Gentle parenting: How to handle ‘bad behaviour’ towards other children
Hello friends! A gentle parenting/ unconditional parenting post for you today, about the issue of apologies; more specifically getting kids to apologise (or not). If you connect with this post please do also check out my other posts that offer positive parenting solutions that respect children’s autonomy as well as offering practical advice that has worked for us.
Generally parents start to navigate this territory when their child becomes a toddler, when undesirable behaviour starts to occur. Every parent will have that first moment when their child does something that seems to warrant an apology to a third party, and often we stumble over how to manage the situation.
I think most parents, myself included, are in agreement that it is valuable for people to feel remorse when they have done something wrong, and to attempt to rectify the situation. The trouble we have is how to help our children do this.
Often, we think that learning is simply through repetition. We think that if we repeatedly and consistently make our children apologise when they have done something wrong, they will learn that that is simply what you do. Furthermore many adults will threaten punishment if the apology is not forthcoming.
The problem with this is that it does not help the child learn the valuable life lesson of genuine remorse. I think most parents would agree that we would much rather our children have the empathy and social skills to offer a genuine apology than simply say meaningless words to get out of an awkward situation. A lot of the time I think we make our kids apologise to make ourselves look better as parents and to fulfil our emotional needs; not really to any benefit for the child- I’ve definitely felt the burning embarrassment of dealing with a completely unremorseful toddler in front of other parents and it’s not the nicest feeling!
Problems with the conventional way of handling ‘bad behaviour’
A common situation: A child hits another child. This happens all the time, in toddler groups, playgroups and among siblings at home. I think as adults we generally don’t have a thorough understanding of why children hit as a reaction; we might see it as a worrying tendency stemming from a violent nature whereas actually small children are still very much in a physical stage of development and do not have the verbal skills or emotional and social knowledge to deal with situations in any other way. Using positive parenting solutions means that we can identify the meaning and need behind the behaviour and address this to prevent future incidents.
Older children feel emotions as physically bigger than they are (as adults I think we can also relate to this; it is one of the reasons that exercise is such a great stress-reliever) and can simply become overwhelmed and lash out. They also have little concept of the longer term consequences of their actions and don’t think from other people’s perspective; they just want to change their situation, now, and act instinctively.
One option to deal with this is often chosen by parents. We see our child hit another child (or take something off them, say something mean, etc) and make them cry. The child’s mum comes over. We are mortified and don’t want people to think our child is going to do that regularly, so we want them to show an expression of remorse. We stand there, locked in an endless battle of wills.
“Say sorry, now!”
“Say sorry or we’re going home/ no sweets later / no TV when we get home, etc”
Maybe your child apologises. Maybe they don’t. In either scenario your child has learned that a) lying is encouraged and b) that it is ok to threaten people when you don’t get your way, as the parent has just done to them. (You cannot actually force an apology; you can force a lie, but not a genuine apology.)
In this scenario the child has not learned the full consequences of hitting someone, because the natural process was interrupted. They have not seen the full upset of the crying child, or their mother, because they were distracted by their own parent coercing them into saying ‘sorry’. They have not experienced the natural consequence of temporarily losing a playmate because of their unkind behaviour.
They also haven’t learned that their parent is their partner as equals; someone who will use their age and experience to help them navigate these situations and learn from them. They have been put into a situation where they are on one side and their parent, the other child and the other parent are on the other side- not exactly a situation where they will feel calm enough to think things through, and they are likely to react against this.
They also have not had the original issue resolved; all behaviour is communication and a child who hits another in aggression is communicating that they have a need that they feel is unmet (this doesn’t mean it’s anyone’s fault; it’s impossible to meet someone’s needs 100% of the time). It may be as simple as the need for personal space, or time with a toy, or exercise, or food. It might be that they had a bad night’s sleep or that they had a rubbish day yesterday and are still processing it. People do not act in unkind ways if all their needs are met and so as a parent it is a good idea to seek to fulfil this before addressing the behaviour.
There is something that we do with our kids in these situations that I think is better than forcing kids to apologise.
Positive parenting solutions: What we do instead of force apologies
We try to prevent these situations in the first place, as all parents do. We want our children to be kind, considerate and generous and we have found the best way to facilitate this is to model these qualities. There are countless parenting books with methods and tools and all kinds of ideas to implement about how we should “raise” children. I find most of these unnecessary at best; our relationship with our children is just that- a relationship- and trying to manipulate their behaviour with ‘techniques’ is not going to achieve a relationship based on mutual trust and respect.
Instead, we listen to our children with the same regard as we do adults, we give their desires the same consideration as we do adults’ and we talk to them when they do something wrong instead of punishing them (see my guide to parenting without punishment). This creates a relationship where children feel secure, respected and loved, which means they are less likely to act out in the first place. Prevention is better than a cure and all that jazz.
If our kids do something where an apology is warranted this is what we do, taking into account the need to rectify things will the third party, social conventions, and what is best for the child.
- Keep everyone safe– if there has been hitting/kicking/ bashing with the end of Henry the Hoover (true story), we separate the kids physically to keep them safe. So as to not mistake this as any kind of physical punishment I’ll let them know what I’m doing as I’m doing it- “I just have to separate you to keep you safe” does what it says on the tin. Occasionally if I think the perpetrator is going to try and take another swipe I’ll say “I have to make good decisions for you if you can’t”, and usually as they value their autonomy so much they will chill out.
- Then we focus on the injured party, modelling empathy. I might say “oh I’m so sorry, that looked sore/ that must have made you sad!” and will comfort them. If it’s a third party involved I will apologise to them and the parent. I think it is very good for children to see adults apologising to others as it sets a standard for social behaviour and also shows them that things are resolvable and that it is not a scary thing apologise. If children are afraid of punishment they are less likely to apologise for fear of admitting they are in the wrong and imposed punitive consequences; another good reason to find alternatives to punishment.
- I don’t force the child who has done something undesirable to do anything. If they leave the room, I let them leave the room. If they have done something unpleasant it is because they have become overwhelmed/ their needs have not been met and if they go out to get space that is a good thing. I give them time to calm down; often they know that the other child won’t want to play with them for a while so they will take themselves off for a fairly long time.
- When I think they are calm I’ll go and chat to them. I try to be fairly pleasant and will firstly ask them if there’s anything I can do for them. This is counter-intuitive at first but I find it helpful to remember that you cannot make a child behave better by making them feel worse. If they want food, a bit of time to play, etc, they can have it. I will then bring up the situation in a non-confrontational way. “So you know earlier, when you hit XYZ, could you tell me what happened so I can help it not happen again/ everyone stay happy next time?” often is a good way to start. Ensure your child knows you are not against them, but are there to help. This doesn’t mean condoning the behaviour *at all*. After we’ve chatted for a bit I’ll say something like “the thing is, XYZ is *really* upset and to be honest it made the situation very difficult for me. Please next time you feel like that could you talk to me first?” is along the lines of what I’ll say and most of the time I’ll get an agreement.
- Then we’ll work on rectifying the situation. I’ll have usually done a good amount of work on this with the parent/other child already if it’s a third party, or their sibling if it’s within the family (honestly it is very rare that we have issues with other children, it’s usually a sibling). I’ll say something like “I’d really like this afternoon to be a fun, happy time for everyone. It would really make a great difference if you would say you’re sorry to XYZ and try and be extra kind to them. Perhaps you could (make them a card, draw them a picture, suggest a movie to watch together)”. If I think time apart from the other child is the best idea I’ll suggest an activity with that child with me or in their own space.
- If they want me to come with them to apologise, I will. The aim is to make apologising as accessible as possible for the child; every time they apologise and it goes well they are forming a schema (pattern of thought) in their brain about apologies, which will help them form good attitudes to remorse and rectifying situations for the rest of their lives.
“You can’t force a true apology; you can only force a lie.”
I hope that is helpful. I have recently been replying to lots of people via our Facebook messages about various parenting situations and positive parenting solutions and it is one of my favourite things to do. If you’d like some alternative suggestions on how to handle situations with your child please feel free to reach out and I will do my best to help.
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