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6 Steps to Help "Mean" Kids Be Nice

Why simply teaching kindness is rarely enough.

Key points

  • When kids act mean, they are often struggling with feelings of insecurity/self-doubt and anxiety, difficult emotions to process.
  • Just teaching kindness is rarely useful because it doesn't address the underlying issues.
  • Shaming kids for being mean only begets more mean behavior.

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. Young children 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.

Consider, Sumi, who makes fun of peers when they get an answer wrong during circle time or miss getting the ball into the basket. 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.

That's why just “teaching" kindness rarely makes a difference; it doesn’t address the underlying issues that are driving the unkind behavior. Below is an approach I find more effective.

6 Strategies to Help Kids Become Kind

1. Manage your own emotions/reactions. It is distressing to most parents to see or hear about their child being unkind. 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. They get flooded with negative emotion and shut down. This makes it much less likely to reflect on and change their behavior—the ultimate goal. Keep in mind that 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. Communicate to your child that she is a good 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."

3. Describe the situation, matter-of-factly, without criticism or judgment. “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.

4. Guide your child to think about the outcome her actions. Instead of telling her what to do, get curious. Ask questions that help her look at the situation with some objectivity:

“When you say hurtful things to your friends, what happens next?"

“When they run away from you or tell the teacher, how does that make your feel? Does it work out the way you wanted? What other choices might you make if this situation happens again?”

Children want and need the same thing most of us, adults, want and need when we share a difficult encounter with someone: a person who helps us look at the situation from 360 degrees—to get clear on what feelings got triggered for us—and to think through what course corrections we might want to make. Most of us don’t want someone who tells us what to do, which feels patronizing and dismissive, and conveys a lack of confidence in our ability to come up with our own solutions.

5. Help your child problem-solve. Once your child sees you are not trying to tell him what to do or shame him for his actions, he is much more likely to be open to reconsidering his actions and making course corrections.

“It sounds like if you want your friends to play with you, you would need to be flexible and agree to take turns playing different roles and letting other people go first, sometimes. You are the only one who controls your actions. What would be the best decision for you—to be flexible and play with friends or play on your own?”

6. Provide a tool to help your child stop unkind behavior. With your child, come up with a cue word that you say out loud when you see your child going down an unkind path. ("Squiggly brain" is a recent favorite.) This gives your child a signal to pause and make a course correction before things spiral out of control.

One dad does this with his son, Derrick, who has a habit of teasing kids on the playground. Brian calls out "banana-brain" 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.

At the end of the day, your child needs to learn to solve her own problems. You cannot force her to be kind. She is the only one in charge of her actions. Taking this non-judgmental, supportive approach provides an opportunity for her to make connections between her behavior and its outcome, and makes it more likely she will ultimately make the positive changes you know will serve her well.

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