How to teach the skill of self-motivated self-regulation when kids are hitting
By Vivek Patel
When one kid hits another it's always a tricky moment. On the one hand we want to protect the one who's been or about to be or IS BEING hit! Protect them physically and emotionally. In most cases it makes sense to intervene when hitting is taking place.
We want them to know they didn't deserve to be hit, that no one does and that it's not their fault. Their emotional reaction is natural, whatever it is. We are here for them and we are continuing to work as a family to change that dynamic.
On the other hand we want to help the one who's hitting as much as possible. Hitting people is not an effective or sustainable emotional communication strategy. It will be to the hitting child's benefit (and everyone else's) for them to learn other ways to express themselves.
It's important to note that I didn't say we have to make them stop hitting. The make/stop mindset is adversarial in nature and not effective in creating lasting change.
Learning something as subtle and deep as self-motivated self-regulation (SMSR) takes guidance and practice. Practice is another word for making lots of mistakes. When we can accept this process we relax into it.
The skill of self-motivated self-regulation involves many aspects. Paying attention to our emotions, noticing when we're upset, then noticing in an instant how our body wants to react before it does, then having the capacity to interrupt that impulse and choose another without repressing the actual feelings or they'll leave residue and leak out in other ways.
That is no small feat. Learning that takes time. We must be with them on that learning journey. That's why I always say we are Learning Partners.
The opposite of SMSR is FMSR which is Fear-Motivated Self-Regulation. The motivation of fear is less stable and resilient. It is destined to fall because it's not built on a solid inner foundation.
When the motivation for an action or choice arises from our own consciously chosen value system, as opposed to an imposed value system, the foundation is strong.
This requires being able to tune into our authentic values rather than trying to fit into the value system of an authority figure who holds power over us.
This cannot be taught in a context of wrongness. When we focus on the idea that something is wrong and we have to avoid it we are not coming from that sincere inner compass. We are no longer practicing the above mentioned SMSR skills.
Remember that practicing includes making lots of mistakes. Part of the stress we parents often feel is the desire for kids to learn quicker than they are.
This expectation creates tension that causes us to see them as wrong. The wrong mindset practically forces us to use coercion because that's its root. This of course causes them to learn even slower which confirms our original stress point!
This is why so many parents say that their kids know better so they don't understand why they keep doing the same thing.
Instead I try and encourage parents to anticipate the behaviour so that their emotional reaction is chosen rather than reactionary.
For example if one kid hits another out of frustration I might tell them that their feelings are valid and I want to help them express their emotions without hitting or hurting someone else.
We discuss alternatives and role play them to practice. I ask them to call on me if they're struggling so I can help them. They say they understand and we hug it out. Lovely interaction.
As soon as I turn around in my mind I adjust my mindset to anticipate the next hit. I know it's coming. I won't be surprised. I know it takes time to learn. I know I may have to repeat the empathy and connection many times.
I'm ready to engage in a long term learning process with my kids so I'm not upset when they hit again just 5 minutes later.
If instead I react and see them as wrong they will feel judged. When this happens kids just can't hear us and really can't hear themselves.
It's really not necessary to make anyone feel wrong in order to handle a hitting situation. We are so programmed to think it is necessary that it feels like we're not being responsible if we don't do it. We must project at least a little bit of wrongness or how will we demonstrate our values?
In fact wrongness is always less productive in teaching compassion, empathy and SMSR.
Instead we can practice holding everyone in their learning process (including ourselves). We can see and trust in their deep intelligence (a term I've adopted from my friend Tanya Williams). We can have compassion for their struggle and offer them that compassion through empathy.
When one kid hits another they both deserve our empathy for they are both struggling and learning. We can let them both know that we see their struggle and their pain. I call it ping pong empathy.
Reflecting and naming feelings honestly and non-judgmentally can help everyone learn.
“I'm sorry you're hurt. It's no fun to be hit (or yelled at or whatever the behaviour we're addressing is). I can see you're upset. It's natural to be upset and cry if someone hits you. I get upset and cry too. I'm here for you.”
Then to the other kid.
“You were so upset they knocked down your blocks. I'm so sorry that happened to you. It's totally natural to feel upset and to express it. I know that's why you hit your sibling. I get upset sometimes too. Thank you for sharing your feelings with me. I'm here for you.”
No need to point out anybody's wrongness.
Yes we want them to learn not to hit. That is not the most effective moment to bring it up. We want our kids to feel safe in those moments so they continue to turn to us.
Telling the kid who hit that you feel their pain does not diminish the validity of the other kid's experience.
Any time people interact it's never going to be perfect, because learning is messy, emotions are messy and humans are messy!
The key isn't to avoid the mess, but to get right into the mess with our kids so they feel us with them. We are figuring life out together.
Learning is a lifelong process. When we are process focused rather than behaviour focused, we see quite a difference in how our kids relate to us. When our relationship is based on collaboration and co-learning instead of competition and control they feel safe with us in a whole new way.
It takes practice to learning to adopt a no wrongness mindset. Especially when one's kid is being hurt. We want to jump in and put a stop to it. In these moments it's most effective if we can keep our centre and remember the power of empathy.
Of course we'll forget. That's what practice is for. See… We have to practice just as much as our kids do. When we recognize that we realize we really are on a learning path together. It's not just a philosophy.
Since it is challenging to at times it is useful to practice seeing other situations this way as well. It helps to drive the perspective home.
See where else you can apply this radical acceptance, no wrongness, sustained empathy mindset in your interactions.
Does your kid leave a mess?
Get huffy when you them to do something?
Complain about things they really doesn't need to?
Refuse to do homework?
There are so many possibilities, really the list is endless, as are the opportunities for practice! 😀