Beware: Preschool Mean Girls and Boys and Helping Your Child Cope

Now that I’ve been at this parenting thing for seven years, I have to say one of the more shocking things I’ve come across is the fact that the notorious “mean girls” (& boys!) begin at age 4. And I’m not joking. I’ve been in parent group discussions with a mom in tears because she isn’t sure what to do about her daughter being left out every day; I’ve over heard some of the harshest words come out of a kid’s mouth toward another; And I’ve witnessed both boys and girls being left out of cliques. It starts young and it certainly doesn’t get better from there. Breezy Mama turned to Dr. Fran Walfish to get tips on how to handle when your child is left on the outside of a clique, the skills to give them to deal with children who are rude to them, what to do when your child is the culprit and more.

The first time I heard there were cliques in preschool I pretty much laughed. I’ve since witnessed how harsh it can be for a child… and worse for their mom. How are kids already purposely excluding other kids at such a young age?

Yes, it came as a surprise to me too. It’s hard to imagine that children so young can be exclusive. It seems to begin earlier and earlier with each generation. I have seen 3 year-old girls accept some who wear a particular dress while rejecting others who wear pants. I think this begins within the family. Toddlers absorb their earliest social skills from their mothers and fathers. Parents shape their growing youngster’s behavior, manners, and reciprocity (give and take) when their toddler relates directly to them as well as to their siblings and peers. For instance, if Mommy takes her little one to the park and her child says to another tot, “Go away. I don’t like you and your toys”, the mom has an opportunity to help her child grow. Mommy can say, “That’s not friendly talk. You can say, “Let’s build a sandcastle together.” Mom’s job during toddlerhood is relentless because every moment is an opportunity to teach, refine, and reinforce positive expected behaviors.

When a child tells their mom that their feelings were hurt by another child at school, how should a mom respond to comfort the child?

It is important to balance two things at the same time. First, mom certainly should be available as a warm, safe harbor to come to for comfort. However, if you over-comfort or over-reassure you risk fostering a dependency on you, rather than on self. Teach your child self-advocating skills by asking her a series of exploratory questions. Find out if your child did anything to provoke the hurtful comments. Often young children inadvertently and unintentionally say or do something irritating. Then, your child is caught off-guard by a retaliating hurtful statement. They need you to raise their self-awareness. If your child did nothing to provoke the hurts, talk with your child about what he can do to take care of himself. He can say, “That’s not friendly.” “You hurt my feelings.” “I don’t like your words.” If the other child does not stop, instruct your child to get help by telling a teacher.

What types of skills should the mom give the child to cope with being left out or verbally abused by another under 4 footer?

Some parents, more often dads, want their child to hit back. I advise parents against this type of retaliation because it’s usually the kid who hits who gets into trouble at school and with other parents. You may need to help your child join in with kids who are less popular but kind. If your child is repeatedly being left out, talk with the teacher and get names of nice kids who you could invite for play dates with your child. Make it fun and short to insure a positive experience for both kids. Discuss with your child what it takes to be a good friend. Help her or him choose friends who are nice all the time – not hot and cold. Teach your child to say, “You are not being a good friend” and then walk away if someone verbally abuses them. If it continues. your child will need the support of a responsible adult like the teacher, coach, or yard duty supervisor.

The strangest part for me regarding what I have witnessed over the years is one day a kid will be another kid’s best friend and the very next day cruel to them and leaving them out. How can a parent work through this with their child when there is so much back and forth?

This is what I call a “hot and cold” friend. True friends do not drop you like a hot potato. They also do not submit to pressure from another kid who dictates who you can and can’t be friends with. There are always a few truly nice kids. Often, they are left out, too. Encourage your child to embrace those kids. They may not be popular but they make loyal good friends.

What actions should the mom take if their child is regularly left out or even picked on? Call the school? Talk the teacher? Call the other parent?

First, empower your child. Then, talk with the teacher. Does the teacher have a warm, nurturing personality? If not, talk with the principal or director of the school. With the increase of bullying, many schools are taking a stricter zero-tolerance position on this issue. When bullying is the problem, kids need the structure and support of school staff to ensure a safe, healthy, and happy environment.

If a child continues to be mean to another child, should parents try and set up a play date to get them to work through it or let them handle it?

No. I don’t think a mean kid will turn around and make a change just because you and your child are nice to them. I think it is better for you to encourage your child to make other friends. Kids who are mean are angry. They hold a secret. Usually someone within their own family is mistreating and mishandling them. They are very angry and they go to school and look for someone to displace their anger onto. This is called a scapegoat. These kids need professional help. In my private practice I treat many bullies as well as victims. The bullies have the higher risk of growing up with serious social and emotional problems.

And what if it’s YOUR child excluding others or harassing another kid? How should moms handle that?

As a parent, you will need to self-examine. Take a hard, honest look within at your own behavior. Are you or your husband too hard or even harsh on your child? Do you yell and scream? Does your face register a powerfully angry look? If the answer is yes, you will need to change your own behavior before you can expect to change your child’s. If this is the case, have an open talk with your child and own up to the mistakes you’ve made. Tell him you want to learn and grow as he does. Explain that you are going to work on no more yelling. You want to treat him with kindness and respect so that he will do the same to other kids and will have friends. You, of course, cannot accept exclusions or harassing behavior to other kids. But first, you must be accountable to your child for how you are treating him.

If another mom were to call a mom to complain, naturally there might be some defensiveness. How should the mom to receive the call react?

Listen openly and intently. Try your best to inhibit the impulse to get defensive or even to respond. Take a few moments to think before you speak. Thank the other mom for informing you. Tell her that you are taking her words seriously and that you will discuss this with your child. No need or obligation to report back to her. Most often, there are two sides to every story. When you talk with your child, do not accuse, blame, take sides, or offer judgments or opinions. Tell you child about the phone call and ask your child to tell you her thoughts and ideas about what is going on. Give your child a chance to explain her point of view. Then share your values with your child. Let her know how you expect her to treat other people.

How should the mom placing the call go about it?

The mom placing the call should be sure to not attack with anger or hostility. Be direct. Just state the facts simply and clearly. Say what you were told without your opinions or editorial. Tell the other mom that you know these type of upsets and miscommunications occur at this age but it is important to understand what occurred so that all kids feel comfortable and safe at school.

Anything else you’d like to share?

I dealt with this issue just today in my office. The mom of a 5th grade girl wanted to convince me that the other girls are mean, exclusive, and fickle. Through careful, slow, detailed exploration, the 5th grader admitted that she does, in fact, do some immature, silly things that irritate the other girls. When they tell her to stop, she gets angry and accelerates the irritating behavior. This was a fabulous learning experience for the 5th grade girl who grew in front of my very eyes simply by being accountable for her irritating behavior. True, some of her classmates are mean. But now she can modify her own piece of the equation. Her mother learned from the discussion to not leap to judgment about the other girls before understanding that her daughter may be partly accountable.

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About Dr. Frances Walfish:
Frances Walfish, Psy.D. is the foremost Beverly Hills child and family psychotherapist. Her caring approach, exuberant style, humor, and astute insights have earned her a sterling reputation among colleagues and national media alike. A frequent guest on top-­tier TV programs, including NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams and KABC-­TV in Los Angeles, The Doctors, CBS and often appearing in major publications such as Parents Magazine, Family Circle and Woman’s Day, Dr. Fran continues to lead the field with her expert insights and innovative strategies for parents, children and couples.

Her current book, The Self-­Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond with Your Child from Palgrave Macmillan’s/St. Martin’s Press, December 7, 2010, is receiving acclaimed reviews. William Morris Endeavor and Lake Paradise Entertainment are presently collaborating with Dr. Fran to produce a television series offering therapeutic guidance and help to families in America. More information on Dr. Fran can be found online at

To order Dr. Walfish’s book ($11.56 on Amazon), click here.

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  1. Another great article Chelsea.

  2. Leslie Coles. says

    This is an important topic and the article addresses ways of handling several dilemmas for children and adults. No one wants to see a child bullied or doing the bullying. The information on how to stop it is excellent.

  3. Thank you Joanna! And I agree, Leslie!

  4. Glad I read this. DD (who is now 5-y-o) has dealt with this at preschool and to an extent, in kindergarten. Some alpha girls are difficult friends, which I’ve explained to DD (OK, without the jargon!). DD is sweet and tender-hearted and takes things personally so there have been quite a few little talks, but I hope she is getting stronger and wiser as she grows.

  5. Elizabeth says

    “Mom’s job during toddlerhood is relentless because every moment is an opportunity to teach, refine, and reinforce positive expected behaviors.”
    Oh, truer words have never been spoken! You wouldn’t believe (or would you?) how many Moms do not do that.
    I work in a toy store. I see a lot of Mom-kid interaction. Most of the time, all I see is selfishness on the part of the Mom: doing it for the child to save time. not explaining things because it would be too much of a hassle, or not doing it at all (for example not picking up a toy that the kid has dropped).
    It is so sad. kids are not going to learn if you do not teach!

  6. Wonderful advice, as always, from Dr. Walfish! Thanks to Fran and Breezy Mama for sharing this important message with parents. I plan to post this on our page. Nice work everyone! 🙂 Amy McCready, Positive Parenting Solutions

  7. Thanks for sharing this! Gave me an insight into some issues a friends child (bully) may be having with other kids. I can handle the situation in a better way now.

  8. I realize the site is called breezymama, but assuming the mother is the stay-at-home parent is sexist.

  9. Rhazya, actually what’s sexist is assuming that some moms don’t work. This is geared to all moms — stay at home and working. And it never once assumes only a mom stays home, not sure where you gathered that. However, if you check the “about us” page, we do write for moms. There are several great sites out there specifically for dads that I enjoy reading, but am aware that the target is dads. Calling it sexist is a bit ridiculous.

    Meowmie, Elizabeth, Amy, and Amina — thank you for the great comments. We appreciate your support and are happy you felt the information was valuable. I definitely learned a lot from this piece and am grateful to Dr. Walfish!

  10. My 3yr old daughter is having problems with another girl in her preschool class. The girl often shuns her and will not allow her to play along or will not share toys. She is often corrected by the teacher to allow my daughter to play. My daughter still likes this girl and wants to play with her even though she is mean. Recently the girl grabbed her share toy and through it on the ground while my daughter was sharing it during circle time. The Teacher told the girl no, but I don’t think there is any other intervention beyond this. I don’t know what to do. I don’t want her to have her feelings hurt by this girl everyday at school. I try to teach my daughter to tell the girl “no”, “thats not nice”, but I don’t feel like its enough.

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