Monthly Archives: February 2014

Friendship: Antidote to Bullying


In this posting, I will discuss the most substantial long-term solution to bullying. The best way to combat bullying is to support the capacity for friendship and children’s development of empathy. Empathy is a function of “theory of mind”, that is, the ability of the child to imagine the thoughts and feelings of another person and to realize that other people have minds of their own.

For example, the 5-yo boy (let’s call him “Sam”) described above was having trouble imagining the mind of his classmate (“Ben”). I discovered that earlier that day in playground time Sam had been involved in a running game with Ben and some other boys. Ben, who is a fast runner, was leading the pack. Sam has some motor insecurity that has held him back, and he has not developed the strength and skill to keep up with the other boys in running games. I am guessing that he was feeling like a “loser”, and his way of making sense of those “loser” feelings was to perceive Ben as being the cause of his “loser-ness” by claiming to be older than Sam was. Ben actually hadn’t said anything of the sort, but Sam’s feelings were so strong and unmanageable that he completely lost his 5-yo capacity for self-reflection (“mentalization”). He did not link his very sad and angry feelings to having been left in the dust in the running game of minutes before. He really perceived Ben as trying to best him by claiming to be older and thereby causing him to feel bad.

Empathy is a complex competency that begins in the early infant-caregiver relationship when the baby first comes to recognize and resonate with the emotions of the caregiver. Parents and teachers can continue to support the development of empathy by valuing empathic responses, by making “being a good friend” a family (and school) value. If this “family value” is established, parents and teachers can always fall back on it as a support when they are confronting bullying behavior. “In this school, we do not believe in treating others that way.” The reason this kind of explanation is such a showstopper is that you can’t argue with beliefs. Empathy can even be extended to the bully.

I would not call Sam a bully – nor do I think the term is appropriate for such a young child – but his behavior was definitely intimidating to Ben. If called into this situation with Sam puffing out his chest threateningly to Ben and calling him a baby and Ben quaking in his boots, his parent or his teacher might try to scaffold the recovery of Sam’s self-reflection, and therefore his empathy. They might try to help him imagine how Ben felt, and they might even elicit Ben’s help in doing that (“Tell Sam how you felt when he said that to you and stood so close to you”).

However, there is a potential pitfall. If Sam is too stressed, the adult’s words – kind and helpful though they might be – will not sink in. Sam cannot take in information when he is dysregulated. The kind words – if they are addressing the source of his distress – might even escalate his dysregulation, The adult must first help Sam (and Ben) calm down, feel safe, and then – maybe twenty minutes later – try again. There are many good children’s books that have friendship as a theme. Some classics are George and Martha, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, and Freddy the Pig.

Brooks, Walter R, Freddy the Detective, Overlook Juvenile Press, 2010.

Marshall, James, George and Martha (especially, the story of “Split Pea Soup”), HMH Books for Young Readers, 1974.

MacDonald, Betsy, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, Harper Collins, 2007.


What to do About “Bullies”



Suppose, however, for the sake of argument, that you decide your child is being bullied.

There are three main tools to teach your child how to avoid being bullied. The first is the tried and true “ignore it” and turn or move away from the bully. If that doesn’t work, the child should be encouraged to tell the bully to “Stop!” Finally, the third tool is to get help from a trusted adult, such as a teacher or a parent.

However, as we attempt to identify procedures to deal with bullying, we right away run into a problem. Is bullying the same in all age groups? I think we would all agree that it is not. The definition I offered describes behavior that “has at its core the intention to harm or intimidate”. While this is true in the most experience-near sense – that is, the behavior seems designed to produce that result – it is not at all clear that the preschool child has the conscious intention to “harm or intimidate”. Usually, when I speak to even older children of school age, they will explain that the other child, the victim, was “annoying” them, or something like that. In other words, although nonsensical to the observing adult, the bully often really believes that the other child is the provocateur. For example, I observed a 5-yo boy telling another child that he was a baby, while puffing up his chest and looming over him in a way that clearly intimidated his classmate. When challenged by the teacher about his behavior, the boy claimed that his classmate had “lied” to him about being older than he. Of course, this seems ridiculous to an adult, so let’s take it apart and see if we can understand it better. In doing so we are engaging in the other extremely important approach to bullying – understanding the mind of the child.

In order to find a lasting solution to bullying – bullying of your child and bullying in a community such as a classroom – we need to answer the question of why children bully.
To answer this question, let’s consider three kinds of bullies – the group bully, the “reactive bully”, and the long-term, or chronic, bully.

Probably the easiest bully to understand is the “group bully”. This bully is a child who is attracted to a powerful peer and joins a group attack on another child. This is a terrible experience for the bullied child, because there is nothing more frightening than being confronted by a hostile crowd. Often the group bully is ambivalent about the bullying behavior and quietly ashamed of her participation in it, yet is afraid to challenge the powerful leader.

The second kind of bully is the “reactive bully”. In simple terms, this bully feels wounded, wronged by the world, and takes his out his anger and frustration on someone else. The source of his hurt may be short lived, such as feelings about the birth of a younger sibling. Or, it may be long lasting, such as the enduring threat caused by chronic illness, an alcoholic parent, or by domestic violence. A common cause of this kind of bullying is severe marital conflict or divorce. It is important to realize that a child does not have to “learn” bullying behavior in the home. Preschool children are not cognitively mature enough to understand that their hurt feelings from family problems are motivating their aggressive behavior towards peers. When a young child behaves this way in response to family stress, the bullying behavior usually resolves when the family stress improves or in response to an empathic adult’s attention – for example, a teacher. However, it is also true that if a parent assumes a bullying stance, for example talking aggressively about what he will do to a neighbor if he keeps putting his trash barrels on their side of the driveway, children will often identify with the parent and his behavior.

The third kind of bully is a chronic bully. There are no chronic bullies in preschool. It takes longer than that to create a chronic bully. Chronic bullies are the tragic consequence of children brought up in high stress environments in which they themselves feel bullied.

Let’s consider responses to each kind of bully. In each case, the best first response is to collaborate with the teacher and other school personnel. The teacher can be present when you are not there to protect your child. If you think that bullying is going on when the teacher is not looking, then bring this to his or her attention. The first goal of the collaboration should be to stop the bullying immediately. An adult must step in to protect the victim of the bullying if he cannot protect himself. The next step is to prevent future bullying. In the case of the group bully, that means diminishing the power of the leader through non-punitive confrontation with the bullying behavior, appropriate consequences, and talking separately to the members of the group so that you support each child’s behaving like his or her best self. In the case of the reactive bully, it means identifying the source of the bullying child’s distress, making the link for him (“When you are hurting so badly sometime you think it will make you feel better to make someone else hurt.”), and trying to make his home environment better. In the case of the “chronic” bully, professional help is definitely needed.These children need psychotherapy to provide them with the kind of trusting relationship in which they can face their fears of isolation or injury and find more adaptive ways of coping than frightening other children.

In my next blog posting, I will discuss the most substantial, long-term solution to “bullying”.

Bullying in Preschool?



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.