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How To Handle Preschool Bullies

Your first clue that something is up might be when your preschooler says, “Kids are mean to me.” Or “I hate so-and-so, and I don’t want to play with him anymore.”

In my case, the eye-opener was when my son, Kevin, brought home his preschool class picture. As he pointed from one smiling child to the next, he told me, “That’s Thomas, that’s Riley, that’s Jenny, that’s...” (ominous drumroll, please) “my bully, that’s...”

Whoa there, little fella, back up. Back way up. A bully? In a preschool class of 3- and 4-year-olds?
 
 
 

Not too young to be a bully

Because little-kid bullying is so surprising to many parents, it’s not noticed as readily as in older kids, says psychologist and author Henry D. Schlinger, PhD. Adults dismiss it as “kids being kids.”

“The problem with ignoring smaller incidents is that intervention doesn’t happen until it reaches a crisis point or someone gets hurt,” says Dr. Schlinger. Ouch! I was guilty of this. Before showing me his school picture, my son had told me time and time again that a boy was “bothering” him, and I’d dismissed it.

Is your kid being bullied?

Here’s what to watch for:

  • Your child loved preschool but now doesn’t want to go.
  • He complains of bellyaches or headaches before being dropped off at a playdate, daycare or preschool.
  • He no longer wants to play with a child he once liked.
  • He repeatedly tells you a certain kid is “bothering,” “bugging” or “being mean” to him.
  • He suddenly becomes withdrawn, depressed, fearful or clingy.
  • He makes derogatory remarks about himself, like “I’m a loser,” “I’m stupid” or “No one likes me.”
  • He has unexplained boo-boos. If your child seems to have more than a normal amount of bumps or bruises, or “forgets” the details of getting hurt, it might warrant a closer look.

What can you do about bullying?

STEP ONE: Find out what’s going on. Ask your child pointed questions, like “Did someone hurt you?” or “Can you tell me exactly what he did?” Kids this age may know that what’s happening makes them feel bad, but they may not have a label for it or know how to talk about it.

But remember: No matter what your child tells you, even if it makes your blood boil, keep that mama bear under control and remain calm and reassuring for your kid. The more supportive you are of his feelings, the more details you’ll get about what happened, how he feels about it, and how serious the situation is. The message you want to send him is “I love you. I’m here for you. Together, we’ll work on a solution.”

STEP TWO: Help her figure out how to respond. Your child shouldn’t be expected to deal with bullies on her own. So roleplay with her, says Joel D. Haber, PhD, author of Bullyproof Your Child for Life. It’s a great way to help a little kid learn, and it’ll boost your child’s confidence.

Tactics she can try:

  • Stand tall and act brave. Sometimes just acting as if the bully doesn’t bother you can stop him. Tell the bully “Knock it off!” or “Stop that!” in a loud voice and walk away.
  • Ignore the bully. Some experts believe that if you don’t give him attention, he’ll eventually stop.
  • Stick with friends. As the saying goes, there’s safety in numbers. If your child doesn’t have many friends, try to help her make some through new playdates or activities.
  • Tell an adult. If you’re not there, she should go to the teacher.

STEP THREE: Take action. If your child attends daycare, nursery school or preschool, set up a meeting with the teacher or caregiver. If you don’t get help, don’t give up. Apply pressure until a solution can be found, even if it means moving the bully or your child to a different classroom or, in some extreme cases, a different school.

If the bullying is going on at a playground or playdate and you know the parent, try talking to her. Say, “Our kids aren’t getting along very well. Have you noticed?” Don’t be surprised if she seems unconcerned about it. Sometimes the best solution may be to avoid that child or find a new playground.

What did I do about Kevin’s bully? Believe it or not, we invited him over. I talked it over with Kevin and told him I would be there the entire time, and that if the boy still acted like a bully, at least we’d both know that we’d tried to be kind and forgiving.

The boys didn’t wind up as best buddies, but the bullying did stop. And while I might not recommend this course of action for older kids, with little ones it can be effective.

Deborah Carpenter, a mom of two, is the author of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Dealing with Bullies. A version of this article originally appeared in Parenting magazine.

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