How do you handle the issue of other people coercing your child?

“How do you handle the issue of other people coercing your child?”

Most of us have been in situations in which another adult has felt free to directly coerce our child. Children, it seems, are fair game, including if their parents are opposed to coercion. When a visitor to our home, such as a grandparent, neighbour or friend, directly coerces our child, it is bad enough, but when we ourselves are the visitors in their home, it can be particularly awkward if not outright distressing. Many of us have vestiges of unfortunate memes about politeness and not making a scene, etc., that may interfere with us ameliorating the situation effectively. If the coercion is somehow unexpected, in some cases we ourselves feel so shocked and upset that we are particularly ineffective in helping our precious child not to be distressed.

Can anything be done? Of course! (Not reliably of course – there can be no guarantee that there will not be instances so vicious that we are all distressed, but there are many instances where a difference could be made by thinking about this stuff before the event.) What do we do? It starts with realising, and making sure our children realise, that flawed fallible human beings sometimes behave in ways that are really not very nice. Unkind. Mean. Spiteful. And that really, in effect, they can’t help themselves. When people feel bad or threatened by different ideas or other people being free and enjoying themselves, they tend to lash out.

The vicious things they say are the best they have to offer in that moment. And it is not actually about us, it is their fear, their unease and their own inner suffering speaking. And when those things are speaking, they tend to say a lot of things that are entirely untrue, and that are hurtful to others. Things that are paranoid, pessimistic, accusatory, shaming.

Perhaps you can think of something vicious and untrue that came out of your own mouth when you were feeling upset or disturbed or fearful? Had you not been feeling bad, you probably would not have said something like that, would you? In general, when people say mean things, even if they do not seem upset, they are hurting inside. It’s not about us. It is their own humanity.

When we are going to be spending time with other flawed fallible human beings, we and our children should be expecting, but not fearful of, such incidents.

To this end, it is worth devoting some creativity and effort now, in advance, to coming up with possible ways of thinking about and dealing with such coercion. This can reduce the risk that our children are distressed when Granny does say something untoward. Or, if they are distressed in the moment, it can reduce the risk that we ourselves are too upset to ameliorate the situation swiftly and effectively.

To the extent that our children are interested, we can talk with them about all this. They themselves might well come up with some brilliant ideas about it. Be sure that your children know that whatever untoward thing someone says to them, they need not panic: we are there for them and we will do everything in our power to correct the situation. We can do hard things. 👍🏻

The idea is not to issue dire warnings of potential untold harm (see this post and this post on that): that would be likely to increase the chance that our child would be distressed, not decrease it.

It is not: other people are evil perpetrators who will victimise you and destroy you given half a chance, so spending time with other people is fraught with danger and really best avoided, as other people will distress us if they so much as look at us. (See above: when people say mean, untrue things, it is their inner anguish speaking, not an omniscient infallible godlike being. We do not need to believe what they say. And nor do we need to think that they could have said something kind instead. In that moment, they couldn’t bring themselves not to be vicious.)

The idea is also not: other people are evil coercers, and we need to be hyper vigilant for any hint of their evil coercion, ready to give as good as we get. We’ll show them! If they so much as think of trying anything, they won’t know what’s hit them. We will crush them! We will vanquish those wicked coercionists!

Why not? One reason is that that is a weaker, more brittle, more pessimistic, less creative and rational stance than need be. If that stance is the best we are able to muster currently, well OK, it is better than the helpless victim mentality that might be our default response to coercion, but it is still a kind of victim mentality, in that it still involves us (our children) feeling distressed and feeling the need to trounce the other person, as opposed to having the knowledge of how not to be distressed by the potentially coercive statements or actions in the first place.

So if the idea is not about being a helpless victim needing to avoid other people to avoid being crushed, and it is not about fighting fire with fire, what is it? The idea is: how to view others’ bad behaviour in a way that is not distressing. It is possible! This is something we can all learn to do better. And the more resilient we and our children are in this way, the more able to deal with all sorts of suboptimal circumstances and events we are.

Some readers may be thinking that it is an outrage that we should even be thinking about any of this, because people shouldn’t be coercive in the first place. Is coercion OK now? No of course not. Nevertheless, human beings are fallible and lack knowledge, including moral knowledge, and sometimes they do the wrong thing. It does not follow that we should believe the unkind statement or accord it any significance or feel distressed by it.

Obviously, there will be times when we do not manage not to be, but what if, when Granny says something untoward, we see Granny’s regrettable statement as Granny’s stuff, not actually about us, not something we need to take personally or feel mortally wounded by, more like a problem to solve that we can solve? Is it not valuable for all of us to have the knowledge of how to view other people’s bad behaviour in a wider context and thus not be distressed by it?

This is a kind of knowledge, and it is incredibly useful not just in dealing with other flawed human beings. It makes a positive difference in all sorts of suboptimal circumstances in which our default reaction might be to panic or otherwise feel too distressed to think clearly.

How do we expand our capacity to be fine even when other people are saying or doing untoward things? How do we view such unfortunate incidents in a wide enough context not to be distressed by them? It can involve thinking about how not to take the bad behaviour or untoward words seriously. Or not to take it to heart. (See above. It is not about us, it is the coercer’s own stuff.) It can involve generous-hearted compassion for the coercer (they know not what they do) without being under any illusion that the coercer’s behaviour is OK. It can involve playing Pollyanna’s ‘glad game’. For me, humour helps (sometimes gallows humour!). It can involve playing with all sorts of fun and fascinating thought experiments. It can involve thinking about it in the light of some of the questions and ideas we think about in various forms of psychotherapy, such as solution-focused brief therapy, cognitive-behavioural therapy, IFS (Internal Family Systems therapy), individual/Adlerian therapy, etc. And so on.

No doubt you have even better ideas, that will be brilliant for you and your children as the unique individuals you are. (Do share!)

Of course there is no recipe for creativity, and the knowledge of how to solve a problem is created in the moment rather than in advance. However, it does not follow from that that nothing we create, do or think about in advance could be helpful. All sorts of things can be helpful – in particular, anything that enables us to see things in a wider context.

If we are not seeing the wider context, we can easily get mired in our own experience of the bad behaviour of another, and then we are upset, feeling victimised by the other person, and from that perspective the solution is for that bad woman to stop coercing us and make amends for having done so – which of course would be good, but in the event that that bad woman does not see the error of her ways, that leaves us in the position of victim depending on that bad woman becoming good. Luckily, it is possible to view things in a wider context in which we are not experiencing ourselves as being a victim of that bad woman. Not necessarily reliably every time and in every circumstance of course, but more and more the more experience we have of doing this.

What helps see bad behaviour in a way that is not upsetting? One of the most important, most helpful ideas I have found is the idea that human beings are fallible (tend to make mistakes) and not omniscient (do not know everything – lack knowledge), and that when they are doing the wrong thing, they are not being wilfully wicked, they are doing the best their conscious mind has to offer in that moment: they are psychologically innocent even when they are doing something objectively wrong.

If we view others in that way – seeing their humanity, seeing them as fellow flawed fallible human beings who lack knowledge and make some terrible mistakes sometimes – then instead of getting stuck in their coercive wrongness and our victimhood, we naturally feel compassion for them in their human struggle. We feel compassion for the stress of the fight, the stoical numbness, the misery of fraught interactions, inner anguish, the lost connection, and for so many relationships broken by coercion and lacking the love and affinity and joy and delight that is possible. This compassion is not like feeling superior and looking down on the other person and feeling sorry for them in their inferiority, it is the compassion of one fallible human being for another fallible human being, all alike in our boundless ignorance, all correcting our errors as best we can.

So what I would now be conveying to my beloved children, is that people sometimes do some very bad things, like coercing innocent children, like saying the most spiteful, hurtful, totally untrue things, like trying to bring free, happy children down to where they themselves are in the pit of coercive hell. But that they either mistakenly think that that coercion is right (and we could explore how it might seem right to such people from their point of view, even though to us it seems clearly objectively wrong), or they might not know how to interact non-coercively, they might not know that problems are soluble, etc., and that in some cases, a person being coercive is making a mistake perhaps partly because they are sleep-deprived or feeling very upset about something entirely unrelated, and human beings can get things all muddled up and end up behaving badly towards a person who has nothing to do with the cause of the person’s upset.

I would be conversing with my children about how we human beings do not have direct access to most of our minds, and that we have a tendency to forget that not everything we think is true, so we get ourselves into all sorts of mental pickles, and sometimes do the wrong thing. I would (obviously only if and to the extent that my children were interested) point out how unpleasant coercion is not just for the one being coerced but actually for the coercer too, as I alluded to above.

The ability to see other people’s wrong behaviour in a wider context is so incredibly valuable, and psychological and emotional fallibilism – fallibilism as a way of being – thoroughgoing fallibilism (rather than just holding an explicit philosophical theory that human beings are fallible and that there is no authoritative source of knowledge) makes a vast difference in how other people’s bad behaviour affects us, and how kind and compassionate we are able to be towards other flawed fallible human beings.

We could also together come up with possible reasons X might have done Y coercive thing – reasons that might make sense from X’s point of view even if Y seems clearly a mistake to us and may well be objectively wrong. X could be a fictional character on a TV soap opera, or a harried mother saying something mean to her child in the supermarket, or our actual neighbour who actually just directly coerced a child or children. There is no shortage of examples to consider.

Problems are soluble, including ‘bad’ ones, as I have discovered more and more over the years. We human beings have amazingly creative minds capable of so much more than we think. Let’s not saddle our children with the counsel of despair pessimistic theory that there is a direct and automatic relationship between how (badly) other people behave, and our own (our child’s) state of mind. Human minds are actively creative, not mere passive receptacles for stuff being poured in from outside. Other people can make mistakes and behave badly, and we can be aware that they are behaving badly, and see it as a problem to solve (and as an interesting opportunity to learn this particular type of knowledge I have been talking about) rather than being horribly distressed, wounded and irredeemably damaged.

Enjoy every moment of life with your precious children.

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2022, ‘How do you handle the issue of other people coercing your child?’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/how-do-you-handle-the-issue-of-other-people-coercing-your-child/

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