“Life in lockdown” is heightening a parent’s struggles with her 3-year-old’s uncooperative, defiant behavior, and this mom’s patience is wearing thin. When she tries to correct her daughter’s behavior, or if she asks for her cooperation with calm and reason, she ends up repeating herself again and again and raising her voice. This escalation makes her feel exhausted, guilty and like a failure. She writes: “I lost my confidence as a parent somewhere, and I need to get it together, but I don’t know where to begin.” She wonders if Janet can suggest any changes in her parenting approach.
Transcript of “Repeating Yourself Won’t Help (What to Do Instead)”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. How’s everybody doing today?
I have a question here that I’ll be responding to. This parent is trying to set limits. She has two children. She, like all of us at the moment, is stuck at home and she’s struggling with setting limits and helping them control their behavior. And she finds she keeps repeating herself and then raising her voice when that doesn’t seem to work. She feels like she’s failing because she keeps going through the same thing several times a day every day, so her patience is wearing thin. On top of that, she’s feeling guilty. So I hope to help this parent sort through some of this and find a clear path and ease her struggles a bit, so her household can work a little bit better right now.
Okay, here’s the note that I received:
Hey Janet, as I write this, the whole world is basically in quarantine and my difficulties will seem very small compared to people affected with health issues. But I still decided to write because I know many families are going to be spending a lot of time together, routines will be broken and a lot of emotional and mental issues arise at a time like this. Though my concern is not entirely related to the quarantine, it will still be relatable for many. I have a three-year-old girl and an eight-month-old boy, so there’ve been a lot of changes in the last year. We haven’t really been able to get a steady footing since I gave birth last year, in large part because of my three-year-old showing testing behavior. I lose my cool way too often. I feel that my energy is depleted already as I approach her to correct her or ask her to do simple things.
I try for a minute to practice what I’ve read in your book and heard in your podcast. Like if she’s about to grab something that she’s not supposed to, I try to set a limit and grab her hand and put it away as I tell her that that is not for playing. Or when she is given her cup, but it’s not the one she feels like using and I’m just too tired to have to get up and wash the cup she wants to use, I tell her that I know she wants to use that cup, but it’s eating time right now and we use the cup that is available.
It seems that even when I try to follow your advice, I still end up having to repeat myself over and over and the exchange ends up with me raising my voice. “Stop touching things that aren’t yours!” “Don’t play with the toilet paper,” while she’s at the toilet. “Do not touch the couch after eating without washing hands.” The list goes on. And almost each time, I end up repeating myself and asking her why she still does it even when I said several times, no. And at that moment I feel like I’m failing.
We go through the same thing several times a day, every day. All this is heightened now that we’re locked in 24/7 and I find myself losing patience easier each time.
I feel so guilty that I can’t extend that patience, but I want to instill our house rules, because without that everything will revolve around her and what she wants. I don’t want to respond to her whining, but I also don’t want to shout at her.
Please help me. I know I lost my confidence as a parent somewhere and I need to get it together, but I don’t know where to begin. Your help will be much appreciated. I find so much confidence when I hear your podcast, but sometimes I feel I really need to take a step back and change my approach. Thanks for all the help.
Okay, so I feel like I can help this parent a lot because I think she’s misunderstood some things that I’ve shared, or the approach that I recommend, and she’s gone with a perception of what’s going on here in these instances when her daughter’s not doing what she wants her to do. All she really needs to do is get on a different track in the way that she’s perceiving her role and perceiving her children’s behavior.
So I want to begin with the way that she’s perceiving the behavior. It sounds like she’s approaching it as many of us do — perceiving children’s behavior as coming from a reasonable place, seeing this reasonably. Hey, what the heck? I told her no, that she’s not supposed to do that and she’s still doing it! And that is infuriating for any of us. That is going to cause us to raise our voice and lose our temper because come on, this makes no sense. “Why are you doing this to me? I told you to stop. Just stop!”
It doesn’t work. And it doesn’t work because it’s not really what’s going on here when children do these things. Children do these behaviors out of impulse, out of emotions, out of stress, which of course we’re all feeling to the hilt right now, so that would be understandable even if there wasn’t an eight-month-old sibling that is now moving and cute and getting around and more of a threat to this older child. They would still be absorbing the stress that their parents might be feeling from this situation.
But it really doesn’t matter the reason in the moment. What matters is for us to understand that it’s not that they didn’t hear us saying no to it. It’s not that they need us to say it more times. For the most part, if they were in the reasonable part of their brain, children wouldn’t do them to begin with. Because the reasonable part of their brain already knew that she’s playing with things that she’s not supposed to be playing with, that she’s touching things she’s not supposed to be touching, that she’s supposed to have the cup that’s there and not ask for another one or play with the toilet paper. Children know very, very well from the first time that we stopped them from doing that. They know they’re not supposed to do these things.
So that’s the reasonable part of their brain. The reasonable part of their brain knows. But what happens is exhaustion — what Stuart Shanker calls a state of hyperarousal, which is a constant underlying stress that children can have that wears them out just as it does us. I don’t have a lot of outside stressors right now, but just from the environment I’m exhausted by late afternoon. I’m ready to go to bed.
So as adults we can self-regulate. We can manage that stress. Young children can’t. They can’t manage it. They can’t function in it. Mona Delahooke calls this “the yellow zone” when they’re veering towards “the red zone,” but maybe they’re not completely overwhelmed. Tina Payne Bryson calls this “the downstairs brain” that children are acting out of sometimes.
So, what does that mean and what is our job? If we see it as: Whoa, my child is losing it, they’re doing this thing I don’t want them to do… I would try, even that first time that you say something, to be taking a calm physical action. So you’re going over to your child, not as this parent describes grabbing something away, I would ideally see her reaching for it or now she has it and now I’m going to walk over and go, “Oh, I can’t let you use that”, or whatever, and then we’d take it away. We take it away firmly, but grabbing sounds like we’re already angry, which we don’t want to be.
Children need our help in these situations. They don’t need us to keep giving them verbal directions and raising our voice. They need us to help save them from being stuck.
And they can appear to be quite reasonable when they’re doing these things, but there is some underlying stress that’s causing it a lot of the time and they’re showing us that they need help. Stop me, stop me from doing this. Help me. I’m stuck. It can be, I’m getting stuck exploring my toddler will, that’s maybe a more minor form of impulsive behavior or you haven’t been clear about this so I’m checking. But regardless, they need us to see them as needing help.
Sometimes I understand parents can feel like: Well, if I have to go physically and take it away and do this, that’s going to take so much more of my energy. And actually it takes less because we’re not getting angry at our child, we’re not repeating ourselves, which is going to make us angry and annoyed no matter what. There’s no way we can be failing to get our point across with our child, without it creating stress for us.
It’s much better to realize that what’s going on now is like one big transition, and transitions are always the most difficult time for children, getting from point A to point B, getting dressed, getting into the car seat. That’s when they tend to get overwhelmed the easiest. And right now we’re all in this big transition, life is different. There’s a feeling something’s shifting and there’s an underlying stress going on. We’re not settled. So I would be very surprised if my child could follow a direction. They might if I say it very calmly. So I’m not already annoyed that you’re doing that. If I say it like, “Oh, it looks like you got that, could you please put it down?” in a very safe way. I’m your safe person. I am not going to add to your stress.
If we do it that way, a child may be able to follow the direction, but they also might not. So I would be ready even when I’m saying that to follow it up with, “Oh, it looks like that’s tough for you right now I’m going to come help”.
So when this parent talks about patience, that sounds more like I’m waiting for my child to finally get this and do what I want them to do, and as I’m saying, that isn’t going to work.
Instead of trying to be patient, try to be helpful. And know that, yes, we’re going to have to make it happen.
The way we want to start out is preventatively, so we can set ourselves and our child up for success, and so we don’t have things out and about that our child can get into and grab. We’re not letting them start to climb on us, let’s say. We’re stopping them in the beginning as early as possible. “Ooh, looks like you want to climb up. Yeah, I’m just not in the mood for that right now”, and meanwhile my hand is there making it impossible for you to do that. I’m on top of these things. I’m not waiting and expecting that you’re going to have great behavior right now and perfect manners.
And this is going to be especially true, of course, in the late afternoon or bedtime when my child is tired or hungry or has other reasons to be stressed.
The other reason not to repeat ourselves, besides the fact that it’s not going to help and it’s going to frustrate us, the other reason is that every time we do it, we’re actually stressing our child out more. Because our child feels our annoyance with them. Our child feels: Oh, they’re asking me to do something that I know I’m supposed to do, but I actually just can’t right now. I don’t know why I can’t, but I can’t (if they could express what’s going on with them). I just feel so stuck doing this thing and now this is wrong and I’m wrong and I make my parent upset and they’re not going to love me.
All of those things only heighten the stress that children feel. And a child can be quiet and seem to be okay, but they’re still in this arousal state inside, and that means they’re ready to go off at any minute.
This is the same with us as adults, but our threshold is higher because we do have self-control. We do have the ability to say: Oh okay, this is a different weird time. We have a context for what’s going on and we have mature self-control and self-regulation, hopefully.
But most of us can even relate ( I know I can), to feeling stuck doing some impulsive behavior that I know isn’t great for me — not doing the things I know I should be doing. And then if people are mad at me or they don’t understand me or I’m not living up to their expectations, I’m going to feel even worse, and it gets harder and harder for me to “behave well”. And it a little bit sounds like that might be where this parent is going to, because then she feels guilty that it’s not working. She’s impatient, so she’s making it hard for herself to self-regulate and to see clearly what’s going on.
This isn’t about that this parent isn’t saying it enough or saying it the right way or that she’s a bad person or that she doesn’t love her children. She is doing a normal thing that is so easy for us all to do because that’s the way we usually think. We think reasonably. Somebody says, “Oh, don’t do that. I don’t want you to do that”, we’re probably not going to keep doing it. So it’s hard for us to get out of our own perception of things as adults and remember how different it is to be a child.
And then things like when she says “Stop touching things that aren’t yours. Don’t play with the toilet paper.” So when she’s taking her daughter to the toilet, put your hand over the toilet paper and don’t let her touch it. And if she’s coming in with you to the bathroom when she doesn’t need to be there, I would consider having a lock on the door and taking your space so that you don’t have to worry about what she’s going to do when she’s in there.
She says, “Don’t touch the couch after eating without washing hands.” So one thing you could do is have a washcloth right there at the table that’s in a little bucket or something, or on a plate, and you have it already wet, and before you let your child leave the table, you stop them and you lovingly wash her hands.
These are things that we do when we understand that our child can’t control themselves right now very easily. At her age, with this situation, with the eight-month-old brother, it’s already going to be tough for her to feel settled in herself. So I would give her that extra help by being ready for her to do the impulsive things instead of being surprised, trying things again and again that aren’t going to work, and then beating yourself up for it or feeling guilty.
I don’t have that many rules of thumb that I share because every situation feels nuanced to me. I do believe in the rule of thumb: don’t repeat yourself to a child. Because if they’re not stopping the first time, there’s a very good chance that they are showing that they need help. They need us to come in physically and help, way before we get angry and frustrated with them, which is again, about our expectations, about the way we’re perceiving.
I realize that this is not by any means easy, but it gets much easier when you get in the groove of it and then you see how it works, how grateful your child is on some level. Not that they’re going to say, “Oh, thank you mommy for taking that toy away from me that I was abusing”, but they will settle into: Phew, I’ve got somebody that loves me, that’s not blaming me, that’s safe. They’re helping me when I need help. They’re seeing me. They’re seeing that I’m lost in these moments and I’m not a bad kid.
And then what happens? There’s less of this impulsive behavior because they feel less stressed, so it’s a win-win. And all it takes on our end is for us to visualize and practice a different way of seeing, a different understanding.
One thing that’s happening for all parents right now is that the challenges haven’t changed so much in terms of children and their behavior and our relationships with them and setting limits. But it’s all come under focus. And that can be a positive thing, because we can use this time as an opportunity to do things that will help us on any given day with our child — forever — to be able to understand this differently, understand our role as somebody that helps.
We expect them to be wobbly right now. And when the person can’t help themselves, we help them. We’re there.
So I really hope some of that helps ease this parent’s mind.
For more, please check out my books, both of which 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.