Understanding Bullying Behaviour

Moms and dads often despair when their beautiful child starts showing aggressive behaviour and bullying other children. To be honest, this behaviour might even be apparent from early on, although it often seems to develop as part of toddlerhood. Many parents first notice bullying or aggressive behaviour when their big baby or toddler starts interacting with other children at day care or in social gatherings, though younger siblings may well also be in the firing line.

To try to solve this behaviour, it’s important to take a step back and analyse any possible factors that are contributing to it. These may include the following:

  • Your child’s inherent nature – some little ones are more impatient, possessive or dominant than others, just as with adults. There is often a family streak like this, and your challenge is to guide your child to understanding that others should be respected. This is as important for adults to practice as it is for children to learn, so setting a good example is key to ensuring that the problem behaviour is short-lived. The positive side of this factor is that your child may well be a born leader and have a more decisive, outgoing personality. It is not that the bullying habit needs to be ‘broken’, but rather that this strong character needs firm guidance to channel it into socially acceptable, kinder behaviour.
  • The general nature of children – little ones are mostly very ‘selfish’ in the first three or four years of life, and learning to share toys, for instance, is a process that may take some time to master. This is also an impulsive and curious phase, and children often seem to disregard others as they pursue their immediate wishes. Combine this general tendency with an inherent strong-willed nature and bullying or aggressive behaviour may result. This doesn’t mean it’s acceptable, but understanding this may help you to structure a plan to defuse tense or aggressive situations. It is important to know that in toddlerhood bullying is not really intentionally mean behaviour.
  • ‘Rough and tough’ parenting – a rather common parenting approach nowadays is the thought that one needs to raise strong, independent children to face a tough, cruel world. This approach shapes the early years of children, who are often left to ‘self-soothe’ or cry themselves to sleep, teased to make them more ‘immune’ to what others think and forcefully shepherded out of ‘baby’ behaviour like breastfeeding, suckling on dummies, and the use of nappies. Surely it is logical that little ones who are raised like this will display aggressive or bullying behaviour more readily; indeed, research shows that this is the case. And yet there are very few parents who find aggression and bullying acceptable, even if they themselves display the adult version of very similar behaviour. They seem to worry that their child’s behaviour is a reflection on their parenting, rather than entertaining the possibility that their parenting approach should be adjusted.
  • Early separation from parents – one of the most unfortunate spin-offs of modern city life is how it affects the relationship between parent and child, often leading to the neglect of children’s emotional well-being and behaviour. If a baby and small child’s emotional needs are disregarded, poor self-esteem or asocial behaviour is sure to follow.

Of course, it’s possible that some aggressive behaviour really is just a passing phase not worth worrying too much about. That being said, you shouldn’t ignore repetitive signs. Fortunately, both bullying and other forms of aggression are easily handled with wise use of a few simple techniques

Treating Bullying Behaviour

If your child is a bully, it’s important to examine the issue honestly. Bullying is seldom just an isolated incident. It is also rarely ‘just the child’s fault’, and you may need to analyse your parenting styles and society’s norms and values. This may be tough at first, but making those key changes are very liberating, and well worth it! 

In a nutshell:

  • Use a gentler, more sensitive parenting approach; gentle parenting is not weak, but is in fact, infinitely strong.
  • Think clearly about the example and subliminal messages you are sending to your child, and tone down any overly sharp-edged, critical behaviour.
  • Spend more time doing fun, meaningful things with your child – be ‘at home’ when you are together and treat time with your child as a priority that nothing else surpasses; this will teach her to be a considerate playmate and respectful, yet strong child.
  • Use the skill of distraction if your child shows growing signs of aggression or frustration. This teaches your child that although he may have wanted to take out his feelings on others, there is a more constructive, positive way to channel that negative energy. 
  • Don’t leave bullies and victims of bullying to ‘sort themselves out’, unless you know for sure that the ‘victim’ is also a culprit and that if you make yourself scarce, the incident will immediately disappear.
  • When there is serious bullying, make sure that the ‘victim’ is immediately comforted, but then distracted and involved in fun social activities with others, to ensure that victim mentality is not accidentally instilled.
  • If your little one continues to display unacceptable behaviour toward others, simply say a firm ‘no’ and take him or her away from the child who is being bullied; then turn around and walk away, not making any further eye contact or conversation. Keep moving as your little one will probably follow you and make their feelings known increasingly loudly. Play music to help soothe you (and your toddler). By letting your child get to you now, you would be the audience, and your child the actor! Remove the audience, and no actor will perform.
  • Ask yourself if your young bully is really ready for full-time day care, if this is where the problem occurs. He may be acting out because he isn’t getting enough one-on-one care for his age (quite common under three years) or the emotional handling at day care is harsh or forceful. If you think this is the case, think about using a day mother or nanny instead.

Little ones who bully often show aggression to parents and other adults as well. It is best not to smack your little one, as he’ll quite simply learn that while it is unacceptable for him to be aggressive, adults are allowed to be aggressive – a mixed message that will spiral out of control, sooner or later.