You're in the playground with your child. Just as she was about to climb to the slide, another kid comes running, pushes her to the side, and climbs the slide herself.
What should your child do?
- Run to you?
- Do nothing?
- Push her back?
What should you do?
- Scold the other kid?
- Console your kid?
- Do nothing?
Situations like these are confusing. We want our kids to be able to stand up for themselves. But we also want them to avoid using violence—even if it means self-defense.
So what should we do?
Let's start from the end and work backward.
What do we want in the long run?
We want our kids to grow into adults who can speak up for themselves. But we also want them to be able to do this without engaging in violent communication. We want them to be able to say:
"Excuse me?! I was about to climb this slide! Wait for your turn and you can have it as soon as I'm done."
What if they want to hit back?
Kids and adults alike, we sometimes feel like we need to respond to a hit by hitting back so that we're even—like we've defended ourselves. This is completely normal. And certainly, completely normal for a child.
Our kids' lives will be filled with conflict. But violence doesn't solve a thing. And it certainly doesn't build confidence. A fight gets no one nowhere—in childhood or in adulthood. A hit might lead into another and before you know it, the damage might multiply.
How to win a conflict without getting into war?
Here's a game-changing idea: What if our child could navigate all of her options in her mind before jumping to a reaction?
First let's see what happens inside our children after being pushed
When faced with aggression or bullying, here's what our children's body tells them:
“That kid just pushed me. I wasn't expecting it. This wasn't supposed to happen. I'm not safe. I must have done something wrong."
How their body tells them these is through a strong rush of feelings such as fear, vulnerability, shame, and weakness.
And most importantly, they feel alone in these feelings. This internal experience is overwhelming for their body and they likely let these out through crying or aggression.
Trying to change how we feel doesn't help us cope with difficulties. Learning to regulate does.
Kids don't make their decisions out of logic. They make decisions out of their emotional regulation patterns.
But here's the dilemma: they can't self-regulate unless they're feeling safe.
So what should we do? Let's begin.
Note: If your child was hurt, move them away to a protected space. Attend to their injury right away. Make sure they freely express their pain. Try to avoid saying that it's okay and they're fine. You can later take up the situation with an adult—the parent of the other child, the teacher, etc.
1) Narrate what happened. “That kid pushed you. You weren't expecting it. You didn't want that to happen. I believe you that it hurts.” Your child will now feel seen.
2) Connect. For our kids—and for us equally—physical interventions to our bodies are surprises. Our kids almost feel betrayed by "falsely" expecting that the world is a safe place. It's important that they feel they're not alone while feeling this way.
3) Validate their feelings. "You might be feeling bad because of what just happened. It must be terrible to be pushed that way. This is a hard thing to handle even for adults."
4) Tell them it's not their fault. "Some kids are mean to others because of things going on inside them. Their behavior has nothing to do with you. This is not your fault."
By now, they'll have felt seen and understood, and their body will start to calm down.
In the heat of the moment, these are really all we can do. We have moved our child to a safe space, let them feel seen, validated their emotions, and assured that this wasn't their fault.
Do not suppress their urge to cry or hit back "like a kid"
It's quite normal for a child to want to cry or push back when they feel assaulted. Moving their body to a safer space, it's important for us not to make them feel ashamed of these urges.
What we want to do is—over time—train them to internally navigate all of their options before acting.
But how to build that invisible shield, that secret weapon called confidence so that when a similar thing happens next time—even in our absence—our child can handle the situation?
Confidence is trusting our feelings—the signals our body gives us. Confidence comes from being able to recognize and regulate our feelings. It's being able to say: "This doesn't feel right."
We can work on our child's confidence every day—any time we're feeling calm. Let's talk about a game-changing idea called "emotional vaccination," a brilliant term coined by clinical psychologist Dr. Becky Kennedy.
Emotional vaccination through play
Play is a child's world. Using the strategy below, you can build up your child's emotional regulation muscle without having to solve, fix, or lecture.
Here's the idea.
While playing with dolls (animals, trucks, or other toys will also work) create a situation where a toy is mean to another toy. Then try saying curiously:
"Hmm, I wonder what that toy I hit feels like."
Try to come up with some answers,
"It might be feeling scared. Or maybe angry. Oh, it might be feeling angry. What do you think it should do now?"
Your kid will most likely stay silent. Or they might urge you to just keep playing. Stop for a moment and then say,
"I wonder what happens if this toy went back and hit the other toy."
"I wonder how it would feel then."
"I wonder how the other toy would respond."
"I wonder what else it could do."
The plan is to navigate a few possible scenarios where all sorts of emotions arise. It's important to okay all these feelings and move on to other strategies.
Make sure to stop before your child gets overwhelmed. Keep a playful attitude.
By the time you're done, you'll have given tiny doses of emotion to your child—just like a vaccination—that will not make them "sick," but rather equip them with ideas for when a real emotion comes up.
Advising your kid to hit back won't build up their confidence. Giving them certain words to use won't work either.
We get stronger by talking about our feelings. Of course, it doesn't happen overnight.
Confidence builds in the long run. And what better time to start working on it than now?