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.
Children who are highly sensitive (HS) by nature are more likely to act out in these unkind ways.
HS children are wired to register their feelings and experiences in the world more deeply than other children. They are “processors”; it’s like their brains never turn off. They keenly focus on and analyze everything. They absorb more than their systems can handle, so they get triggered to feel out of control and anxious more easily.
When they feel out of control on the inside, they can become very controlling on the “outside”—acting like a “fascist dictator”—a moniker many a parent has ascribed to their HS child. Dictating what others can and can’t do is a way to ensure that things will go the way they feel most comfortable with. Like Serena, 4, who always has to be in charge. She assigns everyone the role they can be in their pretend play, decides whether the Magnatile structure will be for dinosaurs or superheroes, and dictates where classmates can sit at the snack table. If her peers don’t comply, she stomps off and refuses to play, or makes threats, for example, to tell the teacher on them.
Further, HS kids tend to be more self-conscious—keenly tuned in to how other’s see them. When they can’t do something exactly as they want or expect, or when they aren’t the winner—the “best”, they experience it as a loss of control and feel ashamed of their perceived “failure.” When they see other kids struggling, it triggers their own sense of vulnerability. Because those feelings are hard to tolerate, they project them onto those children and put them down, like we saw with Sumi.
To compensate for their feelings of insecurity, these kids also need to outdo everyone. At circle time, when a peer shares something special, such as having gone on a trip to Disney World, they’re the ones to respond: “I’ve been to Disney world 100 times!”
With this insight and perspective, you can see why “teaching” kindness, or telling kids they have to be kind, rarely makes a difference; it doesn’t address the underlying issues that are driving the unkind child behavior. Kids three and older “know” what is right and wrong. They will tell you straight up that leaving kids out or saying mean things is unkind and not okay. But in the moment, when they are triggered, their downstairs, the reactive brain takes over; their emotions and impulses prevail.
Tips To Handle Mean Kids
1. Manage your own emotions/reactions.
It is very triggering to most parents to see or hear about their unkind child. They get anxious about what this behavior means for their child which propels them into reactive-mode, schooling their child in the hope that they can convince him to change his ways: “Why would you be mean to your friends? Nobody is going to want to play with you if you’re always telling them what to do.”
The problem is that these kinds of responses are shaming, which makes kids defensive and much less likely to reflect on and change their behavior—the ultimate goal and something only your child controls. You can’t make your child be kind. Your job is to show your child that you are on his side; that you will be a trusted helper who will guide him to think through his experiences in a non-judgmental way, so he can learn to make the best choices for himself.
2. Tell the story of what happened, matter-of-factly, without criticism or judgment.
“You like playing with Jasper, alone. You don’t like it when other kids try to join, so you tell them to go away. Sometimes, Jasper decides to play with other friends, but you decide not to join in, even when they invite you. Then you feel sad that you are alone.”
“You like to be in charge. You have very strong ideas about how you want the game to be. When your friends have different ideas about how to play, you don’t like it and say hurtful things to them to try to get them to do what you want to do.”
“You laughed when Edward gave the wrong answer to a question the teacher asked. The teacher told you to leave the circle because you weren’t being kind. That made you mad.”
Laying it out objectively like this demonstrates to your child that you are not judging her. You have to start where your child is at if you want to open her up to rethinking her reactions.
3. Guide your child to assess the outcome of the encounter.
Start by establishing that your child is a kind person who sometimes has a hard time acting kind: “We all feel jealous and competitive at times. That’s part of being human. But when your feelings make you act unkind, it is not just hurtful to the other person, it’s not good for you. It makes people have uncomfortable, negative feelings about you, instead of seeing how kind and fun you are to be with. Let’s think through these situations so you can decide how you might respond to your friends in a way that makes them have good, positive thoughts about you.”
Ask questions that get her wheels turning, such as: “What do you think the kids were thinking and feeling when you told them to go away?” “What did it feel like for you when Jasper went to play with the other kids?” “Did it work out the way you wanted?” “What other choices might you make if this situation happens again?”
“What do you think it’s like for your friends when you tell them what to do? What kind of feelings do you think they have about you?” “When they don’t want to play with you, how does that make you feel? How does it work out for you in the end—in a way that you like, or not?” “What other choices do you have?“
“You’re a really sensitive guy. I know you can put yourself in Edward’s shoes and imagine how he might feel when you laugh at him when he makes a mistake. Do you think that makes him have good or bad feelings about you? What kind of feelings would you like him to have about you?”
The idea is to refrain from telling your child what to do, and instead, help her think through her experiences, as objectively as possible. Think about it: this is the kind of response most of us are hoping for when we go to friends or family with a problem. You don’t want them to tell you what to do, which feels patronizing and dismissive.
You want someone who, without judgment, helps you look at the situation from 360 degrees—to get clear on what feelings got triggered for you—and to think through what course corrections you might want to make. When it comes to these conversations with your child, asking her questions versus “correcting” her provides an opportunity for her to make connections between her actions and their outcomes. This makes it more likely she will ultimately change her behavior. At the end of the day, your child needs to learn to solve her own problems. You cannot solve them for her.
4. Share your perspective.
Once your child sees you are not trying to tell him what to do or shame him for his actions, he is more likely to be open to hearing what you have to say. You are still not telling him what to do, you are just sharing your perspective for him to think about.
“I know you like having one special friend all to yourself. But some kids like to have more than one friend. Just because Jasper wants to include other kids, doesn’t mean you’re not special to him. Sounds like you need to decide if you can get comfortable with playing with Jasper in a group. That’s up to you.”
“It sounds like if you want your friends to play with you, you’ll have to think about if you can be flexible and include their ideas in your play—to take turns playing different roles and letting other people go first, sometimes. What do you think you want to do?”
“Remember when you were working so hard to ride a two-wheeler and got really mad every time you fell? You did not like the feeling of not being perfect at it right away—that’s hard for a lot of people, me too! You might want to think about what you would want a friend to say to you in that kind of situation, and how you want to respond to your friends when they are having a hard time. What kind of response would make your friends have good feelings about you?”
Recently I have found that having these conversations via FaceTime or Zoom can be very effective. You and your child go into separate spaces and have the discussion remotely. This can reduce the discomfort some kids experience having these conversations face-to-face. It takes some of the pressure off and opens them up more.
5. Provide a tool to help your child stop unkind behavior.
Come up with a cue word that you will say out loud when you see your child going down an unkind path, to help her pause and see if she can make a course correction before things spiral out of control. Brian does this with his son, Derrick, who has a habit of teasing kids on the playground.
Brian calls out “banana-brain”, the funny word they came up with together when the teasing begins. More often than not, Derrick stops the taunting and moves on in a more positive way. Providing this kind of support demonstrates to your child that you are on his side and are helping him make better choices.
When to seek help
If the mean behavior persists and is interfering on a regular basis in your child’s ability to thrive at school, at home, or with peers, I recommend seeking the support of a child development expert. These are complex issues children struggle with that may need more specialized attention.
Written by: Claire Lerner Originally appeared on: Learner Chld Development Republished with permission