Your Child’s Erratic, Disruptive Behavior

In this episode: A parent describes her 3-year-old as a firecracker. “He is full of life and joy and attitude!” While she appreciates his energy, there are times when he gets too wound up and is no longer “in himself.” He often becomes overly physical with his 17-month old brother and even hits adults. She says when he’s in this zone, words have no effect, and she feels the only way to deal with him by putting him in his room. This mum’s wondering if she’s doing the right thing or if Janet might have some other suggestions.

Transcript of “Your Child’s Erratic, Disruptive Behavior”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I have a question from a parent who is wondering how to handle her son’s sometimes erratic energy. He gets wound up, and in this mood he is physical with his little brother and can also lash out at adults around him.

Here’s the note I received:

“Hi. Firstly, thanks so much for your podcast. It has helped me immeasurably in my parenting to see myself as confident and as a leader to my children.

I am a stay-at-home mom of two beautiful little boys, ages 3.5 and 17 months old. The eldest is a firecracker. I call him my little spark. He’s full of life and joy and attitude. Here’s my question. I can see when he’s winding up to a stage where he’s not fully in himself. In this mood, he is physical with his little brother, pushing, snatching, just plain annoying, and can also hit adults around him, mainly me and my mum, who is around most days to help me. Once he starts hitting, I won’t tolerate it, and I tell him not to hit, it hurts me or others, and suggest to use words to tell me how he feels. If he does it one more time, he goes in his room. A corner or other location in my view won’t work. He just walks freely around with a mischievous smile on his face.

When he’s in this zone, words have absolutely no visible effect to change his behavior. I don’t like putting him in his room but feel I have no choice but to put a circuit breaker in the situation and give myself and his brother and my mom a break from his behavior. I’d love to hear some techniques and some guidance as to whether what I’m doing is okay.”

One thing I love about this question is that she is reading her son’s energy. She is noticing when he is not fully, quote, “in himself,” and she says later when he’s in this zone, words have absolutely no visible effect to change his behavior. I just want to shout from the hills, “Yes!” She’s at least 80% there by being able to recognize when her son has this energy, when he is not reachable.

I’m so appreciative of all the experts these days, the brain researchers who are corroborating this idea: Stuart Shanker and his book Self-Reg, Tina Payne Bryson and Dan Siegel, Mona Delahooke with her book Beyond Behaviors. What used to be a lonely outside view is gathering steam, and this is the best news for our children and for us in understanding their behavior, so that we can understand what’s going on when our children are like this and actually help make a change in behavior.

Reading this behavior is the first step. Then understanding that children cannot be reached through reason when they are in this state. The most common thing we do as parents is try to use reason.

She says once, “He starts hitting, I won’t tolerate it, and I tell him not to hit,” so she’s saying, “Don’t hit. It hurts me,” or, “It hurts grandmother,” but our child has no ability when he is out of himself when the reasonable centers of his brain, his cortex, have been hijacked by his emotional centers. It’s what some people call the lizard brain, what Tina Payne Bryson and Dan Siegel call the “downstairs brain.” It’s a fight-or-flight stress state that young children go into. We can all go there when we are stressed, but young children have much more difficulty regulating this stress.

So saying, “Don’t hit. That hurts,” is not going to cause our child to snap out of it and say, “Oh, yes. You’re right. I forgot that hitting hurts. Thank you for reminding me. I’ll just stop doing this now.” They literally cannot stop themselves. They are in a hyperaroused state, and all bets are off. We can’t reach them. They can’t use their words and just stop themselves and start explaining, “Oh, actually, I was feeling a little tense, and that made me do silly things, and I’m sorry.” They cannot go there. This is crucial for us to understand as parents and professionals working with children.

This is true even when she says that she tells him to go in a corner or another location and “he just walks freely around with a mischievous smile on his face.” That is not a smile coming from a state of calm, a centeredness. It is a smile that is as tense and uncomfortable as our child feels inside in these moments.

Again, this mother’s 80% there in being able to read her child’s energy. All she needs is to understand the implications of that and how to help calm this behavior, how to help make a change. We can’t go at this with punishments or threats or anything that’s reasonable. We can scare our children into silence. But as Stuart Shanker so astutely notes in his book, there’s a big difference between quiet and calm. We can quiet our children down by yelling at them, by threatening, by punishing, but what we’ve actually done is increased the stress that our child feels inside. They are quiet, but they are still hyperaroused, and that will lead to more of this discomfort and wound-up behavior.

No, this boy or any child does not want to be the annoying, pushing, snatching child with their sibling, and they definitely don’t want to be the child hitting their grandmother and their mother or anyone else. This is not about their will and their choice. It’s about a really uncomfortable level of stress that has sent them into what Tina Payne Bryson calls “flipping their lid.” They are, in a sense, out of their mind, and the more direction we try to give our children, the more we express our disapproval or try to talk them out of it, the more stress they feel. When they are in these states, they’re using an enormous amount of energy, which then can become a cycle because they’re then more exhausted, which leads to more stress and less ability to regulate.

How do we help? We help by seeing, and then being that person that creates safety for that child. Children need us to physically be there for them and stop them, help them in this behavior. When, for example, she sees him being physical and erratic with his brother, even when she sees him approaching his brother with that energy, I would put your hand there. “I’m not going to let you go close right now. I think you need to be by me,” or “I’m going to help you,” having a time-in with him. If you need to do something, maybe he can come with you and follow you, all the time you’re seeing him, you’re understanding where he’s at, understanding that he can’t help himself right now and he needs you to help him until these feelings pass and he’s able to find calm again.

But that starts with us being the calming presence. This is the opposite of the way we will feel if we see this as intentional, unkind behavior, if we believe that he just needs us to drum this lesson in a bit more or prove to him that this is unacceptable. That’s why the perception we have of this is so crucial. It will change the way we feel about it, and the way we feel about it will inform the way we respond.

So keeping him safe from his little brother, letting him know we see him, we’re there, we see that he needs help, and we’re going to stop him. That can look a few different ways depending on where we are in our day, if we can stop and just hold that space for him, which doesn’t mean grabbing him and hugging him, but giving him the room to safely expend that energy that he has. When we stop him and allow him to, he might go into a meltdown or a tantrum, lashing out even more because he’s now feeling safe to express some of those feelings that he has.

I wouldn’t try to do anything to make him stop or get them to stop. We don’t have the power to do that safely. But hold that space. That might look like holding his wrists so that he can’t hurt you, but not angrily. Holding him as someone who’s completely lost control and needs your help, doesn’t want to hurt you, and you’re not going to let that happen. But trying to access his brain right there is not going to work.

I would try to read this energy as early as possible so that it doesn’t get to the point where he’s freely lashing out at everyone.

Sometimes parents misread things like play or playing with food as something that children need to do and they need to explore. You can tell the difference if you observe. You can see whether a child is having a focused exploration of something. Personally, I don’t believe that they need to do that with food in terms of making a mess, putting it all over the place. I don’t think that’s necessary, but certainly with toys or outdoors with sand. They will hold it in their hands. They will want to throw things. You can see the difference when a child is doing that with interest in the experiment or in that hyperaroused stress state where they are dysregulated. They are not centered in their minds and calm. They are not “in themselves.”

This parent says, “If he does it one more time, he goes in his room.” So all of that, even being able to count that he’s doing it another time, he cannot do that. Those kinds of threats, “One more time. I’m going to count to three,” all that… If we really understand the state that he’s in, we can see how pointless that is. We’re asking him to do things that he cannot do. We’re asking him to go places he cannot go in those moments. It will only add more stress to his system.

She says, “Once he starts hitting, I won’t tolerate it.” Well, that’s a good instinct. I would not tolerate it, but this isn’t about telling him, “I won’t tolerate this. You can’t do it anymore,” and expecting that he’s going to say, “Oh, in that case, I’ll stop.” She’s got to know that he needs help right there. She’s got to calmly stop him. Using words to tell how he feels, there’s no way. There’s no way he can connect with how he feels, much less articulate it.

She says, “A corner or other location won’t work. He just walks freely around.” He needs more help than that. I would be somewhere with him, if possible, to hold that space with a safe attitude that you are there to help, that you see you’ve lost your boy for a bit and he’s going to come back. The best message he could get is safety and acceptance. That’s how children learn to regulate their behavior and these emotional states that they’re in that cause it. They learn through us connecting with them in a regulated way.

But if there’s something urgent going on or you’re in the middle of something and you absolutely cannot take that time to be with him right then, and the only place that he can be safe is in his room, then I would do that as a last resort. But again, with this attitude and the words of, “Whoa, I got to keep you safe. I’m going to come back as soon as I finish with your brother or finished with the stove. I see you. I see you need my help, and I’m sorry I can’t be there. I’ll be back.”

Parents have said to me, “Well, I don’t have 10 minutes, I don’t have 20 minutes,” but what we need to understand is when children go on for that period of time with their meltdown, with all their discomfort bubbling over, it is the result of a buildup. It’s a result of not getting that opportunity to release the stress safely. The time that we put into that and, most importantly, the way we perceive it will mean that it happens less.

I would work on breathing and what I’m seeing there. If I start to get angry, I would let that feeling come up and look at it with interest. Okay, but that’s not what’s going on here. This guy isn’t being mean to me, and I’m not doing anything wrong as a parent, and now there’s this terrible sign. Whatever it is that triggers us, we’re going to look at that, and then we’re going to remind ourself, No, that’s not what’s going on here. What’s going on is I have poor little guy that doesn’t even know what he’s doing, doesn’t want to be doing this, needs my help and presence and safety.

Then we want to consider later or soon after, Hmm. I wonder if there are stressors in his environment that I can help with. Maybe we shouldn’t have gone to a party after we already had house guests and schedules were disrupted, or something else. Every child has their own sensitivities, and to help them, it will help us to understand and tune in to our child. Some children are very sensitive to visual, some children sound. Almost every child is sensitive to being too tired or too hungry. The emotions of others around them. Even excitement, happy feelings can be stressful for children. If we’re making demands on our child that they are not ready to fulfill, that’s stressful. Understanding our children is everything.

She says, “I’d love to hear some techniques.” I wish I had techniques, but this is about the way we see and understanding why they behave the way they do. That is the only way that we’re going to be able to address it, that we can help them find a place of calm more often and make it better.

I hope some of that helps.

Also, both of my books are available on audio at audible.com, 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 dot com

Thanks for listening. We can do this.

4 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Hi Janet, thanks for this article which perfectly describes a state I see my 5 year-old go into. He is normally a calm, reasonable kid, but when he gets stressed or tired he “is not in himself” as you say. This has been happening every single time we have friends over to our house. He is a social kid and loves being around other kids and doesn’t seem stressed at school, parks, or other people’s houses – it only happens when they are at our house. We love having friends over and it’s an important priority for us. Any idea why this is stressing him out so much and how to help?

    1. Hi Sarah – Your son’s feelings are not uncommon. I’m wondering if you have a younger child or if there might be another reason that your son feels sensitive about opening up his home and toys, etc., to others. Regardless of the reason, it can help to offer your son more of a sense of control by having him dictate the curriculum or select which toys to make available and which ones to put away.

  2. Hi Janet. We are seeing a lot of this in our almost 3.5 yr old daughter. All of a sudden she hits us or bites and goes into a meltdown and is very inconsolable. We notice it is when she is tired or right after waking up from a nap but it has been very difficult. She also has been very clingy toward me as her mother and has developed stranger anxiety. We are confused on how to handle this.

  3. Hi Janet! This episode really hit home for me, as a mom of an almost 4 year old boy and a 17 month old boy. My older son absolutely shows this erratic behavior, hitting his brother and both of us. Your episode helped me see that this behavior is not him being angry with us and trying to disobey, and that we should not try to reason with him, ask why he is doing it, or punish him for his actions but instead be present and provide safety and acceptance. We are just never sure how to best help him when he gets “out of his mind” but going forward I can see that this change in perception of his behavior will be invaluable… One question I have about “being present” for him is this: when he’s hitting us, we often will calmly hold him saying we will not let him hit us, carry him to a safer place, and sit with him, all while he is yelling “go away from me, I just want to be alone!!”. He does often want to be alone and seems to enjoy playing alone, but in this situation, would you advise letting him go off to be alone, or continuing to hold him to prevent him from hitting? Any help would be so very much appreciated…. We are struggling to know how to help our incredibly sweet boy!

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