Does little Janice snatch toys from other kids and angrily refuse to share? Are you flabbergasted at how mean little Michael can be while waiting his turn on the swings?
Then, parents, be warned: aggressive behavior in early childhood may flag out a kid who bullies others when he or she is older, according to a new report by Child Trends, a national nonpartisan research center.
The findings add to results of a 20-year study by Penn State University researchers who found that kids with good social skills at age 5 were more likely to go to college and hold full-time jobs as young adults.
The Child Trends report notes that children don't spontaneously grow mean when they are older. Children who bully kids in later grades likely showed aggression when younger. Researchers at Child Trends studied existing literature on children who bully and examined their early childhood experiences.
Report authors are careful to point out that many young children will act in mean ways, and that much of the toddler and preschool years are learning how to control emotions and have more positive social interactions.
However, there are risk factors from a child's early years that when combined with aggressive behavior can be viewed as “pre-bullying” behaviors. Primary among the factors are children's attachment to their caregivers, parental behaviors and characteristics, and maltreatment.
Researchers found that children who lacked a "secure attachment" to their mothers are at greater risk for aggressive behavior. The focus is on mothers because there is no significant research on the role of fathers in secure attachments and later bullying.
How parents behave and how they discipline also can play a part in their child's development into a bully. A mother with mental illness or low levels of empathy and parents who use physical discipline may correlate to more aggression in their children.
Another factor common to older bullies is that they may have been abused or neglected as kids. One study suggests “children who have experienced physical abuse may be primed to interpret innocuous situations as hostile—constituting a 'social information processing' error that in turn may contribute to a greater likelihood for aggressive behavior in these children,” the report states.
Environmental conditions can also contribute to children's aggressive behaviors.
The report finds that kids who watched a lot of television early on can be connected to kids' later bullying behavior. Even non-violent content — a show with characters being disrespectful, for example — can influence a child's behavior.
Programs like “Sesame Street,” the report points out, aren't likely to contribute to later bullying as they consistently demonstrate "pro-social" behaviors such as warm and friendly interactions, conflict resolution and making good choices.
The good news, according to researchers, is that if your toddler acts aggressively toward other kids, you can help.
Demonstrating good social behaviors and empathy can decrease a child's mean streak. The report's authors suggest parents and caregivers model kindness and compassion in their daily interactions with their children.
Find here a list of resources that Child Trends recommends.