Dear Dr Justin,
"My daughter is 5. Lately she has been acting aggressively towards other children. Today she scratched her friend on the arm so badly it bled. I scratched her back but I don’t feel like it made any difference and it made me feel awful. How can I teach her to do the right thing?"
Many parents feel that the best way to teach a child not to hurt someone is to hurt them in that way so they “know how it feels.” They might say things like, “You bit her. Now I’m biting you. Do you like that? Is that nice to do to others?” Or they scratch them or hit them and ask, “How’d you like that?”
While such an approach is sure to get our children’s attention, it is unlikely to be useful in teaching them good ways to act in the future.
Scratching your daughter will certainly get her attention but perhaps for the wrong reasons. This approach produces anxiety in our children. This anxiety is a problem. Our children tend not to notice what we are saying. They are too busy noticing us and they may become rebellious, sneaky, or passive.
Yelling, smacking, scratching, threatening, and all those aggressive behaviours seem to create resistance in our children. They may not show it, but they feel it. More than that, they begin to fear us which means they listen to us less . Our influence is reduced. And when they are obedient, it’s only because they don’t want to get in trouble rather than because they want to do the right thing. They may become bullies when we are not around because that is what we have actually taught them.
We can’t speak passively and quietly. And we can’t ignore the behaviour. Our children have to hear us in a way that penetrates. There has to be a way of getting the message through without scaring them or hurting them, and also without having them ignore us.
The best way for us to do this is to wait until “the moment” of high arousal has passed. Once emotions are calm we sit down with our child and discipline her.
Discipline instead of Punishment
Discipline means that we teach, guide or instruct (as opposed to punishment, which means we hurt them.)
If we are going to teach our child effectively, we will provide them with information and spend time reasoning with them. (If you’ve ever been emotional and someone tried to reason with you, you’ll know how poorly that works which is why we need to wait until they’re not so emotional.)
We also empathise. This means we spend time understanding how our child felt. We name their feelings. We connect with them. In this instance, we might find that the reason these changes have been occurring with behaviour is that there are some difficulties at school or kindy. Or perhaps there is some instability in the family, or some other challenge. Maybe your child is being teased and she is fighting back. We can use these challenges as opportunities to connect rather than opportunities to accuse and cause more injury.
Another way we can promote empathy is to spend even more time helping our child to understand the perspective of anyone else involved in the situation – like their injured friend. How did that friend feel when she was hurt? How will her parents feel about future playdates? (This is not about making our child feel guilty. We just want to teach them.)
Research tells us that this approach leads to a deep-seated and internal concern for others. Our children become kinder and more compassionate. They become more “moral.” And they are less likely to continue their injurious behaviours. Rather than them forgetting what we tried to teach them when attention and arousal were really high, the information is embedded in their long-term memory. It has a far-reaching positive influence.
Our kids behave in challenging ways for a host of reasons. When they are young they can be impulsive and spontaneous. They can follow the examples of older siblings or parents. They can overreact. They often behave in challenging ways because of hunger, anger, loneliness, stress, sickness, or because they are tired. They may be upset about their lives or what is happening at home. Their behaviour (form) follows their feelings. Lousy feelings lead to lousy behaviour.
Our job is not to hurt our children when they do the wrong thing. This only teaches them to use their size and power to hurt others, and it reinforces that we only love them when they do as we ask. Instead, we will get the best results when we work with our children; teaching, guiding, and instructing.
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