QUESTION: We are grandparents of a six-year-old
boy. His parents recently received a call from his teacher that he
had threatened another boy who would not share the paints during art
class. He threatened to cut him up into little pieces with a knife.
They spanked him, made him apologize to the boy and his parents, and
took away TV privileges and his toys. I don't know why this happened.
I know his parents limit his television viewing. They told him his
behavior was wrong, but that he was not a bad person. Is there anything
else they should do?
ANSWER: Spanking a child for violent
threats only reinforces physical action as a means of solving problems.
The consequences your grandson was given that restrict his privileges
and the insistence that he apologize for his threat are quite enough
for him to take this situation seriously.
Still, your grandchild's parents may not have gone
far enough in helping your grandson find effective ways to deal with
his problems in the future. Nor did this teach him to clearly separate
his feelings from threats of violent action. Consider the following
guidelines for parents and grandparents in dealing with a threat of
Show your child that you are interested
in his feelings. Do not neglect a child's feelings in this situation.
Give him the clear message that his threats are not acceptable,
but do ask him how he felt in an unfair situation. It is our job
as parents or grandparents to be available to absorb our children's
anger and pain as they confront life's adversities. We can function
as "shock absorbers" to help them lighten the blows that are an
inevitable part of growing up. Be clear that his feelings do not
in any way justify a threat or act of violence. But do affirm his
right to have such feelings!
Help him cope with his feelings.
Be a good listener, and help him verbalize feelings rather than
express them as actions. This helps him to separate his strong emotions
from what actions he will take in an emotionally heated situation.
Do not forget that a child's physical violence or expression of
it begins with a sense of powerlessness. Finding words for feelings
and expressing them is the first step to empowerment. Repeat back
to him his feelings once he has expressed them to you -- for example,
"Yes, I can understand that Larry's hogging the paints would make
you angry" or "Larry must have made you very upset when he would
not share the paints with you." Adults must help children name their
feelings. Validating what your child experienced does not give him
permission to act out in violence. But it does offer him an opportunity
for learning how to cope with the emotional complexity that is part
of growing up and solving problems.
Clarify alternative ways to solve
the problem. You can point your grandchild
toward becoming a part of finding a solution to his problem rather
than creating more problems for himself. Help him identify what
could have been done in an unfair situation. Asking for help from
an adult is an appropriate avenue. A teacher, parent, or grandparent
can provide comfort, if not a direct solution, and it is fitting
to teach our children to turn to adults for help in finding solutions
when they feel powerless! In this case, bringing the dilemma to
the teacher could help identify the need for fair play and enforceable
rules for sharing resources in a classroom setting.
Set limits. Once a child has
felt heard and understood, and he can identify alternative solutions
to his dilemma, he will benefit greatly from consequences for unacceptable
behavior. Taking away privileges and coaching your child to apologize
are effective ways to help him repair the damage in the situation.
Appropriate consequences help him take this opportunity for learning
seriously because he is made to feel the effects of his threat toward
another. The message comes across loud and clear that such threats
are unacceptable even when his feelings are legitimate.
In light of the violence that has erupted in American
schools and across socio-economic boundaries, it is important to take
our children's needs ever more seriously, and to remember that punishment
alone is not the answer! Nor is censoring television and video games a
quick remedy for what is ailing our children. Children who perpetuate
violence are still children. An act of violence does not make them into
instant adults (nor should they be tried as such!). We must look to ourselves
as adults to determine where we fail our children at home, in our schools,
and in the political arena. We live in an increasingly complex society.
Yet, as a society, we do not provide our children easy access to psychological
services at school, and we continue to make weapons readily accessible.
Be an active listener, set limits, and help your child
identify and separate feelings from action. Use this event as a learning
opportunity, and you cannot go wrong!
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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