We’ve all been there. You’re in the park/ at the soft play/ at a friend’s house. Your children appear to be playing happily, then out of the blue it happens. You hear a wail, turn around and realise another child has set upon yours with a heavy toy, or perhaps worse, you recoil in shame as you witness your child turn on one of their ‘friends’ seemingly out of nowhere.
Teaching our children to ‘play nicely’ with others can be a constant battle.
We want them to be kind to others and share their toys, yet in the back of our minds we want to know that they have the strength of character and confidence to stand up for themselves if needed.
As a parent how do you help your child understand what it means to be a friend? How can we tell when ‘normal’ childhood conflicts cross the line into bullying and what can we do about it?
Children often don’t form proper friendships until well into primary school age, or even later, but it’s never too early to start laying the foundations for developing healthy relationships. Encouraging children to think about things from other people’s perspectives and having the skills to resolve conflict are both essential to help little ones build good friendships.
The best thing you can do to develop these skills is to talk to your children and encourage them to come up with solutions themselves. ‘How do you think James felt when you took his cars away?’(!) How does it make you feel when people take your cars?’ ‘You and James both want to play with the train, how could we make it fair?’.
Learning to take turns is really useful, and teaches children essential skills we need later in life like waiting for others and considering their needs. You can start doing this really early by playing simple board games together or even taking it in turns to do fun things like jump in puddles with your child. The more you do it, the more it will become second nature for them as they grow up.
Children often fall out or get into arguments and to an extent this is just a part of developing social skills. Where upsetting behaviour crosses the line and becomes bullying is when that behaviour keeps being repeated.
This can happen as children begin to develop friendship groups, but where children learn aggressive behaviour, bullying can become part of their tactic for getting what they want. One of the big challenges is where some children are 'bossy' it can feel like bullying to other children, this why it is important that children know what it means to be both a good friend and to be friendly.
Children can start to bully another child for lots of different reasons. This can be because they think they are having a joke, or because they are angry at the other person, however most often there is a difference about the other child they don't like.
Suspecting that your child may be being bullied can be deeply upsetting. Parents know their child best – you might witness changes in their behaviour that cause you concern. This could be becoming more withdrawn and not wanting to play with others, or for some children this could be becoming more aggressive.
If your child is being bullied, don't panic. Your key role is listening, calming and providing reassurance that the situation can get better when action is taken. Reassure them that they did the right thing in coming to you for help.
What is important is that you start to make a diary of incidents, this helps to show the pattern of repetition. If the behaviour is happening at a nursery or school, speak to staff to report your concerns and see if they have observed any issues. All educational settings have a duty to deal effectively with bullying and should take your concerns seriously. It is always best to try and go through a third person when dealing with bullying, because parents can become defensive if their child is accused of bullying.
Organisations like the Anti-Bullying Alliance have lots of resources for parents and can point you in the direction of any further help and support you and your child may need.
If you believe your child might be bullying another child, it is really important to explain to them that harmful behaviour is not appropriate, that it can be really up-setting and hurtful. Having the conversation about what it means to be a good friend is really important, as is talking to them about difference.
Ultimately, how children learn to deal with difference and resolve conflict will come from the example the adults around them set. If children see their parents dealing with conflict and resolving it effectively, these essential life-skills will be passed down to them.