Dealing with bullying – from both sides

Bullying, a topic of concern to parents nationwide, is really a 2-year-old trouble. Toddlers can be very mean—biting, hitting and snatching things from others. This is why it is important for parents to be firm with toddlers.

“No. That’s mean and mommy (or daddy) want you to be a kind boy.” This message has to be repeated over and over again through the years whenever you see your child engaging in hurting behavior. Parents must be watchful and immediately intervene.

If your child is engaged in a group activity with peers and gets aggressive, he/she needs to be temporarily excluded. “You can join us again when you’ve settled down, but there’s not going to be any meanness. Kickball is meant to be fun.”

In my many years of work with bullies, I have never met one who did not eventually describe an incident of bullying directed at him or her.

Sometimes they were bullied by a parent, sometimes not. But all reported someone glaring at or making ridiculing/threatening comments to them. And this very behavior was passed along to a younger or somehow more vulnerable peer.

Here it is important to remember that a bully is looking for a particular response — a child who will be intimidated just as he or she was. But bullies need to talk about the incident that scared them and made them feel unsafe rather than doing to others what was done to them.  And they also need to apologize for their mean behavior and realize that adults will be watching them to assure it doesn’t happen again.

Bullies get great excitement out of intimidating. So children need to take the excitement out of it by acting bored in response to their meanness.

Then the bully will move on to another who will fall into their trap. But this is a tall order for children.

So, if your child has been the victim of bullying, it is important to devise a protection plan. Don’t be too quick to jump in there and offer suggestions. Let your child take the lead.  “It’s important to keep you safe. How can we do that?” In this way, you are helping your child be active (rather than passive) on his or her own behalf.

This protection plan may well include school personnel. For example, your child may need to tell the teacher if someone is mean to him/her, or stay close to staff on the playground.

Every now and then I run across a child who will not abide by the protection plan and seems to invite bullying from multiple sources.  In this situation, the child is part of the problem and needs professional help. Likewise, if a bully continues his or her mean streak—get counseling.

Image courtesy of Arvind Balaraman/

My Mad Feelings

Mrs. Wilson's class 003My Mad Feelings is a bullying-prevention curriculum for young children – appropriate for preschool, kindergarten and classrooms with children up to about 7 years old.

While most anti-bullying programs focus on adolescent children, the origins of bullying can be recognized at a much younger age – when children first go to school or child care, and must learn to advocate for themselves in a social setting.

Ideally, children learn to identify feelings and express their emotions verballyGilberto 3 rather than behaviorally. But this is a skill that needs to be taught.

Without this ability, children may instead practice self-advocacy by acting out – grabbing, hitting, hurtful talk, etc. – essentially “sharing” their uncomfortable feelings with others. Such behaviors alienate others and result in disciplinary action – creating a downward spiral in self-esteem. By adolescence, these behaviors become habitual and hard to correct – and are recognized as bullying.

My Mad Feelings is designed to prevent bullying before it begins, but it has power to do much more. When children are able to manage their feelings successfully, they can:

  • Become more tolerant of others;
  • Develop stronger relationships;
  • Enjoy the risks involved in learning new things and having new experiences;
  • Be viewed more positively by the adults who wield influence over life in school and other activities.

My Mad Feelings is a six-chapter classroom curriculum typically taught over the course of 12 sessions. It involves small-group discussion, handouts for parents and ongoing reinforcement in school and – ideally – at home.

Training to teach this curriculum has been approved through the State of Ohio’s Step Up To Quality initiative.

  • american psychoanalytic logoMy Mad Feelings has been nominated for the 2015 Anna Freud Educational Achievement Award of the American Psychoanalytic Association for psychoanalytically informed work with Pre K-12 educators, schools and their students.
  • It also was one of only seven programs selected to participate in the 2015 “bigBANG! Fast-Pitch” competition by Social Venture Partners Cleveland.

There are two ways to access the benefits of My Mad Feelings:

  1. Bring one of our trained therapists to teach the curriculum at your school, child-care facility, parenting group or other organization. Inquire here.
  2. Obtain training to teach the curriculum yourself, through Helping Children Express Their Mad Feelings, a 20-hour training program approved by the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services and the Ohio Department of Education. It is designed for early learning professionals, but is appropriate for others including parents. More information.

My Mad Feelings is developed by Victoria Todd, LISW-S, a child and adolescent psychoanalyst.

Read Victoria Todd’s message to teachers and guidance counselors.