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How to Teach Kids Not to Hurt Others

"You can't come to my birthday party!" declares your 4-year-old, who is angry at her friend for refusing to play hide-and-seek for the fourth time. The last time she had a playdate, she pushed another little girl when the child picked up the doll your daughter had her eye on. Yikes -- are you raising a bully?

"It is very natural for children to react instead of think," reassures Lori Harkness, M.Ed., director of the Early Childhood Lab at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Teaching your child how to deal with disappointment and other challenges without resorting to mean words or aggression can be a challenge, but it will be well worth the effort when the teacher stops asking to speak to you when you come to pick up your darling from school.

Identify the Cause

Jillian didn't mean to hit her friend for grabbing the last swing, it's just that she was so mad! Sometimes a child's feelings become so overwhelming that she has a difficult time responding to challenges in a peaceful manner.

When aggressive behavior occurs frequently, there is always a reason driving your child's inappropriate words and actions. A child "may not be developmentally ready to play with a friend, depending on where they are socially," says Harkness. "They might be insecure about a situation at home, like a new brother or sister. Look at what is happening, and who it is happening with, to find the reason so that you can help to fix it." Keep in mind that simply not getting enough sleep at night or having a grandparent visiting can trigger behaviors that you otherwise might not see.

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Talk About the Behavior

Children, like adults, have a difficult time thinking logically when they're upset, so give your child some cool-down time, advises Harkness. When he's calmer, you can talk to him about his behavior. You might say, "I see you're upset. When you're ready to talk, I'll help you."

After giving your child a chance to get it together, talk to him about his behavior. During your discussion, help your child identify natural consequences. You could say, "When you hit your friends, they don't want to play with you. Let's talk about some ways you can be a good friend even when you're mad." Give your child examples of the words he can use. Playact scenarios that trigger anger, and have him practice using words like, "I don't like that," "I feel sad," and "May I play with that, please?"

Be Consistent

When your child is having difficulty expressing himself appropriately, it is helpful to coordinate your efforts with his school. "Get on the same page as the teacher," suggests Harkness. Find out what kind of day your child had at school, and let him know you expect appropriate behavior at school as well as at home. Talk to his teacher briefly when you pick him up and compliment him when you discover he's used his friendly words.

Being consistent at home is critical. If you are teaching your child to say "I'm angry right now" instead of yelling "I hate you," consistently reward him with a hug or pat on the back when he does so and is calm enough for your action to make an impact. Don't make the mistake of overlooking the desired behavior or ignoring poor choices.

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Withhold Attention

When you see your child shove his brother after his attempt to play with the highly coveted toy bulldozer was thwarted, your first instinct may be to admonish him. Resist this urge and go to make sure the injured child is okay. Otherwise, you risk creating a situation in which "injuring a child becomes an attention-seeking thing," warns Harkness. After you have comforted the victim, talk to your child about the problem.

Behave Yourself

Your actions are the best model for pro-social behavior your child has. If you are angry at your husband and tell him to shut up, you are setting the stage for your child to do the same. On the other hand, if your child hears you telling your husband "I feel upset right now. I need some time alone," she'll see a healthy way to handle upsetting circumstances in her own life.

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