In this episode: A mother of three kids writes that she’s irritated and confused by her six-and-a-half year old daughter’s constant demands for attention and her refusal to cooperate. She believes that her daughter is old enough to comply with simple requests, but “she won’t listen, and she won’t do it until I shout or scold her.”
Transcript of “Demanding Behavior Makes Mom Shout and Scold”
Hi. This is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m responding to an email from a busy parent. She’s got three children. She says that her eldest, who is six-and-a-half years old, demands so much of her attention that she sometimes becomes irritated and ends up shouting or scolding her. She describes herself as confused and upset.
Here’s the email I received:
“Hi, Janet. I have been following you on Facebook for a few months. My children are aged six-and-a-half, four, and two-and-a-half. My question is for the six-year-old. Her behavior sometimes irritates me. She always wants me and always wants to cuddle. She won’t see what I’m doing or how tired I am.
I don’t expect my two-year-old to know, but surely a six-and-a-half-year-old should know a little bit or understand when she is told. Am I right? If I agree to nine of her things and I ask her to do one thing, she won’t listen and she won’t do it until I shout or scold her. If I don’t listen to her or refuse her for something, she starts crying.
I’m so confused and upset. I don’t know how I should respond to such behavior. Please help.”
Okay. I love this question because it brings up an issue that I can really relate to. Children are not fair. Parenting is not fair. They don’t treat us fairly in terms of giving us a break when we’ve been giving them a bunch of stuff. As this mother says, she agrees to nine of her things and then the one one thing she doesn’t agree to, her daughter still won’t listen and she won’t do it.
There are a lot of reasons that this six-and-a-half-year-old might be behaving as she does. I would guess that one of them is really a need to complain, a need to share feelings around this situation of having these younger siblings that have taken so much of her parents’ time and focus away from her and all that goes with that.
What this mother is seeing as unreasonable requests are actually, I believe, her daughter’s way of pushing to the point where her mother will ideally say a confident no. It’s fine for asking me, but the answer’s no. I’m not going to do that right now. Then her daughter will have the opportunity to vent. The venting can make us feel very guilty if we aren’t seeing the bigger picture, which is there’s a lot of reasons for a six-and-a-half-year-old with two younger siblings to complain and to share feelings with her mother.
That’s what she needs to do here.
Understanding that it really isn’t helpful or fair to get to the point where the parent is irritated with the requests. This is where we have to have our personal boundaries and feel really good about expressing them and feel really good about the choices that we make. If we decide later we didn’t make a good choice, we change it. We can change our mind. But in the moment, children really need leaders who feel good about their choices and don’t feel like they have to do whatever their children want them to do, and that they should feel guilty if they don’t.
This is particularly hard around something like cuddling, which is one of those things that we all read about. You can’t ever cuddle your child too much and hugging is the answer to everything. Gosh, cuddles, how could you deny your child that?
Well, if you don’t want to cuddle, it’s really not healthy for that child for you to cuddle because, inside, you’re not there, you’re not with them, you’re not into it. Now they’re getting this experience of being with someone who’s showing them physical intimacy, but emotionally, they’re not there.
I actually see this as the most important type of self-care, not doing things we don’t want to do with our children. Whether that’s playing with them, cuddling, them, saying no, understanding that it’s not a need for our child to cuddle in that moment. They can have their needs for touch and physical intimacy a little bit later. It doesn’t have to be right then. We’re not denying them something important. In fact, we’re giving them something important. We’re giving them honesty. We’re showing them ourselves and that we are a person with our own needs and wants that will often times not match up with theirs.
At the same time, we’ve got to show them that we welcome them to be unhappy about our personal boundaries and our personal decisions. We want them to share that. We welcome that. We accept it all the way. We’re not timing it. Ideally, it’s not grating on us and making us feel worse and worse. That’s going to get us into trouble. That’s going to get us into yelling and shouting. Because it’s not fair. We could cuddle our child all day long and they could still ask for more or they would still yell at us for going to the bathroom and not cuddling them in that moment. Then we’re going to start to feel like a caged animal. We’re going to start to feel like we’re ready to lash out at any moment. That’s not loving and that’s not being the parent that we want to be. We also don’t want to give children the impression that it’s okay to be cuddling with someone that’s not really into it. We want them to have really healthy, good social awareness.
This mother says, “She always wants me and always wants to cuddle.” Yes, that’s her prerogative. She’s allowed to always want you and always want to cuddle. That’s got to be okay. But we still have to be honest in our boundaries.
“She won’t see what I’m doing or how tired I am.” Right. In these moments where she really, underneath it all, wants to express something to you, wants to express her pain to you, she’s not going to have empathy for your perspective. She’s really stuck in hers. She’s stuck in something she needs to express. She’s not going to give you a break here, so you’ve got to take care of yourself.
She says, “I don’t expect my two-year-old to know, but surely a six-and-a-half-year-old should know a little bit or understand when she is told.” It’s not that she doesn’t understand that she’s being unreasonable. She probably does understand in that moment that she’s being very unreasonable, she’s being very unfair, but she still has the impulse to keep pushing because she’s not feeling a comfortable stopping point there coming from her mother. Children have to keep pushing until they find that. They’re not going to say, “Thank you for giving it to me” when we do. They’re going to scream and cry and yell at us. But underneath that, that is what they want. That is what they’re pushing for.
She says, “Am I right?” Yes, you’re right that she should understand and does understand, but that doesn’t mean that she’s going to let you off the hook. That’s just the way children are.
She says, “If I agree to nine of her things and ask her to do one more thing, she won’t listen and she won’t do it until I shout or scold her.” If it’s something that she needs to do, this mother doesn’t give an example, but I would help her as if she was a younger child. I would take her by the hand and help her to do it. If it’s about her wanting something from you that irritates you, don’t do it. Trust the feelings. Yes, it is unreasonable. That’s because it’s emotional. It’s not reasonable.
“If I don’t listen to her or refuse her for something, she starts crying.” Right. That’s what she needs to do. That’s what she wants to be able to do with you and for you to be okay with that, for you to welcome that grieving, that pain.
I hope that helps clarify this. This mother says she’s confused and upset. Yes, I think her expectation is that her child should understand her, and should not have these feelings, and should be fair, and give her a break. Her daughter is showing her that right now at this time, she can’t. It doesn’t mean that she doesn’t have the ability to other times, but in these situations, she can’t. She can’t right now because she needs something from her mother. She needs that calm, confident leader with self-care in every moment with her daughter, who isn’t afraid of her crying, and isn’t afraid of her strong feelings, that doesn’t feel guilty having personal boundaries.
This is so vital and basic to parenting, to being able to be leaders in our house, and to give our children that social awareness and intelligence. I hope that clarifies.
Please checkout some of my other podcasts at janetlansbury.com. website. They’re all indexed by subject and category so you should be able to find whatever topic you’re interested in. And remember I have books 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 exclusive audio series, Sessions. There are five individual recordings of consultations I’ve had with parents where they agree to be recorded and we discuss all their parenting issues. We have a back and forth that for me is very helpful in exploring their topics and finding solutions. These are available by going to sessionsaudio.com and you can read a description of each episode and order them individually or get them all about three hours of audio for just under $20.
Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.
It’s a bummer that all these are podcasts now instead of articles. Is there a way to include the transcript the way NPR does? Oftentimes I read your articles in the middle of the night next to a sleeping babe. Podcasts are just not feasible in those circumstances.
Thanks for your feedback, Lina. We were considering doing more transcripts, but you helped push us over the edge, so thank you! We’ve now invested in getting several of the most recent podcasts transcripted. I’ll be posting the transcripts tomorrow! We’re going to do as many as we can afford for now. I hope this is helpful to you.
I love the podcasts!
I also think its best to have key points and articles for reference.
Hi Janet, I am this mother too for what feels like a lot of the time right now with my near 6 year old daughter ( who has a twin brother). What I struggle with most is that I do try and engage and stay calm when she is raging, try to get her to breathe, focus on something calm, but she wont engage with it ( afterwards she realises she wants this to stop happening) This morning is was a lost dolls dummy she needed to take to preschool when we needed to leave for work/school. All my mornings feel like this at the moment, with one or the other of them melting down” as part of our morning routine. Her brother has some sensory processing challenges as well. Thanks Jules
So hard to practically implement this…..”We want them to share that. We welcome that. We accept it all the way. We’re not timing it. Ideally, it’s not grating on us and making us feel worse and worse. That’s going to get us into trouble. That’s going to get us into yelling and shouting”
I’ve always found hearing prolonged screaming and crying EXTREMELY stressful, and it eventually builds up such emotion inside me that I end up bursting and telling my child to stop, or that it’s enough etc. I know tantrums and crying are needed and healthy, but how do I stop my own emotions building up when I have to listen to it and be present until it subsides? (which as you know can be a long time with a full-blown tantrum). Please help!
This is so true for parents, well in this case – Mothers in particular (I have 3). My absolute no 1 lesson is to prioritise myself first so I can be present and a stable base for my children. That means booking the spa/manicure/walk and have your partner/babysitter watch your kids. When we as mothers take care of ourselves the whole world shifts. It took almost breaking point for me to realise this. Now I prioritise and (value) myself everything in my life has shifted for the positive.
Thank you Janet for the wonderful advice – Mothers have to care for themselves first!!
I agree with you completely, Heather, and thank you for your kind words!
Thank you so much – this really spoke to me! I have a daughter who is nearly 7, and I often feel frustrated that she can’t see my perspective or give me a break (I am a single mom and work full time, so there are plenty of times when I am busy or tired and she is seeking attention or cuddles). This advice, to not wait so long before setting a limit and to make sure to take care of myself, is so helpful for me. Permission to say “not right now” and the notion that my honest answer is a gift to her is huge. Thank you for the reminders of how to better take care of myself so that I can be more of the present and loving mom I want to be/
Wonderful realization! YES, you get to be an entire person in your relationship with your daughter. 🙂 In fact, that is the best message you could ever give her.
Thank you addressing the situation above. I can relate to the child’s need for cuddles from my second child and the venting from my eldest. I read it out to my husband and he too found your insight helpful.
It’s my pleasure, Michelle, and I’m very happy to hear this was helpful to you!
I clicked on this article very eagerly because my challenging child is six – often i read the articles about toddlers and think yes, ok, i am comfortable letting a 2-year-old express himself however he sees fit, but in an older child I want to start seeing more considerateness and more self control. I am hoping you will write lots more about how the principles of respectful leadership can transfer to our school aged children!
This brings up so much for me. I have never had much of an issue saying a firm ‘no’ to my child. I almost never do maybes – I may change my mind to a yes later, after the initial no has been accepted, but I explain my reasoning – I think maybes just prolong the anticipation, & make the no harder to accept, & feel unfair. As a result, I think, I had a toddler who pretty readily accepted boundaries & almost never tantrumed (likely inherent temperament as well). When she did have big emotions, I welcomed them & calmly accepted her upset. Toddlerhood was not particularly difficult for me to navigate.
She’s six now, & it’s much harder. I find myself saying no more often than I say yes, to a lot of things. I almost never want to play with her. There’s something in me that feels like nails in a chalk board about it. I have felt like I’m giving a gift by being honest when I’m not into something, but I’m worrying now that I’m setting her up to feel rejected in some fundamental way. Yes, it’s great that she sees her mother as a whole person, who respects her own needs… but if her mothers’ needs are to only rarely engage in the ways most meaningful to her, doesn’t that send a negative message? Isn’t putting someone else’s needs first some of the time part of healthy relationships? I’m not talking self-sacrificial martyr motherhood, but some kind of healthy middle ground…
I do put her needs first in many respects; providing nourishing food, ensuring personal hygiene, reading with her, assisting her in learning how to do things & letting her figure things out for herself when she can/wants to, supporting her in communicating her feelings, etc. It’s not like I neglect her, by any stretch. But I just do not want to engage playfully much if the time. Which… feels wrong.
So, this middle ground of respecting my own preferences, & also engaging with my child in ways she finds meaningful… if there is a middle ground, & it’s actually what I should be striving for… how do I swing in that direction? When & how is it okay to set aside my own preferences in order to connect in the way my child seems to need?
Thanks in advance!
I too would love to know this. I’ve always found it so hard to play with kids. It feels inauthentic to even try, and yet I play a part almost daily when I go to work in the hospitality industry. I don’t know how to reconcile this in order to be able to try and move past it, and I also feel guilty not really being able to fulfil her need, unless it’s something I also enjoy. I’m always wondering if that fair or not.
The questions about play resonated with me. I have a 7 year old and as she’s gotten older I’ve struggled with play a bit. My own mother never played with me. As in never, I really have no memories of her sitting down with me to play. And it bothers me… so I make sure to set aside some time to play with my child most days. Now that she is older it is sometimes cards, or another game, or even make believe with her toys. I try to do it in an authentic way and follow her lead and most of the time I do really enjoy the time, and she picks up on that. I also try to just be playful with her, even if we are just cooking dinner together or doing something outside. We both also enjoy making things or painting and we do that together too- so maybe find things that you both can enjoy?
The interesting thing is my own mother and I still don’t have that fun, thoughtful, and playful relationship that I would love to have with her as an adult. I can watch my mother now, through different lenses, as she doesn’t know how to play or really engage with her grand kids, and then it makes her sad she doensn’t have a relationship with them. Not saying it’s the same thing as Siobhan- but that I understand where you are coming from!
This advice is spot on for me and my 6 year old, thank you so much for making me feel less alone!
Question about the younger sibling: clearly I need to be the “calm, confident leader…who isn’t afraid of her crying” but what do you do if the younger sibling is afraid of and upset by the tantrums? If you comfort them, you add to the eldest’s underlying reasons for the behaviour by seeking to favour the younger sibling, but is it fair to make them listen to angry crying that upsets them?
Can relate to this post very much, thank you for all your fantastic advice! just want to clarify when my 5 year old daughter is demanding a cuddle what exactly should I be saying to her?
I have these problems with my three year old – he continues to push and ask and ask even when I feel like I’ve set a limit. Could you give some examples here of how to respond to the child? I’ve read your books and I still struggle sometimes – I set a limit and say no, or say “I know you want this and seem very upset…” and he keeps asking and asking. I don’t know what to do after awhile. What would you actually say in these instances?
I love this article but I struggle with the language around responding to my 5.5 year olds request for cuddling and being close. Saying “I hear you, but not right now” feels like I’m not giving her enough of a response. She often wants to cuddle, wants to be skin to skin, wants to get back under the covers, and seems almost desperate, at times when I’m not up for it. It’s also triggering. It’s so hard knowing what to say without feeling like I’m going to hurt her. For example, what about when she asks me why? I’m having trouble with that as well as figuring out what her needs are that I’m possibly not meeting. Thank you in advance.
Wow, I was just attending my son in the bath while reading this article. My son sometimes pushes boundaries to the point that I get frustrated, so this article resonated with me. He is 4 1/2. Tonight he requested a bubble bath. In the past he has decided after the bubbles were in that he didn’t want them anymore so I would proceed to let all the water out and run a new bath. Tonight before I added bubbles, I reminded him that once they were in they were staying in so I wanted him to be sure he wanted bubbles. As I predicted, after about 1 min he decided he wanted the bubbles out. I gave him the choice of staying in the tub or getting out completely. He wanted to stay in, but again said he wanted the bubbles out. Rather than getting frustrated with him, I listened to his request and said “thank you for your request but the answer is no”. Surprisingly it worked, he said ok and said he would let me know when he was done swimming in the tub. I imagine all situations will not go this well, but at least this one did not escalate. Thanks!