... the weird part is, he's never seen The Three Stooges ...
December 14, 2010 7:16 PM   Subscribe

My son is four. Over the course of his life, he's injured me a number of times, generally by slamming his head into my head or face, usually while he's bouncing or jumping around. This isn't the issue. The issue that concerns me is the way he reacts when this happens.

So, yeah, my son has a tendency to slam his head into mine. Over the course of his short life he's broken four pairs of my glasses, given me a black eye, caused three nosebleeds, and (tonight) probably cracked my front tooth. Generally this happens because he's bouncing (on the bed, not allowed, but he does it anyhow) or otherwise jumping around and slams into me by accident. (Part of the issue may be that I don't have any depth perception and am not quick enough to dodge him like his father does).

Virtually every time he does this, he laughs. A lot. Slamming his head into my face is apparently the funniest thing he's ever seen. Even tonight, as I was doubled over in pain with blood coming out of my mouth from him slamming his head into my face, he was laughing.

He was spoken to, and punished by losing all the "fun" part of his bedtime routine (no stories, no snuggles and singing with Mama), but I honestly don't think its made an impression. While he's generally a pretty empathetic kid who is very concerned if a playmate or animal seems injured or scared, for some reason when it comes to injuring me, he just thinks its hilarious.

Suggestions on how to deal with this as a parent are more than welcome. I was pretty angry with him this evening, but even after I explained it to him he seemed to be utterly clueless as to why I was so upset (and why he was in trouble). I can deal with him slamming into me every so often - but we have yet to find anything that makes him exhibit any kind of remorse afterward. (He will say "sorry" if prompted, but he's giggling while he does it which makes it clear he's only saying it because we've told him to.)

Reassurance that I'm not actually raising a serial killer is also welcome.
posted by anastasiav to Human Relations (62 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I think letting him know that He Really Hurts You, No, Forreal It Hurts Bad is key. If you get really dramatic about it, he'll do it for the attention it gets him. Once he understands that it's Actually Painful, I think it'll die off. If my kid started deliberately hurting me in serious ways (when she jumps on my legs that are spanning from the couch to the coffee table, that hurts like a motherfucker, but I don't think she understands that before she makes the leap, and it's only happened occasionally) I'd be worried, too.

I've noticed a pretty big difference between ages 4 and 5. She's definitely more empathetic and introspective at 5 than she was at 4. Perhaps your kid will stop doing this once he gets a little better at putting himself in your situation, and understanding that when he slams into you like this, it's not pretend hurt, it's Real Hurt, and this isn't the way we treat other people.

tl;dr: keep doing whatever you can to help him understand this hurts you, and it's not nice.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 7:28 PM on December 14, 2010

Response by poster: If my kid started deliberately hurting me in serious ways

Just to be very clear: I do not think this is in any way deliberate. He's just bouncy, and I don't dodge, and it happens.
posted by anastasiav at 7:31 PM on December 14, 2010

Best answer: I agree that you need to make sure you aren't sheltering him from how much he's hurting you. At 4 he's has the mental capacity for empathy for at best around 2 years so he's new at it. You may also consider that his laughter may not mean that he thinks it's funny but that's he's nervous.

Rather than punish him, treat him as you would another person who hurt you. You might try, "I love you of course, but you hurt me and I'm upset with you so I don't want to cuddle right now." That's the natural consequence of hurting a person. You might also consider not forcing him to apologize. I mean, it doesn't really make you feel any better or him feel any worse. Letting him come to feel sorry on his own might help cement the lesson.

Also this is totally within the realm of expected behavior for someone his age. He's not a dangerous amoral kiddo, he is just still learning how empathy works and what is and is not acceptable when it comes to how to treat others.
posted by Saminal at 7:36 PM on December 14, 2010 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I don't know the answer to this, but I do know that when my 3 year old daughter gets going, she things things like that are funny, too, and doesn't always understand when she has hurt one of us. (And she, like your son, does have a grasp on empathy in other situations.) It appears to happen more when she's really on an energy high. She roughhouses with mom and dad in ways she would not do with a peer. She definitely thinks of her parents as impervious, all-powerful, etc. We are working on getting her to know that we can be injured just like anyone else. Some unfortunate kids have probably dealt with parents being very ill, injured by a spouse, etc., but not us, and thank goodness for that. But she will have to learn. Good luck to both of us.
posted by Knowyournuts at 7:37 PM on December 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

I am really, really sorry for even mentioning this, because I know how horrible it is when people try to diagnose over the internet. So I want to preface by saying I'm NOT trying to diagnose. Really! Just sharing anecdata!

I wonder, does he have any other behavioral problems, or any problems with relationships? The only reason I ask is that a coworker of mine has a teenager with Aspberger's, and the first time it occurred to them to have him evaluated was when he reacted inappropriately to (unintentionally) hurting his sister and his mom. He himself doesn't really experience pain like other people do. So he'd crash into them, hurt them, and not realize that it was something serious. They thought for a long time that they just had a 'bad kid,' but then found out that it was an autism spectrum disorder that was causing his lack of appropriate reactions.

I can't offer any parenting advice, not being one. But I can tell you that being upset with that behavior and trying to correct it isn't an overreaction at all. Kids need to learn right from wrong, and they need to learn consequences. But, failing all else, it also might be worth investigating whether there are reasons that right/wrong aren't getting through.

Good luck, and I hope your tooth is okay!
posted by mudpuppie at 7:38 PM on December 14, 2010

Best answer: A. You are not raising a serial killer
B. His ability to empathize is still very much developing and he's a couple years off from the point where this would be really worrying
C. You and your family members' responses to this are going to shape his future behavior/responses more than anything else
D. You are on the right track removing positive reinforcement and explaining your reaction
E. Make sure no one in the household (e.g., older sibling, spouse) is even subtly reinforcing his behavior/reaction
F. If this persists or generalizes, find a good (i.e., university, research hospital, etc.-based) child psychologist to develop a formal behavior management plan to address this
posted by jimmysmits at 7:38 PM on December 14, 2010

Best answer: I've been told, and what I'm going to tell you could be entirely made of lies, that, as a toddler of four, I had a habit of walking up to people, wrapping my arms around their thighs, and biting them on the stomach.

Now, in my twenties, I no longer do this, unless the situation absolutely requires it.
posted by Nomyte at 7:40 PM on December 14, 2010 [83 favorites]

Best answer: While he's generally a pretty empathetic kid who is very concerned if a playmate or animal seems injured or scared, for some reason when it comes to injuring me, he just thinks its hilarious.

I wonder if he thinks of you as some kind of all-powerful being who can't really be hurt. It can be a fine line to walk as a parent, trying to make sure you are not overburdening your child with your own emotions and needs, but on the other hand raising your child to be considerate of you. Do you encourage him to think of you more generally -- to help you out around the house, or to thank you for what you do for him? Sometimes I think mothers can give, give, give, and not realize that they're also creating a dynamic where the child unthinkingly takes.
posted by palliser at 7:40 PM on December 14, 2010 [12 favorites]

I'm sorry to hear of your painful (and repeated) injuries.

I would suggest, if your goal is to teach your 4-year-old to be compassionate about others' pain, that you not "punish" him in these situations, but rather, that you exaggerate as part of the teaching experience, the pain that you feel at the unintended injury. "Oh, ouch, Mama's cheek [nose, mouth, eye, whatever] hurts!! I know it was an accident and you didn't mean to hurt me, but Mama's boo-boo really hurts a lot!! Can you kiss it and help me feel better?" - something along those lines. And after he "helps" by kissing you, or getting a cool cloth, etc., then you can have a talk about how hard a head is, and what ideas he has for trying not to have his big, strong, hard head knock into Mama again and give her another boo-boo.

Punishment should be reserved for direct disobedience. It has no place in a situation such as you describe, and certainly does not teach compassion.

Young children often have the fantasy that parents are omnipotent and can never be hurt. That could be why your little boy has laughed previously at bumping you. Be assured that it does not mean you have a little serial killer. Please do take the opportunity to teach him that yes, mommies can feel pain too. And if he shows interest, you can teach him some rudimentary first aid things. Four and five are such wonderful learning years!
posted by RRgal at 7:43 PM on December 14, 2010 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Little kids are sociopaths. He should grow out of it. If he hasn't grown out of it by puberty, then you can get worried.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:44 PM on December 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

it's going to be hard to get him to accept responsibility when you don't feel he's responsible yourself. his actions are having a consequence, delightfully bouncy boy or not.

you're hoping to impart to him that there are times/places for these kinds of activities, and that when daddy's head is right next to his is not one of those times, so having a "he's just bouncy, it just happens" mindset while simultaneously punishing him and finding yourself angry with him makes very little sense. he's either *doing this* (in which case his actions can have consequences outside of you bleeding) or he's NOT doing this (in which case i don't think he should be punished).

there are numerous potential causes for this sort of thing; is it possibly sugar related? what are the mom&dad excitement levels like just before this happens? are you encouraging and giggling with him up until the whack? is this behavior that's entirely acceptable up until the accident happens, at which point it suddenly becomes punishable? that might just be too complicated a concept for him to really grasp.

i don't think you have a serial-killer-in-the-making on your hands, but i do think some boundaries might be in order.

in any case, if you're genuinely worried about his social development then keep your eyes out for animal cruelty, lack of remorse for other wrongs, etc, but ultimately keep in mind that the root of slapstick humor runs deep in humans.
posted by radiosilents at 7:45 PM on December 14, 2010 [4 favorites]

Not sure if you've tried this before, but maybe it would help if his father spoke to him about it, and conveyed in a serious tone that he's concerned and that even though it was an accident, what your son did really hurt Mom. This might be a way to take the emotional pitch of the moment down a notch, but still express the seriousness you want to convey.
posted by pompelmo at 7:46 PM on December 14, 2010

Best answer: A lot of people here are talking from the perspective of parents, so let me tell a story from the perspective of a kid: When I was 7 or 8 years old, my aunt came with me to school, carrying a big bag of craft supplies that my family was donating to the school. It was winter and crossing the schoolyard, my aunt slipped on a patch of ice and fell. I laughed and laughed. My aunt still remembers this, and I honestly think is still hurt by this.

However, if I may defend myself a moment: This did not seem at all like a serious thing to me. Kids fall all the time. I feel all the time. Kids around my fell all the time. In fact, one of the games we used to play as kids was covering over patches of ice with a thin layer of snow then luring someone to run over the ice patch so they would fall. We thought it was the funniest thing ever. No one was ever seriously hurt doing this, and as far as I knew at the time, falling was not something that could result in any real injury. Sure I understood that my aunt's knees or butt or whatever it was hurt. But my knees or butt or whatever hurt when I fell too and it's not only the end of the world, but something that happens multiple times a day when you're a kid let out to recess in an icy schoolyard.

Now as an adult I know two people who have died from falls (not falls off a cliff, just regular old walking down the street falls), and I know that people can break things when they fall and that when adults break things sometimes they can't go to work and if they don't go to work they won't get paid and just in general that falling can actually be a pretty serious thing.

But when I laughed I didn't know that. My aunt did, of course, which is why she was hurt because she thought I didn't care that bad things could have happened to her. The truth is, I didn't really see falling as a particularly bad thing --not because I couldn't empathize (put myself in her place) but because I had been in her place many times and it had never been a big deal.

You're probably not used to being bumped around and in the face, but I bet being bumped and such happens pretty often when you're a roughhousing kid and it may not seem like a huge deal to him. It's not a lack of empathy, necessarily, but possibly just a different understanding of what your perspective must be like.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:00 PM on December 14, 2010 [24 favorites]

Best answer: You're not raising a serial killer.

But I think some Supernanny-style naughty chair timeouts are in order. Put up a list of household rules that includes "no head-butting." And when he's calm, do some role-play exercises where he pretends to be you and pretend to react appropriately when you pretend-hurt him, and have a discussion that hurting people is a bad thing, and here's what happens when you hurt people...

Seriously ... Supernanny's techniques actually work very well.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:00 PM on December 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Sometimes with my kids, it helps to remember that sometimes laughter can be a response to nervousness or uncertainty. This totally may not apply in your case but I've seen it happen with my kids once or twice when they're afraid they've made me mad or taken things too far.
posted by not that girl at 8:02 PM on December 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oh yeah, I meant to add that one thing you can do is bring it up a day or two later. "Hey, remember when you hurt mommy last night? Yeah, that really hurt. It hurts Mommy when you do that. What do you think it would feel like if I hit your face with my head?"

Bringing it up the next day, rather than after they're embarrassed/shamed/horrified/excited/proud of their behavior tends to focus more on the actual action-->consequence part of the event and less on the stigma of what transpired.

Or something.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 8:05 PM on December 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: My 18 month old daughter does the same thing.

I think that the laughing isn't because she hurt me; it's because she's wound up, and things are funny when you're wound up. Especially funny are the times that unexpected things happen.

Plus, if he isn't doing it on purpose, it's probably hard for him to see it happening at all. And punishing him for an accident isn't going to stop accidents from happening.

Punishing him for jumping on the bed, though, when he isn't supposed to be, and doing it consistently, maybe that would help?

Also, do you ever pretend that something hurts as part of horseplay? My husband does this sometimes - and I've worried that it might lead to her thinking that "hurting" is funny eventually?
posted by dpx.mfx at 8:07 PM on December 14, 2010

Response by poster: I would suggest, if your goal is to teach your 4-year-old to be compassionate about others' pain, that you not "punish" him in these situations, but rather, that you exaggerate as part of the teaching experience, the pain that you feel at the unintended injury.

He was punished for bouncing on the bed, something he is explicitly forbidden to do lest is result in injury to himself or others, as it has on other occasions. (That was the loss of bedtime stories.) His further punishment (loss of snuggles) was, I must admit, a direct result of his complete unwillingness to listen to me when I tried to explain why a) I was upset and b) he was in trouble. I simply was too angry and in too much pain to be in the room with him any longer.

I did try to go down the route you suggest - the "Can you kiss it and help me feel better?" route - this is how we got to the half-hearted "sorry" and more laughter and rolling about on the bed. It was his complete unwillingness to engage in this conversation - or even to help me as I was sitting on the floor, asking him to hand me the box of wipes - that took the situation from "teachable moment" to "wow, his behavior is completely inappropriate".

I highly doubt he was in any doubt about how much pain I was in, considering that I was bleeding from the mouth and was sitting on the floor weeping with pain.

when you don't feel he's responsible yourself. his actions are having a consequence, delightfully bouncy boy or not

I hope I didn't convey that: I want him to feel responsible. I think that's a big part of the problem, actually - he didn't connect his behavior (bouncing) with my injury (despite the fact that my teeth connecting with his head must have hurt him as well). He did not injure me on purpose (ie: he didn't walk up and just hit me for no reason) - he injured me as a consequence of his doing something he wasn't supposed to be doing, and something we'd warned him repeatedly could cause him to hurt himself or others.
posted by anastasiav at 8:08 PM on December 14, 2010

Best answer: not that girl: "it helps to remember that sometimes laughter can be a response to nervousness or uncertainty. "

This is it exactly. My own kids have done this, as did one other kid among the parents we knew in the neighbourhood. Seeing someone in pain produces very visceral and glandular reactions from people; I seem to recall it being one of those ingrained responses that anthropologists have studied.

Because the response is so visceral and their minds are still learning how to process many situations their body's physical state can overwhelm them. They've got this burst of hormones in their system from the automatic reaction and no clear way to handle it. After all, they were just playing, and now their glands are telling them "Something Important Has Happened - I must be even more alert" while their brains tell them "I don't know what to do - And Mommy's upset." When they can't process what to do and they're nervous, they let out the energy any way they can.

Interestingly, I have a friend who has a similar response (at age 35) to really bizarre conversations or events - he just bursts out laughing (sometimes in really inappropriate situations.) I think for some people it's the default way of processing the unprocessable.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 8:18 PM on December 14, 2010 [3 favorites]

The actual infliction of pain is acceptable as long as you're sure it's accidental, but laughing when you've just hurt somebody is an obnoxious behaviour that you'd all be better off if he was trained not to do.

Since we've started using it to seize control of our household back from the four- (now five-) year old, I've been quite astonished how well 1-2-3 Magic works for this kind of thing.
posted by flabdablet at 9:05 PM on December 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm going with not that girl's explanation. My toddler often laughs or smiles REALLY big when she's done something clearly wrong, especially when it come to hurting me. I think it's her attempt to override the bad feelings and re-shape the experience. She knows that in most situations, when she laughs or smiles, I'll do the same and she likes that feedback loop. So when she does something bad, she tries to see if that technique can convert the situation into one where I'll laugh too.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 9:17 PM on December 14, 2010 [5 favorites]

Best answer: When properly expressed, anger is a health emotion. Its a feature, not a bug. Never get physical, but when expressed immediately after the offending behavior, it is fine to raise your voice when you are angry. But it must be controlled. You need to have a plan beforehand to let it be expressed and have your line set out ahead of time. I would not comfort after it makes him upset, come back in 10 minutes later to discuss. Tell him exactly what is wrong when you do--point out specific behaviors. His system is designed to take this input.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:17 PM on December 14, 2010

Best answer: I'm guessing you could be a doing a better job of reigning in the bad behavior that leads to the injuries. STOP the activity when it happens. Be firm and be consistent. If you don't set some boundaries you're only going to have more trouble later on.
posted by wkearney99 at 9:26 PM on December 14, 2010 [5 favorites]

>Even tonight, as I was doubled over in pain with blood coming out of my mouth from him slamming his head into my face, he was laughing.

Do you spank him? Because the number of times he's seriously hurt you is totally out of the norm and, man, this seems like a great time to spank.
posted by cyndigo at 9:34 PM on December 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I would say it's not out of the norm to have that many injuries - especially if you have a very energetic boy.

Also it has NEVER made sense to me to spank a child for hitting. That's just not logical. Talk about mixed messages.

We have lots of accidents too, and I know my rambunctious toddler has had them at daycare. What we and his daycare teachers too is immediately stop all the action and explain it hurts when you do that. I know this is hard when you are in pain and bleeding (it surprises me that not every mother goes through this).

We also stop when things get a bit too rough and say "If you do (this) it hurts and isn't fun". We've been making good progress with this approach and focusing on the empathy. Sometimes we get still get laughter because he's all riled up and it hasn't really sunk in what's happened (regardless of blood and so on).

Little kids are rough and still not really in control of their bodies. So it's up to us to stop things before they get too wild and try and be patient and show what went wrong.

An anecdote to help: this morning Elliot Mason dropped a toy car on his head. He picked the car, looked at it and said "if you drop on my head it hurts! Don't do that" - so some message is getting through.
posted by gomichild at 9:51 PM on December 14, 2010 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I genuinely think this is a stress reaction and not a sign of actual amusement or that you are raising a sociopath. I clearly remember struggling with reactions like this all through my pre-teen years. My reaction to being intensely uncomfortable or "on the spot" was to laugh. I had to suppress laughter as a reaction to death well into my teens, with varying success. I did eventually outgrow the impulse. I can see how as a parent this would be utterly maddening, but I can only encourage you not to give it a meaning it very likely does not have.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:45 PM on December 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

How exactly are you reacting when he hurts you? Based on your descriptions, it sounds like maybe you get a little distance and stoically suffer through the pain, and then attempt to calmly explain to him that you are hurt. Of course, that's not what your child does when he gets hurt, and besides, you're his Mom, you're invincible, so I'd posit that he legitimately doesn't understand what he's done. The suggestion that you could be hurt is funny because it is impossible.

So next time? I'd suggest crying. Not ridiculously loud sobs, but just letting tears well up in your eyes so he can see. When he's hurt, I imagine his reaction is more along the lines of crying than of rational discourse. Same for his hurt playmates or injured animals. Crying is something he intrinsically understands already since, as you say, he's an empathetic kid.

When I was four, I asked my Dad what he would do if I ran away. Not that I was an unhappy kid, I was just, you know, scientifically curious. He told me he would be very sad, and when I looked at his face I realized he was crying at the thought of it. I honestly don't think I've seen him cry since, including at his own father's funeral a few years ago. At the time, I think I told him that was silly, because parents don't cry, but it was the beginning of the realization that my parents did not take me for granted the way I did them. Not that I could put it into as many words.

NB: IANAP. I have never attempted this solution in real life. My aim here is not to have you emotionally manipulate your child, merely to let him see the harm he's accidentally caused.
posted by Grafix at 10:54 PM on December 14, 2010 [3 favorites]

When my niece was two she smashed into my sister's jaw, the same way your son did. She did laugh or find it funny. The little girl put her head in her hands and wept. I bring this up so that people realize that not all children find this to be funny.

If your son's behavior bothers you, talk to your pediatrician.
posted by wandering_not_lost at 11:06 PM on December 14, 2010

Best answer: Four pairs of broken glasses, a black eye, three nosebleeds, and a cracked tooth? In my opinion, this is not normal. As a young child, I was a little hellion and caused heaps of accidents, but they generally resulted in me injuring myself or nearby objects.

I agree with wkearney99 above- his lack of remorse when you're hurt is upsetting you, but I think you should focus on preventing these sorts of accidents rather than trying to change the way he reacts to them. When he gets all wound up and out of control, tell him to calm down and remove yourself from headbutting range. Leave him to play by himself until he's more in control, or send him outside to play in the yard or somewhere he can burn off energy. When he breaks a rule, (i.e. jumping on the bed) be firm and punish him (time out or whatever) right there and then, every single time. Set boundaries and stick to them, cuddling and light horseplay is fun, frantic roughhousing that leads to injury is not. Does he often get out of control hyperactive? Talk to your pediatrician about it.
posted by emd3737 at 11:19 PM on December 14, 2010 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Here's a thought: is he laughing to compensate for/ cover up fear about you being truly hurt? Could he want to think you're invincible, and could he be disturbed and frightened by the idea you're not (given the obvious evidence of blood/pain/broken tooth etc), so he laughs to pretend it isn't happening? I can imagine having had this sort of a mindset as a little kid.
posted by ms.codex at 1:06 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer:
Do you spank him? Because the number of times he's seriously hurt you is totally out of the norm and, man, this seems like a great time to spank.
Please do not hit your four-year-old son to teach him that hitting is wrong. Instead, sit him down, just the two of you, and use your words.
Your future grandchildren thank you.
posted by blueberry at 1:22 AM on December 15, 2010 [9 favorites]

Best answer: In my experience (two boys, both under eight, and all their friends), young boys are not particularly empathetic, often laugh to cover shame/embarrassment and most importantly (if too slowly) grow out of it.

It's been said a bunch of times upthread, but I just want to emphasize - who he is today is not who he will be in a year and going forward. Be loving but firm (he's not trying to hurt you but he should know that he has - bringing it up the next day has worked for us), try to stay out of the way when he's wild/rambunctious. Also, intervening before they get too completely insane, get them onto some other activity, has also helped avoid heart-ache down the road.
posted by From Bklyn at 1:28 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I am very, very sorry for your injury. Parenting can be hard enough without adding physical pain into the mix.

FWIW, our daughter went through a hurt-us-and-laugh phase when she was around four; she's now six and has about 1000% more empathy then she did when she was four. It was definitely a maturity thing with her -- she's just grown up a lot, and is now able to see others as living, breathing people (ironically, she now really enjoys playing with dolls, and I that play has dramatically improved her people skills). Some kids are much stronger than they realize, and also learn empathy more slowly than we would wish them to. We're still reining in our daughter's behavior, but her reactions to others in pain have improved significantly.

Your injuries, on the other hand, sound far above the norm. My suggestion, as others have said, is to parent more assertively. Stop these situations early, before they get out of hand. Really -- be the parent, not the victim. You need to be that killjoy, wet-blanket, Mommy-said-don't-do-that-SO-STOP-IT-RIGHT-NOW! parent, at least until your son can better manage his own behavior.

Hang in there, and take heart that your son's reactions to others pain will become more socially appropriate as he becomes more mature.
posted by mosk at 1:37 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The first rule of boxing: Protect yourself at all times in the ring.

My 2 year old played tiger last week, came running into my embrace, and sank his fangs into my bicep, laughing with joy. (He broke skin in four places and one week later it still looks like a nasty snakebite.)

With blood streaming down my arm, I put him immediately into the time-out chair, but calmly and without any emotion.

"I know you didn't mean it and I know you were just having fun, BUT BITING IS ALWAYS WRONG."

I showed him the wound every day, re-assured him I wasn't mad, and explained that he is already capable of causing injury and that the time-out chair awaits if it happens again.

We'll see if it sticks.
posted by three blind mice at 2:14 AM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think you could have a serious problem on your hands.

I was an extremely active, wild, and violent little kid. My parents and sister have regaled me with a number of tales of fights and accidents that happened when I was four. I was suspended from school on my first day of kindergarten a month and a half after my fifth birthday for fighting with a first grader who had to be sent to the doctor. When I was just six, I punched my 12 year old sister in the jaw while she was babysitting me, knocking her cold for ~10 min, and, as it transpired after an emergency room visit that lasted most of the night, paralyzing one side of her jaw so that it had to be wired closed and leaving her potentially disabled for the rest of her life (as an ER doc told me in what I still recall as one of the worst moments of my life) though she was substantially better after only two months and ultimately recovered completely.

The number of times I harmed my mother by accident or design? Zero.

The laughter bothers me. There is a kind of laughter that goes along with and somehow makes possible deliberately tormenting an animal or another human being. I wouldn't accuse your son of this, but I wouldn't exonerate him at this point either.

Your son has banged his head into your face hard enough to cause serious problems nine times. The chances all this is purely unintentional are effectively nil.
posted by jamjam at 2:21 AM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I think people who are saying this is an abnormal amount of injuries for a child to inflict have not been around children a whole lot - baby anachronism will go into hysterics if someone is hurt by her/around her but this week she's bent the hell out of two pairs of glasses (mine and the other anachronism's), smashed her lip smacking into my partner's back and this evening she smashed me in the mouth with a remote. Three weeks ago she busted my partner's lip good and proper. That's one small girl, 18 months old, with no actual intent to harm. She's not even that rambunctious! She's just not able to moderate her strength, control her limbs and her parents are both blind and unable to dodge very well. So we get these injuries, she gets sad, we roll with it.

When they happen we usually are quite vocal but in a Dude sort of way "oh hey, what the hell? Ow man, that really hurt! Ow. Jesus." - mellow but not stoic. She knows we're hurt but it's not enough of a reaction to provoke an emotional storm. She usually settles down a bit then as well, at which point we try and calm the situation.

Also, count me in the horrified at the 'advice' of hitting a child for accidentally hurting you. That's just fucked up.
posted by geek anachronism at 2:26 AM on December 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

note: my mother tells the story of the time she found toddler me wandering the house with a hammer in my hand calling for the cat and laughing. I am not actually a serial killer, but apparently 2 year old me did a damn fine impression.

So I am disinclined to think OMG NINE ASSAULTS IN FOUR YEARS! is actually an issue in the 'deeply fucked up' sense. In the 'I'd like a pair of glasses to last more than two years' it's a definite problem.
posted by geek anachronism at 2:32 AM on December 15, 2010 [5 favorites]

My 3 Year old reacts when I tell him I'm sad - and I actually pretend I'm crying, he seems to be able to relate to it. And when I see him behave in a way that he should know is wrong, I tell him that doing that makes me sad. He seems to understand "sad".
posted by the noob at 3:35 AM on December 15, 2010

I cannot offer suggestions, however I'm certain your kid will grow up and stop. I remember when my (then baby) sister jumped on me in the wrong way, I lost the use of one of my legs (I'm not kidding) for about 2 weeks.
posted by TrinsicWS at 3:44 AM on December 15, 2010

Make an appointment with his pediatrician and discuss what's been happening to you.
posted by Carol Anne at 5:54 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I still do the nervous laughing thing in response to people close to me getting hurt, especially when I've accidentally caused the hurt. I tamp down the reaction, because it is wholly inappropriate, but in the seconds between my husband hurting himself and me rushing over to stop the bleeding/ice the bruise/whatever, I have the urge to laugh. I obviously don't think it's funny that he's hurt, but the laughter is not a conscious choice.

Having said that, I would be totally creeped out in your position with my kid laughing while I was standing there bleeding. I'm sorry that you're going through this.
posted by crankylex at 6:06 AM on December 15, 2010

So next time? I'd suggest crying. Not ridiculously loud sobs, but just letting tears well up in your eyes so he can see. When he's hurt, I imagine his reaction is more along the lines of crying than of rational discourse. Same for his hurt playmates or injured animals. Crying is something he intrinsically understands already since, as you say, he's an empathetic kid.

I was going to suggest this, too. My toddler likes to headbutt and a few times she has headbutted me RIGHT in the eye or on the face. A few times I tried to be stoic and say, "No, no headbutting, that hurts Mama" but once it hurt so bad and took me by surprise so much that I started crying and she stopped, and then she started crying, too. That was a few weeks ago and she hasn't tried to headbutt me since.
posted by sutel at 6:08 AM on December 15, 2010

Best answer: It isn't right, but it is unfortunately normal. My 4.5 year old son does this stuff too. I'm encouraged by others who say that they grow out of it because some days it can strain us something terrible.
posted by dgran at 6:19 AM on December 15, 2010

Pretend to cry??? Now you are teaching the kid that manipulation is ok.

Been around plenty of kids. Not normal. That's not to say it's bad. Talk to a kid therapist. Seeing joy in pain is not a good way to start life.
posted by gjc at 6:25 AM on December 15, 2010

If the kid doesn't really understand that what they've done has hurt, then they probably are going to thing the parent's antics are funny gjc.
posted by pharm at 6:40 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Not that girl is right; he's probably laughing because of shame, uncertainty, etc. It's a sort of bravado, like kids who say, "that didn't hurt!" after a spanking, but more importantly it's too hard a thing to face -- that he hurt mom -- so he behaves in a way that to adults is clearly inappropriate, but to him, is the only outlet he has for not facing the behavior head-on, which is too emotionally overwhelming. (Bonus points, laughing lets him release some of that emotional tension.)

My instinct would be to work harder to control the behavior, and to react as calmly as possible. If you're bleeding and crying, and dad's available, dad needs to come in and react as calmly as possible. Put him to bed with the no-stories punishment and all, but at four he's probably old enough to discuss, calmly, the next day, how his jumping on the bed hurt mommy. And maybe draw a picture of the banned behavior and the consequences and put it near his bed to help him remember. (Sort of like Supernanny does, to help the kids be more responsible for their own rules and consequences.)

But the laughing is entirely developmentally normal and probably signals that he's overwhelmed by the situation.

And, I'll add to a few other adults here who have admitted to inappropriate laughing, I laugh HYSTERICALLY when people choke. I can't help it. They start to choke, I freeze, I feel the blood rush to my head and my hands and feet get cold, and I start to laugh and laugh and laugh because I'm FREAKING THE FUCK OUT. I cope well with most emergencies, but choking scares the crap out of me and apparently I cope by laughing. This really, REALLY upsets the choker. Most people understand when I apologize, but sometimes I have to send flowers the next day. (Similarly, I was once in a somewhat scary but luckily minor car accident when I was 16 and a newish driver, was crying hysterically, and it turned into uncontrollable laughter. Fear and laughter are just really close together for me.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:52 AM on December 15, 2010

At our house, 1-2-3 Magic would most likely have prevented the face-smashing in the first place. It would have gone like this:

(Scene: kid's bedroom, bedtime. Kid is bouncing on bed.)

Mum: Beds are for sleeping in, not bouncing on.

(kid keeps bouncing on the bed)

Mum: That's 1.

(kid stops bouncing on the bed)

Mum: Good for you! Get snuggled in, and we can start reading a story.

While 1-2-3 Magic was still a new thing in our house and we weren't quite so practiced at it, it might have gone something like this:

(Scene: kid's bedroom, bedtime. Kid is bouncing on bed.)

Mum: Beds are for sleeping in, not bouncing on. You know that.

(kid ignores Mum, keeps bouncing)

Mum: Come on, settle down. It's time for stories.

(kid is having a fine time bouncing, pays no attention to instruction)

Mum: Kiddo, it's time to stop bouncing now and *OW!* (head rocks back, claps hand over injured mouth)

(kid stops bouncing, looks at Mum's weird-looking pain face, starts laughing)

Mum (painfully, through hand over mouth): It's not funny! I think you might have cracked a tooth!

(kid keeps laughing)

Mum (mustering the extreme self-control required to speak without yelling): That's 1!

(kid keeps laughing)

Mum: That's 2!

(kid keeps laughing, perhaps a little less enthusiastically for suspecting what's coming)

Mum: That's 3. Four minutes of time out for you.

(Mum leaves room, shuts door behind her, goes off to bathroom to attend to sore face. Four minutes later, she comes back in. Kid has had time to settle down. Mum is still very sore, but no longer outraged.)

Mum: My face really hurts. What do you say when you've hurt somebody?

Kid: Sorry, Mum.

(they hug)

Mum: That's why bouncing on the bed isn't allowed. (makes mental note to enforce that rule with counting in future). OK, let's have our story.

It looks kind of wimpy, but it actually works really, really well. Get the book.
posted by flabdablet at 6:53 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the responses.
posted by anastasiav at 7:35 AM on December 15, 2010

I am sort of mystified by the Vulcan parenting theory -- the idea that it is wrong to be angry at your kid, or to spank them.

Kids need to be socialized. They try stuff out in play, and see what the reaction is.

If you quietly, calmly sit your kid down and explain that you're not mad, but that hurt, you are not communicating the truth. You are mad. Anyone would be mad. When you head-butt someone, they're going to be really mad.

I don't spank my kids, but I yell at them when they make me mad.

What I think is wrong is to *stay* mad, or to hold it against them. But anger at the point of the provocation is perfectly normal and human. Why should parents behave inhumanly?

I don't think there's anything wrong with a spanking in this case. There isn't a contradiction. The lesson is: if you hurt people, they will hurt you back. I think that is an excellent lesson that a 4 year old is fully capable of understanding.
posted by musofire at 7:38 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Four pairs of broken glasses, a black eye, three nosebleeds, and a cracked tooth? In my opinion, this is not normal.

I don't get why people are saying this is not "normal" or out of the norm. Obviously, this sort of accident rate is going to vary wildly based on the kid, preferred activities and lots of other factors. Also I'm not assuming that each thing mentioned in the post were individual incidents. Perhaps there were some black eye/broken glasses/nosebleed combos.

Note too that the OP said she has depth perception problems. This makes a huge difference. I have normal depth perception and faster than average reflexes but I've been injured plenty of times by my kid. Especially at that age because she enjoyed a lot of physical play and that's when this sort of thing happens. I'm glad no one here remembers injuring their parents when they were four, probably because you were four and all and many parents tend to not make a big deal of these inadvertent injuries.

As others have said, maybe he's so freaked out about hurting you that this is the way his mind copes. It's hard to say for sure but at four you should be able to have some good conversations about it. First, pick a random quiet time on a calm day when everyone is non-injured. Then, something like "Hey, remember last week when you [got hurt doing x]? Remember how I came over to make sure you were ok and [did x] to make you feel better? Did you like how I did that? That's how people in families take care of each other. Do you remember when you banged your head into my mouth and I was bleeding? I know that was an accident and that you didn't mean to hurt me. And see, my tooth is all better! But my feelings also were hurt because you were laughing at me instead of helping me. Sometimes feelings stay hurt longer than teeth! Do you think next time I get hurt you can try and help me like I help you? This way you can make me feel better like I make you feel better when you are hurt."

Luckily my kid is pretty empathetic and that sort of talk would have worked with her when she was four. Your mileage will vary naturally. If it keeps up, you may want to ask more specifically about why he laughs and try to get to the root of the whole thing.
posted by mikepop at 7:38 AM on December 15, 2010

Best answer: Okay, first of all, I'm horrified that anyone here would be telling you your child is a sociopath. I mean, really. He's four. He's just developing empathy and he didn't hit you on purpose. As of right now, your son is developmentally on track. He doesn't get it yet. He will.

Now. I was worried, just like you are, when my son was the same age as yours. He just didn't seem to care and I was all worked up that I was raising a child who would never care, who would never feel empathy toward another human being. This is a child who cried over the death of his caterpillar (that he had for all of 15 minutes) but who thought accidentally hitting one of us was hilarious. I couldn't understand the disconnect. Then one day, he really hurt me - he jumped up while I was tying his shoe and clocked me in the chin with his head. I thought my jaw was broken. I yelled (and I mean I screamed) at him, I started crying, and I stormed away (mostly because I was afraid of what I might do). I came back a few minutes later to find him sobbing. He had finally understood that that stuff wasn't funny. I'm pretty sure it was simply a developmental click, and not that I had cried (because I had cried before with little to no effect on him). What also helped was taking a teachable moment and making it so: a few days later he himself was injured by a playmate (totally accidental) and while comforting him I said something like, "Do you see now how bad it feels when someone laughs at your hurt?"

I think humans are hard-wired to think minor injuries are funny. See slapstick and The World's Funniest Home Videos and sports blooper reels. What your job is is to make sure your kid understands that sure, it can be funny, but it can also be really hurtful to other people. Reign in the behavior that's causing these things to happen (jumping on the bed, rough-housing, etc.), and just keep teaching him empathy. He'll get it.
posted by cooker girl at 7:45 AM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Mod note: few comments removed - do not turn this into a debate on spanking or sociopaths please. OP is not anonymous, you can MeMail her your concerns. Thank you.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:53 AM on December 15, 2010

Best answer: For those of you saying she needs to cry to show him she's hurt:

I highly doubt he was in any doubt about how much pain I was in, considering that I was bleeding from the mouth and was sitting on the floor weeping with pain.

anastasiav, I know when you've been injured you're not necessarily in a position to do anything right away, but I think the best thing to do is to immediately cease all interaction as much as possible. Get up, walk away. If you hurt him and still go through the routine of whatever was happening at the moment (ie: consequences for jumping on the bed), he's not going to think anything really bad has occurred. You're still paying attention to him. Kids are shocked if attention from their parents is suddenly diverted from them in these moments. Whenever possible, just get up and walk away when he hurts you.

also: faking it to seem more hurt or making a big deal just teaches kids to be manipulative. ,Most children are very good at understanding pain or sickness without overt melodrama- they just need to get to that developmental stage where they understand that grownups can hurt too, and laughing is a reaction that should be controlled in those circumstances.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:02 AM on December 15, 2010

Best answer: My kid has certainly smashed into my jaw or nose by accident but has never hurt me this badly or this consistently, so I can't join the chorus of "it's perfectly normal" -- I just have the one kid so far, so I really don't know.

But, when he does hurt me and he thinks just saying "Sorry" is good enough, and I'm getting upset and really need to know he understands that he hurt me, I'll say, "I need to know that you are really sorry. I know it was an accident, but you hurt me a lot and I feel really upset. Do you understand that?" Not trying to be a drama mama and get him to break down in tears or anything, but I do feel better when he acknowledges that he understands and feels bad. Parents are all about having empathy for their kids -- they need to have some empathy for us, too, even if we have to ask for it!
posted by chickenmagazine at 10:06 AM on December 15, 2010

I am so very much not a doctor but I like watching House, so here is my far-fetched question: does your kid understand pain? Has he ever actually felt pain, been in pain, or cried about his own pain? The reason I ask is there is some rare disorder that causes some people to not register pain at all. The first thing that came to mind is maybe he doesn't realize how much he's hurt you because when he injures himself it doesn't hurt?

I'm sure you would have already picked up on a cue like that, but I thought I would throw it out. It seems like if he's inflicting that much damage on you that he must be hurting himself just a little bit too.
posted by joan_holloway at 10:17 AM on December 15, 2010

oops, big typo up there. If he hurts you not If you hurt him.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:38 AM on December 15, 2010

Best answer: I just asked my wife for suggestions (she's a preschool teacher with 2-3 year olds), and she said more or less what oneirodynia just said. She suggested not giving him attention. Basically, send him to timeout and then ignore him. Once he stops laughing and gets bored with timeout, then go talk to him about it. Make sure he understands why he was in timeout.

I know in the past she's put on her teacher face and told kids "I'm not laughing. You hurt your friend" etc. but with some kids that just gives them the attention they want.

She also said that this needs to happen immediately. If you wait, it won't sink in. If the bed jumping incident happened around dinner time and the punishment was at bed time, it probably wasn't soon enough. Yes, they can remember at that age and make some connections, but the connection is much stronger if its immediate.

As for how normal it is? I didn't ask, but I know she's had kids who laugh when they get punished, and I know she's had kids who intentionally hit their parents and then laugh. I get the impression these are the exceptions - the laughing while being punished is very frustrating, so I usually hear when that happens - but I don't think she's ever seriously worried about these kids' development.
posted by chndrcks at 11:05 AM on December 15, 2010

Best answer: I have a four-year-old boy. I can't even count the number of times he's managed to hurt me in truly painful ways - but none of them were deliberate. He's actually a very loving, empathetic kid, but his reactions to someone else's pain, even pain he inflicted, are still unpredictable. Sometimes, he wants to do everything he can to make it better, sometimes he laughs and runs away. I don't think there's anything wrong with your kid, or my kid. I really don't think my son knows his own strength (he's a little bigger than average, and at preschool they call him "The Gentle Giant" because he's not always sure exactly where his body ends as he moves through a space), and that can also cause issues.

What we do at home is modeled on what they do at his preschool. We don't ever insist on an apology, because we don't believe that forcing an apology ever does anything, and diminishes the value of a heartfelt apology. Instead, there's a routine to follow if someone hurts someone else's body. Anyone who witnesses the harm first makes a fuss over the injured party. Then we help the perp* be responsible. First, it's checking in by asking "are you OK?" If the hurt person says no, then the perp has to follow up by finding out what the hurt person needs, asking "what do you need?" The answers can range from an ice pack to a hug to space. The perp then has to supply what's asked for, with the assistance of an adult as necessary.

This routine makes the child who caused the harm responsible for following up and making sure that the harm is mitigated as best they can. At this point, if he's harmed me (by, say, trying to head-butt me in my gigantically pregnant stomach), I just have to say "I need you to check in" and he'll go into the routine. It usually ends up with a hug from both of us. You might try this at home, so he knows there's some consequence. Get the other adults in the household involved too, for back-up.

*Yes, I refer to some 4-year-olds, including my own, as perps. Have you ever spent time in a preschool classroom at the end of the day? It's like Lord Of The Flies without pig heads on sticks.
posted by Lulu's Pink Converse at 11:30 AM on December 15, 2010 [5 favorites]

It seems like instead of punishment, he needs repeated lessons on empathy.

Banging heads is not the same as seeing someone fall on the street. What he is doing is controllable and he needs to stop. You could start off by reminding him of the time (hopefully in the last few days) when he fell and cried and cried and cried. And, his knee was bleeding just a little but how it hurt so bad when he touched it. And then come back to your present situation with how much it is hurting you. I am sure he won't get it in a single episode so you may need to keep reminding him and maybe every subsequent time make it a little more dramatic. Show him your nosebleed and tell him that when someone is bleeding, whether from the nose or the kneww, they are hurt really, really badly.

Also, instead of getting mad or frustrated, how about pretending to be upset and even squeeze out a tear or two. Just enough so it makes him stop laughing and wondering why Mom's expression changed all of a sudden. Hopefully he'll ask you why. If not, take the drama up a notch.
posted by xm at 12:37 PM on December 15, 2010

Your story reminded me of this recent study about the connection between fearlessness and lack of empathy in preschool-aged children. I think the slightly hysterical tone in the article about what that connection means for a child's future development is speculative BS, but it's interesting to see that the lack of reaction on a child's part might be because they don't process the signals given by hurt people as easily as other children do.
posted by MsMolly at 6:06 PM on December 15, 2010

Best answer: One time, when I was little (not sure how old, but old enough that I remember doing it, so maybe around 4 or 5), I thought it would be hilarious to pull a chair out from under my mom while she was going to sit down at the dinner table. So she landed on the floor. She didn't say a word, but she did start crying really sadly as she simply sat on the floor. I immediately felt really really horrible and so angry at myself. Note that my goal was not to actually hurt my mom. I just thought it would be funny, like something you'd see in a cartoon. I seriously thought everyone would get a good laugh out of it. I don't even remember if I got yelled at. It is the horrible feeling of remorse that I remember, and it wasn't from my parents lecturing me that what I did was wrong.

Have you tried seeing how he reacts if you don't say anything to him at all when he does this, only making it very clear through crying (genuinely) that he hurt you? If he doesn't realize that he hurt you with his own head, maybe he'll see that you're sad and ask what's wrong. I think as a kid, that sort of thing had a very sobering effect on me, even if I was hyper.
posted by wondermouse at 6:19 PM on December 15, 2010

Just as a thought, but how do you (and others) react if he gets hurt? Or if he's accidentally hurt in the playground? I ask because I see a lot of little kids get told to effectively man up and ignore it, or it's ignored until there's screams/blood/violence. So I'm wondering if he's getting conflicting messages - ignore someone (you) being hurt but if someone is hurt (by you) that's a big deal and they should do something different.
posted by geek anachronism at 1:59 AM on December 16, 2010

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