Don’t Miss the Secrets Your Children Share

In response to a parent’s question about her toddler’s aggressive impulses toward her newborn sister, Janet suggests strategies for encouraging our children — beginning in infancy– to communicate their innermost thoughts, feelings and needs. This parent and her husband have followed Janet’s advice on siblings and believe they are “doing a decent job supporting them both – keeping our baby safe while acknowledging our toddler’s feelings.”  And when their toddler acts aggressively, both parents are diligent about being present, calm, and physically intervening “without judgment or fanfare.” A few times a week, however, when the toddler is alone with her mom, she will calmly say things like, “When H gets bigger, I’m going to knock her down,” or other imagined acts of aggression. This mom wonders why her daughter is telling these stories – whether she’s asking for help, or if it’s something else.

Transcript of “Don’t Miss the Secrets Your Children Share”

Hi. This is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

Today I’m going to be responding to a question that I received in an email about how to respond to a toddler’s verbalizations about hurting her baby sister. But I want to flesh out this topic a little to discuss all the overtures of children communicating to us and how important it is to respond and encourage children to communicate, beginning with the sounds and cries that a baby makes. These can be opportunities, and we don’t want to miss these.

I’m going to start with the note that I received:

Hello, Janet. I have a toddler and a newborn. My toddler is two-and-a-half years old, and she’s having a pretty normal time adjusting. She swings between affection for her sister and aggressive behavior. Your advice on siblings has been so helpful to me and my husband. I think we’re doing a decent job supporting them both, keeping our babies safe while acknowledging our toddler’s feelings. I’m hoping you can help with something I haven’t seen addressed in any articles or podcasts.

My daughter, a few times a week, says to me some version of this: “I hit Hannah. I bite Hannah. When Hannah gets bigger, I’m going to knock her down.” She’s often smiling and nonchalant, like she tells lots of other stories. Her sister’s never around during these times. Sometimes she adds at the end, “I say, ‘Sorry, Hannah.’ I kiss Hannah and snuggle her,” but not always. I’m not sure what to say.

When she’s with her sister and acting aggressively, we are diligent about being present and calm, and physically stopping the behaviors without judgment or fanfare. We will say something like, “You want to hit your sister right now. I won’t let you.” When she tells the story, I just say something similar. Sometimes I will add something like, “Being a big sister can be hard sometimes,” or “Ouch, that hurts,” but said without much emotion. Does that make sense?

I often wonder why she’s telling me these stories and if she’s asking me for some help that I am not giving her. Perhaps there’s an opportunity since she’s calm to convey something more, though I’m not sure exactly what.

I know you are busy. I hope you can help. Thank you for reading.

Okay, so one of the reasons I love this note is that these parents sound like they are 98%, at least, in the direction I would recommend. It’s so wonderful that they are normalizing for themselves their two-and-a-half-year-old’s aggression towards the baby, because it is so normal and expected for these impulses to get the better of a child that age, when her life has been turned upside down. As this parent so lovingly acknowledges, being a big sister is hard sometimes. It’s scary and it’s hard to contain. Sometimes children will go up and they’re so excited. “I want to touch the baby,” but you can see in them that they’re kind of vibrating with this energy that’s out of their control. That’s often when they will do these aggressive things. Not that they’re mean children or that they want to hurt people or want to hurt the baby even, but it can be a very scary time when your parents’ focus has shifted from you to this other important new person. It’s just that feeling of fear that makes them lash out.

The parents are handling this valiantly it sounds like to me, and prioritizing the relationship with their older daughter, which is the key to her passing through this period of transition without internalizing a lot of shame and uncomfortable distance from her parents. She says they’re being present and calm, and physically stopping the behaviors without judgment or fanfare. Yes. We don’t want to make a big deal out of these things. She says, “We say something like, ‘You want to hit your sister right now. I won’t let you.'” Yes, that’s exactly what I would recommend.

But then what this little girl is doing in these moments that the parent’s asking about is so, so incredible. Two-and-a-half years old and she is articulating that she has these feelings about her sister, and she feels safe to share them with her parents. This is a golden opportunity and it sounds like this parent is almost there to being able to help both her daughter and herself benefit from this sharing that her daughter’s doing.

I’m going to talk specifically how I would recommend handling the, “I hit Hannah, I bite Hannah” comments. But first I just want to talk a little about this challenge that we have to engage with our child as a person from the beginning, ideally, to realize that children are communicating from day one, and they’re very candid. This is one of the many reasons I love working with children in these early years. They put it all out there. They do share what’s on their mind.

When children do this beginning as infants, as parents, it might be hard for us to see and receive that this is communication. For example, with an infant, our priority, ideally, isn’t to make the crying stop, but to explore and try to understand it as best we can. We won’t always understand it, but making that effort so that it encourages our child to keep sharing with us.

From the beginning, we want to encourage any and all communication, because we want our child to be a confident communicator, to continue to be throughout life, of course, and using language and connecting that way. It’s such an important human thing to do. We want to give them those messages right away that we hear them and that we want to understand what they’re experiencing, what they’re sharing with us.

This can be especially challenging with infants for a few reasons.

One, if you’re like I was before I learned this approach, I would’ve thought if somebody asked me, that I saw my baby as a person. But honestly, I didn’t. I saw my baby as kind of this extension of me that was maybe the beginnings of a person, but not actually a person.

Also, as parents, crying and any kind of sound that doesn’t sound happy that comes from our child, triggers us and rattles us. That’s what it’s supposed to do, because that’s how babies are going to get their needs met. The tendency can be to intervene too much, too soon, and not see this as nuanced communication, that it isn’t just this one note thing that we’ve got to put out. I know that this is an issue for other people besides me in the beginning, because I get asked, “How long should I let my baby cry before I pick them up?” Or “Is it okay for me to let my baby cry? What’s the right response?”

When we actually see a person and know that this person is communicating all kinds of feelings and thoughts, then we want to engage. We want to, as my friend Lisa Sunbury says, enter into a conversation with our child.

Our baby makes a sound that sounds unpleasant, and we want to respond immediately or as soon as we can. But that doesn’t mean we swoop them up, or move them, or put something in their mouth. It means breathing through our discomfort that we might want to fix immediately and receiving. “Wow, I hear you. What are you saying? What are you telling me? I’m not sure. Oh, I think you’re really hungry. Are you telling me that?”

With a baby I was recently working with, he was nine months old, he’d gotten up from his nap and he was crying and crying and he wasn’t hungry, his mother didn’t think. But he was touching his tummy area where the top of his diaper was. We weren’t immediately picking him up, giving him food, or trying to do something to make him stop. I was asking him, “What’s going on? I hear you.” One thing I noticed is he put his finger in his mouth a little. I said, “Do your teeth hurt? I wonder if that’s bothering you.” His mother said that indeed he was teething, but he kept touching this area of his tummy. When I touched it as well, I noticed that his diaper was quite tight at the top. So, I said, “Is this really tight for you? Maybe that’s uncomfortable.” The mother loosened the diaper and sure enough, that’s what was going on. We were able to find out, is what I’m saying. Person to person, as if this communication is something that we want to figure out and be as accurate on as possible, and that means not rushing to do something.

That means also this freedom that we have. I don’t have to have the right answer, which I know as a new parent… I was so overwhelmed and I just wanted to be doing something right and I felt like I was doing everything wrong. But if we’re okay with not having the right answer and engaging with this baby as a person that’s communicating something, then we have a better chance of figuring it out, and we have a much better chance of encouraging the communication, because the child is feeling like their efforts matter and their efforts might actually get the true need filled.

So the importance of this continues, and then maybe starting around eight months, children might do this wonderful thing, which is point as they’re babbling or saying the beginnings of words. They point. This has been shown to be a very important development. It’s paving the way for expressive language. Of course, children have other ways of doing this, too. There’ll be a sound outside and they’ll look at you. It’s saying, “Do you hear that, too?” But then they actually point. Then they’re giving you even more information about what’s going on in their mind, what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling, what they might want or find interesting or need.

And this is all, right from the beginning, nuanced communication that deserves an open, thoughtful, nuanced response. But again, I realize that can be hard to do, especially when children aren’t saying words yet. It can feel somehow easier to simplify things for ourselves. Oh, well, he’s pointing at this. I’m going to get it for him, or whatever it is, instead of engaging in this back and forth communication. Sometimes it just means waiting longer, but I’m staying engaged and I’m letting you know that I hear you and I want to figure out what you’re saying.

So when children look at you and they babble or they point, or even they just look at you and there’s something going on, responding back, trying to figure out what they’re saying, “Oh, are you telling me about that sound? I hear that, too. That bird is really close, isn’t it? It’s very loud.” For children to feel understood and connected with this way is so encouraging and confidence-building.

And it can be fun for us, too. It takes bravery to be more open and not have the snap answer and fix things. It really does. It can feel good to be that kind of parent, to practice it.

By no means am I saying: Oh gosh, every little thing my child does, I’m supposed to respond. Absolutely not. This isn’t what that’s about. But oftentimes this is right in front of us. We’re there. We’re playing with our child, or we’re watching them play, or we’re hanging out with them. We’re doing a task together. It’s right there for us. Those are the opportunities I’m talking about. I’m not talking about every whine or every sound our child makes that we need to respond.

So now in this case, this little girl is sharing her feelings quite beautifully, and her mother really wants to know how to respond to this. The answer is: just be in it with her, detail by detail, with what she’s sharing.

For me, my default response is, “Wow.” That may not work for everybody, but what that does for me is it helps me to stay open and curious. It gives me time to slow myself down and not try to jump in with the “right response”. It helps me to receive.

So when this girl says, “I hit Hannah, I bite Hannah,” I would say, “Wow, you’re telling me that you are thinking about hitting Hannah or biting Hannah. Is that how you feel sometimes, that you want to do that? I know you’ve done that in the past. Sometimes you feel like doing it and you do it. How does that feel? It’s kind of uncomfortable, right? To want to hurt somebody.”

Right there, I’m not expecting, just as I’m not expecting with an infant who’s crying, I’m not expecting that I’m going to get, boom, this clear answer back. But I’m demonstrating to my child that I am open and I really do want to know, and that there’s nothing they can’t share with me. I’m interested in every thought that they have and every feeling that they have. I want to know more about that. I want to know them intimately. So that’s what that is about, more than I’m going to get the answer. But sometimes we do get more of the answer that way. We have a better chance of it if we’re able to go there with them.

She says, “When Hannah gets bigger, I’m going to knock her down.” Wow. Where is she getting this interesting idea she’s already envisioning? I don’t know if a parent said something about that to her, or if knows an older baby who’s standing up and she’s aware that could be coming, but that’s very, very interesting to me that she’s already thinking ahead. Wow, that’s wonderful imagination.

So she’s articulating her feelings. She feels safe to share her feelings. She’s using her imagination about what’s to come. To that, I would say, “Wow, you’re thinking about when Hannah gets bigger and you’re going to knock her down. Would she be standing then or walking, and you would feel like knocking her down, you would want to hurt her that way? Thank you so much for sharing that with me. I want to know what you’re thinking.”

I wouldn’t feel the need to keep saying, “I won’t let you do that,” or “Don’t do that,” or shutting that down, because usually, children, they know that part. That’s why they’re sharing these “naughty” things with us. They know we’re not going to let them do those things. But if you want to, I would do it in a way that reassures her. “If you feel like doing those things, if you want to hit your sister, you can always tell us that. We’re going to be there to help you stop.”

If we can encourage our child to share their feelings in the moment when it’s happening, then we can stop them.

Again, they don’t need us to keep replaying that message: what you’re doing is wrong and I’m not going to let you do it when they already know that. What they need is: You need help with this and you’re sharing. Thank you. Don’t worry. I’m going to help you. I’ll be there. This parent already has a great connection with her daughter clearly, but this would even take it that one step further.

This parent says, “She says it smiling and nonchalant, like she tells lots of other stories.” Yeah. It’s smiling, nonchalant, but it’s still: I’m admitting something to you. What do you think about this? She wants to know. Again, it’s so beautiful of her to share.

“Sometimes, she adds at the end, ‘I say, ‘Sorry, Hannah. I kiss Hannah and snuggle her.'”

Sometimes she does that. So That’s beautiful as well. I wouldn’t jump to, “Oh yes, that’s the right thing to do, and you’re always going to do that.” I would still receive that delicately. I mean, that’s another thing. If we come in with a big opinion, whether it’s positive or negative about what a child is sharing, it does shut it down. It does make it harder. What matters is that she’s sharing it.

To that, I would say, “That would be so kind of you to apologize. Sometimes we all do things that we wish we hadn’t done and we want to make it better.” She’s saying she feels all these different things for her sister, which is how it is with relationships, especially sibling relationships. Children feel a whole variety of things about their sibling. They love them. They’re annoyed by them. If that all can be okay with us, but we’re there to let our child know that we’re going to help them with the physical stuff or things that get away from them, then there’s much less of that, interestingly.

The more we welcome all aspects, every feeling — the darkest ones as well as the brightest ones — the less scared children feel; the more confident they feel, and secure, safe, and closer to us.

So the right response is the hearing, wanting to understand, staying on our child’s side, and most of all, welcoming; welcoming those secrets to be told, welcoming children to share their insides with us. It’s precious. We all hope our children keep doing this. There’ll be phases in life when they don’t as much, but we can maintain this kind of relationship with our child where they do tell us all the hard things and where we can assure them that those things are normal to feel.

I hope some of this helps. Thank you so much to this parent for her kind words and for sharing with me.

By the way, if my podcasts are helpful to you, you can help the podcast continue by giving it a positive review on iTunes. So grateful to all of you for listening.

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. 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. You can get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the LINK in this transcript.

Thank you so much for listening. We can do this.

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