Good News About Disagreeable Behavior (Questions From My Inbox)

Janet responds to a series of questions from her inbox about some typical behavior challenges parents face. Topics include a child refusing to follow directions, another who stirs up a sibling’s emotions leaving the parent struggling to cope with her two upset children at once, a daughter who repeats her parent’s foul language, and a son who reflects the mannerisms of his less mature peer. Janet finds common themes in these issues that she hopes will ease parents’ minds and help them to respond in the most effective manner.

Transcript of “Good News About Disagreeable Behavior (Questions From My Inbox)”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I’m going to be talking about some of the positives, believe it or not, in our children’s challenging, concerning, or disagreeable behavior. My hope is that what I’m going to share here, which is also a lot of questions and things from my inbox, little pieces of some of the notes parents have sent to me. I’m hoping to help you feel safer, less threatened, and less frustrated by your children’s behavior.

I also want to clarify that there’s nothing wrong with feeling annoyed and frustrated and upset by the things our children do and say. No matter what parenting advice we follow, we’re going to feel like that sometimes. Because we’re not robots, we’re human beings. But if our goal is to ameliorate the behavior, then the quickest and most thorough way to do that is to respond in a safe, even empathetic, manner. So we can be curious as to the cause of what the behavior’s expressing and therefore resolve it.

So first I just want to reiterate that nothing that I share is intended to cause people to feel ashamed for reacting in normal ways. This isn’t about blame or shame. It’s only about practicing a perspective that will empower us and help us to feel better.

The first idea I want to share is that behavior is a positive sign that children do feel a sense of safety with us because they’re bringing it to us. They’re bringing their discomforts to the people they’re closest with. That is the ideal model for us as parents throughout the years. We want to be that person for our children. That’s what the parent-child relationship is really all about.

So here’s a question I got through an Instagram message that talks about this:

I’m a nanny seeing a 19-month-old boy. He’s mostly well-behaved and it’s very pleasant to take care of him. But when the mom is around, he doesn’t agree with anything. He doesn’t want to get changed, doesn’t sit to eat, et cetera. He refuses everything. Also on the weekends, when she takes care of him, I can hear him giving her very intensive, hard times. She is suffering and I don’t know how to help. She tries to avoid coming when I’m there so I, at least, can have my quality time taking care of him.

He turns into something uncontrollable. I know he wants attention, but it still looks too much like how he reacts with her.

So this is very, very common that a child is a different person when they’re being cared for by someone other than the parent. When children bring their feelings outside of the home, or outside of with that parent, it can commonly mean one of two things:

Either that situation, if it’s a preschool, let’s say, that environment is overwhelming and dysregulating for the child. Maybe they could handle it at another phase in their life, but at this time when they’re having trouble, they’re signaling that they can’t meet this challenge. Maybe it’s too chaotic, there are too many bodies in the room and our child is extra sensitive to that.

The second possibility is that our child has tried to share it with us, but feels for some reason that we are not able to handle the feelings or we’re too overwhelmed.

This happened to me when I’d had my third child and my oldest daughter who was nine at the time had never shown negative behavior, other than with me and her dad, the people that she trusted. But suddenly she was doing some things at school and it came back to me and I realized, and I’ve written a post about this called, “The Easily Forgotten Gift.” I realized that: Oh no, I’ve been so overwhelmed with my baby and my second child and her transition to the new baby, that I haven’t really been there for my oldest daughter. So that can happen too.

But in this case, what the nanny is seeing is actually very healthy. And what I would advise to this parent is that she sees this as not a personal issue that she’s having, but actually something very safe and healthy, that her child is sharing something with her.

I don’t know, obviously, exactly what or why he feels this way, but it may simply be that she’s taking his behavior personally and getting overwhelmed herself, feeling like this is a big problem feeling threatened by it, that there’s nothing she can do to shift this. If she could see this as really harmless actually, and a healthy sign, then I would advise her to accept his feelings, his refusals, and everything that he’s sharing while holding her boundaries. Because that’s the only way that children really feel accepted for their feelings. If we’re trying to cater to their feelings like it sounds like this parent may be doing, then they really don’t feel heard and seen and understood for sharing them —  understood in their discomfort.

I’ll talk about specifically how to do that. But I want to say also that this brings up another idea I want to share about the good news in disagreeable behavior: this isn’t a personal affront, it’s constructive feedback about our leadership.

So what I believe this little boy is saying is: I need you to be a more confident leader. I need you to be able to hear and accept my refusals without catering to them. And ideally, even understanding them. Can you stand tall and understand that I’m small and immature? That I’m a person, but not a peer? I don’t know why I’m doing these things either.

When this boy says to his mother, he doesn’t want to get changed. He doesn’t want to sit to eat. Well, let’s just take those two examples…

“You don’t want to get changed, but we have to do this. This is what we’re doing, but I hear you. You really don’t want to get changed right now. You don’t want to wear this. You don’t want to wear that. You want to stay just the way you are in those pajamas. I get that.”

I’m acknowledging from a place of tallness, for lack of a better word. It doesn’t change me when you have these feelings. That’s how children can share feelings.

If it changes us when they have the feelings, then they don’t feel comfortable sharing them.

But I can absorb or deflect or whatever it is you’re feeling, still knowing that I’m doing the right thing and I’m doing my job, which is to help you get changed now. And I hear you really don’t agree with that plan.

So we’re not just trying to say words to appease our child or distract him or make a game out of it or do something else to avoid. We’re going to let him know clearly: Don’t worry, I’m your leader. That’s the subtext. Don’t worry. I’ve got this. And I want to know how you feel about things.

I think we can all relate to, or I certainly can, not wanting to do things that we have to do. But it often feels better, if we can just kind of give into that we feel that way. Instead of feeling like: I shouldn’t feel this way, I should feel better. And oh, then maybe I’m not going to go because I feel this way. It’s much healthier and will help us to say: I really don’t want to go. Well, I’ve got to go. But I really don’t want to. To allow that feeling to have a life.

And that’s what children need too, but they need us to be the one that is unchangeable in the plan. I mean, unless it’s a flexible thing where we change our mind and say, “Well, actually we don’t have to go today. We can stay home. You can stay in your PJs all day.”

So if this parent could accept the refusal, but still hold her boundary, it would help him to move through.

The other example “doesn’t sit to eat,” well, that has to be a non-negotiable. Even a 19-month-old boy, even a 12-month-old child can sit to eat if we tell them that’s the rule in the family about eating, that we expect them to sit.

If they can’t sit, we can say, “You don’t have to eat right now. We’ll try again in a few minutes” or whatever it is. “When you can sit, I’ve got some food for you.” It has to be that clear for children, especially when they’re in a state like it sounds like he’s in where he really is seeking that leadership and that understanding of him by his parent.

When this nanny says “she’s suffering and I don’t know how to help…” So yes, I feel she may be suffering because she’s reticent to step up to being the person that he can fully disagree with, that can be angry about her choices, and that it’s not up to her to try to get him to eat. A child will eat. But what they need from us is clarity around the rules around eating and consistency, rising above. I know this parent can do that. If she sees this behavior differently in her mind, normalizes it for herself.

We don’t have to have all the answers. But being curious: I wonder what’s going on with this guy. He wants to share a lot of feelings with me right now. He loves his nanny maybe, but I’m his person. This is a positive. We want to try to be that person for our children. It eases their mind and heart when we do.

And all of this brings up another bit of good news. Children are sharing feelings either verbally, which is obviously more ideal for us, or through their behavior. They’re getting it out of their bodies. If we can help them to do that and feel seen while holding our boundaries — often, this means that they move through and move on and they learn so many positive lessons from this:

I can have my full range of feelings as a human being.  They are acceptable. I don’t get to act on all my feelings. I’ve got somebody there to help me with that. Because I’m too little to do this myself. My parent can handle me when I’m uncomfortable, when I’m flailing, when I’m at my worst. They’re going to still be that consistent parent as much as possible. Except when they blow up. But hopefully, that’s not that often. And then they repair it with me and they tell me what happened in words that I can understand. They repair.

What we’ll notice is that when we fully welcome the feelings, whether it’s behavior or him saying, “I refuse”, everything flows much easier. For us, the challenge is normalizing the ebb and flow of feelings and behaviors. And with young children, especially this toddler age, it can be almost a constant flow. And the fact that it’s flowing is really, really healthy and good.

Getting back to us feeling like I just can’t do it today, or I can’t. Those are our feelings that need to flow too. For us. Not putting them out onto our child if we can help it. But saying to ourselves: Well, I’m a parent fail today. Or I hate the way I handled that, or I don’t want to be a parent today. Whatever it is, letting that feeling have a life helps us to move on, and take the next step.

By feeling bad about ourselves for the feeling, feeling that: Oh, it’s not acceptable to think like that. What’s wrong with me? Now, we’re just piling on ourselves, making it impossible. So letting our feelings flow too.

Then there’s another very common… what I see as a positive that comes up in a lot of different behaviors that parents share with me. Children are always learning. They’re learning from us about relationships, about being human. They’re learning about other people in their lives as well, siblings, peers. And one of the ways that they learn is through imitation and what that actually is, often, is the development of empathy. What does it feel like to be this person? Or, whatever that person expressed made me feel that feeling inside myself too. So I’m putting it out there as well.

So one of the emails I received, the parent writes:

My question is about my two-and-a-half-year-old and my five-year-old. Recently, anytime my five-year-old becomes upset, my two-and-a-half-year-old instantly starts screaming and crying also. Her response is always so intense and immediate and it happens every single time my five-year-old is the least bit upset. Occasionally she will try to hit or kick as well. She will try to climb onto my lap or be right beside me in a way that prevents me from physically responding to her older sister. It’s so loud with both of them crying that I can’t possibly speak and be heard. It’s also completely overwhelming for all three of us. I never know how to respond. I’m really struggling with the feeling that I’m failing my five-year-old because I can never give her my full loving attention when she’s having a hard time. As for my two-and-a-half-year-old, I try to remind myself that she’s also struggling. But I find myself so frustrated with her during these times. I never feel composed and calm inside in the midst of these incidents and I know that isn’t helping anyone either.

Right. So that makes a lot of sense. But what I want to add is that what the two-and-a-half-year-old is doing is empathizing.

So it’s not that she’s actually distressed about something that we need to help her with. She’s joining her sibling in expressing the feeling and that’s a really positive thing. So rather than seeing our role as I’ve got to calm everybody down, I mean, I wouldn’t try to calm down the five-year-old either. I would be present. I would hear her. And when the two-and-a-half-year-old comes up and wants to get in there and climb onto my lap, that would be a no for me. Because the older sibling needs to feel like there are boundaries. So that’s where I would hold the boundary, accepting the feeling while holding the boundary.

To my two-and-a-half-year-old, maybe I would just nod my head if they were both being really loud. But I wouldn’t give in to her. I wouldn’t cater to her there. Just like I was saying with the boy that the nanny wrote about. Giving in to her is: Oh, now I’m all worried about her too. And now she’s got to be on my lap and I can’t stop her.

I would set limits early with her. So you see her running up and she’s screaming. You’re going to acknowledge the feeling so that her feelings can flow too. But you’re not even letting her near your lap, soo she can’t hit or kick. So if you have to, you put your arm way out to her while the other one’s there. You’re going to not give her a lot of attention, but just give her enough to help her feel accepted. Don’t feel that you have to talk. Show with your presence that you are totally there for your older one, for her to share with you. And you’re going to keep the younger one at bay while hearing her. “Yeah. You’re feeling that too, that made you upset as well.”

You’re not going to let her infringe on this moment. Because you see this reaction she’s having as really healthy and normal and even positive. She needs to learn from you that her feelings don’t change you and upset you and that they have a place, but they’re not going to take over everything.

I think that this parent might be struggling so much because she feels so torn that she has to kind of fix both of them and make it all right. It feels like she’s maybe taking too much responsibility on herself, instead of letting the feelings be, holding a boundary with the younger one and knowing that this is a healthy moment. And if you’re just there nodding your head and calming yourself so you can let these waves pass, that’s the best thing you can do. So let go of trying to do something and just let it happen. Be clear in the way that you’re seeing this.

This commonly happens, too, with a baby in the house. Sometimes the infant will cry along with the older child who’s having a hard time. And sure, we want to acknowledge that feeling and be in close contact with that baby, maybe holding them for comfort and support. But it’s not a crisis situation. I understand it can feel like there’s this infectious disease running through the family and I’ve got to help everybody!  But it’s all healthy stuff.

Studies show that infants empathize with other infants and with older siblings. They reflect those feelings. And it doesn’t mean that they’re in crisis or distressed. It’s touching something off in them. They’re relating to it. Oh yeah, I have that feeling inside me too.

It can go the other way as well, that the toddler or older child will get really upset when the baby cries. Empathy. And all I would do is reflect that child’s experience that they’re sharing with me in an open, welcoming manner, ideally. “It’s hard to hear that baby be upset. It’s really, really hard for you. You don’t like that. The baby’s sharing their feelings right now. That’s uncomfortable for you. It’s uncomfortable for me too.”  But what that older child is showing is empathy.

Another example somebody shared:

The question I bring to you today is about the influence of playmates on a child and how to approach tendencies toddlers pick up from their cohorts.

My son’s closest buddy is just two months younger than him and they play together at a local park every day for two or three hours. This little boy’s mother and I enjoy each other’s company and have a similar approach to parenting. The little boy is not very self-regulating and breaks down into screaming and crying fits quite often. But he’s not violent towards other kids. And for many months I figured: Hey, it takes all sorts. And it’s not like my son lives in a vacuum. He sees other children at the park. He knows that this little boy is not the only sort of little boy in the universe besides himself, and he’s not throwing copycat tantrums. So I’m not going to interfere with their bond.

That being said, there’s something my son has been doing that is increasingly getting on my nerves. My son’s bestie is not very verbal yet. And often grunts or makes feral, non-verbal utterances of satisfaction or amusement. He also uses a lot of made-up words, which I understand is part of the creative mind at an early age. However, sometimes, especially at night, my son parrots these exact noises, monosyllabic ‘funny sounds’, and even moves his eyes and smiles open mouth, exactly like his pal. I fear I must sound like a judgmental jerk for not wanting my kid to act like another child. But it’s so very different from my son’s usual modality, very verbally expressive, very self-contained.

I have to question myself as to why I find this so disturbing, I guess in part, it’s because I don’t have a lot of patience for my son’s playmate’s comportment. I’m kind, but a little removed from that boy, a lot of the time because I sort of dread the next outburst. And when this kid inevitably tantrums, I find myself sort of gently steering my son away to a different activity while the other boy’s mother tends to his meltdown. I don’t pretend it isn’t happening, but usually, I feel like there are more productive things to be doing.

I understand that there will be many more friends, many more influences and that sometimes it might be my son rubbing off on someone else’s kid in a less than desirable way. I could just really use some advice as to how to navigate this.

So this is a very common issue parents bring to me, and it also happens with siblings that the older child will act like a baby, talk baby talk and it can be very irritating for parents. Except when we perceive this as the development of empathy — trying to understand what makes other people tick and relate to it. So it’s not a sign that our child is turning into somebody else or becoming an infant again, or becoming that other child, that peer that has some behaviors that are maybe not as mature.

Even in this case with the tantrums that the other child is having, I would welcome your child to observe that and learn from that. I would not actually try to steer them away because as this parent realizes, it’s healthy to understand other people. Children don’t infect other children with issues. What’s happening is that our child wants to understand, wants to learn what does it feel like to be this way? And where is this coming from in this person? So healthy.

When we realize that, just as with the emotions that a child shares in response to another child’s emotions, we can welcome that, we can usher it in. “Oh, you’re sounding just like your friend there. That’s what he does, isn’t it? Yes. He speaks that way” or “he does that thing.” Authentically welcoming that learning, that exploration that our child is engaging in. Not being intimidated or afraid of it or threatened by it, or feel like: Ugh, we have to make this stop.

And then one more on empathy. A parent writes:

I have a bad habit I am trying to kick: cursing. Not in extreme anger, but more often at an action gone wrong. For example, I chose the wrong keypad option after being on an automated call for 10 minutes, which set me back to the beginning again. Word of choice is usually “damn” or “dammit” or some variation. This has slipped a few times in front of my now 22-month-old, usually muffled. Well, such sponges our little ones are at this time, she has begun playing with this word and not in context. My husband reported to me that she was saying it over and over the other day. My heart dropped. I’m looking for help in taking power away from this word in her repertoire. Do I ignore it when she says it? Drawing attention to the word seems inappropriate at this age. How can I help my daughter correct this? Or, well, myself. *Guilty head drop.* Side note, I’ve been trying to say other terms such as “sugar, oh geez, oh my goodness, goat yogurts.”

I love that.

Any advice is much appreciated.

Again, this is empathy. What is this word and why does my mother use it this way? And I felt this kind of energy around it as her child. So I’m kind of, wow, what’s the power in this? What’s the oomph in this word?

And again, the best thing we can do is welcome that exploration, not be afraid of it. To know that this is our child’s wonderful learning process. And it is a process. It’s a process with a beginning, middle, and end. So if we want children to move through it faster, and that’s true in all these cases I’m bringing up, and true with all the feelings that they’re expressing through behavior… If we want them to move through it faster, we do the counterintuitive thing for most of us, including me, which is actually welcoming it.

“Ah, you’re really enjoying that word you heard me say.” Or, “I hear you saying that a lot these days, you’re really interested in that word.” Leaning in, welcoming it. That’s how we take the power out of things.

When we don’t do that, children sense that we’re not comfortable and that’s what compels them to keep exploring it.

So if we want a child to stop exploring, stop refusing things like getting dressed. Stop exploring what happens if I hit my parent, we stop the behavior, hold our boundaries, but allow the feelings and expressions.

“That made you so mad that you wanted to hit me. Don’t worry. I don’t let you hit.” And meanwhile, my hand was there from the beginning, stopping the hit. “That made you so mad you wanted to hit, I won’t let you hit. But yeah, you didn’t like that I said no to…” whatever it is that they’re responding to.”

So it’s a simple, not easy process for us, welcoming the feelings, holding the boundaries, standing tall above it all because we know that it’s not threatening. It’s not a problem. It’s a process of learning and expressing, and we really can do this.

I hope some of that helps. Thanks to all these parents and nannies for sharing their issues with me.

Also, please check out some of my other podcasts at janetlansbury.com. website. They’re all indexed by subject and category so you should be able to find whatever topic you’re interested in. And remember I have books on audio at Audible.com, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple.com.

I also have an exclusive audio series, Sessions. There are five individual recordings of consultations I’ve had with parents where they agree to be recorded and we discuss all their parenting issues. We have a back and forth that for me is very helpful in exploring their topics and finding solutions. These are available by going to sessionsaudio.com and you can read a description of each episode and order them individually or get them all about three hours of audio for just under $20.

Thank you so much for listening and for all your kind support. We can do this.