siblingsUpsetMaybe he’s refusing to share … at the top of his lungs.

Maybe she’s calling her playmate names.

Maybe he’s excluding or teasing a younger child.

Although none of these actions causes physical injury, they’re certainly unkind acts that could hurt someone’s feelings.

As parents, when we see our child acting mean, it can bring on a flurry of emotions. We’re surprised and baffled: How could he do such a thing?! We’re irritated: She knows better! We’re worried: He won’t have any friends if he keeps acting that way! Is the other child hurt? And, if there are other adults around, we may also feel embarrassed: Maybe they’ll judge us because our kid is acting mean.

With all these emotions churning, the instinctive response is to scold and punish. But punishment doesn’t teach kids the right way to act.

If tempers are running high, insisting that your child take a short break so everyone can calm down could be a good idea. Distraction or redirection, such as a timely “Who wants a snack?” question, can also be useful for diffusing conflict. But if things are not too heated, this could be a teachable moment.

Children act mean because they’re impulsive, they don’t know better ways to solve problems, and their empathy isn’t fully developed. “Induction” means guiding children to understand how their actions affect others. Punishment can make kids feel angry and resentful, but induction can teach them to make more caring choices. Here’s how to use induction to help your child get back on track after doing something mean.

  1. Describe the dilemma, using the word “and.”
    Children struggle to see beyond their own viewpoint. Framing the problem using the word “and” is a way to validate your child’s feelings while also acknowledging that there’s more to the picture. For instance, you could say, “You want to keep playing with play dough and Jason wants to go outside” or “You want to play with just the big kids and Meredith wants to play with someone, too.”
  2. Explain how the other child is feeling. Research tells us that when parents talk about feelings, kids become better able to imagine someone else’s perspective. Spell out for your child how his or her actions affect the other child. You could say, “When you yell, ‘You’re not my friend anymore!’, Noah feels sad.”
  3. Focus on moving forward.
    We can’t undo a mean act, so the goal has to be moving in a kinder direction. Ask your child, “What can you do to help your friend feel better?” or “What can we do that’s fair to everyone?” If your child resists, be patient. Acknowledge your child’s feelings and ask again. If your child still can’t come up with anything, offer two choices for how to move forward. You might say, “You could let your friend play with some of your cars or you could ask, in a kind voice, if he wants to play outside.”
  4. Comment on the positive impact of your child’s kind action.
    While it’s important to help children understand when and how they’ve hurt a friend’s feelings, it’s also important to let see that they have the power to take care of peers. For example, you could tell your child, “That was kind of you to let Maria use your markers. She is happy because you shared.”

How have you handled it when your child has done something mean?

More Tips on Raising Kind Kids:

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This article is for general educational purposes only. It does not constitute and should not substitute for individual professional advice, psychotherapy, or the provision of psychological services.

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  • Rebecca Edmund

    While trick-or-treating my daughter fell & spilled her candy. Our 9 year old friend swiped some of it & ran off to the next house. His mom caught him & in the moment things became heated which caused him to go straight to denial. After several days of them going rounds the mother set the “you will write an apology letter” ultimatum & they sent it to my daughter. The note went something along the lines of sorry you were hurt & thought I stole your candy (we never accused, the mom had caught him and actually had let us know about it), but I would never do that, Boy Scouts don’t lie. Receiving this letter was just awful! Way worse than the initial act. Even worse when I let the mom know that I did not appreciate the letter being sent & in the future please deal with her parenting issues with her own child & leave mine out of it and it caused her to react the same as her son had. All this to say please be careful to not continue hurting the people your child hurt in the first place. Please take all the time you need to get back on the right track with your child before attempting any sort of repair with the person that was hurt/wronged.