My child's teacher just called to say my child hit another child in school. What should I do?
First, remember that one aggressive act in childhood does not a psychopath make, or even a sociopath, for that matter. What I mean by that is first, take a breath and calm yourself. Remember to keep the situation in perspective and give yourself some time to plan your response before approaching your child. The first thing you need to do is get the details. These are necessary for understanding the antecedents to your child’s behavior. Although as far as your child is concerned your stance should be resolute, “we do not act aggressively towards another person”, as a mother it is important to attempt to understand the antecedents to your child’s behavior. Remember that hitting another child can be an offensive move or a defensive move. While either way, it is a physically aggressive move and most likely not the best response even in the case of provocation, attempting to understand your child’s thinking is important because it will determine your response and possible need for intervention. You may need to intervene in the situation completely differently, if you uncover that your child is being bullied for example and finally responded after months of enduring this versus your child just wanted something that another child had. Hence, the specifics of the situation are important. In addition, your child’s past behavior should be factored into your assessment of the situation. Is this the first time your child has responded aggressively to another child or is this a pattern of responding? Remember, also, to keep in mind your child’s developmental level. During the stage when children are beginning to interact socially but may still be severely limited with regard to language, hitting another child while it should not be encouraged is more developmentally “normal” than for a child who is older and has sufficient command of language to use a verbal response in place of a physical response. Your assessment of the situation will determine your response, in large part. However, your stance with regard to your child’s behavior should be the same regardless, “Physical aggression is not acceptable.” Your child should get this message clearly. This message should be paired contingently with a consequence, no favorite TV show or no friends over that weekend. The consequence should be the removal of some privilege that leaves no doubt in your child’s mind that this is not a viable response for her when interacting with peers. The consequence should also be relatively close in time to the offense. This of course must be developmentally appropriate. While for a ten year old, on a Monday, saying that a much anticipated privilege on the weekend will not happen can work, for a three year old, you need something more immediate, within hours or at least the same day. I always advise parents to save the discussion for later. You don’t want to dilute the message for your child by lectures that only serve to calm your anxiety or a dissection of the situation that will only serve to confuse your child as to whether it was ok or not. Your child should clearly receive the message that physical aggression towards others is not acceptable immediately. Once you are sure your child has received the message, then you can discuss alternative means of responding with the child. This conversation will most likely shed light on her emotions and thoughts regarding the interaction with a peer. Remember that it is important to teach children that emotions and behaviors are distinct. If your child discusses her emotions, remember they are not wrong. It was the behavior that was wrong. If she got angry that another child took her toy, it is not your job to convince her she shouldn’t have been angry. The part that was wrong was the physical aggression to the child, not the emotion. This separation of emotions and behaviors goes a long way to help your child learn to regulate their behavior and understand that emotions should not dictate behaviors. Additionally, this is not to say that you can’t help your child to question their emotions by questioning the cognitions that led to their emotions. Your child will make cognitive errors, such as “She knew I wanted the toy because I was watching her play with it and I stuck my hand out.” Helping your child to learn to identify the cognitive antecedents to an emotion will go a long way to helping your child develop skills to regulate their emotions. In the end, remember that the majority of children will, at times, act out physically. Children aren’t born knowing what is acceptable socially and what works. This must be taught and you are your child’s best teacher.