Tuesday 21 May 2019

Dear David Coleman: 'Should we tell our son to fight back or walk away?'

When attacks by classmates get physical, I strongly believe we must give our children permission to retaliate in kind
When attacks by classmates get physical, I strongly believe we must give our children permission to retaliate in kind
David Coleman

David Coleman

Question: Our five-year-old boy started school in September. There seems to be a lot of scuffling between the boys in his class. He tells me about kids who fight with him, bite him, taunt him, etc. He tells me he fights back! We feel really conflicted between wanting him to be assertive and stand up for himself but believing that under no circumstance is physical violence or a physical reaction OK. We suggest he says to the kids involved, "it's not very nice to push or fight, please stop". It takes him hours to wind down from this school "craziness" and he now scuffles with his little brother. What should we do?

David replies: To my mind, there are a few things that you need to address. The first relates to his own response to his classmates and their behaviour towards him. The second relates to the school's response to all this "scuffling" amongst the boys in his class. The third relates to his interactions with his brother.

There is a difference, in my opinion, between how children need to respond to verbal taunting or mocking, and how they need to respond to physical attacks. You are correct to want him to learn to be assertive, in a manner that expresses his own power and confidence.

With verbal teasing, taunting or mocking, the most assertive responses show the teaser that we have heard what they have to say, and that we don't care, or aren't bothered by it. It is not enough to simply ignore the taunt. We must acknowledge that we heard it. If we ignore it, then it is more likely that the teaser will just try harder to wind us up by further taunting. Similarly, slagging another child back may only provoke them to retaliate with more taunts. We have to teach children to reply that they hear the other child's taunt, but aren't going to let that taunt get to them. Since this is often a new skill, if may take time and repetition to learn.

With physical attacks, or physical bullying, I strongly believe that we must give our children permission to retaliate in kind. Being hit, or kicked, or pushed is different to being taunted and so it requires a different response. Hitting back shows the aggressor that you are not an easy target. It is most likely that they will then move on to find an easier target.

Naturally, you are also saying to your child that while defending yourself physically is OK, that it is not okay to be proactively violent. In other words, they must never hit out first.

Since it seems that the "scuffling" is an almost daily occurrence and appears endemic amongst a group of boys in the class, I think you need to go and speak with the teacher to alert him or her to the dynamic as your son experiences it.

The school needs to intervene with the whole group to stop the level of physicality and taunting, such that the boys can learn to be together cooperatively, rather than competitively.

Until things in school become less aggressive and less conflictual, the final task you have is to try to create some kind of decompression zone for your son when he gets back from school.

It sounds like he arrives home still pumped up on adrenalin from the skirmishes with the other lads in his class and simply continues that style of interaction with his little brother.

So, if you can, arrange some kind of very physical activity for your son to help burn up the extra adrenalin in his system.

During this time, it will help if you can also talk him through the events of the day, such that he can begin to emotionally process the "scuffling" that has gone on.

Only after he has been running around, or cycling, or swimming, or bouncing on a trampoline, might you try transition him back into snacks, homework and playing with his brother, while you supervise and support him.

How can I help my 11-year-old son to deal with his fear of death?

Question: My 11-year-old son is afraid of death. I have tried to talk to him and I use mindfulness with him. I tell him the truth, that it is going to happen and we don't know when and it is a part of life, but nothing works. We have a very close bond and he tells me everything, I am lucky that way, but I don't know what I can do to help him with this issue.

David replies: All children need to grapple, at some point, with the existential nature of death, and learn to regulate the anxiety that may accompany that. It is not unusual for 11-year-olds to contemplate and be worried about death.

It is good that you are not offering him false hope that you, or he, or anyone, can avoid death.

However, you might want to soften your tone in how you present the facts to him. So, while you are correct to tell him that death will come to all of us, you can offer some reassurance that it typically, or mostly, happens in old age.

You can acknowledge that his fear is rational and makes good sense since we don't know what happens after death.

You might like to then offer some comfort that most people hope and expect the afterlife to be pleasant and not a bad experience. You might also want to share any strategies that you have used (or use) to cope with death and what it means to you.

Your goal is not to remove his fear of death, but rather put it in some perspective and remind him that it is OK to focus on the positives of life, since we can't control death anyway.

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