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Our Blog: July 9, 2012

Can a Toddler Be a Bully?

Brayden came to preschool one day feeling crabby, and was coming down with a cold. So when Sophie reached for his favorite truck, Brayden hit her. Their teacher separated them and sent Brayden home to rest. Sophie’s mom was understandably upset that Sophie had been hit. A few weeks later, Brayden bit another child when they struggled over the same truck. Sophie’s mom insisted that this time, Brayden should be expelled as a “bully.”

Is Brayden a little tough guy in the making? Or is he just a normal toddler having a bad day?

Bullies target littler, less powerful kids in order to get something they want. The bully strategizes, plans, and schemes – abilities that toddlers don’t yet have. So just by definition, toddlers can’t be bullies. It’s a simple fact of their brain development.

But what if it’s YOUR toddler who’s been bitten, pushed, or kicked? Or more embarrassing – but very common – what if YOUR toddler was the aggressive one? Young children can be aggressive – very aggressive. It feels awful, either way. I’ve got four young children, and seen hundreds of little ones in my practice. I get it.

Aggression is normal in young children. But let’s not confuse the word AGGRESSION with BULLYING. I worry about the Braydens of the world – the kiddos who have bad days, just like the rest of us, but are developing perfectly normally. Labeling those young children as “bullies” can have damaging, long-lasting consequences. I’d hate for little Brayden to become known as a “bully.” Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Bullying is a problem that’s gotten much-needed attention lately. Bullying hurts kids, and it needs to be stopped. But labeling an aggressive young child as a “bully” actually increases the chances he or she will have behavioral problems in the future. Understanding what’s normal at different ages is key to finding real solutions.

So, what to do? Limit-setting is key. Aggression should not be tolerated. Good preschool teachers know that prevention works, too. Giving words to aggressive feelings, and helping youngsters negotiate for what they want, also makes a difference. But calling a toddler a “bully” only makes matters worse.

What do you think? Share your thoughts with us below in a comment.

About the Author

Dr. Heather Wittenberg

Dr. Wittenberg is a psychologist specializing in the development of babies, toddlers, preschoolers — and parents. She offers no-hype, practical parenting advice on her blog BabyShrink — rooted in science, and road tested in her own home as the mother of four young children. She has helped thousands of parents over the years and knows that the most common problems with young children — sleep, feeding, potty training and behavior — can be the most difficult ones to solve.