Playdate Bullying: Take Steps to Help Your Preschool Child Avoid it

Has a playdate bully hurt your preschool child?

playdate bullying

Has a playdate bully hurt your preschool child? An experience like this is very traumatic for a preschooler. Your preschool child may be the bully, or may be the kid being bullied all the time. Either way, the best time in a child’s life to teach them how to treat others is when they are in preschool. Playdate bullying left unchecked only turns into bullying at school as children age. Let me tell you my son’s story about playdate bullying.

I recently took my 4 year-old son on a playdate with a boy his age that he has known at least two years. When we arrived, however, we were surprised to find an older neighbor boy there too. Something in my gut made me uneasy, but I didn’t mention it to my friend.

Three is Always a Crowd, As my Mother Used to Say

Just after we were in the door I caught the other two boys on the playdate bullying my son with a “gang-up” style shoot-em-up squirt gun activity. My son had none. I had to stop them and talk with them about playing nice and not bullying. We stayed a couple hours, ate lunch together, and I watched the boys as they moved freely in and out of the house. I did not witness any more playdate bullying that day. At the close of our visit I reminded my son to thank his playdate friends and tell them he had a good time. He said no, very candidly, and I was admittedly embarrassed in front of our company. I had no idea that he had been the victim of playdate bullying.

I didn’t raise my children to be impolite.
I implored him, and he said emphatically, ‘No, because I didn’t.’
I did, however, raise him to be honest.
‘Sorry,’ I told my friend, as I whisked him into our car. I was stumped. After all, I was there all day long with him. Aside from the squirt gun incident, I never saw any playdate bullying.

We drove for ten minutes before he said anything more, which is unusual for my little guy.

‘They were naughty to me, today during my playdate. They were sitting on me and throwing toys at me.’
‘In the basement and outside.’

Often, preschool children show subtle signs of playdate bullying

Yes, I remember my son coming up from the basement to color while I was putting my youngest down for his nap. He did that because he was the target of playdate bullying. Why hadn’t I noticed that? He asked my friend if he could color by himself at her kitchen table. The other two soon followed and the boys all appeared to be having a good time with the activity. It seemed like a successful preschool playdate. So what went so terribly wrong for my son?


But I wasn’t aware of the subtle signs of playdate bullying.

In retrospect I think there should have been better planning and supervision at the preschool playdate by both myself and my friend. And there should have been less guests. We have hosted and we have been invited to very successful preschool playdates in the past when there was no playdate bullying.

Allan L. Beane PhD, says, “There is no one reason why a child may become a bully, but environmental factors can lead to the development of bullying behaviors. Because this behavior is learned, it can also be unlearned. The pattern of behavior can begin as early as age two; the older the child becomes, the more difficult change will be.” The Bully Free Classroom, Free Spirit Pub 1999 (5).

Since that time I’ve learned a few things about playdate bullying. I have also developed a system for avoiding the fallout from playdate bullying. I’d like to offer you playdate bullying help for your preschool child. Just follow my 5 simple rules. They will make it hard for preschool kids to bully each other during unstructured play time. It works quite well for us. Preschool age kids need special supervision to help them learn how to treat others. An unstructured preschool playdate is the perfect training ground for kids. It important for the child getting picked on to recognize the playdate bullying immediately and to deal with it constructively through parental guidance. Kids that are often a target of bullies can learn appropriate ways they can stand up for themselves. And this is better done during the preschool years when mom and dad are there to guide them every step of the way. Children who learn how to handle preschool bullying are better equipped to handle a bully at school when they are older.

To avoid playdate bullying, try these 5 simple rules:

Keep in mind as you embark on social trips to your child’s peers’ houses that playdates are stressful for preschool kids. Keep your preschooler’s best interests in mind throughout the visit. It is a learning experience in how to socialize. And you are your child’s best coach.

Gwen Dewar of Parenting Science says, “Loving, sensitive parents are ideal social tutors. Unlike preschool peers, parents draw on extensive emotional resources when they interact with children.”

Supervise the kids to avoid playdate bullying

First of all, parents should play the role of coach rather than referee during the preschool playdate. Be certain when you make arrangements that you understand who is going to be there during your visit, especially if this is your preschooler’s first playdate. Have other children have been invited to the play date as well? Will the other children’s parents be there to supervise? What you don’t want is a situation where a child’s bullying behavior goes unchecked, thus creating disharmony among the play group. For the first few playdates be sure to stay and encourage the kids to play appropriately. If you see bullying behavior use positive reinforcement to encourage the kids to behave a different way.

Offer plenty of age appropriate planned activities

For a successful preschool play date, the host should have planned activities that teach children good communication skills  when they visit. Good activities stimulate cooperation and teamwork, and can be as simple as plopping a cardboard box on the floor and setting out a box of crayons. Give the kids the opportunity to stimulate their imaginations and coach them on how to work their ideas together to turn that box into a toy that everyone can use and share. Adults should be available to help as necessary, and to keep the kids communicating well. As soon as children begin to show disinterest in the present activity, the host should be able to facilitate a smooth transition to the next planned activity. Teach your children and their little guests to help clean up after themselves. Show enthusiasm for what they will do next and get involved in the play before you walk away. Then you can periodically encourage them as they behave well, and praise them for their cooperation and teamwork.

Set the preschool playdate ground rules with the kids at the start

Play should be in a centralized location where parents can supervise and foster positive interactions. At this age things can and will get ugly very fast when groups are left unattended for even five minutes. The host should have an area set up that is large enough to handle the group and both hear and see what the children are doing. If necessary, move the playmates if the adults need to move. For example, if the host needs to be in the kitchen to serve a snack or lunch, get the kids involved. Assign the other adults helpful jobs like washing everyone’s hands and setting the table. Then give the kids the opportunity to make the dish with the host. I have made fruit salads that the kids took turns assembling and tossing, pizzas that they topped, and vegetable salads that they topped and dressed.

Give your little ones the opportunity for some down time too.

All good play dates need wind-down time. A good stimulating video works to keep the kids quiet while the adults clean up and get ready to leave. I set parameters for the kids to follow during quiet time at my house. Sometimes playdate bullying is the result of too much overstimulation. To get them to wind down I offer a quiet activity. They each get a spot with a pillow and sippy cup or juice box, and if they are watching a video they have to sit still and be quiet until the show ends (about 15 minutes). Crayons and coloring books work just as well. Be sure to have plenty of crayons to go around and each child has his/her own supply that doesn’t require sharing.

Make a planned exit before your child gets tired from the preschool playdate

Finally, be sure to exit at the first sign your child has had enough, even if that means sooner than planned. Preschool playdates are designed to make social interactions fun learning experiences. A tired child is more likely to act naughty during a playdate, and this could result in playdate bullying. It is more important to leave on a happy note than to have to deal with fallout. In our own case my son has not wanted to play with my friend’s boy since his bad experience with playdate bullying at their house, and so far we haven’t gone back as a result.

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