I’m not one to believe in ghosts or evil or any of that nonsense, but my four-year-old might be pure evil. First of all, she has night terrors. Bad ones. And she says creepy kid things in the middle of the night, with dead eyes and a rigid body (“But I don’t want to hurt anyone” is one such greatest hit). But that’s a night terror. I get it. I dismiss it. It’s when she’s awake that I’m worried.
Take the other day at the craft table. We’re making snowflakes and so I get out the ‘real’ scissors good for snowflaking. I tell her to be careful and she says “Okay,” and starts slowly cutting. Then she says, “If I cut your eyes out, what would happen daddy?” without looking up or making eye contact. I told her not to talk like that. What else was I to say?
Then, the other night, I was changing the six-month-old’s diaper and she came into the room. She goes “Why are you in this room with the bad man?” The room was empty. Then she says “I think I should kill the bad man. I should kill the bad man tonight with a knife and a gun.” We don’t have guns in the house and don’t allow her to see movies with gun violence. We DO have knives in the house and I am worried I’m the bad man and she’s going to stab me.
Clearly this isn’t normal. What the fuck do I do?
Frightened in Fort Worth
I’m not sure if this will make you feel better or worse but I have to disagree with the base assertion that your daughter’s behavior isn’t normal. Is it weird? Does it sound creepy AF? Is it taboo? Yes. Yes. And, yes.
Is it abnormal? No. Not for a preschooler.
If you said your daughter was a teenager, I might be worried. But I’d also be unconvinced she’s not trying to mess with you. If you told me your daughter was in her 30s, I’d be even more worried and suggest that you find a way to help her access mental health services. But I’d only be worried because adults are meant to have a sense of the social and cultural norms that govern our everyday interactions. Four-year-olds, on account of having lived only four years on planet earth, and mostly with their parents and other children their own age, have no goddamn clue what the social and cultural norms are. Instead, they are experimenting with norms. They are negotiating. They are learning. And yeah, sometimes that learning process is freaking creepy.
It’s particularly creepy in your sense that your daughter is dabbling in taboos of violence. So the scary factor is amped up by your cognitive dissonance: here’s your perfect, beautiful, sweet daughter talking about murder-death-killing some bad man. It doesn’t compute.
But look, if your daughter were saying more mundane but equally taboo stuff, you probably wouldn’t have written to me. For instance, my 6-year-old son is obsessed with the scatological. Like many in his cohort, poop is fascinating. It’s fascinating for a lot of reasons, including how deeply the subject disgusts adults and how rebellious and powerful he feels when adults are disgusted by poop talk. And right now that disgust is a common occurrence in my home. On a weekly basis, he will respond to a question with a comment about poop. What do you want for dinner? Poop. Did you brush your teeth? I brushed my teeth with poop. This is his equivalent of being an “edgy” comic.
Our response for the last year or so has not been helpful. When he’d say these things my wife and I would get disgusted and angry. And that made him think it was even funnier. It wasn’t until just a couple months ago that we started moderating our reaction to dead-pan non-interest. And, it appears to be working. The other day I read him a book about a fart, which I thought he would find hilarious. I did not expect his response. “I lost my sense of humor of farts,” he told me, which was both a funny and sad thing to say.
Do I think my kid is going to grow up to be some kind of poop fetishist? No. I know this because while he talks about poop, he doesn’t seek out the real thing. He’s just pushing boundaries, which is a very typical thing to do.
Here’s the good news! At no point in your letter did you suggest that your daughter has been violent. If she followed up her weird violence-adjacent questions by lunging at your eyes with the death-end of the good scissors, well, this would be a different column. But that doesn’t appear to be the case. Happily, she’s just talking. But not just talking. She’s also communicating.
I do think your daughter is testing boundaries. Some of that is evident in the fact that she’s asking questions and not making explicit threats (aside from the one to the “bad man,” who, no, I don’t think is you). But you also mentioned that she has night terrors. And, the thing is, night terrors are no joke. They can feel real and visceral and extremely present. I think there’s a definite chance that in your daughter’s circumstance, she may be trying to find the language to navigate that dark and often frightening experience in a way that makes sense. But, being four-years-old she has limited means, both verbally and intellectually to make sense of what’s going on. That’s where you come in.
What I’m curious about is your reaction to these frightening statements. In one of these circumstances, you essentially shut her down by telling her not to talk like that. Did you offer any way she should talk? Did you explain why it’s frightening to talk like that?
You have the ability to get to the bottom of this stuff. And until you do, you can’t really know if these bizarre and scary statements are simple preschool boundary-pushing or something that requires serious intervention.
Here’s my final prescription: Know that your daughter is most-likely perfectly normal and take a deep settling breath. There is no reason to call in an exorcist. But also, the next time something like this happens, please replace your fear with curiosity. Start a dialogue. There’s no reason you can’t tell her that if she cut your eyes out you would be very very hurt and not be able to see anymore and scared. You can also ask how that would make her feel. And that can lead to a talk about thinking about how other people might be scared when she says things like that.
When she talks about the “bad man,” you can ask her who it is. You can ask her if he’s pretend or real. You can ask what she thinks killing means, or ask where she heard about it. Make your queries open-ended. Let her talk and keep her talking.
You will know by her responses if there’s something truly troubling going on that requires the help of a child psychologist. The chances, I think, are slim. But you won’t know until you ask her how these things make her feel, or she actually tries to hurt someone or something.
Finally, don’t let this weirdness isolate you from your kid. Double down on the love. Double down on the cuddles. It sounds like she might need it.