How to Help Your Child Engage More Successfully with Peers

A parent consults with Janet about her son’s struggles to interact socially with other kids. She feels he has no real friends and offers several examples where her son’s behavior becomes aggressive and unwelcome by playmates. He then becomes “sad and frustrated.” She writes: “As a mom, my heart breaks because I see him struggle to make a best friend. It seems like the kids at preschool click with at least one other person really well, and I just don’t feel like he does.” This mom says she feels stuck and confused and is hoping Janet can offer a way to help her son.

Transcript of “How to Help Your Child Engage More Successfully with Peers”

Hi there. This is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I am doing a mini-consultation with a parent who is concerned because her son seems to be misfiring in social situations, not engaging appropriately and, therefore, being rejected and disappointed. I try to offer her some advice as to how to help him on his social learning journey, which is a complicated journey for all of us.

Okay, here’s the note I received from this parent:

I’m having a very challenging time watching my son repeatedly — and in different situations — have the same challenges with his peers. Whether at preschool, a play date, 1-1, or with small groups of friends, he is wanting play with the other kids, but seems to engage in an unwelcomed way. Then the others don’t include him and he gets sad and frustrated.

For example, he was with 3 close girl friends. They had a great play date, then as they were all coloring on their own separate papers, he was putting his paper on top of theirs or coloring on theirs. I let him know he needed to keep to his own paper because his friends had asked them to keep off their paper, but he repeated it. When the behavior stopped, he was sour and the girls just simply didn’t want to include him. He got sad and frustrated, saying the house was bad etc.

This sort of thing plays out in different ways. On a walk with a friend, with her mother and myself present, he was climbing on rocks and having a great time leading his friend into nature. When she stopped wanting to climb on the rocks, he started speaking negatively and saying, “you want to come on this rock, NO you can’t!”… and things like that.

As a mom my heart breaks because I see him struggle to make a “best friend”. It seems like the kids at preschool click with at least one other person really well, and I just don’t feel like he does. At least, I don’t see it.

What can I do to help him? I remember you saying once on a podcast that sometimes they’re simply not ready for certain situations. I’d love to stay home and home school him but his energy all day everyday for me is challenging, and I want to enter work in the next year (my husband works full time). So I’m feeling a little stuck and confused and wondering what I can be doing to help him?!

Okay, now here’s this parent. Hello, how are you?

Parent:  I’m doing really good today, thank you.

Janet Lansbury:  Good. So, I read your question about your issue about your older child, and I want to see how I can help. One of the reasons that I thought this would be good to do as a consultation is that I have a lot of questions for you that I couldn’t answer, and that’s often the case for me, by the way, that even if somebody gives me quite a long description like you did I have many questions so that I can picture better what’s going on.

So, the first question I have is, how you respond in these situations? You say that you feel a bit heartbroken, or concerned, and I’m wondering what you actually do, and say, to him when he’s having difficulties and having these reactions?

Parent:  I responded so many ways. I’ve been very inconsistent, because I think I’m just learning as I go with what I can do in the moment, pulling on resources of what I’ve learned, mainly from your podcast, or other books.

This really is something that’s been going on for a long time, like a year. His sister was born when he was almost three and as soon as she was born we just, of course, saw a different energy in him, a lot of, I would say, more energy. He became really hyper, and really loud, and I have an understanding of all that. He was probably like, “Hey, look at me, I’m still here.” So, it quickly turned into, of course, me feeling, and narrating, either internally or to other people, “This is my wild child. It’s a lot of energy, I can hardly handle him.”

Most recently how I’ve been handling it is I wrote you a specific situation, just to summarize out very quick… Basically he was with three other girls, they were drawing and he kept putting his paper on top of theirs, and they were moving away and he would follow. It started escalating, everyone was getting frustrated. He was frustrated he wasn’t included. They were frustrated that he kept going into their space. And so, there was a breaking moment where like a girl slapped his hand and screamed. So, I just picked him up and I took him to the kitchen, which was like 10 feet away, and at that time I knew he was tired. So, I just said, “We’re going to go now. I can see you’re tired.” I just peeked my head back in and said, “So good to see you all. We’re going to go now.” I tried not to shame. That was like a decent moment. We got in the car and I could just tell he was relieved, he was so happy and nice, and he wasn’t fussing.

But I have been guilty, like so many parents, of totally losing it, raising my voice. This is something I really regret that I think I’ve — I’m done with, but when he wouldn’t listen to me I’d grab his arm firmly and like, “You need to stop doing XYZ.” It’s often to his sister at home. So, as you can see, I respond in like a lot of different ways, and I’m kind of coming to you because I want like a blueprint of how I can be consistent in a positive way towards him.

Janet Lansbury:  Okay. So this is good. You gave me that one situation but you also said that this is the dynamic that keeps repeating itself with other children.

Parent:  Yeah. He had been in preschool last year at this preschool two days a week, a very sweet Waldorf preschool. There were 12 children. This year with COVID there was six children, or more like four, so it was a small group. I can’t say exactly what was going on there but every day that I went I would get a little taste that the same dynamic was happening there. I can go into that now or later.

Janet Lansbury:  Yeah, we can go into it later, because I want to start with this understanding that you do seem to have, but maybe you haven’t had enough encouragement to really help him with his process around having a sibling. So, as you said, he changed, and that is pretty par for the course, because it is usually the first, maybe the biggest, trauma that young children have where their life is totally changed. It’s very scary for them in terms of: where is my place in the family now? It’s not as simple as him just saying: Look at me, I want attention. It’s really being quite dysregulated a lot of the time.

When you see that hyperactivity, that kind of manic behavior, he’s in a dysregulated state in those times. When you’ve gotten impatient with him around that —  you’re human so please be compassionate towards yourself, this is a hard transition for parents, as well, but it is very, very difficult for children. What happens is, then he absorbs those feelings from you. What that does is it gives him more feelings that he has to process out, that will come out through this manic behavior, through not listening, doing things that he knows aren’t going to help him in that moment, like the way he’s behaving with peers.

It’s really a situation where he can’t help himself, he’s just going to this irrational place. What you describe with his peers it’s irrational. In his thinking brain he knows better, and he doesn’t want to be that kid doing those things, that gets rejected, but he’s going there because these feelings just keep coming up for him.

So, the best thing that we can do generally, and this is true for almost every issue that parents bring to me and it’s why it’s such a theme in my podcast and in my writings, he needs to process the feelings that are behind this behavior. That is the ultimate goal that will help him feel better and, therefore, behave more pro-socially with his peers, and with you, and with his sibling, and everyone.

His sister is 1-1/2, you said. This also tends to be a difficult time in that the younger child seems more of a person to the older child, therefore, more of a threat, more of a rival. Before that they can kind of say: Oh, well, this is a baby, or this is a crawling thing, and she’s cute, and my life is still changed and it’s really, really scary. But now this is a real other person.

Of course, we see that ideally right away that this is a person, but your child will start to feel it more when the younger one is walking, maybe starting to talk more. So, that’s another big scary thing that he needs to process out.

Whenever children have behavior that’s disruptive, or challenging like this, or difficult for us as parents, it is emotionally driven, almost always. So, we want to help him to process out these feelings.

Then, we have to know that when we do lose our temper, which is going to happen, we try to make that as rare as possible by perceiving this correctly, which is that he’s not just being a naughty kid right here, he really is out of control. Even in these little moments with his sister where he’s not being nice, or he’s maybe lashing out at her, or lashing out at you, if we know that then it helps us to feel less threatened about it. Whoops, there he goes, I’ve got to help this guy who’s got some feelings going on, popping out today.

If we have that attitude it’s going to help us to feel better about it. If we’re thinking like: Oh, my kid is just so unpredictable and behaving awful, and doesn’t know how to make friends, and we’re heartbroken, then that’s going to make it harder for us. It starts with us feeling comfortable, which we get from the perspective of what’s really going on here. Every time that we allow him to process some of the feelings safely — we’re not getting mad at him for it, we’re keeping him safe, we’re maybe taking him out of situations, but I would do that rarely (we’re going to get to that), then it helps move it forward. It helps the feelings to get processed out.

Anyway, that is what is at the root of what I want to talk about with you, and that’s why I wanted to ask you how you felt in these situations. You said that you felt heartbroken and that stuck out to me, because parents say that a lot, “This breaks my heart.” What I know right there is that the child is feeling your discomfort around the situation, too, and it’s making it hard for you to give him the chance to process the feelings in all of these situations.

Parent:   Yeah. I have so many things I want to say, but I do think it’s valuable to mention to you that the heartbreak for me was so strong when he was away from me at preschool versus if I’m in a room with him and I’m seeing this occur, and I can observe what’s going on. I do know that when I pick him up from preschool and I’d see … I don’t know if I mentioned this to you, but a child, for example, ran up one day and was just like, “I’m going to so-and-so’s after school and you’re not invited.”

And there had been many weeks, if not months, of just me knowing that he didn’t really connect with anyone at school. Same thing, he would go there, maybe get overexcited, or be in a manic place, instead of knowing how to, and maybe that’s a silly thing to say, I don’t know if kids know how to play with each other so well at four. But he would come into a play scene a little bit more destructive and then that would steer people away.

I mention this to you because I think he did absorb so much of my heartbreak, and I maybe made the mistake, I don’t know if this is a mistake because my heart’s always been very open to homeschooling, and then with COVID it’s certainly a very comfortable place for me to imagine now. But I did have that talk with him.

He asked me every day… he doesn’t want to go to preschool. He’d wake up and say, “I don’t want to go,” and that’s when my antennas went up. I’m like, “What’s going on at preschool?” A few moms texted me saying, is my older son okay because my son’s telling me that they don’t want to play with and so on and so forth. There was a narration happening coming back to me. So, my antennas went up.

Before, I was just coming up with a story like: Oh, he just is still acclimating to a group setting without me.

We’ve done this back and forth exchange emotionally of like, I’ve given him the freedom, basically, to not go to school and to do homeschool. And the teacher told me at the time, “Don’t have that conversation with him because he’s the child and you’re the parent.”

This is so tied into it, and it’s really where I’d like your advice, as well, because I don’t know if I’ve done a power game with my son. He certainly, I think, knows that I’m the parent, and I really do feel like I have the boundaries and I make that part of it, but I do feel more confident with him interacting with kids like in my nest still, and I just don’t know if that’s part of needing to let go. I just wanted to add that piece in there because I think it’s an important part.

Janet Lansbury:  So, you’re saying that when he would say, “I don’t want to go,” you would say, “Okay, you don’t have to go?”

Parent:  I always had him go. We had a discussion and it was really around COVID, because the preschool took a break. In my mind I was thinking I always wanted to homeschool you, so we can certainly do this at home and we’ll figure out a way. To be honest, it was never convenient for me because my younger would lose a nap every time I take him.

So, a lot of things made sense, and I felt like he was young enough, but I don’t want to be holding him back from something that’s really developmentally appropriate for him, if school is. I just have a lot of questions about it all. Knowing that he was never clicking with anyone, those are my words, but it’s like the feedback I got from other parents, and a little bit with the teacher when I’d see her handle situations, he never got that one-on-one. Instead, there was like a general statement of, “We’re all friends here and we’re kind to one another.”

I could see my older son in the moment kind of suffering because he didn’t know how to deal with something. Then, I thought: Uh, yeah, we can just work on this at home together.  It just seems like it might be appropriate to work on this for some months, or a year, until I see that he’s starting to do better in social situations.

Janet Lansbury:  Okay, let me just go through this what I was thinking as you were talking. So, when you first said that he doesn’t want to go, it’s good that you had him go anyway. It’s common for children to not want to deal with a transition. Even if things are going okay at school they will often say, “I don’t want to go,” and feel like that. Right there is like a moment where, as a parent there’s many moments in the day like this, especially when you’ve got issues between siblings, and things like that, that you can have the boundary, which it sounds like you had. “We are going to go,” but at the same time help him to process feelings.

It’s like a golden opportunity. So instead of seeing it as: Uh-oh, he doesn’t want to go… “Oh, you don’t want to go and we’re making you go. Yeah, you can share that with me and I get it! It’s okay to feel that way.” All those messages. You don’t have to say a lot. If you’re perceiving it as: Oh, here’s an opportunity for him to process, that’s what’s going to ultimately help him.

So, this choice to keep him home I think is a fine choice right now, especially if it’s not that convenient for you to take him to school, and he’s having difficulties. But, the work at home — that’s what I want to help you with. Because we can’t control what happens with children in another setting when we’re not there, but you can do a lot at home to help him to succeed with other children — the way you respond to everything that he does through the day, the way that you are confident about your boundaries and, also, very welcoming of whatever feelings he has, whatever feelings in however way he states them.

So, if he hates his sister, if he wants to hurt her, of course we stop him from hurting her. We say, “I can’t let you hurt her, but you’re really feeling angry right now about her. You’re not liking her right now,” or whatever. We want to welcome the feeling, otherwise he’s kind of stuck in it all the time, and he’s bringing that into social situations with other children.

So, that’s the work to do, and I think it’s a fine choice to keep him home if you’re comfortable with that, to give him that chance to process some of these feelings with you at home.

But I want to talk also about things like… Let’s just take the situation that you brought up with the girls. So, children can learn social skills at a very young age. Now, I’m assuming that you don’t have other signs that he’s not neuro-typical, or have you ever had him assessed, or anything like that, or have you seen reason to?

Parent:  I’ve never felt reason to. He seems very typically functioning, yeah. Highly emotional, I would say he’s highly emotional, highly sensitive, yeah.

Janet Lansbury:  So, highly emotional, highly sensitive. What does that mean? More than the average child, he needs to process his feelings. All children do, but this guy has more feelings because he’s taking in everything. He’s absorbing. So every time that you’ve ever yelled at him, or whatever, this change in having a sibling, and all of that, not to feel bad about it, it’s just to inform you so that you feel more welcoming and positive about the feelings however they show up.

So, let’s take the specific example of he’s playing with the girls. So they had a play date. They were coloring and he was coloring on theirs. So you let him know he needed to keep his own paper, which I think he knew, but he was showing that his emotions were getting involved in that situation, that he was not in his reasonable brain right there.

So, they asked him to stop, he repeated it, and then when the behavior stopped he was sour.

I think it’s fine that you kind of intervened in terms of telling him about that. But generally I would do as little as possible. This is how children learn to be with other children. They learn through experience of what works with other children and what doesn’t. So, they need to have those natural negative consequences sometimes. They don’t want to play with me when I do this.

If you could see that…  I know it’s heartbreaking to all of us when our children aren’t succeeding in a situation, or it seems like that they’re not getting what they seem to want. It’s really important for him to have those feelings of disappointment.

So when he reacts, when he gets frustrated, those are the emotions that he’s bringing into the situation that are now available for him to express and process.

It’s not even really about that specific situation so much as the emotions that he’s bringing into it. He’s kind of setting this up on some unconscious level that he’s going to get rejected so that he can relieve some of his frustration and fear around everything else that’s ever happened in his life. This is what I mean about the processing — that it’s the most important thing you can do.

So, when he gets frustrated and he goes off… Instead of just getting him out of there I would take him aside, but with a lot of welcoming of the feelings. Even if what he did was absolutely ridiculous because he wasn’t in a reasonable place, it was emotionally driven. “You wanted to draw on their paper and they didn’t want you to, and we wouldn’t let you do that. That makes you really upset.”

Letting him know that you feel safe about him feeling those feelings and you feel comfortable, which, of course, has to start with you actually feeling safe and comfortable about it. That’s the hard part. That’s why I talked about that first.

So, your perception of it. Then, helping him to feel those feelings that he wants to feel. He’s setting it up on some level so that he can process this out.

As parents we commonly do this, we get in the way because we love our child and we’re heartbroken. We don’t want to see them disappointed so we fix it, or we just take them away, we don’t talk about it, or we discourage him from the feeling instead of leaning into it.

Parent:  So, he doesn’t like any more… He used to be really open to me like gently holding his hand and like, “Let’s just go check in about this,” or “Let’s go talk,” in a different space where it’s more quiet. Now he doesn’t really. He’s four and a half, he doesn’t want his body touched in moments like that where it’s high intensity for him. So, is that conversation where I welcome his feelings and say something like, “Yeah, you’re really wanting to touch their paper,” or whatever comes out in the moment, is that like comfortably said in front of the other children, or do I try and bring him into the space where he can be on his own with me? If he’s welcoming, of course, we go together, but if he’s resistant what does that look like?

Janet Lansbury:  It’s better if you can just stay there. What it does is it helps normalize and show more acceptance than if you say, “Oh, let’s go over here.” If he was out in front of a whole bunch of parents and people when you know he’s going to go off, you might want to help him to have a more private experience. So, it would be better to stay there. Maybe you’re blocking his hand if he’s lashing out physically at somebody or trying to scribble all over their drawing, to help contain that from happening, but you would be, “This is really frustrating for you. You’re not getting what you want here,” whatever it is. Just saying one thing maybe, but having that attitude of: Yeah, you can share all this stuff that’s in you with me. I’m comfortable. In fact, I want you to share it.

Because if he can share it he doesn’t have to act on it. That’s really gold — when children can process these feelings safely with us. So, that would be the ideal.

Maybe even allowing the girls to deal with him, that would be another option, which would mean that I’m not telling him what to do, that he’s just hearing it from those girls. Then, when he gets frustrated I’m there to acknowledge it and encourage it, that he shares that safely.

That’s what I mean about — as little as possible I would intervene, and not try to tell him the reasonable thing which is, “Yeah, they don’t want you drawing on their paper.” He’s showing that he’s not in a reasonable space. So, it doesn’t really help that much.

Parent:  I feel this awful sensation in that moment to be this harmony keeper and be like, “And, girls, we include everyone.” I feel like that’s probably not … I think I should probably just remain my focus on my son, right?

Janet Lansbury:  Yeah. So, believe me, we all have that impulse as parents, I think, but it does get in the way. Because then he learns that: Oh, I can’t handle things and people come in and run interference for me and try to make it all better. That’s not helping him learn how to be with other children at all, it’s doing the opposite. It’s making him feel like he can’t and that things have to be smoothed over for him, that it’s not safe for him to feel disappointment and things that go on.

Exactly what he needs to do to learn how to be with other children is to feel all the feelings of being rejected, being disappointed. And not having you throwing out a safety net, or trying to fix it for him in any way, but really allowing him to fail in this learning. Just like with any learning. Children have to struggle with it. They have to have all the emotions. It’s like anything that we try to do in life, or we try to learn, or any project that we have. This is a very complicated one, this social stuff.

Parent:  That’s a big takeaway for me, allowing him to fail. I feel like I definitely even recognize that I have been trying to shield him, and I’ve known it doesn’t feel right in me. I’ve even thought: Oh, just keep him home and he can avoid all this.

Janet Lansbury:  If you keep him home to avoid that’s not going to help him. If you keep him home because you want to actually help him process stuff in a way that …

Parent:  Yeah.

Janet Lansbury: … is where you have more control. Or you’re going to actually help him to process this by responding in the way that I’m talking about. You’re not going to bail him out.

Yeah, that’s exactly why he’s struggling, actually. Not to make you feel bad, but just for you to know that you have the power to help him change, you really do, and he can do this. What he needs is to feel all the feelings around social situations and to know that it’s safe for him to not get what he wants.

Sometimes it starts with your own boundaries with him. When children are having difficulties socially seeing other people’s boundaries, like with the girls, it’s because they haven’t had enough experience to feel their feelings around their parent’s boundaries, that their parents haven’t been confident enough.

Parent:  Whoo, yeah.

Janet Lansbury:  That’s why I have a post The Self-care Parents Need Every Moment, I think it’s called, and it’s about how self-care isn’t for us, it’s really for our children. Our boundaries are what help our children to learn about other people, and their boundaries. That’s the only way they can do it. And then their own experience with other children.

So, that’s the work to do at home if you’re going to homeschool him. You can do this, it’s totally in your power. Nothing is too late, you haven’t messed up, or anything like that. You can switch this. But it’s important to have your eyes open to what’s going on and what he needs to be able to pass through this and, thus, to process and learn from every experience that he has.

Parent:  So, for example, in the moment, it happens at home a lot, when I am going over to him and helping him in the moment and then his little sister comes over with big energy and I’m trying to give that energy to the older.

Janet Lansbury:  What’s the energy that you’re giving? Because what I’m talking about doesn’t really take energy, it takes acceptance, and allowing, and giving space. It should not be taking energy.

Parent:  Okay, so say the situation with the girls when I go over and sit next to him and I say, “I see you and-”

Janet Lansbury:  I wouldn’t even do that. I mean at 4 ½ I wouldn’t go sit next to him when he’s with the girls.

Parent:  Oh, okay, …

Janet Lansbury:  No, yeah.

Parent:  … but when there’s conflict?

Janet Lansbury:  When there’s conflict I would be some distance away, unless you think he’s going to hit them or something, then I would come closer. The more you intervene the more children feel that they can’t do it themselves, that it’s not safe for them. So, that’s why I was saying, ideally, I would not be running any interference for him, or telling him what the girls said, letting it be between them so that he gets the experience, and they get the experience. It’s actually good for them, too, to see: what do you do when someone’s not listening to you?

If you see something escalate towards somebody getting hurt then you would come in.

Parent:  Okay.

Janet Lansbury:  But you would still encourage the conflict instead of discouraging it.

So, anyway, what else were you going to say about that?

Parent:  Well, I was just going to say…  So we’ll pull from a different example. When I am with him in a moment and his sister comes over, say, in a moment I’m trying to talk with him… but anyways his sister just comes and takes my attention. Not that I’m giving it to her, but she just comes in with like maybe a screaming, or crying, and I’m trying to talk to my older son. I’m just wondering, because that happens a lot, and internally I feel sad when I’m trying to work with my four-year-old on a behavior, or talk to him about a behavior, and it’s already a heated moment… So maybe I shouldn’t be talking with him in the moment. And then his sister comes over and I just feel: Sorry, and I can’t even talk to you. I can’t give you that energy the same way that I used to.

I think that’s where I’m sad. We used to have this uninterrupted bond where we could talk and now there’s this little tiny, adorable, but loud human who wants to be a part of it. I just feel like he’s always not receiving enough, or I feel he has sorrow and maybe that’s part of everything. I’m always divided.

Janet Lansbury:  Well, he does have sorrow, maybe, and it needs to be okay for him to feel that, and she has whatever feelings she has.

So, firstly, I wouldn’t be talking to him about a behavior. And the only reason I corrected your words there was because that’s a common misconception — that we have to work children through something, talk them through something. Helping them process emotions is very passive, and it’s more about allowing. It’s very accepting.

So, whatever the behavior was, your hand is there to make sure it stops, or whatever. You put the item away if he’s using it unsafely, but you’re letting your shoulders drop and you’re as relaxed as possible, maybe nodding your head. Maybe that’s all you’re doing.

Then, this other person comes up and you’re like, “Yeah, you got upset, too.” And then you turn right back to him and you’re just there for both of them, accepting.

So, it’s not like: Oh, my gosh, I was doing important work here and this person interrupted me. It’s just: Oh, now we’re all going to have a therapy session.

So, you’ve got to take the pressure off yourself because it’s not helping. That’s what makes him feel like: Okay, this isn’t safe for me because my mother has to talk to me about it and work me through something.

Janet Lansbury:  No, this is life that happens all the time and to be very normalized ideally. It’s that: Yeah, sometimes friends won’t let you play the way you want with them, and then they don’t want to play with you when you act like that. Sometimes your mom makes you stop doing something and you feel terrible about it for a few minutes. It’s normal, and it happens all day long. That’s life for young children.

And it sets us up really well for the rest of our lives where we know that life isn’t smooth. You have 20 million different feelings in a day but they’re all important and safe to have. Nothing somebody has to rescue me from, or work me through, or do anything about. So, yeah, it’s the way that you’re perceiving it, and you’re putting this responsibility on yourself that isn’t yours and isn’t helping.

This other example that you gave about climbing on the rocks and he started speaking negatively… I would allow him to do that. Because he’s not saying terrible things to hurt, he just saying, “You can’t, you can’t.”

So, right there I would just be calmly in my place as long as children are physically safe, and I would say something like, “Wow, you really didn’t want her to do that.” You’re saying, “No, you don’t want her to do that!”

I’m not telling her what to do, I’m just acknowledging him and welcoming him to share that frustration, fear, whatever is there. It’s probably a lot of things bundled into one.

All I’m seeing is that he’s saying he doesn’t want her to come on this rock and that he’s kind of setting it up meanly like, “You want to come on this rock and you can’t.”

Parent:  Yeah.

Janet Lansbury:  He’s expressing that feeling of, I don’t know, trying to exert some control, or something, over somebody else. He needs to see that doesn’t work, and he needs to be allowed to feel that way, as much as he needs to.

Parent:  He told me later in the car he said, “I was so mad she wasn’t climbing with me anymore.” But in the moment I didn’t know that, and to be honest I was mortified because here was my excited four-year-old wanting to play. That’s the way I see it, and speaking quite, in my opinion, rudely because he had the tone, “Stop it.” Very powerful, very sharp, and to be real with you, like as I’m walking with this other mom, to be honest I felt embarrassed. I was just like: Wow, your daughter’s being really calm and mine is like thrashing on her a little bit.

Janet Lansbury:  Yeah, but it’s better to show her. You’d be surprised how okay other parents feel when they see you not going to let him push her off the rock, you’re not going to let him do that, but you’re there comfortably allowing him to express what seemed like mean, or ridiculous feelings, or whatever. I think the parent will be okay with that. Maybe they’ll think, “Wow, this guy he’s really got a strong temper,” whatever, but you can explain that later.

What’s more important is that you’re going to help him to get better at this. The only way to do that is to accept whatever he’s feeling and actually go 180 degrees from where you are now, which is actually that you even want him to share how incredibly horrible it is that this girl didn’t do what he wanted, the full extent of that feeling of not getting what you want from another person. So, you want him to share it to the hilt.

Parent:  That’s in the moment that’s it happening?

Janet Lansbury:  Yeah. But you’re a ways from that now, and that’s why I was saying, maybe, even just for yourself, to reign in the social a little while so you can just work on it between him and his sister, and the other things that come up for him. Work on not trying to change his feelings in any way, in fact wanting them to come out in full force. That’s what’s going to help him.

That’s basically… My advice for every consultation I ever do is something around this same idea — it’s about the feelings. Children need to express every single feeling. We can’t make the feelings go away. They’re going to still come popping up again and again if we don’t let them play out. The best thing we can do to make a child feel safe is to actually encourage them to play out, show that we’re so comfortable and see this is so healthy and normal that we actually want them to be their craziest selves with our calm control around it. So, it’s this counterintuitive thing, I know.

Parent:  Okay.

Janet Lansbury:  That’s what going to help. And I think for yourself when you see it working you’ll feel more comfortable with it. It’s hard at first, and mostly like meditating on this perspective: Wow, the feelings are actually the best thing that could happen for him, whatever they are, and me accepting them. Just really perceiving that differently is the hardest part.

Parent:  I have a question, and it might be just a repeat of what we’re talking about.

So, his cousin is someone that we see often. She’s my sister’s daughter and she is two, and she’s very verbal, and she is just experimenting, but they go on this “stop it” rampage with each other, and I think that happens often. And her mom does an approach that’s very much like, “You go to your room.” I just would love a tool from you that I can practice just to make it easy for me, since it’s something that happens every time we see them, and it escalates, and it’s just purely emotional. I think it’s just curiosity. I see them get into the emotions pretty strongly.

Janet Lansbury:  They’re both venting beautifully there, it sounds like.

Parent:  They really are.

Janet Lansbury:  That reminds me of some kind of like therapy session. It’s some kind of … With adults there’s so much baggage by that point that maybe it’s not safe for them to go there, I don’t know. With children it’s so available to them, the emotions, and it’s so therapeutic and great for them to yell at each other and have a big conflict.

You can’t control what another parent does, so the most I would say is like just, “Maybe you’re not comfortable with her being in that conflict but I’m really working on getting comfortable with him doing it, so I would see it positively.” Again, you can’t control what somebody else does, but I would let whoever know that you’re comfortable, and you’re trying to encourage him to share the feelings.

Parent:  It’s so funny because I feel that so much of what’s coming up for me is like: Geez, what’s my family going to think when these two cousins are going at it, and I’m just… Not passive, I’m not saying that’s what you’re saying, but just aware and accepting. I feel that a lot of my hesitations come from a place of how I’m going to be perceived as a parent, and I think that’s where I get stuck a lot, and I start doing things that you’re told to do as a parent, how you were raised. Get that kid under control is what I’m thinking right now with my family when he was younger.

I think I allowed my son to be him, and I was so supportive and I was so good at that, and now that he’s bigger and coming up with more things to process and to feel, I really have to say that this conversation’s helping a lot, because I think that I just thought I had to be harder on him, or I wrote down on a piece of paper to ask you, “Like how do I help him make friends?” It’s just not my job to do that.

Janet Lansbury:  Right, but this is where you help them, you help them to process all the feelings and to fail. That’s how you help them make friends.

And you have boundaries, strong boundaries yourself that he gets to feel however he wants about and it doesn’t intimidate you. It doesn’t bother you, because you know every feeling children have at this age is usually loaded with all these other things. Everything is like a mini therapy session for them. It’s really good that way.

And I was just going to say one thing about being with other people, if you’re with people that are really looking down on you and him you can still take him out of the room for his own privacy. You can still remove him if you feel that everybody’s being judging on him, or whatever, without tamping it down. But if he feels you going into the like, “Oh, come on everything’s going to be fine and we’re going to not feel what you’re feeling right now.” If you’re going with that attitude, no. It’s like insulting when you feel the way you feel and someone’s saying, “Oh, it’s okay, Janet, don’t be angry. They didn’t mean to.” No! I just feel this way! So, that’s what he needs.

Again, it’s a big process of changing perspective for you, and then some practice. The more practice you can get at home without these other people around the more comfortable you’re going to be. Because, actually, he’ll do it less when you’ve worked on it at home. So, it really is about the homework. You have a lot of power to help him process all this stuff at home, and the more that happens the more consistently, the less he’s going to need to take it out in other situations.

Parent:  Okay. Gosh a million thank yous.

Janet Lansbury:  You’re so welcome. Touch base with me at some point and let me know how it’s going.

Parent:  Okay. Thank you.

Janet Lansbury:  Thank you for sharing with us.

I hope some of that conversation is helpful.

Please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, 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: No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can also get them in e-book at Amazon, Apple, Google Play, or Barnes & Noble and in audio at 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.



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

  1. Hi Janet,
    I am the caregiver to a wonderful nearly 3 year old who exhibits similar child to child behavior as the boy who is the subject of this consultation. I would like to explore further the concept of establishing my personal boundaries as a way to help him work through his feelings when his actions generate a response from other children. When he and I play one on one he often tries to control my behavior by saying for example ‘no don’t put that there’, or will physically push into my personal space and change something I have constructed. As the adult, I don’t mind if I just go along with his flow of play. However, perhaps this as an opportunity to simulate how another child may react to repeated attempts to control. This is in the context of what can be done at home, so not in a social situation with other children present. I’m envisioning: while he and I are playing with trucks, when he says ‘no don’t do that, do this’ my response will be ‘you don’t want me to do that. I hear you, but I want to have my truck go in this direction’ and then I continue to do what I was doing. If he takes something away from me, I sportscast: ‘I was playing with that and you took that from me, that upsets me’. Or ‘I built that tower and you knocked it down, I was still building and now I’m disappointed’. Knowing this child, he will become upset under those scenarios but this is an opportunity to release his feelings. At which time I can say ‘It upsets you when I I don’t play the way you want’, or say ‘it upsets you when I don’t want you to knock down something I was building’. Janet, If you agree with this approach, would you kindly help model what this type of interaction should look like? This child to child interaction has been an issue for a number of months and I’m looking for ways to help him within the warmth and safety of our personal connection. Thank you for your time Janet.

  2. Mackenzie Reisnaur says:

    Hi Janet! I’m wondering if the person who you had the consultation with followed up about her son. This episode is really hitting home for me right now with my kiddo and I’m curious how this one unraveled. Hope to hear from you!

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