Playtime in playgroup lasted just minutes before the dreaded (if expected) wailing started. Three-year-old Max Lim’s mother, Anne, cringed in embarrassment. What was it today? Biting a girl, pushing a boy, jabbing another with a pencil? The little girl’s plaintive cry of “Mummy, he bit me” was quickly followed by a second, more mature, annoyed voice saying, “Your son is a bully!”
Max’s anti-social behaviour is not uncommon in play situations, and might be nothing more than a rough juvenile patch. But it might also signal something much worse — the faltering yet founding steps of a full-blown bully.
If you recognise any of Max’s traits in your little one, relax — it’s probably not as bad as it seems. As child experts explain, most kids between the ages of 2 and 4 will bite, kick, scratch, smack and push other kids, at least occasionally. And while it can be disruptive and difficult, such behaviour does not mean your child will necessarily develop into a playground bully.
It is, however, important to explore the reasons why he or she is seeking such negative attention — and to nip it in the bud as soon as possible.
Bullies are afraid of rejection
While a 3-year-old may resort to hitting and slapping as a means of communication, most children develop greater control of their aggression between the ages of 3 and 7. If your child still engages in frequent and excessively aggressive acts when he is 8 and above, take it seriously and employ swift, effective action to curb the behaviour.
Real bullies are often driven not by courage or physical prowess, but by fear of rejection and low self-esteem. Rather than be rejected, they do the rejecting themselves, subjecting the chosen victim(s) to misery and discomfort.
“Bullying is a nasty power game, involving an initial desire to hurt, intimidate or persecute,” notes Glyde Thompson, a child psychologist in private practice at Child and Family Guidance in the UK. “It includes anything from teasing, malicious gossip, pushing and shoving to racist comments, exclusion, extortion, sexual harassment, damage to property, physical violence and the use of weapons.”
Tactic 1: Give the child one-on-one time
“Max has always been boisterous, but he seems to have metamorphosed into a monster in the last few months,” Anne laments. “At preschool, he’s kicked and slapped others in his class — and I can’t leave him alone with his baby sister because he’s started pinching her too. I’m terrified he’s growing up with real bully-boy tendencies.”
“I wonder if I’m too lenient with Max ― or if I’m overcritical of the way he behaves with the baby,” she reasons. “His father is often away on business, so I let him watch more TV than I should. If he hits me, I make a joke of it. Am I doing everything wrong?”
After consulting a child psychologist, Ann has realised the need to spend more time alone with Max ― without the baby. “It’s difficult because I’m breastfeeding, but even 10 minutes alone with him makes me realise he’s simply angry because his father is away and he no longer has my full attention,” she says. “The biting still happens but it’s more infrequent.”
Look for underlying reasons for your little one’s bad behaviour ― is he or she living with constant criticism and not enough praise? Does he or she have a learning disability or physical handicap that makes it difficult to keep up with other kids?
Tactic 2: Ignore bad behaviour, praise the good
An exasperated mother, Catherine Sim, asked her 3-year-old daughter Emma why she had bashed a playmate on the head with a toy phone. “And then I realised it was such a stupid question,” Catherine says. “Kids of that age don’t have the verbal skills to communicate their irritation or distress or confusion, so they simply act it out.”
Emma’s preschool principal offered sound advice for the next time it happens. Instead of focusing negative energy on the perpetrator, Emma’s mum is simply going to ignore her. She’ll make a fuss of the “victim” instead and let it be known there is no victory for Emma in such attention-seeking conduct.
However, when her daughter plays pleasantly with friends, Catherine offers positive reinforcement and encouragement. “I’ve noticed that making eye contact and smiling at Emma when she’s being gentle helps her realise that good behaviour gets good results,” she sums up.
Reward good behaviour and provide plenty of positive reinforcement for non-aggressive acts, such as playing cooperatively. Also, working on your child’s verbal skills will reduce his or her need to resort to intimidation or violence to make himself heard.
As a parent, get involved in school activities. Frequent contact with teachers and greater visibility will help create an atmosphere of accountability. In short, as junior understands that there is an effective feedback loop in place and realises that you’ll receive reports of aggressive behaviour, the child will get that there are consequences to their behaviour.
Tactic 3: Note TV, the internet and your behaviour
“My 4-year-old twins started pushing each other in the garden, bursting out into fake laughter the minute one of them fell over,” says Deborah Li, a homemaker. “I realised that awful laugh came from one of their favourite cartoon characters.”
It’s impossible to ban TV altogether, but take time to watch with your child, to point out the difference between reality and fantasy violence. Also, it’s a good time to reinforce your own teachings of how to behave — give praise when a character on TV does something kind.
Keep a lookout for permissive, controlling or hostile parenting practices. Clinical psychologist Ronel de Villiers notes, “When a hostile parent exerts authority, it is erratic and unpredictable. If this combination of low parental warmth or negative modelling and harsh punishment continues, it produces aggressive, rebellious, irresponsible children.”
On the other hand, if you fail to give affection, understanding or explanations to a child, you can render him or her vulnerable to being bullied by peers, he points out.
Examine the way you deal with conflict in your family. If you resort to violent outbursts and verbal abuse during disagreements with your husband, chances are, your child will pick up on the pattern. Instead, try to promote feelings of well-being, acceptance and understanding.
Be aware of the messages you as parents are providing. “Whenever Zhi Wei’s dad gets home from work, they play a rough ’n’ tumble game,” Ong Poh Bee says. ‘If Zhi Wei hurts his dad, Jeff actually ruffles his hair and says how proud he is of his strong son.”
But when Zhi Wei tries this on his playmates, their reaction isn’t the same. “Fathers of aggressive or bullying sons need to express tenderness and warmth,” Ronel advises. “The child needs to know he does not have to act super-tough in order to be considered masculine.”