Dear Dr. Medoff,

My 4-year-old son went through a tough time with aggression when he was about 2.  He's been much better for the past year or so-- using words instead of his body to get what he wants.  But recently, he's started to intentionally say things to upset people, like "You're dead!" or "You're a bad guy!” I was making a big deal about it, but that seems to have made it worse.  I don't want to give it too much attention, but at the same time I want him to know I don't like it.  Any suggestions? From Stephanie, New York, NY

Dear Stephanie,

You are absolutely right to stop making a big deal about this behavior. You have just learned one of the basic rules of human behavior – anything that gets reinforced through attention gets repeated! First of all, your son’s behavior is quite normal. Young children are like scientists, exploring their world. At some point, every kid makes a gun out of his fingers, declares, “I wish you were dead,” or says, “You’re bad,” just to test out the reactions of others. The key to getting beyond this phase lies in how you respond to these behaviors. Some points to keep in mind are: 

  • Four year-olds are just starting to find out about the power of words. His behavior may not be pleasant for you to deal with, but rest assured that it is a normal developmental stage, which means that his brain is maturing on schedule. 
  • Remember that four year-olds do not really know the actual meaning of “dead,” “kill,” or even “bad.” We, as adults, often attribute adult intentions and understanding of words to children, but all he really understands is that he gets attention when he says those words, so don’t give him that attention.
  • Make an incident like this a teaching time– don’t make it negative, don’t make it a confrontation, and don’t make it lengthy. Calmly let him know how you’re feeling (“It makes me sad when you say that”) and counter with “I love you,” or “I think you’re a good guy.” Then walk away or change the subject.
  • Help him find other ways to communicate that validate his feelings and let him express frustration. You can say, “It sounds like you’re angry with me. Is that true? Can you tell me what you are angry about?” You may encourage him to draw or act out his feelings.
  • Take some time to look at your own use of words and how you speak, even when you are joking or when you think he is not listening. Do the same for friends and relatives. What about movies, TV shows, video games? If something mean slips out of your mouth, acknowledge your mistake, and correct it.
  • When you hear hurtful phrases from the people around you or in the media, encourage him to think about how the other person must feel. Offer suggestions of another, kinder way to express what you heard.
  • Are other adults reinforcing his behavior? Enlist the help of teachers, relatives, parents of his friends, etc. Say, “I have noticed this problem and am trying to correct it. Here is how I am doing it. Do you have any suggestions?” 

Remember that as adults, we give power to words through our reactions. If there is no reaction, there is no power in the words, and the entire situation becomes neutralized.