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Can a Toddler Be a Bully?

Updated: Sep 12, 2019

Bullying is a hot-button topic these days, and for parents in particular, just the word alone can fill us with dread. The thought of our children being bullied–or being bullies themselves–brings up complicated feelings like fear, anger, and shame. Bullying is especially complicated when it comes to preschoolers, because their little brains are still developing. Add in the confusion around what actually qualifies as bullying, and many parents are left with questions like:

  • Can a toddler be a bully?

  • Do young kids understand what being a bully means?

  • Is biting or kicking considered bullying?

  • Why are some preschoolers physically violent toward other kids?

The answers to questions like these start with parents having a full understanding of exactly what bullying is. Once you know the definition of bullying, you can determine what behavior qualifies and what doesn’t. From there, you can take steps to deal with your young child’s behavior (or the behavior of other preschoolers toward your child) in ways that are appropriate and foster healthy expression.

In HelloJoey’s “Redefining Bullying” kit, we take an in-depth look at the definition of bullying and how it applies to kids between the ages of zero to five. We also provide information about what can cause young kids to act aggressively and suggestions from the experts on how to create a safe environment for your child that promotes open communication and may help to prevent bullying down the road.

The definition of bullying

Many people use the words “bully” and “bullying” incorrectly and inappropriately. Psychologist Dr. Ruth Burtman explains, “Often, people we just don't like are described as bullies, and they aren't necessarily bullies–nor are we necessarily victims. When somebody's feelings get hurt, it doesn't mean they were necessarily bullied.”

To help parents understand exactly what bullying is, the Center for Disease Control and the Department of Education established a nationally-accepted definition of the term that identifies four clear criteria that must be met for a behavior to qualify as bullying:

  1. Aggression: Is the behavior aggressive, or does it seem like someone is ready to attack–even in a violent manner?

  2. Repetition: Is the behavior repeated over time, or does it have the strong potential to be repeated over time?

  3. Power dynamic: Is there a real or perceived imbalance of power with one person having the upper hand over the other?

  4. Intent: Is the behavior intentional and meant to cause some sort of harm to the other person?

It’s easy to jump to conclusions and call any type of objectionable behavior bullying, even if it isn’t. By using this checklist, a parent can take a step back, honestly evaluate the situation, and decide if the conflict actually qualifies as bullying.

Are toddlers actually bullies?

Between the ages of zero to five, children are beginning to develop the ability to express their emotions properly, and sometimes this can come out through physical aggression, like biting. While that behavior definitely qualifies as aggressive and is often repetitive, toddlers don’t have the full ability to understand power balances or intent. Because their behavior can’t meet these final two criteria on the bullying definition checklist, preschoolers who bite or kick aren’t bullies, they’re just still learning non-physical ways to express their emotions.

While aggression is natural for toddlers and preschoolers, and it may be difficult to pinpoint exactly what to call this behavior, the truth is that aggression can be revealing. Negative or atypical behavior can be a sign of a bigger issue, and parents should take into account how often their child displays aggressive behavior. A higher frequency can have the potential of leading to bullying behavior later in life.

redefining bullying play mode

App Tip

If you do see signs of potential bullying in your preschooler, don’t worry. Kids are sponges at this age, so they can learn and unlearn behavior easily. This is the perfect time to start teaching them how to deal with their emotions and to guide your kids toward behaviors that are healthy and appropriate as they grow older.

In HelloJoey’s “Redefining Bullying” kit, we work to shed the shame of bullying in order to reveal what may be going on with our kids and how parents can handle it appropriately. You’ll find more information about:

  • how to apply the four criteria of bullying to identify bullying behavior.

  • what influences or causes aggressive behavior in young children.

  • why a secure attachment bond is crucial for making your child feel safe.

  • techniques and strategies to promote healthy expression.

Want to learn more about “Redefining Bullying?”  Start your path to a solid parenting foundation in just 10 minutes a day. Check out the HelloJoey app.

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