By Joan Firestone, Ph.D.
No parent wants their child to become a bully or the victim of a bully. But bullying continues to be a dominant safety issue in our schools and communities. It is, in fact, the most common form of violence in our society, and between 15 and 30 percent of public school students are or have been bullies or victims, according to most research studies. So think about the behaviors you may have seen recently in your toddler. Did he or she push another child? Grab the toy he or she wanted from someone else who was playing with it? Or respond meekly when someone knocked down their block structure? If you’ve observed these things, do you need to worry that your child is on the path to becoming a bully or victim?
Fortunately, the answer is no. We’ve learned that aggression is an inborn trait, present in everyone during the earliest years. It typically peaks when children (and especially boys) are two or three years old and then recedes as they gain control over and curb their impulses. As you might imagine, however, this doesn’t magically happen on its own. Young children need guidance and support from parents and teachers as they learn to control and moderate their aggressive behaviors. If this support isn’t present, and preschoolers don’t learn to regulate their aggression during this period, they are more likely to become bullies during their later school years. Similarly, we know the preschool years are an ideal time to help children gain the social skills necessary to avoid becoming a victim. Children who have good friends, display appropriate social skills and are used to solving their own problems generally avoid being subject to the aggression of their peers during elementary school. So what can you do at home to bully-proof your child?
During toddlerhood, while children’s aggression is peaking, their language development is also taking off. This is really lucky as the best way to help children curb their impulses and gain social skills is through the use of language. We often repeat the phrase “use your words” to young children as we help them shift from using aggressive force to using language to solve problems and get what they want. Before children can use their words, however, we must use our words to help them deal with the complex process of problem-solving.
Be sure to let your children know how proud you are whenever they show empathy for others and attempt to solve their own problems, whether independently or with your assistance. For if we can help our children learn to control their aggressive behavior and stand up for themselves as preschoolers, we can make our schools and communities safer for all children.