Children have conflicts. Sometimes our child is the guilty party in starting the conflict or inflicting harm on another child (either emotional or physical harm). How do we handle these situations so that we can guide our children and help them accept responsibility for their actions? We can actually see these difficult moments as opportunities to guide our children in empathy. I talked about this topic with Greg and Lisa Popcak on their radio program More2Life on September 27th. You can listen to the archived show here.
Dr. Popcak pointed out on the show that forgiveness is messy. I think apologies are messy, too — for all of us and especially for children. Children sometimes don’t understand why they’re being asked to apologize or they feel they haven’t done anything wrong. Even if they recognize they were wrong, it can be uncomfortable and embarrassing to face the person they harmed, to apologize for their wrongdoing, and to ask for forgiveness. We can help our child deal with the fallout of her actions through patience, mercy, and compassion.
Ensure you have both sides of the story:
Ask questions about what happened. Sometimes you’ll discover there are two very different but true sides to the same story. For example, teasing is mean and frustrating. If one child is teasing another, the teased child might haul off and smack the teaser. It’s unacceptable to threaten or use violence against another person, but the teasing is a factor in the conflict, and this mitigating factor needs to be recognized and discussed. Similarly, it’s easy to assume an older sibling has wronged a younger sibling when the younger sibling is injured or crying. But respect your older child by hearing her side of the story alongside the younger child’s. Sometimes both children may need to apologize for their part in the conflict.
Connect with your child even when she’s wrong:
Recognize that your child’s position or underlying motivation in the conflict may not have been malicious or evil, however irrational it might seem to you. Your child may have had sensible reasons for his actions – at least in his mind, at his particular developmental stage. Listen to his point of view without judgment or grown-up analyses. This requires a patient, empathic, merciful kind of listening that is both difficult and valuable (valuable for all your relationships, not just the one you have with your child).
When you extend this kind of respect to your child — which he sees has taken your time, love, attention, and consideration — you gain his trust. Now a small crisis becomes an opportunity to guide your child in the Christian virtues. The point here isn’t to make excuses for your child. After all, even if her basic intention was understandable, her behavior may still have been unkind, unwise, or inappropriate.
For example, if your ten year-old daughter joins other girls in teasing a new girl at school, this choice is very wrong. But after discussing the facts with your daughter, she may relate to you that she was searching for acceptance in the group of girls doing the teasing. You can connect with your child by telling her how hard it would be to be the only one in a group of girls not joining in teasing another child. However, we also share with her why mercy and justice require us to do the right thing even when it’s difficult. The behavior issue becomes an opportunity to build your parent-child bond and to disciple your child in the Christian virtues.
Lessons in empathy:
Explain to your child the position and feelings of the person he harmed: how he feels, what he lost, and what he hoped in the friendship with your child. Recently my six year-old son blamed a friend for what he had mostly done himself. It involved a big candy stash and his sister’s private nightstand drawer. After the event, the nightstand was about the only thing left. ‘Nuf said.
Dominic explained that he hadn’t meant to get his friend in trouble; that he only wanted to keep his sister from getting mad at him! At Dominic’s age, this short-sighted thinking isn’t surprising. He is still pretty ego-centric and learning a great deal from his experiences. If I had blasted him for lying, spanked him, or scared him into apologizing, I would have missed an opportunity to reach his heart. I wanted to ensure that he understood what he should have done instead of taking the candy and then lying about it, and how his lie hurt his friend.
Children are born with a God-given capacity for empathy, but unless they experience empathy themselves and learn to recognize the emotions and inner experiences of people around them, that capacity will lie dormant. When our children hurt others, we can view it as an opportunity to train their hearts and minds in the great lessons of love. When I explained to Dominic the consequences his friend suffered because of the lie and how disappointed his friend was that Dominic hadn’t considered his feelings, Dominic was better able to see the situation from his friend’s perspective. He felt genuine remorse and it became an opportunity to teach Dominic about trust, honesty, and reconciliation.
Require an apology, but it’s okay to wait:
We want to teach our children gently that when we harm somebody, we have sinned: We cause a rupture between ourselves and God, and ourselves and the person we hurt. We want to repair those ruptures. Now, clearly this is a big concept for little people to understand, but they can begin to learn it, think about it, and eventually they will understand it. The spirit of darkness would like nothing more than for our child to develop pride and to refuse to admit his wrongs or to made amends for them.
When we have sinned against God and brother or sister, we need to make amends to both. Our child can reconcile with God through prayer and through the Sacrament of Confession if she is old enough. Even though God forgives us for our sin against Him when we go to Confession, He still requires that we seek reconciliation with the person we harmed.
God wishes to heal the rupture to community caused by our sin, but I suggest we use discernment in requiring our child to apologize to the person he hurt. Dr. Popcak pointed out at the beginning of the show that when somebody has hurt us, sometimes it’s prudent not to rush to forgiveness because we may have work to do before we’re prepared to let go. We think we’re doing the right thing by saying “I forgive you”, but our bodies can give us clues that we are still conflicted and in pain. The Theology of the Body reminds us that we need to contemplate our physical responses to these kinds of events. Similarly, science tells us a lot about a child’s body when they are in distress, and I think that information gives us a reason not to rush them to an apology.
Sometimes our child may be so upset that it’s impossible to talk to him rationally about what he’s done wrong and why he needs to make things right with the person he hurt. Young children’s brains are so immature that their logical brain is “off-line” when they’re emotionally charged and the more primitive impulsive parts of her brain are in control. If your young child seems out of her mind when she’s upset, that’s because it’s sort of true! In these cases, connect with your child, help her calm down, and help her talk through her emotions. Now her logical brain and the emotional brain are communicating. At this point, she will be receptive to guidance and more capable of self-reflection.
Our primary goal in these situations is to teach our children about how to handle themselves better in the future and how their actions can affect others. If the children are relatively calm, you can help your child apologize on the spot. If your child can’t or won’t apologize on the spot, ensure the hurt child receives what she needs from you or the other parent. You can apologize to the child yourself: “I’m sorry Jane squashed your clay dog. You must have been so shocked and hurt, and you worked so hard on your dog.” If the child isn’t your own child, ensure you connect with the other parent with an apology, too.
When you discern that the time is right (whether it’s five minutes, days, or weeks), require your child to apologize to the person he hurt even if it requires a lesson in the virtue of humility. Now we have an opportunity to teach our child that we must make our wrong right with the other person when we’ve hurt them. Discuss with your child how she would like to do that. You can give her a choice in how she’ll make amends, but not on whether she’ll make amends. Allow her to make cards, pick some flowers, etc. to offer to the friend. The apology should be in person so that both children have closure over the situation.
The best way to help your child develop the humility necessary for an honest apology is to exemplify that humility yourself. Be an example to your child by apologizing to them, to your spouse, and others when you’ve been wrong in the way you’ve treated them. This modeling is the most powerful way to reach your child’s heart. We all experience regret in our relationships. Showing our children how to handle these regrets with humility will help them internalize the same loving, compassionate humility.
Photo credit: Vadim Kozlovsky (photos.com)