Guest Blog: Bullying & Aggression in Preschool
As a developmental psychologist who works with parents of children ages 0-5, I hear a lot of parent questions about how to raise a leader who isn’t mean, or a likeable girl who has a voice.
I’ve spent years researching the power of peer values and popularity in the middle school years. My work, along with a now extensive body of research, has begun to show the difference between well-liked and popular girls. At first glance, one would think the two would be one and the same. In reality though, these groups of girls are quite different.
Sure, the two groups have traits in common. Well-liked girls and popular ones as well are often good at sports, attractive and well dressed. But the traits diverge when it comes to how they treat others, and even how they behave at school or do academically. Popular girls who wield the power in the class use relationships as weapons, manipulating and hurting peers in ways that bolster their power and popularity. They often aren’t well-liked; they are revered or feared. In the research, we call this behavior relational aggression.
The parents I work with in SeedlingsGroup have children nowhere near middle school age. Yet research has shown that by preschool, some girls already have begun to use exclusionary behaviors. Many parents we work with can easily recall the first time their heart broke for their child who was told she couldn’t play with a group, or wasn’t allowed to join an activity with other girls (in their preschool class).
Most parents feel powerless when it comes to helping their tiny daughters cope with first experiences of emotional pain. Hearing their child say something like, “It didn’t make me feel so good when she said I couldn’t play with them,” makes most moms want to rush the preschool playground and take on the toddler tyrant herself.
While we can’t absolve parents’ anguish for their children, we do make them aware of the important role their parenting plays in preparing girls to stand up to the potency of peers (by not becoming a bully or a victim).
When out of the blue, your four-year-old describes how her two closest friends told her they didn’t want her doing the monkey dance with them on the playground anymore, in a voice that screams of the hurt she’s struggling to make sense of, there a few simple things you can do to help her now and in the future. Parents can encourage leadership traits in their daughters that don’t include using rumors and relationships to hurt others and to gain power.
Apart from acknowledging her first feelings of rejection (by saying something like “that must not have felt good when they said that”), give your daughters concrete behaviors they can fall back on in the face of peer aggression. For example, “Next time one of your friends says something to you that doesn’t feel so good, think of a friend who does make you feel good and find her to play with.”
Share with your daughter (in child-friendly words) a childhood experience you had with a friend that hurt you. Empathize with her, but keep your story short and concrete. Make sure to include a positive resolution (even if you have to take a little poetic license).
Parents of all girls should explicitly convey the tools needed for being a good friend, an empathetic person, a critical thinker and a tolerant human being. Let our daughters be confident to use their influence in positive ways and likeable not for following, but for leading (or even just for being interesting).
Ed.’s Note: Check out the new book, Little Girls Can Be Mean: Four Steps to Bully Proof Girls in the Early Grades as an additional resource in this area.
Bronwyn Charlton received her doctorate in developmental psychology from Columbia University. The co-founder of Seedlings Group, which helps parents navigate the challenges of parenting to raise a happy, healthy child, Bronwyn is also a research scientist and the mother of a little girl.