Parents of younger children often ask us for help with this problem: I stop my own kids from acting unsafely towards others but don’t know what to do if someone’s else’s child is grabbing, pushing, shoving, or hitting in ways that are hurtful even if not dangerous. Or, the child is saying things that are really rude. Other parents or family members often tell me I should just let kids work problems out themselves. I don’t want to be overprotective, but feel awful when my own kids look at me when this happens as if they are wondering why I’m not doing anything!
Most adults will not let children work things out for themselves with cars, fires, knives, or bodies of water because someone might get hurt. Most adults will not stand by if a child starts tearing pages out of a book, coloring on the wall, or smashing food into the carpet, because this behavior is destructive even if no one is about to get hurt. So why would adults abandon children by expecting them to work things out for themselves when dealing with problems with people?
Until they have the skills to manage problems on their own, children need our help! We can set a good example for our kids by showing them that unsafe, disrespectful behavior is not okay – and by advocating for their safety while coaching them in what to say and do to speak up for themselves as soon as they are able to understand.
In deciding how to intervene, the first step is to assess the situation. Where is this problem happening? Are these parents you know or parents you don’t?
Suppose you are in a public place like a playground. You do NOT know the adults who seem to be taking care of a child who is bothering your child. The adults are clearly with this child and don’t seem aggressive, just distracted. In this case, you can ask the adults to help their child be safe with their body.
If there is no adult who seems to be in charge, I might ask the child, “Where’s your grownup? Please go ask your grownup to play with you because we want to play on our own.” If this doesn’t work, you can calmly create a barrier by putting yourself between the child and your child and saying something in a calm kind voice, such as, “Pushing is against our safety rules. Please go check with your grownups.” And ,if that doesn’t work, then you might need to go to some other place to play.
If you DO know the other parents or caregivers, then you can make an agreement about the rules for playing together. Let them know that you plan to step in firmly and kindly when any child pushes or hurts another child and that you will be doing this for all the children involved – and hope they will do the same. Remind them that children need guidance in learning social safety skills, just like they need guidance and support in learning other skills.
For younger children, positive simple verbal interventions and creating gentle physical barriers can be very effective in reminding children to be safe with their bodies. You can put your hand in the way to block the hit or the push without hitting or pushing back and say in a firm kind voice, “Pushing is not safe. If you want more space, you can say, ‘More space please.'” Or, “Stop! No hitting. If you feel upset, you can say, ‘I don’t like that.!”
You can coach children in how to speak up for themselves and to listen to others by giving them the words to say and modeling how to say it firmly and respectfully.
- You can say, “Wait. It’s my turn. You can use it when I’m done'” Or, “Stop! No grabbing.”
- Please ask for what you want in a kind way. Say, ‘May I use that please?’
- You can use your Listening Power and your Waiting Power. Are there other things you can play with for a little while?
- You can say, “Stop that game! It’s too rough. Let’s play something else.”
For older children, adults can model powerful positive leadership by stepping in to discuss what is going on, stating the values, asking questions to explore whether these values are being met, and exploring options so that everyone can have a good time.
You can access the following articles by signing up for free community membership in our extensive online library:
- Keeping Playdates Fun and Safe
- 7 Positive Strategies for Managing Aggressive Behavior in Young Children
- Kidpower Safety Signals for Everyone, Everywhere
These articles and much more are in our book: Earliest Teachable Moment: Personal Safety for Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers.
For more information, see our Young Children page.