It always seems that we’re caught off-guard when tragic stories emerge about aggressive young people involved in violent acts; they’re the stories you see on the news where stunned neighbors tell the camera, “I don’t understand, he was a good kid, good student…” Then, invariably, other details emerge and from our lofty perches, it appears that “good kid, good student” was only a very tiny part of the picture, one that leaves us thinking, “How did people not see this coming?”
So how do you know whether your kid’s interest in war comics and superhero movies is something benign, or might turn into something more serious as they get older? And what do you do to head off potential trouble at the pass?
Diane Levin, Ph.D. is a Professor of Early Childhood Education at Boston’s Wheelock College, and one of the leading experts on the links between children and violence. Among the books she’s written: The War Play Dilemma: What Every Parent and Teacher Needs to Know, and her latest, Beyond Remote-Controlled Childhood: Teaching Young Children in the Media Age, which is out next week.
“Typically,” she says, “the children who seem most obsessed with war play have been exposed to the most violence and have the greatest need to work it out.” However, don’t make the immediate leap that the violence they’ve been exposed to is real-life violence among family members. “Kids are interested in violent and grotesque kinds of things,” she points out. “They see it all the time on television – entertainment is packed with it. But when it happens in real life, there can be this jarring disequilibrium they experience. It was all fun and exciting on television, and when they hear about violent incidents in the news, they draw on their own experience and relate it back to their entertainment violence.”
Makes one wonder about what kids think the impact of violence really is, when they go see their favorite superhero get shot or stabbed and he keeps right on fighting; or they see a cartoon animal stick his finger in the end of a gun to make the bullet stop. Dr. Levin says that “superhero play” can be particularly noteworthy. “When he’s a good guy, like a Power Ranger, he thinks it’s okay to use whatever force is needed to suppress the bad guy, ‘because that’s what a superhero does!’ And then someone ends up getting hurt.”
“The bottom-line message I’ve come to,” she says, “is that we need to stay connected with our kids. Some parents are connected, but some other parents think that when their kids are younger, the thing to do is just to shut the behaviors down without having to discuss them. When kids are curious about things, it’s because they’re trying to understand them. Having the discussion and being connected helps them with that understanding.”
That sentiment of connection is echoed by Andrea Nair, Psychotherapist and Parenting Educator, and the theme continues as our kids get older. “We steer our children away from defiant behaviour by being the one they turn to when challenges happen or when they make mistakes, and by teaching them how to manage intense feelings,” she says. “Teens turn to peers when they feel they cannot be honest with their parents—and not many teens are able to give rational advice. Teens also manage their big emotions with alcohol and drugs when they have not learned something called ‘self-regulation’.”
Both women agree that the most critical element of most parenting challenges is connection, and non-judgmental listening and understanding. “I know it can very hard,” Andrea says, “but it is critical that teens learn that their parents will be a rational listening board. I coach parents to tell their kids they will try very hard not to freak out when they have to come clean on a mistake, and to further promise to take some time to calm down and think of a rational solution to problems. If the relationship between a parent and child is continually getting worse and worse, it is time to seek help from a professional. Strained relationships are breeding grounds for lying and sneaking around.”
So if early connection is the key to warding off these kinds of behaviors from surfacing at all, what do we do when we’ve noticed that violent tendencies have already taken root? This is the kind of issue that Andrea deals with frequently while she’s handing out free parenting advice on her Facebook page.
“If we notice our children developing an interest in gross / war things, it is important to ask open ended questions about those things, ‘I see you playing war a lot—can you please tell me what you like about it?’”, she says. “If the answer seems logical, talk to them about the reality of war and see if you can steer their interests elsewhere. Spending more time with them always helps in this kind of situation—time where the child doesn’t feel nagged or judged. If the answer seems illogical, it is time to talk to a trained professional about the specific concerns you have. It is better to err on the side of caution and seek help early rather than letting it go on for months, making the behavior harder to shift.”
It seems that no matter which experts you talk to, the road to a happy, healthy, well-adjusted kid is paved with open communication. We hear it over and over again. And once we, as parents, get past our initial awkwardness or discomfort with “uncomfortable” conversations, it’s a road that’s easy to get started on.
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