How to Respond to Bad Behavior

Bad behavior from other people is an inevitable part of life. While we would love to protect our kids from every mean comment or action by another person, that is impossible. What we can – and must – do is help our kids learn how to respond appropriately to bad behavior. That’s a life skill they will, unfortunately, need a lot as an adult.

The question comes up sooner or later for every parent:
How do I respond when a kid does or says something mean to my kid?

I received an email last week from one of my podcast listeners with that very question. She asked for ideas on how to handle the bad behavior of a child on an opposing soccer team.

I shared some of my thoughts with her.

Don’t Talk to the Other Child’s Parent

It almost NEVER helps to approach the parent of a child who is demonstrating bad behavior, especially if you don’t know the parent. Guess where the kid learned their bad behavior? Eek.

It’s very sad, but many parents are not modeling for their kids how to treat others with kindness and respect. When these parents are approached about their child’s behavior, they make excuses and blame others rather than taking responsibility for the behavior. It is highly unusual for a parent of a child who’s behaving badly to respond apologetically or do anything constructive (other than take it out on their child later).  

So unless the parent is a really good friend of yours and you have a close and trusting enough relationship — one where you’ve built up a trust where they know that you like their child and want what’s best for him or her — I would strongly caution against speaking directly with the child’s parent.

The parent will be defensive for many reasons. They may be tired of hearing negative things about their child. They probably don’t know what to do about their child’s behavior (which is likely an ongoing issue). Instead of responding apologetically or letting you know what they’re going to do, they will almost certainly deny the behavior, blame other people, and take their frustrations out on you and then their child later.

Avoid Using the Word “Bully” or “Bullying”

The situation the mom emailed me about involved a boy calling kids foul names on the soccer field. She said he was “bullying” the other kids, but I clarified that he was being rude and inappropriate since he was targeting many kids.

I caution parents to avoid using the word “bullying” to describe every bad behavior, as it’s now being overused and tends to focus on kids as victims of the other child’s actions. Since, in this case, several kids were recipients of the name-calling,  this kid wasn’t ganging up on one child. He was being rude to many.

When debriefing with our kids about bad behavior, it’s important that we distinguish between rude, mean, and bullying behaviors.  There’s an excellent article by Signe Whitson about how we can do this – Is it Rude, Is it Mean, or Is it Bullying? 

I also wrote this post about a kid at camp who accused others of being “bullies” only to discover that he, too, had done some of the same things he described the “bullies” doing.

Reframing: Teach Your Child (and the children you work with) to respond with Compassion and Curiosity

Another important way to help kids deal with mean kids is to debrief with them on what might cause a kid to do or say something rude or mean. Often kids can access their own empathy and realize that a kid calling them the “F” word likely is being called that by his parents or siblings at home.

It’s much better to teach kids to view bad behavior and meanness with empathy instead of victimhood. Make the conversation not about them but about the kid doing the bad behavior. We can ask our child, “Wow, that sounds really mean. I wonder what would make a kid act like that?”

By taking the focus off our kid, we help them learn how to reframe other people’s bad behavior to be about the other person and not take it personally.

A great way to think about bad behavior is to be curious instead of angry. Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D. and Dr. Daniel Siegel teach this well in The Yes Brain. Kids who have trouble getting along with others usually personalize things too much, thinking bad words and behavior are always aimed at them (or about them) even when they’re not.

The only kids we can talk to and directly influence are our own. We can’t make everyone else be kind and respectful, be we can empower our kids to respond well, not personalize things, and not sink to the lowest common denominator.

So when your kid comes to tell you about another child’s bad behavior, teach them to be curious about it. Ask, “Where do you think he learned that behavior? What could have caused this person to do or say that?” Stay calm and ask questions to help them tap into their compassion.

Use Bad Behavior as an Opportunity to Teach & Set Clear Boundaries

As adults, we can also promote – and insist upon – appropriate boundaries. In our homes, on our teams, or in our classrooms, we can be clear about what we stand for and use positive behavior management to promote kind, respectful behavior.

Since this event happened in a team situation, I advised that the coach focus on teaching all the kids on the team about what is expected on the team – being respectful and showing good sportsmanship. Empower the kids by telling them they don’t need to stand by and let another child behave badly, but they also don’t need to take it personally when a kid is acting like a jerk.

Here’s what I said:

“If your coach is brave enough and willing to follow through, he/she could say something like,

‘Last time we played this team, there was a kid who didn’t know how to stay respectful on the field. Don’t take it personally if he calls you a name, but do let me know right away so that I can talk to the coach and let them know that our team will not continue playing against their team if they allow that behavior to continue.’

You could also let the AYSO powers-that-be know that your team is not going to play against a team that allows rude behavior and that they shouldn’t be allowing that behavior, either. It’s the other kid’s coach’s responsibility to remove him if he is not meeting the team or AYSO standards of behavior.”

Whose fault is it?

One final note: “bad behavior” is more complicated than it seems.

I’ve learned from many years of working with kids and helping them to resolve conflicts that come up at camp that our perspectives on the same situation are different depending on who we are.

We – and our kids – view things from our own perspective. If our child comes home and says that someone was mean to them, our hackles go up and we take their story at face value. But we don’t know all the details or understand the whole picture.

What led up to the other child’s bad behavior?

When negative interactions happen — between kids or between adults — it’s almost never one hundred percent one person’s fault and zero percent the other’s. Maybe one person’s behavior was worse, but it could have been in response to a more subtle, but equally mean behavior.

The bottom line is that what we can control is our own behavior and our own response to bad behavior. That’s what we need to teach our kids, too.


Making Friends

Ep. 1: Raising Happiness with Christine Carter

5 Steps to Raise a Problem Solver 

10 Friendship Skills Every Kid Needs

Channel your inner Mister Rogers and teach kids kindness:

My Facebook Live on this topic:

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