How Can I Tell that a Child is Being Bullied?
Bullying by, and of children, especially of a preschool age, is a sensitive subject in most societies. Fact is – it happens. It happens at all ages, and it happens with all genders.
Figure 1 illustrates the breakdown per gender in the United States in 2014, undertaken by the Child Trends Organization (data may be less representative of societies which are not as technologically advanced, but the correlation will probably not be far off).
Figure 1: Bullying Breakdown per Gender
In 2014, males and females were equally likely to experience physical intimidation (being hit, slapped, or pushed), as well as Internet or cell phone harassment. Females were more likely to be the targets of relational aggression (teasing or emotional bullying). However, in terms of lifetime exposure, females were more likely than males to have experienced all types of bullying.
The risk for bullying peaks at different ages for different types of bullying. In 2014, physical bullying was most often reported by children under 10 years: its prevalence was 19 percent among children ages two to five, and 18 percent among children ages six to nine, compared with 9 percent among children ages 10 to 13, and 5 percent among children ages 14 to 17. Relational aggression peaks later, with 23 percent of children ages two to five reporting it in their past year, compared with 33 percent of children ages six to nine, 48 percent of children ages 10 to 13, and 39 percent of youth 14 to 17. Internet and cell phone harassment was most common at ages 14-17. See Figure 2.
Figure 2: Differences by Age
So, it is clear that (a) there is difference in gender, and (b) also in bullying types per age. For the purposes of this article we are particularly interested in how this phenomenon manifests itself with preschool children, and how to address it.
The aim of this article is to identify the bullying risk factors for preschool children, in the process also suggesting a coping mechanism for parents and teachers.
What is Bullying?
Relatively little focus has been paid to bullying in preschool children, mainly because bullying is difficult to measure among youngsters. One of the reasons for this is that they often exaggerate behaviours as bullying that may only be occasional rowdiness – more about that a bit later.
What is bullying? The most obvious forms of bullying in preschool children are hitting, shoving or threatening. Other forms include name-calling, teasing, telling lies, excluding (from a group) or taking another child’s belongings.
Is there a difference between playing and bullying? Play is important because it develops physical coordination and teaches roles and responsibilities. Occasional roughness between young children is quite normal when playing. Aggressive behaviour, especially if uncommon or for a short period of time, could be the result of things like hunger, anger, fatigue, illness, or some tension at home.
Bullying is different as it is repeated roughness or repeated planned intimidation. The intention of bullying is to cause deliberate hurt, or to gain more power and control. Bullying normally occurs consistently between the same children, with each usually playing the same role as victim or aggressor.
Bullying therefore has three elements: (a) It is an act that is aggressive and intended to do harm; (b) these are repeated over time; and, (c) they occur within the context of a power imbalance.
As far as the last point – a power imbalance – is concerned: the targets of bullying are often perceived as being different from or less powerful than peers because of:
- Gender identity.
- Learning disorder.
- Minority status ethnically, racially or religiously (normally with older children).
- Physical disability.
- Physical size or strength.
- Social or economic status (normally also with older children).
Bullying can take many forms. As indicated in Figure 2 bullying can take a number of forms. A further subdivision is as follows:
- This includes hitting, tripping and kicking, as well as destruction of property.
- This includes teasing, name-calling, and taunting.
- Psychological or social. Spreading rumours, embarrassing him or her in public, or exclusion from a group – mainly among older children.
- Cyberbullying involves threatening or harming others through the use of email, websites, social media platforms, text messages, or videos and photos shared electronically – also mainly only seen among older children (and another reason why children younger than five years of age’s screen time should be limited).
Symptoms of Bullying
Warning signs of bullying. If a child is being bullied, he or she might remain quiet out of fear, shame or embarrassment. Warning signs may therefore be vague, and sometimes may actually be considered mental issues. It is therefore important not to jump to conclusions as a teacher or parent. If in doubt – get expert advice.
Some symptoms to look out for:
- Lost or destroyed clothing or other personal belongings.
- Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations.
- Poor school performance or reluctance to go to school.
- Headaches, stomach aches or other physical complaints.
- Trouble sleeping.
- Changes in eating habits.
- Feelings of helplessness or low self-esteem (admittedly difficult to measure in young children).
Is your child a bully? Characteristics of a potential bully are:
- Failure to engage parents for a hug or touch in a strange situation.
- Consistent refusal to follow directions.
- Cruelty to other children or to animals.
- Indifference to having hurt someone.
- Insistence on always getting his or her own way (the younger they are the less of a characteristic this is).
- Low self-esteem (difficult to determine with young children).
- Multiple temper tantrums in a day.
- The use of anger or threats to achieve goals.
Especially with very young children, many of these things could just be part of growing up, so one should be careful of overreacting.
Bullying Risk Factors
A risk factor is a behaviour or other factor that increases risk of developing a certain condition – in this case of becoming a bully.
The general consensus among researchers is that bullying is in part driven by children developing social skills and behaviour. These skills are very fluid among young children, with the result being a range of challenging behaviours, which may include bullying. As children build social and regulatory skills, challenging behaviours and bullying tend to decline.
During the first three years of life the brain is developed based upon a child’s early experiences and interactions with people. By age six, the necessary neurological layouts have been established inter alia emotional control, ways of responding, language and literacy, and perceptions of symbols and relative quantity.
When a child faces insecurity and stress, more neural networks form in the lower brain, where animal-like responses like the flight-or-fight instinct reside. When a child is surrounded by familiar structures and support, more neural networks form in areas of the brain that support long-term memory storage and retrieval.
Those in general. Some specific potential risk factors include:
- Victimisation? Is the child being picked on herself and taking it out on someone else?
- Routine changes? Does the child feel out of control due to frequent changes in routines?
- Can the child hear properly? This can be a source of great frustration.
- Is the only way to get your attention to act out? Provide plenty of attention, smiles and hugs for good behaviour to address this.
- Violence at home? Is there violence in the home which the child is carrying over to other relationships?
Remedying some of these problems might help. If it doesn’t, you need to look further and may even need to seek outside help.
What to do About It
Programmes that focus on building children’s social skills are often considered to be one broad bullying prevention measure. There are also other strategies to prevent and address bullying.
Keep communication open. Talking about bullying before it happens sets the stage for preventing and addressing the problem. Consider asking your child (you may have to tailor this according to the age of the child):
- What things happened today at school?
- What do you consider bullying? Have you seen bullying at school?
- What is it like at lunch, breaks or on the school bus?
- Who are your friends at school??
Have a plan for responding. Talk to your child about plans for responding to bullying. These may include the following actions (again, these may have to be modified for very young children):
- Avoid places that don't feel safe.
- Tell the other child directly and calmly to stop.
- Talk to a friend about what happened.
- Talk to a teacher at school.
- Try to spend time with friends who are safe and supportive.
- Walk away and remove yourself from the situation.
Encourage your child to be a defender. With older children you may encourage the child to:
- Enlist friends to question bullying behaviour as a group.
- Model empathetic and kind behaviours.
- Question the bullying behaviour when it happens.
- Report bullying to a trusted adult.
- Sit or walk with kids who may be a target of bullying.
- Talk to the person being targeted privately.
As mentioned - the above points may be more relevant to older children. One could hardly expect a toddler to act in this way. But if you suspect your child is being bullied or your child has reported bullying, take the following steps:
- Ensure safety.Support your child by explaining that you want them to be safe and that you will take steps to protect their safety and end the bullying.
- Learn details.Ask your child to describe what happened.
- Contact the school.Contact the school counsellor, principal or other educators as indicated in the school bullying policy (which they all must have).
- Follow up.Work with the school to develop a plan to respond to bullying, agree on steps to address the problem and follow up with the school to ensure bullying has stopped.
Some specific coping strategies for teachers.
The first year. The best approach for discouraging unwelcome behaviour is to distract the child. During the first year, the word "no" barely registers on infants; they may understand that you are angry but do not understand the link between actions and their consequences. Give them lots of attention, affection and security.
The second year. At this age, children tend to play independently even when they are together, and they tend to imitate each other rather than interact. Even so, conflicts can arise. Usually, though, aggressive behaviour is the result of frustration and misperception, not the intent to hurt. They want to own everything they see, including things that belong to other people, and they cannot comprehend concepts like sharing.
Three to five years. Children can follow stories, grasp new ideas and talk about them. They are ready to learn about acceptable and unacceptable behaviour and about other people. There are still limitations, however. At this age, children understand that hitting hurts others. Even so, they may not always be able to stop themselves from aggressive or hurtful behaviour.
A last note on television and aggression. A number of studies have identified links between television viewing and aggression. Because children learn from their experiences, it seems reasonable that the experience of viewing violence, arguments and aggressive behaviour on television provides children with mental notes on how to behave.
In general, we view limiting screen time of any sort for children younger than six to be important. This is the age when children learn by playing, and so it should be, rather than to be distracted by electronic media. Thinking that you may be calming the child down by parking him/her in front of the television may over the longer term have the opposite effect.
As we said in the introduction to this article – bullying is a sensitive subject for parents and teachers. No parent wants their child to be bullied, and no parent wants to hear that their child is a bully. The teacher sits in-between this situation and is often in the best position to make an objective assessment.
Doing such an assessment with preschool children is however fraught with difficulty, considering the developmental cycle through which children of this age go. It is therefore incumbent upon teachers and parents to obtain as many insights into this phenomenon as they can get, so as to always be able to make an objective assessment. If in any doubt it is always better to solicit the assistance of outside expert help.
Child Trends. Trends in Bullying.
https://www.childtrends.org/indicators/bullying (accessed on 23 February 2020).
Mayo Clinic. Bullying: How Parents can Help.
https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/childrens-health/in-depth/bullying/art-20044918 (accessed on 22 February 2020).
Snow, K. Bullying in Early Childhood. 27 October 2014.
https://www.naeyc.org/resources/blog/bullying-early-childhood (accessed on 22 February 2020).
Schroeder, J. Preschool Bullying: What You can do About it. 2000. The Alberta Teachers’ Association. The Society for Safe and Caring Schools and Communities.
The Room 241. A Teacher’s Role in Bullying Prevention. 10 October 2012.
https://education.cu-portland.edu/blog/classroom-resources/a-teachers-role-in-bullying-prevention/ (accessed on 23 February 2020).
Wheeler, R.B. What Does Bullying Look Like?
(accessed on 22 February 2020).
 Screen time refers to exposure to all forms of phones, tablets or television.