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My son said hateful words at school and is now the "trouble kid." How can I help him?

Writer: Angela Breidenstine, PhD

Clinical Expert: Angela Breidenstine, PhD

Q My 5-year-old son told two girls in his kindergarten class, "I want you to die," after they told him they wanted to kiss him. He was brought to the principal's office and spoken to by the school police for his "threat" to the girls. He has been struggling to make friends and comes home with bruises and scrapes from being hit/pushed by other kids. He has trouble sharing and not getting his way. He gets angry. We've tried reading anger books, role-playing better things to say during anger, etc. I'm afraid my child will have no friends and end up hating school. Plus, now he is the "trouble kid," and his friends won't talk to him because of the threat he said in class. I'm at a loss of how to help him and want him to be the sweet boy I know to the kids at school. I'm afraid this incident has scarred him and made him think he's a bad kid. He has never used hateful words at home before. What can I do?

I’m sorry to hear that your son has been struggling socially at kindergarten, and I hear your concern for how this affects him now and could affect his feelings about himself and school going forward. This is hard for him and you. It sounds like he is a sweet boy and that you are really working to support and help him.

Reading children’s books together about anger, emotions, and friendships and role-playing what he can do when upset are great ideas – it’s wonderful that you’re already doing these things to strengthen his understanding of emotions and ways he can cope with strong feelings, like anger. I encourage you to be optimistic and determined because I strongly suspect things will improve with the proper support and guidance!

The school could be a powerful ally in supporting your son. I wonder how your son reacted to being questioned by the principal and the school police. Were these conversations gentle and supportive, or were they punitive and intimidating? In our modern climate of school safety concerns, schools sometimes have aggressive reactions to things that children say, even if the words may have been said out of embarrassment, anxiety, anger, and/or social immaturity. I hope that school personnel will be open to collaborating with you to support your son best.

When I’ve worked with young children having similar struggles, the following types of actions have been helpful:

Ways the school can help your son

  1. A strong connection with a teacher and other school staff helps a child feel safe, comfortable asking for help when needed, and more willing to accept redirection and guidance when needed. Teachers and school personnel can strengthen their relationships with him by regularly setting aside brief periods to engage with him one-on-one. During these relationship check-ins, the teacher could follow his lead in play, show interest and enthusiasm in his play and in what he says, and give him positive attention. The teacher could also make a point of connecting briefly with your son at the start of the school day to greet him and express positive impressions about the day ahead: “Hi! I’m so glad to see you, and I think we’re going to have a great day! Remember, you can come tell me if there’s anything you need help with today.”
    • If your son feels negatively about an adult at school who was involved in responding to his “threat” to the girls, it may be worthwhile to invest some time and energy into repairing that relationship with the adult’s help.
    • If your son is still coming home with bruises and scrapes from other children, it is important that he feels he can approach adults for help. He needs to know that school personnel is working to keep all children safe, including him.
  2. School leaders can help ensure that your son is not labeled the “troubled kid.
    • The teacher could give your son a positive “job” in the classroom that helps him feel good and allows peers to see him as successful and valued. This might be helping to pass out snacks to his peers, passing out a sticker to everyone after the class finishes a project, or some other kind of helping role.
    • A positive behavior plan can be a very effective intervention for helping children learn and practice more appropriate behaviors at school. In your son’s case, this might mean developing a behavior plan that gives him small rewards (like stickers) every hour when he has shown “kind behavior” with peers during that hour (“kind behavior” could mean when he shares, is verbally and physically gentle, and calms down appropriately if frustrated). Teachers would need to commit to reminding him of the desired behaviors in a positive way, encouraging him, noticing his positive actions, supporting him in using appropriate behaviors if he’s becoming upset (at least at first), and rewarding the desired behaviors. A positive behavior plan needs to be designed appropriately; school psychologists or social workers often help create the plan with teacher and parent input.
    • Ask the school social worker if they offer social skills groups for children. If the school does not offer a formal group, sometimes social workers will host several children together for lunch or a joint play activity to support positive social interactions and the development of new friendships.

Ways to help your son at home

In addition to what you mentioned doing already, parents often find it helpful to think about the following:

  • Make sure that he has time at home to relax, play, and do things he enjoys. All children need downtime, and if he is feeling stressed at school, this is especially important.
    • During daily activities, look for opportunities to share or take turns with him and describe what you’re doing. You are a very important role model for him, so when you name, share, or demonstrate other positive social skills, he will notice.
    • Try to notice when he shares, takes turns, or shows other positive social skills and give him praise or positive attention. While playing with him, you could ask him occasionally to share something with you, praise him for it, and return the toy to him before too long.
    • Keep showing him support by listening to his feelings and concerns. You can validate his feelings – “It sounds like your feelings were hurt. It’s really hard when a friend says something mean.” Even if his behavior was inappropriate, listening to and validating his feelings helps him feel understood and loved. After he feels supported, you can still talk gently about the inappropriate behavior in a problem-solving capacity. For example, “I’m sorry that happened, and you felt bad. Maybe we can think about what to do if that happens again because it’s still not okay to hit someone even if they said something mean.”

Various factors can affect a child’s emotions, behavior, and social skills. Examples of things that could contribute to behavioral and social challenges include:

  • Speech/language and communication delays or difficulties
    • Anxiety, which can be expressed as a need to be in control and irritability in young children, or social anxiety, which complicates social interactions
    • Life changes or stressors, like a change in the family structure, a household move, or increased stress in the family
    • Sleep problems, which can make children more impulsive and irritable
    • Symptoms of ADHD, such as hyperactivity, impulsivity, and/or difficulty paying attention
    • Traumatic experiences, like being in a car accident or experiencing physical assault/threat to themselves or a loved one

If you have questions or concerns about whether your child is experiencing anxiety, ADHD symptoms, or something else, your pediatrician should be able to refer you to a mental health professional for an evaluation. An evaluation would help answer your questions and recommend any helpful therapies or interventions, if appropriate.

In addition, if the strategies discussed above do not help things to improve at school, you could speak with the school special education team about having your son evaluated to determine whether he would qualify for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a 504 plan. Both are programs under federal law that provide support for children with certain special needs or struggles in the educational setting.

Your son is young, and he is still learning how to handle big feelings and how to get along with others. These challenges are not set in stone, and there are ways to help! I hope the school will partner with you to support him as he learns new skills and to create a safe, affirming environment for him at school.

This article was last reviewed or updated on January 17, 2023.