Bullying gets a lot of attention in middle school and high school, but it’s often overlooked in the early years, especially between the ages of two and five. Yet, these early years are an important time to teach children how to relate with their peers. In fact, instilling empathy and fostering social skills early can prevent behavior problems that may escalate into bullying later in life.
What’s more, researchers have found that younger children are more likely than older kids to inflict direct aggression on their peers. Direct aggression includes face-to-face actions like name-calling, making fun or someone’s hair or clothes, hitting, pushing, pinching and so on. Consequently, it’s never too young to address bullying.
But there are some things to keep in mind. Remember, kids at this age are still learning how to get along with others. They’re less experienced at cooperative play and problem solving. So, not all aggressive actions or mean comments constitute bullying.
In fact, it’s natural for kids this age to resort to aggressive behaviors in order to deal with situation. They may yell, call names, push and shove or even ostracize other kids from their group. This doesn’t mean this behavior is always bullying, but it also doesn’t mean it should be ignored either.
For bullying prevention to be effective, it’s crucial that parents and teachers address these behaviors immediately before they become habits. When aggressive behaviors are left unaddressed, they pave the way for bullying later in life.
Instead, help your kids learn how to respond to difficult situations in productive ways. By doing so you not only will be preventing bullying behavior, but you also will be helping them make friends and get along with others – two vital components of bullying prevention. Here are some ideas on what you can do now to prevent bullying later in life.
Address feeling management. Kids this age experience emotions in a big way. Whether it’s joy or fear, anger or happiness, everything is felt strongly by young children. As a result, it’s important that you teach your kids how to handle their emotions. Start by giving your kids words to express how they are feeling.
It also helps to give them constructive ideas for how to release those emotions. For example, it’s helpful to teach your kids how to calm down or relax. Counting or taking deep breaths sometimes works for kids, while others might benefit from taking a time out and going to a quiet place until they can calm down.
The key is to find constructive ways for them to deal with their emotions. But remember, it’s not helpful to encourage them to ignore, hide or deny their feelings. Instead, let them know it’s OK to get angry, but it’s not OK to hurt someone when they are angry.
Teach empathy. One way to teach empathy is by modeling the behavior. If you are kind, compassionate and able to recognize the feelings of others, your children will learn to do the same. But it’s also important to take opportunities to teach empathy as well. For instance, be sure to explain to your kids how other people might feel in different situations. An elderly neighbor might feel lonely or a neighbor might feel sad when their dog is lost. And lastly, if they are responsible for hurting another child’s feelings, be sure you help them see that.
Encourage problem solving. Hitting other children, throwing toys and yelling will not solve problems with playmates and the sooner your kids learn that, the better off they will be. Instead, encourage your kids to talk about what is going on and why they are upset. Be sure you prompt them to use words instead of physical actions. For example, if two boys want to play with the same toy, teach them to vocalize that they both think the toy looks fun and that they both want to play with it. So the best possible solution is to take turns. It is a lot of work to help kids through situations like this, but in the end, teaching effective problem solving is well worth the effort.
Foster friendships. Kids need to be around other children in order to develop socially. So invite friends over for play dates, join moms’ groups and participate in outside activities. Not only are you giving your child a chance to make friends, but you also are preventing bullying when you do so. Kids who have at least one solid friend will be less likely to be bullied. So instill friendship-making skills at an early age.
Provide opportunities for practice. When you do have other children over to play, plan some organized games that encourage the kids to listen, share and work together. Depending on your child’s age, it can something as simple as rolling a ball to one another or red light, green light. You’ll also want to allow them to play some on their own. But be sure to step in to help when they have trouble sharing, taking turns or cooperating.
Celebrate diversity. Be sure your children know that being different is not a bad thing. Talk about different cultures and beliefs and how everyone is different. Kids will take their cues from adults when it comes to accepting other people. If you are judgmental, then your children will learn to be judgmental.
Instill assertiveness. Kids need to learn that it’s acceptable to say "no thank you" when faced with something they don’t want to do. They also need to feel comfortable in speaking up about how they are being treated. Teach young children that’s acceptable to say "stop it" if someone is hitting them or treating them in a way that makes them uncomfortable. It’s also a good time to teaching them about reporting mean behavior. Be careful not to call it tattling. If you teach kids at a young age not to "tattle" then they often learn not to report bullying behavior. Instead, take time to show them the difference between reporting and tattling.
Have a solid definition of bullying. It’s important that you know the difference between bullying and unkind actions. Not every mean thing a child does is bullying. But every mean act should be addressed. For something to be bullying, three components must be present – repetition, intentional actions and imbalance of power. If those things don’t exist it’s not bullying. Labeling everything as bullying dilutes the message and the significance of true bullying actions. So be careful that something truly is bullying before you label it as such.