Is It Bullying Or Not?

As a psychologist and Parent Coach, I’ve noticed that we’re constantly bombarded with negative messages about our children. It seems that every new headline gives us another reason to worry about our kids. But often, our kids are doing great – it’s we as parents who need a little attitude adjustment! That’s why I’m happy to be a part of the Positive Parenting Network’s Spring Fling – to help get out the message about positive parenting approaches. Because sometimes, our fears get the best of us. It reminds me of a recent situation when a parent stopped me, worried about a 6-year-old “bully”. The child in question — in my observation — wasn’t a bully, but rather a fairly typical little girl, testing out her advanced verbal (and not-so-advanced social) skills. Did she hurt her friends’ feelings? Probably. And did her friends reciprocate by saying something mean right back? They sure did. The parent was very upset about the impact of this “bully” in the classroom — and wanted to know what could be done to stop her. But was this truly “bullying?” No, it wasn’t. And I worry about the little girl being labeled “bully”, because the word has such negative connotations. So, what IS the definition of bullying?

Bullying is being intentionally, repeatedly cruel and belittling to smaller or otherwise less powerful kids. 6-year-old girls telling each other “you can’t come to my birthday party”, or “you don’t get to talk!” don’t qualify as bullying. And defining normal social “sparring” as “bullying” does everyone a disservice. Bullying has been getting some much-deserved attention in the media, and as a shrink I can attest to the terrible damage that TRUE bullying does to kids. But as an Early Childhood specialist, I know that little kids — especially girls — “practice” their social skills quite a lot with their classmates, and those skills get quite a bit of needed refining in 1st and 2nd grades. Teachers in those grades know that this is common behavior, and gives the kids the opportunity to do some social “practicing” in a fairly safe situation. Do they need limits, structure, and guidance in the process? You bet. But labeling them “bullies” is a major overreaction.

If you have a kid in these grades (as I do) — here’s what to keep in mind:

  • Kids need to “try out” their peer-to-peer social skills. Like lion cubs, they need to practice — but they don’t really mean any harm.
  • "Victims” at this age tend to shrug off the insults with no problem. Don’t jump in to protect your cub until you see she’s truly struggling.
  • Talk early — and often — about the little social struggles among your kids’ friends. Make it a point to ask about all the details, not to get anyone into trouble — but to help your cub think through the next incarnation of the battle. We’re building “social muscle” here.
  • Role-play regular situations that crop up. Cutting in line, saying “mean” things, and “who is best friends with whom” are typical arguments. Walk through these issues with your child frequently to try out new approaches and solutions. Ask, “What might you say instead next time?”
  • Be interested, open, and empathic — and try to hold back your parental protectiveness, unless there’s something more serious going on.

And of course, if your child is truly being bullied — or is, in fact, the bully — please step in immediately to involve the teachers and other parents. This is an age where this kind of behavior can — and should be — nipped in the bud. The Mom in question arranged a Parent Coaching session with me – via a conference call, so we could also include her husband – and we discussed strategies especially for their daughter. After a brief follow-up session, they’re now confident their daughter is gaining in confidence and blossoming in the classroom. It’s wonderful how one or two short sessions can relieve parents’ guilt, worry, and stress – and guide the whole family forward, in a positive way. With some practice (and a little luck), you’re setting the stage for your child to come to you with social problems in adolescence and beyond — for help and support in solving ever-more complex social dramas and situations.

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Please check out the other experts at PositiveParentingNetwork.com to read some of the other great advice!

Child Discipline: Is My Little Kid a Controlling Bully?

Hi Dr. Heather, My almost-4-year-old is extremely controlling. She tries to control everything, including telling us to stop whistling or singing, and trying to control the other children at her preschool. She has always had an outgoing personality, and is very determined. We have tried ignoring the situation when she tries to control us, which has significantly helped. After weeks of us reacting the same way to a particular controlling behavior, she will subside. Now, the problem is when she tries to control the other kids in her school.

Is there anything we can do at home that will change her controlling behavior toward others when we aren't around to handle the situation? She is also a very sweet and affectionate little girl who loves to laugh. It is her mix of control and determination that is concerning us.

Thank You,

Jenelle

Hi Jenelle,

We've got a 5-year-old who tries to do the same kind of stuff. It is annoying, to be sure! We've done what you have; ignoring the behavior. Eventually, it works (even though it can take WEEKS, as you experienced!)

But when it comes to school behavior, it is a different story. First, arrange a meeting with her teacher to talk about it. Find out how frequently your daughter tries to be "bossy" at school. Ask if it's impacting her ability to make (and keep) friends. See if it's interfering with the teacher's lesson plans. The degree of your response will depend on the answers to those questions.

If it is a significant problem at school, you want to coordinate your approach with her teachers. Make sure everyone (including teachers' aids, enrichment teachers, etc.) is involved in creating the plan, and everyone responds similarly. The more everyone is "on the same page", the faster the offending behavior will decrease. You know your daughter responds to the "ignoring" approach, so use what works, just expanding it into the school setting. Then get at-least weekly updates as to how the plan is going.

You can also engage in some play-acting of the scenarios she encounters at school; ask her teacher to give you some examples of what tends to happen. Don't scold her, but rather wait until you have some time together. Tell her you heard from her teacher that there was a problem between her and another kid, and you want to learn what happened, and how to try to make it different next time. Then start a "pretend" scenario, asking her to play it out with you. Switch roles so that she has the opportunity to be the "boss-ee". Talk about how it feels to be bossed around. Play-act different ways of responding to similar situations, then ask how THAT felt. Again, try to keep any scolding tone out of your voice; she won't listen as well if she feels defensive. Sum it up with a quick rehearsal of how she can "ask people nicely", or "wait her turn", or "let people try things their way", or whatever the issue is.

And no, I'm not necessarily concerned about a determined and "head-strong" 4-year-old. She's at an age where you have the ability to characterize her attitude in either a positive (or negative) way -- and your attribution will "stick", over time. So look for the positive side of her personality. This dedication and intensity will help her be a leader and a hard worker. And look at it this way; you won't be worrying about your daughter getting bullied at school!

Try these suggestions on for size, and let us know how it goes.

Aloha, Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Toddler Behavior: Help! How Can I Stop My Toddler from Hitting our Pets?!

Dear Dr. Heather, My 15 -month-old terrorizes animals. We have a small dog and a few cats, and any time the child sees one of them she goes running over with her arm cranked back to whack it. If she has anything in her hands she will use it as a club. If the animal is on the ground she will grab it by the back and try to crush it into the floor and sit on it. After this greeting she will say "gentle" and pet the animal nicely, evidently to make sure it appreciates the difference.

We don't smack her, we don't smack the pets, so why is she so violent? How do I get her to stop before she gets bitten? Luckily we have very complacent pets but I'm sure even the most patient animal will defend itself eventually.

Thanks for your advice, Christine

Hi Christine,

I know it's hard to see your baby so aggressive with animals. Now that your toddler is big enough to move around and check out her environment, she wants to feel, grab, and test everything out. We're all born with aggressive instincts; it comes from evolution and our animal roots. But she has no way to understand that aggressive handling of things will negatively affect them permanently. She can't yet understand that crushing the kitty will HURT it. (And she won't understand it yet, even if you explain it to her a million times.)

She's not yet cognitively able to understand the impact of her actions on others. She's just exploring, and using her own natural (and normal) aggressive instincts. But it's not really "violence", in the sense of really intending to hurt someone. So don't jump to conclusions about your toddler's personality or temperament. She's just doing the usual toddler thing. And she's clearly also trying out the "gentle" actions she has seen you model.

So, what to do? Your daughter is at what I consider to be the most difficult age of childhood; the 10-20 month window is when babies become toddlers, physically, but they haven't yet fully transitioned into their non-baby minds. So what you get is a big, mobile baby, not fully in control of her body, with all this pent up energy and interest in the world, and not a lot of coping strategies to manage the unavoidable frustration that comes along with it. My shoulders still tense up when I recall my own kids' passage through that very tricky time.

Johnny Depp said that having a toddler is like constantly being on suicide and homicide watch. You always have to be prepared to prevent your toddler from killing herself, or someone else. It's a dangerous time! All you can really do is provide as much safety and structure as possible -- and this usually means a 1-1 parent-kid ratio at all times, until she gets into a slightly more predictable (and manageable) stage.

But with all that parent-toddler time, you do have the opportunity to model good behavior, demonstrate how to touch others (including animals) appropriately, and generally navigate around the great big world. Many of your lessons won't bear fruit for quite some time, so pace yourself. But feel confident that eventually, your daughter and your kitties will be the best of friends!

Aloha, Dr. Heather The BabyShrink