#AskParentHub: How old does my child need to be before we talk about bullying?

March 4th, 2020

Young children need our help to manage their emotions, be gentle, and show consideration for others. It’s common for young children to become aggressive occasionally, including:

  • hitting, pushing, shoving and yelling
  • snatching toys from other children
  • calling other children names
  • assigning other children undesirable roles in games – ‘e.g. Robbie has to play the dumb baby’.

With our help, most children will grow out of this. However, there may be deeper problems we need to address if a young child:

  • behaves aggressively again and again
  • makes other children scared, isolated or anxious
  • often targets children who are weaker or less confident.

But there’s good news: early childhood is a perfect time to address problem behaviours before they can become a pattern, and to lay the foundations of respectful and caring relationships.

Explaining bullying to young children

You don’t have to use the word ‘bullying’ if you feel your children are too young to understand. It’s more important to speak clearly about what’s happening and how it makes people feel, such as:

  • ‘Harper keeps hitting Sofia, and it hurts her.’
  • ‘Charlotte tries to stop other kids from playing with Josh every day, and it makes him feel sad.’
  • ‘James calls Charlie mean names a lot, and it makes Charlie upset.’

Key messages to share with young children include:

  • It’s not OK to hurt other people.
  • It’s normal to feel upset, scared, angry or confused if someone hurts you.
  • It’s good to ask an adult for help.
  • We should treat other people the way we would like to be treated.
  • If there’s a problem, we can work together to find a solution.

Try to avoid labelling children as ‘bullies’ or ‘victims’, as these labels can stick. Rather, focus on changing the behaviours.

Teaching kindness and respect

Parents lay positive foundations for their children by doing things like:

  • being a good role model: letting your children see you being calm, respectful and assertive
  • being specific about the behaviours you want to see – e.g. ‘Let your sister play that game with you’
  • praising behaviour that helps others – e.g. ‘That was kind of you to let Evie borrow your teddy’
  • helping children to name their feelings and think about how other people are feeling – e.g. ‘How would you feel if someone did that to you?’
  • creating positive opportunities for children to have power, such as picking out a present for someone
  • setting clear, consistent rules, with reasonable consequences.

And parents can help children prepare for difficult situations by doing things like:

  • role-playing how to cope if someone is being mean, such as walking away, staying with a friend, standing tall and saying clear things like ‘It’s my turn’ or ‘No pushing’
  • teaching your children to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ assertively and ask for help
  • explaining the difference between nice and mean nicknames, and the difference between hurting someone on purpose and by accident
  • talking about how to tell when someone is sad or scared, and what we can do to help them – e.g. asking them to join in a game
  • enjoying books, movies and TV together, and using them to start conversations about how to cope with life’s challenges. Common Sense Media provides some lists to get you started, including: books about bullying, movies about kindness and TV shows about courage.

Getting support

Some families may need extra help. Good places to start include a trusted GP, psychologist or Parentline.

To learn more about working with young children on bullying, check out Bullying No Way, Raising Children Network and PromotePrevent.