In my work providing child therapy and family therapy in Washington, DC and Bethesda, MD, every day I hear from parents about scuffles at school, on the playground, or at home between siblings. Often after a pushing or hitting incident, the parent (or the child, if he or she is old enough) turns to the aggressor for an apology or to explain that what they did was wrong. A parent may direct their response to the aggressor with “That’s not nice,” a normal response when parents observe an undesired behavior, in hopes that the phrase will play out as a lesson to that child.
However, I think that focusing on the aggressor neglects the other child who experienced a push or other unwanted physical touch. That child also needs a lesson in standing up for him or herself. I have found that offering simple steps empowers both parents and children to feel more confident in their actions and reactions following an incident.
Give empathy to the child who was hurt
Instead of responding first to the aggressive child, the target of the aggression should receive some positive adult attention: “Oh no! You were pushed and fell down. Do you need a hug?” This models an appropriate empathetic response from a responsive adult, while also sending a message to the aggressor, who can see that the adult is concerned about the harm he or she has caused.
Model ways to care
At first, it can be the adult offering the hurt child a hug or some ice for a boo-boo. It’s also possible for the aggressor and other children on the playground to participate in the caretaking. You will want to make sure the child offering support is calm and willing to help. The hurt child also has a say in who cares for them and how. Make sure the hurt child wants the type of care that is offered by yourself or by peers. You may not be able to make a child feel sorry for what they did, but you can model how to care if they so choose.
Provide language that empowers all children
After offering support to the child who was hurt, the adult can offer suggestions for strategies to stand up and care for his or her body in the future. Phrases like “I don’t like that” or “Please keep your hands to yourself” gives kids of both genders and all ages the language they need to feel confident the next time they run into a pushy kid.
You are your children’s first and most important role model. Showing them how to care for others will serve as their outline for how to respond to peers and in all relationships throughout their lifetime. So the next time you see behavior that you don’t like, take a few deep breaths to think about how your response will serve as a model to all children you encounter.