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When Your Child Acts Aggressively Towards Another Child, Should You Comfort Them?

Myth: When your child acts aggressively towards another child at a playdate and then runs back to you for comfort, comforting them rewards their behavior and encourages it.

Truth: Your comfort and empathy help your child calm down and access the parts of their brain that can have empathy for others, and can think rationally to make better decisions.

Many parents feel torn between reprimanding and comforting, especially if other parents are looking on. They feel responsible to “do something about their child’s behavior”. This is especially true if you were raised in a home where you had to be obedient, and rewards, consequences, or punishments were used to ensure your obedience. 

But even though you feel the pressure from other parents to change your child’s “bad” behavior, you probably also feel a pull towards comforting your child. You see their struggle.

Here’s why they need comfort:

Your child was out of control and (probably) knows they shouldn’t have done what they did. They’re seeking comfort and support. They want and need to know they’re still loved and belong. They won’t be able to tell you that though.

They need support to calm themselves back down before you talk about repairing the situation and relationship. They also need to calm before you can talk with them about how they can behave differently next time. That’s because the rational “thinking” part of the brain doesn’t function well, if at all, when they’re upset.

The belief that comforting a child rewards their behavior and will result in them repeating the behavior is based on the old paradigm philosophy that children only behave according to whether we reward or punish their behavior.

Rewards and punishments MAY change their behavior at the moment, but in the long term, they fracture your relationship by breaking your child’s trust in you.

In the new paradigm (based on current neuroscience), we know that when children act aggressively or are out of control, that their nervous system is in fight/flight, and they need help from a calm, grounded adult to calm themselves (co-regulation).

Helping our children co-regulate also strengthens our connection with them and helps them feel safe. We can THEN influence them through our connection, without rewarding and punishing. We can teach them strategies for handling their big emotions differently, without aggression, in the future.

Image Credit: Xavier Mouton, Unsplash