4-Year-Old Seems Fixated on Dark, Scary Scenarios

In this episode: A parent is perplexed that her 4-year-old continually engages her in made up stories where the protagonist is in physical danger, sick, “does a bad thing,” is mean, or had to call the police. While this mom believes her child’s interests are generally innocent, they’ve continued relentlessly for 6 months and she’s becoming exasperated. “Is this normal exploration?” she wonders. “How do we handle it?”

Transcript of “4-Year-Old Seems Fixated on Dark, Scary Scenarios”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I have a question in an e-mail. It’s about a little girl who is four years old and according to her mother, she seems fixated on dark or negative stories or ideas. And this parent is getting frustrated and wondering how to handle this situation. Here’s the note I received:

“Hi, Janet. A friend referred me to your book, No Bad Kids and podcast about a year ago. Both have been extremely helpful for me as I try to become the parent I want to be.

I’m reaching out for help with an issue that has been perplexing and frustrating me. My husband and I have two girls, four and almost two. I’ve stayed at home with them and we have tried intentionally to regulate the influences that come into their lives in terms of toys, characters, they don’t watch TV, and information. My four-year-old has, for at least six months now, been fixated on what I feel are dark or negative stories.

‘Mom, tell me a story about when someone went to the hospital or got in trouble or had to call the police.’ She asked relentlessly for me to make up stories where someone ‘does a bad thing’ or ‘is mean.’ If I tell a lighthearted story, she tries to redirect me toward a harsher storyline, ‘But the boy does fall off the slide’ or, ‘But a bear does eat her up.’

I think it’s mostly innocent though occasionally it is veered to words or actions that we consider off limits, pretending to shoot or saying, ‘I’ll kill you.’ In those cases, we have told her firmly that these things are not something we play, with varying success. When she comes to me and says, ‘Mom, tell me about a time when someone was mean’ or, ‘Mom, let’s pretend you had to go to the hospital.’

How should I react? I’ve become exasperated with these stories, don’t understand why she asks for them, and frequently suggest that we play something else, which I know is not effective. Is this exploration normal? How do I handle it? Thank you for any advice.”

Okay, so first I just want to go to her question at the end here. “Is this exploration normal?” And I want to say absolutely 100% normal, to be expected of any inquisitive child. Think about it, we live in these families where we mostly focus on the positive side of things.  “Have a nice day!” And as this parent says she’s tried to regulate the influences that come into their lives, but we’re all aware, because we have it inside us, that there is another side. There is a darker side to things that doesn’t get touched on, doesn’t get talked about. That is the yin yang of life.

Children are born aware beings, and they are noticing in themselves and around them that there is a dark side. And a lot of us continue to be interested in that side. We like to go to movies or read stories where there are dark forces that people have to try to overcome, scary movies, horror stories. When you hear actors interviewed about their favorite roles, if they’ve had a chance to play villains, they will usually say that that’s one of their favorite roles to play, because they actually have permission to go there, to explore that side of themselves, that side that we all have, I think. I can’t speak for everyone, but I believe most of us have that. I know that I do.

So understanding that this is so normal and so healthy can help this mother have a more productive perspective on this. It sounds like what may have happened here is that her daughter had one of these questions or showed an interest in something dark or negative, and the very first time she did that with her mother, she felt discomfort, she felt a little push back. Ooh, I don’t want you to talk about that. Maybe the mother didn’t say that, but it was the way that she felt, taken aback, uncomfortable. That would be normal for us to feel.

So then what often happens is that the child becomes even more interested. Now they’re not only interested in these dark topics, but they’re interested in their parent’s reaction to them. Why does this throw my parent off? Why is she bothered by this?

Again, children look up to us as these pillars of strength. When something gets through like that and makes a little chip, it’s fascinating for them.

So that’s how we can get kind of hooked in to this behavior and, without meaning to of course, escalate it. Now it’s building steam and it sounds like that’s what’s happened here. This has built a lot of steam. This little girl feels all this interesting power around her bringing up these ideas, and then she notices that her mother is getting more and more frustrated and bothered. And every time her mother tries to change the subject or put a positive spin on some of these ideas, her daughter knows that she’s getting to her.

It’s not that children want to hurt us and bother us and make us frustrated. They really don’t. They’re just interested in what that is and why they have this power to do that when all they’re doing is talking about certain things and it has this power to bother my parents. That’s compelling. That’s compelling me to do it again and again.

It’s because they’re such incredible learners that children keep poking at those tender spots that we have. They want to understand them, they want to figure them out.

So this is coming from a healthy place on the part of this girl. And on our end, the way to look at this is, first and foremost, to take a look at our priorities here. What, ultimately, do we want for our child and for our relationship with our child? Do we want that they only talk about positive things that make us feel safer and easier and more comfortable? Or do we want a child that feels they can bring any topic to us and we will be that safe person that they can explore any dark feelings that they have, anything that happens with their friends, especially as they become teenagers or adults, things that they’re doing that they know are self-destructive or unkind. They can confide in us about anything, they can share any feeling. We can be that safe person. We accept it all.

Now that’s a high standard for us to rise to, I realize that, but it can be one of the more intriguing and fulfilling challenges we have as parents — to first of all, see this as positive. Anything our child throws at us, especially if it’s from their own heart, no matter how outrageous, no matter how wrong, no matter how bad, that we see that as a golden opportunity every time for us to work on and give that message to our child that we are the safe people. We accept it all.

I remember when I was a preteen and a teen, there were tons of things I would never talk to my own parents about, but I remember there would be people in the neighborhood, there would be these moms usually, sometimes dads… other children would talk about them that: “oh wow, you can talk to her about anything.” The cool mom or whatever. Sometimes that meant also that that mom didn’t have any boundaries, but that is not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about being that open person to explore with, that I’m not threatened by anything you have to say. I may be scared by some things, but my priority, much more important than me being afraid is me being grateful that you’ve shared it with me. So grateful. I wouldn’t threaten that for anything.

So I don’t know if that’s this parent’s goal, but I think for a lot of us that is the goal. It was certainly my goal to be that for my children and it has played out exactly as I would have hoped, that my efforts… and believe me, it took a lot of effort to be the safe person, to not judge my children’s interests, and their friends that was a little harder, the experiences that they wanted to share with me. I felt so privileged to be able to know all that dark stuff. I’ve made a lot of mistakes as a parent, but this area I mostly got right and it shows in my relationship with my children today.

All of that said, I love how this little girl is “relentlessly,” in her mother’s words, forcing her mother to go there with her. She’s not going to accept the change of subject or the ignoring. She’s really working on her mom here on some level.

Here’s specifically the way I would respond. I agree with this mother that it is mostly innocent. In fact, it’s all innocent what this little girl is doing. And she also has another reason, and I always believe this comes into play… she’s got a younger sister, so she knows pain, she knows jealousy, she knows sadness and fear, and all those feelings that children tend to have around this transition of having a sibling. So when she hears stories about other people having those feelings, it’s quite comforting for her on some level:

Other people go to this side of themselves the way that I went when I grabbed that toy out of my sister’s hand or wanted to push her or knock her over when she was learning to walk.

I don’t know that this girl’s done any of those things, but usually the older child’s pain will be played out in these kinds of unkind behaviors. It’s what pain makes us do. So knowing that she’s not alone in those feelings is comforting.

So here’s how I would handle where this has gone with this little girl. I would have boundaries, as I would with anything, around what I’m going to do in terms of telling a story about a dark thing. I don’t have to tell a story about that if I don’t feel like that. I don’t have to tell a story at all because my child commands me to.

So if she says, “Mom, tell me a story about when someone went to the hospital”…

“I don’t have a story about that right now, but I’d love to hear your story. Do you have a story about it?”

And let’s say she persists, “Come on mom, tell me. Tell me. Tell me.”

“You really want me to be the one to tell you. I’m not going to make up a story about it, but I’d love to hear yours.”

So I’m responding from a place of not being bothered, of feeling very comfortable about saying no, to what I’m going to do.

As a side note, I always found making up stories a really hard thing to do with children for some reason. I like telling stories that are real, but coming up with imaginary characters, that’s not my talent. But I do know that when I would tell my children stories where I did something wrong or was embarrassed or got in trouble, my kids love those stories because, again, what a relief, right? Even this grownup, even this godlike person in my life does those things. Whew, I feel such relief. I feel such permission to be all sides of myself. It feels good.

So if I ever thought of those kinds of stories, I knew that would be a good thing to tell my children about in an age appropriate way, as they got old enough, depending on what the details were. But I wouldn’t jump to do that just because my four-year-old told me to.

I don’t know how this mother feels about other boundaries with her child. If she feels on one hand that she has to indulge these requests, but she doesn’t really want to, then that could also be creating frustration for her, and again, her frustration and her being perplexed around this as she describes it, are part of the problem. That’s what’s turning this into a fixation for her daughter. It’s the fixation to understand why this train of thought has such power with her mother, that she can upset her by talking about these things.

So I would say a confident no to those requests.

This mother says, “If I tell a lighthearted story, she tries to redirect me toward a harsher storyline.”

If I was telling a lighthearted story, and if she said, “But the boy does fall off the slide,” I would see that as a wonderful opportunity to allow her to explore, and to explore with her, the dark side. “Ooh, what if he does fall off the slide? How do you think that happened? How do you think that felt for him?” Letting all the feelings and thoughts be. It’s safe to let her explore. It’s the best thing we can do.

“But a bear does eat her up.” Sounds like this girl really wants to explore violence and why people harm each other, and it’s interesting because she doesn’t have so many of the outside influences. But this again shows us that these are feelings children do understand on some level. So allowing these feelings and thoughts to have the power that they do have, but not adding to them with our own discomfort. Or  being torn: I’ve got to go and tell her these stories but ugh, this doesn’t feel right. Because if we have a push/pull in ourselves around what we’re supposed to do… getting clear on this will help this parent, as it always helps us to be able to set boundaries and allow what’s safe to allow and what’s important to allow.

Which is, across the board: the desire has to be allowed, the thought has to be allowed, the feelings have to be allowed. The behavior itself is often not allowed and we stop it there, but while we’re stopping the behavior, we have to understand the feelings and the thoughts. In this case, all this girl is doing is sharing thoughts and feelings and desires, so none of this will ideally be off limits. All of it can be welcomed, except the part where she’s trying to make me tell a certain kind of story.

So then this mother says that, “Occasionally it’s veered to words or actions that we consider off limits. Pretending to shoot or saying, ‘I’ll kill you.'”

My advice is to take a look at why you are making those fantasies and thoughts off limits. It can help if you can consider making them acceptable. They are all explorations; healthy, safe, normal, important.

I’m often asked by parents about children who will say, “I want to hurt you. I want to kill you. I want to …” The parent immediately, as I can understand, wants to shut that down. “Don’t say those words to me. You’re not allowed to say that.” It will help a child so much more. If we can say, “Wow, that’s heavy. You’re so angry about this.” Or, “There are feelings in you that actually make you want to hurt.” It’s acceptable for children to feel and think to that extent.

I don’t want to assume that everyone does, but if we’re honest with ourselves, most of us have those feelings sometimes. I’ll just say that I do. I have those feelings. I know that they’re just feelings. They’re not going to be actions that I take. It’s okay to have the feelings. All the feelings children have need to be acceptable for them to be able to proceed as empathetic people without shame. Doesn’t mean children will be going around saying that inappropriately to people that aren’t close to them.

So by telling her, as this parent has, telling her firmly that these things are not something we play, it actually only fuels them with more power. If we can pull away this veil around the dark side of things, it’s very freeing for children and actually takes the power out of those feelings and thoughts.

So then this mother says, “When she comes to me and says, “Mom, tell me about a time when someone was mean,” or “Mom, let’s pretend you had to go to the hospital.” Again, those are things that I think would be better left in my child’s hands, because where I go with the story isn’t going to be her imagination, and ideally it needs to be hers, so I would just gently bounce back on that, but comfortably bounce back on that.

“Tell me about a time when someone was mean.”

“Hm, I can’t think about a time right now. Do you want to tell me about a time someone was mean?”

Or, “Mom, let’s pretend you had to go to the hospital.”

“I’d love to hear your story about that, your make-believe thought about that. What happened to me when I went to the hospital?”

That’s how I would react. Very comfortable with where I stand, which is I want to hear everything you’ve got to say and everything you think and feel and imagine about these ideas, but I’m not going to be the one drumming things up for you. That’s how I would react, but I wouldn’t suggest that we play something else. I would allow her to stay there. I would want her to stay in that as long as she needs to, but I wouldn’t be jumping through hoops to make it work.

So I hope that perspective helps a little bit.

Please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, JanetLansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in.

And both of my books are available on audio, please check them out. Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting and No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame. You can even get them for free from Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast, or you can go to the books section of my website and find them there. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon, and in ebook at Amazon, Barnes And Noble, and apple.com.

Thanks again for listening. We can do this.


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Janet – This is interesting and makes total sense. I wonder what you would suggest when an older child is acting out violence on a young child? For example, we have an 8 year old neighbor who often comes over to play with my two year old (I’m supervising). Yesterday he was pretending to ‘shoot’ my two year with a toy shovel. I didn’t intervene but noticed how uncomfortable this made me feel. Any thoughts?

    1. Hi Cassie – I would politely and matter-of-factly limit the 8-year-old from involving your son in his shooting fantasy. So, I’d say something like, “Ah, you are welcome to pretend to shoot towards the trees, etc., but not at ___.” The age difference in the children is too great for them to be allowed full rein to play pretend with each other.

  2. thank you soso much this was so important to hear!. is there ever a time when we need to worry that these explorations are a reflection of unpleasant experiences or even trauma in a child’s life? thanks 🙂

    1. My pleasure, Jo. Yes, you bring up an important point. Children will process and heal their trauma through play and repetition of stories that touch on the feelings they have felt or absorbed from others. Their natural motivation to self-heal can be very strong. Children will tend to want to replay even the mildest surprising or uncomfortable experiences and events (like they witnessed a stranger yelling angrily, for example) and that’s a very, very healthy impulse that we want to encourage. That’s also the reason it is better for us to refrain from telling the stories ourselves, even if children request that. Our story will be different and not as effective therapeutically for our child.

  3. When my four year old becomes extremely frustrated or angry, he recently started saying things like “I wish you would kill/hurt me” or “I should just die.” Then he might bump his head against the wall. I know that overall he is a happy, contented child and I am not worried about his mental health in general. And like the mom in this podcast, I also try to be careful about what information and media comes into our home. So when he says things like that, it disturbs me- not because I think my 4 year old is actually suicidal, but I fear judgment from those around me and worry that if anyone ever witnessed this, CPS could be callled. It also doesn’t help that I have a parent who committed suicide, so I’m sure I’m giving off big time ruffled vibes whenever my son mentions the topic. I tried forbidding the topic of killing last night, and instead asked him to use different words to show how upset he was. But that didn’t sit well with me, and I wondered “What would Janet say?” Then I came onto your podcast and saw this perfectly timed episode. Thank you! If you have any additional thoughts about when a child is fixated on the idea of SELF-harm, I would appreciate it.

  4. Thank you for this timely and much appreciated episode! It confirmed my thoughts about this topic. But hearing it from you makes it much easier to stay unfruffled :-). Greetings from Germany!

  5. jacky mcfadden says:

    Thank you for this post, Janet. Just earlier today, my 4. 5 and I were roughousing, and he said “okay mama, now you pretend that you’re dead”. It rattled me, but then I thought “he’s clearly trying to work this out!”, and I did. Side note, he has been asking a lot of questions about death for the past few months, which we try to answer honestly. In other news, my son – like the girl discussed in the podcast – is very interested in exploring themes of power by using pretend (water) guns, wanting to shoot, sometimes using the word kill, talking about bandits and police officers…I sense that this is all about an exploration of power, but he says things like “I am going to kill you!”, we redirect and say ” you mean, you want to attack me?!” . I suspect that you would probably not agree with this redirect, but I try really hard to avoid being in play situations with my son in which I feel uncomfortable/don’t want to. But when, for example, he asks me to pretend that I have a gun, I will say “wow, you really like guns, and you can pretend that you have one. I don’t know a lot about guns/I don’t like guns because they hurt people, can you think of something else we can play?”. What are your thoughts on this redirect? We try to give him LOTS of opportunity to explore power, for example, when wrestling, physical play….But I am also showing him that there are certain things that, I am okay if he explores, but that make me uncomfortable (I don’t say that, however, I am just honest about what I really don’t want to do, i.e. the guns!?).

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