What Do You Do When Your Child Says Scary Things?

6 years ago
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Our oldest son has always been a bit... intense. Like me, he's dramatic, and emotional, and vocal about his feelings. It's a temperament I can relate to, but when combined with the honesty of a young child, it can sometimes be disconcerting.

When his younger brother became a toddler, and they participated in more active play together, they of course began to fight. And that's when it started. "I want to HURT him!" "I want to KICK him!" "I want to BITE/HIT/SCRATCH him!!!" This was not the loving brotherly relationship we were hoping for. And worse, it was scary to hear him say these things. They would come out with unnerving intensity and conviction, and we could see he meant it.




So of course we tried to convince him he didn't. "You don't mean that," we'd say. "You love your brother, and you don't want to hurt him." "But I do! I want to BITE him." And so it would go around until we had a full-on, raging tantrum on our hands, and be at a complete loss for how to support our child. Three resources helped us get through this: How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk, Siblings Without Rivalry, and Janet Lansbury's Elevating Childcare blog. What we learned were these important lessons:


1. Kids are just kids


Their emotions can be intense and seem scary, but expressing their feelings doesn't mean they will grow into adults who will willfully hurt others. As adults, we have to remember that even though young children can sound angry, they are good inside. If we allow those big feelings to scare us, it gives them power and can scare a child. It's our job to make sure those big feelings don't get out of hand. It's much easier to deal with a 2- or 3-year-old who is expressing big feelings than a teenager, so now is the time to learn how to manage them.


2. Acknowledging feelings isn't the same as giving them permission to act on them.


At first I felt if I listened to my son's proclamations about hurting his brother and tried to empathize with him, he would interpret that as an invitation to act. I was so wrong! When I removed him from the situation, remained calm, and acknowledged his feelings, I realized that all he really wanted to do was get those big feelings out. Sometimes he still would want to go hit/bite/kick/scratch, but I would tell him I wouldn't let him do that -- he could punch the pillow or go run around in the yard for a few minutes until the feeling passed.


3. Intense feelings are normal, and we all need to learn how to appropriately handle them.


Who hasn't felt intense rage about something at some point in their life? We get angry when someone cuts us off on the road, or when it's raining on the day we planned to go to the park, or our significant other has moved something we need to use right now. It never occurred to me that these big feelings of mine were the same as the ones my son was expressing (because of course, I wasn't being as honest about them -- even though there are times when I wish I could punch someone). When we acknowledge them, we normalize them, and then have opportunities to teach them appropriate outlets for them. We may want to hit, but we don't -- we take deep breaths and talk it out, or remove ourselves from the situation, or swear quietly under our breath until it passes.

Now, if either of my children tell me they want to hurt the other, I actually welcome it as an opportunity to listen and be there for them. Our conversations usually go something like this: "I WANT TO BITE MY BROTHER!!!" "You sound really angry. Is it because you were playing with the car and he has it now?" "YES! HE TOOK MY CAR!! I WANT TO BITE HIM!!!!" "You really want to bite him. You're really upset." "YES I AM!! Will you hold me?" "Of course, honey." After a few minutes, I might say, "There's another car on the floor over there, do you want to play with that one?" And it's usually all over.

As hard as it was at first, learning to listen when those intense emotions came out was one of the best lessons for me as a mother. When my boys are out of control, they know they can come to me. They know I'm their outlet, and their rock, and I'm not going to let them get into trouble. Those feelings were scary for me to hear, but they were even scarier for my son to feel. By acknowledging them, I let him know that they're not anything to be afraid of, and that he can control them. He might want to hurt his brother, but he doesn't need to act on it. And that is a lot less scary for all of us.

How do you handle your child's scary emotions?