You’re on the playground. You see your little one toddle over to another little kid. You’re beaming. You’re proud of them for making the effort to connect with someone new. As you watch lovingly, soaking up every small detail, you start to notice it’s not going well. It could be the other child doesn’t want to play, or they immediately start pushing, or another handful of ways it can go sideways. Then suddenly, the seemingly small interaction brings you face to face with the topic you knew was coming but thought you had years before you had to address—bullying.

It’s not an overstatement to say that bullying has affected everyone—whether directly or indirectly. When you google “bullying,” 378M search results populate in under a second. The concept of bullying is woven into the human experience. It’s been talked about from every possible angle.

For people who know and love a child, it’s one of the things we wish we could completely shield them from, while also knowing that is an unrealistic goal. So what do kids need to know about bullying and when should they know it? 

The Cold Hard Facts

  • In the U.S., 1 in 5 students ages 12-18 have been bullied during the school year
  • Verbal harassment is the most commonly reported type of bullying (79%). Cyberbullying has risen to 25% in 2019, up from 15% in 2017
  • Only 30% of kids who have been bullied tell adults the bullying is taking place.

Talking Points by Age

As with all of the “big things” in life, it’s always requires more than one conversation. Here are some ways you can tackle bullying conversations at different stages.

Toddlers 

Of course at this age, toddlers don’t exactly understand the concept of bullying. Most of the time they’re just starting to realize that other kids even exist. That said, it’s a crucial place to start instilling behavioral expectations in a child. 

Biting, for example, is a very common behavior in toddlers. They’re processing their place in the world and how to navigate it with little to no words. It’s important to be thoughtful about how you address behavior like this. Here’s a recommended script from National Association of Education of Young Children you can use as a model. 

  1. Move quickly and get down to the child’s level. Address the child who did the biting first in a serious, firm tone. “No biting. Biting hurts. I can’t let you hurt Melanie or anyone else.” Then offer a choice: “You can help make Melanie feel better or you can sit quietly until I can talk to you.” Take steps to help the child decide and act on their choice.
  2. Now turn to the child who was hurt and offer comfort and support “I’m sorry you are hurting. Let’s get you some ice.” If both toddlers agree, let the child who did the biting help in comforting.
  3. Once the child who was bitten is feeling better and has moved on, return to the child who did the biting. Address them in a calm, firm voice but maintain eye contact. Try to find out what happened that lead to them biting. Repeat “biting is not allowed” to solidify the statement into a rule. Identify the feeling(s) that made them bite: “You felt angry. You bit Melanie. Biting is not allowed.” In simple sentences tell them how they can process their anger in different ways. 

It sounds simple enough, but in a busy life, it can be easy to push these seemingly small things aside in an effort to get on with the day. Make a conscious effort to prioritize these moments. Turning them into teaching moments will lay the groundwork for the bigger conversations and choices ahead.

Pre-school

This is the stage where most kids are spending more time away from loved ones for the first time and starting to branch out into their own little worlds. Kids are beginning to explore what it means to share their time, space, and things with people who aren’t in their family—and they’ll take “advice” wherever they can find it. Instead of looking to you for guidance on how to eat, walk, sleep, preschool age is when they start paying attention to how you interact with others. Be keenly aware of the words you use and how you talk about others when kids are around: they’re listening. 

This is also a good age to start leaning on books and other resources to underscore your talking points. There’s no shortage of book recommendations on the subject from teachers and other professionals.

Elementary

By now, kids have an understanding of the fundamentals of being in groups, and therefore it’s the time when they start noticing the differences among their peers. While it’s natural for kids to point out observed differences, be sure to also have open discussions about the positives in having differences. Some kids like to play big, loud games in groups, while others are happier reading on their own. Both are ok. Some kids bring their lunch to school, while others eat lunch provided by the school. Both are ok. Some kids are tall and some are short. Both are ok. Some kids speak English and some are still learning. Both are ok. 

Just like with toddlers and biting, it’s crucial to continue to talk about your expectations for how your child should treat others and their differences in clear and simple terms. “We do not call people names.” “We do not make fun of people for being different.” Be calm but firm with your tone—they’re still learning. 

Late Elementary + Beyond

Chances are high that by 4th grade most children have seen, experienced, or heard of bullying actively happening in their school. Building on top of the early developmental work, it’s time to start addressing the issue head-on. Here’s a good tip sheet on ways to approach the conversation for the bullied, bully, and the bystander, as most kids will find themselves in EACH of these roles at some point. 

It’s also important to make sure kids have a trusted person they can have honest, frank discussions with about bullying in a judgment-free space. 

Things to Keep in Mind

  • Don’t wait for bullying to happen to talk about it.
  • Avoid using the words “bully” and “victim” instead focus on specific behavior.
  • Most kids will try out bullying behaviors at some point. 

The Bottom Line: It’s about behavioral and social skills. The more those skills are strengthened and nurtured the less likely bullying will be a big part of a child’s life. Just as we focus on the development of children’s ABCs and 123s, we should be supporting their social development with equal amounts of dedication. 

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