Helping children deal with the behaviour of others

An interesting moment of serendipity happened just as I was preparing to write this post in the form of an article from the BBC website all about bullying and over protected children. The gist of it was that children who have been over protected and thereby stopped from learning the ropes of social interaction by trial and error are more likely to be bullied than their more practiced peers. I love an article that can quote research and I particularly love an article that backs up what I have been telling parents for a long time but couldn’t prove.

upset young man

I have been observing the details of this behaviour for so long I have even come up with my own name for it, ‘over-adulting’. To me there are several components of this behaviour but in essence it is all about adults wanting their child to be perfectly behaved around others.  in case you think it can’t be done, it most certainly can as long as you are prepared to be constantly supervising everything they do. The downside is that children do not learn  to manage complex social relationships or behaviour from adults telling them adult solutions to problems.  They learn from watching, particularly interactions between other children slightly older than themselves,  and from how others react to their choices. When we take away their choices by giving them ours and interfere in the consequences too learning simply doesn’t take place. essentially children learn many of the complexities of social relationships from a very young age so children who have not been allowed to mix freely with others of differing ages ( without hovering adults) before they are four or five  may well struggle  throughout their childhood and adolescence.  This is particularly important for eldest and only children who don’t have an every day older child to learn from by watching and interacting with.

I work with parents in a range of ways both with individuals and with groups through my workshops, ( and by far the most commonly presented problems  I get to hear about are children and young people who simply cannot manage the cruelty of other children, the cat and mouse games, the push-me pull-you emotional behaviour  and the compromise and negotiation required to play or  socialise in groups. So profoundly lacking are the skills of many of today’s young teens that a new code of behaviour exists whereby nobody really tells anyone else the truth to their face. Don’t get me wrong I’m not suggesting they should be rude or insulting to anyone, I’m talking about far more simple truths.

I recently worked with a 14 year old girl who was devastated that her friends  constantly made plans  to do things she did not like. She felt that they were showing their disdain for her in making such choices and that her only options were to put up with their ideas or find new friends.  She felt that her friends should take her thoughts and feelings into consideration, even though she wasn’t expressing them, and that by not doing so they were rejecting her as a friend.  This poor young woman was exhausted by constantly trying to read the nuances of her friendship group and to find her place within it. Her lovely and caring Mum, who was her role model in life (her words not mine) was constantly giving her helpful advice such as”Why don’t you ask Grace why she thinks Emily said that?”  everything was being done underneath the surface with lots of texts, each with their own subtext, social networking updates containing subtle clues to their writers true meaning and entire language of small gestures and verbal slights. The entire silent friendship group was doing the exact same thing, mind reading, asking others’ opinions and looking for subtle clues, slights and inflections everywhere. You may think this is normal teen behaviour in girls and whilst there is some truth in that viewpoint, the degree of silence and subtlety is far greater now than I have seen in the several other generations I have experienced.

girls pointing

Whilst this young woman’s ‘all in’ or ‘all out’ attitude  was extreme I have seen similar distress in children as young as four-they simply have no idea of how to create meaningful shared experiences with others.  I call it ‘red pencil syndrome’.  when a child at home is playing with a sibling or parent and wants to use the much coveted red pencil the adult will either hand it over or create a fair system of sharing. When a child without an adult present wants the red pencil there is a good chance they will not get it. Simply telling children to think about others does not teach them how to do it-empathy is learnt through trial and error with reflection  after the event.

My rule of thumb in dealing with children’s behaviour is that adults should back off but make sure the children know that they can choose to be with the adults if they wish. This does not mean that the adults will play with them or interact with them, simply that if they need to be somewhere to quieten down, feel safe or get a breather they can. When playing with other children they cannot come and ask an adult to sort out a problem for them but they can come and get a cuddle if upset. Even as I’m writing this I can imagine the horror on some people’s faces at the idea that children should be left to get on with it. If you are someone feeling that way then perhaps you are exactly the kind of parent I’m talking to.

I have some simple tips for helping children deal with the behaviour of others and the first and most important is simply “ask don’t tell”. When you ask a child a question their brain lights up like a firework, when you tell them what to do there is much less brain activity and what we are really trying to do is grow their brain. Questions might include;

“What could you do about it?” – And if they say I don’t know that is shorthand for ‘you do the thinking ‘.

” What are your choices right now?”-  And always make sure you get several answers to the question by repeating it several times.

” What would you like me to do about it?” –  This makes them use their brains but allows them to get the support they need.

My second tip would be to learn how to take your child through a process of reflection to enable them to learn. A good reflection session does not contain too much emotion, no child will answer honestly if an adult is angry with them or shows disappointment. Wait until any incident is over and everyone is calm again before reflecting on it. Reflection is where the true learning takes place so however uncomfortable it may be, however tempting getting back to normal might be remember that a good parent helps their child learn. Reflection sessions should not be about adults telling children everything they did or didn’t do, nor should they contain the word ‘why’ in relation to the child’s own behaviour.  What we want them to notice is the chain of events that caused upset or hurt regardless of where that chain of events started. We also want them to consider how they could make different choices next time a similar event occurs rather than dwelling on the mistakes of the past-we cannot change the past but we can change or influence the future.

And finally my third tip for helping children deal with the behaviour of others is to show sympathy rather than offering a solution. “Poor you,  that sounds horrible”  is sometimes all that is needed.  If the child then asks for a greater involvement then offer to help them find their own solution rather than giving them yours.





One comment

  1. What a great post! Sums up completely what I’ve been thinking for a while, and is very timely when my little girl is currently struggling with an overly bossy best friend! My daughter is very demand avoidant and she really, really struggles when this friend goes into ‘Dictator’ mode, especially as she then tells on my daughter if she refuses to comply! I always encourage them to negotiate their own settlement when they are with me, but you can’t do that in the playground, can you?!

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