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Equip Your Kids With A Bully-Proof Vest!

Updated: Feb 2

This is the second in a 10 part series on how to teach empathy to young children through play

The more time you spend with bullies, the less you like yourself! That’s a good statement for all of us to think about. It says a lot about life in general and has implications for the ways we choose to raise and teach our children.

How would you like to equip your kids with a bully-proof vest that protects them from every mean person in the world?

Seem impossible? Maybe. But it IS possible to give your child the ABCs of non-violent communication with assertiveness skills that give them the tools to succeed in these areas for the rest of their lives.

How do I know about the bully-proof vest? 43 years experience with children ages 0-8+, and a BS and MA in education and human development respectively.

More important than that is the hundreds of hours of training attended and books read all the time applying the knowledge, observing the results, and adjusting my methods before trying again. I know a lot about how kids develop and learn, but I'm always the first to admit that parents and sometimes teachers are the real experts on each individual child.

It's from there that I like to talk about behavior.

I think it’s best to deal with the types of behavior that lead to bullying and victimization before the age of three. Yes, you heard me right. That's because 80% of a child’s brain pathways are developed by then and we need to be sure the right ones are being activated over and over again so that being a bully or being a victim doesn’t become ingrained in their beings and personalities.

Here’s what you’ll learn in this lesson

  • The ABC’s of equipping your child with a bully-proof vest, Awareness, Boundaries, and Choices.

  • Why self control is the key to unlocking doors on both ends of the bully vs. victim spectrum

  • Why making kids say they're sorry has gotten such a bad wrap and what you can say instead to promote empathy in very young children.


The video above shows the development of empathy which is the polar opposite of bullying. We defined empathy as being different from sympathy in the first lesson on listening. The truth is that all humans are born with both the capacity for empathy and the capacity for narcissism. It's the way we're wired.

Just like it's important to be aware of how empathy develops and to encourage it, it's important to be aware of bullying and how it develops.


Bullying is when a person or group deliberately tries to make someone else feel upset, scared, or ashamed. People often bully others who have any difference of behavior, appearance, culture, race, class, ability, or identity. There are four types of bullying:

Physical bullying means harming or intimidating someone physically.

Verbal bullying means taunting or hurtful teasing.

Psychological bullying means leaving someone out or saying bad things so others will think less of them.

Cyberbullying means using online and mobile technology to harm someone emotionally and socially.

Everyone is susceptible to bullying and anyone can be a victim in certain situations. So let's talk about how to prepare people and give them the skills they need to hold their heads up and take good care of each other.

With very young children 0-3, The process starts with awareness of self. Last time we talked about Floortime as being a good model for supporting children’s self-awareness by letting them lead the play on regular occasions. This week we’re going to extend that to a new skill I want to highlight called Laptime.

note: Floortime doesn't necessarily need to be on the floor and Laptime doesn't need to happen on the lap. It's a feeling of being in tune and in sync with each other. The difference is that Laptime usually includes physical contact and Floortime might not.

What is Laptime?

Laptime is defined by me as time spent either on the parent or provider's lap or in close physical contact if that's what's comfortable for both. It's time spent together, looking at books or magazines, reading and/or talking about emotions, and speculating how characters in books, ourselves, or others in the world might feel. It's also looking closely at facial, body, and language expressions that help us know what others are experiencing outside of ourselves. It's based on this premise:

all feelings are OK, all action (and words) are not

Laptime is a time for questioning and wondering about human interaction in the presence of a non-judgemental and trusted person. It's an awesome way to teach emotions to kids ages

0-8+. And it's information they'll need when it comes to talking about bullies.

30% of families in the United States don’t read to their kids at all. That's a lot of missed opportunities to teach their children about emotions and empathy.

The Danes, who've been consistently voted the happiest people in the world, already know what works to teach emotions and they have a program to teach it in school. It's called Step By Step that teaches young children to identify emotions by looking at pictures of faces and talking about how people are feeling.

Free of Bullying, a program designed by Mary Crown Princess of Denmark, teaches children 3-8 about bullying and teasing so they can learn to be more caring with each other. The program is mandatory for all school children.

There's something else that they stress in Denmark that we don't always make sure to include in our American child-raising. It's a subtle shift in thinking that they start instilling in children very early on.

Danish families actively encourage children to notice the best in each other by using phrases such as, "Isn't that child clever?" and they also talk about poor behavior as being separate from the child with phrases like, "Do you think he was grumpy because he was hungry or tired?" or "Maybe she skipped her nap, today." rather than labeling the child a pest or a bad sport.

Maybe there's some wisdom here for us to think about.


Our kids need to learn to set boundaries and like it or not, we're the ones who're going to have to teach them. We do it by example and through coaching. The first rule in setting boundaries is using "I messages".

You really need to tell people what you want if you want to have any chance in the world of getting it. I would recommend starting your requests with the word "I" or the word "when". for example:

"I see you trying to bully her into giving you her lunch and I want you to stop!"

"When I'm sure I can trust you, then I'll be your friend."

One of my favorite "I messages" is the one I have to use when a child strikes out at me in anger. I immediately set the child down if I'm holding them or move away if I'm not. I look straight at the child and say firmly and in perfect control, "I don't let anyone hit me."

That's it. Then I don't.

I hope they remember my message and use it successfully with others throughout their lives.

But what if your child is the one hitting others? There are lots of things to do to prevent hitting but it's important to also know the right things to do and say when it does happen. The following link will tell you exactly what to do and say when a child hits another to help promote empathy and efficacy in everyone involved.


It's all about the choices they make and with bullying, we need to teach them to make appropriate choices that make them feel powerful. We sometimes have to be deliberate in letting them fail.

It's about gradually letting go and always being there for them when it doesn't work out. The best thing we can do as parents and teachers is to hold back our judgments, even when it's really hard. We need to teach kids to judge themselves because that's the beginning of true morals. Not just avoiding punishment.

I don't see punishment as being an effective deterrent to bullies or to victims.

Bullying itself is a form of punishment. The bully needs an understanding of how to get what they want in life without hurting people. The victim needs to show enough confidence in their choices to not back down or accept things that are grossly unfair.

Leonard's story

I once worked closely with a 2-year-old named Leonard. He had a problem with identifying as the victim in many situations. I suspected he was doing it for attention. Several of the other 2-year-olds picked on him and tried to physically hurt him. He cried a lot and I tried desperately to stop his bullies. Then I saw something that made me become very intentional about the way I was treating the situation and enabled me to turn things around.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Leonard get pushed. Instead of falling to the ground because of losing his balance, he sprung up and flew about 3 feet from where he was standing before falling to the ground, crying. He was trying to make it look like he got shoved hard, but I had seen the whole thing. From that point forward, I spent more time trying to empower Leonard with words and knowledge. He liked that type of positive attention better than his victimhood so it worked to everyone's advantage.

Dr. Becky Bailey is one of my favorite resources when it comes to empowering children to make good choices. Here's a link to a reading of her book, Sophie Wants a Turn on Youtube.

by Becky Bailey

The biggest reason that bullies continue to be bullies is that they get away with it. Awareness helps, so does viligence. Communication and positive assertiveness are the keys. We'll continue to talk about those two important subjects.


Stay in touch! Community members get my free ebook, Magic Words. Sign up here if you haven't already and get yours right away!

Self Control

The last important element of creating that bully-proof vest is self-control. It's a skill that's not always intentionally taught. Here are some ideas for creating self-control in 2 of my previously published articles.

A few other ideas for the development of self-control are martial arts, meditation, and yoga.

Say You're Sorry!

Later in our lessons, we're going to talk more about non-violent communication and that'll be highlighted as the main way to empower kids all the way up to adulthood. So there's lots of good stuff to come. For now, I want to end with a story about teaching empathy in the real world that I think you'll like. It's all about the age-old debate on whether or not we should make kids say they're sorry when we see them do something wrong and gives you some alternatives that just might work a little bit better in the long run.

Many, many well-meaning parents and teachers try to teach kids empathy by making them say they're sorry after they've made a mistake. I understand that and I applaud you for your effort. I'm sorry to say, however, that it doesn't exactly work that way developmentally, and here's why.

Making the offending child say sorry doesn't make them sorry, it just makes them mad. It takes all of the emphasis off of the hurt child and puts onto the power struggle between adult and child.

If and when the offending child does say sorry, they hardly ever mean it. It's just not helpful to anyone and it doesn't help them develop empathy. Here's what you can say instead:

It looks like that hurt Penny. What can you do to make her feel better?

What were you trying to do? Let's see if we can help her feel better and then we'll work on getting you that turn you wanted.

Ouch, that hurt! Do you have any ideas to help me feel better?

The last example was exactly what I said to an active 4-year-old as he ran by and stepped on my bare foot with shoes on. I called him back and waited for a response, not sure at all of what it would be. I just knew that letting him get away with being so careless wasn't the best thing for him and it wasn't the best thing for our relationship. The few seconds it took before he responded seemed like an eternity. Then he suddenly threw both arms out to his sides awkwardly, smiled, and gave me a strong quick hug around the waist before running off to be with his friends.


Thanks for reading and join us here for more!

Nanci J Bradley is an early childhood and family educator, author, teacher, SELF-care facilitator, family aerobics instructor, and an all-around fun-loving person. She believes in the power of sleep, healthy eating, lifelong learning, and most of all, PLAY! She studied early childhood ed at Triton College and received her BS in education in 1986 from NIU. She received her MA in human development from Pacific Oaks College in 2011. She lives and teaches in Madison WI.

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