Question about violent language used by a 6 y/o boy
January 20, 2014 2:00 PM   Subscribe

I am wondering about the language of a 6 y/o boy. It seems unusually graphic and violent for his age. Is it? If it is not normal, help me learn how to react to the things he says.


I am around a 6 y/o boy who says things like "I am going to kill myself" and "I am going to kill you" off the cuff when he's running around. In his pretend play he uses violent scenarios like sticking his head through a window or smashing my face in a garbage compactor. This talk is continual. He engages in this talk with me (a close female relation), his 3 y/o brother, and in front of but not directed to his grandparents and parents. He never hurts himself or others.

I am also around his 3 y/o brother a lot. In his play he imagines eating people, being in monster's tummy, flying away, or being in jail. This all seems normal to me.

These kids don't have guns or other weapons for toys and they do not watch violent tv or excessive tv. They do not play with friends from school or the neighborhood.

I do not have kids but I've cared for little kids quite a bit over the years and like being around them. I am concerned about his behavior so I wanted to canvas metafilter.

I should make clear that I'm not asking what causes his behavior. He's got a lot of stressors in his life that are too complicated to go into here. Suffice to say he is well cared for by whatever rubric the state would use to assess the situation, and I am not in a position to intervene in his care at this time.

So my questions are:

1) Is the violent language I described something to worry about? I am open to being told that it is normal for boys that age to talk like that.

2) If it is not normal, where can I read about how to tailor my interactions with him to best help him?

3) I'm also looking for suggestions about what to say to him based on your own experiences with kids like him.

Thanks for reading all this.
posted by vincele to Human Relations (24 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I wouldn't be as worried if there were context. Is he playing a game? Is he acting out a video game he plays, or a movie he watches or a story he reads or if it's something he does with other kids on the playground? If so, while it does sound disturbing, I'd at least understand that it's a reaction to something that he's exposed to frequently and he's just bringing it home.

If there's no context, if he's aggressive/loud, if he seems serious, rather than smiling and giggling and having fun, then yes, it's a problem.

What happens when you say, "Gosh, that's scary to me, can we play something that isn't scary?" If he's willing to stop and to be diverted to another game, then that might be the thing to do

Be on the look out, because language can escalate to actions.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:15 PM on January 20, 2014

A similar question was asked here; perhaps some of the answers might be useful.
posted by bunderful at 2:21 PM on January 20, 2014

3) I'm also looking for suggestions about what to say to him based on your own experiences with kids like him.

With our own kids, a kind "No more of that, please" followed by a sharply delivered "That will do" usually cuts this sort of thing off. I don't think the little kids really grok what they're saying, only that it's vaguely alarming and scary.

Sometimes a phrase like "I will cut off his head" can be instantly derailed with a question back like "Well how will he eat? With a funnel?" or "What about his hat?". Turn it into something ludicrous.

I wonder if he's picked up the language or visuals from someplace and is just repeating them/running them into the ground, in the same way we get to hear entire plot lines of Phineas and Ferb repeated liturgically for days on end.
posted by jquinby at 2:22 PM on January 20, 2014 [11 favorites]

If you're asking if his language indicates that he's going to grow up to be a homicidal sociopath, then I think your concern is inflated. It's normal in that yes this is something children of that age are known to do, but that doesn't mean it's healthy or acceptable*. You can respond by saying things like "It makes me very sad to hear you say things like that."

*On the other hand, if he's processing a lot of anger about something, this may be his six year old coping mechanism.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:24 PM on January 20, 2014

Shock factor sticks. The more of a response you give, the more of a reinforcement that this language is good to attract attention. Diminish his speech, and you simultaneously encourage this behavior twofold. One, the language got a response, two - his likely feeling that his speech is ignored or discounted is reinforced - thus bringing this language back as the most positive language he puts out.

This kid needs some special attention and additional acknowledgment. The best time for this additional focus is when his language is not on this topic.
posted by Nanukthedog at 2:28 PM on January 20, 2014

Is the violent language I described something to worry about? I am open to being told that it is normal for boys that age to talk like that.

I think the fact that he is a boy is something of a red herring, and maybe assumes that boys are more violent in terms of language. Personally, what I would take away is: a child is talking about killing himself. I don't see that as normal. There is something clearly going on for him and if I were involved in his life I would be concerned.

Maybe you could look for some play therapy organisations near you and see if you could find out some at-home techniques to use with him. He might find it helpful to be able to release some of what he's feeling through art etc and it would be a non-pressured way of being able to play with him and help him at the same time.

And as with all kids it really helps them to know your boundaries. Let him know if he says something that upsets you or you find unacceptable, let him know why, and be consistent.
posted by billiebee at 2:39 PM on January 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

I am finding that kindergarten, which has led to exposure to children who have older siblings, has given my child a much more violent and graphic vocabulary/imagination. The more horrified reaction my kindergartner gets from me, the more it is repeated at me. But it's also ok to trust your gut.
posted by rabidsegue at 2:43 PM on January 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

No, IME as an educator that is not normal behavior, especially since some of the violent talk is being directed back at himself in they way that you described. If this were happening in my classroom, I would first do the following, and then if that didn't work I would be required to submit him for a psych eval with our school counselor.

The next time he says something like that, stop what you're doing, make him come stand in front of you, and then get down on his level so you can look him straight in the eye and say, "When you say you are going to kill yourself or someone else, that is very serious and very scary. It is not okay to joke about that, and it's not okay to say that just because you feel like it. Why are you talking about hurting yourself or other people or animals?" Keep your expression neutral but serious so he doesn't feel like he's getting a shock value reward (if that's his underlying MO).

Then wait and see what he says. He may not know that this is not okay, but maybe he does know and is trying to ask for help. With gentle but firm and persistent questioning he may also reveal what's really going on. The point is to show him that words matter and are taken seriously and that what he says matters and will be taken seriously, and that can have good and bad results. The behavior needs to be addressed, though, IMO. He is processing something. What that something is will hopefully come out soon.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 2:52 PM on January 20, 2014 [15 favorites]

My daughter's three year old cousin talks similarly violently (but has a steady diet of superhero cartoons and is exposed to older kids/kids with older siblings at daycare). However, he doesn't talk about killing himself. That's a red flag I think, rather than the violent nature of the speech.

For me, personally, it feels like a red flag when kids cannot have any imaginary play that is not violent though - particularly around smaller/younger kids. That makes me uncomfortable as a carer/parent (and parent of the kid desperate to stop playing violent games) and to a certain extent concerns me as far as their ability to play and imagine goes.
posted by geek anachronism at 3:04 PM on January 20, 2014

If it's alarming you, it will alarm others. If it alarms others, it could interfere with his making friends, or at least friends who don't also talk like this.
posted by amtho at 3:16 PM on January 20, 2014

First, i also have some concern about him saying he is going to kill himself or pretending to hurt himself. In my experience that is not usual and suggests that he might benefit from at least an assessment by someone who can help. (school counselor or therapist) I don't know if you can suggest to his parents or not.

Second, people may have different standards on this, but I am not willing to let someone else hurt me or even pretend to hurt me. So, in your place, I would very calmly say that even though you know it is just pretend that, it is not OK with me and I'm not going to play that game (and if you do it again, there will be xxx consequence)

Third, my most practical suggestion around the game is to see if you can help go beyond the violence to what happens next - so after you kill the bad guy, what then? we all have a picnic? we go home and go to bed? Trying to let him imagine the possibility of a good space after the violence is over.
posted by metahawk at 3:44 PM on January 20, 2014

I think the killing himself comment is a little alarming, although he may have picked it up from a kid at school who saw it on TV, etc., as others have said. I was astounded at the things my son started saying once he started kindergarten, but they were always directed at others, never at the self. If he continues to say that about killing himself, that would be a concern for me. Good luck -- not an easy situation, and not much you can do except be a sounding board for him.
posted by ravioli at 3:54 PM on January 20, 2014

I don't want to threadsit so I will respond to this comment and in the course a few others.

Shock factor sticks. The more of a response you give, the more of a reinforcement that this language is good to attract attention. ...

He's not getting much response for this behavior. Most of it happens out of ear shot or when no one is paying attention. He is considered a model child by his parents and his grandparents, who are a daily presence in his life. I'm also around quite a bit (aunt).

I have done a few things suggested here.

*Taken his words in a silly direction. That's a basic tool in my playbox, so I did that with the garbage compactor remark. It didn't feel right because his words were so violent and he was angry at me because I was not doing what he was telling me to do "You can't use that bowl, you're not allowed to sit in that chair, grandma doesn't want you to eat that..." His grandparents were present and did not react.

*Asked him "what makes you say that?" when he said "I am gonna kill myself!" in front of his grandparents at a hectic mealtime. His grandmother cut him off and answered for him: "He makes up a lot of things, you can't believe everything he says" and changed the subject. Now that I think about it, he was telling me what I could and could not touch on the kitchen table. (He is copying his parents and grandparents in these behaviors about food and giving orders to me.)

*When he's with me and he says something that is violent or controlling for that matter, I say "Sorry we can't play anymore" and walk away. Then he runs and tells his parents and grandparents that "I was mean to him." They tell him to "stay away from me."

My inclination is to keep walking away because it's easiest. But if I can help him even in a small way, I'll do something else.

I hope this comment adds additional context. Thank you all for your answers.
posted by vincele at 3:55 PM on January 20, 2014

I would be very concerned about the statements he is making, especially the ones about self-harm. It is also troubling that his grandmother was so dismissive of his saying that he is going to kill himself. It may be that his caretakers think that a child that young cannot be suicidal, but unfortunately, that is not the case. Children that young can make suicide attempts, and can succeed. (See, for example, here and here.)

Can you talk to the parents about your concerns, and ask if their son can see a therapist?

You say "he is well cared for by whatever rubric the state would use to assess the situation." But based on what you have said here, that's not clear to me. If this little boy is not getting appropriate psychological treatment, then how is he being well cared for?
posted by merejane at 4:21 PM on January 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Re: Your update. The problem is clearly that the child's parents and grandparents (your blood relatives, right? This is your nephew?) dislike you and are emotionally stunted, rather bad people who use their child as a conduit for their own resentments. I wonder if you shouldn't just cut contact with these people. The fact that you say "the state would okay his home" makes me think you have thought about this, have a really tortured relationship with your family and they will absolutely use your concern for the child against you. It will hurt, but I would get out, let go, and let the parents have control at least until the child is old enough to question their authority.
posted by quincunx at 4:34 PM on January 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

Our highly anxious son did this around age 6 and his therapist was not too concerned. His therapist.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 4:34 PM on January 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

This can be a normal healthy way for kids to process ideas, so if he's somehow been in a situation where someone's committed suicide and people around him are talking about it (even if they think they're not talking about it in front of him), then I wouldn't necessarily try to stop the play. Ditto if someone close to him has just died; I once worked with a kid who was not suicidal, really, but talked about killing himself a lot, and it turned out that he thought that if he died he could go visit his father in heaven.

If there's not some obvious reason that he'd be processing grief this way, it may be worth playing through the scenario a bit with him to see where it goes. "Oh no, you're/I'm dead! Now what happens?" sort of thing. It may give you more insight into what his play is trying to resolve for him. (I see in your update that you sort of tried that, but I'm not understanding why you didn't follow his further instructions?)
posted by jaguar at 5:09 PM on January 20, 2014

Absolutely not normal in the context that you have described.

But jaguar gives a great example above of how death talk can be a clue to deeper things. It shouldn't just be shut down. When my son was working through death issues he had a period of 'playing dead.' "Now sprinkle water on me and I'll be alive again!" But it was clearly associated with working through those issues through play. Eventually we figured it out and told him that he wasn't going to die, and then he didn't need that game anymore.

Also, the family dynamic sounds amazingly dysfunctional.
"He is considered a model child " does not go with "His grandparents were present and did not react." and "He makes up a lot of things, you can't believe everything he says" and changed the subject." They sound so cold.
posted by SLC Mom at 5:33 PM on January 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

I just wonder if his parents/caregivers express frustration this way "oh I'm so stupid I should just kill myself" and that he is echoing that manner of self-expression without understanding what it truly means.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 6:51 PM on January 20, 2014

I wrote out an answer then went back again and read your post, and decided to toss my earlier advice. If he has been under enormous strain (death? divorce?) then he needs some kind of support. I don't know if you can convince those in charge of him that a few talks with a counselor would help him, but I think you should try. Something like "I know that Nephew's been under a lot of stress because of X event(s) and I'm concerned about him. Kids do say a lot of goofy things, but he talks about hurting himself, and that's not something most kids do a lot. I'd feel better if a professional counselor talked to him even a few times to make sure we're not missing something."

If he is going to public school, they have counselors. And it's possible that he plays with a kid at school who has put these concepts into his play, and he didn't come up with them, but you can't know if no one asks.

When my kid was six and we had a lot of deaths in the family, we talked about death and dying a lot. And he would play with friends and do "killing" and so on, but it was always momentary, and fantastical...not a response to stress. I never heard him wish to kill himself.
posted by emjaybee at 8:21 PM on January 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I found it helpful to hear both that it is normal even for a nervous kid and that it is something to keep an eye on. These Birds of a Feather and merejane got me thinking about how to bring up the subject with my mother, which I did.

The big thing he's dealing with is that his parents pulled him out of school last week. Apparently the family disagreed with his teacher about his progress. So now he goes to the school where his mother teaches. She wants to "monitor" him herself. His problem behavior preceded this change, but it got worse after it. No surprise there.

As quincunx picked up, there is a limit to what I can and want to do in this situation. Thank you all for your answers and others anyone else wishes to add.
posted by vincele at 11:21 PM on January 20, 2014

It's 'normal' in my experience (two kids, now a couple years past that stage) for kids to says pretty astonishing things. My objective is not to react to what the kid says but to try to parse what has incited this kind of language. From your follow up, he might feel that his being put in a school where his mom can watch over him is punishment and so he has all those negative feelings to try and work out. And his family life might not be helping him to do that.

In a similar spot once (child, problem adults) it was suggested to me that I try to be the 'sane person' for the child: that I try to be as stress-free an interaction for the child as possible. It worked well for me and continues to be a guide for my interactions (also with adults).

Good luck
posted by From Bklyn at 1:41 AM on January 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I suspect chesty's son's therapist was not concerned because this kind of preoccupation with death, and violent death, is developmentally appropriate.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:47 AM on January 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I posted above, but I just wanted to add that the OP said, about her nephew's violent language: "This talk is continual." So while a preoccupation with death may be developmentally appropriate, it sounds as if the degree to which the OP's nephew is preoccupied with this issue may make it an issue of concern when it otherwise might not be.
posted by merejane at 9:33 AM on January 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

« Older Can I easily configure a domain name that works...   |   What is the best cocktail shaker EVER? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.