Most of us remember dealing with mean kids as children. The problem is, by the time we’re helping our own children deal with mean kids, those memories have faded.
As a parent and a teacher, I’ve had a lot of experience dealing with mean kids and I’m here to offer you some tips to help your child through this unpleasant experience.
But before we get to the tips, I think it’s important to say: Every kid is different. You know your child best. You are the one best positioned to decide how to work through the challenges of mean kids with your child.
Just as important: mean kid struggles really vary by age—and so does the best response. Dealing with a mean kid in preschool isn’t the same as handling a mean teen.
The good news? All of these tips are still appropriate for any age. It’s just a matter of how you implement them and how involved you are (versus how much you allow your child to lead).
With that said, let’s get to the tips to help your child handle mean kids!
1. Try to separate your own feelings
This may be one of the toughest things to do as a parent. When someone hurts your child – your baby!—a primal reaction takes place. You want to make your child’s pain stop immediately and you want to make the perpetrator hurt.
But when the perpetrator is another kid, well… that’s not practical–or even desirable. You need to approach the situation with a cool head.
Handle your own feelings on your own time. When you’re helping your child deal with a mean kid, your child needs a mentor, not a co-conspirator.
2. Empathize with your child
As I just explained, it’s important to separate your own personal feelings from the situation. However, it’s also important that your child feels you understand. Empathy is huge here.
Your child wants to know you understand the pain they’re experiencing. Avoid comments that minimize your child’s feelings or the difficulty of their situation.
A few examples of unhelpful phrases include
- They’ll come around. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. Maybe it’d actually be better for your child if this mean kid never comes around. Regardless, you don’t know what the future holds and this phrase doesn’t really help.
- You’re too good for them anyway. Most parents say something like this with good intentions. Your child is hurting and you want to console them. But this rank-order, oppositional approach isn’t kind. Plus, right or wrong, if your child really believed this, they probably wouldn’t be so upset about the mean kid’s behavior in the first place.
- It’s no big deal. This is the worst thing you can say to a child if you want to show empathy. It’s clearly a big deal to your child. If it weren’t, you wouldn’t be trying to troubleshoot their problems with the mean kid. Suggesting it’s a trivial matter just further separates you from your child. This is especially true if your child is older and already prone to thinking you just don’t understand them (hello, teenagers!).
- Bonus lousy phrase: sayings like, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but word will never hurt me.” So untrue. Words can hurt a lot. Your child needs to know you understand that.
Of course, perspective is important. A lot of the conversation with your child will come down to their age, personality, and your relationship with them.
Saying things like, “You’ll feel better tomorrow” or “This won’t last forever” may be true and encouraging – or they could be taken as dismissive and unsympathetic.
Read the room.
3. Don’t tell your child what to do about the mean kid—guide them instead.
The quickest way to get a child to double-down on an unhealthy relationship is to order them to cut it off.
As kids grow, they’re learning to separate themselves from their parents. This budding independence is amazing in so many ways, but it’s also challenging. As parents, we often see the bigger picture. We have the advantage of experience and hindsight.
But we can’t live life for our children. (Which is too bad, because if we got to do it all over again, we’d be so good at it, right?).
Telling a kid to break off a friendship with a mean child is a crapshoot. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t (probably not), but either way, it robs your child of a learning opportunity.
As much as we hate to see our kids learn painful lessons about trust and friendship, the best time for them to learn those lessons is while they’re young and living in a supportive home.
4. Facilitate positive relationships
While you can’t tell your child who to befriend (oh if only it were that easy!), you can make it easier for them to build healthy relationships with kinder people.
This could mean signing them up for clubs or activities with a different friend or friend group. It could mean offering rides or setting up playdates.
If you want to encourage a particular, positive relationship, offer to take your child and another kind kid (or two) on a fun outing.
Again, it’s a balancing act. The key is to provide help and guidance, not bossing and telling.
5. Build up your child’s self-esteem
One of the best things you can do for your child is to help him or her build a strong sense of self-worth.
Children who feel confident about themselves and their abilities are less likely to tolerate unkind behaviors from others. According to KidsHealth, kids with good self-esteem do better at home, at school, and with peers.
Of course, this is tricky, because childhood, and especially adolescence, is a long process of learning. We’re social creatures and we crave approval from other people – whether we like to admit it or not. Even kids with a healthy level of self-esteem will likely struggle with mean kids at some point.
6. Help your child learn how to stand up for himself/herself.
Conflict management is a learned skill. We teach our toddlers not to hit. We emphasize using our words with preschoolers.
But then, as our kids continue to mature, we have a tendency to forget that learning and growth in this area is a lifelong process. This becomes super clear if you just look around the adult world: some people never learn to manage conflict appropriately. (And honestly, how many moms struggle to make and maintain healthy friendships themselves?)
Talk to your child about specific scenarios when they feel threatened or uncomfortable. Examples may include someone touching/taking their belongings without asking, talking about them behind their back, teasing them, etc. Then, help them identify specific things they can say in those situations.
Some possibilities might include:
- “Please don’t _________. I don’t like it.”
- “It makes me uncomfortable when you _______. Please stop.”
- “If you have something to say about me, please say it directly to me and not to someone else.”
You’ll notice these lines are direct and specific. It’s very helpful to be as clear as possible in these situations.
General comments like “Stop,” “Don’t,” or “Leave me alone” are less helpful. They’re still valid and should be heeded, but they’re less useful for two reasons.
- Sometimes other children genuinely don’t understand what they’re doing that’s upsetting. This is especially true with children who struggle with emotions or social cues, particularly if any developmental disorders are at play (of which your child may not even be aware). In that case, the “mean kid” is really just a child who’s struggling to understand social context.
- Sometimes the mean kids know exactly what they’re doing, but will pretend otherwise. “I didn’t know” “She didn’t tell me not to.” “I thought he liked it” etc. Stating concerns directly and specifically eliminates this excuse upfront.
Role-playing can be especially helpful in these types of situations (if your child is willing.) Some kids will, understandably, eye-roll at this concept. As always, you have to use your judgment to best thread the needle between helping your child and overstepping.
7. Think twice before involving other parents
Parents are a funny thing. Think about all the irrational people you’ve met in your lifetime. Now, consider the fact that many of them probably have children.
While you may be coming at this situation out of care and concern, that doesn’t mean that’s what you’ll receive on the other end. Plus, parents are inevitably a bit defensive when it comes to their children (refer to the primal reaction I discussed at the beginning of this article).
There are certainly times for parents to get involved.
If someone’s safety is threatened, that’s definitely an appropriate time to contact parents (and possibly the school, if the issue is occurring on school property or at school events). If a mean child’s misbehavior and targeting of your child is habitual, that might also justify contacting the parent of the other child.
On the other hand, there can be a lot of benefits to allowing your child to handle this independently. The APA has published studies showing that overparenting can stunt a child’s ability to manage their own emotions, behaviors, and relationships. Try to give your child the time and space to navigate the conflict(s) first.
Before you reach out to the other parent(s), speak with your own child. Depending on their age, they may have feelings about you getting involved and/or involving other parents. They deserve to have their voice heard.
8. Know when to seek outside help
This can be such a tricky line to navigate. A lot more attention has been paid to bullying in schools and society in the past decade. Certainly, some good things have come from that. Unfortunately, an incorrect tendency to label every unkind behavior as bullying has also developed.
There’s actually a significant difference between a child being mean and bullying behavior. A mean child’s actions are just that – the unkind actions of one child toward another.
If it escalates to this so-called mean kid chronically targeting your child and/or involving others, that’s no longer “just” being mean. That’s bullying—and it can be really damaging to the child on the receiving end of such behavior. In that case, you’ll want to get in contact with the school, coach, or other caregivers where the bullying behavior occurs.
You may also want to seek out a counselor for your child. Sorting through difficult relationships can be challenging for anyone. A professional with experience may be the best person to help your child address their problems with a mean kid or kids.
A counselor can be especially helpful for preteens and teens who are resistant to their parent’s assistance. Sometimes a neutral third party can add credence to what mom or dad has already been saying all along.
9. Leave room for growth
Don’t fall into the pitfall of permanently labeling someone as a mean kid or a bad friend.
First, that’s kind of judgmental and you don’t want to raise your child to automatically write off people who make mistakes. Second, this attitude assumes growth and change can’t happen. The fact is, if anyone can grow and change, a child can.
Often, this is harder for the parents than the child. I think this meme from Mommy Owl really says it best:
While you, as the parent, may hold a grudge toward someone over how they’ve treated your child in the past, do your best to keep those feelings to yourself.
At the same time, it’s wise to protect your child’s heart and to encourage their attempts to do the same. If someone makes them feel bad about themselves, it’s okay to help them seek out other, healthier relationships.
Managing relationships can be so hard for children and parents alike. Mean kids add an additional layer of challenge for all involved. I hope these tips will help you as you navigate these sometimes-murky waters with your child!