A mom asked us, as a gentle, nonviolent parent, if using force is ever justified. For example, is it okay to physically restrain a child to get a necessary medical procedure done?
Here’s what she wrote…
“Our 8-year-old understands she needs a medical procedure. We plan ahead with her. She sits in the car for a few minutes before going into the doctor’s office, we walk her in, and ask her if she wants to go first or last. She knows she'll get both a treat from the doctor and a treat from us afterward, but she still can't get herself “ready.”
After twenty minutes of trying to calm her, we have to hold her down to get the procedure done. It's excruciating for me to have to do that, but at some point, it just has to get done. And we've tried all the ways we can think of to give her a choice.
Yet, it feels so ugly to have to assert that power over her. Is that just what has to be done?”
These are great questions and such a tough situation.
First off, momma, you’ve done many of the things that we’ve already recommended, to give your child choice when setting a limit. You’ve been quite thoughtful and figured out several ways that your child can have flexibility and autonomy in this situation. Also, it makes sense that you feel uncomfortable using force to hold your child during a medical procedure. We’ve encountered this same situation in our family too. We want you to know that you are not alone in feeling worried or confused.
Before using force, let’s look at all the different options for you and your child in this situation.
Here are a few things that may be helpful for you and her…
Let’s Talk About Anxiety
It’s totally normal for kids (and adults) to feel nervous in medical situations. Anxiety is something that comes and goes, it’s not who you are, it’s just a feeling that you are having. Feelings are temporary, they come and go. Plus, our minds are so powerful that we can actually use our mind to help us handle our feelings.
As a parent, your short-term goal is to get your child through this medication procedure. But your long-term goal is probably to help her handle her feelings so that her worry doesn’t need to stop her from doing things. Start by talking to your child about her anxiety and normalize this experience for her.
Here are some things you can say:
- “Worry is your body trying to protect itself. The purpose of anxiety, fight and flight is to get our body ready to run away or fight. However…
- In this situation it’s actually a “false alarm”. You are not in a life-threatening situation during this procedure. You will be with me, I love you and I will protect you. You’ll also be with medical people who care for you. Yes, you will experience some discomfort, but you can handle that.
- It’s totally normal to feel nervous before a medical procedure. You, and lots of other people, feel nervous before doctor’s visits sometimes.”
Examine Your Feelings
A second thing that might be helpful in this situation is looking at your own feelings. When you think about using protective force with your daughter, what feelings arise in you? You describe that it feels “excruciating” and “ugly”.
- Are you afraid that restraining her will hurt your relationship with your daughter? (For reassurance, please know that a single situation will not damage her bond with you, even if it goes poorly, and especially if you talk about it with her and give her a chance to express her feelings.)
- Is something from your own past coming up? Maybe you experienced a time as a child when you weren’t allowed to have control over your body? Maybe your daughter experienced a time in the past when she didn't have control over her body?
- Or does the whole situation just feel confusing and you’d like some reassurance that you are doing the “right” thing?
Whatever is coming up for you–feelings, thoughts, memories–maybe it would be helpful to spend some time with them. Notice what is coming up. Feel the feelings. Talk about your thoughts. Journal about the memories.
Swap Your Thoughts
If you have unprocessed feelings and thoughts that bubble up in this situation then it’s probably a lot harder to be present, come from your best self, and figure out what to do. Unprocessed feelings make it more difficult to be a parent and they could be impacting our kids too. Just from how we act our kids can often pick up on our feelings. But don’t beat yourself up about it, this is how we work as social beings. Feelings are contagious.
So the next step would be to see if you can replace those thoughts and feelings with others that empower you (and your child). Swap your old thoughts and feelings with some sayings that can empower both of you (even if you don’t say them out loud).
Here are some examples, but feel free to use your own:
- “My arms around my child are a big hug, protecting her. She can feel my love and the safety that I give to her.”
- “My relationship with her is strong and my child is strong. I’ve prepared her and given her choices. She is safe.”
- “She will have a moment of discomfort, but she understands that she needs this medical procedure in order to be healthy.”
Come Up With A Plan
If medical procedures are a common source of anxiety for your child, help her feel empowered by creating a plan with her beforehand so she knows what to expect and has strategies that she can use to calm herself.
Tips for a Calming Plan
- Use our Calming Plan template here.
- Make it simple, choose just 3 strategies that she can use before and during this procedure. While you’re at it, make a Calming Plan for yourself too!
- Practice this plan before the feelings come up, outside the moment. Practice will increase the level of predictability for both of you, make it more likely that you’ll be able to remember what to do in the moment, and allow her to make adjustments to her plan before you’re in the situation.
Use Force Protectively With Love
As a last resort, we believe that protective force can be compatible with nonviolence.
Here’s a way to think about it… Pretend you see your child crossing the street but there is a car speeding down the road that is surely going to hit them. Your parenting instincts kick in, so you run out into the street and pull them back onto the sidewalk for safety. There was no time to ask your child for “permission” to pick them up; it was a life-threatening situation. Within the practice of nonviolence, there is even a term for the use of force to protect another person. It is called protective use of force.
Mikki Kashtan, a Nonviolent Communication Trainer says “Use of force is consistent with nonviolence to the extent that we use the least amount of force possible, with the most love possible, aiming at (re)creating conditions for dialogue; that we make the choice using as much nonreactive discernment as possible, with as much support for the choice as possible, and while mourning not seeing another way to respond to a situation in which vital needs are at stake.”.
So when using force protectively:
- Use the least amount of force and the most love possible
- Create a conversation about it with your child (if possible talk before, during and after the event)
- Use force thoughtfully, rather than reactively
- Use force only in situations where you don’t see any other options
If you need to use force protectively, make sure that you talk to your child afterward. You can explain why you did what you did, and give your child a chance to express any thoughts or feelings about the experience. Validate their feelings, this will help them process their feelings.
Some things you can say:
- “I didn’t like holding your body like that at the doctor’s office. I did it to keep you safe and make sure that the doctor could do what they needed, so you can be healthy.”
- “How was it for you at the doctor’s office? What feelings did you have?”
- “Are there things that you’d like to do differently next time you are in a situation like that? Is there anything I can do to be more helpful?”
- “Ah, yes, it makes sense that you’d feel x, y, and z. I’m guessing you also felt a, b, c. Is that how you felt?”
When helping a child through a medical procedure, here are things to keep in mind:
- Normalize your child’s feelings by talking about anxiety. Let your child know that their brain is so powerful that it can calm those feelings.
- Examine your own feelings so unprocessed thoughts don’t get in the way of you being the kind of parent you want to be.
- Swap your thoughts so that you can empower yourself and your child, especially in the heat of the moment.
- Create a Calming Plan with your child, if possible do this before you get into the situation.
- Use the least amount of force with the most amount of love. Use protective force thoughtfully, and only as a last resort.
- Talk about the experience afterward. Even if it goes “well”, check in and see if your child wants to talk about how it went. Experiencing difficult emotions is not a problem, but problems occur when humans feel difficult emotions and there is no one available to talk about them.
If, after reading the blog today, you’re interested in stuff like this WITH me… here’s how you join the Village.
You and I can personally talk in there if you’re struggling to figure out how to talk to your child.