4 tips to combat baby bullying

Three-year-old Sean Morris* kept coming home from preschool with scratches on his face.

Recommended reading

Check out these great children’s books, listed with the message it highlights.


Bucket Filling from A to Z: The Key to Being Happy by Carol McCloud and Caryn Butzke—Be kind and show others empathy; it will make you both happier.


Stand Tall, Molly Lou Mellon by Patty Lovell—Be proud of your imperfect self, especially when faced with bullying.


One by Kathryn Otoshi—Speak up instead of being a bystander. It only takes one to help everyone count.


The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig and Patrice Barton—We all want to feel included. Invite others to join you.


At first, everyone thought it was typical boys-will-be-boys roughhousing. Then one day, though he usually wore his older sister’s shirts to preschool, Sean put on his fancy Easter outfit complete with a button-down shirt and tie. Asking why, his mom heard distressing news no mom wants to hear—another boy at school had been bothering him and calling him a girl because his shirts were too long.

“If I dress like Daddy, he can’t call me a girl,” she remembers Sean telling her.

The sad truth is that at one point or another, every child will likely be involved in bullying, as the bully, a target or a bystander. And unfortunately, bullying behaviors know no age limit. It is not uncommon for families to get their first brush with bullying in early elementary or even preschool.

As preschoolers start to figure out how to manage impulses and emotions, there’s bound to be some teasing, pushing, grabbing or other selfish actions. However, three main characteristics distinguish bullying: If it’s purposeful and intended to harm; repeated over time; and targeted at the same child, who appears to have less power.

A young child might describe it as someone who is “mean to me all the time.”

Ruth Cross, consultant for CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning), says bullying needs to be redirected as soon as possible and replaced with cooperative social behaviors. She recommends parents start teaching social-emotional skills at age 3.

Although it can be difficult to track the prevalence of the problem, it is well-documented that bullying can have lasting effects.

“A child who grows up feeling victimized, made fun of or like they don’t fit in can suffer from depression, anxiety and self-harm,” says Mary Ellen Young, who helped implement social-emotional learning standards in Illinois schools and co-authored a Best Practices in Bullying Prevention manual.

If aggressive actions are not redirected, they can lead to patterns of increasingly negative and violent behaviors. Students who witness bullying may feel unsafe in school and even become tempted to join in the bullying.

Thankfully, Illinois has been a leader in the anti-bullying revolution.

Switching up the culture

Experts agree that prevention is the best policy.

“Using power to help, rather than hurt, should be encouraged at a young age,” says Kim Storey, child development specialist and co-author of Eyes on Bullying in Early Childhood. Sharing, helping and inviting others to play are positive behaviors to promote.

“Developing empathy and building community should be at the heart of any high-quality early childhood program,” says Mary Sue Reese, director of the Winnetka Covenant Preschool.

Social-emotional learning has been a focus for Chicago Public Schools since 2012.

“We are explicitly giving teachers the skills they need to build supportive environments and prevent bullying,” says Amy Mart, CPS manager of universal supports. “We are teaching respect for peers and teachers, empathy via perspective-taking, communication skills like how to clearly articulate your needs to someone else, self-advocacy and help-seeking skills.”

Institutions should have bullying protocols in place, so teachers, students and parents know how to handle situations when they occur. “The first time parents hear about bullying shouldn’t be an incident,” Storey says.

Tips to try

Practice role-playing with kids.

“Puppets are a great, non-threatening way to illustrate situations without children feeling targeted,” says Chris Rosean of the CPS Office of Early Childhood Education.

Avoid labeling kids as bullies or victims. “While a child may be engaging in hurtful behaviors, they are not a bad kid,” Storey says. “Behaviors can be changed.”

Don’t be afraid to bring it to others’ attention.

Another Chicago family says they used education as a way to stop the bullying of their kindergartner who has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

They discovered a classmate was continuously teasing him about his tics and calling him weird. When the school talked to all the children about OCD, it dramatically improved empathy and understanding.

“I tell my kids to be kind to others. You don’t know why they’re doing what they’re doing,” the kindergartner’s mom says.

Intervene when someone’s being mean.

When bullying happens on your watch or your child tells you about repeated unkind actions, don’t dismiss it.

Boys tend to exhibit physical aggression, like kicking and hitting, which is easier to spot. Girls use more relational aggression, manipulating friendships in ways that include whispering about others and excluding them.

Although your protective instincts might make you want to pounce, try to control your emotions and make it a teachable moment.

Don’t give all the attention to the child engaging in bullying.

Often that’s exactly what they want. Instead, talk to the targeted child and others around them. Coach the targeted child on assertiveness and standing up for themselves.

“As parents, we tend to focus on happiness when we should focus on resilience,” Young says.

Although you want to stop the other child from hurting yours, it’s best to focus your child on problem-solving and finding good friendship groups. Also empower bystanders to banish bullying by giving them ideas on how to help, such as including the bullied child in their activities and speaking up against the bully.

If appropriate, talk to the child displaying bullying behaviors at a later time. “Look at the whole picture,” says Rosean. “A child seeking control may be experiencing another situation that is outside of his control.” Problem-solve together.

Raise resilient kids

Think about what skills you want to teach your children in order to be successful in life.

Do you want them to be able to make good decisions and build healthy relationships? Do they need to work on their empathy and understanding? Would guidance on conflict resolution help?

“Building a human being is hard work. Parenting is not for sissies,” Young says.

Remember that you are modeling behaviors all the time, even when a driver cuts you off or your spouse disappoints you. Be willing to apologize when you make a mistake. Teach your children that how they feel is important. Show them ways to calm down when angry.

“If there’s one thing parents can do, it’s promote empathy now,” Young says.

What a wonderful world it would be if we all treated others the way we want to be treated.

*Sean’s name has been changed at the family’s request to prevent further bullying.

Cortney Fries
Cortney Fries
An award-winning travel journalist, Cortney Fries (pronounced "freeze") has been writing about family travel for over a decade. She knows that parents planning trips are looking for all members to have fun and make lasting memories. Cortney believes that you should definitely try anything that makes you slightly nervous.
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