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Moms, how's this for a sad-but-true fact: Preschoolers can be bullies. Yep, turns out that in addition to being ace tantrum throwers, our tots can be hurtful, aggressive, exclusionary and, well, just not very nice when it comes to interacting with their peers.
“We used to think bullying started at around third grade, but now we know it starts in preschool,” says Joel Haber, Ph.D., psychologist and author of Bullyproof Your Child for Life: Protect Your Child from Teasing, Taunting and Bullying for Good.
Kids start feeling empathy at age 3 -- but they're also capable of making other kids feel bad on purpose. "I'm not saying they know it’s bullying, but they're testing out different behaviors,” Haber says.
Some common preschool bullying scenarios? Two little girls who “team up” and decide they don’t want to play with another child (and get enjoyment out of excluding her). Or little boys who get aggressive with another child -- hitting or kicking -- and don't feel bad when they see their victim crying.
“We warn 3-, 4-, 5-year-olds to take a step back, understand each other’s point of view and work things out," Haber says. "Some kids like what it feels like when they make someone feel bad, or keep doing it when they are told not to. They are not learning the cues -- those are the future bullies.”
So what can we, as parents, do to stop preschool bullying? Haber shares the following advice:
Confront the bully. If we don’t educate kids who bully (even those who aren't our own), they won’t know their behavior is wrong, and they'll keep doing it. "We have to let them know there’s a different way to handle things," Haber says. "The earlier we jump into that, the better.” If you witness bullying behavior, say something like, “How would you feel if that happened to you?" or "How would you feel if someone made you feel like that?”
Remove the child from the situation. A time out is one way to remove the bullying child from the situation, and that's not a bad thing, Haber says.
Don’t overreact. First, find out what’s going on. “Walk into situation, maintain control and try to diffuse it," Haber says. "In the case of two girls excluding a third girl, say, ‘Oh that looks like a fun game; let’s all join in.’ Show other kids that the third girl has significance, and we're going to have fun if we all play together.”
Teach -- and model -- sharing and cooperating. Kids watch us, so make sure that what they see is good. "Don't be aggressive yourself," Haber says.
Focus on the positive. Reinforce positive preschooler behavior, such as sharing. Say: ‘That was so nice how you shared; great job!’ Haber recommends. And the next time the kids treat someone nicely, say, ‘It was so nice how you played with so and so.’ "Let them know you're observing [them].”
Know if your child is being bullied. Clues could be a small comment (“I don’t want to go to school today”) or a tummy ache. “Preschoolers don’t necessarily understand their feelings," Haber says. "A lot of kids develop physical symptoms, but might not have the words to explain what’s wrong. If you feel like your kid is not playing like they usually do, ask them about their friends, [or] if something happened at school. Give them the language to [help them] talk about it.”