First of all, it is important to define what you mean by bullying. One definition found on the internet that allows the observer to immediately identify bullying behavior is “chronic, frequent behavior that has at its core the intention to harm or intimidate”. However, as is usually the case, things are not that simple, as I will explain.
I will first address what to do in concrete terms if you think your child is being bullied. Then I will discuss the roots of bullying behavior, because understanding these is the best way to really stop bullying. Finally, I will consider a more comprehensive approach to prevent bullying – teaching friendship.
First of all, how do you know if your child is being bullied? It is not obvious. Preschool children are learning how to behave in groups of peers, and this requires learning how to communicate their desires and needs to other young children and learning how to make sense of the communications they receive from their peers. Children are learning how to share, how to play together, and how to compete. All of these activities involve exercising initiative and assertiveness, and this engages aggression. Aggression is not all bad. However, when you are just learning how to do these things in a group of peers, it is also not always smooth, and other kids are often intruding into your territory in one way or another. Your impulse control is not yet great, and you may push or pinch to get someone out of your space. When you want something that someone else has, it may be too hard for you to wait, and you may grab it away or “be mean” in some other way. This is not bullying. It is typical preschool behavior.
Lists of “warning signs” that your child is being bullied can be problematic because they include behaviors that are not at all specific to being bullied, such as suddenly being scared to go to school, or acting clingy and whiny. Even coming home with unexplained injuries or talking about one particular child doing mean things to him does not necessarily mean that your child is being bullied. This ambiguity should not present a particular problem, however, since if your child displays any of these behaviors it is a signal that something is going on that you will want to address, and the first step in doing that is to understand your child’s mind. Whether it turns out that your child is being bullied or having a big reaction to the birth of a sibling, you will want to know about it.
In the case of bullying, finding out whether or not bullying is really going on presents an important complication in itself. If the parent has some reason for believing the child is being bullied, then the parent’s questioning of the child may generate in the child the same belief. Children are very suggestible, especially to the words of adults in authority. This is not only a problem in terms of misidentifying a bullying situation and perhaps falsely accusing another child – which is bad enough. It is also a problem because in making these suggestions (often in the form of repeated questioning), the parent unwittingly usurps the agency of the child, overwhelms his mind, so to speak, and this works against the child developing a mind of his own.
In the next posting, I will discuss what to do if you decide your child is being bullied.