One of the most common complaints I hear from parents is that another child is being “mean” to their child, usually by excluding their child from the playgroup or saying hurtful things, like “I don’t want to be your friend anymore” or “You dress like a geek”. What’s a parent to do…short of hunting down the “mean kid” and giving him/her a piece of your enraged mind?
HERE ARE SOME POINTS TO REMEMBER AND THINGS TO DO:
- You cannot legislate friendships. No matter how mad you are or how much power you wield at work or at home, you can’t make another child like your child. Even young children have a right to pick and choose their own friends. It’s one of the few areas where children have almost absolute power. We might be able to nudge them in a direction or create an opportunity for a friendship to flourish, but in the end, children feel what they feel and like whom they like – the choice is theirs.
- Children are emotionally volatile. They can go from laughing to crying and back again in the blink of an eye. So, too, their relationships can be volatile. One minute two children can be best friends and the next, dire enemies. Their friendships fluctuate with their emotions. It’s often better to sit back and see how they handle the situation than to react to every up and down.
- So don’t expect stability in children’s relationships. Stability comes with maturity and it takes a long time for children to mature, both emotionally and socially. In fact, children’s brains are still developing and growing well into their late teens and early twenties. Part of that development and growth includes the capacity to nourish stable and committed friendships. It’s a complex social process that evolves over time.
- Children don’t see the big picture: Children are egocentric and self-centered. They view the world only from their vantage point, so they often don’t see or anticipate how their actions will affect another. Being able to take another child’s perspective and feel his pain is a developmental process that takes time to unfold. Though we can teach social behavior by pointing out to a child how “mean” behavior may be hurtful to another, there’s no guarantee a child will take in this lesson, feel empathy for his classmate and then change his behavior.
- Children are a product of their environment. If children experience “meanness” at home, like being humiliated by siblings or criticized frequently by parents, they may turn around and treat their friends the same way. After all, it’s what they learned through their limited experience about how relationships work.
HERE ARE SOME THINGS YOU CAN DO TO HELP YOUR CHILD COPE WITH A MEAN FRIEND:
- Listen calmly. Sometimes children just need to vent about their friends. They’ve contained their feelings all day and now they need to let them out. Your role is to acknowledge their anger and sorrow, but not to get angry and sad on their behalf. As a parent, I know that’s not always easy to do. We want to defend our children, but that’s not what they need. Better to be curious about what’s going on, ask a few questions and above all, be a good listener.
- Make suggestions. You just want to offer a few ideas to help children see some possible solutions without telling them exactly what to do. The idea is to empower children to handle the situation themselves. Besides suggesting that your child just ignore or avoid the mean child, you might also help your child develop a quick retort he/she could say before walking away. For instance, if your daughter is being teased because she’s not good at sports, she could say, “I may not be good at sports, but I’m great at (fill in the blank).” Or if someone is giving your son a hard time because he’s short, he might come back with, “I don’t mind being short as long as I’m not short on brains…which I’m not!” Help your child make positive statements about themselves rather than attacking the other child.
- Share Your Experience. Another way to help your children is to share how you handled a similar situation at their age. Your story doesn’t have to be 100% true. Part of the purpose of telling them your story is simply to show them that you lived through a similar painful experience, you found a good way to handle it and you’ll help them do the same. If you would like to share a time when you handled a situation poorly, but learned an important lesson that can also be very enlightening (not to mention, entertaining) for your children.
- Arrange for playdates outside of school. If your child would like to create a new friendship or work on strengthening a weak one, a one-on-one playdate can really help because it provides an opportunity for children to bond, away from the stresses and social environment of school. During a playdate, children can simply have fun and get to know each other. Sharing laughs and good times are two ingredients that help friendship grow.
- Try finding an extracurricular activity where your child can meet other children with similar talents and interests. Sharing an extracurricular activity gives children something in common right off the bat and common interests are always a good starting point for friendships.
- Talk to the teacher. If you’ve tried some of the above suggestions and your child is still complaining about friends being mean, then it’s time to speak with the teacher. The first thing to do is find out what the teacher has observed about your child’s social interactions and what suggestions she/he can make that might be helpful. As a teacher, when I knew a child was having trouble with friends, I placed that child in a group for class activities where I thought the child would be supported and perhaps befriended by one of the group members. I observed that once children had worked together closely and knew each other a bit better, they were more likely to become friends.
BOTTOM LINE: You can’t control other children’s mean behavior, but you can help your child get through the pain and perhaps, even end up with better friends!