Pre-School Bullying: Are You Kidding?

By Susan Kurlander, M.Ed., Health Educator

School rumorsIt happens more than you would think.  We’re talking about pre-schoolers excluding others from group play time, teasing a child because of the way he/she looks or acts, or physically hurting someone.   What’s especially troubling is that bullying causes anxiety, stress and fear in young children, but they don’t yet have the words to tell us clearly what’s happening or they don’t know how to ask for help.

At this young age children are trying to figure out how to get attention and how to relate to others.  The behavior becomes bullying “when children enjoy seeing others hurt, as opposed to just asserting themselves socially,” says Charlina Stewart in “Bullying in Preschool:  What Parents Need to Know.”

If you’re told that your child is being a bully, don’t immediately react with “Not my child!” Try to find out what’s causing the behavior, even if your child may only be part of the situation.  Is there something stressful in your child’s life that he or she may not know how to handle in a constructive way?

Could he have seen aggressive behavior in other situations or in the media? Rather than thinking, “He’ll outgrow it,” now would be a good time to seek the help of a professional who knows about child development.

Children can begin to learn empathy around age 3.  This means they can be taught to see things from another person’s perspective.  Ask your child, “How do you think Billy feels when he’s called a bad name?”  Practice or role play different ways to say “I’m sorry.”  Praise your child for good behavior.

How about the victim?  How do you know or even suspect that your pre-schooler is being bullied?  Here are some signs to look for:

  • Is he suddenly afraid to go to school?
  • Does she complain about stomachaches or headaches?
  • Is he clingy, whiny, withdrawn or depressed?
  • Do you see bruises or scratches that weren’t there before?
  • Does she seem uncomfortable when you ask her about school?
  • Does he talk about a child doing mean things to him?

If the red flags go up, try to stay calm.  A child of this age cannot handle a bullying situation on his own, so the parent needs to help.

  • Encourage your child to tell you what’s happening.  To help her express herself, you can use books like One by Kathryn Otoshi, Shrinking Violet by Cari Best or Myrtle by Tracey Campbell Pearson.
  • Talk to the teacher or an administrator.  The teacher may not always see everything that is going on. Find out if your child’s school has an “open door” policy. Parental visits, as long as they don’t disrupt the classroom, may help you get a better handle on the situation.
  • Ask about the school policy for bullying.  Do parents need to provide a written description of the incident(s) as they have heard about it, or is it OK to call or come in?
  • Use teachable moments whether from T.V., a book or a real life situation involving children in your neighborhood.  Before commenting, ask your child, “What do you think is going on?” and “What would you do in that situation?”
  • Talk with your child about an adult he trusts that he can go to in an uncomfortable situation.
  • Build your child’s self-esteem.  Help him recognize the things he likes to do and make time for him to enjoy those activities and develop those skills.  Also help your child recognize the things that he struggles with— such as not getting his way, becoming easily frustrated when something doesn’t work, or not knowing how to make friends.
  • Show your child how to stand tall and make eye contact.  Using confident body language – even smiling at others – can help her avoid becoming a victim of bullying.

Even if you don’t see that your child is involved in bullying or being bullied, you should still address this at a young age.  One of the most important values we can teach our children is to be an “upstander rather than a bystander,” according to Susan Raisch, founder of Tangled and co-creator of “One Can Count.”* She says it’s never too early to help children be a “One,” the person who stands up for himself and others.  As parents we can teach our children about bullying and give them tools and strategies to prevent or respond to it.  Bullying can’t survive if people, even young children, do something about it.

Susan KurlanderBy Susan Kurlander, M.Ed., Health Educator, Jewish Community Services, Baltimore MD

Bullying is an issue affecting every child, regardless of age. With school starting again, learn what signs to look for and what you can do if you think your child may be the target of bullying or might be bullying others.  Come to the JCS Parent Discussion Series program on “Help! My Child is Being Bullied” on Tuesday, September 10, 6:00 – 7:30 p.m. at JCS, 3506 Gwynnbrook Avenue (in the Owings Mills JCC).  Susan Kurlander, M.Ed, JCS Health Educator, will facilitate.  Admission is free, and pre-registration is required.  For information and registration, call 410-843-7568. For future Parent Discussion Series topics, spanning infancy to young adulthood, visit

Questions about parenting?  Send an email to  For more information on parenting click here or call 410-466-9200.

*  provides discussion questions and downloadable resources related to bullying.  Another helpful resource for parents is “The Juice Box Bully: Empowering Kids to Stand Up for Others,” by Bob Sornson and Maria Dismondy.


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