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Parenting Advice Column
Subject: Five-year-old is bullying children in playgroup

Q. My children and I attend an AP playgroup regularly. A five-year-old tends to bully my older children and other kids in general. How do I talk to the mother about it?


A. What a tough situation! A child's challenging behavior is one of the most delicate subjects to broach with a friend. We all tend to feel judged when our child's behavior (or our own) is questioned or criticized.

Be sure to make it clear that you value the friendship, and let her know what you like and appreciate about her parenting. Then talk about how you feel when the children interact. If you can focus on the interaction between the children, rather than the behavior of one particular child (or parent), it will be much easier for your friend to hear what you have to say. It would also be helpful to stay in first-person "I" statements and avoid second-person "you" statements. For example, "I feel frustrated when the children aren't getting along" is more likely to be heard than "The way you are handling this situation frustrates me."

One approach would be to ask how the two of you, as parents, can help all the children to be both assertive and cooperative. You might ask her to consider what might be triggering aggressive behavior within the group. This really is about all the children interacting together ("Are the visits too long? Do we spend too much time talking with each other, and not giving our children enough undivided attention? Could we meet in a calmer or more neutral location?") Ask her if the two of you can brainstorm some solutions together. It will be crucial to communicate acceptance and support as opposed to criticism, exasperation, or anger. For example, you might say something like "It must be hard to intervene with two children when you also have a third child needing your attention. Is it OK for me to intervene sometimes?"

There are really three parts to this situation:

  • How can the stress level be reduced generally, for everyone?
  • How can the two of you help all of the children to learn peaceful conflict resolution?
  • How can the two of you protect all of the children from being physically hurt and from developing an image of themselves as victims or bullies?

In a way, this kind of situation offers an excellent opportunity to discuss conflict resolution with all the children. And don't forget to ask them for solutions too. Children often come up with much more creative ideas than we do.

If your friend expresses specific concerns about her child's behavior, then it might be appropriate to suggest various possible approaches, such as an elimination diet to determine possible food allergies, finding more support for your friend (such as a "mother's helper", the La Leche League, supportive counseling, and so on). You might add that "next time it might be my child", to let her know that she is not being seen as a "bad" parent. The key here is to wait until your friend introduces the topic, and to offer suggestions in a gentle, caring, and supportive way. Introducing concerns about one specific child yourself is likely to bring about a defensive reaction.

The most effective approach may be to model gentle guidance with your own children, and gentle intervention with all the children. Modeling can be very effective as it is both educational and non-confrontational.

If nothing changes, and you see your children continually being bullied or hurt, it may be necessary to take a break from having the children together. If this is done before the situation becomes too difficult, a temporary separation could be done without risking the friendship. Sometimes, giving children a break for a few weeks may allow them to miss each other or to get past a certain stage.

Ultimately, you, as the parent, are responsible for protecting your own children. Don't hesitate to set some limits if needed - establishing shorter visits, taking breaks from having the children together, or gently intervening. There is really a whole continuum of responses in this situation, depending on how aggressive the behavior is, and the ability of the two of you to communicate and work together - from modeling, to gentle brainstorming, to setting limits to protect your children.

This kind of problem is not insurmountable, but it will take empathy and support. I highly recommend Marshall Rosenberg's book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life as well as the communication workshops offered on Dr. Rosenberg's website.

Recommended books:

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