Is there such a thing as a preschool bully?

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  November 8, 2011 06:00 AM

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My 5 year old daughter has a "friend" at preschool who has says horrible things to her, such as "you're no good." "you're stupid." I encourage her to make other friends but she continues to play with her. At the same time, she has been acting out at home, being incredibly defiant, and now calling us "stupid."

I worry that my daughter is somewhat insecure and is being bullied by this other preschooler. Should I mention it to the teacher? How should I handle her behavior at home--I want to be firm, but I am aware that she is probably reacting to what's going on in school.

From: Gillian, Quincy, MA


Dear Gillian,

Based on this info, I wouldn't say this playmate is a bully. I also wouldn't say she's not. What I would say is that this is a child trying out ways to exert power. That's also what you're seeing at home. From your daughter's perspective, this girl is not so much discharging frustration and anger as she is exerting power over her; "stupid" is the 4-8-year-old's equivalent of a nasty, grown-up swear. (And don't adults usually swear as a way to feel powerful in situations where they are powerless?) Your daughter might not have the nerve to use such a daring word to a peer, but she can try it out on you and no doubt feel a surge of power in the process.

Your job to help her learn how to exert strong feelings -- anger, frustration, power -- in acceptable ways.

When she calls you stupid, stay calm but stop in your tracks. Turn so you are facing her, make eye contact, and say something like this: "I feel hurt inside inside when you call me "stupid." I can't be with/play with you when you talk to me like that." Then disengage from what you were doing with her, either by turning away or walking away. Tell her, "I can be with you again when you can find some other way to tell me your feelings."' In other words, you're telling her that she's entitled to her feelings -- and that you still like her enough to want to play with her -- but your self-respect entitles you to stand up for yourself.

At a later, quieter time, you can also tell her, "You know, it's OK for you to be angry with me. It's even OK for you to think I'm stupid. What's not OK is to use words that are hurtful. There are other ways to let me know you are angry." Later still, you can brainstorm together what some of those ways might be, which you then can turn around and suggest as responses to a playmate that says mean things.

Meanwhile, yes, I'd tell the teacher. Schools in Massachusetts take bullying behavior very seriously and most preschool teachers go out of their way to stop the action when they see unkind behaviors. The problem is that they don't always see the behaviors happening. So, yes, bring it to their attention and expect that they will pay closer attention to their play and intervene if necessary.


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5 comments so far...
  1. I just wanted to comment on the overuse of the word "bully".

    The other child is being aggressive but "bully" implies that there is a victim who is being humiliated or physically hurt.

    "bully" is the "sexual harassment" of the 2010s. It's become a catch-all and its true meaning is being devalued. Just sayin'

    Posted by just cause November 8, 11 10:23 AM
  1. This makes me sad because I'm imagining this little girl (the "friend") being told these things at home by her parents. Perhaps this is not the case, but she must be hearing it somewhere. I would definitely tell the teacher so that he or she can be on the lookout for any other warning signs.

    Posted by poppy609 November 8, 11 02:43 PM
  1. The "friend" is obviously being verbally abused at home, and is carrying on at school in the way that grownups are showing her at home. The daughter of the LW is definitely being intentionally hurt by the abused child who desperately needs company for her suffering. The school needs to intervene to model the good behaviors that are required on school property, to give the abused child some hope of a normal life.

    Posted by Irene November 8, 11 07:28 PM
  1. Wow, in all my years of teaching preschool, I never knew that a child calling another "stupid" meant that they were being verbally abused at home. Please disregard comments that are clearly not written by parents or teachers...you will wind up accusing perfectly good parents of verbal abuse. Geesh.

    Barbara's answer was spot-on, and I too agree that "bully" has become an overused phrase. The biggest part of preschool (and upper grades too!) is socialization. Unfortunately, that means figuring out how to deal with hurt feelings, "mean girls", and who your real friends are. Intense stuff, but kids are surprisingly good at straightening it all out. Also, this may be more than you're willing to take on, but have you had this child over to YOUR house to play? Because in your house, you can set the ground rules about words that you can and cannot say--and you may just do this child a huge favor.

    Posted by Tracy November 13, 11 12:26 PM
  1. I absolutely agree with Tracy and Just Cause. Just because children call other children stupid or whatever the name does NOT mean they are abused at home or anywhere. There a many indications but many kids hear this stuff from other children or overhear adults talking. Whatever. This child sounds like she has a dominant personality. Please save the word "bully" for someone who is truly being bullied. There is a huge difference between being mean and being bullied. When I pick up my children at daycare I hear it from other kids at times and the teacher is there to inetervene it. Explain to your child what words are nice and which are hurtful

    Posted by jd November 14, 11 05:02 PM
 
5 comments so far...
  1. I just wanted to comment on the overuse of the word "bully".

    The other child is being aggressive but "bully" implies that there is a victim who is being humiliated or physically hurt.

    "bully" is the "sexual harassment" of the 2010s. It's become a catch-all and its true meaning is being devalued. Just sayin'

    Posted by just cause November 8, 11 10:23 AM
  1. This makes me sad because I'm imagining this little girl (the "friend") being told these things at home by her parents. Perhaps this is not the case, but she must be hearing it somewhere. I would definitely tell the teacher so that he or she can be on the lookout for any other warning signs.

    Posted by poppy609 November 8, 11 02:43 PM
  1. The "friend" is obviously being verbally abused at home, and is carrying on at school in the way that grownups are showing her at home. The daughter of the LW is definitely being intentionally hurt by the abused child who desperately needs company for her suffering. The school needs to intervene to model the good behaviors that are required on school property, to give the abused child some hope of a normal life.

    Posted by Irene November 8, 11 07:28 PM
  1. Wow, in all my years of teaching preschool, I never knew that a child calling another "stupid" meant that they were being verbally abused at home. Please disregard comments that are clearly not written by parents or teachers...you will wind up accusing perfectly good parents of verbal abuse. Geesh.

    Barbara's answer was spot-on, and I too agree that "bully" has become an overused phrase. The biggest part of preschool (and upper grades too!) is socialization. Unfortunately, that means figuring out how to deal with hurt feelings, "mean girls", and who your real friends are. Intense stuff, but kids are surprisingly good at straightening it all out. Also, this may be more than you're willing to take on, but have you had this child over to YOUR house to play? Because in your house, you can set the ground rules about words that you can and cannot say--and you may just do this child a huge favor.

    Posted by Tracy November 13, 11 12:26 PM
  1. I absolutely agree with Tracy and Just Cause. Just because children call other children stupid or whatever the name does NOT mean they are abused at home or anywhere. There a many indications but many kids hear this stuff from other children or overhear adults talking. Whatever. This child sounds like she has a dominant personality. Please save the word "bully" for someone who is truly being bullied. There is a huge difference between being mean and being bullied. When I pick up my children at daycare I hear it from other kids at times and the teacher is there to inetervene it. Explain to your child what words are nice and which are hurtful

    Posted by jd November 14, 11 05:02 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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