Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them. They must; they have no other models.
- James Baldwin
The other mum tossed a look in my direction, now branded in my memory - a complex mix of outrage, hurt, "what the f@%&?" and a splash of good-natured bemusement. The expression was due to my son telling her son (out of a clear blue sky) he was "trash" and that "he wanted to throw him in the bin". 😱
It's inevitable: sooner or later, our little darlings will find a mean streak. They might be tired, hangry or going through stress. If, like me, you've ever seen yourself flummoxed at how to respond when your child tries cruelty on for size, here are a few tips, drawing on the parenting expertise of Dr Becky Kennedy, Janet Lansbury and Dr Dan Siegal
Life is full of ups and downs, but when our kids are going through emotional processes that are uncomfortable, such as a new experience (in our case moving house) or when feeling distanced or fearful, it is very common for them to have impulses to do things that they know are not their best. They know it's not a good place; they don't need to be shamed for it. After all, human beings do not develop a pre-frontal cortex along with the ability to regulate emotions until about age five.
When our kid's behaviour crosses the line, it's as clear a sign they need our help as an SOS. Consider adopting a benevolent, helpful frame of mind - Mama or Papa Bear - modelling regulation of your own feelings of discomfort (easier said than done!): "Oops, my child went there!" then intervene with firm kindness but without judgement or shame.
Adopting a close discrete tone and a stance below your kid's eye level, you could say: "I won't let you use hurtful words. Let's figure out what happened." Remember, when they refuse to apologise, they are likely feeling shame. Instead of forcing an apology, try "It's hard to find your apology voice right now. I'll use it for you." Then model a good apology like, "I'm sorry, I am tired and overwhelmed and that came out as mean words. I wanted to show you this submarine I just got."
This Time-In approach works because kids can't absorb anything when they feel shamed. If we intervene with a kind and generous heart, our tamariki learn from what we do. The character traits we wish to instil are learned from us, giving them a big heart space, with patience, and an attitude of genuinely wanting to understand rather than push them away when they are showing the opposite of what we want from their behaviour.