You can acknowledge that it might feel good to get the toy they want by grabbing it from a friend’s hand ― and that it might even feel a little bit fun to give someone a hard time. Then ask: How do you think your friend felt?
The goal is to build up your kid’s awareness of the other child’s feelings, and to help them develop the skills they need to handle similar situations in a different way. You might say: Sure, it felt good to get that toy, but what are other ways you could go about it that wouldn’t make your friend feel really sad?
Tune in to their need to be “right.”
Bullying is about power and a need for control, Nickerson said, so that’s something to be aware of. Of course, many young kids insist they’re right when they’re clearly not, under many different circumstances. But does your child have a very strong desire to be right, so much so that it overrides all other behavior? “When they talk about other people, do they use derogatory or negative terms about others in that same vein of, ‘I’m right and everybody else is stupid, or ugly, or slow?’” Nickerson said.
None of these things by itself necessarily means your child is a bully. But they can be signs that you might need to intervene and do some work with them around empathy and language use.
Go to your kid’s teachers.
A good time to do that, unless it feels more urgent, is at the parent-teacher conference. “You might say, ‘I’m seeing some of this at home, and I just wonder if they’re doing it with their peers?’” Nickerson said. “Are there things you’re working on, or things I can help reinforce at home?” Teachers are around kids all day long, so they tend to have a sense of whether the behavior is something every kid does at that age, or whether it’s a potential issue.
Again, some degree of this is just normal childhood stuff, but you do want to be working to develop social skills and to establish boundaries when kids are toddlers, and really cementing them when they’re preschoolers, Kraizer says.
“Often, children who exhibit bullying behavior when they’re younger are just telling you, ‘I don’t know how to get what I want,’” she said. “Or, ‘I don’t know how to make friends.’ Or ‘I don’t know how to get the teacher’s attention beyond misbehaving.’” Teachers and parents are skill builders, not just managers of children’s behavior.
Be clear about what’s acceptable and what’s not.
As simple as it sounds, remember that it’s incredibly powerful to set clear, firm boundaries.
“You say, ‘This is unacceptable in our family. We do not treat people that way,’” Kraizer said. “Kids, especially young ones, are looking for, ‘Who are we? What’s acceptable to us?’”
Establishing clear boundaries also helps get at that question of intention. If your child is being aggressive and you haven’t necessarily been clear about where the lines are, perhaps they’re just confused. But if you have established clear, consistent boundaries, and they seem to be purposefully ignoring them, that is absolutely something to note.
“Bullying is really intentional and an abuse of power,” Nickerson said. “A child is using that power to hurt someone else, and it usually happens over and over again.”