Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Second Step in Helping Your Child Deal With Meanness

What actions, if any, should your child take?

Key points

  • Teaching a child how to take other kids' inconsiderate acts less personally will aid them in the long run.
  • Parents should try not to catastrophize with the school about what is normal, though undesirable, peer behavior.
  • Before approaching other parents about their child's meanness, a person might consider how they would want to receive such information.
  • Coach a child to be thoughtful about if they want to respond to another child’s meanness, and have them weigh the likely success of any solution.
fizkex/Getty Images
Source: fizkex/Getty Images

Last month, I focused on meanness and how critical one's appraisal of the situation is to an experience of perceived mistreatment. How we interpret a situation will largely determine how we feel as a consequence and what actions we may want to take in response. This month, I focus on the guidance you can provide your child when responding to perceived meanness, helping them decide whether to take action and, if so, what sort of action.

Since meanness is not the same as bullying, an appraisal is a key first step in determining how to label someone else's behavior. This label is the primary determinant of how one wants to respond. Probing the motivation for another person's mean actions can often result in an apology—sometimes on both sides. This highlights how what is sometimes labeled as meanness can often be more of a misunderstanding—perhaps retaliation for some perceived misstep or an absence of more mature communication.

I encourage parents to ask their children questions like, "How did that make you feel?" Inquire about their emotional reaction rather than implying that they should feel a certain way. You and your children don't need to process the event in the same way emotionally. And remember, even if you are upset by something someone has done to your children, your goal is for them not to be so upset. You can't get upset yourself and think they won't be.

The next step is helping your children decide what they want to do in response. If you ask them directly, try to also indirectly imply that it's not always necessary to take action. Doing nothing is also a kind of action. And always remember that the response taken by your children doesn't need to be the same response you would have taken under similar circumstances.

adveev007/Getty Images Signature
Source: adveev007/Getty Images Signature

If your children want to respond, you might suggest that they contemplate the solution they want and ask them the likelihood of that outcome with the strategy they have in mind. If the desired result is unlikely or if it will solve one problem and create another, suggest they re-think the solution. If they decide to say something to those who mistreated them, remind them to anticipate the effect of their message.

There is at least one other consideration, and the younger your children are, the more you are likely to contemplate it. Should or shouldn't you get involved, and if you think you should, will it be with the parents, the school, or both?

Things to consider before getting involved in your children's conflicts

Given the desire to protect their children, it's expected that some parents will want to intervene, especially if their children are young or if what was done to them seems serious. Think twice, however, before talking to the parent of the other child or the school. It is important to consider the outcome you truly desire. Try to anticipate how a parent is likely to receive you telling them that their child was mean to yours. How will the school perceive you as a parent who brings a complaint about another child? Consider, too, whether you may inadvertently usurp your child's autonomy and sense of self-efficacy. Is your child getting the message that they need you to solve their problem—either because it is too big or because they will be too ineffective?

SDI Productions/Getty Images Signature
Source: SDI Productions/Getty Images Signature

If you are determined to intervene, it's probably best to let the school handle communicating with the other child's family if the meanness occurs at school. The parents will see the school as more neutral than they might see you bringing this information to them. The school is also likely to have more accurate information about what occurred.

Understand that the school personnel may not tell you precisely what they will say to the other family or what that family will say in response. And if the other child's behavior violated a school rule that calls for a consequence, it would not be appropriate for the school to discuss that conversation with you. While they don't want unkind acts to occur in the school community, they also strive to maintain a positive relationship with all parties and respect confidentiality.

What you can and can't say to the school

Think carefully about how you characterize the school community. If you suggest that the community condones bad behavior, you are indicting not just teachers but leadership too. Administrators are ultimately responsible for the school's climate, so it's tricky to condemn a teacher without the administrator feeling like you are indirectly finding fault with their oversight of teachers.

Maroke/Getty Images
Source: Maroke/Getty Images

Also, refrain from discussing the incident widely with other school parents, or it will get back to the school that you have parents whipped up about a child's misbehavior, making life more difficult for the school. They now have two problems to manage: your bad press and the other child's mean behavior.

If you are reaching out to the school, remember to stay focused on the present issue. Don't go off on tangents talking about what the "mean" child did last year or what their sibling did. In the present moment, this information is likely irrelevant as most educators believe that children can learn from their mistakes. Isn't this what you would want if it were your child who broke a rule in the community? When you paint an unredeemable picture of a parent and child, you increase the possibility that the school will dismiss your complaint, believing that they need to come to the defense of the other parent rather than defend and protect your child.

What You Can and Can't Say to Other Parents

You can't tell parents that their kids have been mean to your child and expect them to be eager to hear your message. This is because, indirectly, you are telling them that they have some room to grow in their parenting. It's instinctive for them to want to protect their reputation and their children's.

Good Boy Picture Company/Getty Images Signature
Source: Good Boy Picture Company/Getty Images Signature

From start to finish, remember that the goal is for your child to be OK. Not just at this moment, but so they won't be as hurt in adulthood—when their emotions can run deeper and have a greater impact. The more benign and neutral their interpretation, and the more they can look at another person's behavior as unintentional, the less personally they will take the hurtful behavior. The less personal it feels, the less negative impact there will ultimately be for your child.

More from Pamela D. Brown Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today