Report Explores the Early Roots of Bullying

August 17, 2015

Provides guidance for programs and parents of young children

Bethesda, Md. —Understanding how to prevent bullying is a critical concern for educators and parents. Being involved in bullying, as either the target or the aggressor, can have lifelong health implications, and being excluded activates the same part of the brain as physical pain: it literally hurts. But how early does bullying start?

A new Child Trends report, Bullies in the Block Area: The Early Childhood Origins of “Mean” Behavior, summarizes the factors that appear related to later bullying, and what can buffer these factors.

It is common for young children to exclude each other. Yet “mean behavior in early childhood lacks some characteristics of what we consider bullying behavior, such as the consistent power imbalance. We don’t think of young children as engaging in bullying,” said Deborah Temkin, an author of the report and director of education research at Child Trends. “Children are unlikely to start being aggressive spontaneously when they reach school age; such behavior likely has early roots.”

Research suggests that children who are aggressive during early childhood and whose aggression remains at about the same level throughout childhood are more likely to engage in bullying behaviors later on. Children whose aggression levels decrease, however, do not appear to be at increased risk.

There are other factors that seem to be strongly related to children’s later involvement in bullying. Risk factors include:

  • Parental behavior and characteristics: Having inappropriate developmental expectations of a child, hostility or violence in the home, or low levels of maternal empathy (fathers’ empathy has not been well studied) may be risk factors for later bullying involvement.
  • Maltreatment: Early, persistent maltreatment has the potential to alter physical structures of a child’s brain and lead to developmental deficits, including social and emotional ones. Children who have experienced maltreatment may also be more likely to interpret innocuous situations as hostile and respond accordingly. Children ages zero to five are more likely than others to be substantiated victims of maltreatment.
  • Exposure to TV: Research has found a correlation between early TV-watching and later bullying behavior. This occurs even with non-violent content, where children may witness antisocial behavior, such as characters being disrespectful. This is not the case with shows such as Sesame Street or Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, whose messages about cooperation, nurturing, and verbalizing feelings have been shown to increase children’s likelihood of demonstrating those skills.

Report authors note other factors that may contribute to young children’s propensity toward long-term aggression, including peers, neighborhood characteristics, socioeconomic factors, and bias.

“Not all aggressive behavior becomes bullying. We have to keep in mind that for young children, some level of this behavior is developmentally appropriate, as they become socialized,” Temkin said. “For those who do have some risk factors for later bullying involvement, we found factors that may mitigate this risk.”

Possible mediating factors for later bullying involvement include:

  • Positive parental behavior and characteristics: Having a secure, stable attachment with a caregiver, and positive parent-child interactions, such as having meals with parents and being read to or played with, may lessen the risk of later bullying.
  • Addressing child maltreatment: For children who experience maltreatment, a secure relationship with a non-abusive parent or other adult, and positive peer relationships, can reduce the potential for future bullying behavior.
  • Supportive care and learning environments: Adults in daycares, preschools, and other care settings can take advantage of young children’s reliance on adults to strengthen caregiver-child relationships and model, teach, and reinforce appropriate social behaviors.

The report points to specific programs and resources to help parents, caregivers, and others promote and support young children’s developing empathy and compassion:

The report is the result of a review of existing research on the subject and a convening of national experts in early childhood development and media for young children, held at Child Trends earlier this year.


Child Trends is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center that studies children at all stages of development. Its mission is to improve the lives and prospects of children and youth by conducting high-quality research and sharing the resulting knowledge with practitioners and policymakers. Child Trends has more than 120 employees and annual revenue of about $14 million.