We all have those moments. Whether on TV or in real life, our children at some point are exposed to an adult acting in a way he or she shouldn’t. Be it violent outbursts or other improprieties, we, the parents, are left with a dilemma. How do I explain this to my child?
Before I can begin the discussion, I need to say that witnessing violent behavior is damaging to a child in many, many ways, and should be avoided whenever possible.
If there is a family member in your life who regularly exhibits violet behavior (including verbal outbursts), you should take extreme measures to limit your child’s exposure to that person.
The discussion here is about a one-time incident, where your child saw an adult behave inappropriately and is turning to you, the parent, with a big, wide-eyed “Why?”
The answer, of course, depends on the age of the child. A two or three year old will be satisfied with a simple response like, “That was a silly man, yelling like that! We know how to use our gentle words, right?” An older child will require a more complex explanation.
Until the age of seven, the conscience is not fully developed. Children understand the world based on the rules governing their own lives. Rules like “No back-talk” and “Gentle hands” provide guidance for the child’s behavior. Children who live with rules also learn to see the world as a safe, secure place in which rules are reinforced.
When a child witnesses an adult act outside of these rules, it creates cognitive dissonance. The child may be significantly shaken up. The world is no longer the safe, secure place s/he once thought it was. That is why it is so important to respond to the big-eyed “Why?” with a strong, confident response.
When talking with a child about an incident which he found disturbing, never whitewash the adult’s behavior or make it out to be “different strokes for different folks.” This slick-over of negative behavior is likely to increase the child’s anxiety, and not lessen it. Instead, follow these guidelines.
- In a calm and matter-of-fact tone, state unequivocally that the adult’s behavior was WRONG. “That woman was using strong, hateful words. Name calling is wrong.”
- Offer a possible explanation for the adult’s behavior, without removing the blame. “She must have been really angry at her friend right then. But hateful words are never okay to use.”
- Ask your child what a more appropriate behavior would have been in that situation. “What do you think she could have done instead of calling her friend mean names?”
- Remind your child of a positive role model in their life, and/or an incident in which your child demonstrated the opposite side of the coin, a strong, positive behavior. “That’s what I love about Grandma Nina. She can get upset at someone, but she’ll always wait until she’s calm and then talk to them about it in a nice way.”
“Remember that time that David broke your Lego motorcycle and you were so mad? But you didn’t call him names, you just told him he needs to fix it for you.”
Ending the conversation on a positive note will help your child restore balance in his world, and remind him that good can win out over evil, and that the power to chose good remains in his hands.