I’m glad you are reading this article. I wish every parent would read articles like this (and not just written by me, I’m not that selfish!) I say this because it’s hard to admit when our kids do things we really don’t like. What does that say about them? What does that say about us? Here’s the truth- kids will make mistakes and parents will make mistakes. We need to just accept that. Once we accept it, we can more effectively address it. I do not believe that kids who are being mean are “bad” kids. It is a behavior, and just like any one behavior, it does not define you or your child. I’m on your side!
Before we dive in, I want to clarify a few things. Kids under three are not being mean on purpose. There is no malice in their actions, they just want what they want. If your toddler is physical with you, it’s about attention or frustration. If they are physical with a peer it is about a gain (getting a toy, attention, food, first in line, etc). They may know what they did is hurtful on some level but it’s not the root cause and they are too little to truly empathize or understand the consequences of their actions. If they are being physical it is enough to say “we do not hit” followed by removing them from the situation or taking your attention away. Too much else is not super effective. I also cannot stress enough to not use physical punishment with your kiddo. There are many reasons I say this but in this case, it is especially confusing to say to a child “do not hit” and then spank them. There are other ways.
As kids get older their thinking becomes more complex, they can think through their actions and this is when we can really look at behaviors that we think are “mean”. Anger is considered a secondary emotion and mean behavior can be considered a secondary response. In short, there is something underlying the anger and the mean behavior. Kids aren’t just “mean kids”. Here are my four tips for better understanding and managing why your kiddo is being mean.
~ “Scared kids act scary”. I heard this at a wonderful training from amazing folks at the Washburn Institute. (Click here to learn more about them and the wonderful work they do.) Has something happened to make your child afraid? Is their “mean behavior” sudden or is accompanied by other behavioral changes? Think back to when you noticed the changes. When kids feel afraid they try to act in a defensive or protective manner. The fear has to be addressed first to help the behavior.
~Shame, shame, shame. The worst five letter word out there. Shame is destructive and makes people do things totally out of character. Shame is closely tied to the thought “I am bad”. If your child believes this about themselves for any reason, mean behavior is not a surprising response. If you also notice signs like secrecy, lying, avoidance, regression of skills, mood swings, or negative self-statements, shame may be the culprit. Shame, like fear is an issue that needs extra support. Please reach out for help if you are seeing these signs in your child.
~ Loss of control. If there has been an environmental change that has impacted your child, they may feel sad, disappointed or helpless and are lashing out. Changes such as a new school, new baby, divorce, loss of a relative/pet, etc. can be really triggering for children because it completely upends their daily lives. That loss of control over their very small world creates stress, resentment, and rejection that shows itself in anger/mean behavior. Let your child make small decisions about themselves and the family-what to eat, what to wear, what movie to watch. A little can go a long way.
~ Mean behavior can also be something your child has witnessed and is now copying. If someone is being mean in your home, this needs to change. If it’s not in the home, it could be something they have observed at school, in the community or on TV. They might see a benefit to being mean. Keep a close eye on what is said, to whom and when. There is likely a pattern in what your child does and the response he gets. Set clear expectations around this and explain why it’s important to not be mean to others. Work together as a family to solve this problem. Remember, there are many people out there (me included!) if you feel overwhelmed and don’t know where to start. Send me a message through my home page. I’m happy to help.