You’re at the park when your child kicks over another child’s sand castle in the sandbox. You step in and say something, and instead of settling down, things get worse. Your child laughs and kicks over all the child’s other castles, as well.
What went wrong?
Most likely, what went wrong is that either your response or the other child’s response was not helpful to your child on the road to better social skills.
There are two ways we (or other children) usually make mistakes in responding to a child’s aggressive act:
- We don’t provide any information on what to do instead. Your child kicked over the sand castle in an attempt to meet a need. If we don’t offer an alternative way to get that need met, she is stuck with her original strategy.
- Your child’s feelings were hurt. When people feel attacked, they tend to strike back. An embarrassed child will do show bravado to cover up embarrassment, either by laughing, or by striking out again. A defensive child will strike out again in self-protection.
What should you do?
I know you’re thinking, “Wait, a minute, I have to protect the feelings of a kid who just hurt someone?” Well, yes, you do.
If you want that child to listen to what you have to say, and to muster the energy to do better and maybe even make amends for her aggressive act, you’re going to have to avoid embarrassing her or making her feel attacked, at least any more than necessary. And isn’t the point to help the child learn alternatives and improve her behavior?
Helpful intervention in action
Let’s look at a few typical responses with these two mistakes in mind, and what might be more helpful:
“Hey, that’s not nice!”
This makes both mistakes. The child gets no information about how to meet her needs in a better way, and she’s likely to feel attacked and want to strike back. And she probably already knows it’s not nice, anyway.
Instead, you could give her information and suggestions. “People don’t like to have their castles knocked over. Let’s build two new ones — one to fix his, and one for you to stomp on!” A neutral tone helps avoid embarrassing your child.
Then you can discuss as you work, “We can’t knock over other people’s castles, but we can knock over our own, huh?” You can offer to the other child, “I’m sorry Gina knocked over your castle. We’re building you a new one.”
“Use your words!”
Um, what words? This isn’t helpful to a child because it doesn’t really provide any information.
Instead, you could suggest specific words to use. “Did you remember to check in and see if it’s OK to knock it over?” or “Did you want him to notice you? You can tell him, ‘That’s a great sand castle!’”
You’ll notice that this takes a bit of detective work. You have to have an idea what the child needed in order to offer helpful suggestions on how to get it.
For example, kids who tackle others or knock their block towers over often just wanted to make contact. Help them by offering a few words to compliment or ask the other child about their work, a better greeting. Or, she might have wanted to stomp the castle for fun, or may have felt the need to express her power. Knowing your child will help you guess what need she was trying to meet.
“Be a good girl or we’re going home!”
This response also makes both mistakes. Telling a child to “be good” or “play nicely” is vague and doesn’t offer them any hints on what to do instead. Adding a threat puts your child on the defensive, as does the tone you’re likely to use when making a threat.
Again, instead, matter-of-factly let your child know how to meet her needs in a better way. “You can stomp on your own castle, but he gets to decide about his. Do you think you can keep his safe? Let’s build some we can stomp on!”
Then you can model apologizing to the other child, and perhaps help him rebuild.
“No one will want to play with you if you’re not nice.”
True, but not helpful. Again, this doesn’t provide any information about how to do better, and is likely to leave your child embarrassed or defensive.
A child who’s learning how to make connections does need information, but the more gently you can give it, the more likely that the child will listen to your suggestions. “He was building those and he’s angry it got stomped on. But we can tell him ‘Great castles!’, or we can build a castle next to him if you want to play with him.”
Giving a compliment, asking “What are you doing?” or beginning to do what someone is doing near them are all good strategies for initiating play with another child.
“That was NOT OK!”
Again, this neither teaches alternatives nor leaves a child open to hearing your wisdom. And again, she probably knows it wasn’t OK already and was already feeling badly about doing it.
Instead, frame it as a “mistake.”
While physically intervening, you can say toward the other child, “Oh no, his castle got stomped on! I’m so sorry that happened! Gina wanted you to notice her and she made a mistake and stomped on your castle.” And then, as you hug your child, “Did you want him to notice you? Remember people don’t like you to touch their stuff, but they like to answer questions. Want to ask him what he’s making?”
The idea is to try to determine what need drove your child’s behavior, and help remind her of a better alternative strategy when she wants to squash something, to connect with another child, to defend her own interests, to get a toy she wants, or whatever need she was trying to meet. Then give them specific, helpful suggestions for alternate strategies in a way they can listen to.
Intervene with clear limits, but without putting her on the defensive. When someone’s on the defensive, they’ll protect their own interests and blame others rather than admitting they made a mistake and feel safe enough to take a risk and try to do better. When a child does something worse next, it’s likely that we’ve left them either frustrated, embarrassed, or hurt and defensive. If that happens, don’t worry, you still have a chance to offer a better intervention, just as your child still has a chance to do better next time.
By Justine Saffir
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