Dealing with the sting of a toddler’s mean-spirited words

Guest post by Ruth Dawkins

By: Mindaugas DanysCC BY 2.0
Last week, I spent a couple of nights flat-hunting down in London. My two-year-old son Tom stayed up in Edinburgh with my Mum, and by all accounts had a brilliant time. She texted me a picture of him on the first day, sitting on a bench, smiling and clutching an ice cream, and a picture on the second day of him sitting in the big red tractor at the city farm, waving brightly at the camera. There is no one on earth he loves more than his Granny — they are incredibly close — and I knew he would be absolutely fine.

But I don’t spend nights away from Tom that often — this was only the fourth or fifth time ever — so it always takes a bit of readjustment when I return. And this was by far the most difficult time ever. I’d brought him back a wee George Pig keyring that I spotted in a shop and thought he’d like.

‘It’s rubbish,’ he said, walking over to the bin and dropping it in.

Where had my sweet wee boy gone? It was as though I’d just skipped ahead fourteen years and was living with a short, angry teenager. He kept coming up to me as though he wanted a cuddle, and then swerving, pushing me away at the last minute.

It was a new thing for Tom to be deliberately mean, so it hurt. But I also recognised myself in him. My parents separated when I was eight and, although I would never have seen it in myself at the time, I can admit now that I used to be completely horrible to both of them at changeover times, when I was switching from one house to the other. It was as thought I thought I would miss them less and find it easier to go if I fell out with them first.

The process of moving house has been long and unsettling, and Tom has been doing brilliantly. He has had all manner of new people coming to his house, his belongings are being given away or packed into boxes around him, and his Mummy keeps disappearing for days at a time to “find a new house.” I can at least try and articulate everything that’s in my head — all those mixed feelings of excitement and anticipation and nervousness — but even so I’m pretty tense and crabby and tired. It is no wonder that he has been feeling a little off too, and it’s expressing itself in a negative way. I take it as a compliment that I am the person he trusts enough to let off some steam with.

My husband says that when he looks at me and Tom we are so close you couldn’t slide a sheet of paper between us. It is true. We love each other fiercely. Sometimes we are all tangled up in a mess of laughing and cuddles, other times we are pressing our foreheads against each other, locked eyes, trying to out-stubborn each other.

I had always imagined that I would be the calm parent, compromising, breaking up arguments, providing the necessary voice of reason. Not so. My husband is the diffuser, the diplomat, and the joker that comes into the room to distract us both from whatever nonsense argument we are engaged in.

Anyway, it has taken a few days, but we are back to normal. Tom has returned to his usual, joyful self. When I threw on a scabby old fleece to drop him off at nursery yesterday, he said “You look beautiful in pink, Mummy.” Today I fixed one of his broken trucks with a dab of superglue, and he said “It’s great to have such a clever Mummy.” And tonight, when I tucked him into bed, he smiled up at me and said “I love you so much.”

His language skills, his sense of humour, and his crazy wee brain are all developing so quickly right now. He sings all day, and then lies in his cot before he falls asleep and recites as many letters of the alphabet as he can remember. He loves jokes about sausages and bananas. Yesterday he was very disappointed when he found a shoehorn in the wardrobe and it didn’t go “beep beep” as all good horns should. He has discovered the word “why,” which is every bit as bad as I had been warned about. When we walk along the street he can identify a dozen different makes of car by looking at their badges (his favourites are Volkswagens and Mercedes, I’m not sure why). Today, in the space of a few hours, he asked me if it was winter yet, called me to the window to look at the sunrise, and greeted the rep from our removal company by saying “Hello man, I like your red tie!”

I wish I could bottle his laughter, and gift it to people to make them smile.

I am deeply, deeply sorry that Tom has learned at such a young age that he can say hurtful things. But I am so glad that all it takes to teach him that that’s not necessary is a couple of quiet days, reading books on the sofa with his Mum, remembering how much he is loved. And thank goodness I finally found the new house; next time I go away, he’ll be coming with me.

Comments on Dealing with the sting of a toddler’s mean-spirited words

  1. I definitely understand this one! My step-son is 3 and I love that he’s assembling the thoughts in his head and his newfound verbal skills and all of that toddler magic to say things like “Cassandra I love your headband” or “thank you for putting my clothes away,” but there are also times that he’ll say mean things. Being a step-mom to a daddy’s little buddy, I think I take the snarky words even more personally. I always try to remember that it’s just him expressing a new avenue of words and that he loooooves me like crazy.

    • Ahh gosh, it must had a whole other level of emotional issues with a stepchild! It sure does sound like he loves you like crazy though – as you say, it’s just exploring the different things that language can do 🙂 Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!

  2. Mm it’s hard not to take it personally when they say intentionally hurtful things but a lot of the time I think they are just experimenting. My usually kind and gentle two-and-a-half year old gives me kisses when I hurt myself and is very concerned if she hears another child crying but the other day she hit me on the leg and when I responded that hitting isn’t nice and, “I feel sad when you hit me”, she responded with a big smile on her face, “Yeah? You gonna cry aaalllll day?”. It was really hard not to get hurt by that but I’ve come to the conclusion that she is just playing with new concepts. Her cognitive abilities are soaring at the moment and she’s just trying to figure it all out.
    In a way toddlerhood isn’t that different from teenagehood. They are transitioning from baby to child and trying to figure out where they fit in. Which requires a lot of boundary pushing.

    • Oh wow – yeah – I think we’ve all been there with those awful moments where it feels like they’re really REALLy being intentionally hurtful! I always think it’s best not to respond too much. Anything that provokes a strong reaction tends to be carried out again and again!

      Teenagerhood?! Oh my goodness, there was me hoping that everything would calm down and I’d have a peaceful life in a year or two 😉

    • I think you’re right about children being mean on purpose as a means of exploring different avenues of communication. Apparently when I was around 4 years old or so, if I didn’t get my way, I would occasionally have a tantrum peppered with “I hate you” directed at my dad. I didn’t have the wisdom to know to say “I hate this situation. You’re preventing me from some enjoyment. What would be an appropriate compromise?” My dad just stood there holding my hand with no reaction. When I calmed down and stopped screaming he acknowledged me. It didn’t take long to learn that hurtful words do not yield positive results.

      • Ahhh, I wish I had the zen patience and calm of your Dad! I try so hard to be like that, and not react, but sometimes it’s hard. Although that’s true of any ‘bad’ behaviour. If my son is having a tantrum I am always torn between whisking him away out of the situation right away and just leaving him to thrash it out before I talk to him. Parenting, argh!

  3. Ugh, I take it personally when a cat decides to bite me while I’m petting it… this is going to be a touch one for me to handle. It’s really, REALLY nice to know that others go through it all the time, though. That will help, I am sure. Thank you for sharing!

    • Ha, this made me laugh so much! I would take it personally if a cat bit me too 😉 Thanks for your kind words – the one thing I’m learning about being a parent is that WHATEVER difficult thing you are going through, someone else has been their first. It’s one of the huge benefits of the internet is that wealth of experience, and sharing of stories.

  4. My 3 1/2 year old just learned the dreaded phrase “I hate you.” I was really hoping it would be another year at least before I heard that one! It always shakes me up a bit when he says mean things to me and I try to remember that the best thing to do is stay calm, and I tell him that’s not nice to say and ask how he would feel if someone said that to him. Usually he gets it but occasionally he persists and it comes down to a time out. sigh. At least it’s only an occasional thing.

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