Dealing With Mischief After The Fact

In this episode: A mother 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.

Transcript of “Dealing With Mischief After The Fact”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury, and welcome to Unruffled. In this episode, I’m going to be responding to a Facebook message I received from a mother who’s wondering how to react after the fact when her toddler has done something mischievous or destructive.

Now, before I begin, I want to remind everyone once again that both of my books are available on, and Paperback at Amazon and an eBook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and That’s Elevating Child Care and No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame.

This is how Kate describes her current situation:

“Dear Janet, I’m in New Zealand and love your blog and podcasts. 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.”

One thing that’s for sure, these acts are impulsive acts. It’s not surprising to our children that we react negatively, that we don’t want them to do these things. It’s not that they aren’t sure that what they’re doing is wrong. They generally know that what they’re doing is wrong, but they do it anyway, impulsively. I believe I’ve 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 know why they’re doing it. They don’t know why, and their impulse just takes over. So, it’s not a conscious process of trying to anger their parents. It’s just something that they’re spurred to do, and it generally gets negative attention, which can become something that the child habitually then seeks. Will this get my mother screaming at me or my father? Will this get them angry or annoyed with me?

Now, on our end, of course, we are human, and we’re not going to be able to come in coolly and calmly all the time in these situations. So, the most important thing to do is be preventative. One way is physically preventative, knowing that we are dealing with an impulsive stage of life and, in this specific instance, a very difficult emotional situation for most children. This transition to having another child in the family.

Now, as I’ve said before in other podcasts, at least, probably 85% of the private consultations I do are around this issue of there being a toddler or a four year old and a new baby. Or maybe the baby’s turning one. Another person that’s rocked the older child’s world. Children have a lot of feelings around this generally. They’re very uncomfortable with where do I stand? Do my parents still love me? I’m actually getting blamed for a lot of things now. I’m the bad one.

A lot of times, that happens because they have this impulsive behavior and the parent is shocked by it and yells at them and scolds them and punishes them and maybe it makes them feel like, yeah, they’ve lost their place in the family and they’ve lost some of the affection of these people that they need so much to be on their team and be adoring of them and helpful to them and taking care of them in their hearts. It’s a scary scary time.

So, what this little girl is doing, it sounds like, is she’s saying hello, hello there!, which is why children do these kinds of behaviors that they know are not what we’d want them to do. They are saying, did you see that? What are you going to do about it? Did you notice that something’s not quite right with me that I’m doing this?

They need us to notice and, yet, if we have a big reaction, or if we try to go over again, the rules, well, why would you do this? or reason with them about it because it’s not reasonable behavior. We can’t reason with unreasonable behavior and get very far. It’s just going to frustrate us further as parents. Maybe we try to say, “Why would you do this? That’s the walls and we don’t want the walls all marked up and that’s not okay, and it doesn’t come off easily. Why would you do such a thing? Don’t you know?”

That’s not helpful. But what is helpful is noticing, wow, 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 and not judging it, being okay with that, knowing also that our child knows that she did something wrong. Getting angry with her about it is only going to create more of a rift, and that will mean more uncomfortable behavior. Because children need us to be close to them. They need us to be caring of them in these situations. They feel like there’s already a rift and that’s why they’re doing these kind of things.

So, note to self, maybe don’t leave these things out for her, maybe even have 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 these things out of reach, then maybe giving her a secure area to be in, which she’s not going to like and she’s going to scream about. But again, those feelings will be healthy for her to share. “I don’t like this!”  What she’s really saying is, “I don’t like this and I don’t like all these other things that I’m feeling right now and I’m scared or I’m angry.”

This mother says she doesn’t know where to start. Where to start would be to consider ways to prevent this kind of behavior and acknowledge to yourself, know, realize, recognize that your child is in a very difficult transition that usually has a lot of strong emotions around it. So, the behavior becomes that of a mentally unstable person. If you had a mentally unstable relative in your home and you had to go and not be with them in that moment to be monitoring them, you would not leave your car keys out. You would not leave knives out or things that they could throw all over the floor, a can of paint. So, this is something to consider.

Another way to be preventative is not so clear cut as being physically preventative, it’s about understanding your child’s situation and empathizing. Your child’s situation might simply be that he or she is a toddler, which means there’s going to be a lot of mentally unstable type behavior happening, because the changes that are going on are so rapid internally and there’s such a push pull inside them and it’s quite overwhelming. Even in the best of times, there will be some impulsive behavior from toddlers, it’s just part of what they do. And then if there’s a new school, if there’s a baby, if we went on a trip together, all of us and then we came back home, oftentimes there will be impulsive behavior. This is what children do when they are feeling uncomfortable.

Understanding your child’s point of view on these situations, that it’s not just like, oh, I get to start a new school. Oh, I have a baby. Oh, and she’s so adorable. This is nice, I get to be a big sister now. Change represents loss to children. It’s scary because everything they’ve counted on has changed. So, they don’t have their footing and they get easily overwhelmed by feelings and impulses.

Understanding your child’s experience and, in this case, with the baby, no matter what the situation is, sharing with your child when these things aren’t going on, they’re not having this behavior or these feelings aren’t showing right then when times are good together, saying, “Wow, you’ve started this new school and that’s tough.” Or, “You have a baby sister and that must be hard to accept that now I have to pay attention to your sister, and there’s so much I have to do with the baby and it must be very hard for you to feel this change that’s happened in our family, and it might make you very worried sometimes, or very sad or afraid that maybe we feel differently about you. All of those things are normal to feel.”

So, giving your child that message, knowing that it’s going to go in and they’re going to on some level be relieved, I’m not crazy. My behavior is expected and my behavior is normal, my behavior is okay with my parents. Not that they’re going to let me act on it, but that they’re not thinking I’m bad person for doing it. 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 that is when these “hello” behaviors do happen, when we are there and we’re able to stop them, maybe your child is acting out with the baby, playing with her to roughly, then you would stop your child say, “That seems a little too rough. It seems like that’s bothering her,” while your hands are there stopping her, physically stopping her, but not in an angry way. In a way that reflects, I expect that you’re going to have out of control behaviors. As much as I can, I’m going to be here to stop you. If you can’t stop when I’ve got my hands here and you want to keep trying and trying. I’m going to move you somewhere else. I’m going to keep you guys safe. I’m going to keep you safe from your own impulses.

That will help them not need to do that because they feel safe. They feel safe in your regard for them. They feel safe that you’re going to stop them when they can’t stop themselves. Children don’t do these behaviors when they feel 100% comfortable and safe.

Now, let’s just acknowledge that when your child has done something crazy, like rip everything up or draw all over the walls, or pour water all over the floor, it’s very likely that we’re not going to be able to come in in a calm way. We’re probably going to come in with, “Oh my gosh, how could you … What?! What did you do?!” That kind of attitude. That’s okay, let it come. just recenter yourself. Gather yourself together and say, “Wow, you’re really showing me you needed to get my attention here and you wanted to show me that you aren’t safe with the crayons, or that I left this water out and that I shouldn’t have done that.” “You feel like throwing things,” that would be another thing to say. “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 makes these behaviors disappear. For the most part, the child doesn’t have these uncomfortable feelings that send their impulses off doing these things.

One thing that might be really good to say is, “I see it’s 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. What can we do to make this work? What can we do to help you be more comfortable?” It doesn’t really matter what words I’m saying, what matters is that I’m seeing a sick puppy instead of an evil child that hates me, that’s doing these horrible things and what’s the matter with her and I want to help. I want to have her participate in this with me so she doesn’t feel like I’m against her. I’m on her side. “What can we do to help you feel more comfortable? You’re obviously really uncomfortable when I do this. What can we do together? What can we figure out?”

There’s no need to rebel against that, because I’m being helpful. That’s the word that I keep at the forefront when I’m dealing with young children, and tried to as a parent when my children were that young. They need help.  They need my help. They’re too little to know how to navigate the situation. So, let’s try to help. Let’s help you not have to do these things. Let’s help you when you need protection from following your impulses. I want to help. I’m on your side.

Again, that’s not going to come naturally all the time when your child has done something shocking. You’re going to be shocked, or we’re going to be shocked. That’s okay. If you can recover, recenter and say, “Wow, you’re really showing me that you need help.” All that matters here is the comfort your child feels in your relationship.

I hope that helps. Please check out some of my other podcasts. They’re on iTunes, SoundCloud or Stitcher. Again, both of my books are available on and in Paperback at Amazon. Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.

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