Raising our children with love and respect requires us to take on a role that might not come naturally: leadership. Without the security of unflappable, empathic leaders, children are less able to focus on the work they need to do – growing, developing, playing, exploring, and ultimately, flourishing as self-confident, content, successful people.
One of the not-so-fun duties of our leadership is handling our children’s age-appropriate resistance and defiance. In my work with parents and toddlers, I give a lot of thought to figuring out how parents can approach this challenge more easily and effectively. One of the best tools I’ve come up with recently is confident momentum.
Confident momentum has nothing to do with speed or rushing. It’s a positive, sometimes heroic kind of energy, an I-can-do-this-thing attitude of helpfulness that stems from the understanding that it’s perfectly normal for young children to stall, resist, and test limits. This is particularly true during transitions of any kind or whenever they’re experiencing uncomfortable emotions or stress, tiredness or overstimulation. It is in those situations that confident momentum is most helpful and respectful.
Confident momentum means coming in (not on) strong, the way athletes do as they wind up for a pitch, or swing a bat, racket or golf club. We’re prepared for the likelihood of resistance and will meet it with positive action. Acting as if helps us find our groove. It gets more comfortable and fluid with practice.
Confident momentum overrides struggles while we fully accept and validate them. So as we gently but firmly take our child’s hand or carry him or her out the door, we acknowledge, “Ah, it’s time to go, but you don’t want to leave the party. You wanted to stay and play. That’s such a bummer!”
Confident momentum is decisive and prevents power struggles from taking hold. Fueled by confidence, we won’t need as much physical strength as we do when we unwittingly create a stand-off by being tentative or asking more than once (and then getting angry or annoyed). Our momentum is even more important if we have personal physical issues or very strong children. I recently did a home consultation with a single parent whose back issues had made her afraid to set limits and be decisive with her toddler. I was able to demonstrate confident momentum for her, showing her how, with a fearless, focused attitude, she could guide him by simply placing her hands on his shoulders. Within a day or two, her boy went from resisting every step of his bedtime routine to rarely resisting at all. He could relax into her leadership and was getting the nurturing he needed.
It can be really tough to remember how emotionally immature children are because they can be so impressively intelligent, capable, and aware. When they seem deliberately bratty or downright mean, we’ll need to remind ourselves: These are tiny people with incredibly low impulse control who are very easily overwhelmed. In the moment, it may feel like our kids are out to get us, but it is actually that their impulses have gotten the better of them. They know they’re not pleasing us. What they don’t know is why. In fact, we’re more likely to understand what’s going on with them than they are. There are always reasons.
Confident momentum gives children the comforting message that we understand rather than judge them, and that they can count on us to happily help them whenever they can’t seem to help themselves. We can do this.
And there’s more help on the way! At last, I’ve created the No Bad Kids Master Course to give you all the tools and perspective you need to not only understand and respond effectively to your children’s behavior but also build positive, respectful, relationships with them for life! Check out all the details at nobadkidscourse.com. ♥
There’s much more about respectful discipline in my book, No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame (which is now available in Spanish)
Hi Janet, thank you for this blog post and pod cast. It’s very pertinent in my life right now.
I am struggling with knowing how to let my daughter (she will be three at the end of sept) express her emotions. She seems to want me both close and far(go away) when in deep emotional distress. I get she doesn’t really know what she wants and needs. But i don’t know whether to give her space or stay close either.
I don’t want her to feel abandoned in her feelings and I also want her to feel respected (when she says go away) and autonomous. Plus it is difficult for me to stay present when the emotionality is heightened for so long with seemingly no end in sight.
My concern is when it escalates and escalates and she seems to need help calming down. I try to empathize. You’re having a hard time– she says–
Don’t say that!
I say–i hear you
She says don’t say I hear you!
Do I not say anything?
I nod– she says don’t do that.
Everything I do– even whether it be just look at her and nod empathetically seem to escalate her emotions.
Sometimes I say– I’m going to give you some space–I’ll be In the other room when you want me.
Sometimes I say– ok, I will just stay here and stay close.
None of it seems to help.
If it gets too heightened (and perhaps I’m the one who needs to adjust and be ok with the heightened emotions) I usually just say really firmly- it’s time for us to go, or get calm, or stop and breath.
But sometimes I’m fed up, and not so unruffled, and I hate being that way.
If you have any thoughts regarding this please let me know.
I am so grateful,
Hi Lorka! “None of this seems to help” I would consider letting go of this idea that you are responsible for helping her through her strong emotions by doing something. I think you nailed it here: “perhaps I’m the one who needs to adjust and be ok with the heightened emotions.” She is impatient with your words to her because she senses in them your discomfort and that you are working to get her through this and somehow calm her down. Instead, LET GO and let her feelings be. Let them belong to her, not you. An expression I sometimes use is “let the plates drop”. Let it all crumble around her and focus on breathing and calming yourself. I would stay in the vicinity with her, even if she says to go away (unless you need to go attend to something, which I absolutely would do… “I’m going to the kitchen for minute and will back in a minute to check on you”).
Here’s a post that might be helpful to you: https://www.janetlansbury.com/2014/11/when-empathy-doesnt-work/
Wow. I totally identify with this mother’s struggle. And I also do what she says to my toddler who is much younger, almost two. Although I have had difficulty with feeling overwhelmed with really big emotions of his, that have triggered me as well. That is not the typical and I usually am trying to use communication as a way to validate his experience, acknowledging the emotions to help guide him into learning what he is feeling. However, it feels more like it is him who is uncomfortable with the concept or the emotion he is feeling. We have an emotion book and he actually gets very upset at times even looking at it. I wonder what your take on my perspective is. Also what to say, grateful for all of your podcasts and articles they present very important parenting information.
Such great info, Janet, thank you! Confident leadership does not come to me naturally so I have to remind myself of your advice daily. I am thankful for your website and everything you do. I find the podcasts especially useful, since I can easily listen to them several times so they really soak in.
My 2.75 year old son has never been affectionate. He never initiates kisses, hugs, or “I love you”, not even once. If asked if I can kiss/hug him he either acts like it’s a chore or does it kind of aggressively (I.e. For hugs he’ll grit his teeth and stiffen his body and hug really hard). He also does the gritting his teeth/making hands into fists/stiffen body when he’s wound up or “full of emotion” (not exactly sure how to describe it). have you seen other (neuro typical) kids do this? And is the lack of affection “normal”? I see other kids giving their loved ones hugs, kisses, and I love yous freely which is a bit hard to see and not want (though to be clear I’ve tried very hard to not let my disappointment regarding his lack of affection show and of course never force physical affection on him if he says no). Thank you for any insight you can offer.
Hi Francie! Thanks for your supportive words. As hard as this might be for you, I would trust your boy to initiate affection in his own way when he decides to. I wouldn’t ask him for hugs or kisses. My guess is that this is partially temperament, but has also become a bit of a testing ground for him, because he senses your agenda in these requests to kiss or hug, even though you’ve been working at not letting your concern show. What I would do is make it a point to give him your 100% undivided attention periodically… during meals, snacks, diapering (if he’s doing that), bathtime and bedtime, and also sometimes when he’s playing or just puttering or sitting around. Be an open, accepting, interested-in-him presence, let go of the physical affection part and I think he will surprise you at some point soon.
Thank you, Janet. I will focus on doing just that <3
My pleasure, Francie. Please let me know how it goes. 🙂
I have great appreciation for this enlightening work you do. I first noticed the brilliance with which you express your self in a documentary called “schooling the world”, and have followed you now for 3 years. My daughter is almost four now, and reading your posts has helped enormously, especially these kinds dealing with a positive and empathetic approach to discipline. All the best to you and thank you.
Thank you so much, Abraham
Thank you for your article and pod cast, it is very pertinent for us right now. We moved earlier this month to a different state and your article made me realize that I have not been providing the confident leadership my daughter needs amid the current upheaval in our lives. One issue that we struggled with (and have struggle with even before the move) is hand washing before meals. When it’s time to wash her hands our daughter (who will be 3 in November) will either ignore us or get “floppy body” where she goes limp and won’t stand up when we say “okay you can either walk or be carried to the sink to wash your hands”. Generally it’s the worst of course when she’s overtired which we do our best to avoid but she has also begun to skip her naps though she still goes in her crib and will just chat and hang out during her rest time. We have also tried saying alright let us know if you need assistance washing your hands, we are going to eat dinner now but she will come to the table and have a tantrum when we say, “no please wash your hands would you like to do it yourself or do you want some help?” I realize it has turned into a power struggle but I am not sure which approach I should be taking. Thanks!
You’re so welcome, Sarah. I would confidently escort your daughter to wash her hands, rather than giving her choices and waiting for her to respond. Instead of saying, “it’s time to wash your hands,” approach with confident momentum, already helping her along as you say… “And now we will go to the sink to wash your hands… ” That’s what I mean by overriding and preempting the power struggles with momentum. When you wait, it’s too late. (Haha, that might be a new motto.) In other instances with children “wait” is the magic word, but not in these transitions or in situations where our child typically demonstrates resistance.
Another option (for you to decide on) might be a wet washcloth at the table that you can use to wash her hands a bit. But I believe you are fully capable of escorting her to the sink if you do it in capable, confident Mama Bear style.
Thank you for your reply and helpful suggestion! Reading your blog has really enriched our parenting over the past year and a half!
Aww, thank you, Sarah, it’s my absolute pleasure.
One of the best posts for new parents like me. I have learned some importing things from it. Now it’s time to follow them and see the result. Thanks a zillion.
I suffer with constant ‘I’m not sure if this is the right thing’itis. I’m trying to be more of a mama bear but I’m not naturally good at setting boundaries. 2 examples from the past couple of days. Brushing teeth last night and my 2 year old start smearing the toothpaste on my clothes with her brush. I say, you want to put that on mummy but no I can’t let you. She looks at me and does it again. I say if you do that again I will have to take the brush. She does it again so I take hold of the brush firmly and she eventually let’s go. She is very upset, but not angry, then let’s me brush her teeth. I empathise that it was upsetting when mummy took the brush.
Second is today, messing around in bathroom to do nappy.i give her the option that she can put her nappy on or mummy can. She won’t so I pick her up (she squirms and cries) and put nappy on. Again she is upset and I empathise. I feel like, because I don’t feel like I’m firm enough then when I am firm do I come on too strong. Is it too much to take things, pick her up. Then I debate constantly with myself to how I should have done it differently, or how I’ve damaged our relationship. My other instinct tells me she feels safer with me when I give her a consequence. Help!?
I have learned that if I replace “but” with “and” it proveds the validity needed for the want while still enforcing. Saying “but” may give the feeling of powerlessness. Therefore, every time the child, or even adult, hears that word, it removes the validity of their actual feelings.
Try it like this, “I see you’re wiping your toothpaste on me right now AND I can’t let you do that. You are able to brush your teeth with the toothpaste, or rinse your toothbrush in the water if you need to rinse your mouth.”
Hi Janet! There is just one thing that is not very clear to me. If you could shed some light, that would be great!
When my son (for instance) is refusing to hold my hand while crossing the street (and saying “no! No!”) do I just grab his hand confidently and let him scream and cry and just keep going not saying anything to him? Or when he doesn’t want his hands washed do I just walk him there screaming and crying and force wash his hands?
He will battle me all day long if I try to give choices or let him sit and cry/scream.
Can you give me a full senerio of what I should do in these moments? Do I just grab his hand, walk him across the street (drag him really is what it turns into) and let him scream and cry and just keep going on? I’m a little confused about how to be confident and not make it turn into a power struggle at the same time? Help!
Thanks for any and all advice!!! It’s so appreciated!
I value your thinking. We like to be leaders and often have great success with your suggestions.
Our daughter is 16 months and is communicating by pointing and shaking her head, yes or no. We are finding that when we give her a choice, she often changes her mind. Do we follow through with her first choice (and listen to her disappointment) or do we recognize the early stages of communication and be more flexible at this time. I’m unsure what is respectful or creating a habit of negotiation.
I have been having a terrible time dropping my almost-3-year-old daughter off at daycare for the past few months. It originally started out by her requesting that I carry her into the room, which I would do, but then it would be impossible to get her off of me. She would cling and cry until one of the teachers could intervene to take her from my arms and distract her with an activity. This past week I have been refusing to pick her up because it was clearly not productive, which results in her clinging to my legs and whining (not much better). She is supposed to go to the sink right away to wash her hands before playing, but if I take her to the sink she refuses. More whining and crying ensues. I read your post about confident momentum and feel like it could help me in this situation. I’ve become so stressed and unsure of what the best thing is to do for drop-off, and I’m sure she is picking up on that. Specifically, what would you do? I should mention that my daughter has been going to this daycare consistently since she was 3 months old, loves it (I actually have issues picking her up as well because she never wants to leave), her little sister is 14 months old, and there have been no changes in her life recently which would be extra stressors for her. Thanks in advance for any advice!
It seems my daughter has hit her twos and things have really changed. We are in a temporary environment at my In-Laws while our home is taking on renovations but have been so for 5 weeks now so I feel we are in a general routine. Mornings and bedtimes however have always been difficult and she is getting stronger both in emotions and strength. I am also pregnant and due in two months. She often refuses to put on her clothes in the morning and throws fits by kicking and screaming, resulting in basically holding her down to put on clothes, to keep her from kicking my belly. She has also had a very hard time with bedtime forever we started several months back trying to really work in putting her to bed while still awake at times it seems to be ok and others she would cry or throw extreme fits. The fits could potential get her in harm bouncing around her bed and trying to climb out. I feel at a loss of what to do. How do I best handle these situations to keep me and her safe during the storm. We have also started letting her cry to sleep lately taking 30-45 min. Checking in sometime in the middle of that session.
Hi there! It sounds to me like she may not be ready to sit with her emotions that long, while alone, to “self soothe” to fall asleep. It is perfectly okay to snuggle and sing softly to provide a calming environment for her to relax and fall asleep. She still very much needs this. She may be pushing against requests because you provide more of yourself and time when she’s “lashing out”, than when she isn’t.
Try sitting with her when she’s doing things in a calm and playful mentality as well.
It sounds a bit like she needs more cuddles and reassurance when she’s happy or content.
I have a boy .he’s 1 year and 2 months old and very active. BUT I always struggle to get him to play by himself. He always prefer to be held rather than do anything and he always wants the company of some adult if he can’t get me.I often end up having no time to even do my daily necessities or I do them late . He won’t sleep until I Breastfeed him not even for naps . I feel very tired of him following me every where I go even to bathroom. I am trying my best to play with him,show him how things work and always let’s him have what he wants. All because I have heard that” you can’t teach a 1 yr child to do things as you want be kind to them”. I am usually calm but sometimes I get frustrated with his tantrum and after failure of trying to calm him I just burst into shouting at him.And he starts to even yell or cry more.and I regret instantly. This is a cycle going on recently with me.I feel bad and guilty for shouting at him .. I am looking for help . I want a way out of this mess. I want to be a good mother and him to be all happy boy. He loves me and l love him more than anything . I don’t know if that’s why he’s so clingy. He’s happy 100% if I play with him like a kid. I know I’m doing something wrong but I don’t know what. Can you help? Please.
Hi Janet, I refer parents to this post all the time in my work as a psychologist, but would really appreciate a version describing this process with older children/tweens 🙂
Janet I have learnt so much from you. I am a Child and Family Health Nurse in Australia and I refer parents to your work all the time. My learning about children and relationships is life changing. The Circle of Security training started my journey and you filled the gaps. I feel like I never want to retire, I want to support families and keep learning. I am a Mum of adult daughters and I regret not understanding this material when they were young . I do share it with them when they are interested and have apologised for my not knowing, more than once! We have a beautiful relationship so I am thankful. Life is a gift and thank you for sharing your wisdom.
Dear Jacqueline – Thank you! I love this work you are doing and I have no doubt you are an incredible mother! We are ALL still learning. Relationships are a lifelong process. Your note made my day. Thank you again. xx Janet
Thank you Janet for giving me the tools to respond to my toddler. I didn’t grow up with parents that acknowledged my emotions or weren’t comfortable themselves showing their emotions. Not surprisingly, the language of emotions doesn’t come naturally to me. I am learning, and willing to grow knowing that parents aren’t perfect beings, we get emotional too; we are human, but it is how we respond that is key. « Mama was angry, but now mama took some deep breaths and mama is ok now ». My question is the next part, how to convey to a toddler that my emotions aren’t his responsibility ?
Also, I’ve been struggling with a particular situation where getting dressed to go outside has become a struggle. I say « would you like to
Dress yourself or mama dresses you »? He us usually says « mama », so I proceed in putting on his snowsuit, he then has started hitting me when I am trying to help him, it has become a pattern for a few weeks now. I have tried sending him to his room for a bit when he hits, I’ve read him books on « hands are not for hitting », I’ve definitely lost it a few times as I also have a baby that is usually crying for my attention in the background which doesn’t help me stay calm. I will try saying « I will not let you hit me » and hold his arms so he won’t. But what else can I do, say when he keeps hitting me with a big smile on his face. As you say, he knows what he is doing is wrong, he just needs my guidance. I don’t know how to respond while he keeps trying to hit me. Deep down I know that sending him to his room isn’t helping but honestly it’s more for me to calm down. Your guidance would be appreciated.
This article/podcast is very pertinent for me right now. I’m struggling to understand and deal with my 5 year old son when he becomes so resistant to issues that arise. He gets into such a state that there’s no reasoning with him, so I just let him ride it out. He has recently started at school and he does seem to enjoy it and is eager to go, I do recognise that some days he is more tired than others and that’s when I know power struggles will occur so I brace myself and am ready to help him deal with problems and try to do this before they get out of control. Sometimes though that doesn’t work and I’ve missed the opportunity! I also have a 3 year old daughter and recently their squabbling has become worse, she is at kindy and I know for her on days she is tired too! This is easier to handle (sometimes) but is work in progress.
An example with my son though, the other morning we were all getting ready for school/kindy drop off and everyone was in a good mood and excited to be going but when it came to putting my son in the car his usual car seat wasn’t in as it was in Daddy’s car! I had 2 other options for my son and asked him which he’d prefer? This is when the meltdown started. He didn’t want either of those seats just the original one (it’s green). I said to him, yes I know you would like the green one but that one is not an option as it’s not here, so you need to choose one of the others as I need you to be in one for us to get to school safely and legally!! He kept repeating that he wanted the green one. So I said to him it looks like you’re having a hard time choosing so I’m going to choose for you. He proceeded to kick and scream and refuse to get out of the drivers seat. I told him he could either get into the car seat by himself or I would have to help him. He shouted NO. Again I said ok you having a hard time so I’m going to help you, he retreats further away from me. Ok I said, I’m going to get hold of you and put you in the seat now as we have to leave. I grab hold of him and lift him through to the back seat all the while he is kicking, screaming, crying saying I’m hurting him. So I apologise for hurting him as that is not my intention but I’m really just helping you to get in to your seat as you are struggling to do this by yourself. I get him in the car seat and buckle him in, with lots of resistance, forcing himself up, pulling on the seatbelt. Once I get him in, he unclips the belt and says I don’t like this seat. This goes on for 10 minutes. My daughter is getting upset in the car and I’m starting to feel myself get frustrated. I walk away and gather myself and go back. Just to be faced with the same resistance and argument of him wanting the green seat. I force him to sit explaining I’m doing my job of his mother of keeping him safe in the car while we drive so he has to sit down in his seat and I have to put his belt on. I manage to do this and drive away but the whole time he is kicking, screaming, trying to get out (but not actually undoing the belt). I tell him he’s distracting my driving and for us to be safe he needs to stay still in his seat. The drive is short only 7mins but it continues until we get to school. As soon as he is out of the car he’s happy and skips into school!!! This is how every event unfolds when he breaks down and I’m struggling to deal with him as it’s seeming to happen on a daily basis.
He has to wear particular clothing, if it’s not washed/ready he breaks down. We even have this happen if he wakes up in the night after wetting the bed and not having a particular set of PJs for him.
Last night at dinner time he wanted me to cut the fat off the meat, there was no fat on the meat! He kept telling me I wasn’t listening to him and to cut the meat open and take it out. I cut the meat open and told him there was no fat, he said there was and I wasn’t listening, this went on and on and we went over and over but he just wouldn’t listen. He said he didn’t like the fat so I said that’s fine don’t eat it, just eat the rest on your plate but yet he still proceeded to cry and scream about the fat.
I try as much as I can to be calm and take leadership but I just feel like everyday is a power struggle and a battle that is starting to wear me down. I’m walking away lots as I don’t want to shout, even though there have been times where I have.
Hi Janet! What do get do when in the midst of it they are trying to break things, hurt other people etc? When he is upset, our 4 year old sometimes will try to throw things around the house, slam doors, break things, and sometimes will hit us. When I’m by myself with the 2 and 4 year old, I’m having a hard time keeping the 4 year old from actually breaking things (he’s strong). I try to keep a calm energy, but even that doesn’t seem to help him in these moments. I keep saying I see you’re angry and I cannot let you hit me and it looks like your hands need help, and remove him from breaking things. But then he’ll find something else to throw it the next space.
We’re at a loss with our 5year old. She’s always been her own person and knows exactly who she is and what she wants. Our summers are very busy all of a sudden when we’re in crowds or a lot of stimulation is going on she starts to act out without thinking, she’ll yell at us, get frustrated really fast, not listen to our words, runs around, hits or pinches people but in a (silly way) not a mean way. So we calmly talk to her to take breaths, that she had a good day and needs to keep that going, will loose things or fun times scheduled. We just don’t know what to do from here nothing is changing! We have been trying to show her extra love and we give her tones of attention! She has a baby sitter and a 9yr old step sister.