A 7-year old neighbor came to play in our house. My 5-year old and the boy played a little and then drew a little. Luísa was very protective of her pencils. She wanted to grab whatever he was using. The thing scaled up and she finally bit the boy in his arm.
When I heard the boy crying, I attended him immediately. I asked him if he wanted some water, offered him ice, which he accepted and empathized with him: ¨I’m sorry, that must really hurt¨. He was very upset. Luísa wouldn’t answer to anything I asked. She didn’t want to help care for the boy. Soon enough though, they were playing again.
A little later, his mom came and as he went to tell her what happened he got emotional again and started crying. His mom reacted with: ¨Luísa, why are you so mean?¨ and ¨I heard you like to bite, who was it that you bit before?¨
I felt really bad. I didn’t want Luísa to be labeled and we had taken care of what happened. But I understand the boy getting emotional again, and his mother having an emotional reaction. And I was feeling very disappointed that Luísa didn’t want to help the boy. After they left, I was insisting that she made a picture to the boy to say she was sorry. She didn’t seem sorry at all, she wasn’t doing it.
Half an hour after they were gone, I was still upset about the episode. And when Luísa started pouring some liquid into a small cup, making a puddle that I would have to clean afterward. I got mad at her, I yelled and I scared her to make her stop doing what she was doing. (This was a few days before the 30-days-without-yelling-at-my-child challenge, which I´m doing great by the way, today is my 16th day).
I stopped to yell. I went to the bathroom running, hands in my mouth, to give me a time out from my yelling.
It was a quick recovery. Seconds did it, just the realization that I was screwing up, plus the bathroom run (which was kind of funny) were enough to make me stop the reactive mode I was in.
I know Luísa bit the boy because she was being ¨selfish¨ (in the most childish normal way, I suppose). I saw when she started to pull the pencils off his hand and they were not getting into an agreement. I should have stepped in then (more effectively than sweetly telling her not to pull things from his hand).
I didn’t make her feel bad about biting the boy, but I made her feel bad for experimenting in the kitchen a little later…
And it wasn’t about the liquid experiment, it was my resentment about what had happened before, about my own insecurity on how I handled the issue and my attachment to the idea that I can do so much to guide her behavior.
A better responding was when I was with some other moms working at the garden in school and 4 girls were playing (three 5-year old’s and a 6-year old).
One girl was hurt and came crying to us. I kept working while the injured child´s mom attended the situation. When asked about what had happened, the girls told that Luísa hit the other girl’s face with a rope twice.
After the girl was taken care of, I asked Luísa what had happened. She didn’t want to talk about it, she whined and took off to play. I insisted and she was not sharing anything with me. I went back to work.
I waited. I didn’t do anything. I wondered if I was being too non-intrusive, or permissive.
The next morning, on our bike ride to school, we were chatting and I asked: ¨You must have been really angry to hit the other girl with the rope yesterday!?¨
¨Yes, they didn’t want me to follow them.¨
She told me they didn’t want her to be part of some game, so I said: ¨It’s hard when we feel left out¨.
We talked some more, I told her that she has to figure out a way to release her anger without hitting anyone. I suggested: throwing rocks at the bush, breathing hard, counting, jumping on the spot, or running to me to cool off.
This made feel good about waiting. We chatted about what happened instead of me lecturing, probably with a harsh tone in the hit of the moment.
The next day, my 5-year old, another 5-year old and a 6-year old girl were playing in our house. I saw how the other two for whatever reason were leaving Luísa out, with stuff like ¨We are best friends¨, ¨You can’t come in here¨. And finally, Luísa started trying to hit them. I say trying, because the 6-year old got away quickly and I came in and interfered separating Luísa from them before anything else happened.
Luísa was in a rage and she was ¨playing¨ tiger on the bed. Nobody could get close to the bed or she would attack. It was a fun game, actually, to let out some emotions. I kept calm and I gave her room to go a bit mad. I was practicing positive discipline (as opposed to regular punishments or consequences).
I even let her hit me a few times in my arms or legs.
She wanted to disturb, so she started throwing what the other two girls were folding under the bed. At this point, I took her outside to make a point of not making a mess in someone else’s room and she laid on the floor and was kicking in my direction for a while. I was just there. When she finally got tired, she stretched her arms towards me in the ¨pick me up style¨ and so I did pick her up. She held me crying and whining for a bit and that was it.
I think this was a good practice of listening to a child, instead of reacting to her behavior. I learned to talk about the rough episodes hours later or the next day. It gives us both a better quality of interaction.
Another day in our house, it was our 5-year old housemate who bit Luísa very hard. Luísa came crying to me and I took care of her while the mom of the other girl was upset about it and was pressuring her daughter to say what went wrong and to apologize.
Luísa grabbed a piece of watermelon and went over there to offer the other girl. I think she was getting upset about her friend getting lectured and scared into saying she was sorry.
Luísa was done with her own crying and offering the fruit was a way to say that she was ready to start playing again.
I talked about it with the other mom afterward. She told me that the bite happened because Luísa grabbed something from her daughter, but that her daughter can’t react like that. I said we can’t really judge her negative reaction because we don´t really know what was going on moments before of what she saw, or even have a clue on how the girls really affect each other.
It’s one thing to give the limit: ¨I can’t let you hit. You´ll have to play separately until you calm down¨.
And another thing is to make the child feel bad (more than she already does) about what happens.
Kids never want to hurt each other. Children are never simply mean.
When they do hurt each other, they already feel bad about it, they don’t need our help for that.
The best we can do is to prevent when possible, or intervene as gently as possible (our words, expressions and intent matter a lot) and show our compassion to both injured and injurer.
¨You must have been very upset to bite your friend like that¨, is a good way to start.