Doper parents: dissuading violent talk in a preschooler?

I’m looking for some advice on an issue with my preschooler. For all I know, this could just be a phase, but it’s still kind of disturbing. Here’s the story: my kid, who’s 3 and ½, has been talking a lot about what he’ll do if someone is mean to him. This wouldn’t be a big deal – it started with him saying he’d tell on someone – if it hadn’t escalated to saying things like, “If you’re mean to me, I’m going to punch you.” Or, “If you’re mean to me, I’m going to cut you and see your blood.” He has never acted on what he’s saying, but at the same time, it’s creepy hearing things like that come out of his mouth.

I think part of it is coming from some older kids he sometimes hangs out with, part of it (probably a lot of it) is coming from his dad occasionally letting him watch him play violent video games like Too Human and some of it is the reaction he gets when he says it. He’s generally grinning when he says it like it’s some sort of joke, and I really don’t think he gets what he’s saying. My husband yelled at him yesterday for it, which I don’t think is the way to correct it, so when things calmed down, we both explained to him why talking like that was upsetting (mainly, cutting someone could really hurt them, particularly if they lose a lot of blood, and that if someone is mean to him, he should try talking to them first, then tell someone if it doesn’t stop). Still, I’d love some advice on dissuading him further from saying such things.

His dad and I have agreed to not letting him watch him play video games anymore and he has very, very limited exposure to TV, but he’s just keeping it up. If you’ve been through this, did you just let it run its course by ignoring it? Did you discuss it? Am I overreacting to something that’s normal or semi-normal? I’m not of the opinion that my son is on the path to being a serial killer, but at the same time I don’t think that chalking it up to “boys will be boys” is the best idea. Am I wrong?

I think the short answer to why he is doing it is that it gives him a feeling of power, which is a commodity in short supply when you are 3. Why he started saying this kind of thing probably is traceable to either the company he keeps, or to something he heard somewher else, but the reason he keeps doing it is probably just that.

So just saying that you don’t need to hear ugly talk, calmly, is probably sufficient, coupled with sudden deafness to anything said in conjunction with it. I cannot hear ugly talk or whining, it’s a peculiar form of deafness which overcomes parents.

Based on what you say here it sounds very like the potty mouth thing that goes on at about the same age, and I would handle it in the same way. But the fact that he is so interested in people doing mean things to him is rather unusual in my own experience and I would be more interested in that. Also, what is a three year old doing hanging out with older kids and how much older? I assume you mean at day care or something?

Thanks for the response! You have no idea how reassuring your comments are. I think the mean thing is actually more traceable to his father. He’s certainly not abusive; however, he has a shorter fuse than I do, a much louder voice and is much more likely to use it. And, true to form, our son digs his heels in if he’s being yelled at instead of listening. Then the whole thing escalates, ending in timeouts. Not helping the matter is that we added to our family in November, so the new baby-related tantrums are just now subsiding and I think he’s looking for another outlet for attention.

In answer to your other question, the older kids our son hangs out with aren’t that much older than he is, but they are one, sometimes two years older, which seems to make a huge difference. Plus, they seem to watch a lot more television than our son does. I say “seem” because I don’t know for sure, but our son has come home talking about cartoons we know he’s never seen at home (Transformers, Spiderman, Batman, etc.). We’re not deliberately sheltering him (okay, maybe a little) - we just notice that he throws more tantrums if he watches TV, especially during the week, because when he watches, television displaces more active play, leaving him with energy to burn and no time to burn it.

The preschool he goes to has a kindergarten as well and they usually play together while the kids are waiting for parents to show up. I’ve asked our son if any of the kids are mean to him, and he’s said no. I speak with his teachers every day when I pick him up and they’re excellent at letting us know at the end of every day how he did at a pretty detailed level (i.e., “overly’s son had a great day today - he listened really well,” or “overly’s son had an okay day, but he seemed a little ‘off’ today and said his ear hurt”). They’ll also let us know if they make a mistake, which happens very rarely, though our son did manage to bust out of school once (he was discovered in under a minute, but they told us anyway), but that’s a different story.

If you think he is angry with his father, or angry about the baby and displacing it on his father, I would consider talking a lot about angry and how it feels to be angry and the difference between angry and out of sorts and lonely and left out. I would also talk about good ways to deal with and express being all those things. I would not talk at him or even to him, but more like musing in his presence with an occasional question dropped his way almost as an afterthought. Preferably a question about a fictional person for starters. In the car is a good place for this, when they don’t have to look at you somehow it goes better.

Three year olds are supposed to be sheltered, it’s what they are for.

I wouldn’t worry too much about it.

We just dealt with the same thing with our four year old - when he got mad at me or his dad, he’d say “I’m going to kill you”. I don’t know where he heard it originally, but the first time he said it, I sat him down and asked him if he knew what it meant. He didn’t, so I told him what it meant, I said it wasn’t a nice thing to say, and that I didn’t like him saying it. He said it a few times after that, but I responded with a neutral “I don’t like it when you say that”, and left it at that. I think the fact that he didn’t get a reaction extinguished the behaviour.

The bigger deal you make of it, the more it will continue, in my experience.

I have an almost 3 year old, and while she does not talk about cutting someone till they bleed, she will sometimes react with hitting. We try to talk about her being angry, and what makes her angry and what she needs to do to calm down. Kids learn to mimic emotions just like most everything they do. So, I find if I stay calm, my daughter is more calm.

My niece went through a spell like that when she was right about that age, most notably when a bigger kid at daycare was picking on her some. She was going to beat him, and then pound him, and then smack him on his big dumb poopy head when she told me about it. There were several discussions at home and daycare about walking away and getting a grownup instead of hitting, and some closer supervision of the bigger kid, and it stopped after about a month.

My sister-in-law has a degree in early childhood development, and she didn’t seem at all alarmed or surprised by the whole thing, so I suspect it’s something fairly normal for kids that age.

My two boys went through similar phases; the younger (age 6) is still doing it. I think it’s partly exposure to violence (video games, TV and toys; even Pokemon battle it out, although they only faint, not die), and partly a “power” thing. They start to realize that words have power and can hurt. Also, my sons seemed to say these things with a grin, as if they knew the words would get a reaction out of me and were testing me. I also think they are unsure how to handle social interactions, difficult situations, etc. and are “testing out” solutions (abeit bad ones).

I mostly tried to extinguish the negative behaviors by not reacting to them; if I got all upset, then they were getting the attention they were seeking. I tried to ignore the bad behavior and reward the good (when they demonstrated a better or more “civilized” reaction to, say, another kid being mean to them). Sometimes, if it seemed like they were receptive to talking, I’d suggest better ways to handle “mean” kids (my older son was bullied quite a bit in middle school).

Thanks for all the responses. I’ve been just ignoring the behavior the last day or two and it’ll hopefully subside. Like I said earlier, these responses have been incredibly reassuring. Having grown up in a family made up almost exclusively of women, I have no idea what to make of boys sometimes - you know, what’s normal, what’s not, etc. I mean, if he were killing small animals or told me someone was hitting him, I’d know to worry, but the smaller stuff is lost on me.

I don’t have any recommendations for you (sorry!) but what you said sounds suspiciously like the topic of a book. Hoping some other Doper comes around with a title, but it might not hurt to poke around the parenting section of Amazon - or your local bookstore - and see what you find.

In fact, just go to Amazon and type in “parenting boys” into the search field. You’ll get recommendations like this one.

My youngest (7) went through that phase from about 5 until a month or two ago. It was always “I’m going to kill him/her/you” or self directed “You don’t love me. I’m going to kill myself” and then it would get more elaborate and detailed. Seeing the initial shock and hearing “Don’t say things like that” or “where did you hear talk that?” only provided him with the reaction he wanted.
What stopped it was when I took him aside after one outburst and calmly said “You know you’re not really going to do that. I know you’re not really going to do that. I don’t know if you’re trying to make me feel bad, or shock me, or offend me, but it’s not working. I’ve heard a lot worse. All you’re doing is making yourself sound silly and ridiculous.” He never did it again around me. Apparently he is still trying it out at school to get sympathy (not threats) but we told the teacher what we did so hopefully she’ll try it (she’s a bit of a softy).

Your son is almost certainly just saying these things because they provoke reactions from the people he says it to. 3 year olds have a hard time grasping ethics, what cutting someone actually would entail, or perhaps most pertinent, the difference between between positive and negative attention. Since you’ve already checked to determine that no one is actually being mean to him, just try to drill the mantra into his head that it is only ever ok to hit someone if they hit you first. I had a friend who thought the 7 year old boy she babysitted was “disturbed” because the only games he wanted to play involved killing things with his light saber. I had to repeatedly and patiently explain that this is the way most little boys are. Little boys want to pretend to be pirates, ninjas, and soldiers, not civil rights heroes who orchestrate peaceful campaigns to benefit the disenfranchised. Don’t worry about it. I assure you when he’s 19 he’s going to meet some pretty liberal girl at college and he’ll be all about making love, not war.

My 4 1/2 year old son said to his grandmother yesterday “Im going to pull your hair out one by one” He said it with a calm voice and was right up in her face. This creeps me out!

I went to my GP today and asked his advice. He said its probably coming from kindy - but my son said it came from “inside my head - I had bad thoughts.”

I am always complimented on his behaviour and manners and he is generally a very afffectionate child.

Is this something I should be worried about? He doesn’t torture animals or light fires, so I’m pretty sure I’m not raising a serial killer! Anyone else had this happen with their kindy age child?

I wouldn’t be worried. My just-five-year-old (who is a girl, by the way - I don’t think this has anything to do with boys vs girls) occasionally threatens to chop off our heads if we make her tidy up or whatever. We just tell her that we understand she’s just blowing off steam, but you still can’t say things like that because you could hurt people’s feelings; she’s welcome to say ‘I’m really really angry with you!’ or stuff like that, instead. We don’t make a big deal of it, so she doesn’t get a major reaction off us, and the whole thing seems to be going away.

The thing to deal with, IMO, is his feeling that he has ‘bad thoughts’. You don’t want him getting it into his head that he’s somehow bad for thinking these things. Kids that age tend to have a pretty fragile boundary between thought and reality; they don’t always realise that thinking a thing doesn’t mean it’ll actually happen. You need him to understand the difference between thinking something and actually doing it, and to understand that, while thoughts just happen, he has control over how he deals with them. I’ve had a few chats with Widget about how everyone sometimes thinks things like that, or wants to punch someone or kick someone, and that’s totally normal - the important thing is to find a way to deal with these thoughts so that you don’t actually hurt anyone.

In your son’s case, for example, you could tell him there’s nothing wrong with him thinking of pulling out his grandmother’s hair, and if he needs to get the thought out of his system, he can just tell you or his other parent that he thought about it. Doing it would be horrible, because it would hurt her, but thinking it doesn’t actually mean he’ll do it. Again, the important thing isn’t whether he has thoughts like that - it’s that he finds a way to deal with them without hurting anyone.

Thanks eclectic wench. I feel much better. I did say to him that if he is having bad thoughts it doesnt mean he is a bad boy…and he can tell me his bad thoughts. I spoke to our doctor and he said to just keep an eye on this and talk to kindy teachers - it could be coming from other children.

But seriously, thankyou for your input - im a single mum (41 year old) and he is my only child - im a bit out of my depth!

This is a very likely a base level motivator for a three year old, and I think it is something a parent should be mindful of when responding to any behavior that you’d like to dissuade them from.

If your toddler gets a strong reaction from you, they might continue the behavior just out of sheer amusement. Again, they’ll get a sense of power out of provoking you.

Let me share a few ideas from the Absinthe Anecdote play book.

I might try something along the lines of the following:

Junior: If someone is mean to me, I’ll cut them to see their blood.

Absinthe Anecdote: Preposterous, that is a very crude strategy. I would use the superior power of my brain to outsmart them…

Junior: huh?

Absinthe Anecdote: Cutting someone isn’t smart, using your brain is a much better way to stop mean people.

I might set it aside for the moment because you’ll likely be explaining what strategy means at that point.

Later, I would go back to the subject and try to indirectly extract from them where they are getting these ideas.

I’m pretty good with funny voices and sometimes I would use sock puppets to extract information from my toddler about what happened at daycare. My kid’s favorite character that I created for him was a snooty English butler.

Plus, a sock puppet with a snooty English accent is a very strong advocate for your wisdom as a mother.

The sock puppet can say things like, “Your mother is very wise to suggest developing strategy to deal with mean people.”

You can develop much more of an effective bond in this manner and influence their behavior on multiple levels.

Plus, you’ll be teaching them vocabulary and concepts while you extract intelligence from them about what and who is influencing them to say that they want to cut someone.

Good luck to the OP!

Toddlers are a lot to deal with, but you can have a blast with them too. :slight_smile:

BTW, I just watched a video trailer of Too Human out of sheer curiosity.

It consists of Nordic war gods battling swarms of humanoid creatures with axes and firearms.

Your husband was playing such a game with a three year old, and then having a short fuse with the kid and yelling at him?

No wonder, your kid was saying that stuff.

It is just my humble opinion, but I’d say you’ve got a much bigger problem with your husband to address.

Not a big deal. He is saying things that he has heard other people saying, and he is going through a stage in which he is trying on role-models for size.

Op’s kid is now almost 8. Hopefully the problem has world itself out, or at least the dumbass dad has cured his ways.

Aren’t we all :smiley: It sounds like you’ve got a great kid who trusts you and tells you what’s going on in his head.