In this episode: The mother of a 3-year-old feels she has very little control over some of her son’s unpleasant behavior, and she’s struggling to come up with appropriate responses. In her email to Janet, she cites examples like screaming, running away when she’s trying to dress him, and throwing himself to the ground. “How do I set boundaries around things like this that I feel I have no influence over?”
Transcript of “How to Handle Behavior We Can’t Physically Control”
Hi. This is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I’m weighing in with a mom who feels like she has no control over her three-year old when he’s acting out physically, particularly when he’s being uncooperative or unpleasant in situations where there aren’t boundaries that she can easily enforce.
Here’s the email I received:
“Hey, Janet. I have an almost three-year old son. My question is about discipline or feedback as it relates to the way he expresses himself physically. It seems more straight forward when there’s something you can take away like his spoon when he’s flinging his food or physically stop his arms if he’s hitting, but what happens when he’s doing things where that doesn’t apply? We have a rule that my son can scream outside as much as he wants but inside, he can’t. When he feels like pushing our buttons, he starts screaming and squawking inside. I can’t say things like, ‘I won’t let you scream,’ because it feels like I have no way to enforce it. Similar things are running away from me when we’re trying to get dressed or undressed, throwing himself on the ground in ways that I feel he can hurt him, et cetera. How do I set boundaries around things like this that I feel I have no influence over? Thanks so much.”
So, one of the reasons my podcast is called Unruffled is that I like to stress the importance of not giving power to unwanted behavior, and that’s especially important when it’s behavior that we don’t have power to stop or insist on, as this mother says, “stopping his arms when he’s hitting or taking away the spoon when he’s flinging food.” In that case, I would, yes, take away the spoon but also let the child know that he’s shown me he’s done eating. What about when they’re screaming, or when children get older, there’s language that comes at us, and her child running away?
These things, we can’t do anything about physically. The only power we have is our ability to rise above it, take it in stride, and not give it power. Now, this definitely gets easier with practice. I’ve been able to have a lot of practice. I’ve been working with parents and children for a very long time, and it does get a lot easier. One of the things that gets easier is an integral element to this ability to stay unruffled, and that is understanding that 99.9% of this behavior is very, very normal, very, very typical, very healthy, not a problem, not a sign we’re doing something terribly wrong, not that our child is a terrible person, none of those things that we might worry about that might make us freak out when our children behave in these ways.
It’s important to keep in mind that there’s nothing that we’re going to get here that we can’t handle or that we should be alarmed about. I mean, I would say a fraction of one percent of people that I hear from have an issue that I would consider concerning in that it seems unusual, or might not be coming from the healthiest place, or there’s something to look at here that’s beyond the norm. So, with that in mind, we can stay in unruffled leadership mode and take these things in stride.
Let’s take screaming, or screeching, or making loud sounds. That’s something children do, and mostly every child tries this at least once. We have to not give it power. We have to rise above it and let it go. If it’s right next to your ear, you can move your child away a little, “That’s a bit loud. I’m going to move you back.” I wouldn’t even try to set firm limits, like this mother did about he’s only allowed to scream in certain places,” because like she said, she can’t enforce that. Making a hard line there is only going to cause our healthy child developing his will, stretching his wings, and testing his power to see, “Well, what are they going to do about this? They can’t do anything about this.”
If we get rattled, or angry, or concerned, or upset in any way, reactive, then we just add more power to the behavior. It’s better if we let it go and maybe do the most minimal thing like, “I’m going to escort you outside, because I hear you’ve got loud things to say.” For a while in my class, a bunch of toddler boys, I think actually, were into screaming. I’d be doing snack and a couple of them would scream, and I would let it go because there’s a much better chance of it going away if I don’t give it any power. So, I would let it go. Well, then it did go a little for a while, but then later, other children were picking up on it. One was screaming and the other was screaming, and it was getting very loud. There was a reason we couldn’t be outdoors that day. Usually the children can have a choice of being indoors or outdoors, but the door had been closed. I think it had been wet outside or something.
Anyway, eventually I decided to very casually open the door and say, “Hey guys, you can come out here and scream. This is a really fun place to scream out here. Go for it,” and they did. They were all running around outside in a circle screaming, getting themselves very tired out, having some fun, and it helped them to do it outside. If I had insisted, that’s just a risky place to go as a parent. We’re not going to win.
It’s really important that we give children the overall impression that we’ve got this. In fact, this job is pretty easy for us most of the time. These are little tiny children. We’re these big grown-up people. We’re not going to let it get to us. We’re not going to let a scream throw us for a loop. If we see it as normal, if we understand that giving it a reaction gives it power, we can do this. It’s kind of fun and confidence building once you get the hang of it and you see the results, that they can try all kinds of things and you’re not going to let it get to you.
Let’s take another one of her examples, “Running away when we’re trying to get dressed or undressed.” That’s a common one too that getting up and running after him angrily is definitely going to make it worse. So, there are a number of different things that we could do if we have the attitude that we get from our perception of the behavior. We’re ideally going to expect this kind of behavior. It’s all positive stuff, testing my independence, testing my will, testing my leaders. It’s all good. It’s all normal.
What are some examples of what we could do? Our child runs away, it’s time to get dressed. If I was in a certain mood, a playful mood, I mean, I might say something like, “There was a little person right here that I was dressing and helping get dressed, and now there’s no person here. Where did they go?” I would take my time and walk over, and then I’d find the child and I say, “Oh. Very interesting. You’re all the way over there. Come right here.” I would take their hand and confidently move them.
So much of this is our attitude. Yes, the child could still resist there, and then maybe you feel that resistance coming and you scoop the child up and, “You know what? It looks like you need a special delivery over here to the dressing area. I’m going to take you over here.” If you didn’t feel like doing all of that, you could just wait a bit and say, “Okay, while you’re over there, I think I’ll organize your closet a bit and you can come in when you’re ready.” That could work, or even, “I’m going to go read my book, and I can’t wait to dress you. So, let me know when you’re up for it.”
Of course, those things aren’t going to work if you’re in a hurry. If you’re in a hurry, I would probably go with something more like my first example. If, let’s say, that you weren’t in the mood to be at all light about things, then I would again, walk very slowly over and say, “Mm-hmm (affirmative). All right. Here we go,” and either pick your child up or walk them back. Then with each step of the dressing, be ready for there to be some pushback. Don’t be intimated by it, “Wow. There’s some pushing going on here. Okay, I’ve got to hold this arm while I do this.” It is fine for children to scream at you when you have to do things, and to be firm, and to physically force the issue.
Forcing something is okay as long as we’re okay with acknowledging the feelings around it, that we see it as our child’s right to tell us, “No,” while we have to do something. We’re encouraging that actually, we’re acknowledging, and encouraging, and accepting, “You don’t want to do this, right? I know, this is hard. Sometimes we have to do things that you don’t want to do.” Having that dynamic around it, that’s what makes it respectful still and that’s what makes it okay. I don’t think it’s helpful for parents to feel like they have to avoid that at all costs, and do a dance, and do something distractive, or pull something over on their child to get them to comply. To me, that is less respectful than engaging with a child who’s screaming at you for what you have to do. That’s honest, that’s present, that’s caring about that person enough to face the music.
Having said all of that, playfulness does work in these situations. The reason that it works is that it comes from lightness. We can’t be authentically playful and silly if we’re feeling angry, annoyed, or heavy about the situation. Playfulness requires that we have the perspective that I’m talking about, that we feel capable, we feel on top of this, we feel like these are little people. Yes, they’re people, they deserve respect, but they’re going to do impulsive things, and they’re going to push back, and it’s all good. If we feel that, it does free us to take things lightly and to approach them with silliness and fun, because it’s just not a big deal.
That’s why playfulness does work. I feel blessed that I grew up in a family where there was lots and lots of humor, and lots of fun, and silliness, but not everybody did. For some people, it’s hard to feel like that. You don’t have to. You don’t have to make games out of things to engage with your children respectfully.
The way to handle these situations is to be able to zoom out and see the bigger picture, see our relationship with our child, see the kind of relationship and the kind of interactions that are actually preventative for a lot of this behavior. It’s still going to flare up. Sure, it’s a great way for children to give us a message about things or to test to see do they have that confident leader. Children will need to do that from time to time, but it happens a lot less when children know that do have that leader most of the time. We do see through their testing. They feel loved when we see them for who they are, and we’re not intimidated by them, we’re not afraid. We don’t take them personally, all these things that they do.
Now, in terms of throwing himself on the ground, that is a tough one that we really do have to trust and we have to understand that giving that power is kind of dangerous in that it does tend to make it worse. It does tend to make it into a thing that children will hurt themselves because of the reaction it gets from us. There, it’s even more important to trust, and to let it go, and to under react. If your child is flailing on the floor, maybe they’re even in the middle of the tantrum or something and they’re knocking their head down on the floor, I would very nonchalantly without giving it any power just slip a little something soft under their head, a little pillow under their head. Do it without them even knowing that you’re doing it, under-reacting.
I guess you could say this is all under the heading of the balance of power that our child feels. Children feeling that we are very comfortable in our power and we don’t allow our children’s behavior to have a lot of power with us. I thought this was a great question, because there are things that we can physically limit and a lot of things that we can’t. Those things kind of grow and grow, those things that we can’t as children get older. That’s why it’s so important to try to get this balance of power, and the way we perceive our children, and our role with them to a comfortable place early on.
I hope that helps. There’s a lot more on boundaries and discipline in my book No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame.
Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.