As an educator of parents and children, I spend quite a bit of time around kids. And if I’ve seen it once, I’ve seen it a thousand times…Two young children are playing beautifully side by side. Sometimes they are interacting, sharing and conversing, other times they are engaged in parallel play. All of a sudden there is a grab, a bite, or a push. The victim is screaming, crying, or simply looking shocked and the nearby adults come running. “Say I’m sorry,” they prompt the aggressor. “Tell him you’re sorry,” they insist. “If you don’t say I’m sorry then we’re leaving,” they threaten. The child might say sorry, after which everyone goes returns to play. The child may resist saying sorry, at which point the adult pleads and threatens some more, sometimes they leave and sometimes the children simply go back to playing. Then there’s the scenario where the child is literally saying “I’m sorry” while in the act of grabbing, pushing and biting. So what’s the issue? The act of saying “I’m sorry” means little or nothing to most children. They know if they quickly say “I’m sorry” all is forgotten and they move on. In time, many young children realize that they might as well pinch, squeeze and hit to get what they want, because in the end, all they have to do is say “sorry” to get off the hook. Let’s take a moment to look at why many young children become aggressive:
- Children who have few words in their vocabulary often use their hands or teeth to get their point across. They can’t yet ask a friend for a turn or tell a peer that they want more space. For most young children, even as they are developing more language, using hands is faster than using words.
- Young children also tend to have poor impulse control. The minute a toddler or two year old sees something enticing, they want it. They aren’t able to stop themselves long enough to think about the best way to get that toy. They simply reach out and grab it.
- Many two and three year old are experimenting with how powerful they can be. This is often the stage when we hear the words “no,” “mine,” and “I’m not done.” When testing their power is the cause of aggression, even the aggressor tends to be crying or screaming after the incident. Actually having the power to hurt or upset someone is scary.
What’s the alternative?
- Have children check in with the victim to be sure they are alright. The aggressor might say “Are you okay?”
- Making sure your child waits for the response is just as important as having them ask the question. This technique reinforces pro-social behavior that will stick with your child for years to come.
- If the victim is crying the aggressor might follow up with “Do you need a tissue?” If the child is hurt they might offer “Want ice?” The language will change depending upon the children’s age and they will initially need some prompting to remember the phrases. Checking in with the other child gives your child the opportunity to read the facial expressions and emotions of another person. Reacting appropriately builds empathy and problem solving.
- When children have more language, at around two years of age and older, you can help them identify the other child’s emotions. At this age you can also involve your child in figuring out what they can do to help. Three to five year olds can be asked to remember a time when they felt that way.
In the end, rather than an empty “I’m sorry,” your child will have had a meaningful interaction with another child. This type of experience is more likely to influence your child’s future behavior. And you will have begun the process of raising a socially and emotionally responsive child, who is a positive contributor to our world!