My 4-year-old often laughs when we are admonishing him for having hurt someone, with words or actions. This is really disturbing. We’re concerned he doesn’t have empathy, or worse, doesn’t feel bad about hurting people. How should we respond?

This is a behavior that parents and early childhood providers alike find confusing and vexing, and that is not uncommon. It usually results in the adults, already angry about the child’s hurtful actions, becoming even more revved up. Often times they blurt out accusations at the child along the lines of: “What is wrong with you?” Parents feel especially mortified and worried, wondering how they could have a child who appears not to feel bad about hurting others, or worse, gain pleasure from it.

Herein lies one of the most challenging aspects of childrearing: we adults tend to interpret children’s behavior through the lens of logic. In this case, a child laughing while being corrected means he has no empathy (maybe even a budding sociopath, worries parents who tend to get propelled into catastrophic thinking.) Or, a child who cries and hides when Mom arrives at pick-up time from childcare means she hasn’t missed her and loves her childcare providers more than she loves her mom.  Au contraire.  We cannot always ascribe adult logic to children’s behavior. While children’s actions can seem irrational and disturbing at face value, when you look at them from the child’s perspective they often make a lot of sense and can help you respond in ways that are both sensitive and effective.

When children laugh while being corrected, the root cause is often the very uncomfortable feelings that get elicited when being corrected that many children have a hard time coping with; shame is a very difficult emotion to sit with and laughing can provide a release from this discomfort. (Note that turning away and refusing to look the adult in the eye or running away are also common reactions to the discomfort of being corrected.) It is a reactive response and doesn’t mean that the child lacks empathy or feelings. Actually, usually quite the opposite is true. Children who engage in this kind of behavior tend to be more intense reactors from a temperamental perspective; they experience and process feelings very deeply and thus have a harder time learning to manage them. They are overwhelmed when faced with a parent or other adult who is expressing anger and disappointment.  Laughter can be a coping mechanism, albeit a socially unacceptable one, that provides relief.

So, what is the best way to respond to these reactive and often maddening and illogical behaviors?  In the case of the laughter, ignore it. The more attention—positive or negative—you pay to a behavior the more it gets reinforced. The more shamed a child feels the less likely he is to accept and ultimately reflect on his feelings, making it much less likely that he can learn to express them in acceptable ways. Instead, give voice to the underlying feelings and issues at play. “We don’t hit people—it hurts. You were frustrated and reacted with your body. I know you don’t want to hurt your friends—you just lost control. We’ll work together on finding other ways to deal with frustration.” Labeling a child as being purposefully hurtful when it’s almost always impulsive only leads to his internalizing that he is a “bad” child which results in more, not less, acting-out behavior. 

Approaching these incidents calmly and dispassionately, without shaming and indicting the child, makes it much more likely that he will be open to problem-solving more acceptable ways to manage his emotions, which, after all, is the ultimate goal.