Written by Doctor G

Preschool Bullying

My son, 4 1/2, and one of his classmates are friends. This boy kind of “pushes” himself on my son and so we end up with play dates due to this. The mother is also a bit pushy and asks for play dates often and in front of the boys so it makes it awkward for me to say no. WHY do I want to say no?? Well, for one, she and I do not click at all and being with her is uncomfortable for me (and I am being nice). Most importantly, this boy is very physical; always pushing, pulling, tugging, hugging my son and he does not like it but will not tell him that or when he does ask the boy to stop, he does not listen and continues with this behavior. This boy also throws regular temper tantrums and has said mean things to my son such as “I don’t like you”, “I won’t be your friend if you don’t do what I say” and so on. My son often placates this dramatic boy with comments like “Ok, I will do what you want”. AND, the mother does virtually nothing effective to discipline, correct or improve the behaviors of her son. Oh, and the behavior gets worse when we have group play dates where this boy tries to pull my son away from his other friends and throws huge tantrums when my son won’t comply. Lastly, they also do not respect that we have a schedule and when I say it is time for my son and I to leave a certain event, we need to leave. She drags it out, her son throws a tantrum and we end up leaving much later than intended. I have spoken with my son about my concerns and asked him how he feels about his friend’s behavior and how it often sours what could have been a good time. He indicated that even though this boy does these things, he still wants to be his friend. I am not sure my son even understands the complexity of the issue but I also do not want to prevent a friendship he says he wants. HELP!

Anonymous, in PA

This is not as complicated as it seems in the moment. When you take a step back and answer one question, you will know what you need to do.

Here is the question: What is this relationship teaching your son about friendship?

This child and his mother are using bullying behaviors to get what they want.

Your job is not to pick your son’s friends. Your job is not to deny your son friends. Your job is to make sure that your son learns what it means to be a friend; how he should treat others and how he should expect (and, when he’s older, demand) to be treated.

This dilemma is not about whether you like this boy’s mom. The fact that you don’t like her is actually complicating things because you feel guilty. If this boy’s mother was not in the picture at all – if they were old enough for drop off play dates or hanging out time without parents, you still would not respect how this boy treats your son or how he behaves. So take her out of your equation.

There are a bunch of reasons your son may say he wants to keep this friendship. The most likely from your description is that it is easier to let this kid hang around than it is to deal with how he behaves when he is pushed away. Additionally, your son may enjoy pleasing people, being nice (and being praised for that), and being sought after. Some kids like being friends with someone who consistently behaves worse than they do because it is exciting or interesting, or just makes them feel good about themselves.

The only thing that matters here is giving your son the knowledge and skills he needs to evaluate friendship. Your son and this boy are not friends. They are playmates. This mom is pushing her child on yours because she wants him to have friends, but she isn’t teaching him how to be one.

By “preventing a friendship he says he wants” you will teach your son that this behavior is unacceptable in a playmate. There are some great books and videos about friendship. Check out a few of the anti-bullying websites for some activities for younger children so that your son can learn to name behaviors he doesn’t like.

Very soon your son will be old enough that he will not as easily accept your guidance about friendships. This is a chance to teach him some great life lessons.

If this mom approaches you about a sudden shift your attitude, be honest but throw the focus on your own son. Try saying “My son isn’t standing up for himself when the two boys play together and his father and I are concerned that it’s a bad pattern. We’re going to take a break from these kind of playdates for a while.” This leaves her little room to argue with you. If she tries to, express empathy but don’t apologize, “I’m sorry that this is hard to understand, but it’s what is best for our family right now.”

If we want to teach our kids to stand up to bullying behavior, we have to be willing to do that ourselves.

I hope you’ll let me know what you think.  Readers, ever had to pull your young child out of a somewhat damaging friendship?

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7 thoughts on “Preschool Bullying”

  1. I completely agree with your advice here Dr. G. As a kid I really battled with being a “people pleaser”. It really was a struggle, when I got older, to assess what sorts of things I actually liked and which things I only went along with to make someone else happy. I think teaching a child to stand up for themselves is a good skill for them to learn. It’s OK to not “make people happy”, especially when it comes to pushy people.
    Although, I would add that if the mother of the pushy child was asking me “Why?” when it came to turning down a playdate. I WOULD say that her child’s behavior is the reason. Maybe the woman is oblivious. Maybe she doesn’t realize how pushy and obnoxious her child is. I wouldn’t be ugly about it, but I would tell her the truth because I would hope that someone would tell me if the situation were reversed.

    1. I agree Sarah, that it is a favor in some ways to be explicit with the truth. If this mom has the fortitude and feels she has a situation in which she can do so AND that the other mom will be able to hear her, then that is great. Often we end up with a mom of a tough kiddo who only feels attacked and then launches a gossip war to make herself feel better.

  2. Thank you for validating my thoughts and feelings about this situation! I have felt so stuck in this situation and have felt that if my son cannot realize these unkind behaviors coming from this boy that I need to step in and assist.

    He does tend to be a “people-pleaser” and there is only one friend he has a very close and trusting friendship with whom he will stand up to if they disagree. It is great that he is willing to take those risks with her – and most times the outcome is great as both of these children do very well working through their disagreements.

    So, Dr. G, are you saying that I need to eliminate/reduce contact with this boy as it may NOT be a “learning experience” for him where he can learn to stand up for himself or identify “unhealthy” relationship behaviors (as we would love, in a perfect world, right?)? Do you believe, with discussions, he can understand that these behaviors he sees are not ones that lead to a good friendship?

    How can I assist him in learning, through this experience, that not all peers will be good/kind friends and it is okay to say “no” to tolerating an attempt at a relationship that does not feel right?

    And should I say to my son, something like “mom and dad are limiting/reducing/eliminating your play dates with “so-and-so” because we feel his is not able to respect you, be a kind friend to you and it is not your job to do whatever he tells you to do just to try to keep him from throwing a tantrum”?

    We will be in school with this family for one more year so this will be a sticky situation but I truly respect and am thankful for your guidance on this issue!


  3. I think your son can learn a great deal from this situation. Developmentally speaking, for his age, he needs a little distance to see that NOT hanging out with this child is more fun than spending time with him. Discussions with him about how we show people we care about them will help him. You can mention this child and his behaviors to illustrate your point. When watching TV with him or reading books, ask him “is Too Tall a friend to Brother Bear?” for example. Then ask him how he can tell. There will be lots of chances to help your child identify friend behaviors and bullying behaviors, this is just a very obvious one!

  4. Great article Dr. G! That question is bang on! Friendship skills are so important! With regard to bullying, friendship skills teach your child both to identify, create and evaluate friendships. Kids need to learn (1) that we can choose our friends, (2) that we need to show respect even if we don’t choose someone as a friend, and (3) that there are different types and levels of friendships.
    Cudos! Thanks for the article!
    Kelly Karius

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