My Unpleasant Toddler

In this episode: A 3-year-old’s exasperated mother worries that her daughter’s contrarian behavior and desire to exert control over her peers is “damaging her reputation.”

Transcript of “My Unpleasant Toddler” (Courtesy of Torin Thompson, September 1, 2015)

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury, and in this episode of Janet Lansbury Unruffled, I’m going to answer a question that I got by email. The subject line is: My toddler is not a nice person to others.
Okay, so here’s the email I received:

“Dear Janet – Firstly, thank you for sharing your wonderful knowledge and expertise on your website for all of us to learn from and apply. (You’re welcome!) I try very hard to be an empathic leader to my just turned three-year-old. Unfortunately, there’s one thing I’m not sure how to handle and can’t find anything on your site about it. My girl wants to control everyone around her, especially those closest to or most frequently with her. She tells me that, “Olivia can’t have that.” But it belongs to Olivia. “I don’t want him at my school. “Charlie’s got my drink.” It was never her drink. “Nicole can’t have any of my toys.” They were playing really well together a few seconds ago. Ahh, it’s driving me crazy! My daughter looks to people like a very selfish, intolerant, nasty, rude person, especially because I see the look on the recipient child’s face and they are hurt. The icing on the cake is that these comments are sometimes immediately followed by a full meltdown tantrum where she lies on the floor scream-crying the negative comment. I try my hardest, so if she says, “She can’t wear that dress,” I patiently explain that it is her dress and maybe she chose that dress specifically for today. “Do you like it?” or other questions to find out what her issue is. I try to make the questions either positive – “Do you like it?” – rather than “Don’t you like it?” or open – “Why is that?” – so she will have an opportunity to explain.”

The problem right here, I need to interject, is that this is not about reason. This is about an impulse to say something because she has a feeling that’s bursting out of her. This is why children have these kinds of behaviors. So explaining this to her and asking her to accept the logic of this, and, “Oh yes, you’re right actually Mother, that is her dress, her mother bought it for her at the store and why am I saying such a thing?” A three-year-old cannot do that. She knows she’s not saying the greatest things in these moments, but the impulse, she doesn’t understand at all and it is beyond reason. It is just an impulse.

So what all these statements have in common about other children and this control and I don’t like this, and I don’t like, is they’re all saying, I don’t feel good right now. Ahh, I just want to blast out at people. I want to say this, that. I don’t like this. I don’t like how things are going. I don’t have control over my life right now. I don’t have control over my feelings right now. So that’s why children try to do things that are, sound controlling or seem controlling, because they actually feel very out of control. This isn’t about her understanding the truth about somebody’s dress or whose drink it was or any of these things; it’s about her needing someone to understand and accept that she has these momentary feelings, and also helping her have safe behavior around them. So this isn’t about the words, let the words go.

I can guarantee you that the other child is not hurt. What commonly happens is that we as parents will see our child say something or do something and we worry. We get scared. Oh my gosh, that was mean. We judge it, even though young children do all sorts of klutzy, clumsy things and say crazy things and have wild behaviors. It’s all impulsivity, because their emotions are more powerful than their self-control. None of these things have a rhyme or reason to them. But what happens is that the parent sees this and one time has a little Uh-oh, oh my gosh, this is going to be a teenage not nice girl or a not nice adult. We’re projecting an issue.

Or maybe these comments and this behavior reminds us of somebody, reminds us of feelings in ourselves or this relative that we dislike. This is projection.

I don’t know what other parents are thinking when she’s saying these things or what other adults are thinking, but I can guarantee you that what you’re seeing as hurt or being insulted or something is more like surprise, a bit of confusion. Hmm, what does she mean by that? Children do not jump to these judgments about each other. They have this understanding and kind of empathy for each other. They understand that feelings just make us feel like doing these things. She doesn’t mean it. So this road that you’re getting on with this is a dangerous road because it’s creating separation between you and your daughter, which will make this behavior more intense on her part. It’s very scary to be three years old and feel like you’re losing the good graces of your mother who you need so desperately to be on your side.

So when she makes these random statements, “Olivia can’t have that,” and we know that it belongs to Olivia, rather than trying to explain and reason with her on this — it’s beyond reason, what she’s feeling –I would just simply acknowledge. “You don’t want Olivia to have that.” I would be open, I would be curious, I would be unthreatened by this behavior, because it is so typical for children to blast out this way.

“I don’t want him at my school.”

“Hmm, you’re saying you’re not happy with him at the school.” If you didn’t feel like saying that much, if you felt like that might insult somebody, mostly not the child but the parent, if the parent’s there, then you could just nod your head and look at her like, “Hmm, interesting.” Not that you necessarily say “interesting,” but that’s your approach, rather than jacking it up to, Oh my gosh, she’s not a nice girl. That’s going to get us into trouble. That’s going to get us into actually creating what we fear, and that’s what we commonly do as parents when we get stuck in this projection and we’re not really seeing clearly anymore. We create the separation that makes our child feel uncomfortable and then creates more of the behavior.

I’m sure we can all relate to the not nice adults that we know in life, or much older children, teenagers. Why are they not nice? What do they have in common? What they have in common is that they’re not comfortable in their skin. They don’t like themselves. They’re afraid, a lot of times. They’re angry. A three-year-old who feels like her mother doesn’t understand her and her mother is slightly turning against her, not really turning against her but judging her a lot and just not on her side anymore, that is going to create, that could create a not nice person.  So we don’t want to go there.

The good news is that we have the power to stop this cycle immediately. It’s our cycle. We got on this train, we started it.  Our child didn’t do this. We did this, and that means that we can stop at any time, and our child will adapt instantly, because the child will be so happy to finally have the parent that’s on their side, that isn’t thrown by these little things that toddlers do all the time.

So, if she was doing something physical, like trying to rip the dress off of Olivia, then of course we would stop her, again, not seeing a mean girl, but just saying, “Woah, I’m going to stop you, I’m not going to let you touch her dress, that might hurt her. I’m not going to let you pull her dress. But you really are feeling like pulling on her dress right now.”

So there’s no judgment on the feeling or the impulse, just creating safety, and a child that feels safe, that feels love and safe in our regard, and taken care of in this way, close to us in this way. I’m safe, I can say anything in front of my mother and she, you know, isn’t going to freak out about it.

This is the child that behaves at their best with people because they like themselves. They feel like all these sides of them, the little mean sides… we all have them, every child has them, especially at this age. The threatened mean sides, that are just saying: I don’t feel good right now and I’m just going to lash out at everybody. Every child has that side to them.

So that side needs to feel loved and accepted, too. We’re not going to let her go crazy with it and rip people’s dresses off, but other than that, if it’s just a word or two, if it’s just a yell or a scream or a meltdown, that’s fine. This energy that you’ve been wasting trying to reason with her and explain and find out what’s this real issue that you’re having about this dress, what’s this really mean? She can’t go there. She doesn’t know why she’s doing this. She knows it’s not a great thing to do, but she doesn’t know why she’s doing this. Trying to put her on a therapist’s chair and get her to figure this out with you is not going to work. It’s only going to create more interest around the behavior, more of a feeling of My mother doesn’t accept this, all these things that are going to make matters worse.

So then this mother says, after she tried to make the questions either positive or open, “Why is that?”, after this, this mother says, “I try to acknowledge her feeling/opinion. ‘Oh, you don’t like the flower pattern on the dress.’ Sometimes she will stop. Mostly she doesn’t or simply starts on something else. ‘She can’t have a drink!’ or more likely, ‘She doesn’t want a drink,’ (which the child clearly does because she’s just requested one from her mum or me) and then she has a tantrum because A. the girl is wearing the dress and/or B. is receiving a drink.”

Now, the tantrum very likely needed to happen. She’s going on with saying these things because no one will acknowledge her: “You’re feeling bad, you’re feeling ornery, you’re feeling like she doesn’t want a drink.” Have just a very untriggered response. Now we can’t change our feelings just as children can’t change theirs, but what we can do is alter our perspective to a healthier, more realistic perspective, and that’s what I work on with parents the most: helping them to see things differently, see this as normal behavior, nothing threatening here, just agree with her right to have that perception, knowing that it’s not a reasonable perception.

Now it doesn’t surprise me that when you acknowledge her feelings/opinion, finally, because before that you weren’t doing any of this, “Oh, you don’t like the flower pattern.” That’s the best response that you’ve suggested in this note and so it doesn’t surprise me that that sometimes works, she feels satisfied, Oh, it’s okay for me to feel like that. That’s all she wants.

You said sometimes she keeps continuing. In that case, I believe she either does have more angst to express or has a tantrum to express, or she still needs to test this on some level, because so many times you didn’t accept her and just acknowledge her. You tried to talk her out of it or around it or explain, all of those things, so she might need to do it again. Come on, just don’t get jacked up by this, just let it be okay that I say these crazy things. Don’t take it so seriously.

So if you could just acknowledge the feelings all the time: “Oh, you don’t like the flower pattern,” and then if she has a meltdown at that point, you can know 100% that she needs to have that, and you can trust that.

What I always believe in is helping children move with you to a more private place when they’re having a meltdown, not because they need to be punished or that you’re embarrassed in front of the other parents, although you may be, but because you don’t want to put your child out there unraveling in front of people that don’t understand. That’s being kind to your child. That’s being protective and caring and loving, just as if your mother was old and senile and she flipped out. You would help her move somewhere with you where she wouldn’t have to do this in public. So I would try to do the same for your daughter if you can, if she’s out somewhere, at school or in a play group or a store, somewhere like that.

Another reason that she might be feeling out of control could be some other stressors in her environment. You don’t mention anything, if there’s a new baby on the horizon or if school is new for her or if something else is creating this kind of out of control feeling.  It could just be around your responses to her and her discomfort around that, or it could be some other stressors, or it could be that you haven’t become comfortable in the dynamic of setting limits with her, making her feel safe in her feelings of resistance and anger.

She sounds like a very intense girl. She’s going to have bigger explosions, more explosions. She’s sensitive. This will all work to her advantage, but she needs to be able to blow up with you and have you not be afraid of it, trying to tippy-toe around it or talk her out of it, just like you’re trying to explain about the girl’s dress and how that really belongs to her. Really accepting that she’s going to need to blast a lot. She’s going to need to get these feelings out of her body. Help her do this. Create safety for her to do this, and she will not need to try to hold onto it with this control of other kids and other things.

So this limit setting dynamic, I stop you from ripping a girl’s dress, you get very upset about that, it’s oftentimes the most unreasonable thing in the word, again, because there is no reason for these feelings. I mean, there is a reason, but it’s not a reasonable, logical reason. There’s a reason that it’s there and it needs to come out. So just accepting that she’s going to say “No, I don’t like that girl’s dress, I just don’t like it, I don’t like it,” or “That’s not her water,” or whatever it is, “That belongs to me, that belongs to me.” It could be the most insane thing, and actually, the more crazy overreaction it is, the more clear it is. Oh my gosh, she really needed to let this out. It’s this unreasonable emotion.

In a way, those situations are more clear, can be more clear for us, because it’s so obvious, she’s so over the top. Her behavior with these children, saying these things, none of this is unsafe or something to worry about, but it is over the top that she’s feeling out of control. So let her unravel.

So now this mother says, “None of the other children we know seem to do this.” Well, maybe they’re not as intense as your daughter. Who knows? I can’t explain why that is, but I see this kind of behavior often and I don’t see any problem with it.

“This is getting me to the point where I don’t want playdates anymore because they’re simply too exhausting for me and damaging to the reputation of my child, who is usually like every other child – a happy, responsive, respectful, caring, sharing, loving, you get the idea, person.”

I think there’s something going on with her. I’m not sure what might have changed lately, but I have a suspicion. Unfortunately, I can’t ask you what it is and you get back to me in this segment.

So, “exhausting.” What’s exhausting here is all of this energy you’re wasting trying to make her stop feeling what she’s feeling instead of rolling out the red carpet: “You don’t like girls with blue dresses today. Huh.” If you can let go of that, you will save yourself a lot of wasted energy, and it’s not only wasted, it’s again, exacerbating this whole issue, so it’s not only wasted energy, it’s problematic energy. Don’t do it. Just let go, let feelings be. The crazier, the clearer that she needs to say it for some reason. Let it go. Don’t fight this.

In other words. You’ve been trying to fight it and fighting it is making it worse and creating separation between you and your daughter when she needs to feel safety.

“And damaging to the reputation of my child.” This sounds like a big fear for you, and I think in here is the key to this projection of yours. Your worry about her, you’re worried about her reputation. Well, she’s certainly not creating a reputation with the other children. Again, we can’t control what the other adults are going to do.

But again, you can be, you are the one who has to stop this. She can’t stop until you stop and let go and perceive her as normal and fine and a very nice girl saying some wacky things because she’s caught up in her emotions at the moment. She’ll stop. And then she will be, all of the time, that happy, responsive, respectful, caring, sharing, loving girl, you know, with these other things flaring up every once and a while like they always do. But that’s toddlers. They do take a lot of energy. So don’t put your energy out trying to put dams on the flood. Let her flood. It’s very healthy. And it’ll be a relief to you too when you get used to it and when you start trusting that your daughter is actually a good person.

I hope this helps. There’s a lot more information in my books, particularly No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame, which is available on audio. And thank you all for listening. Until next time, don’t forget, we can do this.



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

  1. avatar Christine says:

    Thankyou for this, insightful read. I’m dealing with something very similar with my 3.5yesr old son. The issue is that at this age the recipient child DOES understand. During a play date with his buddy (a girl) she senses his meanness and ends up crying almost each time. It’s like intermittent crying throughout the entry 2 hour play date…so I can’t just acknowledge and move on – there’s a child that he has made cry.
    I don’t know how much more the other mum will be understanding, at the end of the day she doesn’t want endless crying play dates – it’s been 2 weeks non stop. And only with this child because we see this child 2-3 times a week.
    We are about to move apartments and travel for few months and I’ve told him about both things so as not to shock him when it happens – was that a bad approach?

  2. I realize this post is older and I may not get a response…. but I have a similar problem with my 2.5 year old, except he directs all of his controlling “bossiness” at me during a tantrum. He will take offense at everythibg I say or do. “No mommy put your hand there!” “No mommy stand there.” He’ll even repeat what I say, but put a “no mommy” in front of it. I’m at a loss because nothing I say or do is “right” in the moment.

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