Cultivating Kindness in Our Kids

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An interview with Dr. Beth Onufrak

Giving and receiving kindness goes a long way in this world. I’m grateful both my children are tender and caring. But, the way they display anger is a whole other story. My son can be aggressive and lash out; my daughter can be more passive-aggressive. It’s easy to think our kids are “unkind,” when they’re expressing their upset, especially if they’re combative. How do we parents cultivate kindness in our kids? Dr. Beth Onufrak believes our little ones are malleable and can learn how to be kind, with informed parental guidance. — Erin Janda Rawlings, Mommy on the Spot, TMC Contributing Writer

Is it possible for a child to be born mean?

We are all born with our own temperaments and genetic predispositions, some more naturally agreeable than others. But I could not do my daily work as a child psychologist if I didn’t believe in developmental plasticity and the effects of loving environmental influence upon a young brain.  We all have natural aggressive impulses. I tell kids it’s each person’s job to discover their own best ways to handle stress and anger – feelings which are natural – but which must be handled in a way that does not hurt others.

Parents think of anger problems as a character issue when really, it is an anatomical brain issue.  The frontal lobes of the brain carry out mental activities called “executive functions.” These include controlling our impulses, stopping oneself, organizing our actions, thinking what would happen next.  Executive functions are not fully developed until the early adult years.  So anger control can be lovingly taught like any other skill. Harsh parental responses can actually intensify a young child’s aggression.  One can’t punish a child out of a problem behavior nor shame him into learning a more acceptable alternative.  All the research tells us that using force to try to reduce a child’s aggression is doomed to backfire by increasing the problem.

What factors typically drive young children to be more aggressive?

Genetic tendencies toward mental health challenges cannot be overlooked. Sometimes childhood anger and aggression actually represent anxiety or depressive tendencies.   Low self-esteem can cause a child to lash out at others. Many kids have social skills deficits that cause them to perceive offense form others in minor gestures, fueling aggressive responses. For some children, they finally disclose that a bully has been troubling them, driving their own aggression.

But often, much more basic factors are at play.  Basic physiological things like sleep and nutrition affect and create “psychological” and behavioral problems.  Children’s sleep quality profoundly affects mood regulation.  Improving sleep alone can increase a child’s frustration tolerance by, thus reducing aggression.  And the brain draws its nourishment by breaking down everyday proteins and thrives on good fats. Both are deficient in many kids’ diets. These nutrients literally build the neurotransmitters that regulate cognition, emotion, and behavioral self-regulation.  Such as, “he did that on purpose” (thought), “I hate him (emotion), and punching (impulsive dysregulation).

A parent can literally help their child eat their way to more self-controlled behavior and a kinder disposition.   Today I advise parents to consider basic nutritional changes –especially limiting sugar – before taking their child to a psychiatrist.

If a child tends towards aggression, what are a few tips for parents to nurture kindness?

  • Kindness sometimes cannot emerge until kids learn what to do with anger. I teach kids how to divert and de-escalate aggressive impulses with a catchy move I created, “Put Hands in your pockets and 3 steps back – give your anger to the floor “ (stomp).
  • I also direct parents to my post “The 3 Cs of Calming Down” on my blog A Child In Mind. Naming the child’s emotion first and giving empathy is the fastest and most effective way to calm the storm.
  • Ask for a do-over… A pretend way to rollback time and “redo” the troubling interaction. Because, in the end, we want the child to learn a new positive response, not simply receive punishment for an inappropriate one.
  • When kids are cooler, parents can build kindness simply by giving it – with positive noticing. When parents notice in detailed acknowledgments what is going right, kids’ hearts soften and kindness can grow.  Humor always helps! Kids in my office love the book “Dude That’s Rude” from The Laugh n’ Learn series.
  • Parents can play “empathy games.” Push pause during a break in a film to discuss together, “How do you think that kid feels right now? Why?”  When watching other families interact, guess how someone is feeling from their faces expressions. Kindness comes from putting oneself in another’s place, which requires imagining what someone else feels.
  • Parents can also “notice” everyday kindness when out in public with their kids – draw their kids’ attention to someone who, for example, let someone go ahead of them in line.

What are typically missed opportunities for parents to model kindness?

Parents can model kindness in Everyday frustrations:  In the car – with other drivers – watching what we say, or modifying what we say.  Being polite to store clerks when we are frustrated, or when we are on hold with customer service for 29 minutes.  When we yell and put down our working adult peers, we model abrasive, destructive social interaction.  A parent can catch their words before they come out or apologize afterward. What better modeling of kindness than to take a deep breath and tell a store clerk – with your child listening —  “I’m sorry, I know this is not your fault … I’ve just had a long day, but I don’t mean to take it out on you.”  

Adults are constantly modeling how to handle this world. We may as well be standing at a chalkboard, teaching a direct lesson each time we respond to the world in a certain way.  Managing our selves is the number one way to teach our kids how to manage themselves – and the quickest route toward growing a kind child.

If a child holds on to acting aggressively, despite parental efforts to guide him/her towards kindness, what can a parent do to change the behavior?

We adults regularly fail to recognize how much stress there is in children’s lives – from over-scheduling, highly stimulating screen time, and too much time in the car and on the road. All these factors also reduce a child’s resources for managing their emotions.

  • Quality 1:1 time can help, and I don’t mean playing a video together. Go out, take a walk. Notice things around. Talk about why rocks are striped and things that are not problems.
  • Reduce video games & screen time.  Rapid-fire games over hours and hours overwhelm the senses.
  • Try mindfulness – yes, children can be taught to sit still and find a peaceful spot in the middle of their brains.  Check out The Mindful Child by Susan Kaiser Greenland.
  • And teaching kids in fun, accessible ways about how their own brains work. An especially good resource for this is The Whole Brain Child by Dan Siegel & Tina Payne Bryson, complete with comic-book style illustrations.  Kids who think they’re bad because they get angry so much learn about their “downstairs’ brain, the limbic system, and don’t feel so bad anymore.

Please share any thoughts or questions you might have below in the comments section.  We love hearing from you!

The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products, based on social and emotional learning for children ages 3-6. Check out episodes of our “Ruby’s Studio” children’s video series,  along with our beautiful children’s booksappsmusichandmade dolls, and more.


This article was originally published September 20, 2013

Posted in: Communication, Behavioral Issues, Expert Advice, Emotions