Teasing in the Preschool Years

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"You can't play with us because you didn't wear sandals today!"

Or even worse, "You can't play with us because you're too little!"

A parent whose child had experienced a similar hurtful comment came to me for advice on how to help her child with this. I immediately went to our resident preschool expert, Kim Donaldson, my Assistant Director and former preschool teacher for her thoughts. Together, we came up with the following.

This kind of statement is heard on preschool playgrounds and in classrooms as children start to learn about friendships, how to make them, and how to keep them. It sounds ruthless and uncaring! And when your child comes home feeling very sad because friends said they couldn't join in the fun because they are in some way deficient, your parents' heart sinks. What's going on here? Are these children just mean? How can you help your child deal with this dynamic?

The best way to understand this kind of exclusive teasing is as part of the development of skills around friendship. Three year olds are starting to work on these skills in earnest. You'll see it in classrooms of 3, 4, and some 5 year olds. Who is my friend? Who likes me? Who doesn't like me? Who do I like? These are the questions the children are asking themselves. They think first, of course, about themselves. As they search for reasons why this group should play together and arrive at the conclusion that it's because they all have long hair, they do not think about how the child with short hair who wants to join in will feel when rejected. This is not purposeful cruelty. It's a developmental stage. Children need adult help to negotiate it.

The first thing you can do as a loving parent is listen to your child and help him reflect on his feelings when that happened. Ask how that made your child feel. Talk about the feelings for a bit. If tears need to be shed, welcome them. Support your child as she explores and gets in touch with her feelings. Then encourage your child to let the others know how she feels. She can say, "That makes me sad!" or "That hurts my feelings!" or "That makes me very angry with you!"

Talk about whether children who say hurtful things to her are really good friends. Friends are people who are nice to you most of the time. They are people you have fun with and enjoy playing with. They are people who help you out when you are sad or hurt. Ask about others in the class who are fun to play with and who are helpful to your child. Help your child make solid choices of friends. Also help her understand that even the best of friends have differences sometimes and might make the mistake of saying hurtful things on occasion. So the message you want to give your child is that feeling bad about being teased is legitimate and that voicing how you feel is desireable.

The next thing you should do is report this conversation to your child's teacher. A good preschool teacher should help his/her children build their social skills by having the children involved come together or the whole class come together and talk about hurtful words and hurtful behavior, their causes and effects. Sometimes it turns out there is a legitimate reason why a child was excluded from play like taking a toy or saying something hurtful first. All this can be discussed in a group. No one needs to be singled out. The group can talk about how to make sure everyone has fun in the room and a caring classroom community can be created. A teacher who notices when children are supportive of one another and notices when feelings are hurt will be able to effectively support the children growing social skills.

These conversations will need revisiting from time to time. Preschoolers are new at this. We need to forgive mistakes and help children move forward. Encourage your child to identify and communicate his feelings, turn to his teachers for help, and move on.