How to Handle Behavior We Can’t Physically Control

In this episode: The mother of a 3-year-old feels she has very little control over some of her son’s unpleasant behavior, and she’s struggling to come up with appropriate responses. In her email to Janet, she cites examples like screaming, running away when she’s trying to dress him, and throwing himself to the ground. “How do I set boundaries around things like this that I feel I have no influence over?”

Transcript of “How to Handle Behavior We Can’t Physically Control”

Hi. This is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I’m weighing in with a mom who feels like she has no control over her three-year old when he’s acting out physically, particularly when he’s being uncooperative or unpleasant in situations where there aren’t boundaries that she can easily enforce.

Here’s the email I received:

“Hey, Janet. I have an almost three-year old son. My question is about discipline or feedback as it relates to the way he expresses himself physically. It seems more straight forward when there’s something you can take away like his spoon when he’s flinging his food or physically stop his arms if he’s hitting, but what happens when he’s doing things where that doesn’t apply? We have a rule that my son can scream outside as much as he wants but inside, he can’t. When he feels like pushing our buttons, he starts screaming and squawking inside. I can’t say things like, ‘I won’t let you scream,’ because it feels like I have no way to enforce it. Similar things are running away from me when we’re trying to get dressed or undressed, throwing himself on the ground in ways that I feel he can hurt him, et cetera. How do I set boundaries around things like this that I feel I have no influence over? Thanks so much.”

So, one of the reasons my podcast is called Unruffled is that I like to stress the importance of not giving power to unwanted behavior, and that’s especially important when it’s behavior that we don’t have power to stop or insist on, as this mother says, “stopping his arms when he’s hitting or taking away the spoon when he’s flinging food.” In that case, I would, yes, take away the spoon but also let the child know that he’s shown me he’s done eating. What about when they’re screaming, or when children get older, there’s language that comes at us, and her child running away?

These things, we can’t do anything about physically. The only power we have is our ability to rise above it, take it in stride, and not give it power. Now, this definitely gets easier with practice. I’ve been able to have a lot of practice. I’ve been working with parents and children for a very long time, and it does get a lot easier. One of the things that gets easier is an integral element to this ability to stay unruffled, and that is understanding that 99.9% of this behavior is very, very normal, very, very typical, very healthy, not a problem, not a sign we’re doing something terribly wrong, not that our child is a terrible person, none of those things that we might worry about that might make us freak out when our children behave in these ways.

It’s important to keep in mind that there’s nothing that we’re going to get here that we can’t handle or that we should be alarmed about. I mean, I would say a fraction of one percent of people that I hear from have an issue that I would consider concerning in that it seems unusual, or might not be coming from the healthiest place, or there’s something to look at here that’s beyond the norm. So, with that in mind, we can stay in unruffled leadership mode and take these things in stride.

Let’s take screaming, or screeching, or making loud sounds. That’s something children do, and mostly every child tries this at least once. We have to not give it power. We have to rise above it and let it go. If it’s right next to your ear, you can move your child away a little, “That’s a bit loud. I’m going to move you back.” I wouldn’t even try to set firm limits, like this mother did about he’s only allowed to scream in certain places,” because like she said, she can’t enforce that. Making a hard line there is only going to cause our healthy child developing his will, stretching his wings, and testing his power to see, “Well, what are they going to do about this? They can’t do anything about this.”

If we get rattled, or angry, or concerned, or upset in any way, reactive, then we just add more power to the behavior. It’s better if we let it go and maybe do the most minimal thing like, “I’m going to escort you outside, because I hear you’ve got loud things to say.” For a while in my class, a bunch of toddler boys, I think actually, were into screaming. I’d be doing snack and a couple of them would scream, and I would let it go because there’s a much better chance of it going away if I don’t give it any power. So, I would let it go. Well, then it did go a little for a while, but then later, other children were picking up on it. One was screaming and the other was screaming, and it was getting very loud. There was a reason we couldn’t be outdoors that day. Usually the children can have a choice of being indoors or outdoors, but the door had been closed. I think it had been wet outside or something.

Anyway, eventually I decided to very casually open the door and say, “Hey guys, you can come out here and scream. This is a really fun place to scream out here. Go for it,” and they did. They were all running around outside in a circle screaming, getting themselves very tired out, having some fun, and it helped them to do it outside. If I had insisted, that’s just a risky place to go as a parent. We’re not going to win.

It’s really important that we give children the overall impression that we’ve got this. In fact, this job is pretty easy for us most of the time. These are little tiny children. We’re these big grown-up people. We’re not going to let it get to us. We’re not going to let a scream throw us for a loop. If we see it as normal, if we understand that giving it a reaction gives it power, we can do this. It’s kind of fun and confidence building once you get the hang of it and you see the results, that they can try all kinds of things and you’re not going to let it get to you.

Let’s take another one of her examples, “Running away when we’re trying to get dressed or undressed.” That’s a common one too that getting up and running after him angrily is definitely going to make it worse. So, there are a number of different things that we could do if we have the attitude that we get from our perception of the behavior. We’re ideally going to expect this kind of behavior. It’s all positive stuff, testing my independence, testing my will, testing my leaders. It’s all good. It’s all normal.

What are some examples of what we could do? Our child runs away, it’s time to get dressed. If I was in a certain mood, a playful mood, I mean, I might say something like, “There was a little person right here that I was dressing and helping get dressed, and now there’s no person here. Where did they go?” I would take my time and walk over, and then I’d find the child and I say, “Oh. Very interesting. You’re all the way over there. Come right here.” I would take their hand and confidently move them.

So much of this is our attitude. Yes, the child could still resist there, and then maybe you feel that resistance coming and you scoop the child up and, “You know what? It looks like you need a special delivery over here to the dressing area. I’m going to take you over here.” If you didn’t feel like doing all of that, you could just wait a bit and say, “Okay, while you’re over there, I think I’ll organize your closet a bit and you can come in when you’re ready.” That could work, or even, “I’m going to go read my book, and I can’t wait to dress you. So, let me know when you’re up for it.”

Of course, those things aren’t going to work if you’re in a hurry. If you’re in a hurry, I would probably go with something more like my first example. If, let’s say, that you weren’t in the mood to be at all light about things, then I would again, walk very slowly over and say, “Mm-hmm (affirmative). All right. Here we go,” and either pick your child up or walk them back. Then with each step of the dressing, be ready for there to be some pushback. Don’t be intimated by it, “Wow. There’s some pushing going on here. Okay, I’ve got to hold this arm while I do this.” It is fine for children to scream at you when you have to do things, and to be firm, and to physically force the issue.

Forcing something is okay as long as we’re okay with acknowledging the feelings around it, that we see it as our child’s right to tell us, “No,” while we have to do something. We’re encouraging that actually, we’re acknowledging, and encouraging, and accepting, “You don’t want to do this, right? I know, this is hard. Sometimes we have to do things that you don’t want to do.” Having that dynamic around it, that’s what makes it respectful still and that’s what makes it okay. I don’t think it’s helpful for parents to feel like they have to avoid that at all costs, and do a dance, and do something distractive, or pull something over on their child to get them to comply. To me, that is less respectful than engaging with a child who’s screaming at you for what you have to do. That’s honest, that’s present, that’s caring about that person enough to face the music.

Having said all of that, playfulness does work in these situations. The reason that it works is that it comes from lightness. We can’t be authentically playful and silly if we’re feeling angry, annoyed, or heavy about the situation. Playfulness requires that we have the perspective that I’m talking about, that we feel capable, we feel on top of this, we feel like these are little people. Yes, they’re people, they deserve respect, but they’re going to do impulsive things, and they’re going to push back, and it’s all good. If we feel that, it does free us to take things lightly and to approach them with silliness and fun, because it’s just not a big deal.

That’s why playfulness does work. I feel blessed that I grew up in a family where there was lots and lots of humor, and lots of fun, and silliness, but not everybody did. For some people, it’s hard to feel like that. You don’t have to. You don’t have to make games out of things to engage with your children respectfully.

The way to handle these situations is to be able to zoom out and see the bigger picture, see our relationship with our child, see the kind of relationship and the kind of interactions that are actually preventative for a lot of this behavior. It’s still going to flare up. Sure, it’s a great way for children to give us a message about things or to test to see do they have that confident leader. Children will need to do that from time to time, but it happens a lot less when children know that do have that leader most of the time. We do see through their testing. They feel loved when we see them for who they are, and we’re not intimidated by them, we’re not afraid. We don’t take them personally, all these things that they do.

Now, in terms of throwing himself on the ground, that is a tough one that we really do have to trust and we have to understand that giving that power is kind of dangerous in that it does tend to make it worse. It does tend to make it into a thing that children will hurt themselves because of the reaction it gets from us. There, it’s even more important to trust, and to let it go, and to under react. If your child is flailing on the floor, maybe they’re even in the middle of the tantrum or something and they’re knocking their head down on the floor, I would very nonchalantly without giving it any power just slip a little something soft under their head, a little pillow under their head. Do it without them even knowing that you’re doing it, under-reacting.

I guess you could say this is all under the heading of the balance of power that our child feels. Children feeling that we are very comfortable in our power and we don’t allow our children’s behavior to have a lot of power with us. I thought this was a great question, because there are things that we can physically limit and a lot of things that we can’t. Those things kind of grow and grow, those things that we can’t as children get older. That’s why it’s so important to try to get this balance of power, and the way we perceive our children, and our role with them to a comfortable place early on.

I hope that helps.

Please checkout some of my other podcasts at 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, 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

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 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.



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

  1. Clare Axon says:

    Thank you for this, it’s really helpful. However I wonder what you might make of the situation which has begun to happen when I visit my parents house with my almost 2 year old and my nephew is there who is 5 months older. My nephew has realised that screaming bugs Grandad and it tends to get a firm ‘no’ from him which kinda works…until now! As you predict, this had given it power and now my little one has started copying when my nephew does it which then sets the other one of and both obviously find it hilarious to take it turn screaming with each other. Now I ignore screaming at home and it works a treat but I feel stressed when this happens at my parents house now, as I can’t control it clearly and Grandad gets very triggered by it and shouted ‘no’ last time we were there which made my little one cry. I did mention that I thought it best we just ignore it but it’s difficult when it’s not in my own home and it’s affecting others. It’s not possible to just leave as we often stay over as they live far away and there is not a safe outside space we can let them into easily unfortunately as it is an apartment! Any ideas in such a situation?

    1. That’s a really difficult and stressful situation. I have had successs with saying “ow, that hurts my ears” in a tone that doesn’t judge them, but does convey my dscomfort and possible further response in near future. If it continues i would say “if you’re going to scream, do it here (furthest point away from everyone else) please”, while doing whatever needs to be done to move them to that spot. Fortunately I’ve never needed to keep putting a child back in that furthest spot. A no-nonsense tone of voice is vital.
      The copying thing is superduper tricky to handle. I was looking after a two year old boy whose older sister had ritual, appalling tantrums every day, and i was so unwilling to see this very dear little boy be warped by his sister’s influence, i started up a bigger sister strategy of my own – when she had left for preschool, i would comment on his sister’s behaviour, saying sadly that i didn’t like specific things that she did, and for a while after she kicked my bicycle, i admit i really didn’t like her at all, full stop. One day, she was with us for the day for the first time and boy, did we have a battle, which was amost completely silent – she was extremely rude to me first thing, i said ok, that’s how you want it, that’s how you can have it, and we all went to the library in silence. I had managed to get her on the back foot, so she trotted along with the stroller really well in fact, and i managed to keep an even keel for the rest of the day,. There were no treats though. I felt sorry for the little boy, but on the other hand, he already knew me well enough to know that it was between me and his sister, and also he quite enjoyed seeing someone stand up to her.

      We made a bit of an in-joke out of it eventually, it’s a long story but it really was the height of my diplomatic arts, getting him on-side without using unfair tactics. And in fact it was a really interesting learning laboratory for him. The depth he displayed was startling.

      Eventually, when he started copying her, i would say things like ‘that sounds like _______ (the sister), i don’t want to hear that’ and it was easy for him to understand. He knew that if he used his sister’s tactics with me, it’d be a dead-end. At the same time, in those brief times when the sister and i had to do with each other, there were some good things happening (hooray, miracle) and i would comment afterwards on those too, saying to the little boy how nice she had been, in a tone of voice that conveyed how impressed and genuinely grateful i was.
      Totally worth it 🙂 taking the long way round..

  2. I appreciate this advice for many things, but am wondering what you would suggest for dealing with my 5 year old who very loudly yells “You’re Stupid!” at me (or others) over and over again often when he gets angry or upset, which he will do so at the drop of a hat. He’s done this for at least a year. I have tried ignoring it, other times have tried calmly telling him that he can be angry but we don’t call people names, and other things. It doesn’t seem right to let him just yell names at people but I don’t know the right way to help him control this behavior and would love some ideas!

    1. That’s so upsetting. I would stick to,saying ‘hey, that’s really mean!’ once only, in a tone that conveys surprise that he would do that, and an expectation that he can stop doing it if he wants to. I guess i convey all this by adding a silent “knucklehead!” in my head, which is of course not something I’d ever actually say – although i did once tell a very patient little girl who was just starting to speak sentences that if i still didn’t understand her the third time, she should feel free to say ‘knucklehead’ at the end of her sentence, because i really wanted to understand what she was saying and wanted her to have a bit of fun. She got the joke on all levels, amazingly.
      Anyway, if the chanting continues, i would either ignore it or move the child to somewhere i can vaguely handle him doing it. Absolute nuclear stage would be to have a closed door between us, and a radio on, so i can still hear what’s going on, but the edge is taken off.
      Later, if i am still feeing resentful, and there’s something non-essential the child wants me to do, that I don’t feel like doing, i will be very honest, and say I don’t feel like doing such and such because I’m still upset about you chanting those mean words. Lean back. Wait and see what the child does.

  3. Rachael Hosey says:

    Hi Janet,
    This is working so well for youngest twin, however we know have family staying for the entirety of lock down and they won’t ignore the screaming. They are saying “no”, “inside voices” and “I won’t let you scream near me” which I feel has given the behaviour power.
    What tips do you have to together on this, as we probably have another 4/5 weeks all living together.

    1. Hi Rachael – I would try not to sweat this too much. It can be exhausting to try to get other people on board and what YOU do matters most. However, you could share with them what you’ve noticed — that calling attention to the behavior tends to make it happen more. From there, I would just do what you do, let the rest go and hope for the best.

  4. Hi, thank you for this great perspective, this is all very informative.
    So I’ve realized that loud noises are very triggering for me, such as screaming, roaring, etc, & although I do know it’s normal & somewhat expected for children to be loud, I tend to go into full blown panic attacks at times (I experienced physical, emotional, & psychological trauma as a child).
    Do you have any suggestions for my situation? My children are 4 & almost 1 if that helps.
    Thank you.

  5. This is great. My oldest has a horoscope that reads “if he doesn’t understand the foundation of your rules he will disobey. Allow him to be himself and create a safe environment for him to grow” he is possibly on the spectrum, possibly just needs to climb three mountains and have a few hours at the beach everyday. He wakes up at 6 AM ready to take on the world and he truly does. He is so big and strong for his age…towers over everyone his age and 8-11year old boys think he’s the same age…he just turned 5. He doesn’t mean to hurt others but he is definitely harder on his little brother. He doesn’t want to hurt him, but he does. I think too Often. He sees red I think. I try to have the Pinterest bedrooms…he tears them apart. Broke his box spring the day we got a new bed. Broke my friend nalgene at 2. 4 cell phones and 2 computers. We aren’t even a tech family and spend most our time adventuring because with this kind of energy in the house we have to. When he hurts or breaks things he feels so badly sometime right away and sometimes after reflection. I know he doesn’t want to hurt anyone. Since he was months old we’ve worked on “gentle hands” but he is just a tank and doesn’t have them. He’s a little Thor. His love is as big as his anger. How do I help him with anger like that? I don’t do timeouts to isolate him. I sit with him when he has tantrums and tell him I’m here for him when he’s done. I do get upset when he hurts his brother. He is 3 and is so sweet and doesn’t deserve to be picked on. How do you guide big energy like this? He does not listen to a thing I ask of him. I do not like to bribe. Sometimes I do playfully chase him and sing like a crazy lady about whatever is happening because we love to sing and dance. I can’t control his physical being. He’s almost stronger than me. I just want to guide him…ballet? Discipline karate style I do not think will be appropriate for him. Maybe little brother. We are very playful active family. My husband is the best at it. We just want help. Guiding the wild 24/7 without help is exhausting. We have 4 kids. And no family or friends to help.

  6. How do you ensure that in the dressing example you gave, let’s say, that the child does not come away having lost the concept of bodily consent? Then using those same words someday with a friend or spouse.

  7. Sarah Badger says:

    What do you do if a siblings gives a behavior power? My 3 year old loves making ANY noise that upsets my 2yo old or 1yo

    1. I would acknowledge all feelings as they are shared with you and not give the behavior power yourself. Be careful not to project more into it. In other words, say something like, “You didn’t like that!” Instead of assuming “That was scary!” Siblings tend to understand each other better than we might realize.

  8. Hi Janet, I have a question relating to “physically forcing the issue”. When children are small babies, RIE encourages us parents to always ask permission before picking up babies, changing their diapers, etc. and they learn that their bodily autonomy should be respected, which is great. But now I have a two year old (not my child, but I have been babysitting her since she was a baby) who, if I hold her hand to lead her to the car in a parking lot for example, will yank her hand away and yell “don’t hold my hand!” Or “no, I don’t want you hold my hand!” And same thing goes for when I am physically picking her up to bring her somewhere. How do we as caregivers make the switch from asking permission before handling a baby, to physically handling a toddler who very overtly does NOT give permission? It feels like we are teaching them that their bodily autonomy will be respected, but then taking that away. And this little girl I watch seems to really realize that. Can you please help me reconcile this? Thank you!

    1. Hi Kailyn— Thanks for your question. Neither I nor RIE would ever suggest asking a baby permission to change diapers or pick them up when that’s needed (and not an actual choice they have), or to set boundaries with them as with hand holding where there is danger. That’s a misunderstanding. Children need us to make those choices for them out of our love and care. I think the misunderstanding might stem from Magda Gerber’s suggestion to communicate with babies when they are picking them up, and during diaper changes, etc. Hope that clarifies and thanks again!

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