Bullying, Excluding, & Teasing in Preschoolers

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  • Seeking tips from parents with gentler boys who had/are having trouble sticking up for themselves with other kids. My son is 5 years old and we have been working with teachers and at home to help him stand up for himself when kids are doing something he doesn't like or invades his space. Examples: grabbing things out of his hand, shaking him by the shoulders, pushing him out of the way to get to something, breaking something he has built, etc.

    It is very hard for my son to articulate his feelings or to clearly set boundaries. He tends to retreat inside himself. We have tried to model our feelings out loud or articulate "I don't like it when you..." or "Stop!" etc., which is ongoing. In the past he has not been interested in trying martial arts, which I hoped and am still hoping might establish more confidence. 

    As he prepares to head into new situations like camps and Kinder at a new school, I'm feeling more anxious that other kids will see how the "leader" treats him and follow suit (this is happening on a small level now). At school so far it's not an ongoing bullying situation from what the teacher observes, rather, rough intermittent interactions with kids he sees as friends, with the leader initiating. Seems like behavior best to nip in the bud... 

    Consider trying a KidPower Starting Strong workshop.  It teaches "People Safety Skills" and they have classes for kids with their parents on Saturday mornings.  We haven't done it, but have heard wonderful things from families who have.  One helpful thing is that it emphasizes the idea that these skills can be learned, just like learning to ride a bike, and if you're not good at them yet, you can learn to get better.    

    I understand your goals to help your son articulate his feelings and set boundaries. But my question back to you is, Shouldn't the adults in the environment be setting boundaries with the kids who are "grabbing things out of his hand, shaking him by the shoulders, pushing him out of the way to get to something, breaking something he has built, etc."?? He's 5. Learning to set boundaries and articulate feelings is important work. I imagine the work is made harder for him given that (based on your description), he doesn't appear to have adults around that he can count on to set and follow up on clear boundaries. Shaking by the shoulders, pushing out of the way, do not sound like "friend" behavior to me. It doesn't seem right that he should bear the full burden of boundary setting in a classroom experience at 5-years-old. 

    I shifted from “modeling” to direct coaching,  for example, I would lean over and say quietly to my son “That boy just took your toy.  You go and say ‘that’s mine, may I please have it back?’”  Then I would gently move him toward the “taker” and coach him during the interaction, in his ear if necessary.  Now that he is older, when other situations have come up, I try to talk him through the actual interactions with words. Not strictly role play (I find that tedious), but more concrete than modeling.  Good news - he is now 11 and navigates all kinds of situations with a combination of verbal conflict resolution or simply getting/staying out of a bad situation. 

    I think that having him “use his words” as you have done is a great way to have him learn assertiveness. Also the adults in the room need to facilitate this lesson in how to get along . If kids are being aggressive they need to know that it is not ok and to be given new ways to communicate. Martial arts will just give them an excuse not to use words but to react physically which is what kids, especially ones who find verbal communication difficult, automatically do. They need to learn verbal communication of their feelings. “Can I have a turn when you’re done?”, “Sure”!

    Martial arts or sports teams (i.e. soccer) would be great for this.  Martial arts teaches confidence and gives one ability to defend oneself, which is valuable and my son benefited a lot from it, but I know it is not for everyone.  I feel that my son got even more confidence and social skills by doing soccer (and the benefit will be there from other spot teams as well).  It gave him a guaranteed group of friends with who he had something in common, the kids learn to support each other, and gave him an opportunity to practice social skills and being more self assured by going for the ball when one sees an opening and speaking up when something is not to his liking.  I tell my son that he is responsible for his actions and nobody can tell him what to do (except for adults with authority over him like parents, teachers, coaches, or police, etc) and he needs to tell anyone who tries to boss him around that it is his decision.  As my son entered school (he is 7 now) and matured, it became easier to teach him stand up for himself and to complain when someone does something he does not like, but that type of personality often translates into a "follower" which is dangerous when he is surrounded by kids who might be a bad influence.  I would recommend that as you teach your son self confidence and to speak up when someone does something to him he does not like you expand the conversation to cover speaking up when someone does something that he thinks is wrong or at least not to join in and follow along.  We just now got him to a point where he thinks before acting and does not blindly follow his friends, and he has a really tough time figuring out when he should "snitch" and tell the teacher and when he should just say "this is wrong and I'm not participating" and walk away.  Good luck.  Parenting is tough. 

    We were concerned our son would have difficulty advocating for himself as well. He experience some of what you describe, but I think it hurt us more than it affected him.  This was in a corporate day care (Bright Horizons) and private pre-school. But once he got into public kindergarten, I think the combination of a more diverse set of kids and just maturing, he seems to have learned better ways to navigate these; and he's become more aggressive himself. We did work with the teacher to emphasize these skills; and like you we try to model helpful behavior- getting a teacher to help (something that was taught to us as problem solving early on at the toddler day care). And I'm hoping he and I can do aikido soon.  HTH.

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Preschool kids' unkind behavior

May 2014

Dear BPN, we are hoping for advice about our 4 yo daughter's school situation. We moved her to a new (Montessori) school this Sept. after having her in a play-based program last year. Even though we really liked the teachers from the previous program, there were problems that we felt were not adequately addressed (chronic unkind behavior from children that went unchecked, etc.) There was a mass exodus from that program due to this. We are now dealing with a similar situation. My daughter has mostly enjoyed school this year, but for the past couple of months she has been coming home upset, saying that she has been excluded or that so-and-so was mean. During my class observation and drop off/pick up I've observed it. In particular, a favorite friend of hers who was historically very sweet has been experimenting with her power & started purposely excluding my daughter or another friend from play daily. She then draws the excluded friend back in. The school teaches them to say ''I'll find you later'' if they aren't interested in playing, but it seems to manifest as license to behave exclusively. I've heard kids say the words in the most cruel & snotty way imaginable. I've talked to her teachers & director of the school multiple times about this dynamic & they normalize the behavior and have said they address it if they see it but they can't always see everything. It is a school of 35 children and 4 teachers. I get that they can't catch it all, but it seems that they are allowing exclusive & unkind behavior to persist. I feel that these kids are young for such behavior! I know that it can start at this age, but shouldn't the school be nipping it in the bud? Is this really normal? Also, the school seems completely unaware that there is a clear ringleader. A few parents saw it in a matter of minutes at a bday party! By no means do I want to pathologize the child and I know she can be very kind too, but denial that she is directing this behavior seems unhelpful to all. I've been working with my daughte! r on how to respond but she is very slow to warm to the idea of walking away. She is drawn to this girl like a moth to flame, which just fuels the power dynamic. I feel we are doing our part at home, but shouldn't the teachers be a little more proactive? We'd planned on having her continue there before this all started. We have another option at a small, progressive school that touts inclusion and kindness as primary tenets. We're torn because we know our daughter needs to work through this, but feel she is awfully young for such unkindness. How to know if the teachers are helping enough? Do we go with giving her continuity (and working through) or a new program and hope that they really do practice what they preach? Current school has mostly been the ''good enough'' school, but certainly not what was promised. Our daughter is incredibly sweet & friendly and completely befuddled by the meanness. TIA for any advice! Anonymous

This is very normal behavior for kids (particularly girls) that age and I think you are freaking yourself out too much over it. At my child's school, exclusion is not allowed but it still happens because it's TOTALLY NORMAL for that age. (And while you say you don't want to pathologize that particular girl, you really did actually paint her as a bad guy.)

Our school policy is twofold: 1) the child who doesn't want to play with another kid (the one doing the excluding) has to ''move away'' and this does help a bit (but often inevitably they just ''move away'' with the other child they wanted to play with, so the end result is still exclusion) and 2) the child being excluded is told to find someone else to play with ''since so-and-so isn't feeling friendly''.

While I agree we should all be teaching children not to be exclusive, in the end it is much more useful to teach your child how to handle being excluded. The subtle message you are giving her right now is that she should want to play with someone who doesn't want to play with her, and that that person must be forced against their will to play with her. Don't you think it would be much better to teach your child resilience? To teach her to walk away from someone who isn't treating her well and find someone nicer to play with? This ultimately will serve her for years to come and will be a life lesson far more valuable. anon

This kind of exclusive girl behavior is ''normal'' in that it's common, but that doesn't make it acceptable. And the teachers should be nipping it in the bud. Instead of saying ''I'll find you later,'' which is basically dismissing their classmate, the rule should be ''You can't say you can't play.'' Essentially, anyone who wants to play, can play! The teachers should be drilling this message into these little kids, not just when they see exclusion happening, but as part of morning circle, afternoon circle, etc, etc, etc. It should be part of the culture of the school. As a parent I would want to know if my daughter was behaving in this manner, so I could correct her before she got a reputation as a bully. In fact, a parent did contact me to let me know my very own sweet daughter had excluded one of her best buds from a game at school. I was mortified, but took that opportunity to let my daughter (in kindy) know that that was completely inappropriate and unacceptable (in kindergarten words, of course). The teacher also got involved, as she should have (with no shaming). As to whether your daughter should change schools, I don't necessarily think so, as long as the teachers are open to hearing your message. Mom of girls who've been on both ends

I am so sorry to hear about your daughter's experience at her preschool. I don't know if I have additional advice, but I wanted to recommend my son's preschool. He attends Berkeley Rose, which is a Waldorf preschool in North Berkeley. There's something magical about Waldorf education that creates a warm and loving environment for the children. I don't see this behavior at his school at all. If an unkind behavior does arise the teachers are wonderful about helping the children work through it in a loving and gentle manner. I would highly recommend visiting the school. Ha

Is my preschooler a bully in training?

June 2009

My five year old son has always been very sweet and sensitive to other's feelings. In the past year he's befriended some boys in his pre-k who aren't really rule-followers and don't have the greatest self-control. My son has started to say that he likes these friends because they do mean things. For example, they like to scare other kids (especially girls). Since his induction into this posse, my son refuses to play with his once beloved friend in the class who is a girl. He will play with her on playdates though. He has taken to shamelessly excluding this girl at school despite the ''no exclusive play'' policy. He has said some very unkind things about his girl friend in the presence of the girl and her mom such as ''oh good, she won't be at school tomorrow.'' I'm just mortified and don't know how to tame my little beast. who is this child?

Hi, Kids ''try on'' a lot of different behaviors and it is a normal part of their learning and growing experience. Our job as parents is to set firm limits and make our values clear to them. So, it is NOT OK to exclude others or intentionally say mean things that might hurt someone's feelings. At your son's age, though, you have to remember that you are still TEACHING these ideas and values, which means that you try to do it in an upbeat way that isn't punitive or overly harsh to your son. Basically, you need to talk about these different scenarios with your son often and teach him/ tell him the rights and wrongs of the world. You also need to encourage him to develop empathy (how would you feel if. . . ) and to have the courage to stand up for what he knows is right and go against ''the group'' when necessary. All of this is a long and involved process that requires a lot of time and energy from us as parents! It also requires us to be carefully tuned in to our child's behavior (as it seems you are) and to the way kids are interacting and treating each other at school, on play dates, at the park, during the lunch hour, etc. Then, we must intervene and praise them when they are doing the right thing (I like the way you included so-and-so in the game today) and let them know what is not acceptable! With your guidance, your son will be fine and will NOT turn out to be a bully. anon

The word is NO. This kid is five years old What do you do when he says these mean things? Does everything come to a crashing halt until he apologizes? If you believe this behavior is unacceptable, you have to demonstrate the fact by not accepting it. Otherwise you are demonstrating that it is really okay - look at your actions, not just your words.

You say he says he is attracted to them because they are ''mean.'' Have you talked through with him what ''mean'' really is? Empathy needs teaching. What you have here is an important teaching moment. He still wants to play with this girl outside of school. Have you explained that his behavior pains her, and that this friendship will go away if he continues to behave badly.

Does he see these nasty kids outside of school? If so, why? You need to communicate, clearly and with no wiggle room, your rejection of them and their behavior. Yes, I know you can't control what he does at school. You can, however, control what he does, and where he goes, at other times.

Most likely, what he is enjoying with these boys is the pack mentality: the warm feeling of being in a group and the shared strength of the band. But if you don't want a mean thoughtless follower you need to work at showing him the results of his behavior. (Oh, and if they are already playing mean pack kids, you can count on them turning on him eventually too.) lw

My 4-year-old is bullying other kids

July 2008

I have only been able to find info for parents of the kids who are the victims of bullying. Our son, who is not quite 5, has been showing more and more agressive behaviors aimed at other kids. He focuses on another kid at preschool and targets him/her with physical violence and teasing, even goads other kids into same behaviors. His preschool teachers are very concerned and try to monitor him every second.

My partner and I are totally non-violent people. We don't hit, we don't threaten, we don't yell. We've always stopped any aggressive behavior immediately and said that this is never acceptable. We don't understand where this is coming from, and are starting to feel that we've done something awful as parents or that our child is just ''bad'' at the core.

Please don't diagnose our child - we will be seeing behavioral specialists asap for that. We would appreciate any info on support, parenting books or other resources, or personal stories about coping with similar situations. Freaking Out Parent

My child is 8 years old, and one thing I've noticed, so ironical it is almost funny, about some of her aggresive or over-the-top wild friends is that they usually have the most sweet, gentle, lovely parents. It seems that the children keep testing their parents' limits, and the parents give them kind, gentle words reminding them to behave better but without real boundaries and consequences. For example, ''We don't hit, it hurts people's feelings,'' has no impact on the kid's behavior. When used in moderation or if gentle tactics don't work: ''Stop hitting now or you will lose you favorite toy for an hour'' works much better. mom of a limit-testing kid

The most helpful thing for me and my husband was doing therapy with the partner of the therapist treating our child. It was helpful to learn how to help our child, as well as to ventilate the types of questions you are asking yourself. From my perspective as the mom of a victim of a single violent incident of bullying, since you know there is a problem, the most important thing you can do to minimize this problem for your family and others is not allow unsupervised play at this time, as the preschool teachers are doing. anonymous

Kudos to you as parents for realizing the behavior and doing attempting some pre-emptive actions. I too was worried that our boy would be a bully because of the way my husband plays with him, but his disposition is more towards the sensitive side. I watched a documentary called ''Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys'' and learned that aggression and 'violence' is a natural part of being a boy. Without any prompting or modeling, boys will pick up sticks or shoes and pretend they're swords or other weapons. I learned to not be so worried about this imaginative play. I've also learned that exposing our son to playdates/daycares where he is around children of mixed ages really helped him to identify where he fits among the age groups...he identifies himself as a little boy (in between the big boys and babies) and it helps him to moderate some of his behaviors. He actually does a ''fake run'' to get the babies to waddle or crawl after him, and with the big boys, he's learning how to gauge when to jump in (and get bumped every so often) and when to stay back and just marvel at what the big boys can do. Good luck and fortunately, you're catching this early. sympathetic parent

I am in the same struggle with my 8-year-old. I am in Kaiser's Spirited Child Class (for parents) and my son has enjoyed Kaiser's Social Skills class. The latter led to an ADD screening group and positive diagnosis. We are experimenting with medication for ADD, which seems to help (although the problem seems more like too much testosterone - he wants to win at the expense of relationships).

Outside of Kaiser we are sending our kid to Quest camp (a bpn recommendation - significant expense and drive for us.) A woman in our carpool describes her son similarly - ''very nice at first and then gets too agressive.'' They work with kids with ''mild to moderate ADD, ADHD, Aspergers, and other behavioral issues''.

Looking at my son through the lens of sensory integration has been helpful - he loves pillowfights, big hugs and wrestling, and we may seek professional help from San Leandro specialist in this area named Bledsoe.

Concerned about my son's moral development, cub scouts and church youth group were obvious choices. Cub Scouts is full of kids with ADD and my son often behaves better in this boy- friendly environment.

Many of our friends and family think we have caused this problem by being too lenient, too inconsistent, and letting our son be the Alpha male in our household. I'm sure that to some extent that is true and we are trying to clean up our act. We are lower energy older parents who waited a long time for this kid, Type B personalities who don't even notice, much less sweat, the small stuff. I'm probably ADD, so it's hard for me to be as consistent as I would like to be, plus I'm routine-resistent and authority questioning. I believe that regular beatings used to be the way that children like my son were handled in the olden days, and in some cases, the kids turned out okay - My dad may have been one of these. He died at 30 (a doctor) so I don't know his whole story. I notice that some people tell their children that they will burn in hell forever if they don't behave better, but we haven't stooped to that yet. I would like to form a support group but am embarassed to publicize my name. a worried mom

All I can say is believe in yourselves -- you have done nothing wrong. I have not had your exact experience but do have a child that has done quite a bit of nasty behavior -- and I have friends who continually remind me of his past behavior - and it sucks. You are getting help with him, and I imagine thats the best place to start. You did not do anything wrong. take care

I really appreciate the honest description of the situation and the frank recognition that this is a serious issue. I am a researcher on children's health (but not specifically bullying) and can tell you from my general reading on the subject that the problems that ensue from bullying affect the bully as much as the bullied so you are right to address this immediately. Most elementary schools these days have a zero tolerance policy and you will know relatively soon whether you are having any success with modifying his behavior. Best of luck to you and be prepared for feeling like the ''bad parent'' from other parents. I hope that if people know you are taking this seriously that they will cut you some slack. a recent NYT account of a journal article on bullying had a quite disturbing array of responses from people bullied in their lifetimes that were happy to hear that bullys suffered from an increased risk for suicide. Anon

I am so sorry for your situation. It can be so frustrating and painful.

My child went from being a 'victim' to an 'aggressor,' and I learned quite a bit being the parent on that journey. Here is some of what worked for us.

I apologized to anyone and everyone for everything: the parents, teachers, school, etc... I took full responsibility for my child's behavior, because ultimately - I am responsible. (these were some hard phone calls to parents. and sometimes it was hard to get names from teachers of who my kid had hurt) I informed them of my/our plans of action. (pediatrician, behavioralist, teacher and/or director meetings, etc...) The school and I agreed on a list of behaviors I needed to review with my child before returning to school. The day of bad behavior, I have child 'write' (or dictate) a letter of apology to the children hurt. And then I maintained constant and ongoing communication about what steps have been taken, what steps are ahead, what daily role plays (or lessons or etc.....) we are working on at home, with all parties involved, how and what seems to be working, what else we could be doing, etc...

It was a lot of work. But I am really proud of us for how we worked through it. And many of the parties involved thanked us. And I/we truly felt we were building a circle of strength and support around our kid. Who has come through great.

Best of luck to your family. Been there

I don't have any personal experience with how to cope or navigate the challenges presented by your son's behavior. However, I had the privilege of working with Dr. Webster-Stratton on a small academic project. You mentioned that you are seeking professional help and I thought another resource might be helpful - eventhough the program is based in Washington state. You may have already discovered the Parenting Clinic in an Internet search. The clinic is a truly wonderful nurturing space with a remarkable program to help parents of children with aggression problems. You might want to check these links out.

The Parenting Clinic http://www.son.washington.edu/centers/parenting-clinic/

Carolyn Webster-Stratton Professor of Family and Child Nursing, Director of the School of Nursing Parenting Clinic University of Washington http://www.son.washington.edu/faculty/faculty_bio.asp?id=112

I hesitate to include this video because the presentation's focus is research data on the long-term effects of untreated childhood aggression. My point in sharing this video is much the same as any research done by a parent that helps to define and exclude the behaviors, symptoms, etc in their own child (similar to researching diaper rashes: ''this photo shows a blotchy, raised and red rash - our little guy's looks more like small red dots, that itch'' etc). The presentation includes great examples of the techniques used by the clinic staff members as they work with children who have behavior and social integration problems. ''Helping Young Aggressive Children Beat the Odds: Parents, Children, Teachers and Dinosaurs'' http://www.uwtv.org/programs/displayevent.aspx?rID=2675 If you have trouble viewing UWTV website's streaming video, you might try calling the clinic to ask if they have any additional DVD copies of the video.

From your post, it is obvious that you are thoughtful, nurturing parents. I wish you success and joy as you continue to be strong advocates for the health and well- being of your WONDERFUL (yes, wonderful) child. A member of the village

It sounds like you are doing the right thing by looking into getting your son some help. Make sure you keep on loving this little one even when you feel like he is a ''bad kid''. It might help to tell him what is an appropriate way to behave in X situation, and have him practice the behaviors that you would like to see him use. I've gotten a lot out of reading the positive discipline books. good luck

My 3.5 yr old is a bully!

Feb 2007

My son is a total bully. He does all the standard stuff, grabbing toys, hitting a kid who grabs his toys. But it's the random episodes that are totally distressing, the stuff that comes out of nowhere. For example, this morning, he suddenly ran over to another kid at daycare and pushed him right into a tree with significant force, apparently with no provocation. I also just found out that he pushed another boy off of a play structure a few weeks back. Luckily that kid landed okay, with no apparent damage. Another thing he'll do is just reach out and scratch at or hit a child as they walk by.

He's also the kid who always takes the high energy play too far. For example, he and a friend were playing well (play date) and jumping on the bed. My boy's the one who ends up jumping into the other boy and knocking him off onto the floor. No permanent damage, again, but alot of crying and an angry parent.

We are constantly working on gentle and what is okay and not okay behavior. We also talk to him about the right way to get someone attention. I'm starting to get worried and don't know where this behavior is coming from. All I know is that I grit my teeth every time I have to pick him up, waiting to hear what he did that day.

Any advice for strategies that stop the behavior are appreciated. Is this a phase he'll grow out of? If so, what's the best way to handle these things when they come up? I don' want to always be forcing him to control himself and not get excited or physical, but he's not doing a good job of keeping it from going too far and, like I said, the randomness of his flash agressiveness often keeps the adults from reacting fast enough to avoid problems. Any advice or stories of your own experience is greatly appreciated. Mama in distress

Your son is not a bully. He may have a problem with sharing and playing too rough, but a bully is mean to gain control or power over people, and that is not what you're dealing with.

That being said, I had the same issues starting about age 4.5 with my son, although his older sister called him ''rough and tough'' at 18 months. He was the sweetest guy at home, but came out swinging if someone was unfair or said something mean, and wanted to play rougher than his friends. For him, a full-body tackle is fun even if his knee gets skinned.

What my son is, and maybe your is too, is impulsive. He is physically oriented and does the physical act before he can think it through. This is something that yours will likely outgrow. Our son, however, did not...and in 2nd grade we started him on meds for ADHD. We tried everything before that- punishments, rewards, empathy- teachers suggested organized sports and social skills classes, parents of the other kids talked behind our backs and avoided play dates, our son was miserable that he was always in trouble. Now on medication, his latest report card actually states ''model student'', ''a leader in citizenship''. Our boy is using the drive and energy he has in positive ways and is way happier. Other parents have expressed amazement at the sea change and say their girls all love his boyish charm, when they used to complain he was too rough. But...he still longs for the day he is old enough to play tackle football and he prefers friends who also like to bash into each other for fun. He is just able to control the impulse to do it at inappropriate times. He needs meds to do this, but we hope this is not forever, and we also know that this is not for everyone.

Your son will be a world-shaker someday, instead of just a little handful. He knows what he wants (and tries to get it). He's not afraid to throw himself into his work (which in the case is play with other kids- he's just literally is throwing himself at them for now:). I bet he's a fierce hugger, too. Keep your chin up, be firm with limits, let other parents know you're doing your best, and see his qualities in the best light possible. Best wishes- Rough-n-tough's Mom

You may want to evaluate your discipline. You really need to be consistent and dish out discipline with consequences. I am not criticizing your parenting when I say this -- I was in your shoes about a month ago. I have two high energy kids. Just getting through the day is exhausting with them as they never stop moving.

I thought that I was 'always on my kids' to behave. I said/did everything that I was supposed to do, but nothing seemed to work. I chalked it up to my children to being far more exuberant and energetic than most kids -- something that I love. I finally realized, when my younger daughter tackled an sweet, mildly autistic kid that it wasn't enthusiasm that made my children do this, but my inconsistent and 'without bite' discipline.

Last month, we implemented 'operation sledge hammer.' Every time one of our girls broke the 'no hit/bite/kick/push' rule or one of our other rules...there are more for the older one, she immediately went to time out -- the older one for 15 minutes on a chair facing nothing interesting and the younger one in a high chair facing nothing interesting. When she was placed in time out she told the rule that they broke, she went to time out and afterwards we 'modeled' and discussed kind behavior. If the older daughter made noise or talked during time-out the timer started again (using a timer is important as it keeps things impartial). On the first day of operation sledgehammer, the girls spent a lot of time staring into space. My older daughter once spent 45 minutes at a sitting.

It felt initially like 'a lot of work,' because it wasn't always 'convenient.' If the older one smacked the younger one when walking out the door, all momentum had to stop, my daughter would sit in time out for 15 minutes to a half hour and then we'd invariably end up late wherever we were going. If the younger one smacked a kid at the playground, we'd have to both leave. After a few days I realized that I could put my child in time out three or four times a day or I could spend all day threatening time out with the occasional follow-through of a few minutes for the older one which had no impact, breaking up sisterly scuffles and apologizing to other parents.

After a week of this, I found myself with two wonderfully well behaved daughters (still high energy and exuberant). My younger daughter who could easily hit five or six kids in one short outing to the playground has only hit once in the past month -- after another older boy grabbed her toy and pushed her down (we are now working on the words 'help me' for frustrating situations like that...) My older one has become a much better listener, hasn't hit her sister once and shows much better self control. -anon

I'll be curious to read responses to this. My son has a kid like yours in his class, let's call him A. One day I was talking to my child's teacher and we were talking about how nice A's mom is, and how hard it would be to have such a *ahem* spirited child at home. And my son's teacher said something really interesting, which is that A's mom is probably ''too nice'' to have a child like that. She said that those kids need very strict parents that are willing to lay down very clear boundaries. The kind of parent we want to be--encouraging, offering choices, etc---just might not work for your child.

So, I say do what you can to lock it down at home. Also, talk to his teachers. See if you can take off a day or two and just go in and observe your child without interfering. It might help you to see for yourself what's going on rather than just hearing the aftermath. Perhaps if you can see his behavior with other children it will help you to figure out his choices at home.

I don't mean this to sound blaming, but rather to suggest that seeing him in action at school might help you decide how to help him while you're at home. anon

It's time to introduce your son to discipline! Research what method you would be comfortable with (example- timeouts,loss of tv time) and stick to it. Figure out what he's angry about/ what's bothering him and deal with that (maybe it has to do with his father or need for attention, etc.), but let him know what you will not tolerate before he gets out of hand. anon

I wonder if your child might have some form of sensory processing disorder. You say he's always the extremely high-energy kid, and the sort of things you describe seem to indicate a lack of ability to modulate his own physical behavior. Two things you could try, if you wanted to pursue this as a possiblity: you could read ''The out of sync child'', and you could talk to your pediatrician and see if the doctor thinks a visit to an occupational therapist for evaluation is in order (these are the people who provide therapy for this problem). Karen

My 3-year-old was bullied at preschool

March 2003

Hi, I recently found that my three yo was bullied at preschool by two other kids. They are younger and close playmates. The thing is that my son looks kinda smaller than his same age. And he doesn't know or dares not to confront them other than crying. Anyone had similar situation or advice? I already talked to the teacher. But it will take some time to teach my son how to defense. What else can I do now? Jin

My daughter's preschool at Temple Sinai is sponsoring an adults- only workshop with the organization KidPwer to teach parents of young children how to talk to their kids about staying safe, and bulleying is one of the issues they are supposed to be discussing. This event is Wednesday, April 30 from 7-9 p.m., costs $25, and is open to the community. If you or anyone else is interested in attending, let me know and I'll e-mail or send you a registration form. Good luck. It's really painful to see your child get victimized, but hopefully it will be an opportunity for learning that can empower him. Hannah

Cruel comments by kids at preschool

Dec 2002

My 3 1/2 year old daughter is a very lively, sociable child, extremely articulate and full of fantasy life. She sometimes captivates the other kids at school with her stories, and the teachers love her. She has an eclectic sense of style and is very earnest, kind and enthusiastic. The problem is the kids who say debilitating things to her. She is such a forthright kid, she never stops trying to connect; her enthusiasm is always tendered with a desire to be liked. Unfortunately, there are certain kids who *always* respond negatively to her overtures. She tells me that one of the kids at school tells her she is stupid every day. I have seen this kid turn the opinions of others against her, teaching them to follow his example. Worse yet, there are kids who are friends with her most of the time, who turn around suddenly out of the blue and say terrible things, with this incredible look of glee and delight on their face when she crumples. This kind of cruelty is worse because she is not expecting it, and the children are ones she considers friends so she really believes what they say. I do my best to handle it when I see it happen. Usually, I try to gently call them on it, saying things like, ''Do you think that made her feel good? Then why say something that makes someone feel bad?'' etc. I don't want to interfere inappropriately, but I don't want them to think it's okay, either. I understand that the worst ones are insecure, but that doesn't help my daughter. The teachers work with the kids as best they can, but they cannot overhear every remark made, and much slips by. This is an issue I have struggled with all through my life; I have trouble knowing what to tell her because I never really learned to deal with it either. I know I should teach her to ''toughen up'', but I don't want to squash the essential exhuberance of this child, and besides, I'm not sure I have the skills. What can I say to her? How can I help her to handle these children who want to ruin her self-esteem? We fill our home life with as much love and support as we can, but I'm not sure it's enough. Heather

I think that the solution to cruel comments from little kids is to alter the response. If the desired response isn't there, it's no longer fun to do. It sounds like your daughter has become a fun button to push, so she has to unhook the button.

I would suggest role-playing with your daughter, pretending that you (or dad, or a stuffed animal, or whoever) are another kid in class. When the pretend classmate makes a ''comment'', help her to respond in an appropriate way - perhaps you would prefer that she ignores the comment, or just smiles, or changes the subject (obviously teaching her to throw cruel comments back isn't going to help). She's not going to be able to learn this on the fly in class, kids learn from doing and example.

Demonstrate to her that she has control of the situation based on how she responds to it. Just the novelty of her not giving the usual response may be enough to throw the other kids off.

It seems like kids take on ''roles'' in group situations, and as they grow these roles change. Kids get big, they turn out to be smart, or athletic, or whatever - they change. She needs to shake up the dynamic.

My two cents, hope that helps. Hate to think of your daughter going through that. Betsy

I was heartbroken to hear about the situation at your child's preschool. That is just not right, and it is a failure of the teachers. At my children's preschool that kind of talk is just not tolerated. There are also lessons in treating one another with respect. It is not just a matter of the teachers keeping an eye on all the children all the time; it is a matter of teaching.

I would speak to the teachers about changing the curriculum to discuss respectfulness for one another, kindness, compassion, and thinking about how others feel. If they aren't willing to put in that kind of work, I would switch schools.

Yes, you can give your child love at home which will build her self-confidence, but speaking as someone who was treated badly by my peers when I was a child, the pain of that cruelty never goes away. In the old days, they used to say, ''learn to toughen up!'' but nowadays they are more enlightened. There ARE ways to teach kids not to be cruel to one another... they may not work perfectly, but they do reduce these incidents.

Today, this kind of treatment of others is called bullying or emotional abuse, and many schools have a zero tolerance policy on the subject. So there is hope!

Good luck! This is very important for your child.

I wouldn't tolerate this kind of behavior towards my child at school. Have you discussed this with the teachers and with the other children's parents? It seems to me that kids who are mean to your daughter every day (calling her stupid every day) should be taught that this is not appropriate behavior Teaching them this lesson is the responsibility of the teachers and the children's parents. The situation with the kids who are usually friendly and occasionally mean is a bit different , but I think that all kids should have lessons (from their parents and from the teachers) on how to be kind and not to hurt each other. Three and a half is not too young to learn these things. -another mom

I also struggled with cruel comments from friends at school, particularly in junior high, and had trouble figuring out how to respond effectively. I think this is part of the social learning we all have to do, and some of us seem to master it more readily than others. I expect that your experiences, although similar to your daughter's, occurred when you were older and were products of a different developmental stage. Also, you may not have had much support or guidance to help you learn how to deal with it, and now you feel at a loss to help your daughter.

Making cruel comments is what preschoolers do, particularly as they move into their 4's. Although you may never hear about it, your daughter probably comes up with a few zingers herself. Do talk to the teachers about what the children are saying. It is their job to create a safe atmosphere and communicate to the children that cruelty is unacceptable. The kinds of things you have been saying to the children are quite good. Be clear and matter of fact that you don't like this behavior. It's important for you to sort out your own emotional baggage (we all have it!) from the problems your daughter is having. This is one of the exciting things about being a parent--you are creating a new way of responding to something you have struggled with in your own life. Louise

It's been my experience with 3.5 year olds that all of them delight in saying totally cruel things to one another. My son and his best friend - who adore one another, call each other on the phone, talk about each other constantly - just love to push each other's buttons. One will taunt and the other will crumple, then it reverses. I'm surprised to hear your daughter is never a taunter (and impressed, if this is true). Maybe my child and his friend are sociopaths, but I thought it was pretty normal 3.5 year old behavior. I'll be interested to hear what others say. (Don't get me wrong - we spend a lot of time telling him and his friend NOT to act like this, and explaining why, but it still goes on.) Have you talked to her preschool teacher(s)? Fran

http://www.kidpower.org I heartily recommend this organization for your daughter. Try role playing with her, ''I don't deserve to be treated like that! I get sad when you X because I think Y. Please stop.'' I'm also biased, but how about homeschooling? Kathy

I have read the responses posted to your question (which is heartbreaking), and I don't think that they go far enough. This behavior should not be tolerated any longer; your daughter is being damaged, perhaps permanently. The teachers and preschool have COMPLETELY FAILED your family. If I were in your shoes, I would make my top priority finding a different preschool as soon as possible. I would not send my daughter to the school for one more day. (You might look into hiring a temporary babysitter to watch your daughter while finding a new preschool.) In this situation, the only one protecting your daughter is you, and, in my opinion, you need to act NOW to prevent further damage. Alison

Pre-schooler vs. neighborhood bully

I am the parent of a preschooler and would like to request advice as to how to do deal with a neighborhood boy who is downright mean, at least to my child. Mostly he confines his treatment to yelling at her, excluding her, and blaming her, but if they are both playing outside together it is usually only a matter of time before he hits or pushes her. I have talked with a parent before, but now they avoid me and have not spoken to me since. I suspect his behavior is a problem to more than just me, for example, I was watching some of the neighborhood kids outside one day. This little boy pushed another girl down and she hit her head on the cement. She starts screaming and the other parents rush out. The father rushes to the bully and says What did you do? He of course denied everything but it was pretty obvious from the situation that if another kid is crying the dad knew from experience his kid must have done something.

My reaction to this situation thus far has been to avoid him. We mostly play at parks, and we joined the YMCA about a year ago so we can do physical stuff in the evenings without involving my daughter playing outside. (We live in an apartment, so we can't just retreat to playing in the backyard.) This is a big improvement, but she still likes to play outside and some days I am completely at my wits end. He will scream at her and she will start balling. (This happens 99% of the time they are both outside ) I've progressed from saying Don't worry about him. to He's just a big meany. to Don't worry honey you are much smarter and nicer than he is. I guess I am looking for advice about the following 1. What semi-constructive things could I say to him, the bully, to maybe make the situation better or head it off? Are there books that deal with this subject -for children or adults? and 2. What should I say to my daughter? He makes her feel bad about herself, what can I say to make her feel better? I don't think dealing with the parents will help much based on my experience, and really the problem in my opinion is not so much the childs behavior, which they can do something about, but his personality.

We had a similar situation which got resolved through a formalized play-date at our house. The aggressive child seemed to be asking for attention and may have only been able to get it before by acting out. Sad but true often times children do only get attention through bad behavior.

There's a book THE BICYCLE MAN that tells a similar story. It might pave the way for your child to having that play-date. Good luck!

There are two children that my son is around a lot who are quite aggressive (whose parents don't intervene appropriately). I find that it works best if I supervise constantly and intervene a lot with that's not a very nice thing to say or keep your hands to yourself etc etc. I also try to help my son speak up I don't like it when you do that. For a long time (too long) I left the kids without enough supervision and I feel I didn't give my son the protection he needed with these other kids. The constant supervision that I do now is a lot of work, so we don't tend to see them as much as we used to. All the children are 5 years old now, and one of the aggressive kids is actually a lot easier now than he used to be, but the other one is not and my son doesn't want to play with him anymore.

Sometimes the only solution is to just keep them separated. It's very hard to change the behavior of a kid who isn't yours. We all know how hard it can be to change bad behavior in our own kids! My two boys have never gotten along - their personalities are just too different and they conflict. The only thing I have ever done that works is to separate them as much as possible and supervise them closely when they are together. Now that they are older and can go their separate ways, they enjoy each other's company in small doses. But being together for more than an hour or two almost guarantees there will be a dispute, maybe even a fistfight.

I would be careful about interpreting this boy's behavior as a personality problem. Sounds too much like there's no hope. Personally, I think preschool age is too young to expect children to play without adult supervision. I think adults need to be present to instruct their own children about acceptable behavior, to advise their child on-the-spot about dealing with difficulties, to advocate for their child when they need help, and, if other parents aren't present, to instruct other children about acceptable behavior. I would try being close by and when the boy does something unacceptable, like yelling at your daughter, I'd first advise your daughter to stand up for herself...something like...Tell him you don't like it when he yells at you. If that seems too hard for her, you can model it yourself by saying to him, She doesn't like it when you yell at her...can you use a different voice to ask her that question? If he does things that are totally unacceptable, like hitting, and his parents aren't around or aren't doing anything about it, I wouldn't hesitate to tell him that hitting is NOT okay. If you are out there sticking up for your daughter, she'll understand her own worth and she'll also learn some defensive techniques from your modeling. Cathy

I think you are probably justified in taking this child by the hand, (if you can catch him), leading him to his parents and telling them that this child is not ready to play with other children yet. He should stay inside until he can learn not to make them cry. Often the parents are not really aware of how big the problem is - because everyone else is too upset to confront them. This bully is going to need a lot of help - a huge proportion of childhood bullies end up in jail. If he gets help, everyone is going to be happier and your daughter's going to feel less helpless, so it's really in your interest. If the parents don't respond, you could find out what resources are available to treat their child and pass them on. Fiona

I haven't had any experience handling bullies so can't offer first-hand advice but you asked about books, either for children or adults. I full-heartedly recommend Rudolph Dreikurs's Children, the Challenge, which I have recommended many times on this list over the years. His basic message in your case is A misbehaving child is a discouraged child. Your description of the father rushing to the bully and saying (yelling perhaps?) What did you do? sounds to me like the parents of the bully need a good dose of Dreikurs, but reading the book will give you some insights which might help the parents. I don't recall the book having anything that might help your daughter directly, but you might be able to convey your insights to her in a way that give her some comfort.

Dreikurs does have one other slogan which might suggest something you could do Take the sails out of their wind. This means if a child is misbehaving to you, remove yourself. Then they don't have anyone to focus their misbehavior on. In your concrete situation, this means take your daughter home if the bully starts misbehaving.

By the way, I'm not sure that it is helpful to the situation to try to make your daughter feel better by comparing him to her. My best wishes to all of you. Fran