Parents ask me what to do when their kid is the mean kid on the playground.
They feel terrible about it.
Some kids, especially those with ADHD and autism, don’t yet have the automatic braking system that neurotypical kids do when emotions run hot.
Sometimes it’s due to lagging impulse control and their body reacts before they can control it. Sometimes it’s due to lagging self-regulation and they don’t yet know how to get themselves back to calm.
What’s unfortunate is that other kids and parents can’t see their invisible challenges.
What to Do
Don’t try to solve the issue in the heat of the moment, other than apologizing to the hurt party. Let things calm down, for both you and for your child. It takes at least 30 minutes to reset.
What do you say to the hurt party? Try this, "My child is still learning impulse control. He's going to feel really bad about this. I'm really sorry, he's still learning."
When things have cooled down, it's time to ‘name it to tame it’ as Dan Siegel suggests. Ask your child what happened, and then narrate the events, i.e. ‘He told you he didn’t want to play with you and you got mad and shoved him. Is that right?’
It feels so validating when someone ‘gets’ you, even if you’re in the wrong.
Try everything in your power not to shame or blame your child. If they could do well, they would do well. Teach, don’t shame. I know it’s hard if that's not how you were raised.
State the expectation, i.e. ‘When people don’t want to play with you, I know it’s disappointing, but you need to walk away, take some deep breaths, and find something else to do. We need to keep everyone safe.’
It might not be obvious that we need to state the obvious. But we do. That’s how kids formulate their internal moral compass to know right from wrong, especially if planet earth seems foreign or too overwhelming for them.
In the heat of the moment, it’s so hard for kids to remember all the strategies we’ve patiently explained to them over the years.
Repeat simple phrases often, like:
‘When you’re mad, walk away.’
‘It’s ok to be mad. It’s not ok to be mean.’
Brainstorm with your child what else can be done when they start to get upset, (i.e. deep breaths, vigorous exercise, finding a different buddy, asking an adult for help). Practice visualizing the preferred version, like an Olympic athlete, in bed at night.
Have a quick car conversation before you arrive next time, i.e. ‘What is your plan if you start to get upset?’
Have a code word to cue your child if you see them getting upset, i.e. unicorn, and agree on a plan of what needs to happen next, i.e. take deep breaths, walk away, leave the park.
Know that your child will grow out of this stage, with practice, natural development and thoughtful conversations like these.