Is Your Kid Mean-spirited? Here's What You Should Do

Why do you think a child acts mean? Is it just bad behaviour or a desperate cry for help? As parents, you need to step in and help your child change before his meanness becomes self-destructive.

By Aruna Raghuram  • 10 min read

Is Your Kid Mean-spirited? Here's What You Should Do
"Being mean is usually a defence mechanism"

What is meanness in children? It could be pulling a dog's tail, making fun of someone's weight or not allowing a shy child to play with the group. Or, it could be worse — hitting a classmate or spreading rumours about someone they don’t like. These are some of the ways children can act mean.

Why do children act in a mean manner?

Gurgaon-based psychotherapist and life skills expert, Aparna Balasundaram, says: “Being mean is usually a defence mechanism for children against a deep sense of hurt, sadness, shame or unfairness. Instead of facing these feelings, they externalise their own pain with angry words and mean actions that hurt others. This way, they don’t have to deal with their own negative emotions. Being mean and hurting others also gives children a sense of power over others. In some cases, it may be a sense of entitlement that makes children think they have the right to be rude. This is especially true when children are rude to domestic help. Here, it is probably because parents have not taught them to respect others.”

Meanness could also be an impulsive reaction — a child may feel angry or hurt and lash out. And, at times, it can be unintentional as a child may not even realise that he is being mean.

However, when children deliberately act in a mean manner, it becomes a matter of great concern.

According to Dr Eileen Kennedy-Moore, a US-based psychologist and author, children may be mean because of 'empathy blind spots'. They decide that feelings of certain individuals don’t matter, and so, feel justified in being mean to them. They may say the victim is 'annoying' or 'weird' and feel that makes their unkind behaviour acceptable.

What can you do, as parents? 

The sight of your child acting in a mean manner can be extremely distressing. You may feel baffled and have no clue why your child is acting this way. You might also feel anxious when the question, "Is there something wrong with my child?" arises in your mind. At times, some parents feel guilty, blaming themselves for poor parenting. They may feel ashamed to face the parents of the victim and also, angry with their own child for landing them in an embarrassing situation.

So, here's what you should do when your child is being mean:

  • Be observant: Observe your child when she plays with other children. Notice the patterns of mean behaviour, if any. For example, does she tease others? Does she consistently exclude a child/children? Talk to your child and teach her appropriate social behaviours, such as being cooperative, taking turns and sharing.
  • Find out why: Ask your child if there is something bothering him. This will help you understand what prompts him to act in a mean manner. Try to gauge if your child is feeling neglected at home for reasons such as the birth of a sibling or mother going back to full-time work. Is he finding it difficult to cope with school work? Is he acting out because he has no friends in school? Talk to his teachers as well.
  • Give unconditional love: Don’t make your child feel that she is bad or unworthy of love. Of course, you should tell her that what she did hurt someone, and that she should change that behaviour. But, also let her know that you love her and always will. Remember, your child needs you the most when she is in the wrong, and that only if she feels loved can she show kindness and compassion towards others.
  • Set firm rules: Make it clear to your child that you will not tolerate him indulging in verbal and physical aggression, teasing, taunting and bullying. Tell him that you expect him to be considerate towards others, even when he isn't fond of them.
  • Avoid being harsh: When a child is mean, a parent’s first reaction is to scold and punish. Yelling or punishing your child will only intimidate or humiliate her and make her feel angry and resentful. If your child continues with that behaviour despite your warnings, withdraw privileges such as television time or play time. This will convey to her that her actions will attract adverse consequences. However, avoid shaming her for her actions.
  • Arouse empathy: Lecturing may not be effective but try making your child understand how his unkind behaviour or actions affects others. For instance, your child makes fun of a friend’s shabby clothes. Explain to him that his friend's parents may not have the money to buy the child new clothes. Help him understand what his friend may be going through, what he may be feeling when he is the butt of jokes. Ask your child how he can help his friend feel better. Also, explain to your child that if he is kind, he will be better liked. As parents, you have to help your child recover his innate goodness.
  • Praise kind behaviour: Whenever your child shows kindness, give her a pat on the back. Be generous in your use of rewards for positive behaviour. Try being specific. For example, instead of simply saying, 'Good girl!,' you can say, “That was really thoughtful of you to give your friend, a turn on the swing".
  • Protect from de-sensitisation: Ensure minimum exposure to violence and offensive behaviour — at home and while using gadgets. Be selective about the television programmes your child watches or the video games he plays. If possible, get a pet. Tending to and caring for another living creature will teach him compassion and patience.
  • Help make amends: When your child has been mean to another child, it’s important that she apologise. Involve your child in making amends by asking her to think of ways in which she can make the other child feel better. It is up to you to reassure the other family involved that you are going to deal with the issue your child is struggling with.
  • Don’t blame yourself: It’s normal for parents to feel ashamed and guilty when they find that their child is behaving in a mean manner. However, this shouldn't make them feel that they have failed as parents and beat themselves about it. Meanness is not uncommon but the behaviour needs to be nipped in the bud.
  • Be a role model: Do you shout at your spouse or speak ill of your in-laws? If so, you are not setting a good example for your child. Be respectful towards your child and to others. Never use physical aggression or corporal punishment. Avoid sarcasm in speech or laughing at the expense of another. Be a kind and compassionate adult.

There could be several reasons and negative emotions that can cause a child to be mean. Help your child identify the underlying factors and deal with them appropriately. Build emotional intelligence in your child so that he understands his own emotions and behaviour. If you are not making much progress and your child’s behaviour is getting worse, take him to see a counsellor or a clinical psychologist.

A child’s mean behaviour can be a cry for attention or help. Whatever the cause, as parents don't let such behaviour become a habit. In fact, it is vital to curb such traits at the earliest as the beliefs and behaviours of a mean child can be harmful to others and destructive to the child as well. 

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