Is your young child being bullied?

Jennifer, a busy mom of three, wondered if something was wrong when her middle child, Ava, abruptly stopped talking about school.

Ava, a first-grader, usually bubbled over with enthusiastic chatter about her friends and her adored teacher, Miss Garcia. 

Ava had started complaining about feeling sick just before it was time to go to school.

One morning she complained of a tummy ache; the next day she said her head hurt; one morning she said, quite seriously, “Mommy, I think I should stay home and rest.”

Taking action

Jennifer vowed to talk to Ava that evening and find out what was going on.

Things were hectic that night and Jennifer forgot all about talking to Ava until it was bath time.

When Ava got into the tub, Jennifer noticed a large bruise on the front of her daughter’s shin. 

“Wow, that looks like it hurts,” Jennifer said, wondering if Ava had tripped and fallen. “What happened, honey?”

Ava burst into tears. “Chloe kicked me,” she sobbed. “She’s so mean!”

Jennifer asked gentle questions.

She learned that Chloe was excluding Ava at recess, belittling her and calling her names.

Chloe had twisted Ava’s arm, and yesterday she kicked Ava under the table, causing the bruised leg.

Jennifer forced herself to act calm, not wanting to upset Ava further.

Inside she was furious; her heart was racing and her head was pounding.

Why was Chloe treating Ava this way? How long had it been going on? How should she react? 

Her protective instincts kicked in. She said, reassuringly, “Ava, I will talk to Miss Garcia, and I will make sure this stops.”  

How to deal with bullying behavior depends on the child’s age.

You can talk to an older child about options for dealing with bullying behavior, but with a young child, the emphasis should be on comforting and protecting. 

Children who are bullied sometimes find it hard to tell their parents what’s going on.

They often feel scared and ashamed or that they’re at fault.

If a child is very young, it’s especially important that the parent be calm, reassuring and supportive — just as Jennifer was with Ava.

Stress to your child that no one deserves to be bullied and that you will protect her. 

What to do

  • Watch for signs that your child is being bullied, including not wanting to go to school, complaining of illness, no longer wanting to play with a certain friend and, of course physical evidence, like Ava’s bruise.
  • Encourage your child to tell you when something is wrong.
  • Let her know that she doesn’t need to fix it on her own, that you’re there for her.
  • Listen and respond. If your child complains about a specific child or says things such as “I’m so dumb,” or “Everybody hates me,” start a conversation and probe gently for details. 
  • Assure your child that it’s not his fault. Let him know that no one deserves to be bullied.
  • Involve the school. If the incidents happened at school, talk with the adults in charge and enlist their support in making sure that the behavior stops right away. Check in regularly to make sure that steps are taken to stop the bullying.

What not to do

  • Don’t use name calling. Rather than referring to a child as a bully, explain that the behavior is wrong.
  • Don’t directly confront a child or parent if the behavior is occurring at school or on the school bus. It’s better to let the school handle the situation.
  • Don’t tell your child to stand up for himself. This implies it’s your child’s responsibility.
  • Don’t tell your child to ignore the behavior. He may have already tried that. It’s hard to ignore someone you see every day, and the child doing the bullying may feel encouraged to act out more, since his or her behavior is getting a reaction from your child.

Get involved

Run, Walk, Roll Against Bullying: PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center will host its annual fund-raiser from 9 a.m. to noon Oct. 1 at Mount Normandale Lake Park in Bloomington. Register at pacer.org.

Unity Day: Wear orange to school or work — or out and about — on Wednesday, Oct. 19 to unite against bullying as part of a worldwide event to build awareness. Share stories and pictures on Facebook and Instagram with the hashtag #UnityDay2016. Order orange T-shirts and shoe laces at pacer.org/bullying.


Julie Hertzog is the director of PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center. October 2016 marks the 10th anniversary of National Bullying Prevention month, an international event started by The PACER Center, which is based in Bloomington.