When It’s Difficult to Physically Stop the Behavior

In this episode: Janet addresses two emails with the same theme. Both questions concern two-year-olds who exhibit challenging behaviors when their parents are physically unable to intervene. One mom writes about her son’s toy throwing: “He sees that I’m nursing the baby, or that my hands are full with dinner, and he’s frustrated that he doesn’t have my attention.” The other mom says that she has physical challenges: “And of course my smart kid has figured out that it’s easy to lash out on days when I am physically unable to deal.” These moms are wondering what words to use and how to address behavior when they can’t be as hands-on as they need to be.
Transcript of “When It’s Difficult to Physically Stop the Behavior”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m going to be responding to two different questions from parents who have different specifics, but both of them are about handling behaviors when we can’t be there physically in the way that we would like. How do we help children with these behaviors?

Okay. Here’s the first question I received in an email:

“Dear Janet, thank you so much for your podcast and other materials. You are so generous with your time. I know I’ve learned so much not only about parenting and my child but also, through this wonderful parenting experience, myself. I am grateful. I do have a question. My child is two and a half, and obviously has all the corresponding behaviors. D is sweet, very intelligent, amazingly verbal and expressive and also very, very physical. It’s sometimes easy to forget that my child is only two, as you sometimes feel you’re speaking to a four-year-old.

That said, of course there are the usual two-year-old struggles which can be seemingly incongruous, but of course are entirely age appropriate. My question is about physically intervening as you suggest. I have some physical challenges that make it hard to hold hands to stop a hit, for example. Or physically move us to another location in the event of a public tantrum. Of course, my smart kid has figured out that it’s easy to lash out on days when I’m physically unable to deal, and this hurts us both. I don’t know what to do though because clearly words aren’t enough. I tried to search your archives for posts about disability, but didn’t find anything easily. Am I missing something? Any advice for me and other disabled parents out there? Thank you so much for your precious time.”

Well, first I just want to say that it’s absolutely my pleasure to be able to share something that might be helpful to other parents. And I am grateful to be able to do that. And I love what this parent says: “through this wonderful parenting experience” she’s learning about herself. That’s what this journey can be about. That’s what I’ve felt, too, about learning this way of being with children. It’s been healing for me. It’s been enlightening, and it continues. We’re never done learning about how to relate to these important people in our lives.

So now to her question… What do we do when we know our child seems to need a physical intervention of some kind? They need help in that way and we can’t really do it the way we’d like to.

What matters is, first of all, prevention. And we can’t always prevent these incidences, of course. So this isn’t to feel guilty or that we’re doing something wrong if they still come up. But sometimes we can do more about prevention than we might believe.

One way of doing that is by tuning into our child, and understanding their rhythms, and what kind of situations might be difficult for them. Doing things like shopping earlier in the day when our child has fresh energy, and including them in these errands as much as possible, so it isn’t just a passive experience. Being careful about stimulation.

I also love what this parent says about her child’s two and a half, and it seems like she’s speaking to a four year old sometimes. Yes, she’s noticing how treating her daughter with respect and speaking to her respectfully has taught her all this language. And it is even more challenging sometimes to see how little these children are. They’ve been on the planet for just a couple of years and their ability to self regulate is very, very low. Sometimes they surprise us with their poise and their maturity. But it will help us to remind ourselves on a daily basis that this is a very small person who will need a lot of help.

And the balance that they thrive on can be a lot more sensitive than we might believe. I notice this all the time in my parent child classes where a child seems to be thriving in the group, playing with other children, poised, very calm and centered, and then the parent gets up to go put something on the other side of the room for a second or just moves a little bit and that child will seem to completely lose their balance. They’re totally shaken from where they were. And it’s always interesting, because you feel like they’ve got it all together, kind of. And then you notice that, wow, there’s a foundation in place here that’s allowing them to thrive in that way: a foundation of familiarity, a predictable environment, we’re allowing them to gauge the amount of stimulation by letting them free play, and the parent is there observing, supportive, present. So all of those things can matter.

I love what Susan Stiffelman, has to say about prevention. She uses this analogy of parents needing to be the captain of the ship, and she notes the importance of not putting a bunch of icebergs in front of us to make it harder for ourselves to navigate these situations.

So I don’t know what those specifics might exactly look like for this family, or any family, or any child. Each child is different in their sensitivities towards certain types of stimulation. But these are things to look out for, to help ourselves.

Another aspect of prevention is our commitment to what I call an “all feelings allowed” environment and relationship. It’s fascinating to me, how many of the moments that we miss (and I’m including myself here), to welcome feelings, rather than push back on them. As adults, most of us have this strong tendency to push back. We don’t mean to, and we’re not doing so harshly or unkindly. We forget that children share feelings as much if not more than they share facts. So when a child says, “I don’t like this breakfast,” that we know that they usually love and always eat it. Most of us are inclined to say, “Of course you do, you love pancakes, that’s your favorite.” Instead of, “Wow, today you’re not keen on that. I’m sorry. That’s all we’ve got.” Just letting the feelings be. And this is preventative for us in these difficult situations physically that we may not be able to rise up to, because the feelings are getting to flow all day long, or as much of the day as possible.

When we remember that feelings are not facts, we don’t feel threatened by them as parents and they will, ideally, all be accepted and welcomed. If we don’t do that, then there can be a buildup in that child that’s going to give us problems later.

So, an “all feelings allowed” environment is preventative for those difficult situations.

Also when we understand our child… and all children are sort of similar this way at this age, where it can be easy to see when they’re in a stressed state; emotionally hijacked, and they’re not going to be able to listen to us or do what we want. And their tendency is going to be to fall apart, or behave defiantly, or obstinately, or they get lost. If we can see this early, we can prevent the behavior, or get ourselves out of the situation with much less physical ability or energy.

I don’t know at all what this parent’s disability is, but I’ve worked with parents who have physical disabilities and they’re amazed by how little they actually need to do when they catch things early, and come into the situation with what I call, “confident momentum.” They’re coming in on the wave, rather than pushing up against something that’s crashing on them. It’s much, much easier and requires much less physical exertion or ability. And to be able to have this confident momentum with children we need to be able to perceive and frame their behavior, accurately.

The one little clue I have in this parents note that she might not be completely accurate in the way that she’s perceiving her child… She says that she has physical challenges that make it hard to hold hands to stop a hit, for example, or physically move us to another location in the event of a public tantrum. She says, “Of course, my smart kid has figured out that it’s easy to lash out on days when I’m physically unable to deal.” So this isn’t about her smart kid using this disability against her in these situations. This is not a calculated, reasonable, centered in this child’s cerebral cortex behavior. What it actually is is that her child is feeling the discomfort that the parent has on those days when she is quote, “physically unable to deal.” And that creates stress for her child when she sees her parent uncomfortable, when she sees her parent in pain, when she sees her parents struggling. It’s not that she’s taking advantage of those situations, it’s that she’s much more uncomfortable in those situations. It adds a lot of stress to her plate. Obviously this isn’t this parent’s fault in any way, it’s just what is.

This is similar to when, even with an infant we might be changing their diaper, but on this day we’re running late and we have to leave.  We have to leave with our child or there’s a caregiver coming and we’re feeling uncomfortable. We’re feeling stressed. And what happens? This baby is suddenly much less cooperative. They’re stiffening up, they’re putting the brakes on us. It feels so unfair, right? How come they’re doing that when I really need them to cooperate right now so this can go smoothly and I can get this done, so I can get out of here? But the baby, or the toddler, or the four year old, or the six year old, or any child isn’t trying to hurt us, isn’t being mean right there. They’re feeling the emotions of this precious god in their life. That vulnerability that we have is very uncomfortable for children.

I remember a time when my father, and I think I was even almost an adult by then or I was an adult, my father fell over flat on his face in the yard one time. And it was the most horrible feeling for me, that my dad could just fall over and that he was so vulnerable. I needed him to be this rock. I needed him to be this pillar. That’s how I thought of him. That’s what made me feel safe on some level.

It rattles children when we are not at our best. And why is this important to know? Because if we perceive a child as figuring out that it’s easy to lash out on us, and is therefore lashing out at us for that reason, that’s going to make it much harder for us to be preventative, be on top of this, catch the wave early, be able to ride it in with confident momentum. And to also not have some residual feeling of resentment towards our child. I don’t know if this parent feels that, she doesn’t seem to, but that makes sense. If we see somebody is taking advantage of us when we’re down, or when we’re having a hard time, that’s going to make us resent, and that’s not going to help us either.

The way we perceive is going to decide the way that we feel. And the way that we feel will allow us to respond in a helpful way.

So knowing that our child isn’t out to get us in these moments. And also knowing that we’re not going to get anything that we can’t handle, especially from a two year old. Even with physical disability, it’s going to be okay. Even if we’re out in a public place and we need to move our child, maybe we can wait there and just sort of shield them, so that they’re comfortable. Or maybe we can ask someone, can you help me, I need to move my daughter? But the worst that happens there is she lets go of those feelings and has a meltdown there in the public place. It will be less likely to happen if we can feel assured that, no matter what, we’re going to be able to handle this situation. Is it going to be the ideal way of handling it? Maybe not.

If we can catch it early, we can escort her out with just a hand on her shoulders, maybe. Or even just with words, if we catch it early enough. Instead of seeing it as she’s lashing out purposely in some way, if we can see, it’s like: whoops, she’s going over the edge here. I’m going to help her and I can. I can be this person. I can be what she needs. And, generally, I’m not going to put myself in a situation where I don’t feel that there’s some way I can handle this. And then I can proceed with confidence, which will then be felt by my child and she will be less likely to go off. So it really starts with us.

And then understanding specifically why my child is lashing out. Is it just because she’s feeling my vulnerability and that’s uncomfortable for her when her leaders feeling so vulnerable? Or are there other things going on in her life that are creating stress? It will help us to feel on top of the behavior if we perceive it accurately, again, and understand where it’s coming from. Sometimes we won’t be able to. But there’s always something. There’s always a reason that children feel the way they do, and when they’re this age, no matter how articulate they are about a lot of things, they can not understand or articulate these feelings, these impulses. That comes later.

So I wish that I had a special tool or a certain thing that she could say, but well, first of all, I don’t know of a tool or a word to say to fix this. Secondly, what’s important is our overall perspective, and attitude, and understanding of what’s going on. That will serve us in our relationship with our child for the rest of our lives.

Now, jumping into this other question quickly, I’m not going to read her introduction, but just jump to the chase here:

“My son is recently two and has started a serious throwing chapter. When I’m alone with him and not otherwise occupied I’m confident in how to handle this, I stay close but calm, I gauge his energy, I stop his hand before he throws, or I pick up what he has thrown and say something like, “I see you want to throw, I can’t let you do that” and then move on. However, I also now have a three month old, and a house to run, and dinner to make, et cetera. So how does my response change when my hands are full and he starts testing with throwing? He sees that I’m nursing the baby and he’s frustrated that he doesn’t have my attention, or that my hands are full with dinner, and he starts boundary testing mostly by throwing anything he gets his hands on.

Sometimes I will say, “I see you’re throwing your toys and I will help you as soon as I’m done here,” but that doesn’t really seem to make a difference. Sometimes I look at what I’m doing and pretend that I didn’t notice so that he might think I’m just not seeing it, because I know I can’t actually make him stop from a distance. Is this just a phase and the only way out is through? I guess I’m just not really seeing results with my current responses, but maybe that’s just the chapter we are in right now. Maybe seeing results in the way of him stopping in the moment isn’t the goal and we will just eventually be through this part, and the actual goal is really just that he sees me as unruffled. Please let me know what words to use and how to address behavior when I can’t be with him. Especially when the thing I’m doing and have to do is likely the trigger. Thank you so much.”

So this parent is very much on the track of understanding what’s going on here and her response sounds great. She seems to understand that her child is having emotions about this big transition in their lives, how scary that is for him and that that’s causing him to act out. So she understands all of this. And I would say that I think, in a sense, this is just a phase and the only way out is through. But I would still look at one of the points that I tried to make with this other parent, which is that “all feelings allowed” environment, and where he may be sharing some of these feelings masked in other specifics that don’t even seem to make sense a lot of time, and where she may be pushing back a little bit, or negating some other feelings that he has, some other moments during the day when he’s expressing to her. That will help. All those moments where children are sharing a feeling of some kind or showing a feeling are important to receive.

However, having said that, he still is going to be triggered by her caring for the baby, for sure, and maybe other times when she can’t be there for him, like making dinner. One thing I would add as she’s allowing these feelings and not judging them, while also trying to stop the behavior, is just giving him that extra validation. So when she says, “I see you want to throw, I can’t let you do that,” and then she moves on… It’s great that she’s not doing a lecture and doing a big thing about it. But I would also say, and saying this with empathy, “It seems really hard for you when I’m with the baby. It’s so hard. It makes you want to throw things.” Something like that to show him even more that he’s seen, he’s understood. That his feelings are welcomed, that there’s nothing wrong with feeling that way. We can’t let him throw, but sometimes we’re not going to be there.

So this is where the prevention part comes in. In this case, maybe she can have a safer area for him that’s gated off, or a room where when he can be when she has to do these other things. He can still be within earshot, but he doesn’t have these things to throw. Or maybe just for now, because she knows her child is in a big transition and there are a lot of feelings around it, and children do tend to be in a bit of an emotional crisis during this time… maybe the heavy trucks aren’t out. This will help us to help him. So being preventative in the environment as much as possible, understanding where the feelings are coming from and what we can do.

In this other parent’s case, part of being preventative was for her to understand where the feelings were coming from, that it wasn’t that her daughter was deciding to lash out at her, so she could come into these situations with confidence.

So having a safe place for him when you’re nursing the baby and then allowing him to scream at you or whatever he needs to do, and really hearing and welcoming that, not being threatened by it. It’s healthy, healthy venting that children need to do. Children need to express the feelings somewhere and somehow. And the more that we can welcome them, the less they need to show them behaviorally.

I can’t say exactly why this mother says she’s not really seeing results with their current responses. But yeah, I think he’s still processing and there may be more that she can do to help him process the feelings. Sometimes though in those moments when we can’t be there and he’s throwing, I don’t know about pretending we don’t see it, but not reacting to it. Understanding where it’s coming from and having a note to self about, Hmm, maybe this time of day isn’t a good time for him to have the truck’s out. It’s better to not give these behaviors power, but to give the feelings power and room with us.

But I think mostly what she’s doing is really helpful. “I see you throwing your toys and I will help you as soon as I’m done here.” Yes. And just maybe adding, “it’s really hard for you, isn’t it? You don’t like when I’m not there with you at this time.” Just that little bit more.

Okay. So I want to thank both these parents for asking for my advice and I hope some of this helps. And yeah, this stuff is not easy for any of us. And I just want to say again, because it’s the title of my podcast, that being unruffled isn’t something that we have to try to make ourselves feel if we don’t feel it, or pretend. It really comes from our perceptions: the way we frame behavior, and our attitude. And belief in ourselves, as capable parents. We can do this.

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.


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

  1. I’m just so tired, and I admit that I am not a natural when it comes to talking about feelings and emotions. I want to read about how to be a better parent, but tbh these posts are soooooooooooo long and confusing. Is anyone else feeling that they can’t understand what’s going on?
    Hoping that we can inspire shorter and more direct posts for tired and emotionally dumb parents.

    1. Hi Emily – This post is the transcript of a podcast that is meant to be listened to, rather than read, so I can understand why it reads as long and unclear. Here’s one of written posts on emotions: https://www.janetlansbury.com/2013/05/dont-fight-the-feelings/

      And I have many posts on the subject of discipline and behavior. I don’t know the specifics of your situation but you might try Googling them along with my name, i.e., “hitting Janet Lansbury,” “aggression Janet Lansbury”

      Hope that helps

    2. It takes time to process this information and absorb everything. This sort of website isn’t something to be skimmed over in one night of reading. It’s not a virtual online course, nor is it a textbook for “exactly how you should act in every situation.” I’m on my eighth year of loving this website and I’m still picking up things every few months. I used to use the website for teaching in a non-RIE daycare, and now I use it on my two year olds. Thank you for this post, Janet! I’m halfway pregnant with my third and my twins throw everything when I attempt to lay down or disengage for a moment of self care. I’m going to try letting those big emotions be, and perhaps riding out this storm.

      1. Thank you so much for your kind support, Sarah. Yes, I think this will help: “I’m going to try letting those big emotions be, and perhaps riding out this storm.” Wishing you joy in your journey!

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