Most people think of the physical aggression and social sniping that characterizes bullying as starting around late elementary school and stretching through high school. But, believe it or not, bullying among preschoolers is more common than you think. Because the behavior is typically associated with older kids, it is often overlooked during the younger years, when it's hard to tell the difference between normal social experimentation and emergent bullying behavior.

“I was shocked to see how often the three and four-year-olds in my class, especially the boys, would punch and kick other children when they thought I wasn’t looking,” says preschool teacher Sandra Bowden. But bullying is not just limited to physical aggression; it can be carried out via social rejection, such as a group of girls repeatedly refusing to play with another child, or verbal assaults, such as incessant ridicule.

Some degree of punching, pinching, and generally being "mean" is normal in preschool children. However, when children enjoys seeing others hurt, as opposed to just asserting themselves socially, they may deliberately and systematically find ways to inflict injury or harm to their victims – and they may even laugh after the deed is done.

Bullying can cause an enormous amount of stress, fear, and anxiety in young kids. And the behavior not only affects the victims. Studies show that childhood bullies are more likely to do drugs and alcohol, abuse their spouses, get involved with criminal activities, and have negative peer relationships.

Your young child may be being bullied if he:

  • is suddenly scared to go to preschool
  • complains of headaches or stomachaches for no reason
  • is clingy and whiny
  • comes home with unexplained injuries
  • is withdrawn or depressed
  • talks about one particular child doing mean things to him 
  • has trouble concentrating
  • avoids eye contact when you ask him about school

What's a parent to do if bullying may be at play in your child's preschool? Here's how concerned parents should handle the situation:

  1. Communication is Key If you suspect your child is being bullied at preschool, let him know that you can help with the situation if he tells you what’s happening. If your youngster seems scared or embarrassed, use books as a nonthreatening way to open the lines of communication. Some children’s books that address the topic of bullying include Shrinking Violet by Cari Best (Melanie Kroupa Books, 2001), and Myrtle by Tracey Campbell Pearson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004). Once your child discloses all the details about being bullied, stay calm, avoid judging, and reassure him that you’ll help put a halt to the bullying.
  2. Talk to the Teacher “Even though adults are always present in preschool and daycare settings, with so many kids running around, it’s not realistically possible for teachers to see everything.” says retired pre-kindergarten teacher Tricia Young. And since bullies prefer to strike when adults aren’t watching, it’s important to talk to your child’s teacher and make her aware of the situation so she can be more vigilant with supervision.
  3. Take Advantage of Open Doors Most reputable daycare centers and preschools have an open door policy which allows parents to drop by anytime (as long as they’re not disruptive) during normal hours. So make periodic unannounced visits to your child’s classroom. These surprise visits will keep the preschool staff on their toes and reduce the likelihood of your child being tormented by a bully.   
  4. Schedule a Parenting Parley When young children bully, the behavior is often learned from experiences in the home such as domestic abuse, inappropriate television shows, hearing siblings ridicule others, or being victims of bullying themselves. So work with your child’s preschool administrators to set up a meeting with the bully’s parents to bring the behavior to their attention – but don’t be surprised if the parents are uncooperative, nonchalant, or in denial.
  5. Bully-Proof Your Child Give your child the tools he needs to handle a bully. Teach him how to stand tall, look the bully in the eye, tell an adult, and avoid being alone. You can also empower your child by role-playing with him so he can practice what he’s going to do next time he’s approached by a bully. Confident children are less likely to be targeted by bullies, so find ways to build your child’s self-esteem. You can help him develop friendships outside of preschool and get him involved in confidence-boosting activities.  
  6. Consider Changing Classrooms Sometimes bullying can be so aggressive that your efforts to stop it are unsuccessful. So if you’re getting nowhere, talk to the preschool director about having your child moved to another classroom. If this is not feasible, consider removing your youngster from the school.

Bullying in preschool happens more often than it should. And if your child is one of the unfortunate victims, don’t tell him to “toughen up” and leave him to handle the problem on his own. Take measures to protect your little one by voicing your concerns, making visits to the school, and giving your youngster the tools he needs to avoid bullying for years to come.