Concerned About 5-year-old Behavior

QUESTION

Dear Dr. Laura,
My son is a high needs kid. We have, for the most part, been able to manage his outbursts. Today at school we were called because he told two separate children that he wanted them to be dead. After the first time I sat down and talked with him in the quiet area and did believe that he understood how important it was not to say things like that. After I left he said it again to a different child. The day care is very concerned and did stress that in public school he would most likely be sent home if it happened there.

Honestly I'm not sure what to do. We are trying to get him into a pediatrician that deals with behavior but they are not taking new patients. The day care didn't say that it was abnormal but she was not very reassuring. I'd love any thoughts you might have.

Thank you,

Michelle

ANSWER

Dear Michelle,
Your little guy is experimenting. He's just discovered an amazing tool to make himself feel powerful: Just tell another kid he wants them dead. (I realize this is not a direct threat, but that is splitting hairs. It's a short distance from "I want you dead" to "I will make you dead.")

Does this mean he'll grow up to be a school shooter? Unlikely. It means he's five. But it does indicate that he needs some help to learn more appropriate ways of negotiating peer conflict than pulling out the nuclear threat.

This is not so different from the preschooler who says "I hate you. I'm not inviting you to my birthday party." Any preschool teacher can tell you that this is standard behavior for a four year old. By five, kids are usually starting to be able to handle conflict without resorting to such strong language.

Any responsible school knows that when a kid threatens another kid it needs to be taken seriously. Five year olds have been known to get their hands on guns and to use them. Do you and I think there is actually a danger? No, of course not. I think your son is experimenting with power and intimidation, a time-honored tradition for five-year-olds. But the daycare is being responsible in making this kind of language off-limits, and you would be doing your son no favor to allow him to interact with peers this way regardless of what the school allows.

If your son is acting out in other ways, then he does need help from a psychologist and you should find another referral who is taking new patients. If this is the only issue our son is having, then strict but empathic limit-setting combined with coaching better peer social/emotional skills should solve the issue.

What is strict but empathic limit-setting? You set the limit in no uncertain terms: You tell your son that threats are absolutely never allowed. Something unpleasant will happen if your son in any way threatens another child. Sit down with the school and agree on the consequence, tell your son the rule, and then stick to it. For instance, if the consequence is that he is not allowed to go to recess with the other kids, then no exception should be made. (Of course, depriving a high-needs child of recess is a recipe for a melt-down later in the day. If this is the agreed-on consequence, make sure you take him to the playground on those afternoons so that he can let off steam. But don't link the two events so he doesn't see the playground as a reward.)

If the school insists that the consequence is that he will be sent home, you will need to be sure that home becomes boring and non-rewarding. Many kids like to be home with Mom, especially if she lets them watch TV.

Obviously, if this consequence has to be applied more than twice, it isn't working. That indicates either that he doesn't perceive the consequence as unpleasant or that he's getting something very rewarding out of threatening other kids, and he does need help from a psychologist.

Let's assume he stops threatening other kids after the consequence is applied once or twice. He still needs some coaching in better peer social/emotional skills.

Have a discussion with your son when he isn’t angry about how he thinks it makes someone feel to hear these comments. Agree with him that when we’re mad it’s hard not to say angry things. Tell him that you know he is mad when he says these things, but that threatening physical harm is like hitting -- it is always off limits. Ask him how he could handle the same situation if it happens tomorrow. Giving him a chance to act it out with you will prime his subconscious so that he is more likely to act appropriately when he finds himself angry again.

Be aware that anger is always a response to underlying hurt, fear or sadness. Encourage your son to blow off steam by talking about how angry he was at the other kid, while you reflect what he's saying so he feels heard and understood: "Wow, you were very angry at him!" Tell him anger is normal, but help him let go of the anger by becoming aware of the feelings underneath: “Sounds like you were hurt when Henry called you that name... so you wanted to hurt him back, so you said angry things to him."

Teach him some strategies to manage his anger and frustration. Can he carry a squeezy ball in his pocket to squeeze? Learn to close his eyes, breathe, and count to ten? Say "I am really mad and I don't want to say anything mean so I am going to get a drink of water and calm down.?"

Teach him to negotiate disagreements with classmates. Introduce the problem-solving concept of "We can find a solution that works for everyone." For instance, "Jeremy wants to play soccer. Jake wants to tag. What could you both enjoy doing?" They may decide to play tag and then soccer. Or they may climb on the jungle gym. Either way, no one loses.

Make sure your son gets plenty of opportunities to make his own choices and feel powerful in his life so he doesn't have so much need to feel powerful with his classmates. Much like a toddler reveling in the power of ''no,'' kids are more likely to threaten peers if that’s the only time they get to feel powerful.

Finally, you may need to re-consider your discipline methods. Don’t use discipline strategies that make use of threats, power plays (punishment of any sort), or social exclusion (timeouts), because you don’t want to model those things. Instead, set appropriate limits, enforced with empathy. Kids whose parents use empathy as their primary parenting tool are receiving constant training in empathy and are much less likely to be mean to others. If you want more info on how to use positive discipline -- which has been shown to result in better behavior than punishment -- there is a whole section on Discipline on my website.

Good luck!
--Dr. Laura

Laura Markham

As both a mom and a Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Laura Markham offers a unique perspective on raising kids. Her relationship-based parenting model has helped thousands of families across the U.S. and Canada find compassionate, common-sense solutions to everything from separation anxiety and sleep problems to sass talk and cell phones.

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Dr. Markham received her Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University in New York. She's held many challenging jobs, including running publishing companies with 100 employees, serving on corporate boards and coaching business leaders, as well as counseling families and children. Bottom line, she says, "Raising children is the hardest, and most rewarding, work in the world." Dr. Markham lives in New York, with her husband, 14-year-old daughter, and 17-year-old son.