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Separating Fantasy From Reality

QUESTION: My five-year-old daughter was slightly injured recently when she laid down on a pin her 10-year-old brother had hidden under her bottom sheet. We have since banned violent television shows and movies and we're removing all sharp objects from his room. He won't be allowed to stay home alone until we can trust him. He is popular, generally well behaved and rarely aggressive, although he has always liked action movies. Are we making too much of this "prank"? Could he become a danger like the Arkansas boys who killed their schoolmates?

ANSWER: You are right to respond strongly to your son's dangerous actions. You must impress upon him that what he did was wrong and must not be repeated. But do not prematurely condemn his character.

Your attitude and response seem suitably serious and should cause him to consider the impact of such "pranks." A critical part of our job as parents is to help our children trace the thoughts or feelings that lead to inappropriate behavior. Try to elicit what was going through your son's mind when he decided to lay a trap for his sister? Did he intend harm? What outcome did he envision?

It's possible that he didn't think beyond his actions. By demonstrating that actions have consequences, you can help him learn that it is important to think before acting. Make sure he knows that his behavior has caused you to distrust him. You've made a good decision in revoking his privilege to be at home alone (although at this age he shouldn't be left unsupervised for long periods of time, anyway), but do not punish for punishment's sake. Instead, focus on what he can do to regain your trust.

The incident with his sister provides an excellent opportunity to help your son separate the fantasy violence in film and on television from real human pain. Ask your son how he would have felt had his sister been seriously injured. What if she'd lost an eye by plopping stomach first onto the bed, for example? Bring the potential effects of your boy's prank home to him. Then, as part of the process to regain trust, ask him to write his sister a letter of apology, explaining his actions and why they were wrong.

Talk with your husband about a process for reestablishing trust with your son. Come up with guidelines for determining whether his action stems from deeply held hostility towards his sister, or is the result of being more caught up in the "concoction" of his prank than its real impact. Given your son's social adjustment and overall good behavior, it's more likely the latter. But it is important to find out if jealousy of his sister is a factor. If it is, deal with it in the context of improving family relationships.

If your son shows little genuine remorse and his answers lead you to believe he meant to harm his sister, by all means, seek professional guidance. Hold him responsible for his actions, set moral guidelines and seek appropriate counseling. But stop short of reflecting to him that he is a "monster."

Your son depends on you to reflect who he is. Although he made a bad mistake, fortunately, no one was harmed. Make it your job to show him the error of his actions while simultaneously communicating a strongly held belief in his "goodness" and his ability to learn from this episode.

Your fears about your son in relation to the Arkansas school shootings are an overreaction. The boys who took the lives of their classmates in Arkansas not only had social problems with their peers, but practiced marksmanship with real guns and targets which resembled people. Those boys were trained to kill people. For them, the gap between reality and fantasy was closed.

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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