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Understanding Mean-Spirited Behavior

By Ashley Marlow, Lower and Middle School counselor
The Lower and Middle School counselor shares tips on how to help children navigate social dynamics.
At LJCDS, we know that relationships are at the heart of well-being. It’s one of the reasons why we pride ourselves on building strong connections among our faculty, staff and students. Therefore, we understand how painful it can be for families to hear that their children are experiencing mean-spirited behavior from their peers. 

So what can you do if your child comes home upset about a negative interaction? First, listen and empathize with them. Often, they just need a sounding board as they process their feelings about a situation. While hearing about their experience might prompt you to want to leap into action, it’s helpful to understand the differences between rude, mean and bullying behaviors. Signe Whitson, a therapist, author, and bullying prevention expert, wrote an article on defining the differences. She observed how the term “bullying” is often misused, affecting the impact of appropriate interventions. 

Rude behavior is unintentionally doing or saying something that hurts someone else, whereas mean behavior is done on purpose. Bullying, which can be in the form of physical, verbal, relational or cyber, is intentional aggressive behavior that happens repeatedly and involves an imbalance in power. Considering these definitions will help to support your child better.

As tempting as it might be to reach out to the family of the other student(s) involved, friendship expert, Dana Kerford, encourages parents to pause and consider the impact that this intervention might have. First, ask your child if they’d like you to listen, give advice, or do something to help resolve the situation. Giving them an opportunity to share what they need from you helps them problem-solve and builds trust so that they’ll be more likely to open up to you in the future. 

It’s important to note that adolescents are trying to navigate through the social dynamics at school and don’t always use positive behaviors to build relationships. One example of this is “roasting,” where kids will often insult each other to be funny. However, it’s easy for the level of insults to cross a line, and we need to guide students to understand how to use humor without being hurtful. 

If it’s brought to your attention that your child is engaging in unkind behavior, talk with them about the difference between intent vs. impact. Their intention might be to gain social clout by being viewed as funny, but if the impact is that they are being hurtful in the process, that might not help them develop the kinds of friendships that they are ultimately looking for. We can all play a role in shaping social skills by what we model and explicitly teach our children.

LJCDS believes in a school-family-community partnership. The school counselors and administrators are available if more support is needed. In addition, the Say Something Anonymous Reporting System is a way for Middle and Upper School students to report concerns for the well-being of their peers anonymously.
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