No parent wants to hear the words “your child is a bully.” The truth is that young children can fall into unhealthy social behaviors if parents and family members don’t communicate respectfully or nurture sensitivity to others’ feelings. However, if children develop a foundation of empathy and conflict resolution early, they are more likely to become a kind and considerate friend and not participate in bullying behavior.
Here are some ways you can help your child build the foundation they need to form healthy relationships:
Model empathy and respect.
Little eyes and ears are always watching and listening, and they will repeat the words and actions they observe. Help your child learn to be considerate by being a role model.
- Talk about the feelings of others with care and concern. For example, “Oh, it looks like you’re feeling really frustrated with that task. I understand it’s hard to keep trying and not be able to get it just the way you want it.” Intentional conversations like this will help your child learn empathy.
- Model manners and respect in all interactions. When you’re out running errands with your little one, offer sincere thanks to the store clerk or bagger for helping you. Be kind and patient towards servers. Hold the door for others. Compliment people for their effort and ask your child to do the same.
- Approach arguments with respect and openness. When there is a disagreement at home, express understanding of the other person’s perspective and feelings. Listen to their side of the argument and offer a solution instead of stubbornness.
Talk about your emotions.
In my work as a counselor in school settings, I trained preschool teachers and parents to help children develop their emotional vocabularies. It’s important for parents and adults to provide context for children’s emotions so they can learn to recognize their own feelings as well as the feelings of others.
- Acknowledge your own feelings. Express your emotions aloud and often so your child hears you using emotional vocabulary. For example, “I am feeling sad because Grandpa is sick in the hospital,” or “I feel frustrated because I can’t get the lid off of this pickle jar!”
- Relate to your child’s feelings with empathy. You might say, “You feel disappointed that we can’t play outside today because it’s raining. I wish we could play outside too.”
- Talk through emotions you see. As you’re reading books before bedtime or watching your child’s favorite show, call out the feelings the characters are experiencing: “She feels scared because it’s dark in that room!” or “He feels mad because his sister won’t let him play with her.”
- Redirect negative behavior. “When there is bullying between children in my classroom, I explain how it makes each child feel and share examples of how to show kindness instead,” says Hannah, a teacher at Primrose School of Bentwater. “I also ask each student to give a compliment to another child every day – this teaches kindness and respect.”
Seek solutions to conflicts.
Conflict is inevitable, but problem solving is an executive function skill that can be learned and practiced. When an issue arises, talk through the situation and prompt solutions to foster this skill in your little one.
- Name the problem. “We have a problem. You want to go outside barefoot, but I want you to put shoes on your feet to keep them from getting hurt.”
- Acknowledge that there could be a solution. “I wonder what we could come up with that would solve this problem?”
- Help them out. Your child may not be able to consider a solution at first, so make a problem-solving suggestion. “I know! What if I carry you to the soft grass and let you run around barefoot in the grass for a few minutes. Then we can put your shoes on so you can ride your bike and keep your feet safe.”
Intentionally nurturing these skills in children can help them develop healthy habits when practiced at home on a regular basis. If your child has an incident at school involving bullying behavior, you’ll have a strong foundation to help him or her learn from the experience and make healthier choices next time.