Smart Answers to Parents’ Toughest Questions

What to Do When Your Kid Crosses Paths with a Friend Who Doesn’t Act Nice

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Wipe away the tears for good—and put a stop to mean behavior—with the following advice from our 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.

Kids need to learn how to get past an occasional dustup on the school bus or a put down from a friend at the lunch table. Here, what our panel of pros says all parents should keep in mind.

Kids rarely get through school without at least one run-in with a child who hurts their feelings. So what should Mom and Dad do if their kid reports that so-and-so was mean?

“If a school has a mediation program—where an unbiased adult listens to the kids involved and helps find a resolution—that’s the best way to go. If there’s something going on between two kids, it’s important that it’s addressed quickly. Conflicts can grow, and they don’t always go away very easily. The most important thing about mediation is that it takes people who are on the sidelines out of the situation, and focuses the conversation on people who are directly involved. During the mediation, a trained adult or peer mediator lets each child involved in the conflict tell his or her side of the story uninterrupted, and then guides the parties to come up with their own agreement about how the conflict will be resolved.”—Melanie Forstrom

But what about the victim? How do you help a child bounce back from a mean, grumpy, or two-faced remark?

“First, listen and be supportive, and be aware of your tone and your nonverbal cues. Make sure you’re not speaking judgmentally and saying things like ‘Why didn’t you do this?’ That can make a child feel as if he deserved the mean behavior. Instead, praise him for having the courage to bring the problem to you so you can discuss it. Help him see it is not his fault and that the friend may be behaving that way because of difficulties he might be facing. Also, help your child practice assertive communication. Teach him to say things like ‘I feel hurt or sad when you say that to me.’ If the mean behavior continues, sit down with your child and discuss what makes someone a good friend and what doesn't, and help your child decide whether this is a friendship he wants to continue. You don’t want to make him end the friendship. You want him to think for himself about why the friend may not be good for him. That way, he’s learning to think and make decisions for himself.”—Dr. Vega “If your child has a friend who is not necessarily mean to your child but is impatient or condescending around others, you can guide your child to make better choices by asking her questions like ‘Hey, what do you like about your friend Jill, who is mean to Angie? Why do you think she behaves this way?’ Help your child think critically about what she could do to help resolve the conflict. Role-playing gives kids an opportunity to consider how they might act in real-world scenarios, which, without skills, can inhibit resolve and good judgment.”—Melanie Forstrom “Parents can say ‘I understand why you feel hurt. I would feel hurt, too.’ Then they can work on helping the child let go of those hurt feelings. One of the best things parents can do is to provide time to play with other children, either through play dates, sports, team events, or extracurricular activities. Interacting with lots of other children helps kids be better able to tackle problems. Children who watch TV or play video games all day may have problems with relationships because the games may isolate them and prevent them from practicing social skills. If your child has a friend who acts mean, give him strategies to verbally tell the friend, ‘You are hurting my feelings. Please stop,’ and then encourage him to walk away. You want kids to stick up for themselves and for other children. If the behavior continues, encourage the child to talk to a teacher or another adult. If that doesn’t work, then the parents should step in and talk to the teacher. Don’t let it continue. It can be solved.”—Ann Bodnar