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Children are impressionable and moldable. They mimic behavior and learn by observing others—whoever that may be. This includes those in their immediate vicinity like parents, siblings, and other household members, to even complete strangers.
Beyond the household and its immediate periphery comes the school, a place that is described as the ‘bridge between the home and wider society’ by sociologist Talcott Parsons.
It’s true what they say, children are like sponges, absorbing everything they see; whether it’s imitating mom strutting in her high-heels, dad fixing the TV, or the big brother or sister doing their homework. They take in information, form questions about it, and replicate the behavior.
Unfortunately, not all of this learned behavior is endearing. Children are also susceptible to learning violence and inflicting this behavior on their peers, or others who are weaker than them.
Are children smart enough to understand violence and bullying?
Studies suggest that bullying can be exhibited by children as young as three. There are several possible explanations for it.
Older children and adolescents tend to use bullying as an outlet, or as part of a cycle of violence. Most bullies tend to have been victims of bullying and/or abuse in their formative years, or even in recent times. It’s a way of struggling to accumulate power and trying to regain some control of their lives.
Whether abuse and bullying come from within the home, or from schools and peer groups, the impact is equally tragic. Bullying is a way for these children to exercise a sense of superiority to achieve self-worth, two things that are damaged by others’ aggressive behavior toward them.
When it comes to younger children, however, a lot of bullying or pre-bullying behavior is overlooked by parents and educators alike. This is incredibly dangerous, because these children never learn the consequences or value of their actions.
At this age, they’re still too young to grapple with how power dynamics work, their position in the social order and their domestic situation—of course, there are exceptions to this—and so external reactions to their behavior are what they go by. These reactions either curb or enable certain behaviors, through the simple principle of conditioning.
Children will associate certain actions with certain behaviors over a period of time. Repeated reactions will lead to an association forming and thus, setting a pattern. When you as a parent or educator don’t notice patterns, you’ll never be able to intervene and curb it when the time is right.
What leads to bullying behavior?
A lot of factors play into the way kids, especially young children, begin to display or exercise bullying behavior. Social inequality, the personal nature of the child, and the environment all contribute to bullying behavior.
For instance, the household and its members are the child’s first point of contact. In a home where aggression is normalized and the child is not discouraged from engaging in violent behavior—or happens to be on the receiving end of that aggression—they will absorb this. If they are not discouraged from throwing tantrums and getting their way, they will exercise this behavior in outside settings too.
Media is another contributor, and with the amount of screen time young children and toddlers get now, it’s no surprise that even child-friendly content can contribute to notions of violence.
Gender is yet another factor that contributes to this kind of behavior. Male children are encouraged to be aggressive and conditioned to believe that it’s part of their nature, leading to more overt displays of aggression.
Girls, on the other hand, are also guilty of bullying behavior, but this often slips through the cracks because it’s less obvious. Watch out for instances of lying, manipulation, and exclusion, along with more physical encounters.
Bullying is a habit that forms from years of systematic negligence, enabling, and, sometimes, even encouragement. It’s difficult to differentiate between what counts as bullying or pre-bullying and what is just an example of well, children being children.
How can I, as a parent or educator, prevent bullying?
Like we said, you have to stay vigilant and start young. As an influencer and authority in these children’s lives, your actions and reactions are what determine their identity formation and behavioral changes.
Remember, you’re still dealing with very young children, so it’s important to realize that not everything they do or say can be rationalized. Especially not without extensive understanding of child psychology, and even then not everything will be clear.
There are certain things you need to do in order to stop bullying behavior in its tracks—before it gets out of control. Some of the most effective techniques are:
1) Check yourself and other grown ups around your child
It’s never easy to look inward, but it’s important to be honest with yourself if you plan to rectify a child’s behavior. Have you contributed to their behavior by either encouraging or by setting an example?
Perhaps you or another parent display aggression without realizing, or perhaps as a teacher or caretaker you’re harsher than necessary.
2) Communicate with your child
Children are smarter than you think. Talk to them, reason with them, and be open with them. Discuss what counts as good behavior and what is inappropriate or unacceptable behavior. Kids are going to be kids, which means you’ll need to be consistent and check up on them frequently.
3) Explain consequences and set rules
Explain to them that there are rules for behaving in public and why they can’t go around hitting, kicking, screaming at, or excluding and picking on other children. Show them that there are consequences by taking away toys, grounding them, limiting screen time—anything that will rectify the behavior and break the habit.
Remind them that these rules are constant and there are consequences each time. Remember, association is the key to breaking the cycle!
4) Look for other causes
If the behavior persists, look into other causes. Maybe they’re victims of bullying too, perhaps something is wrong, or there’s some kind of conflict or misunderstanding. Hear them out, watch out for signs and seek help when necessary. Children are precious and need care!