When one child is “mean” to another: healing both

When your child comes home in tears because someone was “mean” to them at school, the first line of defense is to listen to their outpouring of feelings and allow them to feel them….fully.  This is quite hard to do.  It’s heartbreaking for us as parents to be with our child’s painful feelings.  We just want to fix it for them, smooth it over and make sure that it never happens again.  But if we can just be with our child and let the tears fall (without trying to fix it), this is great medicine in and of itself.  Having someone to listen to them in this way, feeling fully heard and understood, will help your child develop inner strength and resiliency.  This simple, but healing, act of listening will help instill in them that they can weather life’s storms and come out okay.

Once your child feels fully heard and understood, you can help them brainstorm ways that they can “respond” to hurtful words or actions, rather than “react” emotionally or with their own damaging words.  Help your child come up with some key phrases that will help to protect her from the impact of a hurtful comment.  Some phrases may be, “That’s not nice and I’m not going to listen any more” (and she turns or moves away).  Or “It’s not okay to talk to me that way” (and she turns or moves away).  If the phrases and disengagement don’t work, then it’s time to get a teacher or adult involved.

While it’s helpful to teach our children tools so they can “stand up for themselves,” no child should have to go through this alone.  It’s our responsibility as parents, teachers, and adult mentors, to support our children in tough times and to model for them how to deal with others who have hurt us.  Usually, the impulse is to judge the “mean” child for their behavior and punish them for their wrongs.  But I believe this perpetuates the problem.  It adds another layer of blame and shame to what the “mean” child is already feeling, which is causing the behavior in the first place.  

I believe that a hurt-ful child is a hurt-filled child.  When a child’s needs are being met, they are loving and kind and have no need to act out in a hurtful way.  When one child is mean to another, there is something bigger going on below the surface, there are some needs that are not being met.  When we set up supportive systems (like peer mediation or restorative circles) in our families, schools, and other institutions to address this bigger issue of unmet needs, then we will start to see this type of behavior fade.

So instead of punishment for the “mean” girl, I would want her also to know that she is loved and cared about even after the harm she has done. I would want a loving adult in her life to sit with her and listen to what is going on for her to cause her to act out in this way.  And to help her understand what needs of hers she is trying to meet with such behavior and guide her to find better strategies to get those needs met with less cost to others (and to herself).  No one feels good being mean.

Here’s an illustration of how I used this approach with a similar situation in my family.  Recently, my son made an inappropriate attempt at humor by writing some text below another person’s photo and sending it out on Instagram.  Someone showed the Instagram to the person who was in the photo and that person was not amused and sent us (the parents) an email. 

Before I approached my son about it, I thought about my intentions.  I got clear that I wanted my son to learn how his actions affect others (especially how widespread the effect can be in today’s electronic world) and I wanted to give him a chance to restore his honor, to come back to his best self.  Above all, I wanted him to know that he is loved and cared about even when he makes mistakes.  And that he can count on me to support him through the uncomfortable and awkward stage of restitution—as he repairs the harm he has caused another and as he restores his own honor to himself.

I was very satisfied with our conversation.  Because I didn’t approach him with judgment and punishment, he didn’t become defensive.  He knew it was a stupid mistake and he sincerely regretted that his actions had caused embarrassment and hurt.  He sent an email to the person in the photo apologizing for sending the Instagram and for not thinking through how hurtful it might be.  The person in the photo responded with a very sweet email in return.  As far as I know, the hurt was repaired on both sides…and some valuable life lessons were learned to boot.

I’m reminded of a story I read in Alan Cohen’s book, Living from the Heart.  Here’s an excerpt which captures beautifully how, instead of punishing, we can love others back to their best self:

When a woman in a certain African tribe knows she is pregnant, she goes out into the wilderness with a few friends and together they pray and meditate until they hear the song of the child. They recognize that every soul has its own vibration that expresses its unique flavor and purpose. When the women attune to the song, they sing it out loud. Then they return to the tribe and teach it to everyone else. When the child is born, the community gathers and sings the child’s song to him or her.

Later, when the child enters education, the village gathers and chants the child’s song. When the child passes through the initiation to adulthood, the people again come together and sing. At the time of marriage, the person hears his or her song. Finally, when the soul is about to pass from this world, the family and friends gather at the person’s bed, just as they did at their birth, and they sing the person to the next life.

In the African tribe there is one other occasion upon which the villagers sing to the child. If at any time during his or her life, the person commits a crime or aberrant social act, the individual is called to the center of the village and the people in the community form a circle around them. Then they sing their song to them. The tribe recognizes that the correction for antisocial behavior is not punishment; it is love and the remembrance of identity.

When you recognize your own song, you have no desire or need to do anything that would hurt another. A friend is someone who knows your song and sings it to you when you have forgotten it. Those who love you are not fooled by mistakes you have made or dark images you hold about yourself. They remember your beauty when you feel ugly; your wholeness when you are broken; your innocence when you feel guilty; and your purpose when you are confused.

May we all be surrounded by family and friends who know our song and who will sing it to us when we need it the most.