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Now Is the Right Time!
Children ages 5-10 are working on understanding rules and applying them in various situations. They are seeking independence and will naturally test limits and break rules. When they do, they require guidance on how to repair harm caused to a relationship or item. This is a normal part of their development and necessary for their learning.
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you can choose to be purposeful and deliberate in the ways you provide guidance when poor choices or mistakes are made. Your support in building the skill of repairing harm can help your child actively develop social awareness — “the ability to understand the perspectives of and empathize with others, including those from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and contexts.”1 They’ll also exercise responsible decision making, or “the ability to make caring and constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions across diverse situations,” learning that their choices cause a reaction or outcome that can harm others or themselves.1 These skills grow your child’s sense of responsibility all the while improving your relationship.
Some parents, and those in a parenting role, feel that if they do not impose punishments their child will not understand that their behavior is inappropriate. In fact, when a child is punished, they often feel scared, humiliated, and hurt. This overwhelming sense of fear or hurt impacts their relationship with you while also failing to teach them the appropriate constructive behavior and build a skill. Your child is likely to miss the lesson you want to emphasize entirely and feel unsafe.
Pay attention when you use punishments to whether or not the poor choice is made again to know if the lesson was learned. In fact, punishment often leads to more poor choices. A vicious cycle begins in which a child feels badly about themselves and repeats the behaviors that are expected of a “bad child.” To interrupt this cycle, parents need to learn to actively support their child in repairing harm.
Children ages 5-10 will naturally make mistakes, have accidents, and break rules. And when they do, they are only considering their own impulses and desires and not how it might impact you or others. Children require support and follow through from parents to make things better. They need to understand that they always have another chance to repair harm. This skill is developed over time and requires a lot of practice.
Research confirms that part of the higher order thinking skills children are in the process of developing involves consequential thinking or linking cause to effect.2 This directly impacts their school success and ability to take responsibility for their actions as they grow. Children need the guidance and support of caring adults to learn these skills.
Guidance on repairing harm can be challenging for many parents and those in a parenting role.3 Instead of a quick, reflexive response like yelling, scolding, or punishing, repairing harm takes time, follow through, and thoughtful consideration. And, it can become the most powerful teaching opportunity for your child as they learn to take responsibility for their actions and begin to understand how their choices impact others. As you utilize these teachable moments that grow your child’s skills, your relationship with your child will be enriched. The steps below include specific, practical strategies along with effective conversation starters.
Why Guidance for Repairing Harm?
When your five-year-old breaks their sister’s toy, your eight-year-old hides their failed test and lies about it, or your ten-year-old verbally fights with a neighbor, these situations are opportunities to provide guidance for repairing harm.
Today, in the short term, guidance for repairing harm can create
- a sense of confidence that you can help your child heal hurt relationships and make up for mistakes they’ve made,
- a greater understanding of the connection between your child’s actions and their impact on themselves and others,
- trust in each other that you have the competence to make things right after harm has been done, and
- a growing understanding of rules and expectations.
Tomorrow, in the long term, guidance for repairing harm helps your child
- build skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships, and responsible decision making;
- learn independence and self-sufficiency; and
- build assertive communication to express needs and boundaries critical for keeping them safe and ready to deal with peer pressure.
This five-step process helps you guide your child to build the skills necessary to repair harm in their relationships, when they make poor choices, or have accidents. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are done best when you and your child are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input
A child’s behaviors are often influenced by their feelings. Feelings are spontaneous reactions to people, places, and experiences.2,4 Feelings are not right or wrong, but what your child does with their feelings may be appropriate or inappropriate. Though they may act on a feeling in a moment that harms another either through words or actions, they likely won’t consider the impact on others until the harm has already been done.
You can help your child start understanding their feelings by asking open-ended questions. In gaining input:
- You can transform an unsafe or inappropriate behavior into a teachable moment by uncovering your child’s feelings.
- You can better understand why your child is behaving in a certain way.
- You can begin to teach your child how to understand their own impulses and feelings, which will help them manage their own behaviors.
- You can grow their self-control, self and social awareness, and problem-solving skills.
Children ages 5-10 are still learning to understand their own feelings, other people’s feelings, and how their own actions affect others. They will need your support in figuring all this out. When both you and your child are calm, reflect on your child’s feelings so you can be prepared to help. Ask yourself:
- “Does my child have an unmet need?” They might need someone to listen or give them attention, some alone time, or some help so they can be successful at something they are trying to do.
- You can ask them about how they are feeling.
- “I noticed your face got really red. So, when you said unkind things to your sister, were you feeling frustrated?”
- “I saw your friend leave you at the playground to go play with someone else. I wonder if you are feeling sad?”
- You can also ask them about how they think others might be feeling.
- “Your sister cried when you said those unkind words to her. How might she be feeling?”
- “When your friend didn’t get to take their turn, how do you think they were feeling?”
- “When you said that to me, how do you think that made me feel?”
- Use your best listening skills! Listen closely to what is most concerning to your child without projecting your own thoughts, concerns, and feelings.
- Explore the mind-body connection. In calmer moments with your child ask, “How does your body feel now?” See how descriptively they can list their physical signs of wellbeing. Now ask, “How does your body feel when you are angry?” For every person, their physical experience will be different. Find out how your child feels and make the connection between those symptoms and the normal feelings they are having.
Avoid letting the question turn into an accusation. Remember to stay calm and that the goal of the question is to help the child uncover feelings.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
The fundamental purpose of repairing harm is to grow the skill of taking responsibility through constructive action such as healing hurt relationships and mending broken objects. Learning new skills and behaviors requires modeling, practice, support, and recognition.
Learning how to understand your own feelings and behaviors when your child behaves inappropriately is a great way to start. It will help you understand what they are learning to do. You might ask yourself:
- “Do I get angry when they act in a certain way?”
- “How do I respond to my anger?”
- “How do I want my child to respond when they feel angry?”
Learning about your child’s developmental milestones can help you have reasonable expectations for your child.
- Five-year-olds are working on understanding rules and routines. Consistency helps them feel a sense of stability. Sometimes they have to break rules or enforce them on others to internalize their newfound understanding.
- Six-year-olds may be more apt to question your rules. They thrive on encouragement. They can become critical of others and need experience and encouragement with kindness and inclusion.
- Seven-year-olds crave structure and may struggle with changes to the schedule. They may be moody and require reassurance from adults.
- Eight-year-olds are more resilient when they make mistakes. The approval of their peers and teachers is very important.
- Nine-year-olds can become easily frustrated. They need directions that contain one instruction. They may worry about peer approval and their own appearance and interests. They may be tough on themselves when they make a mistake.
- Ten-year-olds are developing a strong sense of right and wrong and fairness. They tend to be able to work through conflicts with friends more rapidly. Because they are keen to understand justice, they will also better understand the value when you guide them to repair harm.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.5 This is also an opportunity to establish meaningful, logical consequences when expectations are not met.
It can be easy for parents or those in a parenting role to scold a child who has made a poor choice, inducing a feeling of shame. Instead, we want children to feel empowered to take steps toward making something better. Remember that even children are their own worst critic and may already have intense messages of failure generated in their self-talk. Calming down first will take the heat out of your tone and send the message of support for guiding them toward a next better decision.
- Teach your child positive behaviors. Each time your child acts inappropriately, ask yourself what positive behavior you need to teach and practice that can replace the inappropriate behavior.
- At a calm time, ask, “What helps you feel better when you’re sad, mad, or hurt?” Share ideas like taking deep breaths, getting a drink of water, taking a walk, or asking for a hug.
- Teach positive ways to ask for attention. It’s easy to get into the habit of pointing out what children are not doing right. When children are behaving inappropriately to get attention, they have not yet learned how to get attention in positive ways. Consider how your child can seek your attention in acceptable ways. Then, actively teach these kinds of attention-getting behaviors. Would you like your child to say a polite “Excuse me” when they need you and you’re engaged in a conversation? If so, practice as a family. Do a dry run so that all are comfortable and then reinforce that positive behavior to create more of the same.
- Brainstorm healthy coping strategies and make a list together to keep in an accessible location. These might include hugging a pillow, reading a favorite book, walking outside, getting a glass of water, or listening to music.
- Work on your family feelings vocabulary. Children ages 5-10 are still learning about feelings. Notice and name feelings, when a family member is showing an expression, to offer plenty of practice. Ask, don’t tell. “Dad, you look sad. Is that right?” Being able to identify feelings is the first step in successfully managing emotions.
- Model assertive communication through “I-messages.” Here’s how: “I feel (insert feeling word) when you (name the words or actions that upset you) because (state the impact).” Here’s an example: “I feel sad when you say hurtful things to your brother. It hurts his feelings.” This helps you take responsibility for your feelings while avoiding blaming language like “You did…” (which closes down the mind and ears of the other). It helps communicate the problem constructively.
- Begin to teach your child how to repair harm. When they hurt a sibling’s feelings, talk to them about what they could do to help heal the relationship such as apologizing, doing an act of kindness for the other, writing a note, drawing a picture, or offering a hug.
- End the day with love. When children behave inappropriately during the day, they often end the day feeling bad about themselves. Children tie your love to their behavior. If you act proud of them, they feel loved. If you are disappointed or mad at them, they feel unloved. Be sure that you spend one-on-one time with your child if they have had rough patches that day. This teaches them that they are loved no matter what choices they make. It encourages them to practice new ways of behaving.
When you are reflecting on your child’s feelings, you can think about unpacking a suitcase. Frequently, there are layers of feelings that need to be examined and understood, not just one. Anger might just be the top layer. After you’ve discovered why your child was angry, you might ask about other layers. Was there hurt or a sense of rejection involved? Perhaps your child feels embarrassed? Fully unpacking the suitcase of feelings will help your child feel better understood by you as they become more self-aware.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills and Develop Habits
Practice can take the form of pretend play, cooperatively completing the task together, or trying out a task with you as a coach and ready support. In the case of repairing harm, following up with your child helping them to make things better after a poor choice has been made will offer this kind of rehearsal. Practice is necessary for children to internalize new skills. Practice makes vital new brain connections that strengthen each time your child performs the new action.
- Accept feelings. If you are going to help your child manage their biggest feelings, it is important to acknowledge and accept their feelings — even ones you don’t like. When your child is upset, consider your response. Instead of focusing on their actions or the problem, focus on their feelings FIRST. You could say, “I hear you’re upset. What can you do to help yourself feel better? Would your calm down space help you feel better?” Then, focus on teaching and practicing better behavior.
- Use “Show me…” statements. When a child learns a new ability, they are eager to show it off! Give them that chance. Say, “Show me how you are able to heal your relationship with your sister.” This practice will prepare your child to use it when they require your attention and they are tempted to misbehave to get their need met.
- Offer limited and authentic choices. Offering them a choice, even if small — “Could you talk to her directly or write her a note?” — can return a sense of control to their lives. It also offers valuable practice in responsible decision making.
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like, “I notice how you went back to your sister to talk to her after you fought to make things better. That’s how you heal the relationship.”
- Practice deep breathing. Because deep breathing is such a simple way to assist your child anytime, anywhere, it’s important to get plenty of practice so that it becomes easy to use when needed. Here are some enjoyable ways to practice together!5
- Blowing Out Birthday Candles Breathing. You can pretend you are blowing out candles on a birthday cake. Just the image in your head of a birthday cake brings about happy thoughts. And, in order to blow out a number of small flames, you have to take in deep breaths.
- Ocean Breathing. Practice making the noise of the sea waves while breathing deeply from your diaphragm. Close your eyes with your child and imagine that your anger is a fiery flame waiting on a sandy shore. And, as you breathe life into the ocean waves, they grow closer and closer to the flame to extinguish it.
- Follow through on repairing harm. When your child has caused harm, they need your guidance, encouragement, and support in following through to repair it. They may need to hold your hand through the process, and that’s okay! They are learning the invaluable skill of responsible decision making.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your child some new strategies. You’ve practiced together. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, coaching, and, when appropriate, applying logical consequences. Parents naturally offer support as they see their child fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Ask key questions to support their skills. For example, “You are going to see Julie today. How will you let her know that you are sorry for your words yesterday?”
- Learn about development. Each new age and stage will present differing challenges and along with them, stress, frustration, and anger.
- Promote an “I can” belief. Children need to hear that you believe in their ability to mend their relationships.
- Foster friendships. Close friends can be an invaluable source of empathy and support for your child. Reserve your judgment and coach toward making amends.
- Stay engaged. Working together on ideas for trying out new and different coping strategies can help offer additional support and motivation for your child when tough issues arise.
- Apply logical consequences when needed. Logical consequences should come soon after an inappropriate behavior and need to be provided in a way that maintains a healthy relationship. Rather than punishment, a consequence is about supporting the learning process and avoiding harm.
- First, get your own feelings in check. Not only is this good modeling, when your feelings are in check you are able to provide logical consequences that fit the behavior.
- Second, invite your child into a discussion about the expectations established in Step 2.
- Third, consider a logical consequence of their actions as a teachable moment. Be certain to consider the following questions before making your decision. 1) What will you teach with this consequence? 2) Has a natural consequence already taken place such as a friend turning away, a broken toy, a failed grade? Sometimes the natural consequence is more than enough, and you don’t need to impose yet another. 3) Will the logical consequence be obviously connected to the poor choice so that you can teach cause and effect with the action?
Learning to repair harm after making a poor choice takes time. Children ages 5-10 may need your ideas, support, and guidance a number of times since each situation will be unique. That’s okay. What’s important is that you work to understand their feelings, teach new behaviors, and practice all the while maintaining a healthy, supportive, loving relationship with your child. Your healthy, supportive, loving relationship with your child is what is most important.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
No matter how old your child is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
If your child is working to grow their skills — even in small ways — it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way in promoting positive behaviors and helping your child manage their feelings. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
You can recognize your child’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior of which you want to see more. For example, “I noticed you made up with your sister even before I said anything. That’s the way to be a big sister.”
Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior, while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying, “If you don’t argue with your sister, you’ll get extra game time” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “You were helpful in the store today. I really appreciate that!”
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When children are using the self-management tools you’ve taught them, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed. “I noticed you picked up trash on the neighbors’ lawn left by your friends. That’s really taking responsibility.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your child is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. Promote joy and happiness by laughing, singing, dancing, hugging, and snuggling to appreciate one another.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.