Updated: May 10, 2021
We have all been there with our kids. Child A is wronged by Child B and we think (or maybe say) “Do something! Speak up! Don’t let them treat you like that!”. If you are anything like me, you might need to suppress an urge to punish whoever has wronged your precious angel baby. “hmmm, hitting back seems like a great idea right about now dude. I will not mind at all.” Alas, hitting (or hurting back by any means) won't work to defuse situations. Revenge almost always leads to more revenge. There will be no end in sight. So, what is the solution? How can we support confidence and assertiveness in our children? From my experience as a teacher, parent, and advocate, I have found three things that can help a lot. They are; observe, validate, and play (otherwise known as teach).
The first, and most important step is to observe. Watch how the child reacts to being wronged. Often, they will surprise you. Sometimes through observation, you will find children sort these things out all on their own. I have seen kids circle back to a wrong that has been done to them 10 min later or even days later. Things do not have to get sorted out by the adult’s timeline in the adult’s way. In fact, it is immensely powerful when children find ways to work it out without adult intervention. What IS important is to follow their lead. You might notice they are affected by it and cannot move on without addressing it immediately. You might notice they could care less. Try to remove your grown-up glasses for a moment. What is “wrong” for us, does not have to be wrong for the child. If they are okay LET IT BE. It does not matter how WE feel about something. It matters how THEY feel about it. Imagine if your partner did not like the way a friend talked to you, and you said, “Oh no, that didn’t hurt my feelings I’m fine.” Then your partner responds, “They cannot treat you like that! It is wrong. You need to stand up for yourself! Do this _____, Say this ______!” Ugh, that would be dreadful. Certainly we would prefer them to say, “Oh okay I guess I read that wrong.” The point is, observe your child. Find out how they feel and what they are trying to tell you. Once you discover their answer, accept it!
This brings us to our next step. Validation. If observation is the most important step, validation is a close second. This is because true validation cannot be achieved until you understand where they are coming from. You cannot understand where they are coming from until you step back to observe and listen. Validation is so important that there will not be true healing, or “moving on” until it is achieved. They can “get over it” on the outside, but inside a storm is still brewing. Validation tells your child “the inner me sees the inner you.” There is nothing more loving we can do for another human being than validate their most hidden inner self. To be loved is to be seen, heard, and understood from the inside out. So, what does validation look like? It looks like: listening to your child, accepting their answer, then responding with the most supportive healthy response you can muster. If you observed your child upset say, “It looks like what they said upset you.” “Seems like your feelings are hurt.” Or “I get sad when someone says hurtful things to me too.” Validation can also look like dropping the subject. If your child is quiet, agitated, upset after you say, “Your teacher told me someone hit you at school today.” Listen to them! Your validating response might be “It seems like you don’t want to talk about it. That is okay. I’m here if you need me.” Then drop it, trusting your child will come to you if they need you.
After you have achieved validation for your child you can move on to the teaching portion. This is the least important step in my opinion. Why? Because children are always learning. They don’t need to be told “say this”, “do this”. Chances are they are keenly aware of what they are “supposed” to say, they just do not want to, or they are not ready yet. The best course of action is to trust when they are ready, they WILL “say this” or “do this”. (hint: children are often not ready to say and do “appropriate” “mature” things until around 8 or 9. We will save ourselves so much frustration the sooner we accept it. Why teach something they cannot realistically, authentically achieve? Best to wait until readiness.) Now you are probably wondering, why include play (a.k.a teaching) into the article at all? The reason I included this portion is because sometimes (not often) a child will be ready and desperate for some direction sooner than their development allows. They are truly stuck and need some help navigating solutions. IF observing and validation are not resolving the issue, move on to play.
Here are some ideas: note that for young children, adults will be doing the drawing and writing
Draw a picture with the person or thing bothering your child and your child solving it. “Look! I drew the slide, come show me how _____ pushed you off. I wonder what you can do next time to show ______ you don’t like that.” Then draw your child saying/doing that!
Write a note to the “offender”. Dear _____, I did not like what you said to me. Next time please say _______. From, _______. Giving the letter to the person is not necessary but you sure can if it seems reasonable.
Play with puppets or stuffed animals. “Look! This doggy bit the bear!... Then the bear Yells, ‘Ow! That hurt! Don’t bite me, I’m running away!” “Now the dog called the bear a poopy pants! Bear says, “That made me feel sad. No name calling!”
Reading books about the topic can be extremely helpful. This is because you can talk about the characters instead of your child. It is easier to hear someone tell the “three little pigs” what to do than to listen to your mom telling YOU what to do. Here are some books on the subject:
So, the next time your parent heart leaps to say “Stick up for yourself! Say something! Do something!” Try to observe and find out how your child feels and what they are thinking. Then validate, let them know you understand, support, and trust them. If that does not work to resolve things, move on to play. Everyone, including your child, will thank you for it in the end.