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
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
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
- 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
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.