In this episode: Janet responds to a letter from a single working mother who describes her relationship with her 4-year old as close and respectful, yet her daughter’s behavior is exhausting and concerning. This mum is overwhelmed and is desperately seeking advice and hope.
Transcript of “Intense Difficulties with a Child’s Defiance and Resistance”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury and welcome to Unruffled. In this episode I’m going to be responding to a letter from a mother. She’s a single mother, and she describes her relationship with her nearly four-year-old as close and respectful, yet she and her daughter seem to be in conflict much of the time and her daughter is saying “no” to everything.
Before I begin, I want to remind everybody that both of my books are available, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame, and Elevating Child Care, A Guide to Respectful Parenting. They’re both in audio and Audible.com and in paperback at Amazon and in e-book at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple.com.
I read your blog and your posts and each time I read them, they make perfect sense and I say yes, I will do that. I can be a better mom, more patient, more available, more tolerant, but the truth is I find myself in conflict with my daughter and it now feels as if it is on a daily basis. My daughter is strong-willed and currently says no to everything I request. She starts school in September. I feel our relationship which is very close is deteriorating. She won’t go to the toilet, will pee in her pants instead. She won’t hold my hand across the road. She won’t sit at the dinner table, she will crawl underneath it. She won’t walk with me, she will run off. When on holiday, she did this over and over. She won’t go to bed. She won’t dress or undress herself. She won’t go to the toilet without me.
The above are just a fraction of the won’ts and no’s and they are expressed vehemently and often with much screaming, crying, shouting, rolling on the ground, hitting, spitting, kicking, and biting. I was hit in the face five times at a fair on Saturday because I said, “Look, there’s your friend Amore,” and when she couldn’t see her, I pointed again. She turned around and repeatedly hit me in the face. My response was to hold her hand and say, “I can’t let you hit me.” Then asked her why she had hit me. She told me it was because she wanted to have a book.
These random unconnected reasons are always offered up. The bouncy castle incident consisted of me being asked to remove my daughter from the castle. I repeatedly asked her to come off but was unable to carry her due to back problems. She ignored me and ran off until eventually she lay face down on the bouncy castle and spat on it. I managed to pull her towards me and hold her on my lap while she writhed and screamed and spat. She then refused to come home with me. She screamed on the bus journey home and I eventually put her to bed at 5:00 PM as it was me who could no longer cope with the massive emotions, tantrums, and defiance.
I am a single mum. I work hard and I have no family or support network around me. How do I cope with these outbursts and the defiance in situations that could essentially be dangerous? How do I keep her safe? How do I get to work on time when she refuses to dress herself and refuses to have me dress her? How do I get her to eat at the table? How do I get her in the bath in the evening without the situation degenerating into a screaming, crying, spitting half-naked child writhing around the bathroom floor? What are the tactics for moving these situations in the correct direction when a child is defiant of everything? Yes, I am aware that by correct, I mean suitable to my timeline and responsibilities.
Staying unruffled doesn’t change things. Getting annoyed doesn’t change things. What will change this? How do I proceed and keep our trust and bond and keep respect in the relationship, and keep my sanity? Any advice is welcome. Many thanks in advance.
Okay, now at a first glance, this looked like too much for a podcast, but then I realized that the issues this mother is having actually all come under one heading. There’s a big theme going on here and that is that her daughter is screaming out for more leadership from her mother. She’s not getting the sense of her mother’s being in control of these situations that she needs to feel secure. I think the point that is made about her going to school in September, that may be why these behaviors have sort of escalated recently.
I think this probably indicates that there’s been a chronic sort of misunderstanding by this mother about where she’s and how she’s supposed to be the leader for her daughter. I think that the anticipation around going to school, that’s a common one that gets children anxious, a little stressed. Even if they’re excited about something and not at all afraid about it, that anticipation is very uncomfortable for children and it will show up in their behavior.
She needs to be able to writhe around on the floor, screaming and crying, and spitting, I would not let that be at you but if she wants to spit somewhere safe, that’s fine too. She needs to know that you have a handle on your job, which is again to be her leader. Now let’s talk about the specifics, and how that’s going to look.
“She won’t go to the toilet, will pee in her pants instead.” Okay, we do not control children being able to go on the toilet. That is our child’s responsibility. What we do control, what we need to control is their readiness for being out of diapers, and she’s showing you that for whatever reason right now she can’t handle this responsibility. She’s using this, possibly, as a testing ground and it’s not working, so I would very kindly and very comfortably let her know that you’ve noticed that she’s having a hard time using the potty these days and so you’re going to help her by having her wear pull- ups or diapers.
And calmly insisting on that, not asking her is it okay or worrying that somehow you’re going to interfere with her ability to go on the toilet. That’s simply not true. You’re allowing this to be some kind of power struggle that’s somehow on you to make sure she goes to the bathroom, and that isn’t on you, that’s on her. Later you say she won’t go to the toilet without you. She’s letting you know, she needs more help right now and help is keeping her secure in diapers and taking this off your plate as a responsibility.
“She won’t hold my hand across the road.” This is our job to hold her hand. It doesn’t matter if she doesn’t want to hold your hand, you have to be the one to firmly hold her hand. Do that right away when you’re walking out the door, when you’re in any situation that she might generally want to test or you’re trying to get her to leave a situation, immediately take her hand. Don’t wait for her to want to hold hands, she needs you to be in charge of this. As most children do. They will go through some phase where they really need us to be the ones to decide that.
If she wants to scream at you for holding her hand, if she wants to try to flop down, just stay calm, hold her hand, feel good about being her leader there. Feel comfortable with her showing you her struggle in that situation because, again, those are the feelings that she needs to share with you in a safe way. Safe way, meaning I’m not overwhelmed by these, I’m really okay with you going to these places.
This may be her fear around starting something new in the fall, it may be her just feelings of “help, please show me that I … It’s been so scary not to have a leader here and to feel like I have so much power and so much control over everything.” Those kinds of feelings will be released, or it might be “you were at work all day and whoever I was with,” you don’t say who she’s with when you’re at work, but “whoever I was with, ahh, I needed you and so I’m going to show you this side of me, this painful side of me.” It’s all positive.
“She won’t sit at the dinner table.” Well, this is sort of similar to going on the toilet in that it’s not up to us to get our children to eat and sit and eat dinner. What is our responsibility is to make sure that we are clear about our expectations. “It’s going to be dinnertime in a few minutes and this is what I’m making and I’ll be offering it and if you want to come sit down, you can have dinner. We’re not going to be having food later after that, but whatever you decide is up to you. I’ll be sitting there.”
If she decides not to come, she wants to go under the table, let her go under the table. That’s not going to hurt anything. I mean, I wouldn’t let her pull on your legs and all that, I would calmly like take her hand off your leg and make sure she doesn’t do that, but let her miss her dinner. I think this is another area that has become a power struggle and it’s not a healthy place for that to happen.
I mean, all of these power struggles she needs you to override, and one way to override this is … The best way is to really … It’s her responsibility if she wants to eat, your responsibility is that you’re offering food for a certain little window of time and you’re going to stick with that, but if she doesn’t come, you give her a few minutes, if she doesn’t come, then you put it away.
If you feel like she’s desperately hungry at the end of the day, I would be the one to offer her a snack rather than having her ask for it. I think it’d be better if you feel like you really needed to do that that you were the one to say, “Oh, by the way, I’m going to offer you a little snack before bedtime if you’d like to come to sit down and have it.”
Very comfortable, not worried that she’s not going to eat enough and that somehow you’ve taken this on as your responsibility. You’re not unusual, this is very common that we feel like we’ve got to get our child to eat and it’s impossible because with a strong-willed toddler like her, she is going to use that as a testing ground because she really needs you to be comfortable in your role.
“She won’t go to bed.” Well, I thought it was interesting because in your story later you say that you had her go to bed at 5:00 PM. I think that day it sounded like she was really tired and probably overtired and couldn’t handle that stimulation of that fair or whatever it was, and that was probably a good idea, but I wonder how you did it there. There must have been something very final in your approach, helping her to bed at 5:00 PM and that’s what helping a child go to bed requires. It requires us to feel really sure of ourselves, really confident that our job is done with that child, it’s now rest time.
Communicating that through our body language, through our tone, through our comfort with them, saying, “No, no, no, I don’t want to go to bed now.”
“You don’t want to go to bed now, but it’s actually time and I’m done. Goodnight. I adore you. I’ll see you in the morning.”
So, however you got her to bed at 5:00 PM, whatever was going through you. I know you were angry then and frustrated probably, that doesn’t help, but that finality of, “I’m done,” so if you could get to that place without being at the end of your rope, that would be very helpful.
“She won’t dress or undress herself.” This is where confident momentum really helps, which is different from rushing. It doesn’t mean we rush, it just means you’re going to expect that in transitions … I mean, first of all, children in these early years are in this giant overall transition of growth. It’s rapid, rapid development. You know, they grow more, develop more in the first three years than in the whole rest of their lives put together.
They’re in a giant transition, she’s in this other transition where she knows she’s going to have this big change in the fall, there may be other things going on as well, so that is going to show up, but difficult behavior is going to show up in all these other smaller transitions during the day. Those become even harder when children are dealing with these larger transitions, so be ready for that. That’s normal for a child to say, “I don’t want to get dressed. I don’t want to leave the park. I don’t want to do all these things.”
Be ready for her to resist, come into the situation ready to be calmly physical with her, gently, calmly, upbeat. Don’t wait for this big gap of struggle to grow by saying, “Can you get dressed now? Oh, you’re not getting dressed.”
I would say very calmly, “Alright, here’s your clothes. You know what you want to wear today? Do you want to wear this or this?” Or however you do that part and then, “Okay, can you do it yourself or do you want my help?”
She does neither. She says nothing. Then you say, “Okay, I think that’s showing me you want my help so I’m going to help you.”
This parent expressed later that she has physical issues that make it hard for her to lift her child and that’s when confident momentum is even more important because if you come in early with confidence knowing that this is normal stuff, that it’s okay, you’re not doing anything wrong by having a resistant child, it’s really par for the course. You’ll be able to do less physically because you’re coming in with confidence, which is what she wants.
She just wants … “Mom, I need you to help me. I’m stuck and I need you to show me. I need you to demonstrate that you are my confident leader so I don’t have to keep going further and further in my behavior to get your attention, get your leadership, and then get you to the point where you’re upset.”
None of that will help, so being ready right away, as you’re talking to her, as you’re explaining or asking her to do something, you’re already in there ready to physically move her or help her. “Let’s put this shoe on first, I’m going to help you put this over your head, here we go.”
She might need a little helping hand with dressing right now because she’s having a hard time for whatever reason.
Then this mother says she was hit in the face five times at a fair on Saturday. Ideally, that would only happen once. That child would lash out and then we’d be ready to stop it. Yes, she doesn’t have a good reason for things because she really doesn’t know why she’s acting this way and that again, as I think I’ve said a number of times in these podcasts is that’s the definition of impulsive behavior for children. It’s not ‘I thought it was okay to hit you in the face’, it’s not coming from that, it’s coming from ‘I know I’m doing something crazy here, I don’t know what’s making me do this’.
Again, the reasons are ‘just please show me you’re a leader. I’m feeling uncomfortable about this big transition that’s going to happen.’ The impulse is larger than the child and it’s like it’s not reasonable, so no, she doesn’t know why… and, “Wanted to have a book?” I don’t know. Yeah, that’s as good as answer as any for her.
Don’t wait for her to stop and say, “Please stop hitting me,” or anything like that. Really have your hand up there, your elbow up there, your arm up there, grabbing her wrist if you need to, but just like whoa, whoa, that made you feel like hitting. Later you might figure out … You might remember or you might understand what was going on there. Maybe she was overstimulated and overtired, but in the moment trust that there’s a reason and stop her. It’s okay that she wants to hit, you’re not going to let her hit.
Then the bouncy castle incident, if this is after she hit you in the face, I’d be seriously questioning whether she could handle being there, if this was even a good idea to stay there, but as soon as you see any kind of funny stuff going on with her in that bouncy castle, you go in immediately and say, “I want you to come out now. It looks like you can’t handle being in there.” Then do the least thing you can do to get her out. You don’t have to pick her all the way up, you can hold onto her arms on the side and her shoulders, and just usher her out.
There’s usually less that we can do physically but we have to have that confident momentum. Then when she managed to pull her towards her, she writhed and screamed and spat, so yes, there’s the I’m falling apart, please help me, child there. I know, it’s really hard not to take this stuff personally and wonder like how our child turned into a beast and things like that but again, there’s always a reason and children are easily, easily overwhelmed.
Four-year-olds just as much as two-year-olds. This is a tough age for … It’s a lot of growth going on and more reaching towards independence and a lot of push/pull. She then refused to come home. She screamed on the bus journey. That’s unfortunate because there’s not a lot you can do about that, but again, I think I would try to see this coming. When she starts hitting you, I would take that as a sign. Hm, you know, she’s not in a good place for this right now. She’s not going to be able to handle this.
The way to cope with all of this, it’s sort of like we have this nest that we give children and if they feel like there’s big holes here and there, then they need to keep reaching for those holes, showing us that we’re not giving them our leadership in those places. And all of these things work together, that once we do, we’ll kind of get that hole organized like the way you’re handling meal time, and then she’ll say, “Okay, what about this hole and what about that. Are you still going to have these when you’re tired and you just came home from work? Are you going to be able to do this?”
It’s got to be overall so that she can feel, ” Ah, I have a safe nest and I can be a basket case in this safe nest when I need to.”
You can do this. Hopefully, it’s all going to be in your perspective, just looking at this differently, looking at your role differently, knowing that coming in with confident momentum is extremely important to all these situations. Coming in early to stop her. Don’t expect that you’re going to be able to ask her to do something and she’s going to do it. She’s showing you right now that she’s not, so believe that and be ready for her not to do it and that you’re going to usher her along and help her.
It’s a very tough situation being a single mom and working and not having the support. One thing that I think will help you is to understand that the time that you have with her, like with all of us, we share our worst with the people that are closest to us, we need to feel safe to share our worst with them, be at our worst, and that is a very, very loving way to be with her at this point in her life, when she’s showing you she needs it.
So, when you come home from work and you want everything to be nice and fun and sweet connecting time together, remind yourself that she’s going to show you what she needs. It’s a different kind of love, but you can definitely do this. It’s in you, it’s in all of us, and you will see how loving this is when you stop taking it personally, when you stop worrying that you’ve got a mess on your hands. You’ve got a normal strong-willed girl on your hands and there are many blessings in this as you know.
So, don’t be afraid of her feelings. They’re really healthy for her to share. I’ve written a lot about these kinds of dynamics in my articles, on JanetLansbury.com, and in my book, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame, and of course, my other podcasts.
Thank you so much for listening. We can do this.
Thank you! This very much describes my 2yr 3mo old daughter. I don’t spank and my family remarks she acts out this way because of this choice of mine. I’ve started to believe they are right-but still refuse to spank. Leaving me afraid of my future with her. After listening to this I can see how I can be more confident as her leader and less fearful of her emotions and reactions to my guidance. Thank YOU! I’m excited to read your books.
Hi Sarah, I want to assure you that spanking will not change her behavior. It will only make it worse. I reared two strong willed children, a boy and a girl, and never spanked. I had people telling me that when they became teenagers I would not be able to control them.
I was also a single mother from the time my son was age 2 years and 4 months old & until he turned 15 years. I found a decent man whom I married and have had a wonderful marriage with now for 27 years.
Each of my children are grown now with their own families. My daughter follows the RIE and never spanks. My son, well he lives out of state and I do not know what he does. But he is a very committed father to his two.
Action immediately seems to be the key with these testing toddlers and that is what I learned how to do as well. When my son ignored my reminder it was bath time, I got in front of the TV, turned it off if I had to so he’d go do what he was suppose to do. When my daughter would not get dressed for daycare and I had to be out the door for work, I told her I would take her to daycare in her pajamas. She tested me and I delivered her in PJs. The next day, she was dressed by herself. The natural consequences of her decision helped with that. It was a safe consequence for her but nonetheless it worked.
It eventually all became very smooth for me as my children aged. They were responsible and I could let them walk home from school while I was at work for two more hours. They would first eat then watch a favorite show together. They had chores to do as well. One day I arrived home to have my son open the front door, escort me to the table and my daughter presented a plate of dinner for me. She made me a cheeseburger. It was delicious! As they got older life got smoother for a time as they could do much for themselves. One of the things I did when they were in grade school was ask them how long they thought they needed to eat their meal. They told me 10 minutes. I set a timer and when 10 minutes was up I removed their plates of food. They learned to begin eating while the food was hot and shortly after I placed it on the table. I adjusted the timer to 20 minutes and usually they were done too. Eventually I discarded the timer.
I just want you to know that not spanking them did not ruin them.
Bless this mom’s heart. I’m a single mom too (5yo and 2yo). 4 is a challenging age in the best of times. Give yourself some grace and let some things go. Janet is right that the key is to control less and lead more. Hang in there. Just love your daughter and yourself and this will pass. Very difficult now during Covid but when possible, get yourself a babysitter once a month or take a day off from work every now and then to enjoy some alone time.
Hi Janet, I am the mother of a very strong willed and explosive 8 year old girl. We work really hard at parenting respectfully but my daughters outbursts do wear us down. How do we let her feelings be when they are accompanied by demanding behaviour and rudeness to us and her younger brother? Tantrums and meltdowns I can accept usually pretty calmly but I have a hard time with the rudeness and defiance. How should we respond to allow the feeling but set a boundary with some of the behaviour? Finally, just want to thank you Janet for your teachings. You make me try again, every day, to be a better parent.
I think you should also consider that the child may be on the autism spectrum. I don’t know why things like this aren’t considered more. My 2 year old started to be very emotional, scream a lot, flipping out for seemingly no reason (kind of like the mom in this article pointing to her daughter’s friend, and the daughter becoming really upset and hitting her because she couldn’t see the friend), and it wasn’t until he was 3.5 years old that a new teacher of his recommended that he be assessed. It turns out that he’s on the spectrum (he had other symptoms as well, but he is “high functioning” and we didn’t have another child to compare him to, so we didn’t know). I would say if she’s having multiple meltdowns a day, and many of them are for things that seem inconsequential and minor, then I would consider having an assessment done. At least rule out a developmental disorder.
If the child is otherwise normal functioning a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder would not change in anything in how this mother would handle her child. She would still follow the same idea that Janet Lansbury recommends. It would just be an unnecessary label. The only reason I would ever get my child evaluated for autism is if they were low functioning or had a disability because of it that would require special services. There are many children with behavioral issues and it doesn’t mean they have autism- coming from a medical professional who works with kids with autism
My instinct was also to investigate anything that might be happening with her development. While the approach to the outbursts when they happen may not change, assessment or diagnosis (if warranted) would absolutely change the way that this mother interacts with her child in general. We can’t tell if she is ‘otherwise normal functioning’ because we have no idea how she is using or understanding language and social cues. Or how she is perceiving sensory input. I think it’s dangerous to be putting the onus squarely on the parent to be better, when there may be things happening for the child that are being overlooked. She has already said that she is lacking in social support. I think a responsible reply to this email needed to also include seeking local professional and community support.
Great article and response. A comment that is more in the health field. Many children go undiagnosed with sleep apnea and food sensitivities like salycilates that cause behavioral problems. I have heard parents who tried everything with their kids, school psychologists included until they either figured something out in their diet or did a sleep study. It is heartbreaking what the change can be of the child after finding this. So besides these wonderful tips here I highly recommend looking solutions in the medical route too. Our son changed to a calmer boy after his severe sleep apnea diagnosis and surgeries.
I could have written this letter myself! I feel like you are describing my 3 year old. I’m at my wit’s end so it was helpful to read this response. The only way I can get my daughter to listen to what I ask of her is by physically picking her up and putting her where or how i want her. She refuses everything that’s asked of her. But, I have a back issue as well which makes picking her up difficult and gives me more pain. I want so badly to enjoy these years with her because i know she will grow up fast but im having a hard time enjoying any of it because my entire day is centered around getting her to listen and dealing with her screaming and tantrums. It is nice to see that I’m not alone in this. Thank you!