Aha! Parenting Blog

Practical solutions for real parenting problems

What If Your Child Crosses the Line?

"I don't understand why you say not to punish transgressions. I get the concept of the bigger the transgression, the greater the child's need is, but what if they really cross a line? Yesterday my 3-yr-old threw a book because he got mad. It hit my husband in the eye & cut his skin--yikes! I removed him from the room, told him that was not allowed ever & put him in a thinking spot. Yes? No?"

Yikes, indeed! Thank goodness your husband is okay. Most 3 year olds will throw when they're angry. They have no idea how dangerous it is. As upset as you were, I'm sure your son was more upset than anyone else.

You're right that your son needs to learn a lesson here. He can't be throwing things at people every time he gets mad. The problem with removing a child to a thinking spot and leaving him alone there is that it doesn't help him with the feelings that drove him to throw the book to begin with. Under aggression you will almost always find fear. Every small person has fears we can't even imagine. A 3 year old who is grappling with fear may well get enraged about something, and might well throw whatever is at hand. That's normal behavior, although of course it can be dangerous, as your son just learned, and of course we tell him that throwing things at people is not allowed, ever, just as you did. But your son knows by now (and certainly after hurting his dad) that throwing hurts. What he needs is help from you to manage the feelings that drive him to throw, even when he knows the behavior is off-limits and hurtful.

I'm wondering what happened inside your son once he was in the thinking spot. If I were him I would have felt very afraid for my father, worried that I was a terrible person who was capable of horrific harm, unable to control myself, so bad I had to be removed and could not even make up with my Dad. I would see myself as so powerful that I could bloody my invincible father, which would be a terrifying idea. That shame and fear would be so much that I might well push it away (as we all do with those uncomfortable feelings) by going numb and looking like I didn't care. Or by getting angry. I might well sit there justifying what I had done, telling myself why I was right.

That's what any normal kid does in timeout. They don't sit there determining to become a better person, and even if they do, the result is to stuff the feelings that led them to lash out to begin with. (Here's a whole article about Timeouts.)  And now there is an extra overlay of shame and fear. Next time, he might find himself even more overwhelmed by these feelings. OR, he may manage them in relation to his dad, but may begin to act out in other ways, like hitting his brother, peeing all over the house or having nightmares.

What if, instead, you immediately tended to the person who's hurt, which gives the clear message to your child that this hurt is a big deal. You even let him help. Hopefully, the focus on his father would be enough to shift him out of his upset and into concern for his Dad. "Oh, my! Your dad is hurt. Sweetie, run get a washcloth and let's help your dad."   You're inviting him in, so that he's part of the solution. He may have done a monstrous thing, but you're communicating to him that he isn't a monster. 

Your connection is his motivation to face the almost unbearable truth that he did something that crossed a line. After all, if you withdraw your love, why should he do the hard work of taking responsibility? (And yes, I know you still love him under your fury, but he doesn't know that.) When you feel defensive, isn't it harder to admit your mistakes? Your child is no different.

Are you forgiving him too easily?  No.  He can't simultaneously feel like a bad person and act like a good person.  He acted in a way that was clearly out of the bounds of loving family relationships. Rather than shunning him, which reinforces his position as the bad kid, you step out to get him and bring him back into the embrace of the family.  Without that reconnection, you can't reach him, and any "discipline" will only teach him that he's bad.

But of course you don't just ignore what he's done. You help him reflect on what happened so it doesn't happen again.  Once your husband is okay, you take a deep breath so you aren't acting out of anger. You remind yourself that you're helping your son with his feelings, not punishing him, because that's what will best prevent this from happening again. You gather your son to you, very seriously and kindly, look him in the eye, and say: "Books are not for throwing. That really hurt Daddy, didn't it?" Your son will most likely burst into tears, which releases all the turmoil going on. You say "You were mad, so you threw the book. That really hurt Daddy. That was scary. Daddy will be okay, but that's why we don't throw things at people." You let him cry in your arms.

After he's calm, you ask him what he could do to make Daddy feel better. You give him a chance to redeem himself, to become a good person in his own mind, the kind of person who is able to control his anger so he doesn't hurt other people. This transformation would be unlikely if he were removed to the thinking spot, because he would sit there isolated like a criminal, hardening his heart. But he has been in the middle of the emergency, as one of the helpers, so his heart is open. He feels your kindness, and also your firmness. He feels safe to show you all the fear behind his anger. Once he expresses all those feelings, they evaporate, and stop driving his behavior.

What has your son learned?

  • Throwing things can badly hurt someone.
  • I WANT to control myself better next time so this never happens again.
  • Feelings don't have to be an emergency if you don't act on them.
  • Mom and Dad understand my big feelings and can help me with them.  When I trust them to help me, I feel so much better.
  • I am capable of hurting someone badly, and I never want to do that.
  • I am capable of making things better, of repairing rifts, of making things right when I make a mistake. 

Maybe most important, instead of feeling like he has crossed a line that leaves him disconnected, beyond the love of his parents, he has learned that he is loved unconditionally.  His parents didn't give up on him.  They know that at core he is good, and wants to "do right," and they never stopped believing in him.  That belief will strengthen his belief in his own goodness, and help him grow into your trust.  Because the healing miracle of unconditional love is that there is no line.  There is only love.



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