As a dad, especially one my age, I am less willing to tolerate aggression in my children and aimed at my children. As a psychologist, I've heard many stories of the long-lasting effects of bullying. This summer at our neighborhood pool, I learned some valuable parenting lessons on dealing with childhood aggression. Even though they are young, both my children can swim in the deep end. Much older children also swim in the deep end: older children who play rough and don't like young children interfering. Because my children are very social, the pool offered a challenge for their social skills...and for my parenting skills, too.
One night, the pool was filled with large rafts and children were taking turns riding them. My son played in one of these groups, and rough-housing started as children began to push and shove for the rafts. Almost in slow motion, as I tried to get to the group before something really bad happened, my son Connor retaliated and pushed another young child, Riley, down. By the time I got there, Riley's mother began yelling at Connor. When I took my son away to discipline him, I asked him why he pushed Riley down. He told me that Riley held him underwater. I reminded him that hurting someone in revenge is never the answer, and that he should come to me, or his mom, the next time it happened. However, at this point, I was not only embarrassed by my son's behavior, but I was feeling angry that he was being picked on. We then found the other boy, and my son apologized.
Soon, Riley's older brother (Aidan) and his friends found my son, and began bullying him verbally and physically. My son came to me and I intervened, showing him how bullies can be stopped without aggression. I showed Connor that focusing on solving problems and displaying forgiveness can turn hostility into friendship.
Afterward, I felt many different, and conflicting, emotions, including the urge to act impulsively. Regardless of my training as a psychologist, or my age, at that moment it was difficult for me to calm down or remember what I know about behavior. I also realized this would not be the last time a situation like this could occur; I wanted to be better prepared for the future. Here are five things I needed to remember for a better outcome:
Calm Your Physical Reaction: When someone threatens your child, you will have a physical reaction. Your heart will pound, your muscles will tense, and your "father bear" reaction kicks in. When you're upset, it's easy to forget the opportunity you have to teach your children the skills they need. A "protection" reaction is normal, but losing control is not OK. My reaction was automatic, so I created an automatic counter-reaction. I concentrated on breathing to calm my body down. I took five deep and slow breaths, focusing my thoughts and counting out each breath. When bullying happens, parenting demands we be calm before we react. Breathing focuses your mind and will help you to remain calm. You can teach yourself to calm down if you practice this relaxation strategy whenever you feel that your children are threatened: breathe, focus, and count.
Accept Your Conflicted Feelings: When my children argue with other children, I can easily feel confused with embarrassment, upset, defensiveness, and protectiveness. Most people focus on, and only react to, the strongest feeling. In contrast, many eastern philosophies rely on an approach that psychologist Marsha Linehan calls dialectics: focusing on and accepting conflicting feelings all at the same time. I needed to accept the feelings to protect my son and my upset with him for pushing the other child down. Accepting both feelings allowed me to parent him and deal with other parent and her children-at the same time. I also needed to see things from several perspectives, and react in different ways-all valid and all necessary. At first, when you use a dialectic approach, your acceptance of "competing" feelings is confusing, but, over time, it feels like second nature.
Remember to Assume the Best: When emotions run high, it's easy to forget that children think differently than adults. I might think that Connor, or Riley, intended to hurt someone; but little children can't think that way due to their cognitive development. Young children tend to think concretely and act impulsively, rather than thinking abstractly and acting thoughtfully. When parents assume the worst, they mistakenly attribute negative intentions to children-known as attribution errors. Attribution errors cause us to think mistakenly: "My son was being a bully to that other child." Parents can sometimes act overly punitive based on these errors. In looking back, I learned, however, that assuming the best led to the opposite of punitive actions on my part. I assumed that the situation got out of hand (not the children). I realized that I needed to teach Connor the skills to handle the situation differently. But how? We went over to Riley (the boy he had pushed), and Connor apologized and accepted responsibility. When parents deal with bullying, it is important to keep from blaming children, and instead focus on the need to teach better social skills.
Focus on Problem-Solving: When Connor began to fight at the pool, I became very distressed. I was tempted to stop the argument rather than solve the problem. By stopping the fight, I avoided embarrassment and more anger. Unfortunately, I have found that when I try to stop things, I can become controlling. Rather than stopping the argument, it's better to refocus on the problem. After shifting focus, I harnessed Connor's energy toward solving the problem, rather than avoiding it. Parents are powerful teachers and role models. When we problem solve, we teach children to tolerate negative feelings (instead of react to them) while focusing on how to repair whatever caused the aggression.
Practice Authority, Empathy and Forgiveness: When Riley's older brother, Aidan, picked on my son at the pool, I saw that the situation was ripe for Aidan to impress his friends, at my son's expense. In the end, I used three steps to handle the situation with Aidan. First, I removed my son and sought out Riley's and Aidan's parents-they had authority, not me. Second, when Aidan apologized to Connor, I empathized with the boy; noting that it must have been embarrassing to apologize in front of his friends, and pointing out the courage it takes to say "sorry" in public. Aidan responded well to the empathy, so I offered forgiveness. This third step gave Aidan a way to save face; I told him that we all make mistakes, and thanked him for being so mature. Aidan became our friend that night. Parents can easily be drawn into aggression and bullying, and unintentionally teach children more aggression. Instead, parents change the whole situation when they react with authority and kindness. The situation does not control parents--we control it.
I will undoubtedly face similar situations in the future. When our children are hurt, or hurt someone else, it's hard to deal with our feelings of confusion and fear. But, when we do deal with these feelings, we can also use the situation as an opportunity to teach children better skills to manage disagreements. When parents manage physical stress and accept all their feelings, then confusion and fear give way to good parenting. Aggression in children is a complex issue, but these strategies help to simplify it. Even bullying can give us a chance to teach our own children-and help other children too....even the bully.