Written by Doctor G

Two Year Old Bullying

angryHi Dr. G! I think my son is being bullied at school, and he’s not even two. There’s another child (also not yet two) who seems to be rough with him. I’m not sure what to do about this – they’re so young, so maybe it’s just normal. But they will be in the same class for at least another three years and then possibly through elementary school and beyond, so I have a fear of this continuing and escalating. My son just walks away when the other little boy throws something at him or pushes him. But I feel sad to think he’s being victimized and that he walks off to be by himself when he should be enjoying the other children. Part of me thinks this might be good for him – it will teach him resilience and how to fight his own battles; I don’t want to interfere if it might actually damage his ability to deal with this on his own (of course, he’s 21 months old – does he really have this ability?). But part of me wants to step in and talk to the teachers to find out more about what’s going on and how to stop this before it becomes a pattern of abuse for many years to come.

Anonymous, from AR

Well, here is the good news. It sounds like your son is not being bullied!

Bullying is not only an issue of the other child’s behavior, it depends upon your son’s emotional reaction. Bullying means to terrorize, tyrannize or intimidate someone. Your son does not sound intimidated in the least!

So, kudos to him (and to you) for just walking away. If he is fleeing in fear, feels scared to be at school or around this child then that needs to be addressed. If he is (at least for now) just leaving an unacceptable encounter then he doesn’t need intervention.

This other child, however, does need intervention. You asked if this is normal for two year olds, and it is. Normal, but not acceptable, behavior. You need to step in and talk to the teachers! Not to find out what’s going on (because that is really between this boy, the school and HIS parents) but for several other good reasons:

  1. Physical acting out is never OK. Even though it’s normal, this boy needs to hear consistent messages from all “his grown-ups” that he doesn’t get to throw or hit.
  2. Focus on action. This teaches your child that we can’t control what others do, but we can control how we react.
  3. Preschool teachers have a lot to notice. They can use (warm and nonjudgmental) support in their effort to make sure that all the kids are getting what they need. It’s absolutely possible that they have even “bigger fish to fry” at the moment!
  4. Model advocacy. Your son will learn over time that he can count on you and that you speak up when you see something unfair or unsafe. These are great life lessons.

Keep checking in with your son about his experience. Ask open-ended questions (if he is at all verbal), like “What are you feeling?” Help him understand that no one should be treated this way, and talk about what “being a friend” really means. And praise his efforts to take care of himself!

I hope you’ll let us know what you decide to do!


Parents, when do you step in to a lopsided social situation?

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2 thoughts on “Two Year Old Bullying”

  1. so at what age does this situation become bullying, where one child pushes and throws at (and takes things) from another child who just walks away and is alone, away from the other children where the aggressive child is dominating the play? Teachers correct the physical acting out but the aggressive child still continues to emotionally dominate “just playing bad guys and superheros” where aggressive child is always the ONLY superhero and other children are ALWAYS the bad guys locked up.

    1. This is an excellent point! Whatever the label – I do think calling it bullying at age 2 is counterproductive as it will put the aggressive child’s parents on the immediate defensive – clearly the behavior is unacceptable. The teachers need to be bold enough to manage the play, not just correct physical aggression.

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