It turns out our little Miranda (5) is a “mean girl.” Her teacher reports that she is very bossy at school, dictating to her peers what they can and cannot do. She uses threats to get her way—telling kids they won’t be invited to her house for a playdate or she will tell the teacher on them if they don’t do what she wants. She excludes kids from her play, especially when she is 1:1 with another child.
She tells the “intruder” to go away, repeating that perennial, preschool mantra: “No thank you!” She also criticizes her classmates’ work and teases them when they make a mistake. At home, she constantly puts her brother down and won’t let him play with her unless he follows all her commands. He can’t have a say in anything.
We are horrified by this behavior and have no idea where it comes from. We are constantly talking about kindness in our home, and they focus on this heavily at school, too. We can’t figure out how to get her to be the kind person we want her to be. It feels terrible as a parent to not like your child.
This is a scenario many of the parents who seek my services struggle with. They are mortified and worried about the detrimental impact of this behavior on their child, now and into the future. The more they try to get their child to change her behavior, and to instill kindness, the worse it seems to get. Their child gets defensive and shuts down whenever they want to talk about it. They feel helpless to effect a positive change.
Why children act mean
When children boss other kids around, say hurtful things, exclude peers, and act in other unkind ways, they are not acting mean on purpose. By and large, these kids are struggling with difficult feelings of insecurity/self-doubt and anxiety. These complex emotions are uncomfortable and hard to make sense of and cope with, even for adults, no less young children who don’t have the self-awareness or skills to deal with these emotions effectively; so, they act them out via projection—attributing uncomfortable emotions to others.
For example, Sumi, who makes fun of peers when they get an answer wrong during circle time or miss getting the ball into the basket. Sumi has a very low threshold for not being in control and “perfect.” When she sees other kids stumbling, it triggers her own feelings of vulnerability and shame. She projects these difficult emotions that are hard for her to tolerate onto others. It’s a coping mechanism, albeit an unhealthy one.
Excluding peers is also a coping mechanism for children who feel uncomfortable with the complexity of group dynamics. They may feel the safest playing with just one child and shun other children when they try to join. Or, a child may exclude others due to his own fear of being left out. Dictating who can and can’t participate is a way to maintain control and ensure he won’t be excluded.
For example, Mica, 6, who has had a hard time maintaining positive social relationships. He insists they create “teams” in his pod so that he is guaranteed to have at least one child in his corner, indemnifying himself from being left out. Children might also exclude to gain some sense of power—to feel like they are the boss of who does what. I have seen this behavior emerge when there is a new baby in the family: the older child senses a loss of power and starts to become bossy in an effort to regain his stature.