In this episode: A parent writes that her 3-year-old has been having difficulties in play school — hitting other kids, screaming, and not listening to the teacher. The behavior often continues at home, and this mom admits she “can’t manage to stay calm every time, so sometimes I yell too.” Her primary concern is that her boy won’t be accepted in playschool, and she’s looking for some advice how to address his behavior.
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m going to be responding to an email from the parent of a three-year old boy and a four-month old girl. She says that her son is hitting other kids at playschool, screaming, and generally causing a ruckus. She’s afraid that he’s going to be kicked out of the playschool, and so she’s looking for advice for dealing with her son’s behavior.
Here’s the message I received:
“Dear Janet, I am the mother of two wonderful kids, a boy who is three and a girl who is four months old. I would like to ask your advice regarding my son’s behavior. He is hitting other kids in playschool, screaming, not listening to the teacher and disturbing the class. He’s a strong little man, so the kids are crying when they’re hit. Also, he hits me at home sometimes if he doesn’t get what he wants or if I ask him to do something, as well as screaming as loud as he can when, for example, he has a fall and I’m trying to help. I can’t manage to stay calm every time, so sometimes I yell too. I put him on timeout, but he never obeys. He only listens to his father when he puts him in timeout. I’m afraid my boy won’t be accepted in the playschool anymore. I would really appreciate your advice.”
Okay, so I thought this would be a good one to cover because it reflects a common misjudgment that we make as parents. I believe we even do this with ourselves. We have a feeling about something. We feel really uncomfortable and out of control over something, and we just want the feeling to go away. We just want to make it go away. So we might stuff it with substances or food, and avoid the feeling. Escape from it, just get it away.
This little boy sounds very, very unsettled. When children behave in this manner, when they are hurting other children or lashing out, it’s a sign that they can’t contain their feelings. They’re communicating their distress. They’re putting it out there, as children do.
So we aren’t going to be successful at helping our child with this behavior if we’re just looking at it as a problem in itself that we have to fix — the behavior. We’re just trying to manage the behavior: just stop acting like this. Maybe if we punish him he’ll stop. Timeout, yelling at him because, come on, just stop. Stop acting like this, stop feeling like that.
He can’t, because young children actually are very healthy in the way that they vent. They don’t usually hold on to the feelings at this young age. They are really good at processing them out, and that’s healthy for them to do.
So whenever children are behaving in these challenging ways, we have to look at what’s going on. Why is this happening? What is the cause for this behavior? We can’t be successful just addressing the behavior itself and getting it to stop.
There can be a lot of reasons that children are dysregulated like this. A very, very common one, sounds like it’s at least part of this situation if not the main part, is that there’s a new baby. That is extremely uncomfortable for most children.
I believe it’s in Siblings Without Rivalry where they use the classic example of what this feels like. Imagine that your spouse came home one day, or maybe they were even telling you in advance that this exciting thing was going to happen. They bring home a new young wife or husband, as the case may be, and they say, “Hey, I still love you just as much, if not more, but now we’ve got him or her here, too. I love them as well. Let’s just all love each other and live together. Come on, isn’t it great? She’s cute, or he’s cute.”
We don’t understand how unsettling this can be for children.
But this could happen to a family for other reasons as well, and that’s why I thought it was a good example, because I’ve actually covered the situation in a lot of my podcasts and my posts and in my book, No Bad Kids. I’ve covered the difficulties of this transition. But this result could be caused by other transitions as well, other forms of stress that a child is taking on. All we know for sure is that there’s something going on when a child acts like, particularly acts like this outside the home.
The classic scenario is that a child rises to the occasion outside the home, at school, when they don’t have the parents there. Then when they come home, they release stress through this kind of limit-pushing behavior. But in this case, these feelings are bleeding out into other situations. The way we can help with that is in our homework, in the way that we handle it at home.
So this mother says that she sometimes has the experience where her son hits her when he doesn’t get what he wants, or when she asks him to do something, as well as screaming as loud as he can when, for example, “He has a fall and I’m trying to help.” So those are examples of venting. Screaming is actually, for a child this age, it’s actually a very healthy form of venting.
So I would try to shift your perspective to perceiving the screams as not a problem, not a fire that we have to put out, but actually the release, the healing that he’s needing. Falling down or getting hurt is helping him to vent that. It doesn’t mean that he’s terribly hurt, it means that he’s tapped into this feeling that he really needs to vent and he’s blasting it out there.
So as hard as this can be for us as parents, and it’s probably the most challenging thing to see our children’s expressions of uncomfortable feelings as so, so positive, that’s what’s going to help him to feel safe. Sharing this, venting this with the people he really needs to vent it with — the mother that betrayed him by having another baby that she loves. That’s who he needs to scream to.
It’s different from screaming at, that it’s your fault. It’s screaming to.
He’s sharing with you. He’s taking off all the layers and showing you his heart right there, and there’s distress. But the more he can express it, the better he’ll feel and the calmer he’ll be, particularly if we can get this message and be okay with it, be comfortable with it. See it as positive, see it as the cure not the problem.
So the screams are golden opportunities for us to welcome the feelings, which doesn’t mean we let him run up and scream in our ear, we don’t let him take it out on us, but we want him to vent that, we want him to scream.
Now the hitting is a lashing out of the feelings and, obviously, we’re going to stop that with our hands as much as possible. But even then, if we could sometimes, not all the time, it’s not going to be possible, we’re human, but if we could see those feelings and accept the feeling of wanting to hit me, not judging him for having that feeling, which is the same as the scream, it’s venting. It’s just seeping out of him.
So if we can say, “Ah, I see, you really want to hit. I see that,” while we’re blocking it comfortably, easily. He’s still a little guy. We can do this, we don’t have to get up and put him in another room and send him away, or move away. We can hold his wrists, we can hold him firmly, and look at him and nod our heads. “Yeah, man. You really want to hit. You want to hurt me right now. You didn’t like that I …”
All we have to know is what just happened or why he’s hitting, if we know. If we don’t know, then we just notice he’s hitting. “You want to hit!”
We don’t have to come up with the reason behind it or name emotions right there, just acknowledging what we know and acknowledging it in a way that lets him know we see, we don’t judge, we welcome him to share those feelings, but we’re going to stop him from acting on them because we’re the adult and we have that self-control that a young child doesn’t always have.
So these opportunities at home are precious. That’s where we have a chance to rise to the occasion — this is show time — to give our child this message that will help heal him and help him feel safe in all of these things that are inside him. He can’t control those. He can’t help the way he feels.
Feelings are involuntary. We all have feelings sometimes that don’t even make sense to us as adults. Or I guess I can’t say we all do, but I certainly do. It’s just part of being human.
We can’t control how he is at school. Hopefully the teachers are handling that the best way they can. Ideally, they’re providing a sense of safety, that they’re not alarmed by him, that they see him, that they’re going to help. That they understand between them that here’s somebody that’s having a crisis. Right now, not forever. They’re not branding him as a hitter or a bully, or any of those things. He’s going through something. Teachers know this. Experienced teachers see this all the time. So hopefully they’re handling it in a manner that helps him to feel safe.
But the person he really, really, really needs to accept him is his parent or parents.
People probably think I’m a bit crazy to say that these messy situations, these messy experiences and transitions our children have, are incredible opportunities to foster their self-worth, to build our relationship, to deepen trust. But these are opportunities. If only we could see every conflict and every issue that’s going wrong as an opportunity for growth. Wouldn’t we all be so much healthier?
I certainly can’t say that I am able to do that most of the time. But children, they’re so open, they’re so innocent, they’re so heart-on-their-sleeve. They so need us to be on their side and stay on their side, and accept them at their worst.
So I would stop doing the timeout. Stay calm. This parent says sometimes she yells too, and that’s okay, forgive yourself. Work on what you’re perceiving here. Work on what you’re seeing when he’s being this “bad kid” at home, hitting you. Yeah, it does look bad. We don’t have to be Pollyanna-ish about it and say, “This is okay.” It’s not. It’s definitely not okay. But why is he doing it? Because he doesn’t feel okay inside, he hurts.
If we could shift our perception of this as offensive, awful behavior and signs that we’re terrible parents and we have a terrible child, and all of those things. If we can shift that to, “Whoa, he’s flailing. He needs me right now.”
Yeah, it is ugly behavior but that’s the kind of behavior we have when we’re hurting, all of us. If we can see it that way at least 55% of the time, we can help our child heal these feelings and heal this behavior.
I really hope that helps.
Also, 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.
Thank you for listening. We can do this.