Smart Answers to Parents’ Toughest Questions

Why Kids Can Act Mean, Intolerant, Impatient, Condescending, or Grumpy to One Another

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There’s no doubt about it: Friendship matters. But even among the best of buddies, words can turn mean and relationships can go south, according to our panel of experts: Raquel Vega, Psy.D., clinical psychologist, Chappaqua Behavioral Health in Chappaqua, New York; Melanie Forstrom, 4-H program leader at Cornell University Cooperative Extension of Ulster County, New York; and Ann Bodnar, principal, Clinton Elementary School in Maplewood, New Jersey.

Bullies aren’t the only ones who can alter the mood in class or on the playground—so can an ordinary a kid who is just having a bad day. Here’s what our experts have to say:

First, let’s set the record straight: Is there a difference between, say, a child who has an occasional mean moment and one who’s an outright bully? And what causes a generally good kid to act hurtful or mean?

“Kids who are mean only occasionally typically aren't bullies. A bully is a child who repeatedly targets another youngster. Meanness can be caused by a child’s own insecurities—for example, if she feels left out because she was not included in an activity, such as play at recess or a birthday party with the rest of her friends. Also, a child who struggles with subject matter at school may find it easier to be that annoying kid in class rather than be found out he’s fallen behind academically. Kids can also be mean when they have a bad day—for instance, when they are not being taken care of at home, not sleeping well, or had a fight with Mom or Dad before school that morning. That can knock a kid off his game and he may act mean that day.”—Ann Bodnar

OK. So what, in your opinion, is mean behavior?

“Mean behavior can be the insensitive comments kids make when they talk before thinking. Or it could be just acting in an annoying manner, like tapping your foot after someone has asked you to stop. It also could include excluding someone, but not at the level of bullying. Some kids don’t realize they’re excluding another person, and that’s a perception problem rather than a bullying problem.” Ann Bodnar “Acting mean includes everything from putting a child down, making fun of her social status or clothes, starting rumors or purposely excluding a child by saying things like ‘You can’t sit at my lunch table,’ or ‘You can’t play with us at recess.’ They are all examples of mean behaviors.”—Dr. Vega

Is there any way to tell if your child is on the receiving end of mean behavior?

“Kids withdraw more than anything else when someone is being mean to them. When kids are younger, they may tell you what they’re feeling. But as they get older, they may only show warning signs, like not wanting to go to school or suddenly switching friends. That’s why it’s important to keep track of whom your kids are hanging out with, because a sudden friend switch may signal a child is being treated meanly. “It’s important to remember that being the recipient of mean behavior can lead to anxiety, depression, or low self-esteem, which can then lead to refusal to go to school, poor grades, acting out at home, or being more irritable. The anxiety of going to school and facing mean behavior also can cause physical symptoms, like a stomachache or headache. Parents should be aware of any personality or behavioral changes, and make sure the school has increased supervision at recess.”—Dr. Vega

Is it ever OK to confront a kid who has been mean—or the kid’s parents—directly?

“Parents should intervene early but they should go through the school first. They shouldn’t confront the other parents unless they already have a good relationship with them. At the school, parents can talk to the teacher, a school administrator, a guidance counselor, or a school psychologist. Families can also contact a professional counselor. Sometimes parents learn their own child is being mean. In that case, they should talk to the child directly to figure out the cause. It is always helpful to bring up an exact situation and say, for example, ‘Why did you make fun of how so-and-so was dressed today?’ Then parents can talk about what is appropriate versus inappropriate behavior.”—Dr. Vega “Talk to the teacher first. She is the main connection to the students and must have a heads-up about what’s going on in order to teach kids the skills they need to resolve the conflict. Kids who are being mean often don’t realize how their actions affect others, and we need to give them skills to behave better. A school social worker can hold group sessions to work on relationships and teach strategies to be a better friend. We need to teach kids that they’re part of a bigger community.”—Ann Bodnar

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