Marilyn Segal, developmental psychologist
There are two basic rules to live by when it comes to other people’s kids: Never tell another parent how she should raise her child, and never discipline a child who’s not your own. Parents have their own way of addressing their child’s behavior, and though you may wish wholeheartedly that the other parent would rein in her child more firmly, it’s not your call.
Physical violence demands immediate attention, of course, so if a child is acting aggressively toward your 5-year-old in your presence, step in and redirect the two of them. If the bullying happens at school, contact your child’s teacher to find out if she’s aware of the problem and what she plans to do about it. At this age, though, bullying is most often a matter of feelings being hurt rather than blood being shed. Your goal, then, is to teach your kindergartner not to play the role of victim.
First, try to determine whether your child is being bullied often or only rarely. If it’s a rare occurrence and it happens in front of you, simply focus on your kindergartner and not her aggressor. A bully is seeking attention, so don’t reinforce the behavior by giving her what she wants.
If the bullying is a constant problem, on the other hand, consider your child’s environment. Is she fine at school but always having trouble at Girl Scout meetings? Perhaps something in the setting — the other kids, a particular leader — is contributing to the problem. In this case, meet with the scout leader to discuss the issue and to figure out a plan of action. If the problem continues, you may decide that this particular group or setting isn’t right for your child.
If your kindergartner is a frequent target of aggression no matter where she is or whom she’s with, then she needs to learn some coping skills. I’m not talking about teaching her to be nasty or to hit back; that would be counterproductive. Instead, teach her to look her aggressor in the eye and say, “I don’t like that. Stop it right now and don’t do it anymore.” This is usually enough to turn a bully away. Also teach your youngster to remove herself and get involved in another activity. If she walks away from the bully and has a good time by herself or with a friend who’s less aggressive, she’ll no longer be a fun target.
Finally, work on your child’s social skills so that she won’t be so vulnerable. The best way to gain social acceptance is to be a good player, so help your kindergartner develop a repertoire of good play ideas. If she’s able to fit in well, she’s much less likely to be singled out for shoving, taunting, or teasing. Get her to her play group or school early enough so that she doesn’t wind up getting left out of play that’s already in progress. And when you arrive, talk to the other children in a friendly way. Say to your child’s aggressor, “I like the sweater you’re wearing today” or “So, you’re Zoe — nice to meet you!” Not only will this model friendly behavior for your child, but it will set her up in other kids’ eyes as someone with a supportive and involved parent.