Young children tend to cross other people’s boundaries quite a lot. They grab things that don’t belong to them, they can be over-enthusiastic in their expressions of affection towards the baby! They can lash out and hurt others (even the baby) when they’re unable to contain huge amounts of frustration. They blurt out exactly what’s on their mind, which isn’t always seen to be cute! The whole world is their playground yet learning about all these boundaries and limits and what’s not allowed and not okay is a LOT to assimilate.
Children tend to receive a lot of appeals to empathize with the person whose line they’ve crossed.
“Look how sad your brother is”,
“how would you like it if somebody grabbed your toy”,
“now you’ve made me very very sad” displayed with an exaggeration of sadness,
“children won’t want to play with you when you do that”,
“that’s not how friends act”, “that wasn’t a nice thing to do, was it”,
“now Granny’s not happy about what you did, she’s angry that you broke her vase, poor Granny, go and say sorry now”.
Yet such appeals tend to result in a child feeling more defensive than genuinely empathetic towards the person they’ve affected. So how do we help our children develop empathy and impulse control? Children learn about empathy mostly through the direct experience of being empathized with and experiencing how it helps them feel better. This leads to the understanding that empathy helps *people* feel better. A child deserves and needs empathy not just when they’ve been wronged, but also when their desires and strong emotions lead them to act in ways that are anti-social. These are situations where a child is struggling and has much to learn and they need our patient guidance. They need empathy when they’ve done something they shouldn’t do, just as much as they need it when they injure themselves.
They can’t care about how they’ve upset another until they get that we care about THEIR upset. Children rarely respond positively to an appeal to care for how another has been negatively affected by them if they themselves are not gaining the empathy and care that they need for their feelings *in this current experience*. “Can’t you see you upset your sister” is more likely to evoke more resentment towards little sister than empathy. This isn’t because they don’t care, but because they’re not gaining the help they need to work through the difficult emotions that the situation stirs up for them.
You might also like to read; Helping children when they hit, push and bite.
When feedback is delivered with care, it’s easier for the recipient to learn. The message of care diffuses defences and ensures the parent’s positive influence. The image comes to mind of travelling in another country, there’s a lot of strict cultural rules about what’s okay and not okay and we only learn that we’ve been inappropriate when we get the feedback – how scary! We’d truly hope they had compassion for our lack of prior immersion into their culture and see our clumsiness as lack of awareness rather than lack of care or respect. And we need to be mindful that learning that it’s not okay to hurt others, for example, is just the beginning and a small part of what’s required for a child to better manage their intense impulses and emotions, be it frustration or excitement.
Should we make them say sorry? With this question, it’s important to consider the outcome we want. Do we want them to simply say sorry (whether they feel it or not), or do we want them to reach the place of truly feeling remorse? Even adults usually take time to calm down enough to be able to look back at the emotionally charged situation with a wider perspective and be able to truly care about and consider the feelings of others. Not just intellectually but truly with empathy. When emotionally stirred up, children are operating from the emotional brain and are unable to ALSO access and operate from their prefrontal cortex, which governs empathy for others and problem-solving. They’re not yet developmentally there with this ability to feel emotionally aroused AND consider another’s feelings and have empathy for those feelings. They may say sorry but there may well be some shame. Their apology may be an attempt to end the very uncomfortable feeling of being in trouble as kids. Yet we don’t want to encourage them to express “I’m sorry” with the motivation of ending the discomfort of disapproval.
Maintaining a warm connection and care for the child while setting a limit preserves the child’s dignity and makes it MUCH easier to learn from the situation.
“I feel upset when you shout at me and slap me, I can’t let you do that (pause to breathe and re-center) – but I do really like and love you and I’m concerned about you feeling so grumpy and frustrated” – while touching her with care, affection and a show of empathy for the feelings that drove the behaviour.
Or “I don’t like when you push me to get my attention, (spoken with calm serious sincerity, but without any scorn or scowling, then pause to re-center) – but I do hear that you need my attention and I know it’s hard to wait”. (State what would work better) You can say “mum please answer me” and acknowledge “I know it’s frustrating when it’s hard to get my attention”.
Sharing your feelings with the user of non-blaming I Statements is helpful and often necessary feedback for a child when their actions are inappropriate, but it’s best if we contain our feelings long enough to first show them that we’re here to help and not condemn. It’s SO much easier for a child to take on board the feedback or the limit once they’re reassured that we’re caring for their feelings in the situation, as well as reassurance that you know that they’re just learning.
When my kids were little I found myself saying to them quite a lot “it’s not a big thing, just a little thing” demonstrated with my hands and fingers to compare. I would share that to help them maintain their positive sense of self and put back in perspective whatever had just happened that drew my need to intervene or bring in a limit. I always wanted them to know that I care as much about their feelings in any situation, however big or small, as I do about the feelings of the other, or about the thing that’s been broken or the relative who felt insulted.
For a list of articles which give more examples of what expressing limits and boundaries without punishment looks like, click here.
Little corrections and limits can feel like a BIG telling off to young children and they need us to be sensitive to their feelings and reassure them that all is still well. This can be a hard concept for many to get because nearly all of us grew up with the unchallenged beliefs that when a child does something wrong, then they need to be told in no uncertain terms how wrong they are and inherent in this is the agreement that they’ve at least temporarily lost the right to receive empathy and care for their feelings. Let’s help our children learn from their many mistakes and experiences of crossing other people’s lines with loving guidance and kindness, not scrunched up frowning faces and pointing fingers and raised critical tones of voice. None of us like to be on the receiving end of that which feels so critical or even scornful.
You can communicate that the issue is serious and show your sincerity without becoming harsh. And even when giving serious feedback or limits, there’s always a way to bring in messages of reassurance and care, and few things communicate care as much as a soft affectionate touch on the shoulder or arm, coming down to a child’s level and speaking with more kindness than scorn in your voice.
Children are greatly relieved to see our smile return, to be assured that we’re caring about their feelings as well and to feel the soft touch of our hand that conveys safety and warmth so powerfully. ~ Genevieve
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