How To Help Your Child Deal With Mean Friends

Your child may sometimes come crying to you because friends, peers or classmates have been unkind or have treated her badly. How can you help your child deal with such situations the right way?

By Divya Sreedharan  • 10 min read

How To Help Your Child Deal With Mean Friends

When Siyali gets off the school bus that evening, she looks downcast and upset.

“Are you okay, Siyali,” her mother Reema asks wondering why the nine-year-old is not her chatty self. Usually, Siyali regales her mother with stories of what happened in school, who said what, the games she played and so on. Today, however, she is silent.

“No, Mama. Nothing interesting or exciting happened in school”, the girl replies, in a low voice.

“What about the bus journey home,” the astute mother asks gently.

Siyali goes to school by bus and has a group of ‘bus friends’ that she loves to spend time with.

From the child’s expression, the mother realises something did happen on the bus journey.

“Today, Rohan and Arya started playing a word game when we were coming home. But they wouldn’t let me join in. They said I am stupid and cannot spell words properly. All the other kids in the bus laughed when they said that,” Siyali says sadly.

Reema is horrified. She holds her daughter close and lets her cry. Truth be told, Reema herself is very upset by what happened to her darling daughter. Is there any way this mother can help her child deal with such situations better?

As a parent, have you faced this too? Has your child too come home crying because his friends were mean to him? 

Bullying or mean behaviour?

Parenting experts believe that to address this issue the right way, you need to first check if your child has experienced bullying or, whether it is plain mean behaviour on the part of the other kids. It is important to define the two terms, as both are different, observes Arundhati Swamy, Head, Parent Engagement Programmes, ParentCircle.

For instance, when children decide to exclude another child from a game or say unkind things to that child, this is considered mean behaviour. On the other hand, there is a very specific definition for bullying, according to Eileen Kennedy-Moore, a US-based psychology whose work focuses on children’s emotional and social development. “Bullying involves deliberate meanness targeting a particular individual and is usually, over a period of time,” the psychologist has written in a 2017 article for a health-based website.

What’s more, parents too need to keep certain points in mind: 

1. Listen without being judgemental: Just as Siyali's mother did, make sure you are there for your child. Listen without interrupting or passing judgemental remarks as your child narrates what happened to her. Be empathetic and try to reassure your child that you love her, no matter what. If the upsetting situation is a one-off incident, ask your child gently what else happened that day. Try and find out the whole story. This means you have to help your child understand if she unknowingly or unwittingly did something hurtful herself — did that provoke a retaliatory reaction from a classmate or friend? Getting your child to understand why something happened is part of the learning process.

2. Is it teasing, banter or jokes? Sometimes, children do form groups and exchange banter about a classmate or another child. So, before you storm off to complain — to the class teacher or school principal or the other parents — find out if your child has simply misunderstood a joke. Or was he simply being teased by the others? At times, it is quite possible that your child considers another child ‘mean’ for not sharing a candy, not letting him participate in a game, so on. Besides, your child must also be able to take things in the right spirit, says Arundhati. 

3. Did it involve physical meanness? Mean behaviour can be verbal or physical too. So, ask your child if she was pushed or shoved by the others? Also, did she fall by accident while running or playing a game? If your child was deliberately tripped or shoved and hurt by another, then that is something to worry about. As a parent, it is your right to seek an intervention and bring the matter to the notice of the adults concerned, be it school authorities or parents of the offending children. This is especially worrying if it is repetitive in nature and happens to your child quite often, points out Arundhati. "If it is a one-off incident, it's not of such concern," she points out. 

So, how can you help your child?

“A child’s first lessons about relationships happen at home where she keenly observes how her parents relate to each other. Are they respectful of each other, do they respond to each other in appropriate ways?” —Arundhati Swamy

1. Teach your child interpersonal skills: According to Arundhati, “it is essential to teach your child empathy and interpersonal skills. Role-model these at home,” she advises. This, of course, means that she will learn from watching how you and your spouse communicate with each other, interact with the domestic help and others around you. Show her what it is to be empathetic so that your child will develop the ability to understand what somebody else is going through. That way, your child too will not knowingly tease or say hurtful things to another child. Similarly, it is equally important that your child knows how to be part of a group, do teamwork, share and so on.

2. Should you (or your child) ignore such behaviour? “Not at all,” stresses Arundhati. Parents have a huge role here, she says. “Apart from being empathetic and listening to the whole story, you need to teach your child positive coping skills — your child must be able to stand up for himself and be assertive, which is very different from being aggressive! Also, make it clear that he must seek help (from an adult) when necessary. "For your child, 'assertive' in this context, means the ability to stand up for himself when someone is being mean or saying hurtful things," explains Arundhati.  

3. ‘Role play’ such situations: Another good way to help your child handle such incidents is to ‘role play' these at home. So, you could take on the role of the ‘mean’ child and say or do something unkind and get your child to respond appropriately. And you could switch roles too, let your child be the ‘mean’ child, see how it feels to boss over someone, to leave another child out of a game, so on. This will give her a better perspective on the whole situation. “Role play can certainly help. It gives the child first hand experience in practising assertiveness. As a parent, you must teach your child what it means to be respectful and listen to others. However, it is equally vital that your child is able to tell the 'mean' child: 'I don't like what you are saying'. Being able to do so requires self-confidence," Arundhati observes. 

Being an effective parent means taking the time to listen and be there for your child. It is also about preparing your child the right way — after all, when adults can be unkind to each other, why not children? So, do equip your child with self-confidence and also, the life skills to cope with meanness or similar behaviour. 

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