Q. My husband and I took our two little girls, ages 8 and 6, to a house party at the home of friends. There were other parents there with children about the ages of our children, and while the adults were downstairs visiting, the children went upstairs to play. When we got home, our older daughter Emma shared that another little girl hit her younger sister Clara. I asked Emma what she had done to help her sister, but she said she had only prayed that the aggressive child would stop. I acknowledged that praying was good, then asked why she hadn’t gone for help. Emma admitted she hadn’t thought to tell an adult. I know this isn’t the first time this child has been aggressive in play. Should I tell her mother about the incident?

A. It’s very common for children to hang out upstairs at parties, away from the adults. In psychology classes we learned in guided imagery exercises that to go upstairs or into the attic feels safe to people and to go to the basement is scary. Maybe children feel safe upstairs or maybe they just want to get away from the adults. Whatever the reason and whatever the ages of the children, it is important to periodically and randomly check on what’s going on away from adult supervision. It’s not always about aggression; it’s also about keeping kids safe. Parents seldom, if ever, are hard on themselves for providing too much supervision; the regret comes when wishing you had provided more supervision.

I wouldn’t recommend calling the aggressive child’s mother, as moms tend to become defensive on hearing their child may have done something unacceptable, especially when the information comes third-hand – you didn’t see the event and are relying on the description of your eight-year-old child. In any event, if the behavior needs to come to her parents’ attention, I suspect she will act out again and get caught in the act. I don’t have to tell you to check on the children yourself at future events as I know you will.

Regarding your daughter not alerting you to the trouble happening with her younger sister, I would recommend using this as a learning experience and a time to think things through. Ask her, “What could you do if this happens again?” It is a chance to do some problem-solving and devise various options for handling the situation. One idea that may come up is defending oneself; be prepared to discuss if and when hitting back is O.K. Helping children learn to problem-solve and think things through is often more valuable than telling them what to think or do.

Betty Richardson, PhD, RNC, LPC, LMFT, is an Austin-based psychotherapist.

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