Make sure you're in the right frame of mind to deal with your stressed-out children so they won't have to add another source of stress on their already burdened psyche.
Does this sound familiar to you? You wonder why you’re being called to the principal’s office again about what your kid did at school. But he’s a great listener, does the chores, and he respects your authority. How could he be like this? If there’s anything that pushes mums and dads to their wit’s end, it’s handling mean kids.
Or it could be the other way around. You could be the parent of a mean-spirited child at home. He never does the chores, and engages in shouting matches. He is often unreachable, and dissatisfied. But he’s a model student. Best grades, spotless record. What do you do?
Handling mean kids needs investigation
It turns out, your kid’s home behaviour can be dramatically different from her school behaviour. The key to handling mean kids is investigating what makes them tick.
“Children — especially younger kids — will often be more of a challenge in one situation than another,” said Jamila Reid, clinical psychologist at the University of Washington.
During grade school, children often keep themselves together until they run out of steam by the end of the day, says Leslie Fields, Redmond Elementary School counsellor.
Fatigued youngsters may go home, greeted by cheerful parents asking about their day. Then the parents wonder why their child is distant when all they need is a break.
Handling mean kids isn’t exactly about handling their meanness, but managing their stress levels.
“Home is familiar — and a safer environment to misbehave in,” says Fields. Home doesn’t have the peer pressure, the boundaries, and the incentives that exist in a typical classroom setting. “Students know what’s expected of them and what the consequences are for not following the rules,” she says.
According to Katie Snyder, a Seattle-area elementary and preschool teacher, children who acting out around their parents is a healthy sign of attachment. This is probably the one good sign about handling mean kids at home.
“It means they feel safe enough to let go around home,” says Snyder, who has two children. “When my daughter goes to someone’s house and comes back with a stellar report, that’s comforting to me.” That’s still true even when she “throws a fit” the second she arrives home, Snyder adds.
Actually, this behaviour isn’t so different from adult behaviour. Take for instance Snyder’s own public and private demeanour. “Out in public, I present the best of myself,” she says. “At home, I can whine.”
The good thing is that kids who fare better at school than at home can control their behaviour in one setting, says Reid. “If we work on changing the home dynamic, they have the ability to behave there, also.”
Easy at home, difficult at school
As for the child who has a better demeanour at home, it’s possible that he has less experience in a school setting or hasn’t figured out what’s expected of him yet, says Reid. “Sometimes parents do a good job of meeting their child’s needs at home, but find there’s a mismatch at school.”
Handling mean kids isn’t just about disciplining them, but also about keeping them occupied.
Parents who understand that their active child has trouble focusing can try different home activities. They can organise outdoor trips to keep their kid interested and engaged.
“Suddenly, at school he’s asked to sit for 20 minutes at circle time and be able to follow several directions at once,” Reid says.
Lynn Faherty, a parent education instructor at Bates Technical College in Tacoma, says some kids find the schoolroom stressful.
“The parent should question: Does the child feel like she is accepted and valued in her class?” Faherty said. “Is there any dissonance there?”
When your kids are awkward
Imagine your kid in kindergarten: she is a budding artist, expressing herself through drawing and colour. But if her teacher doesn’t allow drawing in class, she might think her teacher does not like her. She might then decide that she does not like school.
“That can happen the first day,” Faherty says.
It’s also possible that your child’s school friendships aren’t doing so well.
“There could be a kid in the class who intimidates your child,” Faherty continues. “Young kids aren’t great at socialisation.”
Children with sensory, learning or attention problems are especially challenged in the classroom, according to Fields. They tend to do better at home in a calmer environment where “they’re much less agitated and less stimulated.”
When to take action
If you feel that the situation is getting out of hand, it’s wise to seek professional help, Fields advises.
“If three months have gone by and there’s no improvement in sight, find a counselor,” she says. “Asking for help is not an admission of failure.”
This is especially true when your child is struggling behaviourally both in school and at home.
“These are the kids who are testing a lot of different situations or struggling in them,” says Reid. “While it’s part of a kid’s job to test limits, if it’s extreme, or if parents are out of strategies, that’s problematic.”
Parents can consult with their local parenting clinics and paediatricians, look for parenting classes, or talk to their child’s teacher or guidance councillor. Be on the lookout for clinics providing programs that promote children’s social competence.
“Anytime parents feel they don’t have the resources to handle behaviours at home, they should be concerned,” says Reid. “It doesn’t mean the child is on a trajectory. There are lots of strategies. But if you are feeling you’re out of your league, it’s time to get help.”
Here’s what you can do
Faherty thinks that a lot of young children lack the coping skills they need to help them make smooth, stress-free transitions between home and school. She suggests the following steps to make it easier for kids:
- Start with the physical. Is your child getting enough sleep, exercise, and the right food?
- Make sure your kids know you’re there for them — and that they can count on you no matter what.
- Don’t overschedule or fit in “one more stop” on the way to or from school. Kids don’t do well with rushing.
- Get into the mind of your child. What is it like for him during times of transition?
- When a child meets a parent at the end of the school day, there is an expectation. The child is waiting for a special “reunification” time — a hug, a rub on the head, a routine of some sort.
Make sure you’re in the right frame of mind to deal with your stressed-out children so they don’t add another source of stress to their already burdened psyche. So de-stress before you see them. Relax a little, calm down, read a book, get a cup of coffee, or a glass of wine.