How to Talk to Your Children About Bullying

Advice for parents to communicate with preschool-age children and their teachers

Posted Oct 19, 2015

From my decades of experience as a child and family psychiatrist, father, grandfather and my life as a bully (ask my little brother) and the bullied, here is advice for parents: Be aware that preschoolers can bully and be bullied on a daily basis.

Most of it is not lethal, but a lot of it hurts and shames—both feelings that can ruin their day and stay with them for a long time. For 3- and 4-year-olds, shame is a relatively new emotion, and it is hard to handle on both ends, so they need your help. Talk about bullying as a thing most children feel or do (sometimes both) when they go to pre-K. This is not (and should not become) an unspeakable matter. Make your child aware that teachers know all about it and they can—and want to—help the bully stop. So when your child sees it happening to another child or feel it’s happening to them, tell them that the teacher will want to know about it, just like any other potentially dangerous thing that they see in the classroom that might hurt other children.

Another important action item is for the parent to insure that the school has clear and useful policies about bullying that attend to the needs of the victims and the perps (these can become interchangeable quickly). If your child turns out to be the latter, you should do your best to get the whole story—both sides, then trace back to the root (possible about a third of the time in my experience), but it’s usually something that angers or humiliates your child. Talk about that circumstance with your child, calmly and without blame. Make a plan for restitution that you (or the teacher) supervise, based on empathy (not revenge), or better yet, compassion for the bullied. This might involve apologizing to the victim in front of the teacher. Involving the school, if that is the venue, is critical for success. Meanwhile, inventory your own behavior as an adult/parent.  Are you frequently belittling of people that cross you or let you down? Is sarcasm and eye-rolling part of regular discourse in the home?

Here is a little more advice for helping young children directly: (These can be effectively role-played) Have the child get in front of the bullying child and look them in the eye and tell them to ‘stop that, you are hurting my feelings/that is not nice.’ If the bullying continues, child should practice walking away, and count his steps as he leaves (this helps keep control of feelings by putting him in charge of what is happening). This can end the provocative game bullying feeds on. Tell your child to try to avoid the bullying kids in the class until the teacher can help the bully stop. The best way to do that is to stay with your group of friends.

Dr. Kyle Pruett is a Clinical Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine and Educational Advisory Board member for The Goddard School, an early childhood education franchise and leading preschool teaching learning through play (www.goddardschool.com).