Four-year-old's offensive imaginary play - is it a problem? - Mothering Forums

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#1 of 9 Old 07-26-2012, 06:49 AM - Thread Starter
 
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My almost four-year-old DD is going through a phase which I'm finding disconcerting. From reading on this forum and elsewhere it looks as though at least some of it is normal, but there are aspects of it that I haven't come across elsewhere and I'm wondering where it's coming from and if there's a way to help her. 
 
I'm a big fan of Larry Cohen's Playful Parenting and I remember that he makes the point that sometimes children seem to be stuck in an emotional rut and you can use play to help them to move on (I'm paraphrasing but I think that's the gist). Well DD seems throughly stuck in this rut right now. 
 
She's an only child but has three special friends - two boys and a girl, all around her age - who she sees regularly and she says that she "loves them very much". Often they have a great time together and are full of giggles, but inevitably things go awry from time to time. With one friend in particular, who's nine months older then her and very articulate, things sometimes get complicated as he can say very hurtful things and occasionally has been physically violent.  
 
Since she was a toddler DD has always thoroughly disliked confrontations with other children. If another child snatches something away from her she gets very upset (understandably), and her reaction is generally to flee rather than fight. In fact she'll often shrink back and drop a toy if she sees another child heading her way. 
 
Over the past few months we (and our friends) have been trying to use non-violent communication to help our children when they have conflicts and it does seem to help quite a lot, in an immediate, practical sense. For example we've encouraged DD to say things like "I'd like to keep playing with this for now" and "you can have a turn after me," and then we also help the other child articulate what they want. Thankfully DD is getting better at expressing what she wants rather than just running away or bursting into tears, and often it's possible to find a solution. 
 
But I think the simple fact that there's sometimes a clash between her desires and other peoples' is really bothering her on a deep level. She says that she "doesn't like anger" (can't say that I blame her - I have problems dealing with it myself, and I expect she's picked up on that). And in her play with us, when there aren't any other children present, she seems completely obsessed with the theme of power struggles/sharing. It's been an obsession for months and her play doesn't seem to have evolved at all, which is part of what's bothering me. 
 
Generally what happens is that she'll ask one of us to make one of her dolls insist that it's her turn to do something that DD is doing, and then she'll have an argument with the doll, using rude language, shouting things like "go away!" and "it's my turn!". Lately her language has become downright offensive - she'll say things like "I'm the most important person!" and "you're going to die soon!" (I suspect she gets this from her older friend, or else from the movie The Wizard of Oz which she has seen. We've kept her away from TV for the most part but what little violence she has seen - such as the scenes in The Wizard of Oz when the witch is threatening to kill Dorothy - have obviously made a strong impression on her greensad.gifgreensad.gif). Sometimes she hits the doll too. 
 
I must admit that it's pretty unnerving to see our sweet, gentle, polite, thoughtful child doing this, even though I realise it's just a game. 
 
I really think she's trying to work through all this difficult stuff to do with power and sharing, and I'm afraid that if we refuse to play the game at all we'll just encourage her to suppress her feelings rather than learn to manage and deal with them. 
 
But DH is worried that by going along with this game we're giving DD the message that it's OK to behave like that. 
 
So far she hasn't done so with anyone outside the immediate family, but it's true that with us she does sometimes act unpleasantly. Recently when she was angry she told DH that he would die soon, and today she told me to go away at one point when she was angry with me. When this kind of thing happens we've tried to acknowledge her feelings but also said that it's not a good way to express anger and that it would be better to express it in another way (and given some examples, if she's calm enough to listen). 
 
Also - for the first time in her life - a few weeks back she had a series of tantrums during which she started kicking and hitting me and saying "I want to hurt you!". I tried not to make a drama but simply held her in such a way that she couldn't hurt me and said "I can see that you're angry and  I'm not going to let you hurt me. I'm going to stay with you until you feel better". She cried hard for a while and then had a cuddle and seemed much more relaxed, and it hasn't happened for a few weeks now. So I tend to think that that was just another case of her working through something difficult she had seen or experienced, which has now been dealt with...for the moment anyway!
 
One thing we tried, at DH's suggestion, was to make the doll behave in a more civilised way - modelling good behaviour - but DD makes it very clear that she wants the doll to be confrontational and unpleasant. She'll say "I want her to say it's her turn! I don't want her to be polite!". 
 
I must admit that apart from anything else, I'm very bored with this game! It was kind of funny to begin with - it's almost as though the doll is an imaginary sibling for her to have rivalry with - but the humour quickly wore off, since the stuff she comes out with is so unpleasant. 
 
Any ideas? Is this just a case of "this too shall pass" or should we try and actively help her move on from this phase??
 
 
 
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#2 of 9 Old 07-26-2012, 07:15 AM
 
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Sounds to me like you're handling the real stuff, her saying rude things and acting out against you, just right for her age. How do you feel about violent stories, like classic fairy tales without the modern changes in detail? Obviously too much conflict is no good for 4 years old, but clearly she's ready for a little or she wouldn't be weaving it into play. Stories with good and evil and resolutions that bring justice? Movies with a lot of that won't do, but I wonder if she'd like some stories. There is conflict in the world, and she knows there's a difference between pretend and real. A doll acting rudely (and being rude back to it) might be her opposite example for herself against how things should be, or might be venting her negative instincts about it. I might give her another doll, have one be nice and the other be mean, and see how that goes. It might let her play out ways to react well in the face of rudeness and conflict.

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#3 of 9 Old 07-26-2012, 08:21 AM
 
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This kind of thing is a healthy way for them to process negative emotions. It's a sign of emotional health, not a sign of problems. smile.gif
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#4 of 9 Old 07-27-2012, 07:18 AM
 
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Hum...your very thoughtful post certainly deserves more time than I have right now. My first reaction was that it's great that you are playing this game with her. However, when I continued reading my instincts tell me that you're right in thinking it may be time to shift focus. As parents I think it's important to model healthy ways of working through stuff. I think it's OK for you to be the adult here and make a call that this game may have played its course for now. I think it's also great if you frame it in terms of what you want - modeling self-care. Tell her that you don't want to play that game. If she needs to come back to it, I'm sure she can make that known. 


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#5 of 9 Old 07-27-2012, 10:01 AM
 
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Quote:
Originally Posted by JamieCatheryn View Post

Sounds to me like you're handling the real stuff, her saying rude things and acting out against you, just right for her age. How do you feel about violent stories, like classic fairy tales without the modern changes in detail? Obviously too much conflict is no good for 4 years old, but clearly she's ready for a little or she wouldn't be weaving it into play. Stories with good and evil and resolutions that bring justice? Movies with a lot of that won't do, but I wonder if she'd like some stories. There is conflict in the world, and she knows there's a difference between pretend and real. A doll acting rudely (and being rude back to it) might be her opposite example for herself against how things should be, or might be venting her negative instincts about it. I might give her another doll, have one be nice and the other be mean, and see how that goes. It might let her play out ways to react well in the face of rudeness and conflict.

I totally agree with this.  She does not seem unreasonably rude for a 4 year old at all.  I have two boys, but grew up with sisters, so I had to get used to the physicalness that seems to come with my boys, hitting sometimes, etc. -  In my house, if my son says loudly "go away!" to me, I'm actually proud of him that he's putting his anger into words, and trying to find a solution, and not hitting. So, to me your daughter sounds like she's really got a handle on things!!

I had a similar thought, that it's ok to play this stuff out with toys, not necessarily with you, if you're losing patience for it, but maybe on her own, between her doll and an additional one.  Or maybe she'd enjoy some pirate books & toys, where they have fun being kind of rude and gross!  Then it puts it in a really pretend/character place, and she can just have fun with it.

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#6 of 9 Old 07-27-2012, 10:50 AM
 
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Have you asked her if you guys can take turns playing those roles?  Maybe you could talk to her more about what it feels like to be the doll who really wants a turn, and that it's not really a "mean" feeling to want a turn, etc.  And then, I'm imagining when you're playing her normal role, you could do a little modeling there.  

 

It sounds to me like your dd is really working hard on this.  And you are doing a great job on working with her and understanding.  I agree with the others that the things your dd is saying are very normal for four years old. 

 

I know this is not the focus of your post, but my older son had a very close friend, a girl who was 11 months older than him when he was 2 through about 6.  She could be really wonderful and sweet and loving to him and was always genuinely happy to see him and at points they had such a nice relationship.  And then other times she could be terribly mean and hurtful and it was so hard for me to watch, and figure out how to handle it.  At times I really felt guilty that I hadn't just cut it off early on when I first started seeing the meanness.  But now, looking back, I do think it was okay and I kind of wonder if she helped my ds develop a bit of a thick skin (which is something I think I would like to have had).  If he falls in love with mean women when he grows up, it will haunt me.  lol  But my gut feeling now is that the relationship was really good for him in so many ways, and maybe her rough spots were a good learning experience for him.  I don't have any advice about that, but your description of him just reminded me...  and also their little social group was a group of four, two boys and two girls.


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#7 of 9 Old 07-29-2012, 02:52 PM - Thread Starter
 
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Thanks so much for all your replies! You've brought up so many interesting points.

 

Things have actually shifted a little since I wrote that first post. I've added some comments below.

Quote:
Originally Posted by JamieCatheryn View Post

Sounds to me like you're handling the real stuff, her saying rude things and acting out against you, just right for her age. How do you feel about violent stories, like classic fairy tales without the modern changes in detail? Obviously too much conflict is no good for 4 years old, but clearly she's ready for a little or she wouldn't be weaving it into play. Stories with good and evil and resolutions that bring justice? Movies with a lot of that won't do, but I wonder if she'd like some stories. There is conflict in the world, and she knows there's a difference between pretend and real. A doll acting rudely (and being rude back to it) might be her opposite example for herself against how things should be, or might be venting her negative instincts about it. I might give her another doll, have one be nice and the other be mean, and see how that goes. It might let her play out ways to react well in the face of rudeness and conflict.

 

Yes, stories are really important aren't they? As you say she's aware of conflict in the world. I think she's still a bit unclear about what is real and what is pretend, although we're trying to help her with that too!

 

I guess it's a question of finding out the best ways to help children deal with difficult emotions without overloading them with even more complicated emotional stuff. The reason I was so negative about DD's having been influenced by The Wizard of Oz in the first post was that she says that she doesn't like the bits in it when the witch is trying to hurt people, and in fact she'll go and hide rather than watch those scenes. (We have it on DVD and DH likes showing it to her). She's even said a few times that she doesn't want to see it anymore because of that.

 

But so far she's always changed her mind - she loves the music and dancing, and as you imply, the themes of good and evil (and courage etc) are very interesting to her. So overall it's probably a good thing that she's seen it. 

 

However, since she's so sensitive to anger and violence I feel like we should be judicious about exposing her to the old fairytales etc, at least until she's older. She does have some books with the old versions and I have mixed feelings about them, but she doesn't seem to find them particularly scary - she seems more affected by movies.

 

Your suggestion of adding another doll reminded me of something important that I forgot to mention in my earlier post, which is that she sometimes asks me to 'mediate' between her and the doll who is being obnoxious. Before I posted here I wasn't sure how to play this role - whether she wanted me to be genuinely 'straight' and model good behaviour or whether she wanted me to side with her unfairly, in the same way that Larry Cohen sometimes lets kids cheat at games they're playing together (he does so when he senses that they need to feel empowered, even if the empowerment is only of a pretend kind). But having done it a bit more over the past few days I feel pretty certain now that she wants me to be very 'straight' - it's just an intuition based on how she's reacting. I also feel much more comfortable myself in the 'straight' role in this game.

 

The game has become more interesting in any case because all of a sudden she's started being nicer to the doll!! Now she keeps wanting to show her things and explain things to her, and she builds houses for her with her blocks thumb.gif. They do 'bicker' still sometimes but the dynamic seems different. 

 

She also told me the other day that she'd like me to stay close by when she's playing with one of her little friends (the other girl in the group, who's a year younger than her and a bit prone to grabbiness) so that I can intervene if they both want the same thing. So I wonder now if this was one of the causes of her original game.

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by mamazee View Post

This kind of thing is a healthy way for them to process negative emotions. It's a sign of emotional health, not a sign of problems. smile.gif

 

I'm glad it seems healthy to you. Is there anything you could recommend for me to read about that (other than Larry Cohen)? I'm always on the lookout for more information.

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by IdentityCrisisMama View Post

Hum...your very thoughtful post certainly deserves more time than I have right now. My first reaction was that it's great that you are playing this game with her. However, when I continued reading my instincts tell me that you're right in thinking it may be time to shift focus. As parents I think it's important to model healthy ways of working through stuff. I think it's OK for you to be the adult here and make a call that this game may have played its course for now. I think it's also great if you frame it in terms of what you want - modeling self-care. Tell her that you don't want to play that game. If she needs to come back to it, I'm sure she can make that known. 

 

Very good point about modelling self-care. Since the game's focus shifted I'm finding it much less obnoxious and boring, but I'll keep that in mind for if things get nasty again.

 

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by reezley View Post

I totally agree with this.  She does not seem unreasonably rude for a 4 year old at all.  I have two boys, but grew up with sisters, so I had to get used to the physicalness that seems to come with my boys, hitting sometimes, etc. -  In my house, if my son says loudly "go away!" to me, I'm actually proud of him that he's putting his anger into words, and trying to find a solution, and not hitting. So, to me your daughter sounds like she's really got a handle on things!!

I had a similar thought, that it's ok to play this stuff out with toys, not necessarily with you, if you're losing patience for it, but maybe on her own, between her doll and an additional one.  Or maybe she'd enjoy some pirate books & toys, where they have fun being kind of rude and gross!  Then it puts it in a really pretend/character place, and she can just have fun with it.

 

It's reassuring to know that she isn't wildly off course for someone of her age. That's also a great idea for her to play on her own with the doll - she did it a little bit today at my suggestion.

 

She hasn't really discovered pirates yet, but she loves gross humour. Have you any suggestions for pirate books or movies that aren't too scary? (I guess part of the point of them is to be scary so if might be hard to find ones that aren't!)

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by rubidoux View Post

Have you asked her if you guys can take turns playing those roles?  Maybe you could talk to her more about what it feels like to be the doll who really wants a turn, and that it's not really a "mean" feeling to want a turn, etc.  And then, I'm imagining when you're playing her normal role, you could do a little modeling there.  

 

It sounds to me like your dd is really working hard on this.  And you are doing a great job on working with her and understanding.  I agree with the others that the things your dd is saying are very normal for four years old. 

 

I know this is not the focus of your post, but my older son had a very close friend, a girl who was 11 months older than him when he was 2 through about 6.  She could be really wonderful and sweet and loving to him and was always genuinely happy to see him and at points they had such a nice relationship.  And then other times she could be terribly mean and hurtful and it was so hard for me to watch, and figure out how to handle it.  At times I really felt guilty that I hadn't just cut it off early on when I first started seeing the meanness.  But now, looking back, I do think it was okay and I kind of wonder if she helped my ds develop a bit of a thick skin (which is something I think I would like to have had).  If he falls in love with mean women when he grows up, it will haunt me.  lol  But my gut feeling now is that the relationship was really good for him in so many ways, and maybe her rough spots were a good learning experience for him.  I don't have any advice about that, but your description of him just reminded me...  and also their little social group was a group of four, two boys and two girls.

 

Another great idea about the game. I'll have a go at taking turns with her playing the roles.

Hmm - I wonder will DD fall in love with a mean guy when she grows up?!?lol.gif 

 

It can be so hard to see someone being mean to our precious little ones! I expect you're right that she does need to be exposed to that to help develop a thick skin. But at this stage in her life I don't think she'd be able to develop that all by herself, so it's very helpful for her to have an adult around who can act as a kind of emotional buffer when the older friend comes out with hurtful things. 

 

Thanks again for all the comments!

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#8 of 9 Old 07-29-2012, 06:41 PM
 
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She hasn't really discovered pirates yet, but she loves gross humour. Have you any suggestions for pirate books or movies that aren't too scary? (I guess part of the point of them is to be scary so if might be hard to find ones that aren't!)

 

My kids loved "Dirty Joe the Pirate" by Bill Harley, especially when read in pirate voices.  I have seen kindergarteners to 4th graders howl over this book.

 

Here is the author reciting the text...but the illustrations are hilarious too, if you want to preview.

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yB0Wm7CsDv0

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#9 of 9 Old 07-30-2012, 08:04 AM
 
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I think it is important that she learn to express her anger in appropriate ways and it sounds like she is practicing doing that in play because she doesn't feel comfortable expressing anger to a person yet. Anger is sometimes an appropriate response so I think it is good she is working on ways to express it but it sounds like she is stuck because she hasn't found a way she is comfortable with or possibly because she doesn't realize it is truly okay to sometimes get mad. I suggest helping her fine tune a response through play and possibly redirecting her to a more appropriate response as she is playing just as you would in real life situations.

Books can be a great way to introduce feelings and how normal they are. I really like the little critter book I Was So Mad because it talks about different things that make kids mad and you can use it to say anger is okay, to extend and talk about times you were mad, to see if your child has ideas about how else th anger could have been expressed, etc... It can also help to just tell a child that it's OK to be mad and that everyone gets mad. My dd felt much better knowing that this emotion was acceptable and at work I have seen children who really blossom when they are told this. For some kids anger feels wrong and they don't want to do anything wrong so knowing that it isn't really helps. I really suggest working on helping your dd get to a point where she understands that she doesn't have to be scared to be angry. If her reaction is to shrink back or give in she is going to be an easy target for bullying as she gets older. I really love the Raising a Thinking Child series and suggest reading the book if you feel like emotions are something you need to work on as a family because the strategies are simple and raise awareness and acceptance of emotions in a very positive way.
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