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READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Bullying
“My 4-year-old son is a bully. How can I help him change those behaviors?“
I think you’re right to focus on impulse control and channeling at his age.
Play is a terrific outlet, both for physical needs and for figuring out status and dominance.
When our kids were young, we invented a game called “unbreakable hold.” Our kids were mad for it.
I’d get one of them on the floor and surround him or her with my body like a cage. So, my hands were grasping arms and my legs were locked at the ankles. I’d create a cage bigger than their body. That way they have room to twist and wiggle and maneuver.
Then I’d say, “OK, I’ve got you in an unbreakable hold! There’s no way you can get out. You’re totally trapped.” And dared them to try to get out.
They’d start wriggling and I would put up just enough resistance that they had to work hard. But the point is NOT to defeat them. The point is to give them a safe place to experience dominating someone, in this case a parent.
They always win, but I’m taunting them playfully the entire time — “Oh, you can try to get out but you never will. Push, push, push, it won’t make any difference. I think I’ll keep you in here all day!” — even as they are pushing themselves out.
Usually, at some point they end up pushing my head and face to the side as they’re wriggling by me. I’d leave my head to the side and continue to taunt them even after they got out. They would be out and I would still be on the floor, holding the cage roughly (bent all in some different configuration) saying, “Look, you’ve given up, I can’t even feel you. I told you you couldn’t do it.”
And then they’d get to taunt me.
So, that’s a basic structure that is very safe and was very satisfying for the kids. They would ask for it a couple times a week. That gives you a structure your son can work hard against and win within. So, then you can start talking about behavior that leaves you wanting to play more and behavior that leaves you wanting to stop. (I think good vs bad is too heavy handed. He wants to play and win, right?)
So, with your son, I would say, “I love playing when you push and shove. I don’t enjoy it when I get hurt. Let’s figure out how to do that so we want to do it again (which is what you want him to think about with his friends).”
So, let him win AND do it in a way that doesn’t hurt you. You can support his competitiveness and help him teach himself judgment and self-regulation.
I also felt it brought me closer to my kids because our relationship wasn’t so one-sided. There was some area in our relationship where they could beat me dependably.
Tim Dawes is a professional trainer in communications, negotiations, and persuasion. You can find more Quora posts here:
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