Timothy Wilken, MD
Today our world is a dangerous place, and growing ever more dangerous. Everyday, humans are hurting and killing other humans. Mothers and fathers are beating their children. Husbands are beating and killing their wives. Rouge men are abducting and killing children. Teenage and young adult men are killing each other over the color of their clothes or the brand of shoes they wear. Life threatening violence is erupting over any act of supposed DISrespect.
Children are strapping high explosives to their bodies and detonating them in public places in desperate acts of suicide-homicide. In April of 2002, President George W. Bush said, “When an 18 year old Palestinian girl is induced to blow herself up, and in the process kills a 17 year old Israeli girl, the future, itself, is dying.”
And then of course there are the armed conflicts, Peter Wallensteen of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reports :
In 2001, there were 24 major armed conflicts in 22 locations. … Africa continued to be the region with the greatest number of conflicts. Worldwide, there were approximately equal numbers of contests for control of government and for territory.
In the 12-year post-cold war period 1990–2001 there were 57 different major armed conflicts in 45 different locations. … All but 3 of the major armed conflicts registered for 1990–2001 were internal—the issue concerned control over the government or territory of one state. The 3 interstate conflicts in this period were Iraq versus Kuwait, India versus Pakistan and Eritrea versus Ethiopia.
… The year 2001 was overshadowed in September by one new major conflict with qualitatively different, global characteristics which have so far proved difficult to categorize.(1)
And now we have the War on Terrorism, the War on Afghanistan, the impending War on Iraq, and then what? The War on Iran? The War on North Korea? The War on the Philippines? The War on China? Etc.? Etc.?
Something is very wrong in our world.
Adversaries believe there is not enough for everyone and only the physically strong will survive. They believe humans are coercively dependent on others, and they best understand the language of force.
Neutralists believe there is enough for everyone, if only you work hard enough and take care of yourself. They believe humans are financially independent and should be self-sufficient unless they are too lazy or defective. They best understand the language of money.
And, finally a new type of human is still emerging. Synergists believe there is enough for everyone but only if we work together and act responsibly. They believe humans are interdependent and can only obtain sufficiency by working together as community. Synergists best understand the language of love.
But, to be successful in our present world, the synergist must understand all three languages and know when to use them. Synergists must sometimes use the language of force, and sometimes the language of money, it depends on whom they are talking to. However, when synergists are seeking allies—when synergists are seeking to build community—they must speak the language of love.
We believe that you should, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”What is it that most of us want others to do unto us? Synergic scientists answer this question as follows: Help and support others as you would wish them to help and support you. Or, more simply, “Treat others the way they want to be treated.”
“When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. And that’s my religion.” —Abraham Lincoln
Synergists are trying to heal the wounds inflicted by those who don’t understand how the world could work. This then is the essential challenge to the synergists. Can we work together and act responsibly in time to save our ourselves on this planet? … Only by helping each other. If humanity were to achieve synergy, we would have a peaceful world, but how do we get there?
As a young father, I wanted to do the best job of parenting I could. With the birth of our first daughter in 1980, I began reading the then current literature on parenting. After a few months I settled on the parenting style proposed by Dr. Thomas Gordon in his book Parent Effectiveness Training. It was a win-win approach that did not support punishment or conflict. But Gordon realized that permissiveness, and letting children run wild would create its own set of problems. Parent enforced discipline was a win/lose game that the parent always won. Permissiveness was a win/lose game that the child always won. Neither method was good for children or families. Gordon explained how we could improve our communication with others at any age. How to work together for solutions where both parent and child could win.
What he did was provide parents with a specific set of communication and problem-solving skills, as well as a means for knowing when and how to use them (the Behavior Window). These skills (Active Listening, No-Lose Conflict Resolution, and the I-Message) changed the way many parents communicate with their children. The Gordon Method has proved just as valuable for improving communication in the workplace and in our schools. His books have been published in 28 languages and over 6 million copies have been sold worldwide.
However, there was one situation that Gordon did not address. Children through immaturity and ignorance sometimes engage in dangerous behavior. The danger may be to themselves or to others. Often this begins before they are able to understand the consequence of their behavior, or to be reasoned with. How do you stop them without resorting to adversity and punishment?
We have all seen parents slap a small child’s hand, when their child reaches for something hot or sharp. The child immediately cries and often runs away, but what has the child learned? Gordon would argue that physically striking the child sends only one message, “You are bad!” And, while the child will withdraw, it is not because they understand that they were in danger, but simply because they fear the parent will strike them again. Now parents often feel that striking the child was necessary to protect the child, but is this really true?
I remember one winter, a heavy storm knocked out the electrical power to our home for almost a week. I hurriedly purchased a portable kerosene heater for warmth and cooking. It was an amazing device, but it was also dangerously hot. My three year old daughter Reason had never seen such a thing in our modern all electrical home and watched with fascination as I set it up. As I watched the sparkle in her eye, I realized the damage she might sustain from touching the top or sides of the heater.
I asked by wife to hold her well within her arms while I set up the heater.Once it was lit, it soon became hot and began to glow. I told my daughter that it was very hot. I placed a small piece of paper on top which soon burst into flames. I poured a few drops of water on the surface that flashed into steam. All this time her mother advised her, that the heater was very hot and she should not touch it. She stood back and I watched her eyes growing large in amazement. Later her mother went to attend her baby sister Serene, and when I turned, Reason was approaching the heater.
I moved quickly squatted down and contained her loosely in my arms. Gently preventing her from getting closer than two feet. Then to my delight, she told me that the stove was HOT! And that I was NOT to touch it.
Later that evening, I would hear Reason carefully instructing her baby sister that the heater was very HOT, and that Serene should NOT touch it. This was quite unlikely since Serene was only nine months old. However, she seemed to listen carefully as she sucked her bottle. Over the next seven days, Reason never ventured closer than two feet to the heater, and watched it with great respect. Then, electrical power was restored and we put away the kerosene heater.
Striking the hand of a child reaching for something hot or sharp was an example of adversary punishment. Later as I thought back on how I had protected my daughter, I decided to call this technique synergic containment. At this time, I was practicing Stress Medicine. I often worked with young parents and would always tell them about Gordon’s Parent Effectiveness Training. And, include a description of the mechanism of synergic containment. I thought of the technique as protective, and in some cases even a rescue from danger. I advised them to apply it with love and compassion. Certainly, my child had a very positive experience in learning about the danger of HOT!
Synergic Containment of an Aggressive Child
One day parents of a large and unusually strong two year old, came to me with concerns about his adversary behavior . He was into the full fury of the terrible twos, and he had taken to occasionally hitting his baby sister. It seemed to happen when he got angry. His parents had physically spanked him several times, but the behavior continued. They were genuinely afraid for both the aggressive child and the baby.
I advised them to use the mechanism of synergic containment as follows: Ideally, when a potentially dangerous adversary event occurs both parents would be present. Then one of the parents could contain the aggressor, while the other one attends to the baby. But if there is only one parent present, then the most important thing is to contain the aggressor. The baby may cry, but she is safe once the aggressor is contained.
Whenever you see your two year old son striking the baby, pick him up immediately and remove him from striking distance of his sister, then sit down and hold him on your lap. Wrap your arms around his shoulders, but no tighter than necessary to physically restrain him. Do not raise your voice or berate the child in any way. Do not strike him or inflict pain in any way.
You must contain him. You must absolutely stop him from getting down off your lap. If he struggles, increase the physical restraint of your embrace. Your son may struggle and cry, but this should not win his release. You will have to hold him until he quiets down. This may take a while. Be patient. You cannot successfully talk with him until he is calm.
Your goal is to restrain the child, but not send the message, “You are bad!” You want him to understand that you are afraid for the baby. You want him to understand that hitting the baby is dangerous. Once he is calm, in simple language express your fear for the baby. If another parent or adult is there ask them to attend the baby with create concern. Once the baby is calm, have them pantomime, raising one hand into a position as if they might strike the baby, but then deliberately grabbing their raised hand with their other hand and pulling it down. Repeatedly stating in a calm voice. “I am afraid for the baby.” “Don’t hit the baby.”
This is not a technique to be used lightly. It is serious medicine. Children should be allowed to get angry. Containment is not to be used to control anger. Containment is not to be used to stop evenly matched boys from wrestling or rough housing. Containment is to stop DANGEROUS behavior. Containment of an aggressive child should only occur if the child himself or someone else is in danger.
When you use containment, you are limiting your child’s freedom of action. The child may process this as if they are being punished. They may misunderstand the act of containment as punishment. This is why it must be done with love and compassion. Certainly, the parents love their child. They just don’t like his dangerous behavior. The goal is to make that behavior less likely to occur in the future. Synergic containment must do more than stop the dangerous behavior, it must educate the aggressor.
Most adults can easily contain a two year old child. Once your son quiets down and becomes calm, and this might take 15 to 20 minutes. You would then try to communicate with him that hitting his baby sister is prohibited. His ability to understand of course would be limited by his age and level of maturity. The human mind develops during childhood. The ability to understand consequence does not develop until about age four. You don’t over explain or discuss your concerns, you just state them in the way that you feel your child will best understand. Simpler is always better. “I am afraid for the baby!” “Don’t hit the baby!”With very small children, use pantomime when possible.
At this point, you let the child down from your lap to return to his activities. You immediately attend the baby. Showing him your concern. You try to enlist his help in comforting the baby, and in demonstrating love and caring for his sister.You don’t insist that he help, but you let him see your concern.
Synergic containment only occurs to stop dangerous behavior. If the adversary act recurs, the synergic containment recurs.
Every episode of synergic containment is an opportunity to communicate with your child. As the child grows, his ability to reason and to understand consequence grows. Since all humans do not like being on the receiving end of adversary acts, they soon learn that adversity is an inappropriate behavior. Teach them that they need to work together and act responsibly to be successful within the family.
Allowing children of any age to profit from adversary behavior is a mistake. Ideally, the use of synergic containment begins early. A single parent can contain a small child. It may take two parents to contain a 10 year old. It may take three or four adults to contain a 14 year old. And, it may take a SWAT team to contain an armed 18 year old.