Discouraging Mean Behavior: How to raise compassionate children
By Devon Redmond, Ph.D.
While parents often worry about their children making friends and being included, in my practice I also see parents who are concerned that their children demonstrate relational aggression, or “mean” behavior such as manipulating others, gossiping about others, or bullying, with their peers and family members. It may be more important now than ever to strive to raise kind, compassionate, and thoughtful children. Luckily, there are a number of things we parents can do to encourage prosocial behavior.
Have a discussion with your child about what they can do if they witness bullying or unkind behavior. Remind your child how powerful he or she is. Many bullying situations end when a peer intervenes. Advise your child not to participate. For example, suggest that your child not like, share, or comment in agreement on a rude social media post. By not engaging, this sends the message that your child does not agree with what is happening. Even if your child is not the target of an unkind social media post, he or she can still report it as inappropriate to the site or tell an adult. If your child is comfortable and it is safe, he or she can say something or post a comment showing solidarity with the target. Your child may also send a handwritten note, a private message, or have a one-on-one conversation with the target of bullying conveying that they do not agree with what is happening and that the target is not alone.
What if your child is the one demonstrating unkind behavior toward peers? Talk to them about the reasons for their behavior. Teach empathy, respect, and compassion. Empathy is like a muscle that can be strengthened with practice and exercise, especially in children who are still undergoing significant brain development until late adolescence. Model thinking through what experiences are like for others and responding appropriately. When watching movies or television shows together, ask your child how they think the characters are feeling and what their motivations are. Ask them how they would handle being in the character’s position and what they would do to deal with the problem. Ask them who they most relate to on a show and why. Discuss current events with your child and ask them how they think the people in the story might be feeling. Make your expectations and consequences for unkind behavior clear and consistent, and make sure your child knows that bullying is not ok under any circumstances. Be sure to have frequent communication with teachers, coaches, the parents of your child’s friends, and monitor their social media posts to look for both inappropriate and appropriate behavior. Provide positive feedback whenever you observe your child engage in prosocial behavior.
Sometimes children do not fully grasp the difference between being “cool” vs. being well-liked. Kids do not always fully appreciate that when we make others feel good, others in turn have good feelings about us. It can be helpful to have a discussion with your child about specific things they can do to improve their chances of being well-liked. For example, lending a helping hand, giving someone a compliment, compromising on choice of activity, showing interest in others’ ideas, and asking others questions about themselves are all ways your child can positively connect with others. Model and practice this behavior at home, and be sure to provide reinforcement (e.g., a high five, thumbs up, or positive comment) whenever you see your child making an effort to gain positive attention or attempt to make someone else feel good. As the Robert Ingersoll quote goes, “We rise by lifting others.”