kids

'I saw our four-year-old killing our puppy. What should I do now?'

When I was little and busy celebrating my sister’s birthday, something very, very bad happened.

I killed her budgie. Her budgie named Lucky. The budgie that was her birthday present. You know, on her birthday.

I didn’t mean to kill the bird. It was an awful, intensely traumatic experience – yes – but one that never happened with malicious intent. I was young, and I didn’t understand that budgies do NOT belong at parties, let alone in a lounge room full of bustling, excitable, jumpy children.

I’m still affected by that accident to this day.

That’s why when I read a mother’s plea for help on an online parenting forum, titled “Our four-year-old killed our puppy”, my stomach did a flip.

After finding the family’s new puppy motionless in their backyard, the anonymous mother explained she checked the household security camera to see what had happened.

Is it normal for kids to harm animals? (Image: Getty)

That's when she saw her little boy, some half-an-hour earlier, forcefully throw the puppy down on the ground.

"My poor baby instantly broke her back as she landed," the mother wrote in the since-deleted post. "My four-year-old grabbed a teddy and tapped our puppy numerous times (maybe trying to wake her) then... came upstairs to me and asked for kisses and cuddles."

The mum-of-three went on to say she was unsure if her handling of the situation - which included sitting down her children and calmly asking what had happened - was inappropriate, and questioned if her son's aggressive outburst indicated a deep-seated issue.

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While her son admitted he hurt the puppy, and was upset and remorseful for this, were his actions a red flag for a personality problem? Did this signal a propensity for violence later in life?

Discussing this exact question became so heated between parents, MumsNet deleted the thread altogether.

To bring some clarity to the situation, I spoke to Dr Emma Butler, a clinical psychologist from Eltham, Victoria, who specialises in the treatment of children and adolescents.

“When parents cover up these kind of stories, it contributes to the stigmatisation of child mental health," Dr Butler told Mamamia.

"Most parents would react to an incident like this by hiding it and not telling anyone, so it’s really fantastic that this woman is sharing her story in the first place."

Because the reality is, speaking about these kind of events is deeply important, Dr Butler said. In fact, until parents begin honestly sharing these stories with one another, they will be under the illusion that such behaviour in children is uncommon, when that's not exactly the truth.

While Dr Butler can't delve too much into specifics, as circumstances vary from child to child, she said that these things can often be a "one-off occurrence", and indicate nothing other than a raw childlike brashness.

"It could have been a distraction, or him acting on impulse, it could have been an unfortunate fall. You can’t make assumptions from that event in itself," she said.

"When young children do aggressive and forceful things there might be catastrophic consequences, but it’s often a sign of carelessness as opposed to malicious intent.”

When children bring about harm, it is more helpful to consider their intent, rather than the consequence of their physicality.

“If the child regrets what they’ve done, that’s reassuring for the mother as a parent," Dr Butler said, highlighting that honesty and saying 'sorry' are positive behaviours to encourage.

"It was an unfortunate accident, and those do happen, but at the same time it’s given them all an opportunity to work through appropriate challenges.

“What an important lesson for him."

Ultimately, Dr Butler said, parents know their children better than anyone else, and should trust their gut. If they feel their child's intent was troublesome, professional help may be a worthwhile investment.

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