What would be the best way to approach that kind of situation as a parent? Where you want to support your child but not legitimize what they did and hold them accountable even if it wasn't their fault. I want to feel prepared when we have kids at this age.
--Anonymous, May 2013
In that situation, I'd point out what each child did right and what each child did wrong. I would also emphasize that physical aggression should only be used in self-defense. Then I would go to the emotion, specifically empathy. Ask your child how the other child would feel to be slapped on the face. That may be too indirect, if so, then I would ask how it would feel to be punched or slapped in the face. When they express the emotion, take that moment to praise them for sharing that feeling. If they express an inappropriate feeling, instead of dismissing it, ask how they came to that feeling. It's also important to emphasize that bad behaviors or choices doesn't make your child a bad person.
In almost all physical alterations, there is a build up from calm to physical aggression. So you might initially have annoyance, then frustration, then anger, and finally physical aggression toward others. Learning how to express emotions can decrease frustration and even supplant physical aggression. Reviewing these steps with your child can also serve as an effective way of helping your child (and you) in becoming aware of their emotional state in a stressful situation.
In these situations, you have to be consistent. Here the children were obviously upset so I would talk about other ways to express anger other than hitting. Help your child find ways to express thoughts and feelings in a way that is heard and respected. Don't expect radical changes, as one talk isn't going to fix everything. However, the great (sometimes not so great) part of human nature is behavior repeats itself, so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to talk about the issue. Take each opportunity as a chance to educate and correct the behavior.
One thing to watch for is make sure your child is in the correct mindset to have a conversation. If your child is yelling or throwing a tantrum, a talk won’t be effective. Also, make sure you are in the right mindset as well. Adults can throw tantrums too. Check to see if your child can summarize the conversation. This will assure that your child was listening and understood what you were saying.
The other issue is what your child is seeing at home. If the child has parents that blame one another or even worse, hit one another, then that is going to be your child’s frame of reference. Teach your children that it’s okay to make a mistake, to be imperfect. That if they make a mistake they aren't going to be harshly criticized. Parents have to model healthy behavior. This includes saying, “I’m sorry” and “Oops, I was wrong.” Kids tell me that they feel so relieved to know they have imperfect parents, like a weight has been lifted off their shoulders, that it’s okay to be imperfect.
It's normal to be thinking about these things, but honestly you can't really prepare for all that parenthood entails. No one is ever completely ready to be a parent. What's important is communicating with your partner about planned and unplanned situations. And trust me, you'll have many, many more unplanned situations than planned. That's when the gray hairs happen :)
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