Why kids are mean and what to do about it


Dear Adele

How do you best guide your offspring when you know they aren’t being nice to other kids?



Dear Disheartened,

Children can be very mean to each other in many ways. “Insults, exclusion, gossip, ignoring, taunting, hitting, kicking, and shoving” make the list, according to Psychology Today’s Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore in ‘Why Are Kids So Mean?’  It is always tough for the parents when they learn about such behaviour.  No one wants to hear that their beloved child is prone to meanness. Fortunately, much of it can be diminished.

At times meanness occurs impulsively when kids are hurt or angry. That kind of meanness is unintentional and occasional, the result of an ill-thought-out response to a misunderstanding or unexpected situation. Sometimes meanness is intentional, or chronic, more worrisome and deserves your immediate attention.

Young people who are mean often share some of the following traits according to Amy Morin in ‘Common Characteristics of a Bully’ and Sherri Gordon in ‘What are the risk factors for becoming a bully?’:

  • Impulsiveness
  • Anger management issues
  • A need to control rather than lead
  • Negative ways of relating to others
  • Low frustration tolerance
  • Low self-esteem
  • A tendency to brag
  • Attention seeking behaviour
  • A deficiency in empathy
  • Prone to blaming others
  • Difficulty following rules and respecting authority
  • Physically stronger than others
  • Perceived as popular
  • Mental health issues like anxiety or oppositional defiant disorder
  • Lack of parental warmth and involvement
  • Overly permissive parents
  • Lack of supervision
  • Family physical discipline
  • Family violence and manipulation
  • Bullying by siblings
  • Frequent moves or disruptions in schooling

Parents whose children display mean conduct might want to examine this list and try to determine some of the root causes of their child’s meanness. Once the cause or causes are determined, ways to ameliorate the problematic conduct may be clear and manageable. If not, it might be wise to obtain professional assistance to help the child grow and learn better ways of relating to others. Psychologists and social workers often do this kind of work.

Parents are an important part of correcting occasional mean behaviour. The parent needs to help the child recognize when he/she has hurt someone else and how he/she has done that. This should be followed with a discussion on more positive comportment alternatives and possibly a suitable consequence.

Dr. Kennedy suggests the following corrective methods to assist you in guiding your child:

  • “Acknowledge your child’s thoughts and feelings.” Help your child feel understood and validated This will assist him in empathizing with others. State his feeling clearly with something like “It bothers you when he does that because…”
  • “Describe the other child’s feelings.” Explain how that other child might be feeling and draw connections to experiences your child might’ve had himself. A statement such as “The boy must feel isolated when…” or “Remember when the boys were calling you a’ baby’ and how you felt?”
  • “Clearly state your expectations.” Combine warmth and limits by saying something like “You might not want him to be your friend but I expect you to do the right thing’.
  • “Brainstorm ways to move forward positively.” Thinking through alternatives to the mean behavior in a calm moment can lead the way to making kinder choices.

As a parent, you can lessen the chances of your children being mean to peers, by being interested and involved with them. It is important to know your children’s friends and to guide them in their friendships. Be sure to teach respect for others and that no one has a right to be mean to another. Try to foster empathy, encourage helpfulness, and model kindness. Finally, it is important to put an end to any mean behaviour you witness immediately with appropriate consequences.

I will conclude with a few inspiring quotations about meanness.

“Mean girls go far in high school. Kind women go far in life.”— Mandy Hale, The Single Woman: Life, Love and a Dash of Sass

“Papa says that some people seem mean, but they’re just sad inside.” — Sarah Jio, All the Flowers in Paris

“When someone would mistreat, misinform, misuse, misguide, mishandle, mislead- or any other mis to others- they’re obviously missing something from their lives.” — Donald L Hicks, Look into the Stillness

Best to you and your child, Disheartened.

Sincerely, Adele

I'm looking forward to your questions! Email me at maryadeleblair@gmail.com and please put Heart to Heart in the subject line. Note that all columns will remain anonymous.

Photo: Mikhail Nilov, Pexels