In this episode: Janet responds to a parent who writes that her 3-year-old son has very strong opinions about her appearance, especially hair and clothing choices. He gets furious when she puts her hair up in a ponytail or bun, and if she defies him, it leads to “epic tantrums and standoffs.” This mom realizes her son’s controlling attitude is probably part of a larger issue and points out, “He has zero opinions about what his dad wears.” She’s hoping Janet has some insight into this frustrating dynamic with her son.
Transcript of “Bossy, Controlling and Emotional Over Random Things”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m responding to a parent whose three-year-old has epic tantrums if she doesn’t do these specific random things that he wants her to do. She’s suspicious that this might be a symptom of a larger issue and it’s driving her crazy in the moment, of course. So she’s looking for some insight.
Okay, here’s the email I received:
“Hi Janet. I love your podcast. I have a problem that doesn’t sound like much, but it’s driving me crazy and I think reflective of a larger issue. My soon to be three year old has a complete meltdown when I put my hair in a ponytail or bun. I’ve tried rationalizing, asking him why he doesn’t like it and sometimes just doing it, which results in some epic tantrums and standoffs. It’s been going on for months. I sleep with it up at night, and yesterday he came into my bedroom and woke me up screaming, “Put your hair down!”
While it’s not a huge inconvenience for me to wear my hair down, it’s annoying. I want to be able to wear my hair up when I want and I’m frustrated with him, and this seems to be part of a bigger issue, his scrutiny of my appearance. When I change in the morning from my pajamas, he doesn’t like it. If I change my mind about a work outfit, it can trigger a meltdown. If I put on workout clothes, he doesn’t like it. So what gives? Are we dipping into Freud territory here? He has zero opinions about what his dad wears and on that note, he also gives me the hardest time with bedtime while my husband gets off scot-free. Thank you in advance for any advice. I’m about to, no pun intended, pull my hair out.”
I think this parent is spot on. This is not about hair, and it’s not about pajamas or workout clothes or any of those specifics. I chose this question to respond to on my podcast because although the specifics are not that common, these sentiments and these behaviors children have are quite common, and they are what they seem to be, efforts to control.
Usually when children get into these controlling behaviors, it’s because they’re actually trying to control some feelings. Some feelings that they actually need to express. In other words, this child needs to have the epic tantrums. And I would love to know more about how this mother responds to the tantrums, If she is comfortable, if she still holds her own as a leader and doesn’t give in to make it better. It sounds like she is doing that with her hair and maybe with the pajamas as well, I don’t know. But she is falling into believing that this might be some rational need that he has.
What can happen to us as parents is we say to ourselves, “Well, that’s easy. I can just let my hair down and give him what he wants, and it’s not a big deal. It’s not hard for me.” But these details actually are a big deal because, as this mother realizes, they are representative of a child getting stuck in control. And control mode is not a comfortable place to be. For a child, it’s especially uncomfortable. I think of it as a tight place to be. It’s a holding-in place. It’s not getting to let go and move through the emotions and be a little kid, be free. If he’s getting stuck and trying to call the shots with his leaders, it doesn’t feel good to him.
So the way I would approach this is to see this for what it is, which is not at all an issue that he has with people’s hair or clothes, but a stuck place that he’s going to that we want to relieve him of, even if that means, and it very likely will mean, tears or a major meltdown, an epic meltdown. So instead of trying to step around these landmines, it’s better to just let them blow. And you hold on to your own reasonable boundaries.
I think sometimes as parents it can help to take a step back and look at what’s going on here, which it sounds like this mother is doing, and noticing how unreasonable it is that she has to do her hair a certain way for her son. When we’re in it, it can be hard to see how nonsensical it is for us to give into that.
Some of the other common ones that parents share with me are: they want somebody to move their seat, they want daddy to sit here and you sit there, or they want mommy to put their mittens on. It can appear as if this is coming from a deep, deep need for that specific action, but the need is actually to release the stress that they’re holding onto, to release that tension, to let go and be really, really upset about the hair being in a bun, or the parent’s not moving for them, or the cup that they wanted … the specific color they wanted that s in the wash or not convenient for that parent to get.
Those are all tipping points for children that aren’t (and could not be, if we think about it), what the feelings are really about. I’m wondering if there are other shifts going on in this family. If the mother is expecting a baby, if they’ve had a move of some kind to a new school, to a new home, something like that. Those are common reasons that children will get stuck in control mode. Trying to control the grief, trying to control the fear of the change, whatever that is, instead of letting themselves go there and feeling the healing effects of that, which is what children need to do. And again, as I’ve said often, young children are very, very good at this. They are experts at processing out their emotions.
For us, the challenge is to notice the way these emotions crop up in random situations (that can seem in the moment like they’re about hair or something else), to understand that it’s not about hair and to let it go. Hold ourselves as three dimensional people in these relationships with our children, the kind of people they need us to be, that have boundaries, that don’t just give up and give in to them. That’s what helps our children. I know that I have had a harder time developing my ability to set boundaries. And my daughter, especially my oldest daughter, and all my children have helped me to do that just through the process of learning to care for them respectfully and be that leader.
But if we’re not used to that, we might not feel that it’s safe or that we deserve to have those boundaries when, ideally, we should be able to assert them over even the most minor things. “The way you’re touching me there just doesn’t feel good. I’m going to stop your hand.” Meanwhile, we’re physically holding their hand away, so that they can’t do that behavior to us. Not getting angry about that, but believing in our right to be a person with our own wants, and not giving them up to keep our child from having an epic meltdown or a whine or any other expression of emotion.
The parents I work with often notice, the way that I did, that learning to have these boundaries will have a ripple effect in our lives, make us realize: Hey, I don’t need to put up with this or that or the other just to avoid this person getting angry with me. It’s okay to have those feelings in relationships. It’s okay for the other person to be disappointed or angry with my choice. I’m still going to make my choice, of course, with sensitivity to their point of view and openness to their point of view. I’m talking about adults here now. And with children as well.
I don’t know if I would call this Freud territory, but it’s definitely about strong emotions and the need for leadership that a young child has. The fact that this isn’t showing up with his dad means that it’s a relationship issue. I wouldn’t even go to the extent of calling it an issue because it’s not that big of a deal. But it’s something he’s sensing with his mother, that she feels a little guilty around this, that she feels a little confused.
This is an age when children are learning about their power, learning about their separateness from us as people, and so those themes will keep coming up as well. Wait, she has needs and wishes that don’t always match with mine in the moment. Children need to learn that. That’s how they learn about relationships with peers and everyone else in their life. They learn that people they love can say no and still love them. That means they also learn that they can have boundaries. Those boundaries might cause someone else to get upset, but still they can love each other or like each other.
So, there are a lot of important messages embedded in these situations that we can give children. Every moment with our children, every interaction we have is a teachable moment in the sense that children are learning from it. So what do we want them to learn here? That he’s got a right to his point of view, but that other people have other opinions and that they are in charge of their bodies and their personal care and that it’s okay to let go and feel uncomfortable. The feelings pass and we feel better afterwards.
So let’s just go over quickly how this could look in the moment. She says, “I sleep with it up at night and yesterday he came into my bedroom and woke me up screaming, ‘Put your hair down!'”
I think this issue has really come to a head because he’s not getting the clarity he needs from his mother, and it’s gaining power in him on some unconscious level to deal with this issue. “Come on, mom.”
I think if his unconscious feelings and wants could talk, they would say, “Mom, why are you struggling with this? Come on. I’m a little kid. Set me free here. Don’t let me be this big bossy power man. I need you to be the leader.”
These feelings that he’s been holding in are bursting out of him, it seems. That he would actually wake up with the force of that, “Put your hair down!”
I would receive that as I would any emotion or tantrum or a meltdown that a child has. I would just hear him, “Whoa, you woke up with this idea of what you want me to do.”
If he can even hear that.
If he’s screaming at you, looking into your eyes, just look back at him with empathy, nod your head and don’t make one move to do something with your hair. Breathe, trust, hold onto yourself as this important person in his life. And remember how much more loving and kind that is than getting frustrated because we feel bossed by our child and we’ve got to do what they say. Again, taking a step back and looking at this dynamic with a more objective eye, What’s going on here? What am I doing?
It’s unkind for us to get resentful and frustrated because we aren’t establishing our personal boundaries. We aren’t taking care of ourselves. That’s what we want to avoid and we can avoid, but it means facing the music of his feelings, which aren’t about hair or clothes. They are about something else. We don’t know exactly what, or I don’t know exactly what. Maybe this mother knows if she thinks about it a bit more. But whether we know or not, we’ve got to trust it.
So don’t let your kids get stuck in bossy land. It’s not fun for them, it’s not comfortable and it’s not good for us in this relationship. Our children cannot be the ones to give us permission to do the things that we want and need to do and to have those boundaries with them. We have to do that. That’s our job.
I always had the fantasy that my daughter would give me a break. “Enjoy, relax, take your time.” Let me go to the bathroom. It just doesn’t happen with young children. They really need us to be the ones to do it, and they use these moments, again, unconsciously, to release some important stress, tension and emotions.
So, whatever this child asks or any other child asks, acknowledge and welcome their right to ask those things, even if they’re the most ridiculous things in the world. “Ah, you want that? No, this is what I’m doing.” And we can even say, “Sorry, that’s not what you want.” But that has to come from being really comfortable in our decision and sticking up for ourselves.
We can say almost whatever we want if we come from that place. “I welcome your opinion, I welcome your thoughts. I’m going to make this decision, it’s about me.” And sometimes we have to make decisions about our children as well, as their compassionate, respectful leaders. We can even think about it, too. If it’s something about my hair or clothes, I would not think about it at all. But if it’s something that has more to do with our child’s choice, then we can say, “Hmm, let me think about that. I’m not sure”, and from that place of strength, give a confident yes or no.
Once we embody this role as leaders, which is in all of us … we don’t have to go find it elsewhere, it’s there. Once we get in touch with that, we have so much freedom and we can be so clear in the love that we give our child, in the attention that we give them the love that we have for them. It doesn’t get all muddled in these, “Well, I got to this for you and I don’t really want to, but I’m going to do it.” None of that feels loving to children. Being a martyr is not what children want from us.
So, I hope some of that helps.
Also, please check out some of my other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and categories, so you should be able to find whatever topic you’re interested in. And remember, both of my books are available on Audio, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can find them through my website or on audible.com, and you can also get them in paperback at Amazon and in ebook at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and apple.com.
Also my exclusive audio series, Sessions. These are six individual recordings of consultations with parents, discussing their specific parenting issues. These are available by going to sessionsaudio.com. That’s sessions plural, audio.com. 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. Sessionsaudio.com.
Thanks for listening. We can do this.
My son did the same thing when he was 3! He wasn’t as upset about it though and it never ended in a tantrum. But he’d request me to put my hair down. It’s totally a control thing, as you said, but it’s also about wanting to control the feelings of comfort and care and maybe predictability too. Since I wear my hair down in the evening when we do stories and just generally are home and in comfort mode, I suspect my child wanted to feel those comfortable feelings at other times as well when my hair was up. Thanks for this episode!
Seems like when your son was a threenager, ‘hair down’ meant ‘stories & chill’. And to the emailer’s threenager, ‘hair down and not wearing work/gym outfit’ probably means ‘out of bed and playing with me, not leaving me to go to wherever it is she disappears to with hair up & that outfit’, which is a lot of intangible concepts he can’t string together, let alone verbalize, hence an oversimplified wording about the tangibles (e.g. hair) plus frustration with not being able to rationally process and express the rest. The mom has to acknowledge all that for him.
Dear Janet- I am expecting my first child and I’ve started reading your books and site. This post and many others are unbelievably enlightening as I prepare to be a parent. It speaks to my strengths as a leader in my company, community, and family and allows me to see that I can use my intuition of being a kind, fair but firm leader with my future child as well. I have always dreamed of being a mom and am naturally nurturing and loving, but as I watch my nieces and nephews walk all over and boss their parents, I’ve struggled to understand what the best way to respond in that situation would be if they were my children. Thank you so much for providing me so much enlightening insight!
It’s my pleasure, Carla, and I’m thrilled that these ideas are clarifying for you. x Janet
It’s my pleasure, Carla, and I’m thrilled that these ideas are clarifying for you. I wish you joy in your journey! x Janet
Janet, something that helps me with setting boundaries for my 3 year old even when uncomfortable for me is reassuring myself that she needs to let these feelings out with me because she trusts me to love her through them. For example, I notice them coming up most often after I’ve been at work all day and she’s been with her nanny who reports she’s been happy all day until that moment. I have to think that there’s a level of trust that we share that she doesn’t have with her nanny, for example. I’d love to hear your thoughts about this. Thanks!
A lot of this article resonates with me regarding my 3 year old daughter. One of the biggest differences is that it is not person-specific. Her requests are towards both me and my husband, and others, like grandparents, as well. In general, I’d describe her as a pretty assertive toddler that has a plan and is a go-getter. However, she can get pretty angsty or frustrated (sometimes ending in tears or tantrum) when things don’t go exactly as planned or in the manner she wants it to be. Similar to examples above, people sitting in certain places, certain people doing things for her rather than others, eating her food in a certain order, playing with her toys in a certain way, etc. My husband and I are very welcoming of her big emotions and see the benefit in allowing her to have a “good fierce cry” with supportive acknowledgement. Many of her “controlling” behavior doesn’t affect me. I’ll move her carrots to the part of her plate that suits her, or move my seat a little over, or what have you. I generally respond in a gentle, softer tone.
“Sure, it seems like you really want the carrots here, I’ll move those over for you, or feel free to move them yourself.” (And, sometimes they are not okay with me, and I feel very comfortable holding the limit and allowing her to have those big feelings).
However, I want to make sure that these asks, or rather demands at times, are okay. I don’t want foster anxiety or unhealthy perfectionism. Would love your thoughts about how to respond to them. Thank you in advance for your thoughts!
Thanks a lot for this episode.
We are going through pretty much same thing with my 3 year old daughter.
I was wondering how long it will take. You mentioned it is a process the child is learning about power. How we can help our child to pass this phase safely and quickly.
Thank you for sharing this. My daughter has just started preschool and has been getting really controlling. This insight helps a lot and I will continue to stick to my boundaries with confidence. It also made me think about my own behaviour, emotions and need for control, so thanks for that too.