Q. Our daughter Gretje came home from school crying because kids had said mean things to her. Now she doesn’t enjoy school anymore. Gretje reports that kids make fun of her name and the fact that she was born in another country. They make fun of a cast she has on her broken arm. Gretje is very bright, however, her grades have gone down recently. Why do kids feel that they have to make fun of schoolmates? What can we do to help Gretje deal with unkind remarks so she can feel confident, pay attention and excel at school again?
A. What can you do to help Gretje? You could schedule a meeting for Gretje and yourself with the teacher and perhaps the school counselor and principal. There are lots of physical and psychological ways that kids can be mean to others, from shoving, hitting and kicking to ignoring, taunting and gossiping. Lack of empathy for others is most often the reason for kids impulsively saying or doing mean things. Some experts talk about empathy blind spots, in which children know it is not right to hit others or say hurtful things, but they decide that certain other kids’ feelings don’t count because they are annoying or deserve to be made fun of for some reason. Sometimes a child has a new brother or sister at home and feels a loss of power in the family. Controlling peers by bullying is one way to feel power again. When kids are unkind, they are often dealing with feelings of insecurity and self-doubt.
I think the teacher would be willing to help stop some of this inappropriate behavior. The teacher can help Gretje find a friend or two and perhaps lead a discussion on empathy in class as well. The counselor and principal can be alert to any bullying behavior in areas outside of the classroom.
You can work with Gretje to help her feel confident in herself, too. Talk with her about ways she might respond to those who are mean to her. She can simply respond with a “So!” or just move on with a “Goodbye.”
Consider reaching out to the parents of the children who are being mean. Sometimes this is helpful, while other times you might be told to mind your own business. So, be prepared for any response. These other parents can do a lot to help their children be empathetic.
Here are some ways:
- Acknowledge their child’s thoughts and feelings.
- Ask the child to put herself in the other child’s place and imagine how she would feel if treated poorly.
- Tell the child you don’t expect him to like all of the other children, but you do expect him to be kind to all of the other children.
- Have the child think the situation through to see the connection between actions and outcomes.
- Help identify ways to exhibit better behavior. You might say: “You are a kind child who sometimes has a hard time acting with kindness. How could you be nicer?”
- Model kindness at home as a parent and expect to see kind behavior from children at home. If mean behavior is observed, sit down with the child and ask him to rethink what he could have said or done instead.
As parents, let’s do all we can to help our children be more empathetic and kinder to others.
Betty Richardson, PhD, RN, CS, LPC, LMFT, is an Austin-based psychotherapist.