A child who acts mean is demonstrating that something is wrong. His anger and aggression are symptoms of an underlying problem. It may be the result of a physical, developmental, neurological or mental illness; an expression of emotional distress; or in some cases, the expression of emotions, attitudes and behavior that have been inadvertently or perhaps even purposefully conditioned. No matter the cause, the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of mean children are harmful to others and ultimately self-destructive to the child. It is to everyone’s benefit to find ways to handle the child that will not only limit the destructiveness but will hopefully also amend the underlying issues that feed his misanthropy.
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Set clear boundaries and limits. Establish a strict zero-tolerance policy for verbal and physical aggression, teasing, taunting and bullying. Respond to every instance of meanness. If the infraction is minor, offer a verbal warning but do not allow the inappropriate behavior to persist or escalate. After warnings have been given, meet every instance of meanness with a consequence. Give the offending child a time-out or isolate her from the other children long enough for her to calm down.
As often as feasible, follow up every intervention with a discussion. Find out what the child’s perceptions of the situation is and try to understand his motivation. Get him to talk about his feelings so he can learn how to talk about anger, frustration and resentment rather than enacting it. Work with the child to identify alternative behavioral options. Ask him if there are other ways they could have handled the situation and talk about how to use those alternative responses. Help the child to identify the underlying feelings that prompt his misbehavior and then guide him into more adaptive ways of dealing with those feelings.
Be a good role model. Always be respectful to the child and to others. Show the child in your own behavior how you can use reason, talk and problem solving to achieve goals. Never use physical aggression or corporal punishment. Likewise, do not yell, raise your voice, act belligerent, use insults, be sardonic or use satire as a means of verbal punishment or as a strategy for enlightenment. Be clear, firm and consistent in following up with limits but maintain your empathy and understanding while you enforce the golden rule.
Be generous in your use of rewards for positive behavior. Monitor the child and use labeled praise when she exhibits the kind of positive behavior you would like to see more of. For example, you might say, “I saw that you were frustrated, but you did a great job of being respectful and not losing your temper.”
Manage media use. If a child is acting mean toward others and not responding to limits, then you should monitor and limit television, movies and game play to venues that provide only appropriate models. Do not allow exposure to violence, aggression and disrespect of others.
If the behavioral management strategies outlined above do not bring significant improvement in behavior, then consult with a physician and a counselor or psychologist. Medical issues such as diabetes, hypoglycemia, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), allergies, nutritional deficits and exposure to toxins can contribute to verbal and physical aggressiveness. Similarly, a psychological evaluation can ferret out issues such as emotional distress, anxiety, depression, developmental, and neurological and psychiatric illnesses that may contribute to persistent meanness.