This is the kind of thing I've been hearing a lot since Christmas. This is not how I originally envisioned my eldest playing with "Michael" a cloth boy doll with soft velvety material for skin and a wry half smile that my son loves, but, it seems to be very therapeutic for him and is shaping his behavior for the better so, I'm rolling with it for now!
I originally got Michael because my son kept talking about the ten sons he wants to adopt someday and support with his job as a photographer (no spouse necessary apparently and how they are going to all ride on the motorcycle he plans to drive is a mystery, but he's four so he has time to figure it out). I also thought the doll would be handy for role playing now that our second son is crawling around and getting into all our eldest's toys and he's been frustrated by that. I remember my mom using my dolls in a similar way and trying to substitute stuffed animals didn't seem to have the same results. I also thought it could be a chance for him to practice the fathering skills that his father demonstrates daily and can take out some of the down time when daddy or mama has to stop games to change brother or soothe him; I thought maybe Michael's diaper could be changed at the same time. (I remember vividly doing that kind of thing when I was four when my little brother needed attention.). Maybe Michael will get to fill those roles someday, but for now he's primarily a flying scape goat and occasional car violence victim or punching bag.
At first I found the level of violence horrifyingly fascinating. I wasn't sure how to react. I decided to watch his "play" with Michael to find the "why and what purpose" the play was serving before I intervened with alternatives and the results were fascinating. Most of my eldest's frustrations with his younger sibling became deflected on Michael. If I said "pushing your brother down is not a good way to keep him from your toys," my eldest would simply push down Michael, or throw him, or hit him, or kick him before I could even get to asking about alternatives or suggesting alternative interactions with his brother. Sometimes, the intensity of his anger was a bit scary. However, after getting his aggression out with Michael, he was much better at suggesting and using alternative behaviors with his brother, so I let him continue.
This course of (in)action seems to be working because, on his own, the interactions with Michael have become less violent as his interactions with his brother improve by the use of new sibling strategies. There are just days when Michael is in for it, but the important part is that my youngest is now much safer because my eldest is tempted less often to physically lash out at him.
While I still believe in trying to teach my son to use words to get his feelings out, Michael is helping me see that sometimes it may be too much to expect a four year old's language skills and understanding to be adequate enough to get out the intensity of the emotions he is feeling when he is feeling it. An adult's primary way of playing through emotions may be to talk about it in conversation and tell what happened, but a child's primary way of working through emotions is to physically play it out and then talk about it later. In fact, it seems like I was skipping an essential step in even understanding my son's emotions when I wanted him to role play "nicely" with me before he'd even had a chance to physically play out and understand the intensity of his anger and frustration. If we adults "need" to play violent video games, play basketball, call a friend or go for a hard run to work through intense stress and emotion, why wouldn't our children also need to do some intense activity to physically let out the stress of what they are working through? Isn't it the same impulse? Frustrations with a newly mobile sibling may seem like small potatoes to us, but that's just because it's not new or intense for us. It is both for my eldest son. Michael has helped as a tool to work through that.
Michael also gets to provide some wish fulfillment for my son. While my eldest broke his arm trying to ride a laundry basket down the stairs just a week and a half before Christmas, Michael has made several unsuccessful and successful dare devil antics without getting hurt. While my son has learned the hard way that he cannot climb furniture, ride down the stairs, or jump off rickety things, Michael gladly does it for him without injury. This is particularly important because of the restricted activity my son is currently limited to because of his broken arm. (Something else that must be supremely frustrating and might have been at the root of some of that anger that got taken out on Michael.)
I'd read in Lawrence Cohen's awesome book Playful Parenting that children work through their trauma and their feelings (especially negative feelings or uncomfortable emotions) through play because the fiction of play creates a safe space in which they can explore both the things they have experienced and that which they fear experiencing. I think maybe Michael is a vehicle through which my son is doing some tough emotional work and if it keeps my eldest son happy and able to deal more positively with his brother and it means that he will never again scare the crap out of me by riding a laundry basket down the stairs, so be it!
Thanks for reading,
P.S. I'm still hoping to see those sweet, traditional doll play fathering moments, too . . . some day.