Q: Several students in my daughter's freshman class have been rude to her for no apparent reason. Some have called her some rather mean nicknames. She is one of only three Asians in the class. Although she has felt like replying in kind at times, she has refrained from doing so. Many times she has come home in tears not understanding what she did to trigger this. What can she do?

A: Where does it come from? If they're speaking aloud, the words themselves are likely coming from Broca's area in the Left Frontal Lobe. If they're using short four-letter-type emotional words, those may be coming from the Right Posterior, the more affective division of the brain. Their intent, however, may be driven from the emotional limbic system (the subconscious second brain layer) or even from the stress-reaction forms loaded in the brain stem.

It does not appear from your question that your daughter is triggering this behavior by her words or actions. Negative behaviors such as those you described typically have more to do with the person who is exhibiting them than with the recipient. Epithets may be the result of poor self-esteem levels, a sense of fear and inadequacy, learned prejudice, misplaced anger, trying to discharge pent-up negative emotional energy, and so on. That does not excuse the behavior, but it may help for her to realize that the behaviors are coming from their brains—not hers.

If you are old enough, you likely know about the placement of individuals of Japanese heritage in “camps” around the time of the 2nd World War—a blot on American history—just because Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

Help your daughter understand that being rude and saying mean things to others is a learned behavior. These students must come from an environment where they have heard some rather ugly things said, and they are simply living out what they have experienced. Likely she will never know what is going on in their worlds. Whenever possible, suggest your daughter avoid these individuals. Certainly, help her role-play how to refrain from overreacting or replying in kind. When this occurs in my life (as it does in the life of most everyone), I try to minimize my contact with the person. If I know it is highly likely that individual and I will cross paths again, I look for some way to validate the person in the hope this will help them to feel better about him/herself.

For example, if one of the offending students makes a comment in class that is at all insightful or interesting, she might say at the break: "I thought that was an interesting question. You articulate very well, and it gave me a new perspective." And move on. There's no need to engage the person in conversation. And if she consistently receives a rude response, try to minimize contact with them.

When your daughter does have the choice, encourage her to surround herself with friends and family who say kind, helpful, and affirming things to each other. Gradually I let people out of my life who continually say unkind things, constantly complain and whine, or find fault and are outright rude. When these types of people are in her extended family, she may come into contact with them periodically at family functions, but help her to minimize contact even then. Remember, just because she is related to a person does not make rude behaviors okay. She can forgive their ugliness without making what they do all right and without choosing to place herself in harm's way.

The bottom line is that none of us is perfect and everyone makes mistakes. Genuine friends, however, make it clear in their words and actions that you matter to them—and those individuals generally matter to you, too. What goes out usually comes back in some form. That's a law of the universe. I'm glad that she is choosing to send out the type of energy that she wants to come back to her.

Last, but not least, there are many good educational opportunities available in this country. If you perceive your daughter is being bullied and harassed in this school, I encourage you to evaluate other learning environments that might be a healthier option for her. Life is short at best and spending years in a punishing and dysfunctional environment is not my idea of a good choice.