In this episode: A mom is at her wit’s end and describes a series of challenging family separations and transitions, including the birth of a sibling. Now one of her twins yells and screams from morning until night. The other twin is defiant and “is always telling me ‘no’ and doing things he knows he’s not supposed to be doing.” This mom says their behavior is so extreme she spends most of the day in tears and then ends up yelling. She’s looking for Janet’s advice how she might deal with her twins’ behavior.
Transcript of “Dear Parent: You Are Not Failing”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I’m responding to an email from an overwhelmed mom with twin three-year-olds and a newborn. Her twins are acting out and screaming, and she feels at the end of her rope. She’s looking for some help.
Okay, here is the note I received:
“Hi Janet, I’m writing because I’m really at the end of the road here. To give a brief background, my husband is in the army and gone a lot. Within the past two years, my three-year-old twins have dealt with me getting pregnant and being in the hospital, so they had to live with my mom for a month, then come home to their dad deployed and me sick. Then they got a new brother, and their dad came home. Once this happened, my daughter twin started acting out more and more each day to the point where she’s screaming from the minute she wakes up to the minute she goes to bed. No matter how hard I try to calm her down, she will just yell and scream at me. It’s so extreme that I spend most of my day crying, because I don’t know what to do, and then I end up yelling back.
Meanwhile, her twin brother will not listen. He’s always telling me, ‘No’, and doing things he knows he’s not supposed to be doing. He looks me right in the face as he’s doing them, which is infuriating. I don’t know how to fix this behavior and feel like I’ve ruined them somehow. I listen to your podcast, but it doesn’t seem like any of the children you speak about are on this level. Please, help.”
Okay. So, first of all, of my heart goes out to this mother, it sounds like she’s been dealing with so much. And wow, yeah, that’s a lot of transition for this family, a lot of difficulty. And that’s going to take its toll on everyone, the parents and the children. I wish there was an answer to alleviating all these issues; of course, there isn’t, but I do believe that there are some shifts in perspective that this parent can make that will ease her load quite a bit and will certainly help her children to feel calmer; and therefore, not displaying so much challenging behavior.
And it’s interesting that this mother says, “It doesn’t seem like any of the children you speak about are on this level.” Well, many of them may not be on this exact level, having dealt with all the situations that these children have, having their mom gone for a month, having their father gone quite a bit, having their mother be ill, and then the new brother. So, this is a heavy load for all of them. But what these children are doing, the way that they are processing their feelings around these situations is exactly what I talk about in almost every podcast. And most of the parents that I work with, their situations and their issues can all boil down to understanding the way that children deal with these different transitions and stress factors.
The three-year-old twins in this family are displaying perfectly the two ways that children process their feelings. One is what this daughter is doing. She says that, “She’s acting out more and more each day too.” She said, “She’s screaming from the minute she wakes up to the minute she goes to bed.” So, she’s releasing those feelings out there.
And the son, she says, “He will not listen. He’s always telling me, ‘No’, doing things he knows he’s not supposed to be doing.” And he looks her right in the face when he’s doing them, which is infuriating. So, he’s displaying a slightly more shelled version of the emotional processing that’s going on, and that’s the other common way that children will show us they are uncomfortable. It comes out through behavior that can seem very intentional, it can seem very mean, as if it’s towards us, but it is not. It is them holding onto feelings and impulsively lashing out physically or being resistant.
So, I would love to help this parent move towards seeing this whole situation and her role in it very differently from the way she’s seeing it now.
In regard to her daughter, she says, “My daughter twin started acting out more and more each day to the point where she’s screaming from the minute she wakes up to the minute she goes to bed. No matter how hard I try to calm her down, she will just yell and scream at me.”
Many of us, I would say most of us, have the instinct to respond to our children’s displays of emotion by trying to calm them down, but calming a child down is usually impossible, and it’s not healthy. So, this is a fruitless pursuit that this mother’s taken on that will naturally lead her to feel worse and worse. She feels responsible for her children’s feelings, that it’s her job to change them. And that is not our job, it can’t be our job. What we have to understand is that the screams and the acting out are not at us, it is about the way that child is feeling, it belongs to that child. It is not our responsibility to calm down or to fix. That’s not our role.
Young people, and these children are only three years on the planet, they have no idea why they’re acting that way, and they can’t stop themselves. They’re letting go of these feelings that maybe they held on to when they were with the grandmother for a month, and now they feel safe, because loved ones are there. They’re feeling safe to release the uncomfortable feelings.
This often happens when families do something that’s completely positive, like, taking a vacation or having family around for the holidays. Schedules are disrupted, there’s change. Oftentimes, children will rise to those occasions and be okay on those trips, but then they come back home, back to their environment, and suddenly, their behavior is challenging, they’re resisting, they’re pushing limits. That’s how they rebalance themselves. It’s the healthiest thing, and yet it’s very hard for us as parents to remember that this is happening, and that it’s okay, and that it’s not this terrible sign that we’re failing and that we should feel badly because our children are upset, that it’s our fault or that it’s directed towards us.
So, how do we make these challenging shifts in the way that we perceive our children’s feelings and behavior? I can say that all the years I’ve been working on this, and that’s 26, I still struggle with wanting to fix my children’s behavior, wanting them to feel only good all the time; not wanting them to feel disappointed, or angry, or sad, or scared. It’s a positive, loving feeling that we have for our children, but it can get in our way and their way when we follow that impulse.
And to oversimplify this completely, that feeling of responsibility towards another’s feelings can be a cycle that gets passed down, because when we displayed these behaviors, when we screamed and yelled and had a meltdown, acted out, our parents might have gotten angry with us or they might have gotten sad, so we got the message that we’re going to be rejected if we don’t keep those adults okay. We can’t get them mad at us or disappointed. Again, that’s an oversimplification that we can pass down to our own children by taking their feelings and their behavior personally.
Parents will often ask me, “Well, isn’t it okay for me to be angry? I should be able to be authentic with my feelings too. It can’t just be about my children.” And my response is yes, of course, it’s okay that you feel angry, but it’s not going to be helpful to you in helping your children with their behavior, it’s not going to help you make the changes that you want to make. Especially if we get angry without repairing afterwards.
We’re all going to lose our temper, I’ve lost my temper plenty of times over the years. Remembering to acknowledge, make amends, repair, just a simple, “I’m so sorry, I lost my temper. This, this, and this happened, and it just put me over the edge. And I’m very tired,” or whatever. If we don’t do that, then children can start to feel responsible for our feelings, which is uncomfortable, because they really can’t control theirs yet.
So, to make that shift requires a lot of thought and visualization, practice seeing our children in these situations when they’re pushing limits, when they’re screaming, to see that as positive. Obviously, we have to hold the limits for our children, but what they’re doing makes sense, and they need that acceptance for the feelings behind the behavior.
With the screaming, that’s a little more clear cut, it’s not the feelings behind the behavior, it’s just the screaming. Let them scream, it’s positive. This is something that’s going to help them. It’s not about us. It’s about them getting to move through that and feel better. So, welcome that if possible and practice visualizing that differently.
And then with the behavior, we do need to hold those boundaries, and often that means understanding that our children are in a kind of emotional crisis place or they do have reasons to be uncomfortable, they’re showing us that they are.
So, we’re ready, we’re ready in those transitions, knowing that those are the hardest times for children. We’re ready to help escort our child out before we stand across the room and tell them they need to go or they need to come. We go over there, we take their hand, we put our arm around them, we help them move from point A to point B. We don’t give a bunch of choices at those times.
And we stop something before it goes off the rails, because we ideally start to see it coming. And instead of being afraid of that, we embrace it, “Okay, I’m going to hold these limits, so that my child can release the feeling, can release the screams.” I don’t consider screaming limit pushing, that’s a very cathartic display of emotion, but with her son, this mother says, “He looks me right in the face when he’s doing it.”
It seems so intentional, and mature, and mean, when children do that, but really that’s a very defensive posture, and behind that is scared, sad, upset, waving a flag: “Help, stop me, don’t take me personally, just stop me. And if I end up screaming about that, please let me do it.” And understand that’s what needs to happen. That’s what’s underneath this, that’s what’s behind this behavior. It’s not a mature mean guy back here, it’s a little baby that’s totally overwhelmed and got caught up wearing this mask of being a resistant mean guy. We have to learn to see beyond as parents.
And then where this mother is seeing all this failure on her part and beating herself up, I feel for her, because I really do know what that’s like. I think we can all relate to that, how defeating it is. We’re trying to put out a fire, we’re trying to calm our daughter down, and then there’s in another spot fire over there and over there.
And then our son, it seems like he’s at us, he’s being unkind. So, we feel kind of victimized by him. We just bury ourselves with all of this responsibility. And it doesn’t work for us, and it doesn’t work for our children.
But, we can do this hard challenging work of changing a cycle. It’s not instinctive, because most of us were not raised to feel accepted for our feelings and the behaviors that we had when we acted out our feelings impulsively. And we won’t do it perfectly, we won’t turn on a dime and get it right the first time. It’s a lifetime work in progress for me and for many of us.
So, the way that could look in terms of specifics with her daughter she says, “No matter how hard I try to calm her down.” So, instead, “Wow, that makes you want to scream.” “Yeah.” And the way I’m looking at her is accepting, even maybe empathizing if that’s possible, but accepting is the more important one for us to work on. When we get more comfortable we might get to empathizing. Breathing, taking care of myself, letting go of that these aren’t my feelings, they’re her feelings, they’re not directed at me, they’re being shared with me is all. Accepting her for sharing them is going to heal the situation and, on top of that, help my children build resiliency for life. It’s something really important that we can do if we’re willing to do the work.
So, I don’t know what the screaming and acting out looks like, but… keeping her safe. Obviously, we don’t let her run out into the street, so we’re going to keep her safe and contain her behavior in that way, but we’re actually wanting her to share with us.
And with her son always telling her, “No,” I would accept that “no” while you demonstrating “yes.” If you say it’s time to come in the house and he says, “No”, you’re going to enter his space, put your arm around him. “You’re saying no, but it’s really time.” And move him like a mama bear. Understanding, again, that’s a transition and he needs you to come into this with confident momentum. And it’ll be easier for you, because you won’t start this power struggle where he’s saying, “No,” and you’re over here saying, “Yes.”
The same with if he’s using things that are inappropriate or he’s using them unsafely: “I have to take that right away.” Don’t wait and say, “Stop doing that, don’t do that.” Don’t try to talk him out of his behavior, he can’t stop that way.
When children are in those resistant places, in those defiant places, they can’t get their way out of them through us demanding that or asking that. They need us to actually physically get them out of that situation, whether that means putting something away, moving him.
So, I would see, again, there your job as accepting: “You feel like throwing this, you feel like staying out there, but I’m going to move you in.” And that really doesn’t even need to be said through words, it’s about the way we go over to him, the way we look in his eyes, with some understanding that he’s gone there, he’s gone to the dark side. And we see that it’s about him again and not us, and we’re going to help him to safety. And that means safety in terms of if he’s in our stuff, and we don’t want him in our stuff or we don’t want him touching this or that. It’s not just physical safety, it’s safety from doing things that are going to bother us and make us feel victimized.
We are physically going to stop him right away, setting limits early and physically following through. That means we’re not going to be repeating ourselves, because repeating ourselves is me standing over here saying, “Do this,” or “Stop doing that.” That’s not going to work. We’re going to go over and help it to happen. And yeah, that may seem like more work, but it will be easier, because we won’t be wasting our energy and our words on pushing our children into a power struggle, actually further away from us. So, being more on this.
It’s actually quite strict what I’m proposing, not strict with a mean expression or a stern voice, but in terms of, I’m going to close the gaps, get on things early, not leave a lot of wiggle room. And that’s important to do when children are in these difficult places emotionally, like in this situation; they’ve had all these transitions, and now they’ve got a new sibling. I mean, that alone can put children over the edge. That’s a huge deal even without the other separations and everything. So, this is a time of life where we might think, “Oh well, just let it go, because of all they’re dealing with.” And what actually helps children is the opposite… it helps for them to be nested in a little tighter in terms of us being on these things, coming in with confident momentum to help them through, not opening up those gaps where they struggle and get stuck doing things that upset us.
This isn’t a time to let behavior-pushing slide, except in the ways that we have no control over: the words they say, the way that they scream or whine; those are all emotional expressions. It’s going to help us if we can allow them and accept them. It’s going to help us, because our child won’t be needing to hold them in, then keep trying to express them, they will be able to release them and move on the more we can accept.
So, again, this isn’t going to be a perfect process, but it’s okay, we just get back on track the next time and try again. We’re going to get a lot of chances with three-year-olds in a situation like this.
So, in short, what I see here is this mom is misunderstanding her role and the separation between her and her children’s feelings and behaviors. These aren’t a personal attack, they’re actually just part of healthy, immature processing. I hope some of that helps.
Also, please check out some of the other podcasts on my website JanetLansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. And 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.
Thanks for listening. We can do this.
I really appreciated this feedback I received from Dr. Michael Leslie and he kindly allowed me to share it:
I am a huge fan of your podcast. I have found it tremendously helpful in my relationship with my three-year-old and one-year-old sons.
Professionally, I am a psychiatrist. I see patients and run the adult inpatient PTSD program at McLean Hospital. I work with many women who are either planning to have children or have recently had babies. When I heard your most recent podcast, “Dear Parent: You are Not Failing,” I thought your advice was spot-on in my own experience. I was also struck by the fact that she sounds like she has postpartum depression. I am aware that she mentioned that she has an infant and that she’s totally overwhelmed. Postpartum depression is common and it is treatable. It can have a huge impact on parent child bonding, attachment, and on child development. While this is obviously tangential to the focus of your podcast, I would ask you, please, to reach out to this poor mom and ask her to get help for herself. She sounds truly overwhelmed and very depressed. She mentioned that her husband is in the military; hopefully the VA would be able to provide her with services. Even a brief course of psychotherapy and/or a med eval could be tremendously helpful.
I do not mean to overstep my bounds; I obviously have never met or spoken directly with this woman. I am struck, however, by how her words resonate with what I have heard from other new moms struggling with postpartum depression in the past.
Happy to speak more if you have any questions or if there’s anyway I can be helpful!
Michael Leslie, MD