This is a guest post by Michelle Anthony, MA, PhD

I read an article recently about preschool bullies. It made me uncomfortable. Not because I don't believe very young children can do very mean things. I know they can. And not because I don't believe there may be an out-and-out bully who is 4 years old. I do. But such extreme cases are the exception, not the rule.

Not All Bullies Start Out Mean

In general, meanness and bullying at these young ages happens because children are trying to have an impact on their world and to feel important to their friends, and don't know how to go about it the right way. But when we label these children "bullies," we circumscribe who they are at horrifyingly young ages. We judge and criticize them and their families, and we only accentuate the problem we are striving to fix. The reality is, meanness happens because — developmentally speaking — it is a necessary way for young children to learn how to be nice, if they are given the appropriate tools and guidance early on.

A Problem of Perspective

Most preschool and elementary-aged children have a hard time holding multiple perspectives, and in trying to be important — to have power — they often take actions that seem "mean." But, their "mean" actions often stem from the desire to fit in, as opposed to taking purposeful actions to put someone on the outs. It is true that by 3rd grade (earlier for some), girls' ability to hold multiple perspectives has advanced, and the intent to harm is more present in some girls, either to exert power in purposefully hurtful ways, or to try to make themselves look good.

However, it is vital that parents and educators realize that a majority of the mean behavior in elementary school (and preschool) comes from good or nice girls who are simply trying to fit in and belong, making mistakes along the way. Unfortunately, by (ineffectively) trying to find their place, or (unsuccessfully) attempting to be important to someone, they often inadvertently cross the line to aggressiveness or meanness and hurt those they care about. Understanding the how and why of meanness allows parents to support their child and help her respond more effectively.

How Can I Help My Daughter?

Much of the "everyday" meanness happens between close friends. Girls are often hesitant to talk to parents and teachers, in part because we often brush off social struggles, saying, "She's a bully, don't be friends with her," or, "Ignore her; play with someone else," or "girls are just mean sometimes." Thus, in trying to help, we unwittingly isolate girls from the very support network they need and deserve.

But, providing support is as simple as 1-2-3-4: Observe, Connect, Guide, and Support to Act. In our book, Little Girls Can Be Mean: Four Steps to Bully-Proof Girls in the Early Grades (Aug 2010, St. Martin's Griffin), we address the most common social struggles girls face in friendship pairs and groups, walking readers through each Step in detail. The Steps are relevant whether your child is a target, is acting meanly, or is simply a bystander to "girl drama."

Step 1: Observe

Observe your child in new ways and with new eyes, seeking to understand who she is socially. Is she passive? Aggressive? A self-starter? Recognize when things go awry: She suddenly stops wanting to do favorite activities, starts more fights with her siblings, complains of headaches, etc.

Step 2: Connect

Connect with her without taking over. Ask questions; empathize. Connect vs. Correct. Connect vs Direct. This is especially hard (but especially important!) if your child has been mean.

Step 3: Guide

Guide her as a teammate. Work together to try out possible solutions, whittling down the list to choices doable to you both (e.g., if she decides she wants to be more assertive, do Role Plays to help her do so without slipping into meanness herself).

Step 4: Support Her to Act

Support her to act on one or two of the solutions. Remember, she chooses her actions and follows through, not you. Because you will not control how peers respond, follow up with the four Steps again, observing what happens, reconnecting over how she now feels, and working together as you guide her to new choices she can then act on.

While not every social situation warrants all Four Steps, Observing and Connecting often will allow you to see patterns or notice your child is unhappy. In applying the Four Steps, caring parents, teachers, and counselors learn a variety of tools and strategies that give the girls they love a simple productive way to respond to the inevitable struggles every girl faces as she enters (and sometimes gets excluded by) the world of groups, clubs, and best friends.

Michelle Anthony, MA, PhD is co-author of the newly released Little Girls Can Be Mean: Four Steps to Bully-Proof Girls in the Early Grades (St. Martin's Press, Aug 2010). She is an expert in developmental psychology, mother to three young children, and certified teacher. She is co-founder of Wide-Eyed Learning, a company devoted to facilitating communication and learning between parents and children.