A primary parent’s guide to talking to your bullying child


There’s been a lot in the press lately about bullying – frankly when isn’t there? – and specifically about parents who are desperately seeking an answer on how to stop the bullies in their tracks.

But let’s turn everything on its head for a minute. What if it’s your child who is the bully? What is your role in all of this? How can you make a huge difference to both your own child and the child they are being mean to?

Be under no illusion, having a child who bullies another child can happen to anyone, but catching it early and stopping it can be, quite simply, in your hands.

So if you’ve discovered that your young child is turning into a bit of a bully or has been unkind to another child, take action now and turn the foundling bully into a kind, friendly loving child again.

First and foremost, communication and terminology, especially when a child is young, is key!

Only a few weeks ago my 28 year old daughter phoned me to tell me how distraught she was at having witnessed the intentional bullying of my two and a half year old granddaughter for the first time in a local play area.

Children are born naturally curious.  Anxious to emulate others and anxious to be liked and loved.  They approach life with joy. My granddaughter was doing what comes naturally.  Approaching two slightly older girls in the play area aged about four and six and wanting to join in with their giggling and fun.  Watching very closely from the side lines, my daughter saw them deliberately turn and push her over and then declare to one another, having seen her cry, “shall we do it again?”  This intentional act of meanness was made all the worse by the fact that they enjoyed seeing her cry and wanted to re-enact it all over again AND that they were so young.  My daughter, of course, rushed over to comfort her daughter and asked them why they did it, reminding them to play nicely.  “She was spoiling our game” was the reply. Matter of fact. No remorse.

The mother of the two children was sitting talking to friends enjoying the sunshine and seemed oblivious to the whole situation.  Certainly there was no interaction between parent and children. No communication that what they were doing was wrong.

Understandably my daughter said it haunted her that day.  The natural innocence and joy of her own daughter shattered in a single instance by meanness.

So why would two very young children, feel the need or even think about lashing out and being mean to a toddler?  The fact that they are getting away with it means that probably they will get away with it again and again if their parents don’t intervene soon, and could grow up to be repeat bullies. Why would making another child cry make a child happy enough that they wanted to do it again?  There is no one answer but surely as parents, if we see or hear that our child is being mean to another child, we have a duty, and more importantly we do have the ability, to stop that behaviour right in its tracks.

So how do we talk to our primary aged child about such behaviour when we discover that they are in fact being mean to another child?  Is there anything we can do practically as well as talking to them?

You’re first reaction when you see your child’s behaviour or hear about it is to feel a cocktail of emotion. Anger, disappointment, fear, embarrassment and confusion.

Anger that they did it. Disappointment in them. Fear that they will continue to do it or worse.  Embarrassment that everyone has seen or heard about it and labelled them and confusion over what you are going to do to stop it happening again.

The first step is to be calm.  You might want to, but getting annoyed and chastising your child will achieve nothing more than a scared or rebellious response, the walls will come up, they’ll cry and they won’t hear what you’re trying to say. And you’ll get upset to boot.

If they’re old enough to stay still and listen, sit them down.  Explain that you have been told about what they did, or saw it yourself if that is applicable, and ask them to explain what they think happened.  Use language which they will understand.  “Bullying” is a very strong word for young children.  Use words such as “friend”, “unkind” and “sad”. You’re appealing to your child’s better nature. They will feel listened to and the door has been opened to you.

Once you’ve got a picture of what happened directly from them, you need to ease out of them why they did it and then get them to understand why it’s important they never do it again.

So how?

You’re calm and your child is looking at you.  Waiting. You know what happened and if there was a why.  What do you say?  How can you persuade your young child that they can never do it again?  That being mean or unkind is fundamentally wrong and changes both the child who does it and their victim?

Turn the tables.

Most young children should respond to you reminding them that being happy and loved is one of the most important things in their lives.  That smiling and laughing is wonderful and crying and being sad feels awful. Get them to acknowledge how good they feel about being happy and liked. How great they feel when their friends are laughing with them or when they make others smile.

Then explain that taking that feeling away from another child on purpose is wrong.  That making another child cry or be sad is wrong. Get them to focus on themselves. Ask them to think about how they would feel if someone was mean to them and took their happy feeling away.  How they would feel all day after someone was mean to them and how they would feel about seeing that mean child the next day. That they would avoid them and not want to be near them.

Ask them if that is how they would like to be viewed by other children?  By gently putting them into the shoes of their victim and making them walk in them and realise how sad they now feel, a light bulb should start to come on in their head.

If your child is pushing others around because they are frustrated and it’s their only way of expressing what they want or making sure they get their own way, this is their first step onto a learning path of resilience and confidence without resorting to being unkind.

Resilient, confident children not only cope with other children being unkind to them, they don’t feel the need to resort to being unkind themselves. Confidence in the fact that you are happy and liked has a domino effect on your relationships with others and this is true of any age.

Young children are not fundamentally mean but if being mean gets them their own way or makes them appear more important and no one challenges their bad behaviour, it will continue.  Punishment such as withdrawing treats etc at this age doesn’t really achieve a permanent result and is difficult to enforce.  But they do understand how they feel and how being happy feels.  You’re trying to make them be aware of the feeling they will have of sadness at upsetting another child and the happiness that they can feel by being nice and friendly to those they are with.

With very young children, who getting to sit still and having a more grown up conversation with is impossible, it would be better to try visual aides to get your message over.

Sitting with them while reading a favourite book about friends enjoying being together can enable a simplistic conversation about behaving nicely towards other children and making them smile and laugh rather than cry and be sad. Basic but effective.

In addition to having the conversation with your child, swallow hard and be upfront and contact the parents of the bullied child if it’s been brought to your attention by school or other parents.  You’ll be amazed at how receptive parents can be if you reassure them that you are on it.  If you can’t directly approach them, or really feel it would be too difficult, ask your child’s teacher to pass on the message.

Finally, do something amazing. Invite that child to your house to play with your own child, with their mum if necessary if she’s wary.  Sit together and have coffee and watch them play having had your talk, and see that sometimes friendships come from the most unusual beginnings.

Julia Hague

3rd May 2016

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