Is It Bullying or Is It Communicating?

Is It Bullying or Is It Communicating?

Have you ever gotten the dreaded message, whether in an email, text message, or on an app from your child's school or daycare wanting to discuss their behaviors toward other children? 

You notice physically feeling like your heart drops into your stomach. Perhaps your palms begin to perspire and your heart rate increases. Is my child bullying?

Questions about whether or not your child is bad, if your parenting is making them 'bad,' or if they are even guilty of bullying behaviors to begin with start circulating around your mind. 

How can I understand this? 

What can I do as a parent?

The truth is, there are many reasons why children bully or engage in negative behaviors, and it never equates to a child being 'bad' as there is no such thing as a bad child. 

These reasons can include dealing with difficult relationships or transitions at home, a traumatic experience, feelings of low self-worth, and the desire to fit in, or perhaps negative attention is the only kind of attention they are accustomed to receiving. 

With the younger ones who are struggling to piece together enough words, it can be a form of communication. 

They are struggling to express frustration, anger, jealousy, or sadness. We will explore the reasons why, the behaviors themselves, and how to mindfully approach talking to your child about their bullying/negative behaviors.

Bad Children Simply Do Not Exist 

First, we need to eradicate the mentality that children are 'bad' if they engage in undesired or hurtful behaviors. 

It can be very easy to assume that they have malevolent intentions if they are physically or emotionally hurting other children, but that is not the case. 

There could be many reasons for this behavior as we will delve into in the next section, but regardless, we need to reframe our mindset that children are not bad and do not engage in 'bad' behaviors, but rather are trying to communicate. 

This became very apparent to me with my own daughter. 

She has already demonstrated a great deal of empathy for animals, adults, and other children so far in the 2 young years of her life, so when she began hitting other children on playdates I was left scratching my head. 

My instincts lead me to want to punish, but all of the child development and trauma classes kept me grounded and mindful as to figure out the WHY behind the behavior and to reframe my mindset that she is not and never has been bad, and in fact, maybe trying to communicate.

Children Therapists in Colorado

Naomi Kettner, LPC, NCC

Naomi Kettner, LPC, NCC

Colorado Springs, Colorado
(719) 452-4374
Rodney Collins, LMFT

Rodney Collins, LMFT

Colorado Springs, Colorado
(719) 345-2424
Jenifer Seas, LCSW

Jenifer Seas, LCSW

Colorado Springs, Colorado
(719) 452-4374
Hailey Gloden, MA, LPC, NCC

Hailey Gloden, MA, LPC, NCC

Colorado Springs, Colorado
(719) 602-1342
Margot Bean, LCSW

Margot Bean, LCSW

Colorado Springs, Colorado
(719) 345-2424

Why Are They Hitting?

Before the ages of 3-4, it can be regarded as developmentally appropriate for young children to hit. 

They have little to no impulse control, are learning to piece together a vocabulary that expresses emotions over situations and relationships, and a lot of the time will choose to 'hit' to get a message across. 

This message could be, "I am frustrated they took my toy!", "No, I do not want to put on purple pants.

In conjunction, little ones are learning to develop autonomy in a variety of ways which can be highly confusing for them when parents are constantly telling them what to wear, eat, drink when to sleep, where to go, etc. 

In the example of my daughter, I began paying attention to when she was hitting other children to see if there was a pattern. In my observations, I noticed that she would hit the other child if I needed to tend to her brother. 

This was her way of letting me know, "I am still struggling with this transition of a new baby brother. It is hard for me not to get all of your attention anymore, so if I hit, I will surely get your attention."

Let's Talk: Under 4

Once I realized what she was trying to communicate, I began to strategize. 

How could I let her know that she still is loved and cared for just as much? I began with a simple language reframe.

Instead of saying, "I am sorry I can't play, I have to feed brother now." 

I used, "I am sorry I cannot play right now. Can you show me your red and purple blocks? After that let's play with them together!" 

When I did this, I immediately saw an attitude change. 

My language no longer insinuated that she had to compete with her brother for my attention, but that attention would be given to both, just at different times. 

Additionally, I utilized some of his nap times to have a special one-on-one time with her. 

I would communicate to her 3-month-old brother in front of her saying, "It is time to sleep now, and while you sleep I am going to play with big sister." 

She would get jubilant hearing this and start pulling out all of her toys. This has helped our relationship tremendously with a few simple reframes of language. 

No, this did not magically cure my toddler of hitting altogether, but it greatly reduced the amount she was doing it. 

She still does hit, but instead of my instinct to punish, I look at the situation, potential triggers, and try to figure out the WHY before I provide the positive intervention.

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Why Are They Saying Mean Things?

For the older kids, their expressive and receptive language is significantly more advanced. 

This means that they know how to use their words with power, emotion, meaning, and 'venom' if you will. 

They have the capacity to understand how to make words hurtful, but again, it does not mean they have malevolent intentions or are bad, they are trying to communicate as well. 

A mom friend reached out to me asking me why her 10-year-old suddenly started telling her two supposed 'friends' that they smelled bad, were ugly, etc. She felt guilty and was confused as to why her daughter was doing this to her own friends. 

I then told her, "Well, I could offer you a plethora of possible explanations, but I am not sure they would be as helpful as one in particular.

She responds with, "What is that one?" I said, "The one your daughter could give you.

It didn't occur to her she could have this discussion with her child, mindfully. 

She had the right mindset in trying to understand perhaps from a psychological child development standpoint by reaching out to her therapist mom-friend, but a lot of the time that isn't necessarily warranted or needing to be made so complex. 

Your easiest, best answer can come from the source itself. So, she decided to have the chat. Let's get into how to mindfully have these conversations with the older ones!

Let's Talk: Over Age 4

My mom-friend and I discussed ways to mindfully communicate, actively listen, and show emotional support in a difficult conversation like this with our kids. 

She began with a relaxed posture facing her daughter. 

Next, she let her know, "I want to start this conversation by saying I am not angry and you are not in trouble. I am wanting to understand and hear your feelings. I got a notification from your teacher that you have been saying mean things to your friends. What happened?

Notice how she did not use any accusatory language. Notice as well how she let her daughter know she wanted to understand HER side of the story and feelings by stating so and asking her what happened. 

This can take children out of the fight or flight response when they think they are about to be in trouble and help them relax, thusly engaging more logically. 

Her daughter let her know that the two friends were excluding her in various activities and she did not know why. She also let her mother know that she was sad because of the multiple incidences of exclusion. 

Her mother's response then was to validate, mirroring her daughter's same language which shows great active listening skills, comfort her, AND encourage her to ask her friends why they were excluding her. 

Additionally, she encouraged her daughter to ask for help when faced with difficult friendship situations instead of bullying.

My mom-friend told me that her daughter's friends told her that she can be bossy sometimes, so the activities they excluded her from were ones where she had acted bossy in the past. 

Her daughter told her friends sorry for calling them names and promised to try and not be bossy, and as a result, they included her back in said activities. 

As you can see, this was a great teaching moment for mother and daughter to look for what her daughter was communicating through bullying behaviors and how to have a supportive conversation through it, therefore mitigating and setting boundaries around the behavior. 

Additionally, it's moments like these that end of strengthening parent-child relationships instead of further straining them by not understanding the big WHY.


The most important takeaway from this article is to understand that children are not innately evil, hateful, or malevolent. 

Adults are capable of such, but generally are communicating hurt in the same way children are. 

If we understand what they are communicating, it is a lot easier to prevent and or mitigate the bullying/negative behaviors than it would be to punish them. 

We want to use these as compassionate, teaching moments to understand what are children are thinking and feeling. 

When we know that, we can help support them through positive behavioral interventions and most importantly, love!

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April 15th, 2024

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