Nothing ignites our protective instincts more intensely than when our children are hurt, whether physically or emotionally. If their distress has been caused intentionally by another child, we experience a brew of emotions that can be almost impossible to control. But to be of genuine help to our children in these situations, I believe we must challenge ourselves to do just that: control our own emotions. When we follow our impulse to rush to our child’s rescue in a panic of judgment or anger (How dare you, you brat!”), or with a flood of sympathy (“Oh, my poor baby!”), we unwittingly send messages like these:
- Something seriously awful just happened.
- Your world is a cruel, unsafe, overwhelming place.
- You’re a victim, and you need me to rescue you.
What might this look like? Here are 3 scenarios:
1. We’re at the park when out of nowhere a child forcefully pushes our 2-year-old to the ground. We race in immediately and frantically, scooping up our child and holding him close (“Oh, my gosh, are you all right?!”), while shouting at the instigator, “How could you do that?! No pushing! Don’t ever do that again!” Our child wasn’t crying until we started shouting, and now he shudders and sobs.
2. Our 4-year-old comes home from school and shares that two of her friends said, “You can’t play with us.” We can’t hide our anguish and respond, “Oh, no! That’s not nice. How did that make you feel?” But our question may as well be rhetorical, because we’re certain our child is deeply hurt (perhaps recalling our own childhood experiences of rejection), and our tone is leading the witness by a combination of outrage and pity. We ask, “What did you do then?” but our child only shrugs, too deflated and embarrassed to speak.
3. We’ve brought our toddler to a friend’s house for a playdate with her son. Our friendship has been a bit strained lately because the friend’s son seems such a brat, constantly ripping toys out of our child’s hands. There’s a new baby in the house and tensions are high, but still, it’s hard to empathize with this boy when his behavior is so obnoxious. “He took the toy and that makes you sad,” we acknowledge empathically to our daughter, who has a blank expression. Finally, we can’t take it anymore. Gritting our teeth, we snarl, “No, that’s enough! You can’t have that, too”, and we snatch it away from him.
But what if these scenarios played out differently?
1. We see our child get pushed, and we briskly move toward him. Taking our cues from his demeanor, we get down to his level and acknowledge, “I saw that. You were pushed down. Are you okay?” He looks confused but not seriously hurt. (If he was upset, we would acknowledge in an empowering, not pitying tone, “Wow, you did not like that. That hurt.”) We focus on being available to our child but sense the other child’s uncomfortable presence. This isn’t the time to berate or scold, nor will either of those responses teach a child a constructive lesson. She is only acting out of her own immature impulses, and the less we make of this, the less power her hurtful behavior will have. We let it go, though we calmly stand by to block anything else that might happen between them.
2. We bravely listen to our daughter share how she was excluded and notice that for her it actually doesn’t seem all that awful. It’s almost as if she’s bouncing it off of us to see what we think. And we so want to be that safe person in her life with whom she can share anything. So, for the moment, we suppress our anger and sadness to be strong for our child. We take a slow breath and listen with an open mind and heart. We ask with genuine curiosity, “Hmm…wow… what did you think of that?”
“It made me sad.”
“Gosh…yeah… I’m sorry to hear that.”
Then silence. A very-difficult-for-parents kind of silence. Finally, after the minute or two that seem like hours, our daughter says: “I went on the swing. Then Robert and I played Superman and Supergirl.”
Then, if it feels right, we might calmly offer, “You know… Sometimes kids do those kinds of things because they aren’t feeling that happy about themselves. When people are happy, they tend to behave kindly.”
3. We’re aware that toddlers tend to be territorial, especially when they’re at their own home. Controlling, impulsive behavior is particularly common and to be expected with the adjustment to a new sibling. We’re also aware that 1-3 year olds are just learning how to play together, and toy-taking (let’s call it exchanging) is one of the ways they commonly engage. To be truly attuned to young children, we must remove our adult lens and practice more objective observation.
So, there we are. Our child seems a victim of toy snatching, and every time it happens she seems deeply upset, perhaps even traumatized. Or, wait… could that be because we’ve injected so many of our own emotions into the situation and made a big deal out of this? Are we projecting? Our child knows her friend’s M.O., and yet she always asks to have playdates with him. Is it possible she’s playing into the drama a bit? Even enjoying it? But I can’t let her, that would be encouraging abuse, wouldn’t it? But it’s just a toy. She doesn’t even like those kinds of toys. Hmmm…
We decide to be more open, curious and neutral about the whole thing, to sensitively observe and intervene minimally and responsively. He takes the toy and our daughter looks over at us, so we acknowledge, “I saw that. You were holding that lamb and now Joey has the lamb.” She starts to scream in outrage, but then stops. She reaches for it, pulls hard and takes it from Joey. Joey screams and she hands it back. We realize that what’s happening here is a lot more innocent, exploratory, complicated, and mutual than we had thought. We decide to only intervene when the toy taking is nonstop and then we do it matter-of-factly without emotion or blame. “Hmm… I’m going to stop you this time Joey. Maybe you can find another way to play.” They do.
In these parenting scenarios, our child receives affirming messages:
- Uncomfortable things happen, but I’ll be okay.
- My parents understand that kids make mistakes, and they forgive. They don’t label us “good” or “bad.”
- I can share difficult feelings and explore situations with my parents without them getting upset.
- They listen to and trust me. They give me ideas for handling situations, but they never tell me what to feel.
If we can refrain from infecting these tense situations with our own emotions, projections, assumptions and other baggage (at least some of the time), we might even become the person our child can always feel comfortable confiding in. There is no greater gift.
I share many more demonstrations of the responses and tone that help our children to process social experiences (and gain confidence) in my audio book
and also in my podcast series: “Janet Lansbury Unruffled“
(Photo by Suzette on Flickr)