When Children Say Horrifying Things

conversations emotional intelligence what to say Sep 08, 2020

Question: During a play date, my friend’s seven-year-old daughter announced: “I’m fat! Look at my tummy! Why does it stick out?”

We were all horrified, especially because she is tiny—maybe even underweight. I think she was just saying it to see our reaction. What should our reaction have been?

Answer: Here is a great mantra to remember when children say something concerning:

Stay calm. Be curious.

Stay calm because sometimes the adult’s reaction is much, much worse than the problem, and it gives the child too much attention for something that might not need attention. Beyond that, responding in horror to issues of body size or looks—either through gasps or words—communicates to the child that you believe being “fat” (or “ugly” or whatever the word might be) is something to be terribly upset by—and this can cause a cascade of problems down the line.

What if the child later struggles with weight? Believing that the adults in this child’s life think being “fat” is horrifying will not bode well for the child’s psyche.

And, don’t forget, you are modeling the behavior that you want children to follow. Showing horror in response to comments about weight might send the wrong message to the child about how they should act when it comes to other people’s weight.

Be curious so you can determine whether the words reflect an actual problem. Oftentimes, we assign unnecessary meaning to a child’s words without determining what the child actually meant. For instance, when a thin child calls herself fat, it’s normal to jump to worst-case scenario: Oh my God! This child has the beginnings of an eating disorder!

Just as easily, the child might be saying something they heard on television or at school, in which case it isn’t much of a problem—at least, not initially. The child might realize that using the word “fat” gets a big reaction out of people, and the child might be looking to the adults for clarification as to why this is.

On the other hand, if the child has an actual problem that needs to be addressed, either through a deeper conversation or intervention such as therapy, calm curiosity provides the safe environment necessary to encourage the child to disclose more information.

Big responses can scare a child. The child might think they have said something wrong and might shut down, change the subject, or cover up their true feelings to appease the adult.

Okay, we have made our case for calm curiosity, but what does it look like?

Here is one example:

“Huh. You think your tummy looks fat? Why?”

The child might say, “It sticks out!”

If the child is saying this with pride, humor, or happiness, the grownup might say, “Guess what? I can make my tummy stick out too if I arch my back. Look at my big tummy! Some tummies stick out because they are bigger than other tummies. My tummy stuck out a lot when I was pregnant. I really liked my pregnant tummy. Do you like your tummy?”

The conversation can unfold in many ways. The child might say something that points to deeper concerns. On the other hand, the child might say that she loves having a big tummy. (And even if she does not have a big tummy, then don’t burst her bubble. She’s seven, so just play along.)

In either case, staying calm and being curious allows you to determine whether this is a real problem, or whether the child is using words that horrify grownups, but that do not have the same context for a seven-year-old.

After all, kids can say all sorts of disturbing things, particularly when they are young—even words like, “I’m going to kill you” or “I’m going to kill myself.” Sometimes these words point to a major problem that requires intervention, but often, they are the words of a child who is heated with emotions or who does not truly understand the meaning of the words they are saying.

When you start having conversations that place curiosity before judgment, you learn how to read  kids. This allows you to practice extracting information so that when you are faced with a big problem (or a problem you do not know how to solve) you have the experience to calmly ask questions and figure out what children really mean by their words—and therefore what they need.

Here's a P.S. In the case of the parent of a child who is “trying on” the usage of the word “fat,” consider having a follow up conversation on another day about the word “fat.”

It might sound something like this, “The other day you mentioned that your tummy was fat. Your body belongs to you, and you can use whatever words you like to describe it.

“I want you to know that it might hurt someone else’s feelings if you call their tummy, or any other body part, fat. Other people might not like being called skinny. Some people dislike being tall, and other people dislike being short. I am pretty happy with my own body. If you aren’t happy with your own body, let’s talk about that.

“Regardless, I think it is a good idea to never comment on other people’s bodies, even if you think you are saying something kind. What do you think?”

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