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.”