It doesn't matter where you live, what type of school system you’re in, or who your kids’ friends are, there’s no foolproof way of avoiding middle-school meanness. That’s not to say the meanness doesn’t start before middle school, nor that it ends before high school—or stop in adulthood, for that matter. But by and large the drama, the cattiness, the dismissiveness, the name-calling, the online bullying, the rejecting, and the outright hateful words and behavior start blowing up big time around middle school.

We’re often left wondering why these kids who used to be so good—kids who should know better—are behaving so terribly. And how do we handle it? Whether our child feels like the victim, is caught in the middle, or is the one misbehaving (we’re fooling ourselves if we think our kids never fall into this category), parenting through the drama and meanness is hard.

Heart of the Problem

External factors like family, environment, friend groups, and life circumstances may contribute, but they aren’t the primary problem. The primary problem is our kids’ hearts, and our hearts too—it’s a universal human heart problem. Therefore, we must consider the heart to properly address the unkind actions. If we only deal with the outer behavior, we’ll never effectively change what’s really going on. 

As we chisel beneath the behavior, we discover what’s driving it. External factors can influence, yes, but we act according to the inclinations of our hearts. And all of us have a natural bent toward sin. As the prophet Jeremiah put it, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). 

We have sin-sick hearts. All of us.

When we understand our true diagnosis as an across-the-board condition, we can start from a place of compassion with our own kids, and toward others. When our child knows this is our condition, too—that we are in the same sin-ridden boat—they’ll be more receptive to our probing questions. This shared need for grace gives us patience and gentleness as we help them excavate the root of their behavior.

Idol Factor

The heart is the driving force behind why any of us do what we do. So whatever is ruling our hearts—whatever means most to us—will be the influential tug that determines our words and deeds, our motives and agendas.

When Jesus is central in our heart, our words and action will reflect him. Yet when something other than Jesus dethrones him, things go badly. Whatever we seek to find life in apart from the true God—a person, an object, a desire—is a false god. It soon becomes the ruling idol of our heart.

What we view as our ultimate identity is where we seek fulfillment. So our teenagers look for life in appearance, acceptance, affirmation, significance, popularity, and love. (Sounds a lot like us, doesn’t it?) Whatever it takes to get what they think they must have, they will do. Their ruling idol—in the classroom, the lunchroom, on the stage, the field, and social media—will determine their behavior.

Now it makes sense why a 13-year-old girl utters a snide comment to a classmate if she feels jealous or insecure and doesn’t know her worth. In a twisted way, she feels better by making someone else feel worse. Or a youth who’s starved for attention and love at home—it makes sense why he craves attention from others, even in negative ways. He’s looking to know his worth, to know he’s accepted and secure.

Ultimately, though, only God can fill us. Only God can make us whole. Only God is big enough to fill the chasm that drives us to turn to empty gods.

Painful Love

When we talk to our kids about mean behavior and don’t discuss idolatry, we neglect helping them discern the true nature of their dissatisfied hearts, the depth of their sin, and their profound need for a perfect Savior.

But when we dig deeper with our kids, and they begin to grasp the extent and frequency of god-replacements popping up in their hearts, we shepherd them toward the Good Shepherd himself. We want them to obey out of love for the One who rescued them. Through painful and complicated discussions, we raise children who have compassion on others. And as they begin to find their acceptance, love, and worth in Jesus, they are freed to share with others the grace they’ve received.