Janet offers basic guidelines for responding mindfully when children get hurt, whether by accident or as the result of another child’s behavior. She also addresses the specifics in a parent’s note about her son’s emotional responses to getting pushed or hit when she isn’t close enough to prevent it. She says he seems “shocked” but fine, but he falls apart when adults surround him and express their urgent concern. “I can tell that it’s the reactions from the adults that has really upset and scared him.” While she hopes to prevent future events like this from happening in the first place, she knows that won’t always be possible, and she wonders how Janet would advise calming her son in the aftermath.
Transcript of “The Most Helpful Response When Your Child Gets Hurt (4 Guidelines)”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I’m responding to a note I received about incidences where our child gets hurt by another child. And in this case, her child got very upset, not because of the incident, but because of the responses to it from other people. So I’m going to speak specifically to that, and also generalize this topic and offer some basic guidelines for responding when a child is hurt. It could be something that happens on their own, an accident, or they trip or they fall, or it is instigated by another child. I’ll be sharing some thoughts to keep in mind when these things happen, so that we can respond in a way that helps our child process the experience and receive the messages about themselves and their lives that we want them to receive.
Alrighty, now here’s the note:
“Hello, Janet. Hope you’re well. My son is almost two and your advice has been so helpful to us.
I’ve had a few experiences recently with another child pushing or hitting my son when I’m not close enough to prevent it. I’m watching him from no more than five feet away, which seems close at the time, but so far when something happens. As I’m watching his face and body language after the incident, he seems a little shocked but fine. However, the adults who are closer to him will quickly react, rushing to his side saying things like, ‘Are you okay?’ This is happening while I’m coming towards him and by the time I’m there with him, he’s so upset and emotional. It just happens so fast.
I can tell that it’s the reactions from the adults that have really upset and scared him. I basically just pick him up and let him cry until he’s done because I’m not sure what else to do. I hope to prevent this from happening again by being closer, but it’s so hard to guarantee that I will always be able to prevent incidents like this and I can’t control other people’s reactions. My question for you is, in those instances, after the pushing and reactions have already happened, would you handle the situation any differently? Any thoughts you have, I would be honored to hear. We appreciate you.”
Okay, so thanks for all those kind words of appreciation. I love this mother’s instincts. It sounds like she is observing, tuning in, and really seeing her child, so she’s getting a very accurate perception of what’s going on with him.
We have to remember that children take in situations much more slowly than we do, because they don’t have that easy frame of reference for what happened. They’re just learning about everything in their world and what goes on.
And I’m sure she’s correct in that maybe at first he is, she says shocked, but shocked is even too strong a word for what children feel. Sometimes it’s just surprised. They are startled. So, something happened, ouch. But it sounds like it didn’t hurt a lot. And then he’s absorbing adults who out of their concern, these instincts people have are positive of course, but they’re rushing in indicating to him that something upsetting just happened and that’s kind of scary. All this energy around him, like something went very wrong there. So then he’s responding to that and getting upset. So, yes, this mother is spot on in what she sees here.
The only thing about this experience that I might adjust a little for this parent is where she says she basically just picks him up and lets him cry until he’s done because she’s not sure what else to do. If these people were very close and hovering around him, yes, I might pick him up, but I recommend always being careful about picking up, because when we swoop a child up, it can indicate to them that we see this as an emergency as well, that we see something they need to be rescued from. So I wouldn’t do that unless people were so close and in his face that, really, that’s the only way I can extricate him and help him to process and have a moment around this.
What I might do if I didn’t feel I needed to pick him up right away is, on my knees next to him or squatting down, say something like, “Wow, yeah. There’s lots of people concerned about you right here.” And I would be looking at him acknowledging that, open to his feelings, that he has a right to have and needs to express. I would just be there for him to let him share it with me, while I’m also acknowledging what’s going on and his feelings around it.
But if everybody was really all over him and I couldn’t get any space there with him, then I would pick him up and say, “Let’s go over here. I want to bring you closer.” And then we would go wherever was comfortable. Then I would, at that point, do that acknowledging to whatever feelings he had.
Then when he seemed to recover, that’s when I might say, “I saw what happened. Another child came by and pushed.” And if I had seen where that came from, I might say, “It seemed like you were in his way or her way,” or “It seemed like they were running around and they’d pushed. I don’t know why.” Or “It seemed like they wanted the toy that you had so they hit you.” I would give that information if I had it, so that my child could have a chance to understand what happened here.
Interestingly, children actually do seem to understand that other children sometimes hit and push, because they have those impulses themselves. This is what I’ve noticed working with groups of toddlers for many years. And they forgive, because they can, on some level, empathize with that.
And that’s not to say that I would expect my child to do that, but I wouldn’t come from a place of saying, “That child is bad,” although what he did is wrong — blaming that child, demonizing that child. Because what that can do is actually make our child feel: Oh, there’s a lot of judgment going on here and when I do those things, I’m going to be seen as bad or wrong instead of a child with an impulse that got away from him or her.
So these are all reasons for us to dial back and try to regulate our own emotions around these incidents.
There are a lot of reasons that we might react more emotionally, like these people around this child did. Maybe we see young children as very helpless. We don’t see a capable person there. Or maybe we’ve just had a really rough day and if this happens to our child, especially, it’s like the last straw. It just hurts us and it triggers something in us. Or it could be that we want to show that we care and we feel that that’s the best way to do it. Or if it was our child that did something wrong, we feel guilty and so we’re kind of overdoing it.
All those things make sense and they happen, but these projections and emotional responses that we have are something to look at. So that we can give our child messages of basic competence, a feeling that he is safe in the world. Yes, we’ll be there to protect, but he doesn’t need to be rescued and overprotected.
Again, this parent who wrote this note to me has very, very healthy instincts, and that’s because she is, it sounds like, a practiced observer. And that’s one of the many reasons observation is such an important practice for parents. It gives us a chance to understand a situation and clear away our own projections around it and judgments around it, which I’ll get in the way of understanding it.
So now I want to offer some basic guidelines for, as I said, any incident where our child gets hurt, even just a little bit hurt, falls down, et cetera.
First of all, we’re going to (1) move close to prevent more from happening to keep our child safe. So if that child that pushed was still there, now I’m ready to block it.
Just as this parent wasn’t right on her child, I don’t recommend being right on top of children. Giving them that distance that they seem to want, allowing them to move away from us in a situation and choose to be that confident explorer leaving their secure base, that’s important to trust.
So no, we’re not going to be right on top of our child. If we see that there’s some action around that might end up hurting our child or we see a child who seems very dysregulated that might be harmful, yes, then we would move closer for sure. And if our child is using equipment that they never used and they’re climbing, we want to be there, ready to spot as needed. But this parent’s instinct around that was right.
So sometimes I hear from parents who have unfortunately misinterpreted this advice as: I’m not supposed to do anything and so I just hang back and let my child work it out or gets hurt. That’s absolutely not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about being very observant, not sitting back and just letting things be, but seeing it clearly, and coming into the situation from a place of attunement. And definitely keeping my child safe and the other child safe.
So we’re going to move close and the speed at which we move is going to be based on the urgency of the situation. In this situation that this parent describes, it sounds like he was going to be kept safe because those adults were around him. So my sense would be not to add my own urgency to the situation by running in, because he had enough of that urgent energy around him for sure. And it wasn’t an emergency situation where I needed come in and keep him safe right away. So I would walk in, I would stride in to where he was.
As his mother says, we can’t control what other people do, but we can control what we’re adding to the situation and as the parents, we are the most powerful for sure. So what we feel is going to be felt by our child. Other people can get him wound up, but at least that’s not going to be coming from us.
So we move close. That’s number one.
Number two, (2) we tune in and we take our cues from him. What do we see on his face? If a child falls, let’s say they may not even need us to go in if they’re just tripping and falling down, so we might check him out, check her out, from whatever distance we’re at. What kind of expression am I seeing there? Did this hurt badly or was it just a surprise? What am I seeing here? Taking my own worries out of the picture, if I can. Just seeing.
There, I might say, “Whoa, I saw that. You fell. Are you okay?” I’m going to tune in. I’m going to acknowledge if my child was crying or if I saw that it was a bigger fall: “Ouch. It looks like that hurt.” And now I’m going to be coming closer. My goal is to be responsive rather than reactive.
The third thing I would do is (3) acknowledge whatever feelings my child has. In this case with the adults around him, he’s upset. I would say, “Yeah, I see there’s lots of people around you. They’re concerned.”
Or if he was reacting to being hit or pushed and he was getting upset around that, then I would say, “Oh ouch, you got hit. That really hurts.”
I might ask if he’s okay, but I’m not trying to talk my child out of their feelings or tell him he’s okay. Getting to cry about something or be upset about something, it helps us to feel better and move through it. Feelings are healing.
And then the fourth step that I recommend is where (4) we say what we know, and this is when our child is starting to calm down on his own. So he’s able to hear this. And this is also another reason not to swoop children up out of situations when they fall down because then my child has totally disconnected from what just happened. They’ve just been rescued into this other place. They don’t even know how they got there or what happened and they can’t learn anything from that. But when our child is starting to calm down, we can say, “Ah, this step,” and we’re pointing to it. “You didn’t see that.” Or, “It looks like you tripped on that stick there and that made you fall. Ouch. That really hurt, huh?”
And you’ll see children when you’ve responded this way, even infants that aren’t using expressive language will look back and point at what happened. It’s really interesting. And it helps children to, of course, understand what just happened, get that clarity and feel empowered by that knowledge. It helps them to recover and to feel more confident generally about everything they do.
So that little moment of going over what happened, just a moment, always trying to stay tuned in to how our child feels about it.
If our child feels like it’s nothing and he’s just moving on, then we don’t want to hold on and make a bigger deal out of that. Let’s say he trips and he just gets up and keeps walking and doesn’t even look at us, we’re not going to call attention to that. Again, it’s that tuning in to our child. What do we see? What is he looking to us for? Does he want to share an experience with us?
So those are the four basic guidelines.
There is another one, though, when children do this marvelous thing that we can take the wrong message from sometimes as parents. A child will sometimes want to keep going over an incident. Even a child again who doesn’t have that much expressive language. Let’s say it was a woman who was having this strong reaction to him getting hurt by the other child. Then he might say, “Lady scared.” Something that indicates to us that he’s talking about that.
And what I meant about parents sometimes getting the wrong impression is that it can seem to us like, “Oh, yikes, he’s traumatized. He’s so upset about this still.” Even if our child doesn’t seem upset in that moment, we can get scared by that. As parents were always prone to worry, we just are. But if we can see that as such healthy processing that our child is doing that’s helping them to learn from this experience and totally leave it behind and get everything he needs out of it, then we can respond in a way that helps that process, which would be going over it as many times as our child wants, responsively.
So he says, “Lady?” and we say, “Ah, yes, I think you’re talking about that lady that seemed very concerned about you. She seemed very upset about the whole situation and she was concerned about you.”
So I can speak the truth. I don’t have to pretend that this wasn’t a big deal to him or that it was fine and she shouldn’t have done that. I’m going to give my child those messages through my reaction that I didn’t feel that was a big deal for him. I’m not going to say that to him, but that was what I demonstrated through the way I responded. My walk closer to him, accepting whatever he was feeling, I was indicating that this wasn’t a big deal. That was something I felt he could handle with my support.
So he got that message, but now he wants to talk about the things that he’s still trying to understand and that’s incredible. You’ll see children doing this all the time. Sometimes they want to go over how they fell or why that other child pushed them, which we don’t really know, probably. But we can say if our child really seems to want to know more about that, we can say, “Sometimes when we don’t feel happy inside, we push and we hit. We don’t want to do those things, but we do them.” So it’s not our process. It’s our child’s, but we can be the ones there to give the most empowering messages.
I have a post about this on my website called “When Our Child is Hurt by Another” and it even gets into when your child is talking about something that happened at school or at someone’s house, how to respond to that. You can read the piece if you’re interested, but here’s what I say about the affirming messages that we want our child to receive, and our child can receive, from these experiences:
- 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.
I hope some of that helps.
For more, both of my books are available in paperback at Amazon, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can get them in ebook at Amazon, Apple, Google Play, or barnesandnoble.com, and in audio at audible.com. As a matter of fact, you can get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast.
Thank you so much for listening. We can do this.