Understanding Aggressive Behavior and Bullying

three toddler girls making funny faces

What is Bullying?

“Bullying,” according to stopbullying.gov, “is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose.”

The first step in stopping bullying is understanding it, but parents are often unsure about how to address it when it impacts their child. Research has found that a direct, but age-appropriate, response is generally most effective.

Aggressive Behavior in Young Children

Aggressive behaviors in children of any age can be worrisome, but young children 1-5 years of age are coming from a very different place, socially and cognitively, than older children. They do not typically act with aggressive intent or even understand the impact their behavior has on others. To label their behavior “bullying” is generally inaccurate. 

Young children in early childhood programs may display aggressive behaviors because they lack the language skills to express basic needs. Their behavior is their primary way of communicating. They do not yet understand the reasons for, or even have the ability, to share and take turns. They may feel frustration when they can’t do something. Children who are tired, hungry, or overwhelmed by sensory input may express their needs by crying, pushing, or biting.

These developmental characteristics call for a different response to aggressive behavior than we might take with older children. If you’re concerned about aggressive behavior in your child’s early childhood classroom, talk with the teacher to find a solution. Changes in the schedule, such as offering more outdoor time, providing more hands-on activities, or planning experiences for small groups of children—rather than the whole group—can often alleviate the situation. Additionally, early childhood teachers can and should model appropriate skills for children and even offer age-appropriate lessons in social skills learning. Teachers should proactively build nurturing relationships with children, provide careful supervision, adapt the environment, and offer positive guidance.

How to Stop Bullying in School-Age Children

Have an open conversation. First, talk with your child about what bullying is, based on the definition above. Most children will experience or participate in conflict or aggressive behavior with their peers at some point. These incidents should be addressed and used as teaching opportunities, but they should not be considered bullying, which is more aggressive, intentional, and ongoing.

Teach your child how to deal with bullies. Some strategies for dealing with bullies might include using humor to deflect a conflict; telling another child to stop an unwanted behavior; or moving away. Tell your child to find and talk to a trusted adult. Bullying in schools tends to happen when adults aren’t present and in places like the playground or the school bus. Suggest that your child avoid areas where bullying is more likely to occur, e.g., the back of the bus versus the front near the bus driver.

Be aware. Children often avoid talking about bullying for several reasons:

  1.  They believe it’s their fault.
  2.  They worry that telling an adult will intensify the bullying.
  3.  They fear that there is no solution.

Pay attention to any changes in your child’s behavior and be sure to engage with them about their days. You can ask questions like the following: Who do you sit with at lunch? What do you talk about? What do you like best about school? What’s one thing that is hard?

Get involved. Find out about your school’s policies on bullying and get to know the children in your child’s class. Visit stopbullying.gov to learn more about how to respond to bullying, especially if you suspect your child may be a target. Continue to talk with your child and have frequent communication with school staff.

Stop bullying when you see it. Don’t ignore bullying or expect children to work it out themselves. If you see bullying behavior, put a stop to it immediately, directly, and respectfully. Make sure all the children are safe and reassure the victim that it was not his or her fault. Your first priority should be re-establishing safety and offering comfort. Avoid making judgment. Remember that the “bully” is also a child in need of compassion and guidance.

Model and teach appropriate social behavior. Adults play a powerful role in molding children’s behavior. Create a culture in your home of respect and kindness. Set clear expectations that all people are treated fairly; model how to resolve conflict through respectful dialogue. Your example may not protect your child from every incidence of bullying, but it lessens the chance of your child engaging in bullying behavior. Your example can also have a positive effect on your child’s peers.
Bullying negatively affects both the child being bullied and the one doing the bullying, and so it’s important to handle both sides thoughtfully, compassionately, directly, and with care.

More on Guiding Children's Behavior

three toddler girls making funny faces
About the Author
Bright Horizons
Bright Horizons
Bright Horizons
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