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How to Identify and Handle a Very Young Bully

All young kids can be jerks, but they generally lack the sophistication to actually be aggressive or cruel to each other.

Little kids may exhibit aggressive behaviors, but most of them aren’t ultimately related to bullying. More likely, jerky little kids are struggling with problem-solving or manifesting a crankiness because they can’t explain their feelings. Still, understandable behaviors can gradually coalesce into poisonous social strategies or genuine aggression. As such, parents of young kids should always be looking for opportunities to stop bullying before it starts in earnest. 

“We’re not really concerned about 5-year-old bullying because everyone’s still learning how to interact,” explains Dr. Roseanne Lesack, a licensed psychologist, board-certified analyst, and director of a child psychology unit at Nova Southeastern University. “If the child is apologizing and taking responsibility for their actions, I think it is totally fine for kids to make mistakes. That’s how we all learn.”

READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Bullying

This can create an interesting dilemma for adults: intervene too late and the victim obviously suffers; intervene too early and the aggressive child never learns when to change their behavior. And the aggressive, pushy, or rowdy kids aren’t the only ones who have to learn how to navigate these social interactions. Kids are going to have disagreements for the rest of their lives. They all need to learn how to deal with aggressive people.

“We should let kids work out their own problems – mostly. There are definitely times when we should intercede, but generally, I think parents don’t give their kids enough space to work out the problem,” explains Lesack. “It really is a problem-solving skill they need to be able to work on as kids and then use it as adults, and if we are always solving the problem, then they never learn it.”

How to Identify a Potential Bully Before They Become One

  • Recognize kids can tease each other, roughhouse, or be bossy and demanding without being bullies. Intervening may rob kids of the chance to learn from their own mistakes.
  • Identify bullying which is social snubbing, violence, or emotional cruelty directed at a specific target in order to hurt them. It’s deliberately hidden from parental or adult view.
  • Understand that preschoolers and early elementary students often can’t manage the subtly of older bullies, but that can be learned from an older sibling. Siblings are more likely to bully each other.
  • Once parents have identified bullying behavior, they need to intervene to help kids work through these feelings and change these habits. This may include seeking professional help. There’s no shame in it.

More than just an argument or conflict, bullying is cruelty for its own sake, directed against a specific target, and deliberately done outside of the view of parental supervision. It may be violent, but not necessarily. It is often too sophisticated for preschoolers and younger elementary students, but occasionally more subtle and targeted bullying can be learned from older siblings (and sometimes those younger siblings surpass their elders). Not every sibling disagreement is bullying, but siblings are more likely to bully each other than their peers, and bullying victims often perpetuate bullying behavior.

Parental intervention starts with recognizing that the bullying behavior is not healthy and not helpful.

“First of all, parents need to make sure that they are aware of the older siblings’ problems, and that they need to be worked on,” suggests Lesack. This could be something as simple as leading them in an empathy exercise or writing a family mission statement, or something as serious as arranging for therapy. The key is to get the primary bully in the house the help they need to adjust their behaviors.

“Once parents are aware of the older sibling’s needs, then it’s about stopping that behavior when the child is modeling it,” says Lesack. “Nip that in the bud early.”

Physical intervention, or emotional scolding, may send the wrong message. Parents should consider walking their children through empathy exercises, such as explaining the Golden Rule, or asking them how they would feel if it happened to them. These can be quiet, private conversations so the kid doesn’t think they are being targeted or shamed for behavior older kids get away with.

Parents may also need to immerse themselves in play time in a way they haven’t for a few years. “I would also be very aware of behaviors between the two of them – as opposed to just leaving them unattended,” cautions Lesack. “There may need to be a higher level of monitoring between the two of them, instead of just saying go play, figure it out.”

Increased supervision doesn’t mean helicopter parenting, though. Sure, kids do need to learn how to work out their problems, but once more serious behaviors have been identified, it’s okay to have a little more oversight of their interactions. At that stage, both kids need parental support to help them turn away from bad habits and be their best selves.