Q: Our good friends have an aggressive preschooler who is always kicking, hitting and hurting our kids whenever we visit. He likes playing with them, but he's too physical. Is there a way to put a stop to this without offending them?
Jim: I appreciate your feelings and the challenge you're facing. Although this situation is touchy, it could actually serve to deepen your friendship if everyone approaches it with thoughtfulness and in a spirit of supportive concern and humility.
There could be a number of reasons for this child's aggressive behavior. Since the parents are good friends, it wouldn't be inappropriate for you to suggest that they have their son evaluated by a mental health professional. If it turns out that this is simply a result of ineffective or inconsistent parenting, your friends will likely get some helpful instruction as part of the process.
In the meantime, you need to protect your children from harm. Sit down with your friends and explain that their friendship is important to you, but that your kids' safety needs to be your priority. Then ask them if they will agree to this plan: The next time your children visit, the parents should inform their son that if he is mean or acts aggressively in any way, his friends will have to go home.
Then, if he gets rough, his parents should remind him that hitting is not allowed and that your family is leaving. Leave immediately, even if their son protests or cries. Since he values playing with your children, it will probably take only a few incidents like this to put a serious dent in his negative behavior. If you and your friends are consistent and work together, the problem should eventually disappear.
Q: I recently discovered that my daughter has been cutting herself. I've tried to let her know how much this concerns me, but she's very sensitive and perceives this as criticism. Do you think we can work this out between ourselves, or is that a naive assumption?
Dr. Greg Smalley, Vice President, Family Ministries: I'm sorry to learn about your daughter's struggles. With great sensitivity, let me say yes, it's naive to assume you can handle this alone. Cutting is a serious problem, usually with complicated underlying causes. You should insist that your daughter get professional help. In fact, it would be best if counseling involved the entire family. Contact Focus on the Family for a referral.
In the meantime, it might help to understand what's going on in your daughter's mind. Cutting is often a response to overwhelming feelings of anxiety or depression. Cutters basically want control. If a teen is being abused or hurt by someone else, cutting may represent an attempt to "release" the pain through bleeding. She may also be trying to "drown it out" by incurring even more intense suffering upon herself. Cutting can also be a way of expressing anger -- by taking it out on herself, rather than running the risk of exposing it to others.
In every instance, cutting is a coping mechanism, a method of managing pain. The cutter can't be set free from this self-destructive habit until she finds a way to replace cutting with a healthy coping mechanism. Because of this, it's a mistake to interpret cutting as a suicide attempt. The cutter isn't trying to kill herself. Rather, she's groping for a way to get through life.
Finally, cutting can be addictive due to the endorphin rush that normally accompanies the body's self-healing process. For this and many other reasons, we urge you to solicit the help of a counselor. May God grant you wisdom during this difficult time.
Jim Daly is a husband and father, an author, and president of Focus on the Family and host of the Focus on the Family radio program. Catch up with him at www.jimdalyblog.com or at www.facebook.com/DalyFocus.