Facts for Living: Early childhood interactions could cause mean behavior and bullying

By Rebecca McFarland, Frontier Extension Agent

October is National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month. When we think of bullying behavior, we often think of it occurring between school-age children. To date, little attention has been given to the relationship between early childhood experiences and bullying behaviors later in life.

080714-facts-for-living1Among school-aged children, bullying is characterized by aggressive behavior, which is repeated or has the potential of being repeated, and reflects an imbalance of power between the aggressor and victim.

Early childhood often marks the first opportunity for young children to interact with each other. Research shows that a young child’s aggressive behaviors become more organized into bullying-like behavior during the preschool years. These behaviors are similar to bullying in many ways, but may not be carried out consistently over time, or the dynamic between the two children or groups of children may not reflect a consistent imbalance of power.

Understanding and addressing the root causes of bullying is important, given the sometimes devastating consequences to its victims. Participation in bullying behavior, both as a target as well as an aggressor – is a risk factor for suicide among adolescents. In addition to the emotional and psychological consequences that have been well-documented, research has found that being subjected to exclusion and separation activates the same part of the brain that responds to physical pain. This evidence suggests that even non-physical forms of bullying can be perceived as pain.

There is a substantial body of evidence that lends support to the following theories about the roots of bullying behavior in early childhood:

  • Parenting behavior and characteristics, particularly parenting style, parental involvement, and engagement are related to the development of “mean” or aggressive behaviors.
  • Early childhood maltreatment, such as physical abuse, is a significant predictor for involvement in bullying, both as the target and as the aggressor.
  • The quantity and content of television media exposure has been linked to both the development of bullying behaviors as well as pro-social skills.

So, what can be done to prevent bullying perpetration and victimization in early childhood? The early years present a unique opportunity to take advantage of a variety of caregiver-child relationships and social settings (home, preschool, child care settings, playground, etc.) where modeling, teaching, and reinforcing pro-social behaviors, such as empathy, kindness, assertiveness and problem-solving can take place. Current evidence stresses the need to focus on promoting and teaching positive social and emotional skills and interactions to prevent later bullying behaviors.


McFarland_RebeccaRebecca McFarland is the Frontier Extension District family and child development agent. For more information, she can be contacted at Frontier Extension’s Ottawa office, 1418 S. Main, Suite 2, Ottawa, KS 66067, or call 785-229-3520, or email [email protected].


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Contact us: Osage County News | P.O. Box 62, Lyndon, KS 66451 | [email protected] | 785-828-4994 | Powered by Osage County, Kansas