“My Toddler Doesn’t Behave This Way with Anyone Else!”

In this episode: Janet answers an email from a parent who feels her 16-month-old is more emotional and defiant with her than other care givers. She cites diaper changes as a particularly stressful example of his acting out and wonders, “Is this a sign that I am doing something wrong, or that I am a safe person to share emotions with?”

Transcript of “My Toddler Doesn’t Behave This Way with Anyone Else!”

Hi. This is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m responding to a parent who feels that her 16-month-old acts out more with her than he does with his other caregivers, and she’s wondering if she’s handling his behavior and his feelings correctly.

Here’s the email I received:

“Hi, Janet. First, thanks so much for your work. I’ve been trying to listen to your podcast daily. I feel like it helps calm me and ground me to be a better parent. I’m trying to parent using RIE principles, but wondering if you have any guidelines to gauge if I’m on track. I’m a stay-at-home mom, and it seems like my 16-month-old acts differently with me than anyone else. This includes my husband, who is very involved in parenting. With me, there’s just a lot more crying and defiance. For instance, diaper changes currently are a real battle. He screams, cries, throws his head back. I tried telling him ahead of time that he will get his diaper changed, give him extra time to play, and try to engage him during the diaper change by telling him what I will be doing and asking him if he wants to help by grabbing and holding the supplies.

He thrashes around so much that I have to let him go so as to not hurt him. He often will cry and hug me, and then I will try again. This process can take 15 minutes. Sometimes I just have to resort to a standing diaper change and chase him around. When I leave him with my mom, she says she has no trouble from him during diaper changes, and while I’m away, his attitude is good.

When I get home, sometimes it’s like a switch is flipped. Is this a sign that I’m doing something wrong, or that I’m a safe person to share emotions with? It seems like at this age, 16 months, there are constant changes, growth spurts, and lots of teething. It’s reasonable that he has a lot of emotions and stress to work through. With that in mind, are there good questions to ask yourself, or signs to gauge if you’re putting RIE principles into action as best as you can? I’m not aiming for perfection, and I know that toddlers have a lot to work through. I’m just looking for indicators that the child feels heard, but also knows we are confident in his ability to cope.

As a bit of a background, he was a colicky baby, still struggles with sleep and has food sensitivities we’re working through. All this deflated my confidence early on, and in the last month I’ve gotten more serious about instituting RIE and focusing on communicating my confidence in him to cope.”

Okay, so I’m really glad that she gave me this last bit of information here, because I think this is a big clue to where there may be a little room to grow in this mother’s approach, but zooming back a bit, she asks, “Are there good questions to ask yourself to gauge if you’re putting RIE principles into action as best as you can?”

I think we always do everything as best as we can in that moment. Children as well, they’re always doing the best they can, so I don’t doubt that this mother’s doing the best that she can with what she’s absorbed about her role, and her son, and how to perceive him as a capable guy, which is the basis for the RIE approach. It’s really about the first principle, which is: “Basic trust in your child as an initiator, explorer, and a self-learner.” This means that he is capable, capable of communicating, and sharing his feelings even though that can be hard for us as parents to receive. He needs to feel like it’s okay for him to be all the colors in the rainbow, to feel sad, and frustrated, and angry, and all of those things, just as much as he feels joy, and love, and happiness.

If this family has had to deal with their son being a colicky baby, struggling with sleep and food sensitivities, she says that this deflated her confidence early on. What happens is we worry about our child, and we get extra tuned in. We’re all very tuned in to our children being uncomfortable, and it’s never going to be fun for us as parents, but we can get kind of on extra alert for that when we feel like our child has difficulties, like food sensitivities, and the difficulties with digestion, and colic. It can make us feel more responsible for our child’s feelings, and see them even more as a problem for us, and kind of a failure for us if our child is uncomfortable.

I’m imagining, without knowing a lot more (like I’d like to know). I’d always like to know a lot more about all these questions, but I’m imagining that there was a set-up early on that made this mother feel even less confident about her son having uncomfortable feelings, and with that set-up, it is harder to be a confident leader when our child as a toddler is doing their job, which is pushing back, asserting themselves, releasing their stress through these kinds of struggles that she talks about on the diaper table.

The interesting thing is that all children, but it just seems to be amplified during these toddler years, children are kind of trying to whip us into shape as leaders, so if they sense some little tender spots there, they got to push them. They’ve got to try to help us become, and this is all unconscious on their part, but they’ve got to do their best to help us become those leaders that they need  to be able to, as this mother realizes, go through all these shifts, and changes, and emotions, and it’s a very rocky time for children. They need those pillars of strength to be there, not inhumanly, but as much as possible. They don’t want to have to worry about the grown-ups that they’re dealing with, and if there are little places that are soft there for them, or they’re not quite able to push up against something that feels solid, and confident, then they have to keep doing it.

My thought is, there’s an element of that going on in this relationship between this mom and her son, and that’s why he’s not showing this to other people. It’s true also that he is not as close perhaps to the grandparent, so he’s going to be more at his best there. He doesn’t have that need to make grandma into such a strong leader, and grandma, or grandpa aren’t as worried about him, because they’ve had children, and they know that there are lots of issues, and children end up fine, so maybe that’s part of it.

I think what this parent can work on is her confidence, and that means her perception of his struggles and feelings — to really and truly see them as the most positive thing and the most bonding thing to happen between them, that they’re in this crazy diaper change.

Like she said, she’s done it all. She’s respected him by telling him ahead of time they’re going to do that, and maybe if there’s not a hurry, she gets him that extra time, but now she has to be decisive. She has to be in that role that he’s trying to make her take. She has to step up to this job, and that means… Let’s just go over what she’s said here…

Diaper changes currently are a real battle. He screams, cries, throws his head back, so she has to know he’s not suffering here. She’s not hurting him here. Yes, he’s making it appear that the diaper change with her is torture, but all she has to keep in mind is, well, wait. He does this with other people, and it’s not like this, and I’m not torturing him, so what’s different about me, besides that I’m maybe his closest caregiver, that he does feel safest with to share?

What else? I’m worried about him a little. I’m worried that I’m hurting him. I’m worried that I am torturing him in some way, and that it’s harming him, and she’s not 100% coming up against those feelings with trust, and seeing the power there behind this guy, crying, and throwing his head back, it’s very healthy will. It’s very healthy strength, and what I think he’s saying here is, “I need somebody really strong, because I’ve got strength in me. I’m showing you how hard I can fight you. Please don’t let this be anything close to a battle. Be above this. Be way stronger. Don’t engage with this is a battle. Take charge.” I truly believe that’s what he’s saying.

So she says, “I tell him ahead of him, I give him extra time to play, and you don’t need to get him the extra time to play.”

That’s not going to buy you more cooperation from him, as you’re noticing, so what that might do is make you feel more exasperated in the situation, when, hey, I gave him the extra time. I gave him the warning. I did all of this nice stuff, and he’s still acting like this.

It’s a better set-up for you to expect. He’s going to put up a struggle, and not try to give him extra time to alleviate that. It’s what he needs to do. That’s what he’s showing you here. He really needs to have this kind of conflict with you, and have you rise above it. If you want to give him extra time, maybe you want to have a little extra time to get ready, and get your confident momentum going. Then fine, but don’t do it because you think it’s going to help make it go more smoothly. He’s showing you he needs something else from you.

Then she says she tries to engage with him during the diaper change by telling him what she’ll be doing. I would always do that, no matter what. Asking him if he wants to help to give him that positive control in the situation, but usually you can see if a child is in that space where they can engage that way, and it sounds like he may be early on already battling. If that’s the case, I would not try to appease him by getting him to help. I think that could be coming off to him, just like with giving him extra play time, it’s like you’re trying to fix it, trying to make him stop, when he’s saying, “I need to battle with you, and for you not to engage with you,” as somebody that’s battling back, or trying to fight against this, or fix it. I need that strength from you, so I wouldn’t ask him to help if he’s going hog wild like that.

She says, “He thrashes around so much that I have to let him go so as not to hurt him.” A firm hand holding him there, he may act as if that’s hurting him, but you have to know that it’s not. The only time that isn’t safe to do is if you are angry and frustrated, and then yes, your tone, the energy coming out of you could be harmful in some way.

If you are expecting this, if you see this as him needing that mama bear, extra firm helping hand, and it’s okay if your little baby bear is struggling, and getting mad at you about it, then you will not hurt him. He may act as if you’re hurting him, he may even say you’re hurting him, and then I would just acknowledge, “You’re telling me that hurts, but I’ve got to hold you here. You want to get away, and we got to do this right now.”

Whereas I would usually approach diaper changes as this flexible experience, where Magda Gerber said it so beautifully, I’ll dance with you, but you’ve got to dance with me.” We try to do it their way, we want them to participate, we want this to be something we do together, but then at some point, we’ve got to say, “Okay, now we’ve got to do this. This part is mandatory.” Have that confidence. It’s not angry. It’s not stern. It’s not violent. It’s firm, loving. “Yup, we got to do this right now.”

I was just working with a parent where I described this. This parent had a very hard time insisting on anything physically, and helping her child move through transitions and situations, and I said, “You’ve got to imagine you are carrying your child out of a burning building —  that confidence that you would have that you’re doing the right thing. You have to take that into all these situations, so that your child can feel that leadership from you.”

Obviously we don’t want to think about emergency like that happening, but if you were in that situation, you would carry on because you know you’re doing the right thing, and that’s where we have to go with these situations, especially for people like me, and maybe this mom, who aren’t inclined to overpower another person. It’s not in us to do that. We’ve got to find that strength in ourselves. We all have it in there. We just have to tap into it, and I believe, again, that that’s what this boy is asking for from his mom.

Why is he asking her this question, and he’s not asking these other people that question? It is a combination of her being one of the closest, if not the closest to him, and also somebody that he needs to be a little stronger in her confidence, in her leadership. Children train us this way. They’re very good at it, and as you’ve noticed, he keeps giving you more and more chances. He really wants this from you.

Anyway, going back to what she says: “He thrashes around so much that I have to let him go so as not to hurt him.” Don’t let him go. Don’t let him go so that you’re chasing him around. That’s putting him in the driver’s seat, and you’re being the opposite of a leader, so don’t let it get to that point. Hold on. Trust. It’s okay for him to be mad at you. It’s okay for him to yell at you, and cry. It really is okay. You’ve got to know that you’re not hurting him, and you’re not capable of hurting him, unless you lose your temper.
Be preventative for that as well. Don’t let him work you.

She says, “He often will cry and hug me, and then I will try again.” So yeah, he doesn’t want to be that guy. That’s what that says. He doesn’t want to be doing this. It’s this very, very healthy instinct in him to get what he needs from you. It’s beautiful, really, that he’s showing her that he stops, he cries, he hugs her. “Come on, Mom. You can do this.” That’s what he’s saying, but I understand that it’s hard because it’s not blatant. If they would just actually say that, “Please, Mom, take control,” it would help so much for those of us that are doubtful.

It’s great that this mother’s not aiming for perfection, and that she has a lot of empathy for her son’s experience. She’s got everything she needs here to be good to herself, and to take the challenge that he’s giving her. She can do this. We can all do this.

I hope that helps. Please check out some of my other podcasts. They’re at janetlansbury.com. There are well over 100, and they’re all indexed by subject and category. If you’re looking for something specific, it should be really easy to find now, and remember both of my books are available 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 in ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and apple.com.

Thanks for listening. We can do this.

1 Comment

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. avatar Georgia Skardasi says:

    Hello Janet,

    I read the transcript carefully, as I am also facing the same difficulty.

    I also warn my toddler in advance for a diaper change. He usually asks to breastfeed to avoid it. If I deny him that, he screams and cries. When I get him to lie down on the change matt he gets up and runs around. When you write that we have to be physically confident and firm, does that mean that we have to force them into changing the diaper? I have always been so confused about this part. You see, there is all this talk about teaching consent from a young age (don’t kiss or hug if you don’t want to etc), that when I try to force my toddler for a diaper change or getting him dressed I feel guilty as if I am doing something wrong and I am overriding his personal boundaries. As a result I end up using other techniques, which again, I am not sure if they are correct or simply blackmail/ threat.. I.e. when he starts running around I just pick up my book and sit by the change mat and tell him that I will wait there until he is ready, but until then I won’t be playing with him or read to him or let him nurse. I don’t know what to do! Should I be forcing him down instead?

    Thank you so much!,


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