My 4.5 year old son has gotten into a pattern of saying “shut up”, “stupid bad guy”, “stupid”, or pretend shooting with his hands to adults, (sometimes with his friends, too, but it seems to be more equal, or if not, at least I am able to get him to stop or remove him from the situation and do special time or playlistening right away). I think this all started harmlessly b/c he hears a few of his friends saying the same things and pretend shooting. I am comfortable with this when it’s mutual play between the children. But now its seems its his “go to” with adults and I’m bracing myself for it happening anytime. Sometimes I know its b/c he wants attention/ to play with me, other times b/c he doesn’t want someone in our house (a neighbor comes to our home to do her laundry and it’s clear he feels she’s invading his space). But other times he says it to strangers, and I can’t figure that out. And sometimes it might be just playful, and its hard to know. My husband and I have tried so many different approaches. Being playful- getting in there with him and play shooting, or “allowing” him to shoot me and dramatically acting out falling to the ground, or we have said “we’re not shooting now”, “we don’t talk to people like that” or “we don’t shoot at other people”, or “We can have five minutes of saying all the words we don’t like to hear and shooting”. But after the timer goes off, it’s clear that he hasn’t “gotten it out of him.” We are doing special time and staylistening on a regular basis. But maybe we’re not getting enough out of him during staylistening. I am most distraught when he does this with people I don’t know so well, who I can’t/don’t want to have a conversation about it with. And, distraught when it gets physical- Here’s a specific example of what we’re dealing with: Today, we had an adult friend come over. My son was very excited to play with her. I told him that she and I needed to talk, and that I’m sure she would be happy to play with him after we talk. The whole time we were talking it was a struggle to keep him from saying shut up, stupid, etc and shooting at her very close to her face. I felt like I needed a quick solution in the moment but couldn’t find one. I tried keeping him close in my lap and giving him physical attention while she and I talked, but he kept trying for her attention. He even scratched and kicked her, which took me by surprise that he went so far. In the end I asked her if she would play with him for 5 minutes, just the two of them, and she did. And we decided to have a future playdate for just the two of them. But it didn’t help us get to the root of his behavior. It feels like this is coming from fear. I suppose a need to feel powerful and protect himself with his words and guns. If staylistening is the tool you recommend, how can we provoke the release out of him, b/c he is holding on so strong to these words/behaviors?
One thing to add- and I know it’s already a very long post!- is that I’ve read the article about the vigorous snuggle, and Patty gives an example of a child whining for a cookie. She says to say “I’ve got the biggest cookie lover of them all! He loves cookies! He loves cookies! He loves cookies!” I can’t think of what to say around the words my son is saying. Any suggestions would be appreciated!
It sounds like you are doing such great work with your son and that things just need a little tweaking. I think you are right on when you say his off-track behavior is coming from a place of fear. Patty wrote this great article about exactly what you are describing: when a kiddo has a chunk of frozen fear and it’s causing them to do almost anything to get your attention.
I’ll hit some of the highlights of the article – starting with YOU getting Listening Time. Do you have a listening partner or 3 or 4. What needs to happen in your own listening time is for you to get to all the feelings around this – how embarrassing it is; how you fear there is something wrong with him and/or what if he never stops? Explore your own feelngs of frustration and powerlessness. – Memories of times when you were small that you didn’t get attention and/or you felt powerless. Exploring all that – ranting, raving, crying, laughing, trembling about all that will help you get to the place where it actually doesn’t bother you at all that he’s shooting people.
In other words, your tension around this behavior is adding to his feelings of fear, of not being wanted, of not being able to feel you, of being bad, etc. Your own listening time will help you see him as GOOD no matter what.
The next step is to RAMP UP THE SPECIAL TIME – do it more often, but in shorter bursts. So – do 5 minutes, 3-5Xs each day. And set a timer!!! It’s really important that there be a end to the Special Time. But do leave a buffer of time. If he gets upset when Special Time ends and you propose that you are now going into the other room to do the dishes (thereby taking your attention from him), you’ve left time to staylisten.
More/shorter Special Time will increase the safety so that he can let that fear bubble up and release it. and more frequent Special Time means more frequent ENDINGS and transitions or separations. You will be giving him more opportunity to feel you start to move away – therefore more opportunity to have a good cry.
Look for other opportunities to set little limits, as well. Perhaps you help him put his shoes on in the morning because it’s faster. You know he can physically do it. So, this morning you cheerfully say, ‘you can put your shoes on sweetie’ The meltdown that might ensue is more releasing of feelings and it’s a good thing. Or perhaps you give him juice in the red cup and he sort of whines for the blue cup. Cheerfully saying, ‘we’re using the red cup today’ is another little limit that has nothing to do with guns or name calling. It’s another opportunity for him to tantrum.
Then keep doing all the great playlistening and rough n tumble play where he gets to take the more powerful role. All that great stuff will increase his confidence and his ability to feel you. Because you are going to get Listening Time and you feel relaxed about the shooting, you might find that the way you playlisten shifts.
All those ideas are how to help him release the fear… 1) Listening partnerships for you 2) more/shorter bursts of Special Time setting a timer 3) look for opportunities to set a little limit early and often 4) lots of play
You can also think preventatively and be a detective for a few days. Is there a pattern to this particular off-track behavior? and can you do some Special Time or rough n tumble play right before the adult friend comes over? You could plan to have the adult friend do Special Time as soon as they get there. That way your son doesn’t have to beg for attention.. You fill his cup up first.
I hope some of those ideas help. You really are doing such wonderful work with your son. What an awesome Mama. Let us know how it goes…
Peace & Smiles,
Parenting by Connection Certified Instructor
Conscious Child-raising Creating Cooperation and Peace
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“If we are to teach real peace in the world, we shall have to begin with children” – Gandhi
Thanks, Kathy. Your response is really helpful and we’ve been trying out your suggestions. Now I’ve identified that I think the fear is both around people coming to our home, and also about fear of getting sick/dying. I think the work we’ve done since reading your response has already helped around other people. He told me today that he wished “stupid” was a good word to say. And we ended up having a whole game where he asked me to be the police and catch him, the bad guy and I felt it was really nurturing something in him. Now for the fear of getting sick…We live in a rural area so we talk a lot about ticks, poison ivy, poisonous bugs, etc. Today he touched a fuzzy caterpillar and we have told him to not touch these caterpillars as they may be poisonous. He came to me and asked me if he was going to get a rash, have to go to the doctor, get sick or die. Earlier today he got a splinter and cried “Am I going to get an infection?” I consider him to be quite easy going usually, so this fear is taking me by surprise a bit. Looking back, I suppose I responded more rationally than doing stay listening. I said things like “If you’re worried about getting a rash you can wash your hands”. But when I tried telling him “I think you’ll be ok” or “You’re most likely ok, and if you get a rash we’ll put clay on it” I realized how confusing it is for him, b/c I tell him not to touch something but then when he does, I say “you’re most likely ok”. And he says “what does most likely mean”? On one hand I want to reassure him that he’s ok, on the other hand perhaps these moments of fear about getting a rash/getting sick are a chance to bring out his cries about the fear more fully. Can you please guide me a bit more in how to do this sensitively? How do I convey to a 4.5 year old that I don’t have a yes or no answer about whether he’ll get a rash and I understand how scary that may be, but make him feel safe?