Not many people are surprised to see preschoolers acting aggressively—from taking toys from each other to getting physical to expressing negative emotions, three- to five-year-olds are expected to have outbursts, as they’re still learning how to interact appropriately with their peers.

While all bullying is aggression, not all aggression is bullying. To be considered bullying, the bully must display behavior that’s intended to hurt, harm, or injure another person, and done on numerous occasions—all while maintaining a position of social power, such as having older, bigger friends. When the perpetrator acts aggressively, the harassment may become patterns of bullying unless adults intervene to teach young kids the appropriate way to handle conflict (1).

Instances of bullying between young kids takes many forms, including hitting and kicking, name-calling, and social exclusion (e.g., “I’m not going to be your friend”).

During preschool, bullying is based more on the here and now, and likely doesn’t include past events. Additionally, this peer-on-peer harassment tends to be direct and done in front of adults, revealing the identity of the bully and making intervention by adults easier compared to older children (1, 2, 5).

Victims Down the Road

Kids who are aggressive in preschool are more likely to be on the receiving end of bullying down the road. These aggressors, who often tell other kids “you can’t be my friend anymore,” are more likely to be isolated by these same behaviors later in the school year, and kids who exclude their classmates in preschool end up not being liked well later in the school year—which puts a target on the backs of former bullies. Additionally, kids who aggress by excluding or rejecting others are less likely to be included in birthday parties, play dates, and other social gatherings later on (2).

Interestingly, the same shift has been found in children who are victimized by their peers in preschool. Kids who are victims of bullying before kindergarten learn from their experiences—and act out aggressive behaviors in the future. Not only does the bullied become a bully, but children will often dish out the same sort of treatment they received earlier. For example, the child who’s hit and kicked by his peers is likely to hit and kick others (3).

Gender Trends

Following the trends of their older counterparts, young girls will most often participate in social exclusion, while young boys tend to act out with physical aggression. Factors believed to contribute to bullying include insecure or low quality parent-child relationships during infancy, sibling aggression, poor peer relationships, lots of parent-child conflict during the preschool years and exposure to aggressive behavior in the media (1, 4, 5, 6, 7).

How to Help

As a preschool parent, it’s up to you to help reduce aggression and victimization (7, 8).

  • Model empathy. Teach your child that aggressive behavior is hurtful, and unacceptable. If you notice acts of aggression, calmly hug your little one, make eye contact, and reiterate that it’s never okay to hurt others. Instead, help them come up with an age-appropriate vocabulary so they can use non-hurtful words to express their feelings.
  • Positive reinforcement. Congratulate your child for sharing, cooperating, and helping others. Parents often communicate dismay at misbehaviors, but sometimes forget to praise behaviors they like. Hugs, high fives and proclamations like, “I see you shared your favorite toy with Dylan—mommy is proud of you,” will make it more likely your tiny tot will continue to be nice to peers.
  • Create a friend group. Arrange supervised play dates one to three times a week, or take your child to playgrounds and organized activities where there’s opportunities to experiment with new pals. As your child explores and interacts with peers, keep a close eye out—and intervene if you see any aggressive behavior. Being a friend is a learned skill, so take advantage of car rides and bedtime chitchat to explain the appropriate ways to treat companions. Additionally, you can incorporate learning into your bedtime routine by picking up some books that outline how to make friends—and keep them.
  • Turn off the TV. Kids love to mimic, so limit exposure to aggressive role models—both in the media and at home. Replace screaming matches with heartfelt talks, and keep your easily influenced kid away from the “bad” boys and girls on the small screen. Educational videos and public television can be great resources for age-appropriate role models, but remember it is important to watch the program with your child and talk with them about the content. Younger children may have difficulty understanding the lesson in the program and instead could learn from aggressive behaviors or conflict scenes that are sometimes shown in high quality programming.

In addition to these positive steps to take at home, you should encourage your child’s teacher to adopt anti-bullying practices in the classroom (8).

  • Condemn aggression. Whenever possible, teachers should connect acts of aggression, such as biting or not sharing, to the hurt it causes other children—and do it right away. Don’t use other examples of aggressive behavior to teach a lesson—sticking to the current incident will help keep it relevant. As a result, preschoolers will be better able to connect the dots between bullying and hurt feelings.
  • Step it out. Young preschool children need specific and easily recalled steps for how to be less aggressive, and develop more positive ways to solve problems. Using engaging puppets, role-play, and interactive activities will allow kids to practice friendship formation skills.

Above all, remember—being kind is a learning process, and with your guidance, your preschooler can ditch any inappropriate behaviors and learn how to interact well with others before kindergarten rolls around.

This article is based on these research reports:

Eiden, R. D., Ostrov, J. M., Colder, C. R., Leonard, K. E., Edwards, E. P., & Orrange-Torchia, T. (2010). Parent alcohol problems and peer bullying and victimization: Child gender and infant attachment security as moderators. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 39, 341-350.

Ostrov, J. M. (2008). Forms of aggression and peer victimization during early childhood: A short-term longitudinal study. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 36, 311-322.

Ostrov, J. M. (2010). Prospective associations between peer victimization and aggression. Child Development, 81, 1670-1677.

Ostrov, J. M., & Bishop, C. M. (2008). Preschoolers’ aggression and parent-child relationships: A short-term longitudinal study. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 99, 309-322.

Ostrov, J. M. & Goldeski, S. A. (2010). Toward an integrated gender-linked model of aggression subtypes in early and middle childhood. Psychological Review, 117, 233-242.

Ostrov, J. M., Crick, N. R., & Stauffacher, K. (2006). Relational aggression, sibling and peer relationships during early childhood. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 27, 241-253.

Ostrov, J. M., Gentile, D. A., & Crick, N. R. (2006). Media habits, aggression, and prosocial behavior during early childhood. Social Development, 15, 612-627.

Ostrov, J. M., Massetti, G. M., Stauffacher, K., Godleski, S. A., Hart, K., Karch, K., Mullins, A. D., & Ries, E. E. (2009). An intervention for relational and physical aggression in early childhood: A preliminary study. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 24, 15-28.