Archive | March, 2012

Violent Children: What if Your Child Hits You?

Yes, you read the title right: What if your child hits you?

I’m sharing two stories with you today – both true. The first took place in my presence.

A friend had invited me and my daughter, then 4, to his house for a leisurely Sunday breakfast. After a delicious meal, we sat in the living room. My friend on the sofa (couch), with his 6-year old daughter in his lap facing him, my daughter between my friend and myself. His wife and 4-year old son in two armchairs.

His daughter was trying to get permission for the children to play some game. My friend said emphatically, “No.”

She slapped him sharply on the cheek once and said, “Bad daddy.” I froze, and felt my daughter shrink into me.

My friend went very still and then said, “You don’t slap people. That was not right.” As she began to raise her hand again to repeat the slap and her message, he held on to her hands firmly, looked her in the eye and said, “You are not supposed to slap people when they disagree with you.”

She decided to try other tactics. “But daddy, I really want to – ”

He cut her off. “If you had kept your hands to yourself, I might have been willing to discuss it. But because you had to hit out, I will not listen to anything you have to say.”

That was a wise child, because she saw that she had pushed her father as far as he would let her, and she stopped trying to get her own way using wiles, tantrums or other things. In a few minutes, things returned to normal, the kids went to the play room, and the 3 of us drank our coffee.

***

The second incident I heard about from a counselor. He was approached diffidently by a couple whose only son was a year away from graduating high school. They needed to discuss their son’s behavior, they said.

They started off with a litany of praises – how he was so helpful, did all his chores without needing any prodding, was unfailingly polite and considerate, studied hard (I never cease to wonder at why this is considered such a merit; I mean ‘studied’ is enough, don’t you think? Why should everyone always ‘study hard’? But that’s just me… 🙂 ), did well at school, sports and co-curricular activities.

“Why are they here to see me, then?” my counselor friend was asking himself, but trained to listen, he let them go on.

The problem emerged after a half hour.

“The problem is -” the parents started hesitantly, and my friend, who’s attention had begun to wander, pricked up his ears. “The problem is that sometimes, he gets a bee in his bonnet about something. And then, if we don’t give in to him,” the gentleman choked up. His wife took up the sentence, “if we don’t give in to him, he beats us up,” she said, breaking down as she said the last words.

The counselor was shocked. “He hits you?”

“I don’t know. I would put it more like beats us up. You know, hits, punches, kicks – we get bruises from it. It’s like he’s been taken over by a raging beast. We’ve tried everything, but nothing seems to work. But he’s so sorry afterwards! He’s in tears and begs our forgiveness… he seems to mean it. But then it happens again.”

“And it’s not always about the same thing. Sometimes, it’s money, or permission to visit a friend, or sometimes he’ll let loose if we object to his spending so much time on the phone… We’re at our wits’ end. Please, please help us. And he is such a ‘good’ boy, but for this ‘quirk’!”

***

I was shocked when I heard of this incident from my counselor friend. You are probably shocked too. A boy who is otherwise well-behaved, an achiever, a regular ‘good’ guy – what would make him hit out – this way – at his parents? Enough to hurt them, bruise them?

And where were the parents while he was developing this habit? Because it is a habit. If he accepted their authority in all matters at other times (as his parents themselves said he did), what made him break out of that pattern sometimes?

And how did his parents accept the ‘being beaten’ pattern so completely that they felt unable to retaliate in any suitable way? Not physically, but in a way to make him get the message that such behavior was definitely ‘not on’.

Their son was a bully, the counselor told them.

They denied it vociferously. “No, no. Not always, only sometimes, and only with us. And he is really full of remorse afterwards. We have never received any complaints of his being physically aggressive with anyone else. Not once in all these years from either school or any other classes or lessons he went to, nor from his friends in the playground. He’s not a bully.”

I’m sorry, but I agree with the counselor.

To me, bullying is getting your way by force. Whether the force is physical (hitting, spitting, kicking…), social (ganging up on, ostracizing, poking fun at), or mental (humiliating…) is irrelevant. The fact that a person uses force to bend another to his or her will is bullying.

The counselor was a practitioner of alternate healing therapies, and suggested the couple learn and practise some of those therapies to solve the problem. His solution would change the energies of the couple, and therefore of their son, and all would be well, he opined.

They were more than willing to try it. Last I heard, they had practised successfully – so much so that their son stopped his abusive behavior towards them, decided to learn the alternate healing therapy himself, and became a ‘model’ child, to the undying gratitude of the couple – and the child. 🙂

This is one way of tackling such a problem.

But not everyone is open to this method. Some might be willing to try it, but might not have access to someone who they believe is the right person or has the right method to help them solve their problem.

What solution might one suggest to them?

I’d say, “Draw up a contract.”

Since the child was otherwise sensible and coherent, and seemed sorry for his behavior after the fact, it should be relatively easy for him to see the wisdom of trying to stop this behavior pattern at the earliest. (‘Nip it in the bud’ is not the right term; it was way too late for that. This behavior had blossomed fully!)

  1. Let the contract take away privileges that mean a lot to the child. “If you hit out at either of us, you won’t be able to go on that hiking trip / school trip / vacation / you’ll have to give up tennis lessons…”
  2. Let the contract agree upon what are the danger signs and what to do when they appear. For instance, if the child’s nostrils start flaring when he feels one of these bouts of uncontrollable anger (and before the hitting begins), he should pay heed to his parents’ pointing it out, and maybe go for a run to let off steam.
  3. Let the contract offer alternatives. The simplest is to have a punching bag installed in the home, and he can hit it for all he’s worth. But this is a temporary solution, which doesn’t deal with the real problem. As a functioning adult, the boy will someday have to learn to deal with these unreasonable rages which overtake him, and there won’t always be a punching bag handy. I don’t want to think about who he will use as a punching bag then…
  4. Let the parents and the child forge a joint plan of action against anger. If yoga helps, go for it. If physical exercise helps, do that. Not just when the anger is building, but as a preventive. (My favorite example: we don’t brush our teeth only when cavities are threatening. We brush to prevent them. And if we brush assiduously, we do prevent them. Simple! 🙂 ) Similarly, use exercise, meditation and/or anger management classes as a preventive – to learn to manage the excess of emotion.

But all this is post-facto.

I think we can learn a lot from trying to see how this hitting behavior became ingrained into the second family.

What must have happened?

  1. It must have started innocuously – just like in my first story. The boy must have hit his mum or dad. They must have brushed it aside as a ‘passing phase’. (By the way, most children go through a violent phase as they grow up, but parents need to tell them every time they indulge in violence, that it is ‘not acceptable’. Ignore this suggestion at your peril. It goes without saying, that the parents have to be non-violent themselves, else you might as well save your breath…)
  2. The child learnt that he could get away with hitting his mum or dad – Is this why he never ‘bullied’ anyone else? I mean, what is the fun in bending children to your will if you can bend adults – and that too, your parents (those all-powerful beings of your childhood), to your will?
  3. The parents learnt that it was alright to be hit by their child – yes! This is learning too. With everything that happens, you learn something. Every time their child hit them, it became increasingly difficult for them to resist being hit. Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? But it’s true. All behavior is just learned patterns. Repeat often enough, and the learning becomes engraved in stone.
  4. The boy became increasingly violent – This one is predictable. As his emotions beome more volatile and his physical strength grows, what else would you expect?

Inevitably, it spiraled out of control.

What could they have done to prevent it?

  1. Say “NO”. Let the child know in no uncertain terms that you disapprove of the behavior.
  2. Take a strong stand against the behavior. “This is not acceptable.” Use punitive measures (taking away privileges) every time the behavior is repeated.
  3. No exceptions to No. 2! 🙂 Not even if the child is tired, hungry, cranky, in a strange environment, unwell. Some NOs have to mean NO in all circumstances. You might want this to be one of those NOs.
  4. Discourage the behavior, don’t disapprove of the child. “If you hit me, I won’t love you” is the wrong message. It will just make the child hit someone whose love the child doesn’t want! 🙂 “I love you. This is not the way civilized people behave. I love you. This is not acceptable behavior. I love you…”
  5. Repeat all the above as often as it takes for him to get the message. And he will. Incidentally, this is equally valid for girls, who can be also be bullies – yes, even physically aggressive bullies.

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