When children struggle, there really isn’t one “right” way to help them that will work every time. Our job is to be patient, keep things safe, and do our best to give the right amount of help. Sometimes we end up giving too much help, sometimes we end up giving too little, but in the end the most important thing to remember is that we can trust in development. If we are modeling respect and giving kids safe places to experiment with emotions and sharing, the natural human drive for empathy will win out.
Here's a play-by-play…
Let’s say we had two children of the same age (2 years old), Maria and Preema, and Maria was interested in gently touching Preema’s head. If I could slow down time and choose the most intentional reaction, this is what I might say…
The first thing I would do is move closer. If it seemed to me that Preema liked what Maria was doing, I might not say anything. If I wasn’t sure, I would reflect what I saw and ask:
To Preema: “Maria is touching your head. How does it feel, Preema?”
To Maria: “You are touching Preema’s head. Do you think she likes it?”
It’s important not to project our feelings or worries onto children. This is especially easy to do when we believe one child is often “aggressive” and another is a “victim.” If we believe this, we may create a self fulfilling prophecy. At this age, it’s unlikely that children are really falling into long-term habits of aggression or passivity. More likely they are simply curious about each other.
It’s important to talk to both children, and not focus solely on the “aggressor” or the “victim." I want to sent the message that I value the feelings and wishes of both children, even if I am preventing some of those wishes from coming true.
If it seemed like Preema didn’t like it but was not in danger of getting hurt, I would give her a short amount of time to solve the problem herself by saying “No” or moving away. I would narrate again:
To Maria: “Preema doesn’t like it. She is moving away. I think she wants more space.”
To Preema: “You didn’t like it, so you moved away. Now you have more space.”
Mobile children often move away from a stimulus they don't like. This is a great strategy for children to use in unwanted interactions. It also shows the other child a natural consequence for their actions.
What if Preema was a young, nonmobile baby? Or perhaps she is stuck in a corner or does not think of moving away. In this case, I would intervene more directly. I would stop the touches gently with my hands, while simply and calmly stating the boundary:
To Maria: “Preema doesn’t like having her head touched right now. I won’t let you touch her.” I probably would also clear a path for Preema to move away.
To Preema: “You really didn’t like it. I will give you some more room to move away.”
Children have a right to consent to touch. As adults, we can support that right by intervening and preventing unwanted contact, whether it is from a child or from another adult.
Almost every time, this level of selective intervention will resolve conflicts without taking the intiative for solving problems away from children too much. Very rarely, if children seem stuck in a rut on certain interactions, I may move to the next level of intervention, which might be offering alternatives.
To Preema: “You wanted more space. Next time you could tell Maria ‘No’ or move away.”
To Maria: “You wanted to say hello to Preema. Next time you can ask before you touch her, or wave to her.”
For children that are truly stuck, this kind of suggestion can be helpful. I would not use this line very often, though, because I know that there is more involved in developing social skills than simply getting a great new idea from an adult. By suggesting a solution to the conflict, I am depriving the children of the chance to discover their own solution (which might be better than mine!). That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t ever say it, but I would do so…selectively.
And that brings us back to the crux of selective intervention: it just depends on the situation. In the beginning, it feels useful to have a “script” of sorts like the one I have provided here. Eventually it will feel authentic and easy to vary based on what is happening in the moment.