When Your Kids Won’t Give You a Break

In this episode: The mother of two boys feels they are constantly testing her and always at her side demanding attention. They won’t allow her a moment to handle the daily chores like laundry or cooking, never mind her personal needs. “They think it’s funny, “ she writes, “and I undoubtedly lose my patience. I feel like they just don’t listen to whatever limit I’ve set.”
Transcript of “When Your Kids Won’t Give You a Break”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m responding to a comment from my website where a mom reacted to an article called, “Don’t Leave a Testing Toddler Hanging,” and this mom feels she’s constantly being tested by her two boys who are three and a half and 18 months. She says that when she attempts to set reasonable limits they usually ignore her, and she’s just about lost her patience.

So here’s the comment from my website:

“Hi Janet. I’m new to your blog, podcast and book, but am finding everything excellent, helpful, and reassuring. I am a mom to two young boys, three and a half and 19 months, and find myself doubting my every move and decision, and I feel like I’m messing up most days. I know my boys are testing me constantly, and I’m working so hard to follow the steps you’ve outlined.

However, my question is what do you when they just don’t stop? For example, whether I’m cooking dinner, getting dressed in the morning, doing laundry, whatever it might be, I’ll say, ‘I know you want to be with me right now, but I can’t hold, play, read, at this moment. I need you to go play and I’ll be with you very soon.’ I’ll often take them by the hand, or carry them to the area with books, toys, etc., and then return to what I’m doing. Without skipping a beat they are back at my side, and the cycle continues. They think it’s funny and I undoubtedly lose my patience. What do I do in a situation like that? I feel like they just don’t listen to whatever limit I’ve set. Thank you, Janet, for all the wonderful work you’re putting out there. Parenting is the hardest job in the world.”

I definitely agree with that. It’s hard, but it’s also so rewarding because there’s so much growth in this for us. There’s just so much for us to learn about ourselves, and relationships, and our own childhoods, and how to have the most positive relationship with another person. This is what we’re striving for.

So in this case, this mother is working on setting limits. What she’s missing here is that when we have boundaries in a relationship, especially in a relationship where we’re the leaders with our children, we can’t expect our children to give us permission to have these boundaries. We have to insist on them, in the nicest possible way ideally. What this mother’s doing is trying to make it work for them.

So even from the beginning where she says, “I need you to go play…” It isn’t our responsibility to decide what our child does when we have a boundary with them. How our child handles that, or responds to that, or what that leads them to do, that isn’t our job.

I mean, obviously, we want to have a safe area for them to be in, and a safe place for them to play. We baby-proof our house, we babyproof a room for them. They need that safety, but it’s not up to us to say, “Okay here’s something you can do,” and keep them occupied while we’re doing these normal things that we need to do like go to the bathroom, cook dinner, put the laundry away.

The most important thing to understand is that we’re not doing anything wrong here when we say, “I’m not going to play with you right now.” We don’t even have to have a reason.

It’s nice to have a reason that we share with them. “I need to cook dinner.” “I want to go to the bathroom.” “I need to go do a little bit of work.” Whatever it is, there’s nothing negative that we’re doing there by saying no to our child. It’s actually extremely positive for our child to know that we don’t see it as our job to keep them happy all the time and agreeing with all our decisions.

I wrote another article called, “7 Reasons Kids Need us to Disagree.” So instead of, “I need to go to play, and I’ll be with you very soon,” I would just say, “This is what I’m doing, and I’ll be able to be with you when I’m done doing this.”

And that’s our boundary. Then we have to hold ourselves together and not get dragged into… Oh they’re not happy with what I’ve said, and They want me to do something else, and They really can’t let go of me, and They’re bored.

None of those things are our responsibility.

And one of the reasons this is so important… Not only does it help children feel okay, they can also let go of us because we’re not getting drawn into trying to please them or keep them happy, or not being comfortable with whatever feelings they have around us saying no to them right there. So, not only do they feel that they actually have confident, capable leaders that can say no to them, but they also don’t have to feel the temperature rising in our frustration when they’re not just letting us do these normal things.

We can start to feel like a caged animal when we aren’t able to set our limits with confidence, knowing that our child is going to very likely disagree, get mad at us, or cry, or look like they’re falling apart. Especially if they know that that is something that we have difficulty with.

So we have to remind ourselves that we have a right. We’re doing the right thing here.

We’re doing the right thing cooking their dinner. We’re doing the right thing going to the bathroom. Whatever it is, it’s okay. This is what we need to do to be a good leader. So, empowering ourselves in that way.

In a discussion group that I sometimes participate in, I describe this as being the gate. Somebody was talking about having a gated-off play area, and somehow it got to, “Well that’s fine, but we still have to be the gate.” So whether our child is yelling at us inside their gated, safe play area, or whether they’re a little older and they’re following us around saying, “Please, I want you to do this. I want you to do that. Don’t do this. Ah, I need you.” Or, “I need a hug right now.”

When we’re doing the things that we need to do, we have to be that gate ourselves. We have to be able to withstand their disagreement with us. That’s what setting a boundary is. That’s what being a leader is.

And she says, “I often take them by the hand, or carry them to the area with books, toys, etc.” And that’s the part I would definitely not do because that gives children a message: I’m really not that comfortable saying no to you, and having you flailing here next to me, or trying to draw me into doing what you want me to do. I’m really not that comfortable with it. I need you to be occupied. I need to make this work for you so I can take my space. I can’t just own my own space.

They need that other message. They need that strong leader message.

So I wouldn’t do that at all, and I would know that my children know very well where their toys are, and where their books are.

Ideally, these things are part of a routine. That makes it easier for children when they know:

Okay, this is what usually happens after this. At this time my mother goes and makes dinner, and then I whine at her while she’s making dinner, but the same thing happens every day. Sometimes I’m able to see that she’s so not drawn into my complaints and my whines, that I actually can let go of her, and I actually do go play and I have a really nice time and do interesting things.

That only happens when we are strong enough for them to be able to let go of us. When we’ve let go of them first. Let go of feeling responsible for pleasing them.

So I hope this doesn’t sound unkind, or anything to children. It’s actually very kind. It’s very loving. It frees children when they know that we aren’t at their beck and call every second. That we are partners in this relationship. That we can be our own person, which is the only way to have a positive healthy relationship.

We’ve got to be a separate person. We have needs, too, and, in this case, she’s really just taking care of her family, so that’s not even a personal need.

So if they don’t skip a beat, and now they’re right there at her side, she’s got to keep going with what she’s doing, knowing that maybe these first few times when she’s doing something different here, and she’s not being swayed, and not feeling responsible for keeping them occupied, that maybe she’s not going to get that much done, but she’s going to be showing them that she can carry on with them doing this with her.

And so she’s going to be giving them an important lesson there. Sometimes I say, “Have a little tune in your head just to keep your sanity.” “La la la.” And a lot of acknowledging of their feelings. That gives you more strength in their eyes when you do that. Acknowledging from a place of confidence in your decision.

You’re going to keep going.

And then if you need to move and somebody’s hanging onto your legs, you just confidently, lovingly, pry them off. “I need to move these arms right now because I have to go over here. So I’m going to move these arms, and I’m going to walk over here and do this.”

And really letting that small person have their feelings around this experience. It’s okay. They’re safe, they’re not feeling abandoned, they’re not feeling unloved. They’re feeling like, Wow she really is okay being the leader here. It’s all positive.

So the onus cannot be on us to entertain our children while we take care of the things we need to take care of. That part has to be up to them.

So she says, “They think it’s funny.” Yeah, they think it’s funny. They probably think it’s a little uncomfortable that their mother doesn’t seem above this. She’s getting pulled into this.

So it’s very positive for us to rise tall in our role.

So she undoubtedly loses her patience. Yes. So we want to avoid that. That will be avoided with your expectation. Especially if it’s the end of the day, forget about it. You know, the arsenic hour, nobody’s going to be happy with you doing the things you need to do. Expect that. Expect it’s going to be messy and sloppy and none of it means that you’re a bad parent. None of it means anything is going wrong here. In fact, it’s positive.

They’re venting feelings from the whole day. They’ll sleep better if they get to do that. So it’s a positive thing.

With that perspective, we’re less likely to lose our patience. We lose our patience when we’re trying to make it work, and we’re trying so hard, and we’re trying to kind of keep all these plates in the air and it’s just not working. You know, it’s frustrating!

So let go. Let go of them. Let them be uncomfortable. Let them be unhappy with your choice.

“I feel like they just don’t listen to whatever limit I’ve set.” Right. So that’s kind of a fallacy because they’ve totally listened, but they just haven’t said, “Okay sure. You go do that, and we’ll go play. That sounds great.” That’s not going to happen.

So that’s a fantasy we all have that I think we need to let go of so that we don’t get frustrated so that we can be happier. It’s just not going to happen very often, if ever, that children green light us to do these things.

I hope that helps, and again if you want to read the article this mom was responding to go to my website, JanetLansbury.com, and you can use the search function to find Don’t Leave a Testing Toddler Hanging. Or you can actually Google, Don’t Leave a Testing Toddler Hanging Janet Lansbury, and you’ll find it.

Also please check out some of my other podcasts. They’re on my website, JanetLansbury.com, and 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 an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple.com.

Also I have an audio series, Sessions. These are individual recordings of my private consultations with parents discussing their urgent parenting issues. They’re available by going to SessionsAudio.com.  You can order episodes individually or get them all. About three hours of audio for just under $20.

Thanks for listening. We can do this.


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

  1. Hi Janet, I currently am having the same issue with my 3.5 year old. He used to be pretty independent and would play freely, but since the birth of his brother 3 months ago he has become very clingy and will not play at home independently. This makes it incredibly difficult to get anything done. I may have misunderstood your previous posts. When boundary setting (for example in the kitchen), I would physically walk him to his play space (“ok, I’ll help you). When he would test the boundary, I would continue walking him back to his play space. I’m afraid I’m having a hard time understanding what I should do, as you advise against walking back to their play space. I’m getting the impression that when I have things to do I should just ignore him, even if hes sitting on my feet while I’m trying to cook dinner? Is that right? Thanks in advance for some clarity.

  2. Hi Janet,

    I use this technique often however my daughter (5) tends to become aggressive with her brother (2) when I set the boundaries. How should I handle this??

    1. Amy Hundsdoerfer says:

      I also have this problem with my 2.5year old. If he isn’t get the attention that he wants whilst I’m getting dressed, for example, he turns to upsetting his 6 month old brother. How do I manage that without entering a negative attention spiral?

    2. Laura Bisbee says:

      I too, was coming to the comments to see what to do in the situation where the child isn’t at your feet or begging to you, but becomes aggressive with his sibling within 30 seconds of leaving the room. I have to go back multiple times to pull them apart and that’s where I get unruffled. If they were just having independent feelings I would know how to handle it and could let feelings be, but they immediately get into trouble or become aggressive. If I put them in their rooms my 4-year-old will kick the door so hard he puts a hole through it or constantly bangs the walls.

  3. Thanks so much for sharing your response to this query. I have been working on setting these calm, confident boundaries with my 2.5 yo daughter. I give the response, “I’m just doing this thing, will be with you when I am done (with the washing up, etc…)”, & my daughter’s response is, “I will do it with you”. She has a stool which she can move to reach the sink, so tries to include herself despite me telling her she cannot help, “this is my job and you may not help”, removing herself & the stool, progressively becoming more frustrated/loud/resistant. I respond to her emotions, saying back things like “I see that you want to help me, but that hearing no is upsetting to you”, and continue to disallow her from moving the stool, joining in, etc. The end result being that nothing gets done because she will not leave me be, & so I either jettison the task, as I am becoming so frustrated by the interchange, or cave in & allow her to play with water next to me, while I try not to let it bother me. This happens with almost every household task – it is a rare occasion where she will take herself off to do something else, often something I need to intervene with, to ensure she remains safe – I suspect even because she knows it will get my attention. We have an open plan house & nowhere I can “gate off” to create her own little, uninterrupted zone. Have I missed something really obvious? I feel like allowing her to help me with some tasks at some times would help her to feel she is a valuable contributor in our family. But as someone who finds it hard to sit still, have I modelled behaviour which discourages play? Any guidance would be amazing. Thanks for sharing your gentle wisdom.

  4. Hi Janet… this post is lovely and so helpful, as is all your work. One point I’m a bit confused by… you mention not walking a kiddo back to their play area— I know a boundary means I can only control my piece and accept and empathize with however my child reacts. However, what about when I need to do something where it’s my responsibility to put my 2 year old in a safe, contained area (with toys or books available in case he wants them), while I take a shower, etc. Is it then ok to walk or carry him to his space? I believe so, but what is the “right” thing to say while doing that? Thank you!! So much gratitude for your work.

  5. I have a 3 year old boy, the youngest of 3, with 2 older sisters (6 and 8). The 3 year old is active and physical in a way his sisters weren’t. As is typical, and age-appropriate, he wants what he wants and he wants it his way— exerting control over something that he otherwise feels powerless to control. Left to “mommy can help with that when she’s done with x,y or z” — the tantrum escalated to him hurting his sisters, throwing things at the tv/appliances/me/sisters, or breaking things. When I respond with “I see you’re mad right now and you’re attacking Sister. I can’t let you do that, let’s get off of her and come in here”, I feel like that is rewarding the behavior because now he is getting the attention he wanted from the get go. I can’t allow my other children to get hurt, I can’t allow things to be broken (toys, art projects, tv, the cat) and yet he knows that pushes buttons and continues to do so… so we are this trapped cycle. It needs to stop, but short of boarding up my windows and removing the TV from the family room, I’m not sure how to best handle it.

    Also, as the third child, unfairly or not, he has to be schlepped around to his sisters’ practices. How do I manage that, when I can’t have him running amok at an ice rink, and the cars/buses, crayons and paper, board books, and snacks are of 0 interest? I’m at my wit’s end.

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