Not long ago, a mom of a 6-year-old called me in a panic. Her daughter’s teacher called her in to tell her that her daughter was struggling with some social issues, which was code for “your daughter is being unkind to other girls in the class.”
They talked about kindness at home. They volunteered as a family. They used words like “empathy” and “compassion.” She thought she was teaching kindness. How could her kid possibly be the one teasing others?
No one wants to be the parent of the mean kid — not because you want to disown your kid, but because of the uncomfortable spot that your child’s behavior puts you in.
As much as parents worry about how their kids will be treated by others, we also go to great lengths to make sure that our kids are kind and caring.
We don’t want our kids to be bullied, but we also want to make sure that our kids don’t do the bullying.
To be clear, unkind behavior isn’t always considered bullying. Young children aren’t generally known for their sophisticated social skills. Acquisition of social skills takes time and practice. Sometimes, kids make social errors because they don’t yet have the skills and empathy to see that their behaviors have consequences.
What should you do if you do get that dreaded phone call from the school or witness your child in the act of mean behavior? Start here:
Don’t freak out.
Kids experience ups and downs with friends. I remember storming back to my house from my best friend’s house as a kid because I was upset about something only to make up ten minutes later when she showed up at my door. Kids, like adults, experience heated emotions. The difference between kids and adults is that kids don’t yet have the skills to cope with those big feelings and work through disagreements.
Resist the urge to intervene the very minute you hear a conflict brewing between siblings or playmates. Play is an excellent way to work through feelings and learn to problem-solve together.
If you do see a pattern of unkind behavior emerging (or get that phone call), remain calm. Handing out consequences without working through the problem won’t actually solve the problem.
Unpack the hidden issues.
More often than not, mean behavior between young children can be traced back to pent-up negative emotions or a previous interaction gone wrong. Some kids are better at reading social cues than others, and some are more in touch with how other kids might be feeling at any given moment.
Things like jealousy, feeling left out (of a play date or at the lunch table), a previous negative interaction, low frustration tolerance, and the inability to move in and out of groups with ease can all cause kids to feel upset and possibly project those feelings onto another child. Perhaps your child wanted to play soccer but the teams were already even or your child got to lunch late and the table she wanted was full. What can seem like small issues to adults can feel huge to kids.
Ask questions. Talk to your child about how he gets along with the kids at school and what kinds of things cause frustration for him. Share your own childhood memories of difficult times with peers.
Put on a play.
Acting out positive ways to handle frustrating situations is a great way to help kids practice adaptive social skills in a safe environment. Get the whole family in on it and put on a series of social stories plays.
Be sure to let the kids come up with the plot (problem) and choose their own endings (solutions). This empowers kids to problem-solve positive ways to handle tricky social situations.
Work on emotions.
Many young children struggle to verbalize and process their emotions. This can lead to decisions made in frustration. It can also cause kids to stuff and internalize their feelings until they finally explode with emotion.
The identification of feelings should be taught with the ABCs. Make your own “feelings faces” charts to hang on the wall. Play a round of feelings Bingo. Talk about your own feelings to model expression of emotions.
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