By Allison Wedell Schumacher
When you were dreaming of being a parent, chances are your dreams didn’t include a call from your child’s school telling you that he or she was bullying a classmate. No parent wants to think their child would engage in that sort of behavior, and yet, bullying is common, even in preschool.
Fortunately, there are things you can do at home to help your child avoid engaging in bullying behavior. At this age, children often don’t realize that their actions might be considered bullying, so with a little practice, you can go a long way toward stopping bullying behavior before it starts.
Name That Feeling
Start with emotion recognition. In order to understand how other people feel, children need to be able to recognize what feelings look like. While you’re reading together, for example, look at the characters’ faces and talk about how they might be feeling, using both the text and their facial expressions as clues (“I can tell he’s happy because he’s smiling and his eyes are squinting”). Building up a cache of clues can help your child decipher others’ feelings in real life.
Walk in Someone Else’s Shoes
Once your child is able to recognize emotions in others, you can start talking about empathy. Committee for Children, the creator of the Second Step social-emotional learning program, defines empathy as “feeling or understanding how someone else feels,” and it’s crucial to preventing bullying.
Again, books are a great place to start. You can follow the story line and ask your child to tell you what might happen next (“Bobby just pulled Nina’s hair. How do you think she’ll feel about that? How would you feel if someone pulled your hair?”), then talk about different scenarios (“What if, instead of pulling Nina’s hair, Bobby told Nina how much he liked her hair? How do you think that would make Nina feel?”). Then you can compare the two: “Is it better for Bobby to touch Nina’s hair and accidentally pull it, or to just tell Nina she has nice hair? Why?”
Later, you can practice empathy in real life: “How do you think Daddy would feel if you offered to help him set the table for dinner?” “Why do you think your sister is crying? Can you think of something to do that might help her feel better?”
Be a Model Parent for Your Parrot
If you have a preschooler, you’ve probably already been surprised several times at how much he or she picks up from you (swear words, anyone?). That’s why it’s really important to model respectful, kind behaviors. Keep in mind that, although your partner or friends might understand (and not be bothered by) teasing and sarcasm, young children are a bit more straightforward. So if your son sees you jokingly tell your best friend how dumb she was for locking her keys in the car and then says that remark to his friend on the playground, it likely won’t go over as well. He’ll end up with a hurt friend and some very confused feelings.
Instead, you can model empathetic thinking: “Today my friend Maddie told me she locked her keys in the car. I thought about teasing her about it, but then I realized that might hurt her feelings because I would be sad if someone teased me about locking my keys in the car. So instead, I told her I was sorry and asked if everything turned out all right.”
Social Skills Forever
Knowing how to identify and empathize with others’ feelings can help your child avoid bullying behavior. And when she sees you consciously doing the same, she’ll be more likely to make pro-social decisions, both in preschool and throughout her school career. Starting children young can help nip bullying in the bud!
Allison Wedell Schumacher is a freelance writer, editor, and mom whose diverse work focuses on child abuse prevention, bullying prevention, social-emotional learning, fitness, and theater/acting. She is the author of Shaking Hands with Shakespeare: A Teenager’s Guide to Reading and Performing the Bard (Simon and Schuster, 2004), and her work has been featured here and at babycenter.com, MomsRising.org, and Committee for Children. You can find her on LinkedIn.
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