Helping your preschooler deal with mean treatment from other kids
By Amy Wang
Published: Thursday, Jun 2, 2011
My 4-year-old has been telling us lately about a preschool classmate he doesn’t like. At first he just said the other child was “mean” to him. Then, a few days later, he added that the other child hits him and ignores him when he says, “Don’t do that.”
Janai Lowenstein, a longtime childhood stress prevention educator (see her website at www.childstress.org) and an adjunct professor at the University of Oregon, offered her tips by email and in a phone conversation.
What triggers “mean” behavior: Lowenstein said a young child’s aggressive behavior can have multiple causes, including not knowing proper manners; being emotionally hurt and not knowing how to express those feelings appropriately; feeling jealous of the other child; wanting the other child to pay attention to him; wanting to feel special; being angry (not necessarily at the other child); and needing to release stress or pain.
How parents can respond:
— “Let your son know you feel compassion for him and that you know what it feels like when someone treats you in a mean way,” Lowenstein said.
— Don’t minimize incidents by saying things like, “Oh, he didn’t really hurt you,” or “I’m sure he didn’t mean to be mean.” Lowenstein said that glossing over the things children tell you “really kind of smashes them down farther.” Instead, acknowledge their feelings — “You’re upset that he hit you” — and touch them to make a physical connection as well.
— Give your child specific options for how he can respond to mean behavior: “You can tell somebody how you feel, you can ask them to stop, you can get help from an adult,” Lowenstein said.
— Emphasize that “we don’t do something bad back,” Lowenstein said. Explain the consequences of hitting back, as specifically as possible: ” ‘You can get in trouble’ – that’s as big as the sky,” Lowenstein said.
— Use “3-D learning.” That’s what Lowenstein calls her system of visual, physical aids in teaching children how to express their feelings and resolve conflicts. She told the story of the time her then-third-grade daughter was physically bullied by three boys who were forced to apologize and suspended from school. Lowenstein set up a meeting between her daughter and the boys, with two teachers on hand, and gave each of the children a paper figure to color in to show their feelings on the day of the incident. When one boy saw the dark colors that Lowenstein’s daughter was using, he blurted out an honest apology and the children ended up having an open, healthy discussion, according to Lowenstein.
Coloring in paper figures is just one option, she added. Parents (and teachers) could also have children use hand puppets to act out their feelings, or dance out their feelings, or other alternatives.
— Turn the other cheek. Lowenstein also recommended that parents ask their child to respond to negative treatment with a positive act, such as fixing a snack for the other child or helping them find their coat at recess.
Why? “Let’s say this other child has really had something tough happen at home,” Lowenstein said. “He doesn’t know how to get these feelings out in a healthy way. So it comes out on somebody else. … To go beyond that, you’re teaching not only good values, you’re teaching empathy.”
This does require your child to be able to do some balancing, Lowenstein added. “You don’t want your child to go beyond that and feel so sorry for the other child that they allow him to beat up on them.”
If the mean treatment continues: Lowenstein said it’s important to decide what your goal is as a parent: “Is your intention strictly protecting your child? Is your intention to help your child understand and have compassion while also making a good choice to stay out of harm’s way? Is your intention to improve the entire situation?”
In my son’s case, since the problem was occuring at his preschool, she suggested asking the teachers to set up a class circle time “where everyone gets to say something they wish would happen in class and also something they wish would not happen in class.” That format “can provide an outlet for bringing up wishing that no one would be hitting. At that point a consequence can be declared for hitters,” Lowenstein said.
Of course, that would require my son to speak up about being hit, which I don’t think he would do. But it might work for another child.
Has your child reported “mean” treatment by another child? How did you and/or your child’s teacher respond?