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Teasing During the Preschool Years: Being a Good Friend is Protection

Even though your children are still young, do you worry about the amount of bullying in schools and in your community?  It is estimated that 75%-90% of students suffer harassment at the hands of fellow students.  Additionally, in any given situation, 70% of kids are not actively involved in the conflict, but are victims nonetheless because they witness the cruelty. Therefore, it is not surprising that you are concerned with teasing and want to know what to do to help your children. Even though hard-core bullying has not yet begun in preschool, it is possible to see the seeds of victim or bullying behavior.  And while teasing is a part of childhood, you do not have to sit by idly, allowing children to be hurt. You can teach youngsters how to be a good friend, what constitutes treating people with respect, how to stand up for their friends, and how to stand up for themselves.

Teasing and Bullying Continuum

There are many ways that young children tease one another – everything from name calling, to excluding children from a group of peers, to throwing things at one another.  Many of these actions are quite benign, others quite devastating.  As a parent, it can help you to place these behaviors on a continuum to help you decide how to react.

Joking  – – – – – – – – – Teasing  – – – – – – – – Bullying Mild                                                               Severe

Joking – At the mild end of the continuum, joking reflects a more equal relationship between the participants and both sides find the interaction funny.  You can hear the laughter and see the smiles on everyone’s faces. 

Teasing – Those involved may or may not have equal power in the relationship. The teasing can be all in good fun, where everyone considers the back-and-forth comments to be kidding, playful bantering.  However, teasing can also be hostile, bordering on badgering, torment, and harassment.  Teasing can quickly slip from light-hearted amusement to extreme upset.  A good rule of thumb is that unless all parties find the interaction enjoyable, it is not okay and must stop immediately. 

Bullying – On the severe end of the continuum, bullying is a chronic pattern of abuse over time between people in an unequal relationship, in which one person is definitely the perpetrator and another is the victim.  You will not typically see this degree of serious bullying during the preschool years, but you can be alert to early signs of disrespectful treatment of others.  If children do not learn other skills of engaging playmates, for getting their way, and for using their power constructively, then as they grow they may move from teasing into the more serious bullying.

Early teaser and victim roles harden as children grow older. Children may become labeled by other children and even by teachers as being the “aggressor” or the easy “target;” therefore, you need to be careful  how you approach your children. On the one hand, you need to be aware if your child seems angrier and more aggressive, or whinier and less assertive than other children, and offer them the appropriate assistance. On the other hand, you need to be careful not to label your child and assume that he is always in the wrong, either because he has provoked the situation or did not stand up for himself.    As you will see later, all children should be treated with kindness so that they can learn the skills needed to become caring adults.

Furthermore, the victim in one situation may become the aggressor in another where they feel they have more power.  Think about the adult coming home from a bad day and “kicking the dog.”  Kids are the same way. Those who feel weak and targeted may misuse their power in another situation where they believe that they can get away with being aggressive. In this way, the victim and can become the bully.

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Child Development Plays a Part

There are certain aspects of child development which can influence the amount of teasing you observe and how your child responds.

  • Ages and Stages – There are times when children are more stressed, tense, prone to outbursts, frustrated, anxious, or sensitive.  During such stages of “disequilibrium” –  typically at ages 2 ½, 3½, 4½,  5, and 7 – children may not have the same level of tolerance when needing to share or for dealing with teasing, even if it was meant good-heartedly. 
  • Developmental Tasks – It is important to remember that children don’t develop empathy until elementary school age; while some children may show some concern for others’ feelings before then, they are the exception. Young child are not good at sharing, do not innately understand what is kind, and do not understand others’ perspectives.  It is your job to teach your children how to use power appropriately, how to be caring, and what it means to be a good friend – even though it will take them a long time to learn these lessons. 
  • Temperament – all children are born with their own unique temperaments.  Depending on how sensitive, how adaptable, how intense his reaction is, and what his overall mood is like, your child may have an easier or more difficult time engaging in positive social interactions.  For example, a child who is excitable, reacts strongly to change, is highly sensitive to slights to him but less aware of others’ reactions, and who tends to notice the negatives in his world before he can focus on the positives will have a more difficult time making and keeping friends than a child who is easy-going, generally upbeat, good at picking up on social cues, and not overly sensitive to stimuli around him. 
  • Maturity –Some children mature more quickly than others in terms of language development and social interactions.  Those who lag may strike out at others or become the target of unwanted negative attention as they may not have the words to express themselves effectively. 
  • Situational Factors – While you may have very little influence over the above aspects of your child’s development, you do have control over the home environment. What type of discipline do you use?  Children who live in homes that use corporal punishment are more likely to react physically when they do not get their way. Or they may not stand up for themselves when others attack, believing that verbal or physical abuse is expected.  Additionally, the presence of older siblings may contribute to the amount of teasing your child experiences as well as the opportunities to practice skills to deal with it. How you respond to your children’s squabbles can teach them how to treat others.  You can show the aggressor kinder ways of getting what he wants, but as you do, be aware of giving undo attention to the negative behaviors and, thereby, reinforcing them.  You can teach the underdog skills so he can stand up for himself.

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What Parents Can Do to Decrease Teasing

Even though some degree of teasing is normal in the preschool years, there are things that parents can do to minimize the teasing and to make it less likely that children will grow up to be bullies or to see themselves as victims.

Be Kind

  • Act as role models for how you want your children to treat other people. Stand up when you see someone being mistreated.  Let your children know what you consider insulting or hurtful. And treat your children how you want them to treat others – show compassion even when they misbehave or fall short of your expectations.
  • Set the climate in the home – Have clear expectations about how everyone in your home is expected to treat one another. Create a sense of safety – do not allow mean or disrespectful behavior.
  • Have a set of clear rules that are enforced, so children know there are boundaries, limits, expectations, and standards.
    • As you set the rules, remember that a few general rules are better than lots of specific rules.  For example, the following rules can be used in many situations: no naming calling, no hitting, everyone is included.
    • Check that you are not being a bully or a victim in your own home.  Make sure that your discipline is fair, firm, flexible, and not overly aggressive. Also, make sure that you are not acting like a victim by giving in and not following through on consequences.  Show your children how to be assertive yet kind.

Teach about Feelings

  • Teach skills to help your children understand their own feelings and those of others.
    • Developing empathy is a long process that takes place over many years.  By teaching your children to be aware of how others may feel, you are helping them to be a better friend.  Those who have more social connections are less likely to become targets.  And those who are able to get what they want in pro-social ways are less likely to become bullies later in life.
    • To facilitate your child’s developing empathy, teach him feeling words.  To do this, you can put words to what you observe him experiencing; i.e. – As your child throws down a puzzle piece, “You seem frustrated.” To the child who slams the door, “You sound angry.” Or to the child who grabs his sister’s toy, “You seem jealous.  You wish you could play with it.” 

You can help your children practice using feeling words by having them identify characters’ emotions in books or on TV.  You can ask them how they could tell what the character was feeling.  What words did the character use?   What actions or facial expressions did they notice?

At the beginning, children may be able to identify just the basic emotions of sad, mad and glad.  But as they mature, you can teach children that emotions exist on a continuum and help expand their feeling vocabulary.  For example, beyond just glad, there is:

Happy – Content – Joyful – Elated – Ecstatic

Additionally, you can teach your children to think about SAME versus DIFFERENT.  You can start with what is the same about two types of fruit and what is different.  Next you can ask them to think about a friend.  What is the same?  What is different?  This process helps children to understand that in many ways we are all alike, while at the same time to be more tolerant of differences that exist.

Teach social skills

  • To determine which skills your children need to master, observe them in different social situations. If they are in a formal program, get feedback from their teachers. Watch your preschooler interact with friends and siblings, both during free play and structured time.  A few ideas to consider: 
    • How successfully does your child enter a group of children who are already playing?
    • How does your child react if another child takes a toy he is playing with? 
    • How well can your child negotiate with another child if he wants to do a different activity or play a game with different rules? 
    • Does your child seem aware of other children’s feelings? 
    • Is your child a good sport or a sore loser? 
    • Does your child select friends who have similar interests? 
    • Does your child select others who treat him kindly and want to be with him?

Start by appreciating your child’s strengths. Let him know what areas he has already mastered. Then determine what areas your child needs to work on. Select just one and focus on those skills that will help him be successful in that area.  You will want to approach your child when you are both calm and have the time to discuss the new behavior to be learned.  Introduce the idea, explain why it is important, show your child what doing it would look like, and then give him a chance to practice.   For example:

“I noticed that when the other children came in, you did not look up and say ‘hi.’  The girls then went and played with Sally who greeted them with a big hello and a smile.  I know you wanted to play with them.  When you greet people, it lets them know that you are interested in being with them.  I think if you greeted them with a really big ‘hi’ and invited them to see what you are drawing, they would have known that you wanted them to come over to you.  Here’s what a big hello might look like. (DEMONSTATE A BIG SMILE FOR YOUR CHILD)  I am going to leave the room and come back in.  Can you say hi to me and invite me to see what you are doing?”

  • Help your child learn how to enter a group of children who are already playing.  This is important for the bully, who may bulldoze his way into a social group, as well as a victim, who may lack the social grace to easily assimilate into a group. Teach your child to first observe what the other children are doing: What are they playing? How can she fit in? Will her playing even the sides?  Does she have an object (for example, a second jump rope or another ball) that could be useful to their game?  Then, once your child has an understanding of the situation, she can approach the other children with, “Can I play with ….?”  Also, teach your children how to decline politely invitations with a simple, “No, thank you.” The goal is to stand up for ones’ self without being overly aggressive.
  • As mentioned earlier, there is a certain amount of give-and-take in peer relationships.  Some highly sensitive children may need to learn how to become comfortable with everyday joking and teasing. Not all teasing is meant maliciously.  You can help sensitive children by role-playing with them and by talking about how characters in books or on television handle situations.  Teach your kids how they can joke back.  By using humor, they can deflect the comments, take some of the fun out of teasing for the jokester, and give your child something to say.  Some general comebacks which can work in many situations include: So what? And? Yeah, so I’ve heard.  Your point is?  Often times, kids don’t know what to say, so they say nothing.  This often causes the teasing to escalate to the point where your child may explode in anger or tears – neither reaction is helpful.  Having something to say to deflect the teasing can get them out of the spotlight without increasing the downward spiral.

If your child does not like the interaction, he can say:  “Stop it! I don’t like it when…”  The words can be different, but once selected, they can always be used. Your child does not have to get creative; he can use these comments as a “broken record” when a situation arises.  Give him words to use so he won’t resort to tears or retaliation.

For a child who is less tuned-in to others’ emotions, you may need to teach him how to understand others’ feelings. You can show him that another child may not see his teasing as being funny.  Even if it was just meant as a joke, it is only funny if both people think so. If he has hurt someone else’s feelings, you can discuss what was said, what the other person’s reaction was, what could he have said that may not have been offensive, and what can he do now to apologize?

  • Use everyday interactions as an opportunity to teach your child social skills.  When he is upset or when you see him taking a social misstep, sit with your child to help him calm down.  Then listen to his feelings.  By doing so, you are not only letting him know you care about him, but you are also showing him how to be a tuned-in friend.  During this process you do not want to scold your child.  The goal is to help him learn new skills, the first of which is empathy.  After you have listened to your child, you can now ask how he thinks the other child may have been feeling.  This increases his ability to understand another’s perspective.  You can move on to discuss what the consequences of his choices where.  Did he get what he wanted or not get what he wanted?

For example, “By grabbing the toy from Jason, did you get to play with Jason or NOT play with Jason?”  You can ask him to come up with other ways that he might get to play with Jason.  After several ideas are listed, you can go through each one, again asking “Is this a good way or NOT a good way to….”  By doing this exercise, you are helping your child to be less impulsive and to think through the consequences of his actions.

  • Work out a system with your child to help him halt troubling behavior without embarrassment.   You can tell your child that you have noticed a certain behavior that seems to be a problem.  Help him understand what the unwanted results of the behavior are.  As your child works on changing the behavior, you can help him by having a signal that raises his awareness of his own behavior. For example, if you notice that your child gets too excited in certain situations, perhaps even bordering on wild, you can have a signal, decided in advance, such as rubbing you nose, to remind him to settle down.  If that doesn’t help, you can tell him that you need his help getting something from the other room or out of the car.  Leaving the playmate just for a minute or two can give your child a chance to settle down and give you a chance to give him a quick reminder, “You were talking really fast and started grabbing all of the pieces away from your friend.  What can you do to let your friend play too?”  Once your child is calm and has a plan for re-entering the play with his friend, he can go back into the room.
  • Recognize and praise appropriate social behavior, even the smallest sign of progress. For some children, being and making friends is a difficult process.  Look for any improvement to give your child hope and the courage to try again.

Focus On Being a Good Friend

Children who have good social skills, who have empathy for others, and are kind tend to have more friends.  As a result, they are less likely to be picked on and less likely to utilize negative behaviors to get attention from others.   But beyond being someone who others want to be with, a good friend is someone who stands up for his friends. Children do not magically learn morality, kindness, or decency.  They mature into compassionate people through your guidance and by practicing being assertive. Specific things your child can do to stand up for others:

  • Not laughing at a derogatory joke.
  • Inviting the targeted child to socialize outside the larger group.
  • Offering kindness and concern to the target.
  • Intervening on behalf of the target.
  • Telling an adult.

Children are often told to stop tattling.  As a result, they may not know when to go to adults for help and when they are being a snitch.  A good way to teach them to judge their actions comes from parenting expert Barbara Coloroso who suggests they ask themselves, Will telling get someone ‘in trouble’ or ‘out of trouble’?”  

  • If the answer is purely in trouble, don’t tell; that it tattling.
  • If the telling will get someone out of trouble, tell; that is helpful.
  • If telling will get someone out of trouble and in trouble, still tell; adult help is needed.

Teaching your children skills to stand up for another person also empowers them so that they will be able to stand up for themselves and will less likely be a target. Working with your child can go a long way in helping them to form supportive and caring friendships.  If you have worked with your child and you are still concerned, or if the situation feels like more than your child should have to handle on his own, contact outside help.  Sometimes the parents of the other children can be a wonderful source of support.  Once they are aware of the situation, they can work with their child so both youngsters can have a positive experience. Schools, teachers and counselors can also facilitate peer relationships. Ending bullying for school-aged children can have its beginnings when they are young by teaching them positive social skills, including how to be good friends.

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For more information about bullying and what you can do to help your child, check out the following books. Purchasing from Amazon.com through our website supports the work we do to help parents do the best job they can to raise their children.
How to Handle Bullies, Teasers and Other Meanies by Kate Cohan-Posey Friends Forever - How Parents Can Help Their Kids Make and Keep Good Friends by Fred Frankel Good Friends Are Hard to Find by Fred Frankel What to Do When Kids are Mean to Your Child by Elin McCoy Keys to Dealing with Bullies by Barry McNamara Bullies are a Pain in the Brain by Trevor Romain Cliques, Phonies and Other Balonies

<For our list of recommended books on bullying, click here.

<For a list of all our recommended parenting books, click here.

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