Has your child ever said something mean? Why are kids so cruel to each other? Maybe they commented on someone or expressed an ugly thought or belief. If you’ve been there, you might have felt shock, surprise, or even disgust that something so horrible has come out of your sweet child’s mouth. Many parents want to raise kind and compassionate children, so when your child says hurtful things to you or your child is mean to their friends, we can feel an instinctive need to right the wrong immediately and scold or punish our child. But we might also feel like we have failed in some way. But this behavior is often normal and can be managed better.
Why is My Child Mean to Their Friends?
So, why are kids so cruel? First, know that it’s most likely normal if your child is being mean to their friends. As children grow and develop, they exhibit a wide range of behaviors to figure out how to communicate with others and manage social interactions.1
Beyond normal limit testing and figuring out how to act in relationships, mean behavior, or more extreme behavior, such as bullying, can happen when children feel overwhelmed, distressed, anxious, depressed, or have difficulty managing big feelings. The child may even replicate something they see at home, school, or the world around them.2
What You Can Do If Your Child is Mean to Their Friends
Regardless of why kids are so cruel, it’s likely distressing for you as a parent. Mean attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors can harm your child and those around them. It’s essential to find strategies to support your child if they are being mean to their friends, understand where this “meanness” is coming from, and find some ways to cope with or manage the behavior. This could include:
Help Them Identify When They’re Mean and Why It’s Wrong
It’s critical first to identify when kids are cruel and these behaviors that are occurring. Afterward, you can try to figure out what the child perceived to be happening and see if you can figure out any triggers. I say “after,” not during, because if a strong feeling triggers them, you might be unable to talk with them rationally until they calm down. Talk about their feelings if they can identify them, or share what you have noticed. See if you can figure out what provoked them to respond to a situation or friend in a mean way and then explore how they could try and avoid reacting this way in the future or handle things differently.
Don’t React Negatively To Your Child Being Mean To Their Friends
Reacting negatively by shouting, blaming, or saying cruel or mean things yourself may make them feel ashamed, or it might just reiterate to them that acting mean to their friends is an okay way to respond to something when you have a big feeling. This does not support them to change their behavior; they can become more secretive about things instead.
Model Kind Behavior
Children always watch adults and look to us to see how they should respond to things. So consider how you treat your child and what they witness when they see you interact with other people. Do you make crass or rude jokes? How kindly and compassionately do you treat wait or service staff? How do you talk to your partner or family members? Ensure you demonstrate the behaviors you want them to repeat so they aren’t cruel to their friends.3
Find the Positives
If your child is mean to their friends, they might spend some time getting in trouble, and it can become a vicious cycle. They act meanly, and there are consequences, or you have a conversation about mean behavior. But if there is no counterbalance where you talk about or focus on their positive qualities, they can feel like a “bad kid.” This can create a dynamic where they feel like a bad kid, so they live up to the label and act accordingly. So try catching them being good and praise them. Highlight their positive qualities and share your delights in things they enjoy or are good at.
Improve Their Empathy
Perhaps your child is mean to their friends because they can’t understand things from others’ perspectives. This means they don’t realize that what they are saying or doing might be hurtful to others. You can increase their empathy by asking questions about how they feel when challenging things happen; if they are watching TV or reading a book, you can stop at certain points and ask how they think a character is feeling. This allows them to step into a new role, practice being someone else, and expand their circle of concern by getting them to consider other people. You might learn about other religions’ holidays or celebrations, eat foods from different cultures, and read books from other people’s perspectives. Get them thinking about other ways of life and living than their own.
Offer Unconditional Love
If your child feels accepting and unconditional love, they will be more capable of sharing love like this with others. Your love and unconditional regard for them also improves their self-esteem when you accept them for who they are, allow them to pursue their interests, and marvel at their uniqueness. Higher self-esteem and positive relationships might protect them from things that underpin mean behavior, like emotional distress and regulation.4
Have a Gratitude Attitude
When we experience gratitude, we are more likely to feel happier, make good decisions, show kindness, and have more positive relationships. This lessens the likelihood of them demonstrating mean behavior. But the relationship goes two ways, and it might also protect them from experiences that could lead to them reacting in a mean or cruel way as a response.5
Our children must know how to interact with peers and others in their world with kindness and compassion. This is because not only does their behavior impact how others feel, but it can also negatively affect your child, their relationships, self-esteem, and well-being. If a child is mean to their friends or is cruel to you, it could be a normal way of testing the waters, seeing what they can get away with, and learning what is acceptable in society. Or it could be an indication that something else is happening. If you try these strategies and still notice mean behaviors, it might be an indicator to check in with a trusted health professional to see if more is going on.