What To Do When Your Toddler Is The Bully

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It’s one of the phone calls parents of toddlers dread: to come pick up their child from preschool because he/she is bullying another child and is being sent home. Although most parents immediately blame themselves, even the most well-mannered kids can bully.

There are a number of reasons why one child bullies another.

Cindee J. Ivker, MD, FAAP

The good news is that the behavior can be stopped. The important thing is to act on it as soon as you see or hear about it happening. Usually bullying does not end unless the child doing the bullying, even a toddler, takes responsibility for his/her actions, admits their mistakes and learns how to change their behavior.

At Westchester Health Pediatrics, we often hear from parents whose children are victims of bullying, and we’ve written several blogs about that. In this blog, however, we wanted to offer advice to parents of kids who themselves are doing the bullying (in this case, toddlers). Over the many decades we’ve been in practice, we’ve helped hundreds of parents raise their infants and toddlers and we’re ready to help you with yours, too.

Preschool bullying can take many forms, but it typically involves:

  • Hitting, shoving or tripping
  • Fighting
  • Taunting, teasing, threatening
  • Making fun of the way a kid acts, looks or talks
  • Picking on another child who’s usually smaller, weaker or shy
  • Purposely excluding other kids from games
  • Whispering mean things about kids behind their backs

Why do kids bully?

Bullies pick on their targets to try and gain control over them by scaring them, usually while other children are watching. Girls who bully usually do so in emotional ways, while boys tend to bully in physical and emotional ways. No matter the gender, though, bullies seek power at someone else’s expense.

Bullies (of any age) are typically influenced by:

  • Peer pressure
  • Sense of entitlement
  • A reaction to having been a victim of bullying
  • Inability to control impulses or manage anger
  • No consequences
  • Domestic violence
  • Emotional and/or physical abuse
  • Anger and hostility at home
  • Violent video games
  • Low impulse control
  • Low tolerance of frustration
  • A need to control or dominate
  • Trouble with authority
  • Extreme aggressiveness

10 steps you can take when it’s your child doing the bullying

According to the AAP, bullying behavior that isn’t addressed leads to more bullying. Not only that, kids who continue to bully without consequences are less successful as adults and are more likely to get into trouble with the law. That’s why it’s important to take action immediately. Here are 10 things you can do to combat bullying, some of which we picked up from whattoexpect.com:

1) Immediately show your disapproval

The instant you see your toddler start to hit another child, intervene as quickly as possible and tell him/her loudly and firmly, “No! We do not hit.” Remember, though, to be careful to condemn the action, not the child.

2) Remove your child from the situation

Right away, take your child to a different place and firmly explain that hitting or biting is not allowed, ever.

3) Block the abusive behavior

If you see your child about to hit or bite, catch his/her hand in midair or place your hand over your child’s mouth.

4) Apologize for your child’s actions

If your toddler hits or bites a playmate, immediately tend to the victim. Check to see if the child is okay, and make sure your child hears you apologize and that you are very upset with his/her behavior. Apologize to the child’s parent who might be angry but hopefully can see that you’re working on stopping this unacceptable behavior in your child.

5) Encourage your child to use words, not fists, when angry

Help your toddler use language and gestures to communicate. As much as you can, require him/her to say simple words like “mad” when he/she is frustrated. If you reward your child’s efforts to talk, he/she will ultimately learn that words are a more effective and socially acceptable way to communicate than violence.

6) Try to establish empathy in your child

To encourage compassion for the person your child was bullying, you can say things like, “When you say mean things to Emma, it makes her feel sad. You don’t like to feel sad, do you?”

7) Suggest other words or behaviors

It’s an oldie but a goodie: “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

8) Use effective discipline

We suggest non-physical discipline strategies, like taking away privileges, when your child bullies a peer—NOT spanking. Decades of research has shown that physically punishing a child doesn’t work to change behavior and actually harms the child’s physical, psychological and social development.

9) Be consistent at home

If overly aggressive wrestling is not okay at preschool, it shouldn’t be allowed at home. In addition, if you see mean-spirited teasing or threatening behavior between your children, step in right away. If you don’t, your child is likely to take it to school.

10) Be a good role model

Remember that your child is always watching and taking behavioral cues from you. If you scream at another driver who cuts you off in traffic or make snarky comments about another woman’s hair or outfit, your child might mimic this put-down behavior with his/her peers.

Count on us for information and advice to help you raise your toddler

You’ve got questions, we’ve got answers. Whether you’re a new parent or an old hand, we want you to know that you can turn to us for help, whatever stage of development your child is in. We’re parents too, with years of experience helping parents care for their toddlers, including how to handle bullying. To read about our tips, advice and guidance specifically for raising infants and toddlers, click here.

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If your think your child is bullying or is being bullied, please come see us

If you’ve observed or have been made aware that your child is bullying, or is the victim of bullying, please make an appointment with Westchester Health Pediatrics to see one of our pediatricians, hopefully with your child. Together, we’ll determine the best way forward for your child so that he/she and everyone around them can feel safe, listened to and happy. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.Make an appt

By Cindee J. Ivker, MD, FAAP, Lead Pediatrician, Westchester Health Pediatrics, member of Northwell Health Physician Partners

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About the Author: ML Ball