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karen vanderven from the soapbox

Why are kids acting so mean ? “Hurt feelings do really hurt”

Teasing ... bullying .... excluding ... scapegoating … hazing ... ridiculing — these are behaviors that I will put in a category called “meanness”. More and more both popular and professional media are filled with profoundly unsettling stories of appalling and even shocking behavior of children and youth towards their peers. And as is the case with so many undesirable and unhealthy behaviors these days, the trend is moving downward in age so that we now worry about preschoolers who early on begin a pattern of rejecting certain others , saying, to put it in the words of the famous early childhood author Vivian Gassin Paley, “You can’t play !” Boys were once the traditional culprits in these behaviors but nowadays girls do these things just as much — perhaps in somewhat different ways. Somehow this meanness continues among some in an upward age trajectory so that any adolescent who somehow doesn’t fit or is different becomes the target of the asocial behaviors described above. Similarly, to be “accepted” some will undergo cruel initiation rites. Some would say, “This is the way kids have always been” and to some degree this may be so. But it is the incidence, the frequency, and the nature of the incidents and behaviors that seem to have gotten out of hand and are so disturbing. The fact that often adults turn the other cheek similarly is unsettling.

Some new research has cast some new insight into the “meanness” phenomenon and I will use that to offer a very general perspective. on a very complex issue.

What is the research ? Investigators studied the brain’s response to rejection and discovered that when we are excluded or separated from significant others, we not only feel emotional pain but also physical pain (See references).

So what might the connection to “meanness” be ? I think it’s all about fundamental attachment and whether a positive primary bond with a caregiving person occurs for children. If a child experiences multiple caregivers, with varying degrees of nurturing and acceptance, with continued separations from a parent — who the child knows should want to be with him, then the child interprets this as rejection. As the recent groundbreaking research shows, rejection is actually felt as a physical pain. So one can imagine a young child, daily constructing the theme of rejection in his life in the face of the repetition of the experience, and feeling continued pain. We know too that alternative sources of positive relationships other than parents can serve as a protective factor, but often where these exist they are broken in a transition period, or on occasion are terminated for the very reason they have meaning to the child. More sense of rejection and pain.

Let’s say that as the child gets older he or she increasingly is one of the ones who is left out, picked on, bullied and the like. Then the rejection based pain gets compounded. When one experiences continued pain, there is a desire to eliminate or at least master it in some way . Often this may be done in a way that is counter to pro-social and caring values. So a young person who has experienced a great deal of rejection may try to do so by inflicting it on others — in line with the psychoanalytic concept of “identification with the aggressor”. Perhaps such actions reduce the acute sense of pain experienced. Other youngsters who feel rejected in some way, perhaps from earliest childhood, simply become alienated and indifferent. Having tried to repress their own pain, perhaps it helps them stop feeling it if they inflict it on others.

These new research findings for me seem to offer some way to appreciate the seriousness of “meanness” and to consider how we can address it. The problem needs more than school worksheets and special groups. We need to think to the very core of our early child rearing practices, the supports that families get, the responsibility of adults to be much closer and attentive to all children as they are growing up and to ensure that their cumulative pain does not lead to hurtful behavior. Where there is a possibility that it will, adults must stop it and others must be utterly protected. As child and youth workers our attentive support and investment in both aggressors, potential and already underway, and victims, is urgent. We simply cannot tolerate “meanness”, and addressing it requires both attention to root causes and our immediate action.


Beckman, M. (2003). Rejection is like pain to the brain.

Eisenberger, N., Lieberman, M., and Williams, K. (2003). Does rejection hurt ? An fMRI study of social exclusion.