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Now Is the Right Time!
Children by the age of three are keenly aware that they are their own individual person. They look for opportunities to do some things without the assistance of an adult. They also are experiencing many feelings including pride and rebellion and are just beginning to understand how to express those feelings. They will naturally test limits and break rules. This is a normal part of their development and necessary for their learning.
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you can choose to be purposeful and deliberate in ways that provide guidance and offer support when your three-to-four-year-old makes poor choices or mistakes. Your support in building the skill of repairing harm can help your child actively develop self-awareness, understanding their thoughts, feelings, and how their reactions and impulses can result in harm. They also build self-management and relationship skills — pausing, thinking with you, and taking actions that make a situation better or mend hurt feelings.1 These skills grow your child’s sense of responsibility all the while improving your relationship.
Some parents and those in a parenting role feel that if they do not impose punishments, their child will not understand that their behavior is inappropriate. In fact, when a child is punished, they often feel scared, humiliated, and hurt. Because this overwhelming sense of fear or hurt takes over, it impacts their relationship with you while also failing to teach them the appropriate constructive behavior and build a skill. Your child is likely to miss the lesson you want to emphasize entirely and feel unsafe.
In fact, punishment often leads to more poor choices. A vicious cycle begins in which a child feels badly about themselves and repeats the behaviors that are expected of a “bad child.” To interrupt this cycle, parents need to learn to actively support their child in repairing harm.
Three and four-year-olds will naturally make mistakes, have accidents, and break rules. And when they do, they are only considering their own impulses and desires and not how it might impact you or others. In fact, though young children can appear to manipulate a situation for their own good, they typically are not disobeying your rules to hurt you. Children require support and follow through from parents to make things better. They need to understand that they always have another chance to repair harm. This skill is developed over time and requires a lot of practice.
Research confirms that part of the higher order thinking skills young children are in the process of developing involves consequential thinking, or linking cause to effect.2 This directly impacts their later school success and ability to take responsibility for their actions as they grow. Children need the guidance and support of caring adults to learn these skills.
Guidance on repairing harm can be challenging for many parents and those in a parenting role.3 Instead of a quick, reflexive response like yelling or scolding, repairing harm takes time, follow through, and thoughtful consideration. Yet, it can become the most powerful teaching opportunity for your child as they learn to take responsibility for their actions and begin to understand how their choices impact others. As you utilize these teachable moments that grow your child’s skills, your relationship with your child will be enriched. The steps below include specific, practical strategies along with effective conversation starters.
Why Repair Harm?
When your three-to-four-year-old breaks her sister’s toy or creates a stained mess on the floor, these situations are opportunities to provide guidance for repairing harm.
Today, in the short term, repairing harm can create
- a sense of confidence that you can help your child heal hurt relationships and make up for mistakes made;
- a greater understanding of the connection between your child’s actions and their impact on themselves, others, and their environment;
- trust in each other that you have the competence to make things right after harm has been done; and
- a growing understanding of rules and expectations.
Tomorrow, in the long term, repairing harm helps your child
- build skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships, and responsible decision making;
- learn independence and self-sufficiency; and
- build assertive communication to express needs and boundaries, critical for keeping them safe and ready to deal with peer pressure.
This five-step process helps you guide your child to build the skills necessary to repair harm in their relationships and when they make poor choices or have accidents. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are done best when you and your child are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input
A child’s behaviors are often influenced by their feelings. Feelings are spontaneous reactions to people, places, and experiences.2,4 Feelings are not right or wrong, but what your child does with their feelings may be appropriate or inappropriate. Though they may act on a feeling in a moment that harms another, either through words or actions, they may not consider the impact on others until the harm is already done.
You can help your child start understanding their feelings by asking open-ended questions. In gaining input:
- You can shift an unsafe or inappropriate behavior into a teachable moment by uncovering your child’s feelings.
- You can better understand why your child is behaving in a certain way.
- You can begin to teach your child how to understand their own impulses and feelings, which will help them manage their own behaviors.
- You can grow their self-control, self and social awareness, and problem-solving skills.
Before you can get input from your child to understand (and help them understand) what they are feeling, you both need to be calm. Your child will not learn from the situation if you or they are upset.
- Ask yourself if your child is hungry or tired. You could offer a snack or offer to have your child take some time to rest.
- Check on how you are feeling. If you are angry, frustrated, or overwhelmed, take a “parenting time out” and take several deep breaths (it really does help) or sit quietly for a few minutes.
- If a snack or some quiet time does not help your child calm down, then offer additional options for feeling better like hugging a pillow, coloring, or talking to a teddy bear.
Three-to-four-year-olds are in the beginning stages of learning about their own feelings, other people’s feelings, and how their own actions affect others. They will need your support in figuring all this out. When both you and your child are calm, reflect on your child’s feelings so you can be prepared to help. Ask yourself:
- “Does my child have an unmet need?” They might need someone to listen or give them attention, some rest time, or some help so they can be successful at something they are trying to do.
- You can ask them about how they are feeling. Begin with the feeling word to help them build a feelings vocabulary. Keep your words short and to the point.
- “Frustrated. Are you frustrated?”
- “Angry. Are you feeling angry?”
- “Sad. I saw your friend leave you at the playground. Did that make you feel sad?”
- You can also ask them about how they think others might be feeling to begin teaching empathy.
- “Your sister cried when you said those unkind words to her. How might she be feeling?”
- “When your friend didn’t get to take their turn, how do you think they were feeling?”
- “When you said that to me, how do you think that made me feel?”
- Explore the mind-body connection. In calmer moments with your child, ask, “How does your body feel now?” See how descriptively they can list their physical signs of wellbeing. Now ask, “How does your body feel when you are angry?” Describe how you feel to offer an example. For every person, their physical experience will be different. Point out physical symptoms you’ve observed. “I notice your face gets red. Does it feel hot when you’re mad?” Make the connection between those symptoms and the normal feelings they are having.
Avoid letting the question turn into an accusation. Remember to stay calm and that the goal of the question is to help the child uncover feelings.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
The fundamental purpose of repairing harm is to grow the skill of taking responsibility through constructive action such as healing hurt relationships and mending broken objects. Learning new skills and behaviors requires modeling, practice, support, and recognition.
Learning how to understand your own feelings and behaviors when your child behaves inappropriately is a great way to start. It will help you understand what they are learning to do. You might ask yourself:
- “Do I get angry when they act in a certain way?”
- “How do I respond to my anger?”
- “How do I want my child to respond when they feel angry?”
Learning about your child’s developmental milestones can help you have reasonable expectations for your child.
- Three-to-four-year-olds are aware of their separateness from others. This awareness can lead to testing boundaries as they attempt to assert themselves and exert control.
- Three-to-four-year-olds are interested in demonstrating their independence though they are still learning everyday skills like putting on shoes or fastening a coat. This can lead to frustrations as they are not fully capable of acting independently.
- Three-to-four-year-olds are growing in their sense of empathy for others and will attempt to comfort another crying child and will show affection for others without prompting.
- Three-to-four-year-olds are able to show a wider range of feelings.
- Three-to-four-year-olds can carry a conversation offering two to three sentences and are developing a feelings vocabulary. They are learning to describe their body sensations when they are upset or dealing with any big feeling. A feelings vocabulary takes time and practice to develop.
- Three-to-four-year-olds may still struggle with asserting their needs or communicating when upset and may still throw a tantrum to express their anger or frustration.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.5 This is also an opportunity to establish meaningful, logical consequences when expectations are not met.
It can be easy for parents or those in a parenting role to scold a child who has made a poor choice inducing a feeling of shame. Instead, we want children to feel empowered to take steps toward making something better. Remember that even children are their own worst critic and may begin to generate messages of failure in their self-talk. Calming down first will take the heat out of your tone and send the message of support for guiding them toward a next better decision.
- Teach your child positive behaviors. Each time your child acts inappropriately, ask yourself what positive behavior you need to teach and practice that can replace the inappropriate behavior. This is a critical first step.
- At a calm time, ask, “What helps you feel better when you’re sad, mad, or hurt?” Share ideas like taking deep breaths, getting a drink of water, taking a walk, or asking for a hug.
- Teach positive ways to ask for attention. It’s easy to get into the habit of pointing out what children are not doing right. When children are behaving inappropriately to get attention, they have not yet learned how to get attention in positive ways. Consider how your child can seek your attention in acceptable ways. Then, actively teach these kinds of attention-getting behaviors. Would you like your child to say a polite “Excuse me” when they need you and you’re engaged in a conversation? If so, practice multiple times as a family. Do a dry run so that all are comfortable and then reinforce that positive behavior to create more of the same.
- Brainstorm healthy coping strategies and make a list together to keep in an accessible location. These might include hugging a pillow, reading a favorite book, walking outside, getting a glass of water, or listening to music.
- Work on your family feelings vocabulary. Three-to-four-year-olds are at the early stages of understanding and communicating feelings. Notice and name feelings when a family member is showing an expression to offer plenty of practice. Ask, don’t tell. “Dad, you look sad. Is that right?” Being able to identify feelings is the first step in successfully managing them.
- Model assertive communication through “I-messages.” Here’s how: “I feel (insert feeling word) when you (name the words or actions that upset you) because (state the impact).” Here’s an example: “I feel sad when you say hurtful things to your brother. It hurts his feelings.” This helps you take responsibility for your feelings while avoiding blaming language like “You did…” (which closes down the mind and ears of the other). It helps communicate the problem constructively.
- Begin to teach your child how to repair harm. When they hurt a sibling’s feelings, talk to them about what they could do to help heal the relationship such as apologizing, doing an act of kindness for the other, drawing a picture, or offering a hug.
- End the day with love. When children behave inappropriately during the day, they often end the day feeling bad about themselves. Children tie your love to their behavior. If you act proud of them, they feel loved. If you are disappointed or mad at them, they feel unloved. Be sure that you spend one-on-one time with your child if they have had rough patches that day. This teaches them that they are loved no matter what choices they make. It encourages them to practice new ways of behaving.
When you are reflecting on your child’s feelings, you can think about unpacking a suitcase. Frequently, there are layers of feelings that need to be examined and understood, not just one. Anger might just be the top layer. After you’ve discovered why your child was angry, you might ask about other layers. Was there hurt or a sense of rejection involved? Perhaps your child feels embarrassed? Fully unpacking the suitcase of feelings will help your child feel better understood by you as they become more self-aware.
Use children’s books to help teach that difficult feelings like anger are normal and there are ways to deal with them that are healthy. A good book is When Sophie Gets Angry — Really, Really Angry… by Molly Bang and Mouse Was Mad by Linda Urban.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills and Develop Habits
Practice can take the form of pretend play, cooperatively completing the task together, or trying out a task with you as a coach and ready support. When repairing harm, following up with your child to help them make things better after a poor choice creates chances for practice. Practice is necessary for children to internalize new skills. Practice makes vital new brain connections that strengthen each time your child performs the new action.
- Accept feelings. If you are going to help your child manage their biggest feelings, it is important to acknowledge and accept their feelings — even ones you don’t like. When your child is upset, consider your response. Instead of focusing on their actions or the problem, focus on their feelings FIRST. You could say, “I hear you’re upset. What can you do to help yourself feel better? Would your calm down space help you feel better?” Then, focus on teaching and practicing better behavior.
- Use “Show me…” statements. When a child learns a new ability, they are eager to show it off! Give them that chance. Say, “Show me how you are able to make things better with your sister.” This practice will prepare your child to use it.
- Offer limited and authentic choices. Offering them a choice, even if small — “Do you want to talk to her or draw her a picture?” — can return a sense of control to their lives. It also offers valuable practice in responsible decision making.
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like, “I notice how you went back to your sister to talk to her and make things better after you got mad. That’s how you make everyone feel better.”
- Practice deep breathing. Because deep breathing is such a simple way to assist your child anytime, anywhere, it’s important to get plenty of practice so that it becomes easy to use when needed. Here are some enjoyable ways to practice together!5
- Blowing Out Birthday Candles Breathing. You can pretend you are blowing out candles on a birthday cake. Just the image in your head of a birthday cake brings about happy thoughts. And, in order to blow out a number of small flames, you have to take in deep breaths.
- Teddy Bear Breathing. Place your child’s favorite bear on their tummy while they are lying down. This is a good practice to try out at bedtime. Now, guide them to give the bear a gentle ride up and down with their breathing in and out.
- Follow through on repairing harm. When your child has caused harm, they need your guidance, encouragement, and support in following through to repair it. They may need to hold your hand through that process, and that’s okay! They are learning the invaluable skill of responsible decision making.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your child some new strategies. You’ve practiced together. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, coaching, and, when appropriate, applying logical consequences. Parents naturally offer support as they see their child fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Ask key questions to support their skills. For example, “Your sister will be playing with the toy you love today. How can we practice taking turns?”
- Learn about development. Each new age and stage will present differing challenges and along with them, stress, frustration, and anger.
- Promote an “I can” belief. Children need to hear that you believe in their ability to mend their relationships.
- Stay engaged. Working together on ideas for trying out new and different coping strategies can help offer additional support and motivation for your child when tough issues arise.
Three-to-four-year-olds will need your ideas, support, and guidance a number of times when they make poor choices since each situation will be unique. What’s important is that you work to understand their feelings, teach new behaviors, and practice. Your healthy, supportive, loving relationship with your child is what is most important.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
No matter how old your child is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
If your child is working to grow their skills — even in small ways — it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way in promoting positive behaviors and helping your child manage their feelings. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
You can recognize your child’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior of which you want to see more. For example, “I noticed you made up with your sister even before I said anything. That’s the way to be a terrific sister.”
Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior, while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying “If you don’t argue with your sister, you’ll get to go to the park” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “You said you were sorry. I really appreciate that!”
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When children are using the self-management tools you’ve taught them, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed. “I noticed you were kind to your sister during playtime. That’s really taking responsibility.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your child is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. Promote joy and happiness by laughing, singing, dancing, hugging, and snuggling to appreciate one another.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.
 CASEL. (2020). What is SEL? https://casel.org/what-is-sel/
 Weissberg, R.P., Jackson, A.S., & Shriver, T.P. (1993). Promoting positive social development and health practices in young urban adolescents. In M.J. Elias (Ed.). Social decision making and life skills development: Guidelines for middle school educators. Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen Publications.
 Johnston-Jones, J. (2015). Why Children Misbehave. Retrieved from https://www.drjenniferjones.com/why-children-misbehave.html
 Elias, M. J., Tobias, S. E., Friedlander, B. S., & Goleman, D. (2000). Emotionally Intelligent Parenting: How to Raise a Self-Disciplined, Responsible, Socially Skilled Child. Harmony.
 Miller, J.S. (2017). Teaching young children about anger. Thrive Global.
Recommended Citation: Center for Health and Safety Culture. (2021). Repairing Harm. Ages 3-4. Retrieved from https://parentingmontana.org.