Talking to Your Child About Violence

Why you should be talking to your child about scary stuff and what to do when they do it!

This has come up in ParentAbility several times recently, and we were talking about it on Instagram a bit, and I had many parents DMing me saying “omg, nobody talks about this, my kid says things like I wish my sister were dead. I want to stab myself in the face. I want to kill you. I’m going to eat you. And so many more…and I’m so embarrassed and I have no idea what to do about it.”

TRIGGER WARNING: if this is difficult for you, please don’t read it alone, mentally prepare yourself for it.

This is just hard stuff to talk about, and I think that’s why nobody is because nobody wants to think about little kids having these huge scary feelings.

As always if you think your child is in danger of harming themselves or others it is never an over-reaction to seek out the support of a medical professional.

I am not one and nothing in here is medical advice.

Trust your gut!

The Brain

We’ve talked before about how, when kids don’t feel safe, their neocortex becomes unavailable. The neocortex is where our language, reason, knowledge, and executive skills live. Basically, all the stuff that makes us civilized human but none of that is necessary for us to be alive.

It’s nice but none of it is keeping us upright and breathing.

Our limbic system, however, is necessary for life. It is keeping us upright and breathing and it has no reason. It has no language. It has no knowledge and it has no skills. It has our emotions, our memories, and our security system. That’s it, that’s all.

When our brain perceives danger, not having confirmed proof of it just thinks it might be in danger, it stops sending resources to our neocortex and gives all those resources to our limbic system. You become emotional, irrational, and not quite paranoid but pretty close. You’re very biased towards the perception of danger rather than the perception of safety. This means they lose access to their executive functioning skills, their knowledge, and their language.

For the purposes of this particular topic: the loss of access to their language and knowledge is really important to note.

Grab the scripts for crazy-making behaviour and know exactly what to say next time your toddler, preschooler, or kindergartener isn't listening.

When kids say scary stuff it’s because they’re dysregulated.

It’s the whole concept of the best offense is a good defense.

Pretty much every child I’ve worked with or whose parents I’ve coached has said scary shit. It’s because they’re attempting to take accountability for something they did while intensely dysregulated. They know what they have done isn’t good. However, because they’re STILL dysregulated, they don’t have access to their reason and language.

This means what is spewing out of their mouth aren’t well-considered thoughts. It’s just the best emotional vocabulary they’ve got.

When we’re talking about young kids, 6 and under, their vocabulary is extremely limited. Especially because we tend to boil all emotions down to sad, happy, and mad when we’re talking to children. They not only don’t have access to their knowledge and language. They also don’t really have the vocabulary to accurately label what they’re feeling even if they were calm.

They will generally use words that they may not understand the meaning of literally, but they understand the meaning of emotionally. They understand the tone with which that word is generally said. They’ve heard it, and they may or may not know the literal definition of it, but they sure as hell know that saying “I want to kill you” is always said in a frustrated, angry, murderous tone.

At the very least it’s said dismissively like “omg, I want to kill you.” They get that. Even if they don’t get the words themselves.

I’m sure this has happened to you. Where you’re so pissed off about something that you say cruel, hateful things that you didn’t mean. You were upset, and those words were the best ones you had to even attempt to get someone else to understand how you were feeling. Once you calm down, you feel awful. That was the wrong way to express that emotion, but in the moment you couldn’t think of any other way to get your feelings across. It’s the same thing with kids only their language and vocabulary are both even more limited.

When children are saying scary shit it’s because that’s the best they can come up with at that moment that feels accurate to their emotions.

Kids do well if they can remember.

Why it happens? What do we do about it?

We speak to the emotions, not the words and I know those can be hard to separate.

Have you ever seen those videos where it says “dancing to the beat vs dancing to the lyrics.” and there’s a split-screen, and music playing, and on one side you have someone dancing to the lyrics of a song, while on the other there’s someone dancing to the beat of the song.

Generally, those two dances look completely different. Keep that in mind when we’re talking to the emotions, not the words.

We’re responding to the same sentence but it’s going to look completely different!

I’ll start with a personal example when I was a relatively new early interventionist I started working with this little girl who was kind of known for saying scary shit. I was warned about it but I didn’t really see it during our first few sessions. She was pretty sweet to me, actually.

I started to think what’s everyone so worried about?

After a couple of weeks she obviously began to feel more comfortable around me and began to drop her guard which means she was dedicating less energy to remain regulated around me.

On this night we were sitting at the island in her parents’ kitchen coloring in coloring books, and I could tell she was getting frustrated. She’d chosen an image that had a lot of small spaces and she was constantly going over the lines. I looked over and made a positive comment about her picture I can’t remember exactly what it was but something like “Oh wow you’ve used a lot of pink!” and she whipped her head up and pointed her marker at me and said “I will stab your eyes out!”

Instantly her mother came barrelling into the room to reprimand her. I held my hand up to stop her and I used my other hand to lower the marker this little girl was pointing at my face and calmly said “You’re frustrated and don’t want me to look at your picture. *Please don’t look at my picture, Lana.*” Then I looked at her expectantly.

She froze. She didn’t know what to do.

I prompted her: “Your turn: Please don’t look at my picture, Lana.”

It must have taken her multiple minutes to respond because I had to stop Mom from interrupting multiple times while I waited for her. She did end up covering her picture with her hand and repeating me. To which I responded “Okay, thank you for telling me you don’t want me to look at your picture. Why don’t we take a break and go have a dance party?” and then I hopped down and offered her my hand.

I spoke to her motions, not her words.

If I’d spoken to her words I’d have said something like “We don’t threaten people, that’s rude.” and never actually addressed what she was trying to communicate.

This was exactly what Mom had been in the process of attempting to do. She’d been sitting in the living room and before she got into the kitchen I heard her bellow “WHAT DID YOU JUST SAY?!” Which would have escalated it and likely produced more scary words.

What I did instead of providing her with an accurate label for her emotion: she was clearly frustrated. I extrapolated the meaning from what she’d said she said she wanted to stab my eyes out, clearly, she didn’t want me using my eyes to look at her picture. I gave her the words she would have said if she could have said them. Please don’t look at my picture. I waited for her to mimic them to give her both practice saying them, and for her to see the immediate effect her words had. I agreed, and I offered an activity I knew she found quite regulating: a dance party.

She was dysregulated and needed some nervous system activation.

Usually, when kids say scary stuff, it’s not difficult to translate what they’re saying into what they’re trying to communicate.

“I wish you were dead” means “I wish you would go away.” usually.

“I want to kill you” is generally the same I wish I could make you go away.

I want to stab myself in the face, I wish I could kill myself, I’m going to stick my hand on the stove. Those self-harm ones. Those ones tend to be those attempts to take accountability.

They’re trying to show us how sorry they are by saying they want to physically hurt themselves to make penance for how they screwed up.

They really wish they hadn’t done that thing.

“I want to stab your eyes out” she didn’t want me looking at her drawing.

Look below the surface, look at the context of what they’re saying, and the emotion they’re attempting to communicate.

REGULATE THEM!

Get them involved in a regulation activity because if they’re using words they don’t understand to communicate emotions that is a red flag that they are dysregulated.

That’s why I offered a dance party and after we danced for 10 minutes she ran and got her picture and showed it off to me proudly.

Once she was regulated, she wanted me to look at it!

With older children, you can even expand this and problem-solve. “I wonder how next time you could let me know you don’t want me to look at your picture without threatening me.”

Brainstorm solutions, pick a few and try them out.

That’s where the collaboration bit comes in.

For younger ones, you can use a Logical Consequence Process and give them two options for what they could do next time instead of brainstorming because little kids under age 5 need more guidance and options.

Now, if your child shows any indications that they are planning to act on their scary words, the scary words are escalating in frequency or severity, or you’re not seeing any improvement after about a month. When it’s time to pull in a medical professional.

I sincerely hope this gave you a new perspective on how to approach kids who say scary stuff.

If you need support working through this with your kids you have two options. The first is the Parenting Posse, which is my free peer-support group. You’re welcome to post in there and we have great mods and former clients in there to help you work through it.

Another option if you want my hands-on support is to come and join us in ParentAbility. In ParentAbility we walk you through figuring out what your child finds regulating, integrating that into your daily life, building the skills so they aren’t getting dysregulated so frequently, and tweaking and troubleshooting your approach to these daily incidents to support their growth rather than shame them.

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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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