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My 4-year-old says she's mean and no one likes her at school. What can we do?

Answered by Jennifer Louie, PhD

Q My 4-year-old has suddenly been experiencing friendship issues at school. She has hit, thrown toys, been untruthful and made threats to children. She tells us that the kids are mean to her and gets really hung up on situations. She tells us that she is mean and no one likes her. She now hates school. It is breaking our hearts and we are at a loss. What can we do?

It’s heartbreaking to hear your child say mean things about themselves or say they hate school, especially when they’re so young and have so much school in front of them. It’s probably tempting to respond, “You’re not mean,” “Everyone likes you,” and “You love school!” but comments like that don’t necessarily help.

One of the first things I would suggest is to learn more about what is going on. Try spending some time playing with your daughter one-on-one and let her take the lead so that she’s feeling comfortable. While you play, talk about school. You don’t want to ask a lot of questions, but you do want to gently ask what school is like and how it makes her feel. Then you want to validate what she says. You could say things like, “That would make me sad, too” or, “It makes sense that you feel that way.”

Starting like this is important for two reasons. First, it gives you a better idea of how to help. But verbalizing how she feels and then getting validation from you will also help your daughter feel less alone. It lets her know that her feelings are normal feelings and that her parents have her back.

Reach out to your daughter’s teacher, too. Does the teacher see patterns with certain kids, times of day, or situations? How does the staff handle these situations and what have they already tried? What could they do differently?

Then you and your daughter can practice role playing for tricky situations, like what to do if someone is mean. You could also use “social stories,” which are very simple but engaging stories written from a child’s point of view that prepare kids for different social interactions. There are storybooks that you might use as well, like Simon’s Hook, which talks about what to do if someone is teasing you.

Play dates will probably be even more helpful. For four-year-olds, a lot of the most effective help is going to be in the moment. That’s because young kids can be overwhelmed by their emotions and need grownups to step in. So, for example, if your daughter often has trouble with a certain child in her class, organize a play date. Then you can coach them in the moment to help them resolve their issues.

Finally, use a reward system to encourage and reinforce good behavior. Something like a sticker chart would be great for a four-year-old—the rewards don’t need to be fancy. Maybe she could get a sticker for a full day of being respectful with her hands or words. Or if a full day is too hard, you could break it down into smaller chunks of time, like the morning and afternoon. Consider making the chart visual to make it extra compelling.

Reward systems are an effective way to promote good behavior, but they also really help with self-esteem. Once your daughter sees that she’s doing better, she’ll start feeling better about herself, too.