When Your Child Is Unkind (She Needs Your Help)

In this episode: Janet responds to the parent of two kids who overheard her 4.5 year old taunting another child in the park and wasn’t sure how to react to that sort of unkind behavior. On the one hand, she didn’t want to impose judgement on her daughter by scolding and lecturing. On the other, “I want to help coach her on being kind and a good human being.” She’s unsure of what to do to help foster these traits and is asking Janet for clarification.
Transcript of “When Your Child Is Unkind (She Needs Your Help)”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

Today I’m responding to a parent who is concerned because her 4.5-year-old is being unkind to other children, and she wonders how to handle that situation.

Here’s the email I received:

Hi Janet. I’ve been listening to Unruffled for about one year, and it’s literally turned around my relationship with my two girls, four and a half and two. I know now I need to show them that I’m on their team, support them, and show them more love and kindness, as well as space to just play.

The other day I listened to the podcast about the boy who was boasting about winning, and I realized that this was the area that I was imposing a lot of judgment on my daughters. Yesterday at the park I heard my 4.5-year-old taunting another child, saying, “Nah nah nah nah nah, I have a gummy and you don’t.”

My instinct was to say, “That’s not kind. How would you feel if someone was doing that to you? Maybe you could just say ‘hi’ or, ‘I have a gummy.'” But from the podcast about the boy winning, I now have the impression that I should just ignore it and let her be rude so that she can be more confident, so I didn’t say anything.

The grandfather who was with the child she was talking to looked at me like I should say something, and I just said, “T, do you want to keep swinging, or do you want to go down the slide now?”

What should I say when I hear her being mean to other kids? As her mama I want to help coach her on being kind and a good human, but I am now very unsure of what to do to help foster this. Thank you so much.

Okay. First of all, thank you so much for your feedback. I’m thrilled that this approach has been helping you, but I also have to say I feel terrible about this. I feel awful that I gave out information that was so misleading, and I take full responsibility for this parent, and possibly lots of other parents, misunderstanding my advice in my previous podcast about boastful, competitive behavior.

I’m reminded again of the limitations of this medium, and also of the challenges in expressing and communicating an approach that is very nuanced. It’s as nuanced as any relationship that we have with another person. But again, I take full responsibility, and I’m going to take this opportunity to clarify.

The advice that this parent heard in regard to a boy’s boastful, competitive behavior was focused on helping that parent to understand the “why,” where that behavior might be coming from. Also, how to address it.

But the difference in that parent’s question was that from what she gave me, her son was actually making factual statements. I didn’t hear her say that he was rubbing this in a child’s face. He simply said, “Hey, you were slower, and I was faster.”

What I saw there was an opportunity to help parents understand that the other child, the child that’s directed at, is very likely not going to see this is a slight, or meanness. But that is something that we as parents will tend to project. A lot of us have a tendency as parents, and I’m including myself in this, to be hyper critical of our children, especially if we are judgmental of ourselves. That’s why it’s so important, and Magda Gerber, my mentor, gave this advice, we have to accept ourselves so that we can accept our child.

Through that lens of trust and acceptance in our child, and all children, we can see more objectively. We can see that the child that is the slower child in that situation maybe doesn’t feel any unkindness in that being spelled out.

It will help us a lot as parents to work on observing with the most objective lens that we can. It’s very, very challenging for all of us to be objective to any degree about our own children. It’s such an important job that we’re trying to do, it seems like they are reflections of us.

The advice I gave that parent to let that go, and not continue to correct and criticize her son for getting caught up in his need at that moment to pump himself up, to feel like he won something… That advice was about not jumping in with a judgmental attitude. Giving our child that grace, having that curiosity as to what they’re going through that they seem to need to pat themselves on the back that way, and looking at what we can do to help our child feel more comfortable in themselves, and less needing to prove themselves to feel better.

All of that part actually applies to this parent I’m addressing today. What’s different here is her child is actually taunting. She’s trying to put another child down. This one crosses a line, and as loving, caring parents I strongly recommend intervening in these situations.

But the way that we intervene matters a lot. If we intervene with a critical, judgmental attitude of our child, that puts distance between us. It’s understandable because, ugh, that feels so icky when we see our child doing that. It’s really hard not to judge them and let them know that that’s ugly and we don’t like that behavior. But following that reflex that we might have will actually make this issue worse, because it is stemming from how our child feels about themselves, how they feel inside. It’s not stemming from the higher places in them.

As I went over in the other podcast about the boastful behavior, there are a few different reasons that children behave this way with other children. One is that we may, without meaning to, be modeling unkind behavior. If we’re giving consequences with a tone like, “Well, you didn’t do this, so I’m going to take your toy away.” Instead of a more helpful tone that shows our child we’re on their side: “Ooh, you’re showing me you’re not safe with that right now. I’m going to have to put it away.”

Those are two very opposite ways of expressing the same limit to our child. The first creates distance and more fear and discomfort in our child, and that will tend to encourage the less regulated impulsive behavior. Or we can address our child in a helpful, honest manner that isn’t pointing a finger of judgment. That’s recognizing that children do follow their impulses to do things that they know are not their best, and this happens very, very often in the early years, when children are going through emotional processes that are uncomfortable, when they’re feeling distanced, or fearful.

None of this is to say that we’re a bad parent. What I’m saying is that’s a very understandable response, especially if we were raised that way ourselves. But it won’t have the result that we’re looking for. It will actually make our job harder, because it will make our child more uncomfortable.

So, how would it look to be helpful in the situation that this parent describes when her four and a half year old is taunting another child, saying, “Nah nah nah nah nah, I have a gummy and you don’t.”?

This mother says her instinct was to say, “That’s not kind.” So, her instinct was what I would say the majority of our reflexive response would be, “You’re doing something wrong, cut it out.” But that response is not understanding that our child is following through with an impulse that they don’t need to learn again is wrong. They already know that.

In some cases, and that may be true for this child, they’re actually doing it for the parent’s “benefit”. Almost as if they’re reflecting out this judgment that they felt coming from their parent about them, and they’re reflecting it back. That’s obviously something we don’t want our children to do. We don’t want them to be owning in any way that they are unkind people. We all have the capability of being unkind, especially if we’re not feeling great about ourselves, and sometimes young children will just try that out and they’ll go there. Sometimes the influence of another child that they’re joining with will make them go there, and together these two children will be unkind to a peer.

But seeing them as shameful, or bad, is not going to help us respond in a helpful manner. What I would do, and this would be true if a child was acting out physically with another child as well as using language. I would go close, I would not be talking to my child from a distance, pointing it out for everyone to see. Because that can only come out as shaming, really, and it doesn’t work. Especially if there’s physical behavior going on. We’re not going to be able to stop a child who is behaving on emotionally fueled impulse by talking to them. They need more help than that.

So, I would go close. Not run over, but walk over calmly, because this isn’t a physical emergency and I don’t want my child to feel that I’m panicky. I don’t want to be panicky about this, and angry about this, and emotional. I want to see what’s really going on here, which is, oops, my child went there.

Maybe later I’ll think about it, and I’ll figure out what I might be doing to contribute to this. But all I need to know now is my child isn’t at her best right now, and she’s being unkind, and I’ve got to help her. She can’t help herself; she’s showing me that she can’t.

So, I’m going to be as discreet and kind about this as possible, always modeling the kindness I want to instill in my children. Holding her by the hand, or putting my arm around her, doing what I need to do to be able to talk to her for a moment.

What I would say would be, “I can’t let you talk that way, that can hurt feelings. I can’t let you do that.” And following through with my “I can’t let you” by kindly escorting her out of there. But I’m not blaming her. I know that she doesn’t want to be that person that’s unkind, and it’s my job to stop her.

The manner in which we do this is make or break. And the way to have that manner that’s helpful, and discreet, and private about this intervention, as private as I can be, that comes from again and again working on visualizing what’s really going on here: a child who has lost control, even if it looks very controlled. She knows it’s not a good place, so she doesn’t need that lesson. She doesn’t need to be told again and again.

From there, taking my child aside for this time-in, I will likely learn a little more. I will see my child either express relief, take a moment, and then be able to go back. Or I will recognize, hmm, my child is tired, maybe has a full-on meltdown at that point. That can happen, that those unkind behaviors are the tip of the iceberg to stronger feelings that a child has inside that they need to release. So that might happen, in which case maybe I would help her to the car, or somewhere even more private.

But we can’t do nothing. We can’t leave our child exposed in that situation. And that’s why I feel so terrible that I led this parent astray in what I said in the other podcast. Because the last thing I want to be teaching parents is to leave our children high and dry when they need us so desperately.

This parent says, “What should I say when I hear her being mean?” That’s what I would say, but I would be close, I would bring her to you. I would recognize that she needs help, not more direction, definitely not criticism, and it sounds like this parent tried to redirect her. That won’t really give her the help she needs either, because she’s waving a flag. That’s a “help” flag when children cross those lines. They need us to see that.

This mom says, “I want to help coach her on being kind and a good human.” We have to understand how children actually learn. They don’t learn from the words that we say to them, or what we tell them they should do. They learn through our own modeling, by what we do. If we intervene with them with a kind and generous heart, that’s how they will learn kindness. All of these character traits that we want to instill, they are learned mostly through us giving them a big heart space of acceptance and patience around their process. And wanting to understand rather than push them away when they’re showing the opposite of what we are wanting to instill.

Parents often ask me, “Well, what about when they do this with me at home, or their siblings?” I know this a hard one because it feels like, well, if I’m not going to let my child talk that way to other children, I can’t let them talk that way to me. But it actually works better to let go and see these tiny people, and why they’re speaking that way to us. Which could be that we’ve kind of encouraged it without meaning to by reacting to it, so they’ve seen that this is a way to get our attention. Or that they’re just in a flood of anger about a limit that we’ve had to set, and they’re demonstrating it an immature way.

For the bigger picture, I would let that go. See beyond those words said out of anger or out of attention getting. Take the power out of them. If they do this with a sibling and it’s extreme, sure, I would intervene the same way as I suggested at the park. But almost always the two siblings are playing a part, or three siblings, they’re all playing a role in this behavior. One of them is kind of taunting in a maybe more discreet way, and then the other one is taunting back. We can tend to just focus in on the one that gets our attention and blame that one, when really, it’s a whole mutual dynamic going on a lot of the time. That younger one knowing just how to wind that older one up and get him or her over the edge.

I would practice seeing what’s really going on. That’s why observation is such a wonderful tool that we all have.

I hope some of this helps.

Also, please check out some of the other podcasts on my website JanetLansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. And both of my books are available on audio, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can find them through my website or on audible.com, and you can also get them in paperback at Amazon and in ebook at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple.com.

Thank you for listening. We can do this.


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Thank you Janet for wonderful, timely advice. As a family day care educator I have been struggling with how to respond to a 4 year old in my care who is frequently unkind to the other children. You have reminded me just how much she needs my support!

  2. Hi Janet – thank you for this! Two questions:
    – with physical things (hitting and kicking) it’s easy to show how you can’t let the child do the thing, by blocking for example. But with words, is it simply removing the kid from the situation? Sometimes that is not possible – like if the child is using similar words with you, the parent. How do you not let a child do something they have total control over (ie their words)?
    – what to do if your child is on the receiving end of these kinds of taunts and is upset or deflated by them, and the other child’s parents are not around to do anything about it?

  3. Would it ever be appropriate for there to be consequences (i.e no TV shows the rest of the day, earlier bedtime, etc) for being unkind to a younger sibling? Our five year old daughter will say bully-like unkind things to our three-year old daughter. This seems to have started since our three-month old daughter was born, and it is more often happening after the five-year old has been at preschool. So I know it is strongly correlating to the new sibling and having controlled herself all afternoon at preschool. She is a very sensitive girl also.

    1. Yikes, I would feel the consequences would exacerbate that relationship dynamic and possibly pit them against each other if consequences are involved.

  4. Hi Janet, thank you for everything you do. My relationship with my son has completely changed since I started using your concepts. I’ve been a loyal listener for awhile now and don’t usually leave comments online. But I felt very compelled to with this episode with regards to one little thing you said. Here’s what you said:

    What I would say would be, “I can’t let you talk that way, that can hurt feelings. I can’t let you do that.”

    If you truly believe people can hurt each other’s feelings, I hope you’ll reconsider this. This is never true. And believing this as a child most definitely hurts us when we become adults. I hope you’ll consider that it isn’t possible for us to hurt each other’s feelings. We are all responsible for our own thoughts and feelings.

    Thanks again for everything you do. I truly appreciate you.

    1. Jennifer Gnolfo says:

      This approach makes a lot of sense, and though it is hard to achieve, I will try to shoot for the non-critical, calm approach to unkind behavior. My child today did a twist on this. He was plotting aloud to me to delay his bath so as to make his sister take her bath at a time where she would miss breakfast with the beloved Grandmother. Basically, he was acting out of an interest to make his sister miss something and feel bad. He does this a lot. I could not resist the urge to lecture. He just turned 8. “When we make decisions out of a wish to harm others, that is not the best decision.” I get that he’s struggling with feeling like he wanted to harm his sister, and that by saying it aloud to me, he may have been asking for help. What can I say in this situation that’s not judgmental or preachy and helps him take the higher road? I can definitely dictate what time he takes his bath, but do I address the feelings or try to teach a lesson?

    2. Pycnogonida says:

      Andrea, shush.

      That advice is SEVERELY lacking in empathy, and seems fit for a fantasy world, not the one we actually live in.
      We evolved to find others’ interactions with us/choices towards us meaningful. You’re victim-blaming here, implying that when someone is actively trying to hurt us, that we ought to take responsibility for that ourselves, and if we feel hurt when, again, they are ACTIVELY TRYING TO HURT US, that it’s our own fault for “choosing” to feel that way.

      You’re welcome to try to maintain that attitude FOR YOURSELF, if you like. It’s divorced from reality and from human nature, but you do you.
      Just don’t try to impose that on others, or imply that they’re weak or wrong for feeling normal human feelings.

  5. Can you please stop referring to tantrums as “meltdowns”, they are not one and the same.

  6. Iris loftis says:

    Whoa. So many words about something so little. I did not read the incident about the “ boastful” boy but, if I am correct that he said “hey, you were slower and I was faster”…I don’t think he was boasting at all but merely stating a fact. Now, had he prefaced that with nah, nah, nah, nah that sets a completely different tone to it but he did not. In fact, he may have just as easily said “you were faster and I was slower, had HE lost the race. We’ll never know.

  7. What about when the older 4.5 yo seems to just say things to the younger one regularly? I mean, sure you can say at some point he was annoyed with his sister or has experienced frustration but the constant taunting etc. does not seem to a direct reaction to his sister. For example, “you don’t have this!” “You can’t do this….”on and on. The youngest is honestly usually not even interacting with him when he says this and is usually upset by it. I feel like I don’t want to take sides and she is also constantly being verbally taunted. Janet, you’d say “ignore it” but what if our children don’t ignore it….the ones being subjected to it….

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