4 year old killed two baby birds

By Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

Q: I have a 4 year old daughter and an 8 month old son. My daughter has also showed love for animals and is a very loving little girl, constantly hugging and kissing us. Since her brother was born she does have moments of jealousy and usually she takes it out on us, although there have been some times where she has poked her brother and said he is naughty. We try to give her as much attention as possible and mostly she seems to love her brother and hugs and kisses him a lot. I have also recently gone back to work which may be a contributing factor.

Here is the problem: Pigeons built a nest on our lemon tree. We showed my daughter the nest never imagining she would hurt the birds. Well the other day without us seeing she climbed on a chair and destroyed the nest and killed the baby birds. She never told us what she had done so we assumed she knew it was wrong. When we discovered the nest and dead birds, I confronted her about it and she said she killed them because they wanted to bite her. They were very tiny and I don’t think she really understood they were birds. At first she didn’t seem to show any remorse which I found disturbing. After I told her that what she did was very bad and that she should never harm a living creature she got tears in her eyes and said she was sorry. She also told me not to tell her father, I assume she was feeling ashamed. When we said our prayers that evening she said sorry. I told her to promise me she wouldn’t do that again and she said she wouldn’t. She has never done this before so there is no pattern, should I take her to a therapist? She is overall a lovely little girl and this was completely out of character and not expected. She is generally quite sensitive and gets easily upset if she does not have a lot of attention.
Thanks for you time.

A: The challenge in a situation like this is to act but not overreact. Your little girl has lost her position as your baby and now she is losing time with you as well because you’ve gone back to work. She wants to be a good little girl and have your approval so she is desperately trying to love the little interloper called her brother. She is very probably wishing he would disappear so she could have her old life back. Sadly, she acted out her feelings on the baby birds, probably not understanding what she did or even what “killing” something really means. Although alarming to you, her feelings are absolutely normal. The deaths of the birds are a consequence of not having the impulse control and empathy of someone older.

You report that your daughter is quite sensitive and needs a lot of attention. Most 4 year olds do. But if her needs for attention feel excessive or if her demands are at the expense of others, she needs some help. I don’t think she needs a therapist. What she may need is a different approach from you and your husband. Can you find ways to give her lots of attention when she is doing as she should? Can you find ways for her to participate in baby-care as the high-status big sister? Are you able to give her some ways to cope with her sensitivities? Can you and your husband set aside a half hour of special time when you can focus just on her each day? (Often if kids know they’ll get a turn, they aren’t so needy.) There are many excellent parenting books that can give helpful advice about issues like these.

If you work on this for a month or two and are still concerned, I would then suggest that you seek out a family therapist or parent educator to give you some advice and support. Someone who can get to know you and your daughter can be more concrete in their suggestions than I can be.

One last thing: I don’t think it’s a good idea for a child to have a secret like this from one of her parents. She needs to know that both her parents can love her even when she is naughty and that you and her dad are a team.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 3 Sep 2008

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2008). 4 year old killed two baby birds. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 22, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2008/09/03/4-year-old-killed-two-baby-birds/

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