When We’re Too Late to Stop the Behavior (Now What?)

A parent with a family in transition writes about a series of mischievous and sometimes destructive incidents perpetrated by her toddler. She’s wondering how to address these situations, especially after the fact, when the deed is already done.

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury, and welcome to Unruffled. Today, I’m going to be responding to a Facebook message I received from a parent who’s wondering how to react after the fact when her 3-year-old has done something mischievous or destructive.

Dear Janet, I’m struggling with many things with my three-year-old. But one I can’t find the answer to is what to do when I find something bad that she’s done. i.e., things like finding that she’s drawn on the walls, that she’s poured water all over the floor, cut up some of her books. I don’t know how to react. I don’t know where to start. I also have a 10-month-old, so I can’t watch her all the time. And I don’t see some of the things until after the act.

Okay, so I feel for this parent, this doesn’t sound fun. First I’m going to jump to the short answer: What to do when we find something “bad” a child has done. Well, we’re going to have an organic reaction, very likely. Then as soon as possible we’ll want to take a breath and recenter, and realize that this not as a bratty child or a sign we’re a terrible parent, but it’s actually a message, I would even say a helpful message, that we can learn from.

In a practical sense, we’ll want do damage control to make sure something doesn’t worse. We’re going to put those books out of reach that she’s cutting up, take the scissors, make sure she can’t use more water, whatever that is. If it’s a child hurting another child, then we want to be sure that we’re there now to stop the behavior from happening again.

And from there, maybe we’ll want to acknowledge this, in a non-berating manner if possible. So not out of our anger. Hopefully we’ve taken that breath first if we could, and then something like, “Oh gosh, you know, you’re not supposed to do that. What’s up with that?” We might ask, “Can you please give me a hand clearing this up, putting these things away?”

If our child won’t do that, then I would say this message our child is sending us might be even a little more urgent. So we want to be asking ourselves, Hmm, why did this happen? What is my child showing me through this behavior?

Now I realize that some of you might be thinking, Are you kidding me? Now you’re saying this is my problem to fix. This sounds way too permissive. What? I should let my child get away with this behavior? Shouldn’t my child be punished for their behavior? How will they learn this is wrong?

Understandable questions, right? But the key is to understand what’s really going on here so that we can heal the behavior rather than just trying to force our child or shame our child to stop.

Consider this: there’s one thing we know for sure that these kinds of acts, they are impulsive acts. It’s not a surprise to our children that we’re reacting negatively to it. It’s not that they aren’t sure that what they’re doing is wrong. They generally know that they’re not supposed to do this, but they find themselves doing it anyway. Impulsively.

I believe I’ve probably spoken about this before, but “impulsive” for this age in these early years means they know they’re doing something wrong, but they really don’t even know themselves why they’re doing it. And this impulse is just taking over them. It’s an immature response for sure. Emotionally immature as young children are, even though they may seem very mature at times, when they’re going through things they have feelings about things, they lose their footing, they lose that ability to access the reasonable part of their brain.

So this is not a conscious thought process where they’re thinking how they can anger us. It’s something that they’re spurred to do. And generally they know it gets that negative attention, it gets that rise out of us, which then can become something that children habitually find themselves seeking and repeating, Will this get my parents screaming at me? Will this get them angry or annoyed with me? It’s like an impulsive test.

Now, on our end, of course, we’re human and we’re not going to be able to come in cool and calm all the time into these situations. So the most important thing to do is be as preventative as possible.

One way is physically preventative, knowing that we’re dealing with a very impulsive stage of life in these early years and in times of stress, or transition as in this specific instance, this is a very difficult emotional situation for most children.

This transition to having another child in the family, and as I’ve said before, another podcasts, at least 85% of the people that reach out to me for help do so around this issue of a toddler or a four-year-old, maybe a six-year-old, and a new baby or a one-year-old baby. There’s another person that’s come into the picture that’s totally rocked this older child’s world. So children usually have a lot of feelings around this. They’re uncomfortable with where they stand. Do my parents still love me? I’m actually getting blamed for a lot of things now because I’m having a lot of impulsive behavior and I feel sometimes in their eyes that I’m the bad one, that this is a role I’ve unwittingly found myself in. And that happens because children have this impulsive behavior.

The parents are shocked, naturally. We yell at them, we scold them and maybe punish them. And it confirms to them, yeah, they have lost their place in the family and they have lost some of the affection and the high regard of these people that they need so much to be on their team and to be adoring of them and helpful to them and to be taking care of them. It’s a scary, scary time for a lot of children.

So what this little girl is doing, it sounds like, is she’s saying, Hello, hello there. Which is really why children do these kinds of behaviors. They’re saying, Did you see that? What are you gonna do about it? Did you notice that something’s not quite right with me? That’s why I’m doing this behavior. So they need us to notice.

And yet, if we have a big reaction, or if we repeat and repeat and try to make our child understand the rules, which they actually already do understand: “Why would you do this? You know, you’re not supposed to do this. That’s not okay!” Going to this place of reason that we tend to spend a lot of time in as adults. But they’re not there. They’re not in that reason center of their brain. So we can’t try to reason with this kind of behavior. It doesn’t make sense to the child either.

It’s going to be frustrating for us if we keep saying, “this is the rule” and our child doesn’t seem to get it. It’s not reasonable behavior. So we can’t address it from a reasonable place, and that’s just going to frustrate us further as parents, right? Maybe we’d say it like, “Why would you do this? That’s the wall. And we don’t want the walls all marked up, and that’s not okay. It doesn’t come off easily. Why would you do such a thing? Don’t you know?” Understandable, but unfortunately not helpful.

But what is helpful is noticing in this way, “Whoa, you’re showing me that you’re having this impulsive behavior and you’re not safe with the markers right now. I see that.” So noticing that our child has impulsive behavior, not judging it, accepting it, and also knowing that our child knows that she did something wrong, and getting angry with her about it is only going to create more of a rift, and that will mean a more uncomfortable child with more of this kind of uncomfortable impulsive behavior.

Because of course, what our children need most of all is to feel close to us. They need us to be caring of them in these situations when they’re at their worst, when they know they’ve messed up, and it’s that rift that they maybe already feel that’s causing them to do these kinds of things. And that’s where we can get stuck in a cycle with our children.

So for ourselves, we’ll want to consider maybe I shouldn’t leave these kinds of things available to her at this time in her life, and maybe she needs a room where she can play that has a gate across it so that when I have to go somewhere else with the baby, I don’t have to worry about her getting into these things. If we can’t keep the things out of reach, then maybe she needs a secure area to be in.

And of course she’s not going to like that. She’s going to probably scream about it. But right there, those feelings are actually healthy for a child to share. If we meet them with acceptance and compassion, which doesn’t mean we give up everything because of them, but we hear them, We acknowledge her sharing these feelings of, I don’t like this!, and she’s saying, “I don’t like this closed space,” but it’s about so much more.

I don’t like this situation I’m stuck in where you guys are mad at me and the baby is getting all this love and cuddling and attention, and I’m become this villain in the house with some of my behavior. That’s what I don’t like, and I don’t like all these other things that I’m feeling right now. Maybe, I’m scared or I’m angry.

So going back to this mother saying that she doesn’t know where to start. Where to start would be to consider the ways that she could set herself up for success and prevent this kind of behavior, Recognizing and acknowledging to herself that her child is in a very difficult transition that usually has a lot of strong emotions around it. So the behavior becomes that of an unstable person, not a reasonable one. If we had, let’s say we had an elderly relative that was unstable in our home and we had to go take care of something and not be with them in that moment, couldn’t monitor them every moment. We maybe wouldn’t leave access to the stove or our car keys out, or a can of paint. Things that they could get into trouble with. That’s what we want to consider with children. They’re not in a stable place where they have easy control of their impulses. So how can we set ourselves up for success?

Another way to be preventative is not quite as clearcut as these practical physical ways. It’s more about understanding, again, our child’s situation, being able to find that place of empathy in ourselves. And a child’s situation… maybe it isn’t about this whole sibling thing at all. It’s just that this child is in the toddler years, which means there’s going to be a lot of this impulsive, unstable type behavior that happens because the changes that are going on inside them are so rapid, and there’s such a push-pull inside them of being more autonomous, but yet needing us. And really, it’s quite overwhelming. That’s why we hear so much about toddlers.

So even in the best of times with toddlers, there’s going to be some impulsive behavior from them. It’s just part of what they do. And then if there’s a new school, a new baby, we went on a trip together all of us, and then we came back home. Oftentimes those transitions will bring on impulsive behavior, throw the child off balance. These are all things children just do when they’re feeling uncomfortable.

So understanding our child’s point of view in these situations, it’s not the way that maybe we would see it as, Oh, I get to start a new school, or, Wow, there’s a baby. I get to be a big brother, a big sister. Oh, and this baby’s so adorable. This is nice. She’s my baby too.

Change represents loss to children. Honestly, it does to me too. I don’t take changes easily. So this is one of the many reasons I relate to toddlers.

But yeah, they don’t just go with it. Maybe because they don’t have those frames of reference for what it’s like to be in this new space. All they know is that they were okay in the space they were in, they got used to that, and now something has changed in their situation. It’s all mysterious again. That’s scary, right? Because whatever they’ve counted on has shifted. So they don’t have their footing and they get easily overwhelmed by their feelings and their impulses.

So understanding our child’s experience, and in this case with the baby, or actually with all of these situations, we want to share with our child, not when they’re in the middle of impulsive behavior or right afterwards, but at another time we want to set ourselves and our child up to feel safer by saying things like, “Gosh, you know, you’ve started this new school and that’s really tough, right? It’s all brand new, new people, new activities. It takes a while to get used to these things. It must be really pretty uncomfortable to be where you are right now. How are you doing with that?”

Or, “You have this baby sister and that must be so hard to accept. There’s so much I have to do with the baby. There are things that I used to do with you that I don’t have time to do now. Must be so hard for you to feel this change that’s happened in our family. I wonder if it makes you worried sometimes or maybe sad or afraid that maybe we somehow feel differently about you. We don’t. We love you so much. But those are typical things that big sisters and big brothers feel.”

So giving our children that message, knowing that they likely won’t say much in those moments when we’re telling them these things, but they’re taking it in. And what that does is it relieves them of this feeling that they can’t trust themselves anymore. Instead they can realize, Oh, my behavior is expected. It still doesn’t feel good to be where I am a lot of the time, but it’s normal to feel that way. And it’s okay with my parents that I feel that way. Not that they’re gonna let me act on it, but they’re not thinking I’m a bad person for doing these things. They’re not outraged.

That’s a very comforting message that will prevent these kinds of “hello” behaviors from happening.

Then, another way that goes along with the physical prevention and the reassurance of these little talks that we want to have with children. The other way is that when these behaviors do happen, when we’re there and we’re able to stop them, like maybe our child is reaching for something they’re not supposed to have, or they’re acting out with the baby, maybe they’re playing a little too roughly. Then right there we can stop our child and say, “Ooh, I’m gonna hold you back. That seems a little too rough. It seems like that’s bothering her. I’m looking at her face and it doesn’t seem she’s welcoming that while our hands are there.”

We’re physically stopping her, but we’re not angry. And what that does is it shows rather than tells like the other example. It shows that I expect you’re going to have these out of control behaviors and I’m here. As much as I can, I’m going to be here to help you and stop you. If you can’t stop when I’ve got my hands here and you feel like you’re gonna keep trying and trying, only then will I help you move somewhere else, because my job is to keep you guys safe. I’m going to keep you safe in your own impulses.

So all the messaging they’re getting there is really, really powerful. That we’re not making a big deal out of it. That we’re minimally intervening, but effectively intervening to keep everybody safe. We’re not demonizing our child’s behavior or overreacting to it. We’re not micromanaging. We’re coming from a place of trusting them and understanding them.

That helps children to feel safe. Safe in our regard for them. Safe knowing that we’re going to stop them when they can’t stop themselves. These behaviors don’t happen as much when children feel that safety and comfort from us.

And yes, I’m talking about an ideal scenario. So it’s a direction that we want to head toward, imperfectly. Because let’s just acknowledge that when our child has done something crazy like these examples this parent gave, ripping everything up, drawing all over the walls, pouring water on the floor, we’re not going to be able to come in in a calm way very likely. We’re probably going to come in with, “Oh my gosh, how could you? What? What’d you do?” That kind of attitude. So that’s okay, let yourself do that. Just gather yourself when you can to recenter, and then say just what you see.

“Wow, you’re really showing me that you needed to get my attention here.” Or, “You wanted to show me that you weren’t safe with the crayons.” Or, “Ooh, you’re showing me that I left this water out and that I shouldn’t have done that.” Or, “You feel like drawing on the walls right now.”

What we’re doing right there is we’re saying, I see your “hello” message, and I don’t blame you for having impulsive behavior. Sorry I wasn’t there to stop you. That kind of response really helps make these behaviors disappear for the most part, because our child doesn’t have these uncomfortable feelings that cause them to impulsively do these things.

Another thing that might be really good to say is, “Ugh, I see it is so hard for you when I’m putting the baby to bed, and it looks like you’re letting me know that pretty clear with this behavior. So what can we do to make this work? What can we do to help you be more comfortable? Because obviously this isn’t okay.”

It doesn’t really matter what words I’m saying. What matters is what I’m seeing, I’m seeing this poor little sad or scared person instead of an evil child that hates me. And when I see this sad, scared little person and their…  I mean, we can say it, ugly behavior, we want to help, right?Because we love this person and we’re on their side.

So we might even ask, “What can we do to help you feel more comfortable? You’re obviously really uncomfortable when I do this. What can we figure out together? Is there an activity you want to do? Can you sometimes be near me quietly when I’m putting the baby to bed? Would it help you to be in your safe place?”  Problem solving this together.

“Help” is the word that I try to keep at the forefront when I’m dealing with young children. Being helpful. And I tried to do that as a parent when my own children were that young. They needed my help. They’re too little to know how to navigate this situation. Sometimes they can, but right now it’s not happening for them. So let’s try to help. Let’s help you when you need protection from those impulses. Let’s help you not have to do these things. I’m on your side.

And again, that’s not going to come naturally to us all the time. When our child has done something shocking, we’re going to be shocked. So I can’t say enough, that’s okay. If we can recover and reenter and say to ourselves, Oh, you’re really showing me that you need my help. Because discomfort of some kind is what’s being expressed here. And when we address it, when we provide that comfort and acceptance and sense of safety through our relationship, this powerful relationship that we can offer our child, the behavior eases. Because the relationship we have with our children is everything to them.

So I hope that helps and I hope you’ll check out some of my other podcasts. They’re on all the major platforms. And both of my books, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting  are in paperback at Amazon and in ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Apple.com.

Thank you so much for listening. We can do this.