High Energy Boy Won’t Cooperate

In this episode: Janet responds to the mother of an almost 3-year-old who says she used to appreciate and encourage her son’s boundless energy, but now that he has a new sibling, he’s having a lot of trouble sitting in his chair to eat, dressing, and following basic direction. This mom has found herself yelling and threatening lately, and she’s disappointed in herself. “This is not how I saw myself with him.”

Transcript of “High Energy Boy Won’t Cooperate”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I’m responding to an email from a mom with an energetic three year old, who says she’s always loved and encouraged her son’s physicality, but now that he has a baby sister, he’s less cooperative and constantly testing, and she’s having a really difficult time keeping her cool with him.

Here’s the email I received:

“Hello Janet, I have an almost three year old son. He’s always had an incredible amount of energy. Began walking at 10 months, began riding a balance bike at 21 months, mastered the pedal bike without training wheels, at two-and-three-quarters, climbs anything and everything, runs nonstop, you get it. This kid has to move his body, which I’ve always loved and encouraged.

Now, he has a four month old sister, and we do get out daily, but he’s having more and more trouble with sitting and listening, and we seem to have regressed in all aspects of the toddler’s independent activities.

An example is when I help him dress. He won’t stand still as I attempt to put clothes on. He constantly moves, leans on me, basically anything else that won’t aid with dressing. This is the same with sitting to eat, no matter where we are. He’s still in a high chair, because he constantly slides out of a chair, and won’t eat. I ask him to help with his first time listening, follow my, or my partner’s or teachers’, directions the first time. I’m constantly threatening, by taking away his bike, or not going to the park, or not going on a walk if he doesn’t listen to me.

It’s driving me crazy, especially when having to care for a baby, and getting ready to go anywhere. I feel like I’ve lost control of myself, and I’m yelling so much, or physically holding him in place to put clothes on. This is not how I saw myself with him, and I’m disappointed with myself. Thank you for any help.”

Okay, so the first thing that struck me reading this, as a parent of an active boy myself, and working with a lot of these children, we have to understand that they actually can sit and focus. They’re not inclined to, but they can, if we make our expectations clear, and I’m going to explain how to do that.

But, what happens is that we treat our child as if it’s painful for him to sit still. This mother says, “He has to move his body.” Well, he wants to move his body, but he actually doesn’t have to move his body, in terms of jumping up out of his seat, or falling out of his seat, while he’s still eating. Even wild animals will stop and groom, and eat their food, and focus, so this guy sounds amazing. He’s so accomplished physically, and he probably will be an athlete of some kind, or at least have that as one of the things he does, but he can still be present and focus.

What’s going on here, though, is the new baby, the four-month-old sister. Oh my gosh. So, this guy is bursting at the seams right now, because it’s so exciting. It’s so scary. There’s such a big change happening in his family, and now his mother’s, you know, getting cross with him, and losing her temper, which is all normal stuff that we do in these situations, but all of that, he’s absorbing, and it’s just bursting out of his body.

So yes, it is a lot harder for him to focus right now, so the way to help him … First of all, I’m going to start with eating, because that’s the one that’s really, really clear. The high chair’s fine, but you know, I don’t know that he needs it, and what I heard here in this note is that he won’t eat, and that, right there, is a perception of the situation that I would take a look at. He will eat. It’s not our job to get our children to eat, and that has to be really clear. It is our job to present healthy food, and be very, very clear about the boundaries around eating. That means that, if they don’t sit, they’re going to be done for that meal.

We have to be clear. We have to be 100% on this. Why? Because it’s actually unfair to a child to fudge on the rules, and shift the rules, because we’re worried that he can’t do it, that he has to move, so now we’re not having boundaries, basically. Boundaries are either there or they’re not there, and they can’t really be there if we’re also invested in that it’s our responsibility, it’s our job to get him to eat. It can create a lot of little issues and difficulties with eating, if we take that on as our role, that it’s up to us to make sure our children eat enough. Only they can know how much food they need, and if they’re actually hungry, and when their tummies are full. We have to give that to them.

In my classes, with parents and toddlers, we do snack time, and I’m very tough on them. I mean, not tough in an angry, mad way at all, but I really don’t let them slide. You know, the first time that they’ve ever tried this, if they haven’t done it at home, then I might say, “Oh, okay, looks like you’re trying to get up, and I want you to stay here until you’re done. Are you done?”

Now, ahead of time, I’ve made the rules very clear, which I recommend doing, even reminding him, you know, he’s in a kind of a state of madness right now. It’s going to be difficult for him to do things that might have been easier for him before, because of his emotional state, so I would say ahead of time, “Now we’re going to eat. Please don’t fall out of your chair. If you start to squeeze out of your chair, then that’s going to show me that you’re done.”

So we don’t have to say it with this warning kind of tone. We can say it very lovingly, but very clearly. That’s what children need, especially when they’re going through huge life changes like this. You know, this is why I recommend, actually, when you’re first starting with these kinds of limits, doing them for a snack time, when you’re not so invested. That will be easier for you. That’s easier for us, as parents, if we’re not worried, “Oh, now he’s not going to eat for several hours, and that was his dinner, you know, that I spent a lot of time making.” I don’t recommend spending a lot of time making their dinner at this age, or at this time of life.

This is an overwhelmed family. This is a family that has to kind of huddle around and keep their life a little smaller, and get through this passage, into easier times. So I would do less, and worry about less, but keep these boundaries really solid for him, because when you’re feeling wobbly, and then the boundaries are wobbly, it actually creates more stress, so we might think, “Oh, I’m trying to cater to him a little, because he’s just so active right now, he’s having such a hard time,” and that’s actually what makes it worse.

So being clear, “I don’t want you to get up until you’re done.” You see him starting to get up … Be present when he’s eating. Be fully present if you can. If you see him starting to squeeze out of his high chair, or whatever, or flop over, “Oops, that’s showing me that you’re saying you’re done. I want you to stay sitting, and stay settled in your seat while you’re eating, so you can focus on your food.” It could be for one second. It could be for two bites. It doesn’t matter. It’s all about giving him the consistent, clear boundaries.

That’s how I would handle that part, and he does need your full attention periodically, and I know that’s hard with a four month old, and you know, it’s not going to happen every time, probably. As much as possible, remember that those are important touchpoints throughout the day, the meals, the dressing, which I’m going to talk about now, the transitions, getting into the car, helping him get to bed. All of those things are time to pay attention to him, if you can. Other times throughout the day, you may not have a chance. That’s okay.

So, she talks a lot about getting his clothes on. When there’s a new baby, the older child sees all this physical care going to this little, adorable person, and they feel a little less adorable at this time, and they really need that reining in, not just with the boundaries at mealtime I’m describing, but in all these other things too, all the ways he’s going to test, you know? He’s testing you.

And, he is having a hard time holding it together for dressing, so this is where I would, first of all, see this as quality time, that you are going to dress him. You’re not going to expect him to be able to do it for himself at this time of life. Maybe he could do it a bit for himself before, but right now, he’s going to need your assistance, so I would block out these few minutes together, where you’re going to help him.

And I would expect a little rascally guy that’s going to be thumping out all over the place, and I would be the mama bear, but not the angry mama bear, that yells because he’s not listening, the mama bear that understands, “Oh, whoa. This guy is going through something. It’s not always going to be like this. He really needs extra help. He needs me to hold him in tight, you know, while he’s leaning on me, and make sure I’m able to push him away enough to help him get those arms in. He needs me to acknowledge, ‘Wow! You’re really having a rough time with this. I see a lot of feelings coming out here. What’s going on? You got all this wild energy.'”

It’s going to be your attitude that changes everything. Yes, he’s still going to resist. He’s still going to push, but when he feels you expecting this, when he feels you totally willing to play your role as the loving mama bear, that’s doing a lot of physical care with him, he will melt a little into that, and it will calm his heart and ease his mind about what’s going on in his family right now. It will make it a little easier for him.

So instead of kind of working against him, by, “You’ve got to listen, and if you don’t listen, we’re not going to do this, we’re going to do that,” or, “I’m going to take this away,” work with him. This is when he needs that extra. And if you don’t want to do that, honestly, don’t go out. Don’t go out as much. I wouldn’t at this stage of life, with your family. Make your life as easy for you as you possibly can, because every transition, every dressing, it is going to be a bit of a scene that hopefully you can meet with a lot of empathy, and humor, and understanding that this is normal. This is par for the course for what’s going on with him.

And, for the fact that he’s an active guy anyway, so if you’re caring for both of them, and you’re not able to get this together, don’t. Stay home. Let him be rascally at home, instead. Take care of yourself, and then when you can, show him that you can take care of him, even when he’s mad as a hatter. And don’t worry about the eating. He will eat when the limits are clear, and he doesn’t have this distraction of having to test you in that area.

So I think what’s really the issue here is our expectation. It sounds like this loving mother’s expectations are just a little bit off. She’s expecting he’s going to be able to listen and be a helpful guy right now, and I don’t think he can. I mean, there’s always a reason when children behave like this, but this one is pretty clear. It is so common, I can’t even tell you.

And this dressing thing may be your playtime with him, your actually, focused playtime with him. I mean, children don’t know the difference. Time together is time together. You know, there are people, I’m not one of them, but there are people that recommend, you know, you wrestle with your child every day, or whatever. This is a real organic time to engage with your child physically, and do it from a positive place, fully willing to face all his activity and his energy.

You can do this. He’s still a little guy. And then I think she won’t be disappointed with herself. I think she’ll see her role a little differently, her expectations will be different, and she’ll get to be kind of a hero in these moments. You know, maybe it just happens once a day, getting him dressed, or maybe not at all. I’m up for pajama days, too.

I hope that helps.

If you enjoyed this podcast, there are lots more to choose from on my website, at janetlansbury.com. Also, both of my books are available on audio at Audible, Elevating Child Care and No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame. You can get both audio books for free with a 30-day trial membership by using the link in the liner notes of this podcast. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple.com.

I also have an audio series, called Sessions. These are individual recordings of private consultations I’ve had with parents, where we work through their parenting dilemmas, and these are available by going to sessionsaudio.com. You can read a description of each episode, and order them individually, or you can get all of them, which is actually about three hours of audio, for just under $20, sessionsaudio.com.

Thanks for listening. We can do this.

1 Comment

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

  1. Great podcast, I always seem to find something that hits close to home!

    You say “I’m up for pajama days, too” and I’d like to, but I know if do that, with my 3.5 yo, the next day he’ll want the same. It was like that for months when he was 2, until I found you, and I set a clear boundary “you need to be dressed before you go downstairs” (or he’d spend days and days wearing pyjamas only).

    At 3.5 yo, I can still get him dressed against his will (rare, but it happened this morning). The problem now is he can take his clothes off, and I can’t stop him from going downstairs. There’s also a 16mo that just started walking, who needs to be dressed fed. I decided to let him be, but I explained he couldn’t eat until he was dressed. At 9:30, almost two hours later, and after spending a few minutes focused on him, I realised the 16mo needed a nappy change. At this point he declared he wanted to get dressed, and I should do that before changing sister’s nappy. I acquiesced on the condition that there was no mucking around.

    All went well after that. I don’t think I was harsh, I was mostly unruffled (except a bit before having my own breakfast), but I wonder, should I have done something different, been clearer on some aspect?

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