One of the most heart-wrenching moments for a parent is seeing your toddler being “bullied” by another child. As parents, we love our children and treat them with respect and courtesy, and expect that others will treat them in the same manner. But when we see our sensitive and polite little darlings being pushed in the park, or having their toys snatched at playgroup, we become infuriated! Do we step in? Should we discipline the other toddler? Do we approach the carer of the other child? Should we remove our child? Or do we let it go in the thinking that they need to learn to sort things out by themselves?
But before we continue, there is another question that requires an answer. What if it is OUR child who is the “bully?” Well-educated and loving parents may feel confused and humiliated to find that one of their young children seems to have taken on the role of pushing others around at creche and taking things from the hands of other children. What should these parents do? Constantly apologise to the parents? The other toddlers? Remove their child from the situation? Not take them anywhere for fear of their behaviour? Become overwhelming embarrassed and mortified?
As adults, we understandably view things from our own perspective. Bullying is such an emotive issue. None of us wants to think that our child will let others “walk over” them, nor do we want to believe that our own child could ever be intimidating others. When we witness examples of others taking our child’s possessions, we want to step in and protect our babies, but we need to take a step back and see what is really going on!
What we now know is that the human brain is not completely developed until around our mid-twenties. So between the ages of 1 to 3 years, there is a considerable amount of growth and maturity yet to occur. When babies are born, they quickly learn that crying brings comfort and food. This behaviour is age-appropriate but as the child gets older and the parents do not respond every time, the young child learns new ways of behaving to have their needs met.
So is it reasonable to attribute “bullying” to a toddler?
NO. Developmentally a toddler is very “egocentric”. They do not play “with” other children (but may play “next to” other children). They do not yet understand the concept of sharing, and expect their needs to be met immediately. If they see a toy that they want, they will grab it (regardless of where it is – even if it is in someone else’s hand!). This time of their lives is spent exploring and experimenting in the world, but they are not capable of seeing the situation from the perspective of others. It is therefore NOT bullying, because there is no intent to harm the other person. It simply does not occur to them! But as parents, it often brings up issues for us of being bullied at school (school bullying IS a separate issue and interventions MUST be made in these cases).
In terms of pushing others, this also is not a bullying behaviour with toddlers (although parents are often afraid that it is). Again, the child is not intending to hurt another person, they are simply expressing their anger inappropriately. If they push a child, it is probably because the child is in the way of something that they want, or is the closest thing/person to them. Toddlers are simply NOT CAPABLE of reasoning about their behaviour when they are so emotionally charged with something that they want to do. And we know this is true – how many times have you seen toddlers hit parents/carers who are much bigger than them (and in some cases who might hit them back)? Again, they do NOT think it through – they are just reacting to their own emotions.
Parenting tips to manage toddler bullying
It is possible that if these toddlers are not directed through this phase appropriately, that the lesson they learn is that bullying IS a successful method of getting their own way. So for this reason, here are some possible strategies to help deal with this learning phase.
Give the child a “feelings” vocabulary
This behaviour is due to some frustration on the part of the toddler who does not have an alternative way of expressing his/her feelings. Say things such as ’You are feeling angry because you cannot play with your truck right now…"
Distract the child
Offer the angry toddler a different toy. At this age, it is not a reward for poor behaviour, but a way of avoiding (or reinforcing) an inappropriate display of anger and frustration.
Remove the child the situation
Time-out can be an effective tool for carers of a toddler in serious situations, so the child may eventually associate the consequence with the behaviour. Ideally a child should be given a spot away from the others for no more than a few minutes (many people suggest one minute per year of age).
Also, there may be times where the “victim” needs to be removed from the situation as well. If they are being seriously hurt or are becoming fearful, then taking them away for a short period is important too.
Suggest alternative behaviour
When the child is starting to calm down, offer different ways for him/her to express his feelings (e.g. “Tell Mummy what you want” or “Gently hold my hand and take me over there” or “No, it’s mine”).
The main message here is to recognise and remember that this is a normal developmental phase that children go through to varying degrees. No toddler intends to bully another person – they are simply not capable of thinking that way! But the behaviours need to be addressed (with understanding, NOT punishment!) to enable them to learn appropriate social skills and more positive ways of meeting their own needs.
For more information see Social Development.
By Sally-Anne McCormack M.A.P.S.
Dip T (Psych Maj); Postgrad Dip Psych (Ed); B Ed: M Psych (Ed & Dev)
Last Published* December, 2022
*Please note that the published date may not be the same as the date that the content was created and that information above may have changed since.