“I often hear adults say to children, ‘It is OK to be angry, but not to hit.’ That’s true, but I think that it skips over an important step, which is the urge to hit.”
These are the words of Dr. Larry Cohen, the prolific author of wise books for parents, such as The Art of Roughhousing and The Opposite of Worry: The Playful Parenting Approach to Childhood Anxieties and Fears. Last year, in his excellent Playful Parenting newsletter, Larry tackled the thorny issue of kids hitting. Listen in:
Marsha Linehan, the psychologist who developed Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), talks about “the action urge” which is a part of every emotion. Hitting is a common action urge for anger, while hiding one’s face is a common action urge for shame, and looking for a sympathetic listener is a common action urge for sadness.
So perhaps it makes more sense to say, “It’s OK to be angry, and being angry can make a person want to hit, but I’m going to help you find something else to do instead.” Linehan talks about “opposite actions” and “alternate actions.”
For anger, an opposite action may be to caress the baby instead of hitting the baby—but that may be too far for the child to reach right at that moment. So an alternate action—taking a walk, jumping on the couch, whacking a parent with a pillow—may be more successful. Whacking a parent with a pillow is an interesting example of an alternate action, because it takes the aggressive energy and transforms it through playfulness into something that isn’t harmful or destructive.
If we only say, “don’t hit,” then children don’t know what to do instead. (We tell them to “be nice” instead, but that is a little too vague and abstract.)
If we only say, “Oh, you hit because you’re angry, I understand,” then the child’s conscience doesn’t get the feedback that hitting is wrong. Of course, when we hit children for hitting, then we definitely don’t help them understand that hitting is wrong!
Instead, we can help children understand that emotions spark urges, and then they get to decide what to do with those urges—carry them out, try the opposite, or do something altogether different.
Thank you, Larry!
Joe Kelly is the best-selling author of Dads and Daughters: How to Inspire, Understand, and Support Your Daughter and 5 other fathering books. He is also Co-Founder of New Moon Girls.