Younger children - is it bullying?

bullying in toddlers

In early childhood parents, carers and teachers support children’s development by helping them to build and keep friendships. Young children play happily with each other or alongside each other most of the time but sometimes aggression or temper tantrums can become an issue but often it is not helpful to call these incidents bullying.

Children feel frustration in the same way that adults do but can express their frustration with a temper tantrum or by lashing out. Very young children have not yet developed the language to express their feelings and are far less reserved than adults are so temper tantrums can be their way of expressing frustration and are part of their development.

Toddlers are unlikely to be aggressive or to upset other people deliberately but their behaviour can show how they are starting to understand the world around them and they need the help of adults who care for them to help them understand what is and what is not acceptable behaviour.


How toddlers' behaviour changes

As they grow up children’s needs change and so does their behaviour. Researchers from two London universities have found that children aged between four and six are most likely to behave like a bully by telling others that they cannot join in games. This research found that physical bullying is the next most common type of bullying, closely followed by verbal bullying. More boys than girls were described as bullies, while more girls were seen as bystanders.

Some children settle into the new routines of school easily whereas others take much longer to feel confident and secure. During this time of settling in children can show many changes in their behaviour by becoming withdrawn or over-excited and sometimes they may lash out or be mean to other people.  Schools and parents can work together to help calm things and to reassure the children that they are going to be alright but that particular types of behaviour are not acceptable. Schools are unlikely to use the word bully with young children and are more likely to talk about positive relationships.


  • If you are worried about your young child’s behaviour speak to your health visitor / GP / childminder / nursery worker / teacher and ask their advice. Work with your health visitor / GP / childminder / nursery / school to help sort out any worries you have about your child’s behaviour. Sorting out troubles with young children can often prevent bigger problems with older children. Schools and health services can help you to access more help if your child needs it.
  • Children may behave differently in different settings. Find out if your child’s behaviour changes with different groups of people and try and work out what might be causing that. For example your child may copy the poor behaviour of others or perhaps they misbehave when they are tired or hungry.  Talk about other children’s behaviour with your child and point out good examples like “I liked how Joe and Zara shared those bricks so nicely”. You could try re-introducing a short daytime nap or having some quiet cuddly time sharing a story to calm your child if they are tired or taking a sandwich in your pocket when you collect your child from nursery or school if you think they are hungry.
  • Many children find routines reassuring so let them know who will be collecting them or looking after them each day of the week. Try and keep mealtimes and bedtimes at similar times of the day throughout the week. A calm bedtime routine is particularly helpful.
  • If your child is being picked on by other young children then alert the nursery or school. Try not to get angry or upset but show your child how sorting things out calmly can help to get a better result. If the other child is being looked after by a parent, then approach them calmly and think how you might feel if someone was accusing your child before trying to work things out together.
  • Talk with your child about their day and about things that have gone well and not so well. By talking calmly you gain your child’s trust and also help their language to develop so that they can learn how to express their frustrations more appropriately and learn how to deal with other children’s behaviour too. Reassure your child that you love them, no matter what happens.
  • Use picture books and toys to talk about different situations like starting school or falling out with friends to help prepare your child or help them to recover quickly.

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