“Children learn what they live” isn’t just an inspirational poem

What happens at home doesn’t always remain at home, especially when toddlers and preschoolers are watching. Avoid behaviors and practices that encourage bullying.

Early childhood is a time of rapid growth physically, emotionally and socially. Children have so many things to learn as they maneuver the world and practice life skills through interactions with others. The language and behaviors that they witness each day influences the way they function in the world and the way that they treat others. If they are exposed to fights, quarrels, family members who harbor resentment, can’t share or are physically abusive, chances are good that they will mirror those behaviors as they grow and develop. “Do as I say and not as I do,” just doesn’t work with preverbal children who want to be just like mom or dad. One question you might want to ask yourself is whether your behavior in the home reflects the way you want your children to learn to treat others. Could you be modeling “bullying” behaviors or allowing them in your home?

Bullying often begins as unacceptable or inappropriate behavior in preschool children. Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control have found that middle and high school age bullies have reported that they were physically hurt or witnessed violence and violent behaviors at home more than children who had not been bullied. The word bullying appears in news headlines nearly every day. Bullying, as defined by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, is an unwanted aggressive behavior that involves a power imbalance. The behavior is repeated or has the potential to be repeated, over time.” The Federal Government website states that the behavior is aggressive and includes an imbalance of power and repetition.

It is important that family environments are safe, fair and affirming for all residents (young and old) and that all family members follow the same rules. If it’s not acceptable for children in your home to use profanity, then the adults need to be careful of their language when they’re upset. Let all family members know that if behavior hurts or harms someone, either emotionally or physically, it’s bullying. A few simple guidelines that are easily put into practice in the home include:

Model the behavior you want to see in others. Lead by example. If you don’t want to be yelled at on the phone, in your home or in public, then practice speaking in an even tone in your interactions. Everyone forgets things, makes mistakes and can be careless. Ask yourself how you would want to be treated in the same circumstance before you act or speak. Your children will learn how to treat others based on their observations of you.

Set clear rules and be a careful observer of your children’s interactions. Intervene if a behavior is about to harm another, either physically or emotionally. If a child is using his place as an older sibling to get to watch his favorite TV show by being physical, let him know the rules for taking turns and have a consequence or “no TV show at all,” if he repeats the negative behavior. Say it, mean it, do it and follow through with it. It’s important that children understand that you mean what you say. Stay observant, positive and direct. Keep the rules simple and easy to understand.

Use age-appropriate consequences for all family members. Children need to know that there are consequences for their behavior, even preschool children. You can model this by giving yourself a time out if you lose control. “I should have walked away from the mess in the playroom instead of exploding with hurtful words. I’m giving myself a time out to get control of my feelings. We’ll talk about the mess and how we can deal with it in 10 minutes.” Consequences should change as a child grows.

Be a problem solver and good listener. Offer assistance to a child who is upset or angry. Ask your child what might be a better way to handle an issue. Listen to the feeling being expressed behind the words. Vanderbilt University The Center for Social Emotional Foundations of Early Leaning offers simple problem solving steps that can be taught to preschool children. Even toddlers can learn problem solving skills when they are frustrated. “You have a problem. You want to use a red crayon and your sister is using it right now. What can you do instead of grabbing it out of her hand?” Give the child an opportunity to think what he could do instead and offer solutions if the child has difficulty coming up with alternative behavior. Remember that a solution that hurts someone physically or with words is bullying.

Model and encourage good behavior. Look for the positive as opposed to the negative. Keep telling your child “what you want” not what you don’t want”. If your child slips into behavior that is unacceptable, name the behavior, stress that she needs to choose another response and let her know that you believe that she can do it. Bad behavior and bullying will not disappear on its own. If you have a concern that someone in your home is bullying or being bullied you can find help by talking with your child’s care provider, preschool teacher or a counselor. Michigan State University Extension offers several classes on anger management and dealing with emotions for all ages. Contact your local MSU Extension office for details.

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