In this episode: A parent laments the close relationship she used to enjoy with her daughter before having another child. Lately, her daughter has been testing limits, and she has found herself losing both her patience and her temper. “I really don’t want to continue this way with my daughter.” She’s wondering if Janet has any advice how she can remain calm and confident when her daughter seems intent on pushing her buttons.
Transcript of “When We’re Stuck in a Pattern of Frustration, Impatience and Anger”
Hi. This is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m going to be answering a email from a parent who’s upset about her deteriorating relationship with her almost-three-year-old daughter. She feels like she spends most of their time together struggling to get her girl to cooperate or behave. She really wants to find a healthier dynamic for their relationship.
Here’s the email I received:
“Hi, Janet. I’ve been reading your blog and listening to your podcast for a few months. I can’t tell you how much relief and support I found in your thoughts and approach. (To that, I say, “Yay.”)
I have an almost-three-year-old daughter and an almost-three-month-old son. Since becoming pregnant and then having my son, my bandwidth for interacting with my daughter has lessened so much, which saddens me greatly. We used to have such a close relationship. And while I think we still do, it is tarnished with my lessened patience and losing my temper at times.
Today, for example, we went to the park. Leaving the park has become a thing now. It started with me losing my temper one time when she wouldn’t leave when I asked. Now, it happens almost always. She runs away when I say we have to leave. I brace for it. Today I told her, “Bye. I’m leaving,” when she wouldn’t come. I did it out of anger and desperation. In hindsight, I realized that kind of threat is manipulative, hurtful, and maybe even scary for her.
She was very overtired as it was. She sat down in the wood chips crying and screaming. She finally did come. I said, “You can hold my hand or go in the stroller.”
As I’m writing this, I realize how much my angry emotion plays into all of this and even maybe causes her behavior to deteriorate.
Anyway, she sat down and wouldn’t walk. She wanted me to hold her. I told her I couldn’t. She said, at one point, she wanted the stroller, and then refused it. I was physically trying to restrain her into the stroller while she was shrieking. I felt absolutely terrible. I hate having to physically make her do something. It actually hurts me now that she’s fairly big.
I ended up roughly pulling her along the grass to where we were going. This was a low point in my parenting. I ended up crying, which I’m sure was very upsetting to her; it has happened before. A couple of times I told her, “I know you are really upset that we have to leave,” but it didn’t help much. I was so upset it was hard to focus on saying these things.
I really don’t want to continue this way with my daughter, but once these patterns start, I find it so hard to change them. It also happened with diaper changing, but has improved since I stopped getting angry at her. I just don’t know how to be calm and confident when I’m so frustrated.
Any suggestions for what to do in the park situation, and how to create a new pattern where I do not lose my marbles, and she actually complies in a reasonable time when I say we’re leaving?
And then, just random statements like, “Please don’t put stickers on the coach. You can put them on this, but not that.” I feel like I’m just constantly telling her to not do something. If she doesn’t stop, I usually tell her I will have to help her, but it just feels like I’m spending so much time on her back. No fun. I know you have a million emails, so if I happen to hear anything back, I will be happily surprised. Thank you.”
Okay, so this kind of dynamic that this mother has gotten into with her daughter is fairly common. There are some elements that create this that I recommend this parent deals with at the cause. That’s always the most effective way to address children’s behavior. Just like with anything, we want to heal it at the cause, not just dealing with it symptomatically. If we can heal what’s behind the behavior, that’s where we’ll see a change.
That’s very important to understand in this situation. First of all, this little girl has a three-month-old sibling. This tends to be an emotional crisis period for most children that shows up in different ways for each child. They do have a lot of fear around this situation, around this change, and what’s happened to their life. It will need to be expressed by the child. And the way children this age commonly express their very strong feeling is through behavior, through limit pushing. Then, when the parent is able to calmly, and with a lot of acceptance of the child’s feelings, push up against that and hold their boundaries, the child is able to discharge the feelings, to release the feelings. That could come out angrily. It could come out in a tantrum. It could come out just in this overwhelmed flop to the floor, crying, sadness. It can look a lot of different ways.
The first thing I would say to this parent is, it sounds like she probably does understand that that is a big element to what’s going on and to expect, therefore, her child to be pushing limits. That is just the healthy way that children get their feelings out. Those feelings, ideally, will feel safe to share, even when they show up in the most obnoxious ways. It’s not that we’re going to be joyful that our child is behaving this way and responding this way so unreasonably, just seeming not to listen, not to follow directions, pushing back at us, but we’re able to see this as a healthy dynamic and understand our role in it, which is just to hold those limits, and to accept the feelings, and see the feelings, see the desires to stay at the park, like this mother said she did, acknowledge that.
But, the problem that this parent seems to already understand in herself is that she’s not making her daughter feel safe to land the feelings, because she is frustrated and angry when her daughter does these things. There’s certainly nothing unusual about parents getting frustrated and angry with their children. We all do it sometimes. But it’s important to understand that this actually creates more discomfort in our child; therefore, it makes our job even harder because now we’re going to see that every time our child is uncomfortable, there’s going to be more of this kind of behavior… so that they can release those feelings of discomfort and fear.
So now we’re adding the fear that “not only do I feel so in a crisis that I’m doing these crazy things (as a child), but my parents are angry with me. These people that I need to kind of help in these situations, and see where I am, and help me, and help me early,” (and I’m going to talk about that more in detail here), “they actually reject me for this. They see that I’m being wrong, and bad, and yikes!”
What that does is it makes feelings that are already very scary and uncomfortable for a child even more scary, even more overwhelming.
The reasons we do get frustrated are that we have a different expectation than the one that will help us. We have the expectation that our child should be able to leave the park, or our child should be able to not put stickers on the coach. Children are, certainly at three years old, intelligent enough not to do these things. They do understand what we want, so, hey, why aren’t they doing it? Because they’re seeking that boundary. They’re seeking that safe place to land their feelings. That’s the kind of outlook, as a parent, that will help us not get frustrated.
Then the other part of that is the way we actually handle the behavior. This mother is waiting way too long to be physical with her child. She comments that she doesn’t like being physical, and that’s a problem that I hear often. It really does get in the way, because caring for young children, they need to feel that we’re going to be able to pick them up and take them out of situations, and that we’re going to able to help them do things that they’re not able to do, and ideally, without losing our temper, or being rough, or being angry. We have to, one, expect it on some level. Expect there’s going to be this kind of behavior. Then, see it at the outset.
For example, stickers on the couch, I wouldn’t even say, “Please don’t do that,” because I could see that my child is already doing something that my child knows I don’t want them to do. Instead of telling them something that they already know, I see, okay, they’re doing some funny business there, and I’m going to calmly make sure this doesn’t happen. I go over to my child. “You’ve got those stickers I see. I’m not going to let you do that,” and I’m already physically stopping my child. That physical limit setting is what children crave.
Often times, they crave this especially when there’s a baby involved who’s getting a lot physical care, a lot of touch, a lot of holding, and carrying, so they need it for that reason as well. That’s why it’s so important for parents to see this as positive, a positive, loving exchange when you’re actually doing something against your child’s will in that moment. But you’re doing it with love, and kindness, and confidence. You’re taking that little bear cub and you’re stopping those paws from doing this or that, or you’re picking that bear cub up and taking them out of the park.
So with the park, she says this has become a thing, so see it coming. Anticipate. Go close when it’s time to leave. Don’t signal by saying, “Okay, it’s time to go.” Now, you’re signaling, “We’re going to enter this power struggle. We’re going to go back to this routine that we’ve had now.” Toddlers that have babies at home, or younger siblings, or other reasons that they have strong feelings, maybe they’re in a big transition of some other kind, like they’ve just moved or they’re starting a new school or something, they are very likely to not be able to leave the park.
So rather than putting your card out there for her to see, go up to her. “Okay, it’s time,” and now you will already have your hand on her shoulder, your arm around her back. “Here we go. We’re going to go.” If you feel any resistance, you move right through it. You pick her up. You get her into the stroller. The sooner you do it, the less likely that you’re going to get a struggle in return. But if you do, you move through it as best you can. Yes, it can hurt sometimes with a bigger child, But every time you take one of these actions, it’s going to prevent more of this. So, you’re actually healing by doing this messy thing. It’s not fun. It’s not easy. You can get kicked or hit a little bit, but you’re going to do your best to move through that, because that’s going to save you from this happening a bunch of other times. It’s going to take this out of becoming a thing into becoming a time when mom puts her arm around and moves you along with love.
Again, seeing this as positive, seeing this as a loving exchange that your daughter wants to have with you, needs to have with you, is the key to not getting frustrated, not getting upset, not being rough or even anything remotely close to abusive. Is it forceful? Yes, it’s forceful with love and kindness. It’s a loving act, and it’s a million times more loving than threatening that we’re going to leave, or losing our temper, or asking our child more than once. If you hear yourself asking your child to do something or not to do something more than once, you’re already too late in physically following through with the limit.
You know, we’re not going to be perfect at this. It’s really helpful, I think, to, after this kind of situation, like after at the park or whatever, when it didn’t go well, to really consider, “Okay, where was I going there in my mind? Why did I get upset?” Exploring this with a lot of love and kindness towards ourselves. We’re all on this journey. All we want to do is make slow progress. It’s going to be two steps forward, one step back, or one step forward, two steps back sometimes, but we want to keep seeing how to move forward.
So when this mother says she sat down and wouldn’t walk, that she was already sitting down… So ideally, you will be there to not have her have the time to sit down and engage in that kind of power struggle. I would see this right away. I would pick her up. If the baby’s there, I would have the baby safe in a stroller and not be carrying the baby if that’s possible at that time. I say that because sometimes it’s hard for the toddler to see the baby right there next to you, and that’s going to make it more likely that the child will have a hard time in that exchange and want to express feelings around it.
Just for ourselves, I think it’s easier to be physically available to our toddler, but I know that’s not always possible. So if you’re not, and you know, you’re having the baby in a carrier on you or something, then just know that you have to be even more confident and use what I call confident momentum, which is coming in early ready to move, gett that momentum going. It makes up for physical strength that you might not feel. And you don’t need it as much because you’ve got the motion going. You’re already in the mode that you’re going to make this happen.
That’s how I would break this pattern, by being physical right away, by using confident momentum, and definitely not expecting that words are going to be enough. They’re just not. Our words don’t have that much power with a child that has a reason to want to dig her heels in. Yeah, I would say a lot less, and do a lot more, and do it a lot earlier, so not going to that stage of telling her to do something, and then, if she doesn’t stop, I’m going to tell you I have to help you. No. I would help her right away. She needs help right at the outset of these behaviors. Then, she’ll see, she’s not going to be spending as much time on her daughter’s back. There will be periods where it feels like she’s got to constantly move her daughter through, or stop her daughter from this and that, but this will pass much sooner if she can move through it with confidence as a leader, and that’s what children want.
I hope that helps.
There’s more in my book: No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame
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.