Calming Our Reactivity to Children’s Irritating, Demanding Behaviors

A parent writes that she’s overwhelmed by her two girls constantly demanding her attention, following her around their home and calling “Mommy! Mommy!” even if they are in the same room. “It’s driving me mad,” she writes. “It’s like a dripping tap. It is getting to the point where I just want to scream.” This mom notices that the girls don’t have this dynamic with their father. In fact, even if he is sitting beside them and she is in another room, they still call to her. Understandably, she feels drained and wonders if Janet can tell her what she’s doing wrong.

Transcript of “Calming Our Reactivity to Children’s Irritating, Demanding Behaviors”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I have a question that I received on Facebook. This mother is having difficulty because her daughters keep constantly calling, “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy,” and it’s driving this parent up the wall. And I want to flush this topic out a little to talk about our reactivity as parents and how we can ease that.

So behaviors like this one, children repeatedly calling our name and also whining and other repetitive behaviors that children sometimes will do… How can we respond in a way that doesn’t actually amplify the behaviors and cause them to persist? That’s what I would like to explore a little in this podcast.

Okay. So here’s the question I received on Facebook:

My four and a half and 2.9 year old girls constantly call, “Mommy.” If I leave the room, they call after me to ask where I am, even following me. If they ask a question, the word “Mommy” could be said three or four times before the question. They call me from where they are instead of coming to me. It’s constant all day. The only time they won’t, is if I give them an iPad to look at something or the TV.

It’s driving me mad, it’s like a dripping tap. It is getting to the point where I just want to scream. It’s overwhelming me and I’m getting angry. I don’t know what to do. When their dad is home, they still call me even if he is beside them and I’m in another room. At the end of the day, I’m so drained. What am I doing wrong or not doing right?

So first of all, I want to respond to the very last thing she says here, “What am I doing wrong or not doing right?” I would love to encourage this parent or any parent that this isn’t about wrong or right, it’s about a pattern that we may be a little stuck in or a child is stuck in that isn’t serving us, that’s making our lives harder. But it’s not the self judgment thing of what am I doing wrong? What am I doing right?

One of the most important qualities that we can have as parents is self-compassion, especially in a time like we’re in right now with so many stressful situations going on in our world. And also if we want to make changes in some of the dynamics between us and our children. A lot of times this means changing generational cycles. It is huge work. And we need to love ourselves and have patience with ourselves. There’s no such thing as a perfect parent or anything close to a perfect parent, I truly believe that. And attachment experts will tell you that even the most attuned parent will mis-respond to a child something like 50% of the time.

So let’s get realistic here and give ourselves a break, because when we are judging ourselves like this parent may be doing, it’s actually directly involved in the problem she’s having here. It’s part of why she’s getting angry and wants to scream and this is driving her mad. She’s feeling like she’s doing something wrong. She’s judging herself that she’s not a good parent for the way that she’s feeling.

Whining is a very unpleasant sound. Studies show that children of every nationality and every language whine. It’s a global behavior. And it’s typical for children the ages of this parent’s to get stuck repeating and repeating and whining and demanding in that way. So these are unpleasant behaviors that children have.

A second ago, I talked about attunement. So what’s going on with this parent is she is used to being an attuned parent. She may be a sensitive person and she’s kind of over-attuned to this behavior that her children started and now has become kind of a thing between them. When we’re a little over-attuned, it means that we’re taking everything in. We’re feeling responsible to respond to it. We’re feeling it impacting us. It’s cutting into us. Every time they call Mommy, I need to react. I’ve got to do something. And there’s no way that’s not going to get us exhausted and frustrated — get us angry — because what children are doing right there, it’s almost like they’re moving with us as one being. They’re reacting off of us, reacting off of them, reacting off of us. They’re feeling this irritation and it’s feeding their irritation. So it can become a cycle.

One thing that helps us a lot as parents is to learn how to tune in and also how to have buffers. And that’s not the same as I’m ignoring you and you don’t exist for me, when you do this and I’m turning away and I’m pretending it’s not happening. It’s just a softening, as if we’ve got padding around us. And when we hear this Mommy, instead of it penetrating into our being, it gets slowed down in the padding, it softly lands there. And so we can hold our own.

We’re not feeling battered. We’re not feeling shaken and rattled by everything. We’re hearing it. It’s going into the padding and we’re going to respond, while staying centered in ourselves, not being prey to whatever our child does that seems needy, or wanting us or demanding of us.

And the interesting thing, too, is that children actually are on a slower frequency than us. So while it may seem like their call to mommy needs an immediate response, they’re actually not ready to take in an immediate response. So it’s actually more appropriate for us to slow our responses down by imagining this padding or this space between us.

It’s common for us as parents to feel urgent about everything that happens with children. They might act as if everything’s an emergency but there are very, very few actual emergencies with children. It’s something that we have to work on and practice so that we’re not reactive in a way that’s going to wear us out and affect our mood and again, draw children into the cycle.

I’ve had parents online or parents say to me that they hate this word “mommy” because they are so sick of hearing their child say it again and again and again. And that’s certainly understandable. But the reason that we are annoyed by it is the responsibility we feel around it, that we’ve got to do something to fix this and that and somebody is calling and I’ve got to jump.

We can shift this when we hold our own. There’s a time that I have loved being able to practice this idea, and it’s become very clear to me the importance of it and that I can do it, even though I’m a very sensitive, reactive person, I have this opportunity that we have as teachers of RIE parent-infant classes and parent-toddler classes. During the class, which is mostly about observation… And one of the main reasons for observation is to be able to recognize our children as separate beings. We’re able to see that our child is separate from us as a whole person. But they’re not a mature person who knows not to do irritating things and stop when they’re bothering us. They literally can’t a lot of the time.

So we do observation of the children, which is fascinating because they’re always doing interesting things on their own with the materials that are there and with each other, engaging in conflicts, engaging in exploration, learning how to play together, being creative with materials. It’s a blast. And we recommend this at home and it’s what all my podcasts around play are about: how to enjoy your child in this manner.

Then when children are maybe 10 or 11 or 12-months-old in the RIE classes, we have snack time. And snack time — the tradition that Magda Gerber started is that the children sit at a child-sized low table. We sit on the floor or on a pillow on the floor. There can be up to eight children sitting around this table that’s kidney shaped. We serve bananas and we hand the pieces to the children.

I have videos on my YouTube channel and on my website where we demonstrate this. And there are all these bodies there and just one adult, and they’re sitting because they want to. And they know that that’s the routine and the ritual that we wipe their hands first with a wet towel, we do each one individually, paying a moment of attention to each child.

Then we invite them to help peel the banana, for certain children who seem interested. And of course that takes a while for them to get the hang of, but they actually quickly do. And then they’re peeling the banana and then we’re giving them each a piece. And there’s a moment of attention given to each child. We aren’t just handing things off without engaging with that child.

Then we give them glasses with water in them. So all kinds of things are going on.

Maybe a child pushes another child or somebody wants more and more and more over here and I’m at the other side of the table or somebody knocks their glass over, but actually it’s surprising how calm and focused these experiences are considering these are 11-month-olds up to three-year-olds. And even the most active child is able to sit for the time that they’re eating, be there, focused.

So most of the time it’s surprisingly smooth, but there are times when it’s not, there’s a lot going on. And what we have to do as the facilitator in this class is hold our own, prioritize, this person needs me here.  But we hold our own pace, we hold our center and we don’t get frazzled. It’s an interesting feeling.

What I feel like is there’s something that I’m unplugging inside me — some nerves that I’m unplugging so that I’m not going to get impacted by everything that goes on. I’m not ignoring anything, I’m going to respond, but it may not be right away or my response might be, “Oh, I see you wanting this and I’ll be with you in one minute. Right now I’m over here.”

But I’m not going to let the children escalate me. I’m not going to be reactive to their pace and their demands, their energy. I have to center in myself.

So I’ve learned how to do it. I’ve gotten a lot of practice this way and it’s amazing. It’s such a confidence-building experience that you can do this. And, of course, it’s really vital if we have one child, or more than one child, especially, that we’re not feeling pulled and impacted by every thing they say or do or everything that goes on, everything they want right now. Children want everything right now. They want everything right now, but they don’t need it right now.

Another aspect of this is our realistic expectations of our children’s behavior, because that affects our feelings, which are going to guide us to react a certain way. So if I understand that my children are going to do this thing that they do, which is call me 50,000 times, check up on me and make me answer them immediately and be demanding in this way which again, without meaning to… I’ve kind of gotten into this with them as one body. And now I’m going to separate myself out, be my own separate person on my own, very different pace and I’m going to respond from that place. So finding this in yourself. Whether it feels like I’m unplugging, I’m loosening up the nerves inside, I’ve got padding around me, slowing down.

The way that will look with this parent… She says, first of all, “If I leave the room, they call after me to ask where I am.”

So I don’t have to answer that right away. I’m going into the other room. They’re asking me again. Now they’re coming closer. I’m not going to be yelling out to them, feeling like I’ve got to report to them, like I’ve got to respond right away.

Slowing myself down, I hear them say it a couple of times maybe and I say, “Oh, I’m over here actually.”

Not, “I’m here!” Not that reactive place, but my own center, taking on my leadership role that I know that my children want me to have in their heart of hearts, letting some of the demands and “Mommys” just flow by.

So they decide to follow me. I’m in this other room. They’re asking me a question where they’re saying “Mommy” a whole bunch of times before they ask the question, which is super annoying but I’m expecting it. I know this is their thing. I’m not going to dig into each Mommy that they say and try to make it stop. I’m going to let it go.

So I’m going to wait. They’re saying, “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy,” and now I’m doing this other thing, not able to focus very well at first because this is a new dynamic for me to be leading, and it’s going to take a little while for me to get the practice I need to believe in this. And it’s going to take a while for my children to notice something different that will release them from being caught up with me in this pattern because they see that I’m okay, and that this behavior they have doesn’t have power with me and I’m not escalating in my frustration and it will lose interest for them.

So I’m letting those Mommys go. Here comes a question… I’m going to give it a moment to think what the answer is and then I’ll answer the question. “Oh, you’re asking me about the TV, that answer’s going to be no. Sorry, my love.”

So I have my own pace that this is stemming from, not theirs.

And then they can get mad at me all they want to and ask me the same thing a whole bunch of times and I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing and just nod and be empathetic. “It’s hard when you hear a no to that, it really is.” But it’s not my responsibility to fix them or to get caught up in them. In fact, I want to do everything I can to not get caught up.

So she says, “They call me from where they are instead of coming to me.”

Well, let them call from where they are. It’s okay. It’s safe for them to do that. If we don’t respond in a way that makes that work for them, then they’ll come over. So the most I would do is say something like, “If you need me, I’m here.” And not get sucked into trying to please them wherever they are.

So this parent is doing this wonderful attunement. But it’s over-attunement. It’s again, coming from this positive, healthy, wonderful parent place but it’s not helping this parent to the extent that she’s taking it. We have to find this other part too where we can be separate and whole in ourselves and understand that they are very young with low self regulation and a low threshold for emotional expression. They’re going to share every little thing with us. It’s not an emergency.

So she says it’s constant all day and I don’t think it will be constant all day if this parent wants to work on buffering herself, being unplugged, slowing down. She says, “The only time they won’t is if I give them an iPad to look at something or the TV.” That is an understandable help for this parent. I’ve just got to shut this down because I can’t take it anymore. But what I want to help this parent and other parents work on is that you’re not going to let yourself get to that point, because you’re perceiving your role a whole different way. You’re not going to be a victim to your children. Their repetitive Mommys and whining is not yours to fix. Don’t let it in.

She says, “It’s like a dripping tap.” Yes, I get that.

“It’s getting to the point where I just want to scream.”  Totally.

“It’s overwhelming me and I’m getting angry, I don’t know what to do. Even when their dad is home, they still call me, even if he’s beside them and I’m in another room.”  Right, because he doesn’t have this particular issue and they’re not getting stuck in something with him.

And she’s drained at the end of the day.

So I 100% believe this parent can change this, starting with a lot of self compassion, finding the imagery and the perspective to believe in herself as this whole person leader with her own center and pace. I really hope that helps.

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 in paperback at Amazon, Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting and No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame.  You can get them in ebook at Amazon, Apple, Google Play, or barnesandnoble.com and in audio at audible.com. As a matter of fact, you can get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the LINK in the liner notes of this podcast.

Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.

 

6 Comments

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

  1. Dear Janet,
    Thank you very much for explaining how not to be over-attuned. I’m especially grateful for the imagery you shared. So helpful! I already had a few chances to practice yesterday and I will probably have more this afternoon… and tomorrow ;-). Thank you! This was a timely episode.
    Greetings from Germany!

    1. THank you. This is so helpful at this time in our life. I will start building my “softener-protection” against my own behaviour. Thank you so much.

  2. Your descriptions of how you would respond specifically to each thing are so helpful! I love this! Very inspiring. I especially love how you emphasize that we are distinct from our child and responsible for our feelings so if they’re escalating, it’s their thing and not ours so we can respond calmly. That really hits home for me. Love all of your articles. Thanks, Janet!

  3. avatar Katie Kruger says:

    Dear Janet,

    This podcast was balm for my soul and cut to the heart of my perennial struggles with my 21-month-old. I found myself tearing up at the way you opened this episode with self-compassion and listened to it multiple times. I wonder if you’ve ever considered developing mantras or affirmations inspired by RIE? Several of the themes here felt like they’d lend themselves to this (including holding space for children as separate from us, setting the pace, and holding boundaries).

    While I’m here, I have to note that it would be amazing to hear a brief note of self-compassion at the start of each podcast. To be honest, I had taken a break from your podcast because I often left them feeling like I was failing. Keeping these messages up front regularly would be a huge help for me and maybe others who listen.

    Thank you for your work!

  4. I work with toddlers in long day care, this brings to mind our group mealtimes. Meal times if late have become very stressful for the children and adults. I feel like we the adults have been fanning the fires of “their demands” I feel this is going to be very helpful. Mind blown. Thank you.

    1. Wonderful! Hope it helps, it’s my pleasure to share the ideas that have helped me so much. Please keep me posted!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

More From Janet

Books & Recommendations