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Tougher Than Lion Taming: When Your Child Hits Your Other Child

“So just to clarify: 3-year-old girl kicks 1-year-old, there's a blood-curdling scream, and I am to hold my 3-year-old (after making sure the crying 1-year-old is fine, got that) and just sit with her until she feels better? No time-out, just hold her and tell her that I love her and that I know she is hurting too....So, no discipline, just love, i.e. more attention.... more attention for kicking the baby?!"

Punishing children when they hit is counter-productive, because it leaves them even more frightened and resentful, and all those feelings will burst out in more aggression toward their sibling. But most parents feel an urgent need to punish when a child hits. We tell ourselves that’s because the child needs to learn a lesson. But the truth? We’re in fight or flight ourselves! Someone kicks my baby? The lion-mama in me roars. The last thing I would feel like doing is lavishing love on the perpetrator.

Except that the perp is my three year old, who is also my baby. And who is clearly in a state of emotional dysregulation, or she wouldn't have done such a thing. She's sending me a clear signal that she needs my help, desperately. 

The only way to help a child out of the abyss of fear is to regain our own composure. I know, it's a tall order. This is the hardest work there is. So practice a mantra you can use when you're triggered, like"No one's dying. It’s not an emergency." Train yourself to simply ignore the transgressor while you minister to your hurt child.

Now that you've calmed down, you're ready for the million dollar question. What's the best response to prevent such incidents in the future?

At our best, we'd also want our response to help our three year old in her development toward becoming a compassionate, responsible person, but we can be forgiven if we'd settle for no more violence. Who cares about emotional intelligence when we're trying to keep blood from being spilled?

Luckily, we don't have to choose. The best way to prevent a recurrence is to get to the root of our child's aggression -- which helps both kids. (And ultimately makes our lives so much easier and more peaceful!) Let's take this one step at a time. 

1. Conventional parenting would take a behavior-modification approach of punishment, hoping that in the future when she gets ready to lash out, she’ll remember the punishment and restrain herself. At the very least, a timeout would make us feel like we took action to address the situation.

The problem is that punishment after the fact doesn't prevent crimes of passion. The defining characteristic of rage is that the thinking part of the brain isn't engaged, so we forget all the lessons we've learned. If your three year old saw someone else kick her sister, she'd run to her sibling's defense. But when we're in fight or flight mode, even someone we love can look like the enemy. We do things we would never do if we were thinking straight. (Yes, even adults.)

So a timeout isn't going to prevent aggression in the future. What about a more "memorable" punishment, that really causes pain? That will just make her seek more vengeance on that baby who caused her misery. If she has to sneak to do it—meaning wait until you're out of the room to kick the baby—that’s what she'll do. (Not so good for the sibling relationship.)

But that doesn't ever mean we just permissively let our child wallop another person. No, we go to the source to stop the violence: our child’s emotions. 

2. Emotion coaching addresses the underlying issue behind aggression: your child's fear. We start by moving her back from the abyss of fear into a zone where she feels safer, where someone is helping her regulate her actions:"You are VERY angry. I am right here. I will keep you both safe." By contrast, if we yell it would intensify her fear. Now, she’s already beginning to calm down, even if we can't see it—because she knows we're there to help.

You're not soothing, at this point, which implies calming a child down. Instead, you're helping her feel safe enough to express the hurt and fear that are driving her anger. So you are NOT doing what the mom described above, "just sit with her until she feels better." This isn’t just a time-in during which you reconnect with your child. In fact, it's hard for kids to reconnect with us when they're so full of pain. It's like trying to fill a leaky cup.

That's also the problem with letting her calm herself down in a timeout. She doesn't get help with her emotions, and now she feels like a bad person on top of it. So at the next provocation, it's"Take that, Baby!"

3. Create Safety. To help your child go under the anger, create safety. Stay as kind as you can while you look her in the eye, which triggers all her uncomfortable emotions. Say"Your sister was hurt and scared. You must be so upset to kick your sister....What is going on?....Something is making you feel so bad."

4. Connect. Deep emotional healing always happens in the context of relationship, when love dissolves fear. She'll certainly start with anger: She hates the baby, she hates you, you always take her sister's side. Don't take it personally. That's just her defense against deep pain. Stay as compassionate as you can, and empathize:"I’m so sorry, Sweetie... That must hurt you so much...You can be as mad as you want at me; I will always love you no matter how mad you are...I could never love anyone more than I love you." If you can keep yourself calm and empathic, and keep offering safety, she'll start crying. It's your compassion that heals the hurt.

5. Empathize and listen. After she has the chance to sob in your arms, she’ll have moved out of "fight or flight.” She’ll be able to reflect on her actions. But don't rush it. Keep your words to a minimum. Give her time to regain her equilibrium. Once she can handle a little playfulness from you, you'll know she's ready to talk.

Then, acknowledge how upset she was, what a tough spot she was in, how she was afraid and did not know what else to do. (Yes, even if the tough spot was that she was worried because her sister was looking at her toy.) 

If you can resist blaming and instead be as kind as possible, she’ll be more able to take responsibility for her actions, which is what will prevent her from repeating them. This is the holy grail of internalizing self-discipline, but it doesn't work when it's imposed from outside with blame and shame.

6. Reinforce your limit and help her "try on" other options besides aggression to solve her problem next time. Instead of"Kicking is bad," try"You were so angry. It's ok to be angry, but it's never ok to kick a person. It hurts! What could you do instead next time you're angry?" Help her brainstorm other options: calling a grownup for help when the one year old pesters her, walking away, stomping her foot instead of kicking. Have her actually act out those scenarios, so that she develops muscle memory of them and is more likely to be able to summon them up next time before she loses control.

7. Teach Repair. She’s worked out her upset and feels empowered to express her needs in a more constructive way next time. Finally, she’s ready to acknowledge that her kick hurt her sister, and repair their relationship. Kids actually want the chance to redeem themselves, as long as we resist punishing and shaming. "Your sister was scared and hurt. What could you do to help her feel safe with you again?” You’re helping your three year old learn that she can repair rifts and strengthening the bond between your children. Both of these outcomes will make future sibling violence less likely. 

Are we giving her attention for kicking the baby, which will make her kick the baby again? No. Timeouts and other punishments give the child negative attention, which actually reinforces the negative behavior. Our child learns that when he’s emotionally dysregulated, he can just hit his sibling, and we’ll step in and force him to re-regulate with a timeout. But that kind of re-regulation doesn’t help kids with the emotions driving the hitting. It just stuffs them down in the emotional backpack. So punishment just calms the child temporarily; it doesn't prevent such occurrences in the future—and in fact, it makes them more likely. Research shows that punishment does not diminish aggression, but often increases it. [i]

Instead, we’re giving our child help with her emotions that she desperately needs, so she won't ever kick the baby again. It's a lot more work than a time out. In fact, I'd bet it's tougher than lion-taming. But it works very effectively to raise a child who WANTS to behave and can manage her emotions to do so. That makes for no more hitting and better sibling relationships. Not to mention fewer blood-curdling screams.

[i] Kendrick, C. & Dunn, J. “Sibling Quarrels and Maternal Responses. (1983) Developmental Psychology, 19, 62-70.

This article is excerpted from Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How To Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life by Dr. Laura Markham 

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