Much of a child’s personality is formed by age five. That’s why early childhood learning is so effective. It’s the ideal time for parents to help their children develop life skills, and one of the most important is impulse control.
Last week my sister, Marisa, witnessed this scene on a public playground: “You’re a boy, you’re a boy!” a group of little girls shouted at another little girl who was wearing jeans and had a short bob. The other girls had long hair and wore frilly dresses. They cornered her on the playground and shoved a stick in her face. “You need to wear makeup, little boy,” they taunted, pretending the stick was some kind of blush. They were only about four years old, all of them. Too young for this kind of meanness. The girl ran off in tears.
In an ideal world, she would have stood up for herself then and there, but the little girls struck at the heart of a lot of big girls’ issues: how we look, if we fit in or we don’t. This is where laissez faire parenting doesn’t work for me. When it comes to bullying, I turn into a helicopter mom and my sister, a helicopter auntie.
When the bully ringleader’s father came to pick her up, my sister decided to talk to him. She explained the facts of what his daughter had done, hoping that it might make her think twice before bullying again. Marisa had expected her father might be a bully, too, but he wasn’t. He was a nice man, a concerned parent, surprised and embarrassed by his daughter’s behavior.
At some point, most younger children will try out some aggressive behavior. Their life experience and impulse control is limited, and when they move from the controlled environment of home to preschool and playgrounds, there are bound to be a few scuffles and lessons to learn. Knowing when to stand back and when to intervene is a balancing act. Just remember that when it comes to bullying (as opposed to disagreements or minor arguments), early intervention is key.
Some kids are naturally more aggressive than others. If this describes your child, don’t despair, but be persistent in catching the behavior and responding with appropriate actions. In the same way children need practice in standing up for themselves, children also need practice in changing unwanted behavior.
If you see your own child acting aggressively toward another child (hitting, shoving, mean teasing), nip that behavior in the bud. Have “the talk” then and there - don’t wait until the moment passes. With children under five especially, the further your response is from the behavior, the less meaningful the lesson will be. Be sure not to speak in anger or humiliate the child.
Curbing Your Child’s Aggressive Behavior: Five Steps for Positive Action
1. If your child’s teacher or another parent contacts you about your child’s behavior, take it seriously, judge appropriately and work with your child in developing kindness, compassion and empathy.
2. Identify the specific unwanted behavior and make sure your child apologizes to the child who was bullied. Parrot apologies don’t work. It’s important that your child understands that the behavior hurt someone, and why it’s wrong. This will help him make better decisions when tempted with future bullying impulses.
3. Talk with your child about what inappropriate behavior looks like; for example, hitting, shoving, and mean teasing. Also talk about what kind and thoughtful behavior looks like, and point out that it’s an effective way to make good friends (and for your child to feel good about herself!).
4. Do a good deed. Let your child choose what he or she would like to do to repair the situation, such as giving a flower, making a picture, sharing a toy. Take a few moments for your child to bask in the good feelings kindness brings. It’s a psychological fact that acts of kindness actually stimulate the feel-good chemicals in the brain. This is true whether you are doing the act or just witnessing it. Don’t just limit acts of kindness to when your child has done something wrong. Make a list of godo deeds and do them regularly.
5. Practice gratitude. It’s also a fact that children who practice gratitude are happier, do better in school and have more friends. If your child is having issues with aggressive behavior, help him develop positive behavior by making a gratitude list. Put it on the fridge for everyone to see and make your own gratitude list that might begin: “I am so happy that Jimmy (or Suzie) is being kinder.” Infusing your children’s lives with positive behavior models is one of the most important things any parent can do.
If your child is being bullied, read my last blog on Teaching Your Child to Stand Up to Bullies.