You’re reading Between Us, a place for parents to offload and share their tricky parenting dilemmas. Share your parenting dilemma here and we’ll seek advice from experts.
Being a kid is tough – you’re basically navigating how to be a human, all while surrounded by other little people who are figuring that out, too.
Some children are a bit louder and more boisterous, while others might be quieter and more reserved. Some kids play nicely together and others, well, get a bit... feisty.
But what are you supposed to do, as a parent, when other children seem to make a beeline for your child and try to push all manner of boundaries? And how should you react in these situations, when telling other people’s kids off is so divisive?
Such is the case for one anonymous parent, who shared their parenting dilemma with us:
“I’m worried my child won’t stand up for herself. My child is being pushed around a lot by other kids. She’s very gentle and shy, so will often just watch kids from the sidelines. But for some reason other children just seem to think this means she’s a punch bag. It’s happened a lot where she’s been hit, scratched or pushed over by other children (both people we know and strangers) in social settings and she never retaliates, she just stands there looking a bit shocked.
“Do you have any advice on what to tell her/how to react in those instances as I never know if I’m getting it right? I’m just worried she’ll start school and then kids will just make a beeline for her. Is there anything else I can be doing to help her stand up for herself in these situations?”
So, what can they do?
It’s not a unique dilemma by any means. Of parents with children aged 0-3 years old, a survey by Stokke found 27% were worried about their child not being able to stand up for themselves.
There are a few things this parent can do, starting with...
1. Don’t feel pressured to change who your child is
“When a child is shy, and other children around them are taking advantage, there is a pressure that we might feel to make our child change,” says Counselling Directory member Nina Jellinek.
But she suggests this isn’t the best approach: “Some children are shy, and we need to help them to understand that this is ok, and that it does not give anyone the right to hurt them.”
2. Help your child advocate for themselves
Counselling Directory member Laura Wood advises the parent to show their child that “being protective over their personal space and safety is more important than being polite”.
So, how might they go about this? “Children can be prompted to use phrases that they feel comfortable with such as ‘please don’t touch me without asking first’ or ‘I am in charge of my body’ and you can rehearse using these phrases at home when they’re feeling calm,” she suggests.
Jellinek agrees that looking at ways to bolster self-esteem and encourage the child to voice how they feel about what happens is key.
“This could involve supporting them to directly tell the other party how they feel about what they are doing,” she suggests. “But if that does not feel ok for your child, it might be about encouraging them to talk to an adult who can advocate for them.”
3. Don’t be afraid to step in
It can feel awkward stepping in when a stranger’s child is involved in an altercation – after all, if another child has randomly lashed out at yours at the park, you might expect their parent to get involved – but Wood stresses you need to address the situation, too.
She suggests you could say something like: “Please use kind hands. My child isn’t allowed to play with children who don’t have kind hands.”
Then you can explain kind hands means only touching if you’ve asked first and being gentle.
Once you’ve said this, she recommends approaching the other child’s parent and telling them that you have just spoken to both children about personal space and respecting boundaries.
“Most parents will understand and try to encourage their children to be respectful towards their peers,” she adds.
And, if the child continues to treat your child in a rough way, she advises the parent to remove their child from the situation and explain that “it wasn’t their fault, but you are keeping them safe and that it isn’t a safe place to play if their body doesn’t feel safe”.
4. Don’t expect them to retaliate
Depending on our own upbringing, we can sometimes expect children to retaliate or think it’s important to tell them to stand up for themselves in these situations.
But Jellinek says that while sometimes this is reasonable advice, often it is not. “The myth that ‘if you stand up to bullies, they will back down’ is often exactly that… a myth,” she says.
“At times standing up to bullies may result in your child being hurt even more. Bullies do not always back down when confronted; often they escalate, so it is important we do not put our children in the situation where they feel pressured to do this.”
Instead, she suggests teaching your child that it is ok to stand up for themselves, but only if they feel safe or able to.