Home About Dr Gayle Counseling Services Speaking Services Online Seminars Articles Press Room Books Contact

Ask Dr. Gayle

Violent Behavior in First-Grader

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 violence.

  1. 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!

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

Return to Dr. Gayle Peterson's Home Page

Copyright 1996-2003.  Gayle Peterson All rights reserved.

Send Comments and Inquiries to Dr. Gayle Peterson at gp@askdrgayle.com