Connecting with Your Kids When They’re Upset (Works with Siblings Too)

In this episode: Janet responds to a parent with a toddler and four-year-old who struggles to connect with her kids individually, and neither reacts well when the other is getting mom’s attention. For instance, she says when she tries to give her older son some lap time, “my 18-month-old clearly gets jealous and starts squealing, attempting to climb on me, hitting his brother.” She’s wondering if it’s possible to really connect with either child when both are upset.

Transcript of “Connecting with Your Kids When They’re Upset (Works with Siblings Too)”

Hi. This is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I have a question from a parent who wonders how she can connect with her children when she has two of them and there’s only one of her, and they both seem to be needing connection. I’m going to talk a little bit about what connecting with our children when they’re in need actually looks and feels like.

Here’s the question I received:

“Hi. I’ve been reading more about respectful parenting, and I have a question. If I’m interpreting it correctly, when I can tell my 4.5-year-old son is feeling disconnected from me due to his behavior, whining, acting out, et cetera, I should focus on connection to prevent power struggles and escalation of his behavior. I’m just wondering how to focus on the connection right there in the moment when I’m by myself with an 18-month-old as well.

My 4.5-year-old likes to connect by climbing onto my lap for a cuddle, but my 18-month-old clearly gets jealous and starts squealing, earsplitting, not possible to tune out, attempting to climb on me, hitting his brother, et cetera. If I pick up him too and cuddle them both, then he pushes, hits, kicks his brother, who then retaliates. Instead of properly focusing on connecting with my 4.5-year-old, I’m trying to console/fend off my 18-month-old. My 18-month-old refuses to be redirected or distracted by anything. Just unsure of how to make this work with two children when I’m by myself the vast majority of the time. Partner works long hours.”

I chose this question because she brings up so many important points that I want to address, common misunderstandings and misconceptions about the respectful parenting approach that I teach.

Yes, in a general sense, a child who is whining, acting out, et cetera, is in a place of disconnection, and they do need us to connect with them, but what does that look like, and then what does that look like when we have another child or multiple children there as well, and they seem to need our attention? How do we connect with all of these children at once, and how does connection actually look with each child?

She gives the example that her 4.5-year-old likes to connect by climbing onto her lap for a cuddle. Now, I’m not sure what has gone on before that and what the behavior is that is causing him to want to climb into her lap, but first, I’ll say that the way to connect with children is not necessarily to give them what they seem to want on the surface or in the moment. That is not what it means to connect with an upset child.

When children are upset and behaving erratically or even just whining, they’re not in the logical part of their brain. They’re in the emotional centers of their brain, just in their emotion. The things that they ask for or demand or want in those states aren’t logical either. Oftentimes, it’s just a part of expressing that feeling, that they want to tell us to do this or that or that they need this or another one of those. When it’s out of those feelings, what connection is about is really just holding space and supporting those feelings to be expressed. It’s not to try to offer a solution to make the feeling stop. Connecting is seeing what’s really going on with our children, which isn’t always easy because we get touched off by their behavior and the emotions that they’re expressing. We get easily overwhelmed.

What I try to work with parents on is to perceive accurately, to see what’s really going on when our child is going to these places, to recognize it as early as possible these behaviors that our individual child commonly displays… these aren’t reasonable requests. They’ve just gone to a place that they need to ride out with our support, and our support is really mostly emotional support and acceptance. Out of that can come acknowledging, “Oh, you want this and you want that, and now you want to sit on my lap.”

If that’s something that the parent can’t comfortably do in that moment, she’s juggling things on the stove or otherwise busy with something that she can’t cuddle right there, then I would cuddle with my emotional connection with my child, which means just seeing that, “Oh, you want to cuddle, and I can’t, and that’s so hard, isn’t it? That’s frustrating. You really want to be with me!” Not necessarily even saying those words or any words. We’re just looking at them with that acceptance and welcoming their feelings, while we keep doing what we have to do.

Ideally, we can pause and give them that moment, but we can actually even connect while we’re doing something else. It’s the way that we accept, the way that we look at our child and make that eye contact with that soft, accepting gaze, seeing the dysregulation our child is experiencing, not blaming them, not getting personally offended by what they’re doing, understanding this is just a place they’ve gone, and it’s bigger than they are. It will pass.

But let’s say that cuddling with our child is a good idea right there. It’s something she can do and she wants to offer him that space. That’s lovely. Now here comes her other child who she says clearly gets jealous and starts squealing, earsplitting, not possible to tune out, attempting to climb on her, hitting his brother, et cetera. What’s happened there? Her 18-month-old is venting some feelings of his own, going to an emotional state. Now he’s not going to be behaving reasonably either, and he starts squealing. Yes, it is earsplitting, but the important thing here is that we don’t try to fix the feelings. We don’t follow that impulse that we all have as parents to comfort the feelings away, make them better.

This mother says, “I’m trying to console, fend off my 18-year-old.” Consoling is a word that sounds very active on the parent’s part to try to change something. That can’t be our role, and that actually isn’t as connected or, I would say, as loving as seeing, accepting, allowing something.

The 18-month-old comes over, I’m still cuddling my 4.5-year-old, and I acknowledge, “Oh, now you want me too,” and I’m looking at him, “You want to get up here too.” But we don’t give into that because both children need the message that when you’re there for them, you’re there for them.

You can still connect with your other child. But trying to please both of them, as this mother shares, pleases neither child, and it’s not our role in the situation. Connecting is not about pleasing our child. It’s about seeing our child, allowing our child to be where they are in that moment, even encouraging our child to be where they are in that moment, because the feelings are not logical facts.

Our 18-month-old might behave that way after we’ve spent the whole day cuddling. Now we give five minutes to the older child, and the 18-month-old still might complain. He has a right to, but what does that tell us?

Hopefully, it tells us that it’s not about getting what they seem to “want” in that moment. It’s a venting. It’s an emotional release that’s super important. Maybe that child has been holding onto some control getting his way with his mother and getting stuck there instead of letting go and releasing some of his toddler angst. It’s a very emotional time. 4.5 is an emotional time, too. It’s another stage of growing towards more autonomy and all the push-pull feelings that go along with that.

Both of these children, even if there weren’t any other stressors in their environment, have lots of reasons to vent feelings. If this parent, like a lot of us do, has been trying to console or make things better, rather than rolling out the red carpet and supporting those feelings to be expressed, then there can be a build-up, and children, in this healthy manner that they have, will keep pushing up against us to find those ways to vent, on an unconscious level. They will keep trying to release the feelings.

That may be what the 18-month-old is doing there, pushing up against a limit that he needs to be able to let go of. Connecting with him is seeing that, seeing that he doesn’t actually need to be on this mother’s lap at that moment. What he needs to do is be in a place of frustration, be in a place of, “I don’t control everything, and this feels awful,” letting go.

The way this would look would be: I’m cuddling my 4.5-year-old, and here comes this guy. “Oh, shoot. You want to be here too. I’m with your brother right now. That’s so hard. You don’t like that when that happens.” Again, not saying those words. I say a lot of words in these podcasts because I’m trying to demonstrate an attitude towards the feelings, an accepting attitude, being that leader that still holds onto what I’m doing, which is, in this case, I’m giving cuddles to this guy.

She’s also giving this older child some really, really important messages about his worth, about him getting to be prioritized sometimes. He’s already given up his parents to the birth of this sibling, and now there is this rival there and somebody else that he’s has to share with. He can’t be expected to share every moment. So it makes sense to me that when she does allow the 18-month-old on her lap, there’s kicking and then the brother retaliates. Yeah, of course, he does. It’s hurtful to never get to just have your mother to yourself for a moment because she wants to please your brother as well. We have to rise up to this job and be that person that can say no to somebody.

When she says that he attempts to climb on her and hit his brother, the 18-month-old, I would have your hand there firmly, not even letting him start to climb, being very firm and on this physically. You’ve got maybe one arm around your 4.5-year-old, but maybe you also have to take the other arm there, too, to hold off this guy. So not letting him start to climb up and then you’re trying to get him down again, holding him off firmly so that he can’t get up there or hit his brother or hit you. If that means taking his hands and holding him there, be on this in a preventative manner, strong, convicted in your choice here. As a parent, that’s what both these boys need in this situation, a confident leader.

Other times, this may be reversed, and it’s the 18-month-old whose right to be with his mother and have her attention at that moment is protected. Yes, of course, we’re not going to really be able to pay full attention when somebody else is screaming about it, but it’s that message that we give each time that makes that not happen as often, because children know that we are strong and confident, and we don’t feel it’s our job to please everybody and put out every emotion and make it better. That’s an impossible job for us as parents. This would be true with twins, with three children. We have to be the leader that displeases people, knowing that it’s really healthy for them to be in that situation and to vent those feelings.

I would try to let go of the squealing, but I would fully prevent him from hitting or climbing on you, holding him off firmly, not feeling like, “Oh, I’ve got to let him get up, and now I’ve got to get him off.” Being preventative physically.

She says, “I pick him up too and cuddle them both.” I would absolutely not do that. I would stay focused on connecting with her 4.5-year-old, letting his feelings be in the comfort of her arms, not trying to console the 18-month-old or fend off. Fend off sounds like she’s letting him get too far. We don’t have to fend off if we’re confidently on it from the beginning, not even letting it start, and encouraging those feelings that that child has, connecting with him by allowing his frustration, encouraging him to share that with you, not feeling responsible for it, definitely not wanting to fix it, understanding that it’s actually not just about this specific situation. This is simply what touched it off. That’s what it means to connect.

Again, obviously, she’s not really getting to focus on connecting with her 4.5-year-old when this is going on, but maybe the next time or in a couple of times because both of them are getting this important message.

She says, “My 18-month-old refuses to be redirected or distracted by anything.” Right, and that’s actually healthy on his end because those are both the opposite of connection in this situation. Distracting a child from what’s happening is always disconnecting. It’s literally saying, “What you’re feeling isn’t happening. Focus on this, and don’t feel what you feel. Don’t be where you are in this moment.” I would never recommend distracting a child, no matter how young the child is, and disconnecting that way. Redirecting is, again, in this situation, saying, “Don’t want what you want. Don’t feel what you feel. Do this.” That’s putting the onus on the parent to try to fix it and make it better. It can’t be her job. It isn’t a job that’s going to work or be connecting with her children as she wants to.

In her final sentence, she says, “Just unsure of how to make this work with two children.” I want to help her reframe what making it work looks like, what connecting looks like. It’s not this, “Oh, I made it work, and everything’s smooth.” Unfortunately! Having young children is emotionally messy for them, and that’s why our attitude towards and perception of emotions is so important.

I hope some of that helps.

Also, please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in.

Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.

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