- Children are sometimes thoughtless or unkind to one another, even to their friends.
- Some children are more affected by insensitive peer comments than others.
- Learning how to respond to mean comments is empowering.
“You don’t know what is in the ice cream flavor Moose Tracks? I can’t believe you have never had it. That’s so weird.”
“Eew—a purple dress makes you look like a grape.”
“I was watching you during swim class and you didn't swim in a straight line at all, even after the teacher told us to.”
Starting in elementary school, children often make hurtful thoughtless comments to one another—even to good friends. Some children are aware they are being mean when they spout off; others don’t even recognize they are being rude.
The remarks may be a way to displace distress (financial, emotional, academic or physical) onto a peer. The frontal lobe (the part of the brain that provides impulse control) is not fully developed during childhood, which increases the likelihood of spewing insensitivity.
Of note, I’m not talking about cruel exacting putdowns that make a child feel unsafe and/or bullying. Bullying requires repeated physical or emotional harm and increased fear, while creating an overall hostile environment. These situations may cause significant psychological harm and require direct intervention by adults.*
Intermittent inane statements are a different beast. That said, these remarks may still cause distress to children who are sensitive. The words truly hurt and the child may feel helpless in response.
As a caring adult, your first job is to validate the child's feelings. It is important to call a nasty comment a nasty comment. You understand why the child is fired up about it.
It’s useful not to lambast the character of the offender. The annoying peer might become a good friend within a week. Comment on the comment, not the person.
Sometimes adults try to understand the point of the view of the provoker ("I hear their parents are getting divorced—so maybe that is why they are being mean".) This is generally not helpful. Empathizing with the perpetrator doesn't help the child feel seen or understood.
Next step if the child is interested: It can be empowering to learn how to respond independently to unkind judgments rather than immediately involving an adult. The old adage “teaching one to fish” applies to playground shenanigans as well.
Some recommend ignoring the mean statement. If the instigator doesn’t interact with the child often, if the off-hand remark is in passing, or if the individual in question has a history of escalating any confrontation, the best strategy may be to ignore the provocation. It may not make sense to engage with unpredictable children just as adults may hesitate to engage an irate driver on the road.
The calculation changes if the quips are coming from a peer whom the child interacts with often. In this situation, ignoring comes at a cost—because rude remarks without any pushback may continue, or even escalate. In kid world, it can feel amusing to harass someone who doesn’t respond.
Humor or a response that is unexpectedly agreeable may be effective (“Well, I love grapes and couldn’t be prouder to represent this fruit” or “Thank you very much!”) but it requires verbal agility and the ability to think on one’s feet. For a child who might otherwise freeze and go blank in response to verbal insensitivity, a prepared response can be empowering. In role play with a trusted adult, the child can take a turn playing both the aggressor and the responder. It is useful to learn comebacks that work in multiple situations. The adult involved in rehearsal can encourage direct eye contact and an assertive tone. Confidence will increase with practice.
Some classic comebacks that work in multiple scenarios
“Why do you care?”
“What’s your point? “
“That’s your best point?”
“What’s your problem?”
“Who says that? Seriously, Who does that?”
"I don't comment on your ____. "
If these don’t work, the targeted child can go on offense. “Why are you obsessed with talking about my purple dress? What's going on with you?”
How comebacks may play out in rehearsal
“Umm, that dress makes you look like a grape—it is so purple!”
“Why do you even care? “
“It’s just weird.”
“Well, if you want to look like a grape…”
"Well, I don't comment on your clothes. “
“It’s just strange. You look strange”
“Why are you obsessed with purple dresses? You don’t have anything else better to do? “
"Never mind, just forget it"
These simple comebacks have a lot of power. First, the instigator wants to feel powerful, but with pushback, the interaction won’t feel as fruitful. The final retort, if all else fails, creates a boomerang effect. All of a sudden, the provoker is in the spotlight. The child is no longer a soft target, which can be protective in the future as well.
Over the years, I have found that a child doesn’t even need to say the comebacks to feel a bit better with an annoying peer. They just need to think them. The power of fighting back, even in one's own head, provides a sense of agency. The child who has rehearsed a defense may have a change in facial expression; sometimes the aggressor senses the change, and move on to bother someone else instead.
Empowering the child and giving them agency is helpful in numerous ways. With emotional support, the child no longer feels alone. With validation, they learn to trust their internal experience. Add in some comebacks to hold in their back pocket, and they may feel emboldened, rather than discouraged when dealing with the inevitable immature communications that are part of childhood.