03/03/2016 11:55 EST | Updated 03/04/2017 05:12 EST

The Real Reason Kids Can Be So Cruel

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Lotus Carroll/Flickr
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"Miss, how come you have a moustache like a man?"

Did you ever hear a six-year old say something like this to a teacher? Or how about, "Why is your nose so red?" or "You have big ears!" As adults, we can laugh at these little glimpses into the minds of children but what happens when a child is the target of these types of observations?

Children have an interesting way of thinking. They are completely in their own little bubbles. The moustache question was a real one I once overheard at a local elementary school. Adults would never dream of asking such a question because we know it would be hurtful to the person. But a child is simply trying to make sense of the world and has no idea yet about what is, and what is not, proper to say. The child is simply making an interesting observation completely oblivious to the impact it may have on the woman.

Most pre-adolescents do not have the maturity to put themselves in another person's mind. They might tell someone on the bus, "Look at my new shoes!" not questioning whether the fellow passenger would have any interest.

In the mind of the elementary school kid

The ability to imagine what another person would think or feel is referred to as the theory of mind. It is this that helps us realize that another person's mind is distinct from our own. When six-year olds point out physical flaws they are simply responding to their own curiosity. They have no idea that this might hurt people. To realize the impact of these observations would require the ability to be in someone else's head.

This is why children can be so cruel to classmates who are different. They will point to, or laugh at, physical or psychological differences simply because they stand out. Without a theory of mind they are blind to the feelings aroused in others. Such a difference becomes a lightening rod for comments or laughter.

If a person in your office were to have an accidental incontinence, you would feel mortified for that person. It would be tough enough for that person to face colleagues the next day but at least we wouldn't go around calling him or her peepee pants for the next few years. Yet that's what children are sometimes forced to face in the company of classmates. And this happens when children are only beginning to develop their self-identity.

Being different. Feeling different.

The theory of mind is a key factor in the anxieties our youth have to endure while trying to find their places in the world. The ability, or lack thereof, to be inside another person's head has a major impact on the nature of social anxieties that children experience and on how they fit in with their peers.

Without an ability to appreciate another person's feelings, elementary school children can appear cruel and cold-hearted. But while an adult can be cruel because of an actual desire to hurt, a child may act cruelly quite simply because that is the nature of a child's mind.

Elementary school kids can get along well with their classmates and won't get picked on just so long as they are not different. But an odd name, a distinct physical feature or deformity, a speech impediment, or any number of unfortunate events, can all become lightning rods for 'cruel' taunting. The targets of such taunts tend to develop significant social anxiety. They will often feel defective in some way and this may remain part of their identities as adults. The scars can run deep and may never completely fade away.

Young Minds Matter is a new series designed to lead the conversation with children about mental and emotional health, so youngsters feel loved, valued and understood. Launched with Her Royal Highness, The Duchess of Cambridge, as guest editor, we will discuss problems, causes and most importantly solutions to the stigma surrounding the mental health crisis among children. To blog on the site as part of Young Minds Matter email