Sunday, February 13, 2011

Handling Hitting and Hurtful Words

One thing the Lord has been teaching me in parenting is to focus on what the child needs to learn--what I do want them to do--and how to help them get there and develop the tools they need to successfully do that. This is a whole different mindset than focusing on what I don't want them to do and punishing them with the primary goal of making them feel bad or simply stopping the behavior in the moment.

If I can approach a situation with the thought, "What does this child need to learn, what skills and tools do they need, and how can I help them develop those?" it seems my parenting is much more effective.

When a child uses uses physical or verbal violence, I take it as a sign that they are experiencing strong feelings and do not yet have the tools or skills to handle them in an appropriate way. (I would define verbal violence as things like calling names, making threats or saying mean things intended to be hurtful--a matter of simple volume or tone we handle differently, mainly by just having them try again with help/modeling if needed.)

In a nutshell, my approach to a child's verbal or physical violence follows this general pattern: Removal/cooling down, restitution, education (practicing the appropriate way to handle the situation instead), and prevention.
The restitution and education are the most important parts--the cooling down and prevention stages may or may not need to be included, depending on the situation.

  • 1. Removal & cooling down.

    Using physical or verbal violence is a bit of a unique case in that someone is actually being or in danger of being hurt. So the first order of business is to set limits to protect the person being hurt.

    In our house that often means somehow removing the offending child from the situation: not as a punishment, but as a way to protect the person being hurt and give the hitter/yeller a chance to calm down and get their thoughts in order.

    This can include a few minutes sitting or lying down somewhere away from the person they are angry at, running or doing some other physical activity, getting a drink of water and taking some deep breaths, wrapping themselves in a blanket, spending a couple of minutes in the comfort corner cuddling a stuffed animal or expressing their feelings in art, balancing a peacock feather on their palm (this takes concentration and calmness!), or whatever is most effective for that child's particular needs and personality to help them calm down.

    I don't give them a particular time period they have to stay there, but tell them to let me know when they feel calm enough to discuss the situation. I do make sure they don't get distracted or take longer doing something like coloring beyond the time needed to calm themselves down. Usually I just have them sit somewhere quiet and take deep breaths or run a couple of laps around the back yard, so that rarely becomes an issue. With my older girls, I know I can't let them start reading a book or playing with dolls because that becomes too great a distraction. :)

    Sometimes the child doesn't need a cool-down period and can go straight to restitution, but sometimes they need it both as a way to protect the child being hurt and emphasize that such behavior is not acceptable, and also to get to a mental state where they're willing to make restitution and able to learn.

  • 2. Restitution

    The solution after that will include making restitution. This could include an apology, saying kind things if something mean was said, giving back what was grabbed to try a more appropriate way of handling the situation, getting an ice pack to soothe the injury when they hit someone, etc.

    I don't force apologies if the child is not ready or willing, but depending on the situation I may offer an alternative (like giving a hug or writing a note if they are having trouble verbalizing it), or work more on discussing the situation to help them empathize with the person and understand that they hurt them and desire to make it right.

    I do insist on and enforce restitution if necessary, though I prefer to leave room for them to do it willingly first.

  • 3. Education

    We also spend some time focusing on education--giving the child the tools they need to respond more appropriately and, if necessary, setting boundaries to help keep them from hurting someone while they are in the learning process.

    The development of tools at this point usually consists of me helping them set up the situation again as it was just before the violence happened, and walking them through one or more ways to get their needs met and communicate their feelings in that situation appropriately. I literally have them go through the motions and act it out while I help them brainstorm. I like to have them come up with their own solutions whenever possible, but I make suggestions and give coaching as needed.

  • 4. Prevention

    Depending on the situation, we may or may not need to take further proactive steps to prevent the problem happening again right away. This can help set the child up for success while they are learning and developing the skills needed to navigate the situation.

    Sometimes, especially if it has been a repeated offense or an item was used to hit someone, the prevention will include steps like putting the toy that was used as a weapon out of reach until they are ready to try again at a later time (you abuse it, you lose it), restrictions on activity ("don't touch your sister without express verbal permission since you are having trouble respecting her personal space,") or me keeping them within easy voice and arm's reach so that I can help them stop themselves before they hurt someone, especially if a young child is having trouble stopping themselves from hitting or biting.

    I have a few times used a soft belt around each of our waists and a line to tether a young child to me for part of the day so that we can be sure she stays close enough to me to keep an eye on her if she was having trouble listening and staying near me without it. When I did this recently with my youngest she actually very much enjoyed it, as it was an opportunity for extra attention and positive interactions with mom. We laughed a lot, chatted, and worked together on things like laundry.

The goal is to teach.

The important thing is that all of this is not done in a shaming or punitive way, but in a grace-filled and constructive way. It can be hard work to keep my tone matter-of-fact and gracious rather than shaming, but if I can accomplish this is helps so much toward creating an environment conducive to learning.

It is sometimes hard to get past the mentality that the goal of discipline is to make the child feel bad, and if they're enjoying it then it must not be a good "punishment". But if I can remember that the goal is helping them learn, and giving them the tools they need to behave appropriately, then it can be OK and even helpful for them to have fun learning.

Certainly sometimes consequences are hard for them to handle, and they will cry and be upset. That's when I have to double-check to make sure I'm not having a punitive attitude and that the consequence is logical, fits the crime, and is designed to teach, and then be OK with the fact that their actions and the consequences are causing the child temporary pain as part of the learning process. Scripture makes it pretty clear that discipline and the learning process are not always fun. :) But whether and how much the child dislikes the learning process does not necessarily correlate with how effectively they learn from the situation.

Sometimes learning hurts, but it's the learning that's the goal and not specifically the pain. In our family we don't artificially inflict extra pain to try to make the learning more effective, but we don't step in and try to protect the child from ever feeling hurt or upset about the consequences of their actions either. We don't try to protect them from painful natural consequences unless it's something potentially dangerous, either.

Young children may require a simplified approach.

With young children too young to verbalize or understand the issues, handling such situations is mostly going to be a matter of physically preventing them from hurting someone, while repeating ad nauseum the idea that hitting, biting or whatever hurts and will not be allowed (i.e. "Don't bite. Biting hurts.").

For that 2-year-old going through the hitting/biting stage, it may mean that for a while Mom and Dad have to be very intentional about keeping that child within arm's length on playdates. Sometimes it may require ending the play time early or holding the child where they can't reach anyone else until they are ready to try again.

From a very young age, I like to go ahead and start helping them practice acceptable alternatives as much as possible so that they will be natural to the child as soon as they are old enough to understand and practice them. Sometimes you'll need to talk for them in asking nicely to have a turn instead of grabbing or in using words to say "I'm mad" instead of hitting.

Giving appropriate physical outlets for strong or angry feelings, such as jumping up and down, running, or teaching the sign language for "angry" (hitting their fist against the palm of the other hand--a wonderfully physical but non-harmful expression of their feelings) can make all the difference for a child who has a strong need to express their big feelings in a physical way. Redirecting a behavior can be worlds easier than just stopping it without giving them anything else to do with those feelings.

Remember that a 2-year-old is going to act like a 2-year-old no matter what you do, and there are certain developmental stages they go through and things that are a long process to learn no matter what parenting approach you use. Whatever way you choose to handle things like toddlers hitting or biting, you are likely going to have to repeat tens, hundreds, or thousands of times, depending on the child. I recommend choosing a response that is age-appropriate and that you feel comfortable repeating over and over and over; a response that will not require escalating into a potentially dangerous situation if it (inevitably, with many children) doesn't work after the first few times.

It takes time.

Above all, I find it helpful to remember that my job is to help the child learn. I am here to give them the support and help they need to go through the developmental stages all children go through in their own unique way. The focus is on helping them learn the skills and tools that will allow them to interact appropriately with others and handle life well.

It's a long-term learning process, not a single event.


(Parenting posts on this blog will generally be tagged "Parenting" so you can pull them all up at once if desired.)

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Blogger dulce de leche said...

Awesome! Thank you so much!

4:16 PM  

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