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Lost the plot with 4yo ds and feel awful

(11 Posts)
LittleLionMansMummy Mon 10-Aug-15 10:26:30

Firstly, he's kind, loving, no sn or behavioural issues and our relationship is brilliant and I am not normally a shouty mum - just to provide context. He's 5 in November.

On the way to nursery this morning he began a conversation about red ants and how he killed one which was ok because his friend killed one too. I said it's not ok to kill things and I didn't want him to do that again even if his friend does. He realised he had wound me up so proceeded to push the boundaries more by laughing about it (this is the thing that really got to me) and talking about how he likes guns and bullets and he'd use his gun to kill (because he knows my thoughts about guns). This developed into a gun that fires poisonous berries into dh and my mouths etc. He continued trying to get a reaction so I wondered if he'd stop if I ignored him, didn't reply. He kept going on and on saying more and more outrageous things and laughing about it. By this time my blood was boiling so I turned the radio up to drown him out. Eventually he went quiet and tried to get my attention (nicely). I basically rounded on him, shouting at him asking him if he'd finished talking about hurting and killing people (and laughing about it) because I was really, really angry that he'd said those things. He began to cry but I was now in full flow and wanted him to know exactly how unacceptable his words were. Tears were rolling down his cheeks by now.

We both went quiet after a while and eventually he tried to engage again by saying he was upset because I had shouted at him. I had calmed down by then and my heart broke a little bit so I said I was sorry for shouting but asked if he understood why I was so angry. He said he didn't so I explained that although it was just words to him, I was angry because killing someone is the very, very worst thing a person can do and it's not funny - the reason mummy doesn't like guns is because real guns hurt and kill people in real life. I reminded him what 'dead' means (he understands that it means something or someone is gone and can't come back) and used his dead hamster as an example. I said if he ever saw other children hurting or killing an animal or hurting another person he should tell them not to because it was wrong. When we got to nursery I gave him a big cuddle and kiss, told him I loved him and that he's a kind little boy but hurting and killing is not a kind thing to do. I said we'd say no more about it but I didn't want to hear those things again.

I don't think he fully understood the impact of his words - to him it was just a game and a way of getting a reaction. He still had red tearful eyes when I dropped him off and was very subdued. I have spent the journey to work worrying that I've gone too far - the thought of him being so upset while I screamed at him is awful. But at the same time, I wonder if the shock will do some good (I am normally very patient so he knows he's really crossed the line when I get so cross).

Has anyone had a similar experience? How did you handle it? Is this normal behaviour or should I be worried? Was I right or wrong to react as I did?

Bumpsadaisie Mon 10-Aug-15 10:59:14

Afraid this might not be what you want to hear but I think you are making a huge mountain out of a molehill my dear. You have got really worked up about it (you described your "blood boiling" and so on) when really this is normal thing with some kids.

My little girl was never interested in guns, killing, fighting, etc. But my little boy (4 in Oct) loves guns, playing shooting and killing "baddies" (I have to die in a dramatic gory way or be locked up in prison). We went to Culloden battlefield last week where they have a surround sound film recreation of the battle between the Jacobites and the redcoats, my DD was terrified, my little DS thrilled and wanted to watch it again (I declined!). There were rifles and cannon and all the rest of it to hold and touch.

My son is always inventing imaginary guns that fire this and that and can kill a giant "this big" and so on.

When I was little was a tomboy and loved my action man, soldier figures, making forts and taking prisoners and firing my toy cannon at baddies, not to mention my pistol with caps that went bang. My DH is one of four boys and they all loved those kinds of toys too. Neither of us is a murderous psychopath, in fact we are a priest and a psychotherapist so hardly macho professions!

I think you were right to speak to him about killing the red ant - I would have done this too as it's not right to actually kill a creature.

But he is 4, he is a boy with a natural healthy aggression, and most boys and some girls too love making up games with guns and so on. My worry would be if you squash this he will learn to be ashamed of this side of himself rather than learning to handle it in a way that is acceptable. What will he do with his natural aggression if mum makes it clear it is not acceptable to express it even in fantasy play? Turn it in on himself? Become one of those passive aggressive people who are so difficult to live with?

I have seen with my two how different children can be. My DD doesn't have much aggression or competitiveness. She doesn't really "get" fighting games or "gun play". She isn't bothered about who wins a board game. If I were the same myself, I can see that I would find my son's preferences quite scary and disturbing. But given I was like that as a child myself I know its nothing to be frightened of - its normal!

Note that while my son loves his gun and baddies play he never lays a finger on anyone in real life! I have never had to worry about him thumping a child or biting etc, even when he was tiny. I have had to speak to him once or twice about trying to squash a spider but he has got the message on that now.

Just because they like fantasy play with guns doesn't mean they are violent natured.

Best of luck, you sound like a lovely mum who is trying to do the right thing.

LittleLionMansMummy Mon 10-Aug-15 11:08:45

Thanks Bumpsadaisie. I know that it's normal for children to play fight etc and although we don't necessarily encourage guns by buying them, he males guns out of anything he can find and we just kind of ignore it, although I do explain to him the difference between pretend guns and real life guns. He gets it.

I think it was the verbal descriptions that took me so much by surprise and the fact that his aggression was focused so intently on hurting people, including myself and dh. In my heart I know this is his imagination speaking (he has a very active imagination and really loves role play) but I have never heard him speak this way and take such delight in it. The fact that he was deliberately goading me made it worse! I am pretty sure he understood in the end why I was cross (after I'd taken the time to explain calmly the impact of his words). Basically I don't want to leave this sort of thing unchallenged because what if next time he's laughing and joining in with hurting another child?

Bumpsadaisie Mon 10-Aug-15 11:51:24

It sounds to me like he is playing around with his aggression, testing it out, seeing what the limits are. Pushing the boundaries with it, if you like.

I guess he is of that age too where little boys have realised they are going to grow up to be men rather than women, and they start the process of de-identifying with mummy and identifying with dad, in a gender sense.

Perhaps as part of that he knows he has got to leave you behind in some figurative way, and this playing around is all part of that process. "I know mum doesn't like guns, I need to be different to mum, so I will show her my difference from her through my play and fantasies about them". Not that he would think that in any conscious way of course.

Its a tricky tightrope. If this is what is going on and you come down on him like a ton of bricks, really you are coming down like a ton of bricks on his attempts to separate from you and identify with something "non-mummy", and of course that could be very damaging.

On the other hand as you say, it is hard to know what to do when your child is telling you what gory deaths he has planned for you and your DH!

Can you join in the play and say something "even more"? Eg. If my son says he is shooting me sometimes I say "Aha but I have got an EVEN BIGGER ROCKET LAUNCHER pow pow pow its much bigger than your gun, you are totally DEAD!" He loves that (and then comes up with something even bigger than my rocket launcher and so it goes on).

It's hard to tell from the context what the atmosphere was like when your son was saying he would shoot you in the mouth with his poisonous berries. Was it a joke or was he in a blind rage, for example? What would it have been like if you'd made a joke and joined in his fantasy e.g. "well, my gun has even bigger poisonous FIR CONES and I will shoot it right at you, bang bang you're dead!" You can show him how it is OK to play around with aggression while setting a boundary that actually killing something or someone is not OK. That's what he is trying to learn here I guess.

WLondonMum Mon 10-Aug-15 12:01:18

I think playing with guns and talking about death seems to be a very normal part of development. I know my 4 year old DS is obsessed with guns and swords. However it may well be a way to deal with the very real and frightening thought of death, in the same way that rather gory fairy tales help children manage and articulate difficult feelings and fears. I think you are in danger of making fearful things become even more fearful if you try and suppress them or ignore them in a way that makes your DS feels these are unacceptable parts of himself. I am sorry if that isn't what you want to hear.

rainbowunicorn Mon 10-Aug-15 13:12:01

I think you have completely overeacted to a normal childhood behaviour. I would have explained that it was not right to kill the ant but to be shouting and screaming at a 4 year old for displaying behaviour that is completely normal is in my opinion unacceptable.
I work in a school and see and hear children playing out these type of games all the time. As far as I am aware none have gone on to kill anyone in real life.

LittleLionMansMummy Mon 10-Aug-15 13:55:09

Bumps and WLondonMum thank you for being constructive and your suggestions/ thoughts which I'll certainly give some thought to. I've read a bit about this this morning and think that on the whole our approach is what is recommended - guns are not prohibited, although we don't buy them because of our personal values, we don't discourage imaginary gun play but we gently remind him about real v pretend etc. We explain that real guns hurt and kill, because they do and developmentally he's at a point where he's beginning to understand about dying and killing and what it all actually means. We won't shy away from these subjects when he asks questions etc. He is high energy and we acknowledge that some children can be quite 'aggressive' in their play - for this reason ds goes to taekwondo so he can learn to channel this safely. I certainly don't want him to learn that his choice of play is taboo, but I do want him to know about personal boundaries. I think I responded fine to the original red ant issue and would have left it there had ds not pushed the boundaries further and further and, seeing my displeasure, continued to deliberately push buttons and laugh about it. He's been doing this a lot lately and although I know it's just a phase that will pass, it's been building up I think. His explicit language and focus of aggression was what upset me so much.

Thanks for the judgement rainbowunicorn. Was it not obvious enough from my op that I already feel like a shit mum? I have no previous experience of this and clearly had no idea whether this is normal or not. Someone else may well come along and say it is not normal, in their experience.

Booboostwo Mon 10-Aug-15 14:00:35

Sorry but I also think you massively overreacted. The ant incident was a good opportunity to talk about not harming animals but not a big deal overall. The rest of it was him playing around with new concepts he cannot fully understand and you losing the plot. At that age they do not fully understand death or killing, they are just figuring things out and imagining different scenaria is one way of doing that.

PenelopePitstops Mon 10-Aug-15 14:01:12

I echo Pps, sounds like pretty normal 5yo behaviour. Perhaps you just need to get used to it, especially if you have no experience of this kind of chat.

Chill out a bit about teaching him the difference between pretend and real, it seems quite intense for him.

I saw a kid in morrisons the other day, he isn't allowed to play guns at home (his gma said this) he was shooting people down the aisles with a stick!

UnsolvedMystery Mon 10-Aug-15 15:50:22

Lots of good points made already, I just wanted to add one more thing.
You apologised to him for shouting followed by a 'but'
Sincere apologies never go 'I'm sorry but...'
When you over-react and shout at him (this won't be the last time!) a simple stand-alone apology is far more meaningful. Give him time to process that apology, then if you need to then address something that he did, do it in a completely separate sentence.

DIYandEatCake Mon 10-Aug-15 23:28:15

I would feel the same as you and would possibly have reacted the same, if it makes you feel any better. My ds is only 19mo so I have all this to come I guess... I can't ever imagine tolerating my ds speaking to me like that that though. I don't think you messed up, the things he said hurt you, you got angry, you told him how you felt. Try not to worry about it and just move on, you'll both have learned from it.

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