Your 2-year-old might not be beating up his toddler playmates and taking their lunch money, but he can still be a bully. It's true that bullying is a bigger problem among adolescents and teenagers, but toddlers aren't immune either. In most cases, a 2-year-old "bully" is probably mimicking behaviors he's learned from older siblings, family members or even his parents. Toddlers watch closely everything that goes on around them, and that means they often imitate both the good and the bad. Look for signs that your kiddo is the playground bully or signs that he's the target of a dreaded bully.
Bullying isn't the occasional punch or slap you've come to expect in a fit of toddler rage. Instead, true bullying is defined as repeated mean behavior aimed toward a child who has less power, such as a younger or smaller kiddo playing on the playground, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
As a parent, you know that toddlers sometimes lash out with their hands and feet (or teeth) when a friend takes their favorite toy, but that's not bullying; it's just fighting back. Bullying happens over and over again, and it's done with the intent to hurt a specific child. Teasing, taunting, telling one child that she can't play and, of course, hitting and kicking, are all considered bullying behaviors when they happen repeatedly. And 2-year-olds can be quite guilty of this.
Often, bullies bully because they're insecure about themselves, but 2-year-olds aren't quite mature enough for that kind of thinking. Instead, toddler bullies often bully others because they've seen older siblings and parents bullying and are copying that behavior. Toddlers are also at a point in their development when they think the world revolves around them, which explains why they can be so demanding and impatient. This can cause a toddler to lash out against one particular child who gets in the way of what he wants. For example, if Susie always gets to the swing first, Johnny might start bullying her by pushing her or calling her names because he thinks he should always be the first one on the swing.
There are lots of warning signs that your toddler might be bullying other kids, as well as signs that your little one is the target. If you've noticed your child yelling, screaming, hitting and throwing temper tantrums at home, he could be carrying this behavior over to day care, too. Two-year-olds often don't have the words to verbalize how upset they are, so you might notice your toddler reacting with hitting, biting or punching. And, chances are, if he's doing it at home, he's probably doing it elsewhere as well.
But that doesn't mean your toddler is doomed to become a bully. Instead, it's something you might keep an eye on and talk with his pediatrician about so you can teach your kiddo coping techniques that can prevent him from reacting with anger. If your toddler has unexplained injuries, doesn't want to go to day care or has difficulty sleeping, he might be the one getting bullied. Talk with his teachers to determine what's going on so that you can work together to find a solution.
If you discover, to your horror, that your toddler is the bully, you can take steps to stop his behavior before you become the victim of playground gossip. Establish a no-tolerance policy for bullying. Tell your toddler that his actions are unacceptable and that there will be a consequence each and every time. Following through is the key. If your toddler knows that he'll have to leave the sandbox if he won't quit ripping toys out of another child's hand, he's more likely to knock it off. Teach your child how to deal with his anger as well. For example, teach him to tell you why he's angry instead of resorting to hitting or biting.
Use positive reinforcement, too. When your child chooses to use words instead of negative actions, praise his good choice. He'll be more likely to make wise choices in the future. And always set a good example yourself. Since toddler bullies often learn their behavior from older children and adults, watching you make smart choices encourages him to do the same.