Our Expectations Can Make Us Feel Like Failures

Janet consults with a parent who says she feels utterly exasperated by her two young boys’ difficult behaviors. While she has a clear image of the kind of gentle, empathetic parent she wants to be, she says she loses her patience more often than not, and at the end of the day feels like a failure. “I’m so tired of the chaos in my home,” she writes, “that exists even on my best parenting days, even when I’m ‘doing it right’.” Janet and this mom discuss the possible reasons for her sons’ behaviors and some possible solutions to modify the family dynamic.

Transcript of “Our Expectations Can Make Us Feel Like Failures”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m going to be consulting with a parent who is feeling totally overwhelmed by her two young sons’ behavior and her wish to be the best mom for them. She finds herself yelling, being annoyed. She feels that they terrorize her and she really wants to be a good parent for them, but feels exasperated and defeated.

Before I begin with this consultation, I have the letter that I received from this parent:

Hi, Janet. I’ve been listening to your podcast off and on for my whole three-and-a-half year career in parenting. I find your approach to be the ideal way I desire to parent, but sometimes find that in the moment it’s often impossible. I was raised by yellers and now I yell. I hate that so much. I’m trying so hard to break that cycle, but I find myself failing too often. My husband and I have two sons. Our oldest is three-and-a-half years and was adopted at birth. We met him when he was only an hour and a half old. Our youngest was placed with us through foster care at three days old and officially adopted at 10 months old. We weren’t planning on adopting again so soon, it just fell into place miraculously. He’s now two.

My husband works full-time and I work outside the home two days a week. We have set routines that my boys can count on. My husband and I operate as a team and are always a united front with our boys. I’ve recently been teaching my oldest that our family is a team and we need to work together to love each other well every day. I’m not a lax parent. In fact, I know at times I can be uptight and overreact to minor offenses. I’m working on this. When I fail as an adoptive mama, there’s an added layer of guilt, knowing that these children have been entrusted to me by their first moms, God, and here I am screwing it all up.

Our three-year-old is unlike any child I’ve ever met. All he wants to do is take things apart to see how they work. He’s also constantly touching things he knows are not his. A phrase often said in my home is, “if it’s not a toy and it’s not yours, don’t touch it.” And before you suggest that we don’t leave things accessible to him to touch in the first place, we don’t. He just finds a way by climbing, moving a chair, et cetera, to get to it. He will scream at me. “Yeah. I want that!” When I tell him it’s not his, he’ll straight up ignore me. Our two-year-old lives to harass his brother, as well as our pets. I’m pretty sure he’s made it his goal in life to make them all miserable. He screams at any and all corrective action we take and throws himself dramatically to the floor, then it goes right back to the behavior he was just corrected on.

When I have just one of them at home, they are each a completely different child. So I know they feed off of each other. And I know their ages are just hard in and of themselves. Often in your podcast, I hear you read other parents questions and a good majority of them have a new baby in the home, have just moved or had some other major life event recently happen, which obviously explains their toddlers current difficult behavior. However, with my sons’ behaviors, I can’t point to a huge life altering change to blame the behaviors on. My boys are just… crazy. We set limits, maintain boundaries, use phrases like, I understand you want, the trouble is… so that their feelings aren’t invalidated by the no. Despite all of this, I’m feeling defeated. And so I’m an utter failure at the end of just about every day with them. I lose my patience all too easily and feel annoyed by my own children more often than not.

What I’m saying in too many words is I’m so tired of the chaos in my home that exists even when I’m doing it right. Even on my best parenting days, my boys are still tiny terrorists. I don’t want them to look back on their childhoods and remember a mama who was constantly annoyed, exasperated and defeated by them. But I don’t know how to break the cycle of gentle parenting one day, which seems and feels totally ineffective, followed by me yelling at them the next because of it being totally ineffective. I’m at the point where I feel like nothing works.

Thank you for taking the time to read through this. I appreciate any insight you may have. I want to be the best I can for my boys.

Welcome. Thank you so much for being willing to come on and share with us.

Parent:  Thank you for having me.

Janet:  It’s my pleasure. I just want to let you know that my goal here is to help you with some of these things that you mentioned, namely, that you feel like a failure. I want to help you with that. And I want to help you to be the best that you can be for your boys. Not only because I want to help you feel better, but because that’s kind of at the root of all of this. Our feelings about ourselves actually matter a lot when we’re setting a tone with children. It’s difficult because it’s kind of a vicious cycle, right? If we don’t feel well and then our children’s behavior drives us crazy, now we feel really terrible. But we can start to shift this. And the main thing that I want to help you shift is your expectations around what your children are able to do and what their behavior is actually… what it actually means, what’s actually going on with them.

Because it seems like from your note that the way you’re going at this is, it’s as if these children are quite intentional in a lot of this behavior. And that’s just so normal for us, because as adults, we think more in terms of reason and “well, I told you not to do it, then why are you doing it?”

Children this age often are not able to be in reasonable mode. So when we’re trying to address behavior with reason, it quite often doesn’t work. And then we get upset and we lose our patience and do all these normal things that it sounds like you may be doing. So I want to help you try to get your expectations in order. But first I want to ask, because sometimes there’s a little time between when you wrote to me and when we’re able to talk, what feels like the biggest problem right now in your day, or the biggest problems?

Parent:  It’s funny because since I wrote you, it was like the beginning of February. I was like, well, do I need to talk to her? Not that I have this parenting thing down, but I’m like, are those issues that I wrote to her about that seem so big at that time, are they still big? And the answer’s yes. But maybe not so much the specific instances I gave you in the note. It’s more just repeated behavior that both of my sons, for lack of a better word, know is wrong, but I know they’re toddlers. So what they know, that’s kind of relative. It’s just these repeated behaviors that they’re always getting scolded over and it just doesn’t seem to go away. And that’s probably extremely normal and I think every parent of a toddler deals with that, I think that I just don’t handle it well as a parent. So these normal behaviors, I think I’m just not handling well.

Janet:  Well, I think the way that you’re seeing it is the reason you’re not handling it well. That’s why I want to focus on your expectations and what you’re seeing here. I don’t think you’re handling it any worse than any other parent would if they were seeing it the way that you’re seeing it.

So what’s a vibrant example of the moment where this is happening? Can you think of one or what’s the most recent one? Or I can go to the ones in your note. Either way, but is anything sticking out in your mind right now?

Parent:  Oh, what sticks out for me with my three-and-a-half-year-old is impulse control behaviors, or rather lack of impulse control, especially when we’re in a social setting. Like if his cousins come over to play or we have a play date, he just has a really hard time controlling his body. He’s better when it’s just his brother and I and his dad home, but when there are other people, he… like for example, my niece and nephew were here this morning and he just hauled off and hit my nephew in the head with a wooden toy. And no reason. And my nephew didn’t even make him mad. Like I explored that option. Like, “were you mad and then lashed out?” It was just a, hey, I have this heavy toy that is wooden and hard and I’m going to hit you in the head with it. And he can’t even explain why he did it.

Janet:  Right. It’s great that you noticed that. So I can help you with the why, even though I haven’t met him and I don’t know exactly why, but what you’re describing in your whole note is a sensitive person. And his stimulation when these exciting cousins are over is putting him over the edge. He’s still a baby at three-and-a-half. It’s very common for children — they get out of themselves. And I don’t think it means at all in this case that he was mad at him or wanted to hurt him or anything. You’re right. It has no reason to it. It is totally impulsive, but the impulse comes from (and a lot of children are like this) he’s getting flooded and it’s all too much for him and he’s just so excited that now he’s doing these things he doesn’t want to be doing. He doesn’t want to be that person that’s hurting these kids that I’m sure he adores. That’s the last thing that he wants.

So what I want to help you to do, again, is to see that this isn’t some kind of a problem with his lack of empathy or that you’re a bad parent, or that he’s a bad seed or that… you called them tiny terrorists. And I know you were kind of joking, but honestly, when we see that way, it doesn’t help us. I get a lot of heat when I try to discourage parents from using, with each other or as a joke on social media, that their children are behaving like abusers and drunks and terrorists, and that we need to tame them and tame their tantrums and all of these things. Even if we just mean it in jest, it’s like we’re repeating those thoughts and images in our head, and it’s going to make us feel like… It’s easy to see this way with young children, believe me. It’s going to make us feel like they’re against us and they’re terrorists.

Like you said about your younger son, that he’s… Let me see if I can find it. “Our two year old lives to harass his brother, as well as our pets. I’m pretty sure he’s made it his goal in life to make them all miserable.” So I know again, that you mean this a little bit in jest, at least –

Parent:  Yes.

Janet:  But honestly, that’s actually the exact opposite of what’s going on with him. When he’s doing this he’s like: Oh no, I’m doing it again. I’m too tired. I’m too stimulated. I’m too excited. And you said it’s when they’re both together, right?

Parent:  Yeah.

Janet:  Sometimes they play off each other. Yeah, this energy of this guy and I’m excited to be with him. And we’re kind of at a rivalry for the parents’ attention and-

Parent:  Oh, for sure.

Janet:  … it just puts them over the edge in a way that we can’t really relate to as adults, except… maybe there was a time when you’ve been in intense stress or, again, so excited that you did things that you were ashamed of or wish you hadn’t done or that you knew weren’t right.

So you’re absolutely correct. They know it’s not right in their reasonable minds. And they’re able to be reasonable sometimes. But what they’re showing you with these behaviors is that in these situations, they’re not able to be reasonable. Their impulses are totally taking over them. And they may be sensitive to certain kinds of stimulation like sound or visual.

Parent:  We only let the kids have TV on the weekends right now. And we have to be really careful what my oldest son watches because if he watches something really stimulating, he’s just crazy afterwards. Like his behavior is totally night and day. So I think there is definitely some overstimulation happening with him at times.

Janet:  And again, that’s very common and that’s even just a typical three-and-a-half-year-old. They’re sitting there and their bodies are quiet and they seem like, oh, well he’s calm or whatever, but they’re absorbing all of this stuff from the screen that is kind of incomprehensible to them because it moves so fast and they can’t really get it. So anyway, I understand doing it, but we’re not doing ourselves that much of a favor by having him sit in front of the TV.

Parent:  Oh, for sure. Yeah.

Janet:  That’s another issue.

So all we know is that he is sensitive. And he doesn’t even seem incredibly sensitive for his age, but he’s on the sensitive side. Maybe his brother is as well, and that means that they’re very easily going to go over the edge into that unreasonable place.

And then when we as parents are still thinking at reasonable mode with them, then we’re going to get ourselves to the things that you described. Feeling like a failure, feeling like you’re letting them down. Because they’re letting you down on a reasonable level.

Well, I want to start with this, because I actually circled what you say here, because I even think this is kind of setting yourself up for trouble. I’m not saying this is like you’re doing anything wrong. I’m just saying-

Parent:  No, it’s fine.

Janet:  … you’re making it harder for yourself here when you say, “My husband and I operate as a team and are always a united front with our boys.” Okay. That’s great. “I’ve recently been teaching my oldest that our family is a team and we need to work together to love each other well every day.”

So I don’t know how that’s looking, but that’s something that really has to be modeled for him to learn. The pressure of “we have to love each other well everyday, that means you’re not going to… hurt anybody” or whatever that means. It’s already kind of expecting something that he’s not going to live up to for you. He’s going to disappoint you in loving well every day. He’s going to mess up on that. So I wouldn’t feel like that’s your responsibility that you’re supposed to make that happen, because if you’re not making it happen, you’re a failure, right?

Parent:  Yeah.

Janet:  So that’s why this is important for you. And I want to keep the focus on you feeling more comfortable.

Parent:  Talking to a parenting expert here, so I want to ask this question. How do you find the balance between having reasonable expectations for your family and for your kids? I think my sons should do X, Y, and Z. I’ll try to think of specific examples, but there’s got to be a healthy way to expect things of children and not have them just be like excused because they’re children. I don’t know. I’m not saying this the way I really want to say it, but-

Janet:  Yeah. I’ll tell you some things we can expect of children: that when they’re eating… I don’t know why this is coming up for me first but, that they are able to stay seated while they eat and maybe that’s for two seconds, but that they can sit while they eat. They don’t need to run around while they’re eating. They can do that. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to say, Okay, I’m willing to do this all the time. It’s something that we have to keep boundaries on by saying, “Okay, you’re getting up. Okay, you’re letting me know you’re done. We’re going to put the food away.” There are people that will say “oh, that’s mean” or that’s whatever. But if you’re very clear with your child and you’re actually giving them that extra chance when they’re starting to get up, “Oops, looks like you’re getting up. You sure you want to do that? Because that means you’re done.”

So I’m not saying it in a mean way or that I’m mad at them or that they should know this. I’m just trying to help them with that impulse. And that’s what boundaries are. It’s actually helping our child with their impulses. It’s helping center them. And that starts with us being calm.

So yeah, I would love to hear about some of the other things that you expect them because I think I’m quite convinced at the moment, and I could be wrong, that this is what’s getting in your way. Well, they should be able to do this. They should be able to be loving well every day.

I mean, little kids, they love well when you least expect it, and all of a sudden you’re like: Oh my gosh, he really loves me. But most of the time, they’re just dealing with their life and their behavior and their impulses and they’re trying to get what they want. It’s not… I don’t know. Give me an example, if you can, of something that you expect.

Parent:  Oh gosh. I should have thought about this before I talked with you.

Janet:  That’s okay. Let me go into some of the ones that you gave because I think these all kind of fall into that. So let’s see. You said: “He’s also constantly touching things he knows are not his. A phrase often said in my home is if it’s not a toy and it’s not yours, don’t touch it.”

Okay. That’s very reasonable, right? He should listen to that and he should not still try to touch the toys, right? That would seem like a reasonable expectation, but it’s not an accurate expectation of this young child right now, for whatever reason. Maybe there are times when he can do that, but he’s showing you that that isn’t an accurate expectation for him right now. That he’s getting caught up in this behavior, maybe because it ignites my mom and makes her mad. And I don’t know exactly why.  It gets everybody riled up or I’m just exhausted at the end of my day.

But there is a reason, and the reason isn’t that he is just a bad kid that can’t understand “if it’s not a toy and it’s not yours, don’t touch it.” He totally understands he’s not supposed to do that, but he can’t help himself. It’s there and I don’t know why I’m doing this and I’m making my mom mad. And it’s such a strong impulse to kind of on one level see, can’t she just contain me? Can’t she just help me?

So the way that I would approach that, instead of wasting your energy, your precious mom energy, wasting it on something that’s going to make you feel disappointed and maybe like a failure. Instead, I would acknowledge his interests. Really acknowledge his interests. But helping him stop like, “Oh, wow. Now you want to go get that? Of course you do. I’m going to stop you. Please come over here, my darling.”

Honestly, if you did that, he would be less caught up in the behavior. I’m not saying he would stop right there and never do it again. But you have in that moment somebody that’s totally impulsive. Actually, I kind of smiled because you say later, “my boys are just… crazy.” And the thing is, if these were adults or reasonable people doing this stuff, yeah, you would say they are quite mentally unbalanced. Right?

Parent:  Right.

Janet:  You would say that. But for children this age, it’s just par for the course. It’s just the way that they are. So right there is an expectation that I think is going to disappoint you, that I would like to help you get a little more accurate on.

And maybe it still feels annoying or wrong to you that why should I have to accept that they’re doing this? I mean, those are all feelings that you have a right to have, but what’s actually going to help them stop is you not getting mad at them for it, not being disappointed in them, not keep telling them the reasonable thing that you want them to do that they already know, not wasting your energy. And then you’re going to lose it, you’re going to yell. Of course you are, like we all do when we are feeling inept like that. You’re putting yourself in a situation where you’re feeling inept because of the way that you’re seeing it and the expectations that you have.

Parent:  What I’m processing as you’re saying all of this is is, the logical reasonable intellectual side of me understands and knows all of this already.

Janet:  Right.

Parent:  I know this. And then in the moment, there’s the… I don’t know. And maybe you can tell in my note… I know I’m a bit of a perfectionist and I do have high expectations. So I’m trying to parent from a place of grace. I don’t want my kids to live under unreasonable expectations. I don’t want that for them, and so I’m trying to come at it from a place of grace. And there’s also that side of not wanting to fail. And so I’m coming at it from knowing all of these things, wanting to be gracious to my children, but also really not wanting to raise kids who grew up to become serial killers.

And I’m telling you, this is what goes around in my head. Like, if I don’t correct this behavior, they’re going to grow up and become terrible citizens!

And so I’m just trying to marry all three of those really of those really strong pulls of like… I get this. I get that they’re psychologically incapable of controlling their impulses. I know that, and then I have these expectations. I guess that’s why I reached out to you because I cannot find that balance between being a gracious parent and helping them and guiding them through these behaviors in a way that doesn’t make them feel like they’re never going to live up to expectations, because I don’t want that for them.

Janet:  I hear you.

Being a gracious parent, that just feels like you’re putting a difficult expectation on yourself right there. You’re not going to feel gracious about, oh, he’s climbing up to get another thing that he knows he’s not supposed to have. I’m feeling so gracious about that.

Parent:  Right. And that’s why I feel like I fail all the time because I want to be all like gentle and calm and I’m just so annoyed, so I yell.

Janet:  Yeah. But it’s not about feeling gracious. That’s too much to expect of yourself. It’s about feeling… less scared.

So what I’m hearing you say right now is that you’re really afraid that you’re going to fail them, that you’re not going to be as perfect as you want to be. And that the result could tragic, that they’ll turn out to be these horrible people.

Parent:  I know. It’s extreme.

Janet: That’s very unlikely. Because you love them. That’s clear. And that’s very, very unlikely. But yeah, that gets in our way when we project and we get caught up in the fear. You’re acting kind of out of fear, you’re seeing out of a fear-tinted lens.

Parent:  Yes.

Janet:  And you’re putting yourself through this torture. And that’s what I met in the beginning when I said that this is what I want to help you with…

Parent:  Yeah. You nailed it when you talked about expectations. I don’t even think I realized it was a matter of my expectations.

Janet:  Yeah. And your expectations are reasonable for reasonable people and reasonable children, but they’re just not accurate right now for how they are.

It’s reasonable, there’s nothing wrong with you having those expectations. But it’s getting in your way bigtime that you have to control this behavior now or they will be doing this when they’re in college, climbing up in people’s houses and hitting family members and stuff. I’m telling you, it will not happen. You can trust that this is what’s going on right now.

There are things that can make it less. The biggest one is you believing in yourself that you can handle these little guys running here and there. And it’s okay if they run and take that one thing down, you don’t have to be there in a second. And they’re not doing something wrong, so you don’t have to yell at them. And you telling them what to do is not going to help, it’s just better that you stop them right now. I mean, that’s kind of what our job is. It’s to, like I said, help them when they’re showing us they can’t do it themselves. Not to keep asking them to do it, not to keep demanding, not to be disappointed that they don’t and then getting scared that we’re messing up, but really just to help them as best you can to do it.

And you don’t have to be Miss Gracious in the moment either. Just work on your fear. Work on what you’re imaging here. I would image these two great exuberant guys. I mean the older one’s a great problem solver. He gets around all the barriers and gets the stuff. I mean, he’s bright. These are going to be talented guys that are fine. I promise you. Give yourself a break. They will be fine.

Parent:  So I guess I have some people in my life that parent from a very traditional point of view and I tend to not parent traditionally. I tend to glean a lot from what you teach, and other people. And I also just really want to love my kids. I just want to love them well and be gracious to them in the way that God loves me. I’m trying to love my kids like that. So I don’t parent super traditionally. And so I do have a family member that thinks that, especially with my older son, that he’s manipulating me because he knows he can. And that he knows what to expect in my reactions. And because I’ve been I guess, for lack of a better word, maybe soft on him, that he does these behaviors because he knows he can get away with it, but-

Janet:  I don’t think it’s because he knows he can get away with it. So again, what they’re seeing is wow, I can get away with this, so I’m going to keep doing it. It’s more of a mature, intentional, unpleasant person, right? that does that?

Parent:  Which is not a three-and-a-half-year-old child.

Janet:  Right. And it’s more likely that he’s puzzled that he’s not getting the help that he needs, maybe.

Can you give me an example of what that is that you’re letting him get away with?

Parent:  I’m telling you what my family member has said that she-

Janet:  Right. And why does she see that?

Parent:  I think because I don’t spank my kids and a family member does, which is to each their own. I’ve just tried really hard not to spank. And so this family member, it seems as though I’m letting my child get away with things because I try not to spank. My corrective action is usually talking to my son. I never just… Like when he hit his cousin this morning on the head with the… So it was a piece of wood. It was a skateboard truck screwed to it.


And he took the skateboard wheels off somehow and hit the cousin in the head. And that was like shocking to me because that’s… Yeah. So I mean, I handled it, but I didn’t put them in a timeout. I didn’t spank him. I just said, “We don’t hit our cousins.” And I tried to understand why he did that because I thought maybe the cousin broke it off and maybe he was mad and hit his cousin. But he said that didn’t happen. He just hit him and he couldn’t tell me why. And I just-

Janet:  Right. Because he doesn’t know why.

We have to kind of let go of the other people. You said you were raised by yellers. I don’t know what the other people in your family are doing, but it’s not a positive thing. It’s not the way you want to go. So you can be clear on that.

But sometimes people comment also because they are seeing that you don’t seem in control at all. One of the reasons you’re looking like you’re out of control is that you’re doing that reasonable thing of, “oh, we don’t hit, you’re not supposed to hit.” But he already did it. He already knew that. So try to see these things as… Instead of I told him and it didn’t work. I’ve been telling him this and he didn’t get it. I would be, “whoa, whoa, whoa. That’s not okay. I’ve got to stop you. Come over here.” And I would, In your mind, not that it’s your fault, but just, what can I do as a parent? I’m not saying right that second, but-

Parent:  Sure.

Janet:  … my mind would go to whoa, what got him into that state? He doesn’t want to be that guy. Again, he doesn’t want to be doing that. How did this happen? Was it the TV that he watched today and then we went in the afternoon when he was tired? Or just maybe this person, this young wonderful person just can’t handle the excitement of the other children right now for whatever reason. Maybe it’s better him just to be with one other child at a time, or earlier in the day, or… I don’t know. But those are all things that I would look at. How can you set them up for success?

And I’m not suggesting you caused this, but he may be feeling that you’re not always that safe place to land. Because as you’ve said, you lose your temper and stuff. All understandable. And now he’s in this highly challenging situation for him, which I got to believe, for him to do that, he just felt like he just could not stop himself. I mean, he was highly dysregulated there.

But I think if your family members that have a different way of doing things, if they saw that you brought him to you, you’re like, “I think we’re going to need to go. This is too much, too long at the party for us,” or whatever, showing that you did have some kind of control. I mean, I’m not saying do this to try to impress anybody else because you really have to let go of them. But when you’re seeing your children more accurately, you’re going to be able to help them a lot more every time. And you’re going to start to build a lot more confidence because you’re going to see, oh, this is actually working. When I just help them to be safe when they’re doing unsafe things or things I don’t want them to do. Put those things out of reach as much as you can, kind of monitor their energy a little. Like, oh, this guy is showing that he’s a little out of himself. I don’t think he should be near the dog right now. He’s kind of just out of himself. His energy is a little too wild. You can sense with children, right? When they’re kind of really centered as opposed to-

Parent:  Yes, I can see it. It’s a night and day difference in my sons, each of them. I know when they’re overstimulated.

Janet:  So when they are, that’s when you’re going to not have the knives around, not have the dog around, maybe, “Okay, guys. We’re going to have a breather in your room.” It’s not timeout if you’re framing it like, “You guys are a little out of control. I’m going to just give you each a little space from each other. You’re coming at it not from a, you guys have disappointed me again and I’m telling you this and what I’m imagining a little bit that you’re getting into, because of the way that you’re seeing, and that they’re terrorists. I mean, all this stuff is scary, right? Even though it’s a joke. This is really scary for you.

Parent:  Yeah.

Janet:  You’re making it more scary by the way that you see. Instead, you can handle these two pumpkins. I totally believe that you can, but it’s not going to be perfect. They’re going to get into something and you’re going to learn from it each time. You’re going to learn, uh-oh, I shouldn’t put that out at this time of day or when he’s like this maybe-

Parent:  So something I’ve recently done with my boys, I guess I’ll just pick your brain on it since we’re talking about it.

I have a cupboard that’s at their level, two cabinets open and it’s like eye level for them. That’s where I keep my baking stuff. I love to bake. I have a ton of supplies and they were getting in there and getting to the sprinkles and eating sprinkles, which is not the end of the world and it’s totally a toddler thing to do. But after like so many times finding my kids eating sprinkles, I was like, you know what? I’m going to lock these cabinets. And so they’re locked now.

Janet:  Good idea.

Parent:  Okay, great.

Janet:  Do it the first time or have a gate over the kitchen? You can’t do that probably, right?

Parent:  Not in my kitchen. But I guess there are some people in my life that will look at that and say: “Well, you should have just been able to make them obey. The cupboard shouldn’t have to be locked. They should just obey.” And I got tired of my kids eating sprinkles, and so it’s locked now.

Janet:  Yeah, that is perfect. That’s exactly what I’m talking about.

I know people think that, because they believe in a fear-based approach where you’re putting fear into your children and that if they do something wrong they’re bad. And it doesn’t bode well for them or for the relationship that you want with your children, because they may behave better… I don’t even think at times these guys would be capable of that, but they may behave better, but they dislike themselves inside. They start to feel, I’m bad because I do all these crazy things.

I mean, I would see this more as like, if I asked you and I’m a grown adult, so I have much more self-regulation… but if I said, “Hey, could you help me? I’m just having this crazy sugar thing where I just want to eat sugar all the time and I’m really trying to stop. Could you help me while I have that impulse?” And then you saw that I just kept reaching into the cabinet and getting those sprinkles.

Then the loving thing to do would be for you to make it impossible for me to get those. You’re either going to take them out of the house or lock the cabinet with a special lock. And honestly, I’d be like, “Thank you. You’re helping me.” So that’s exactly the dynamic with our children with everything that they do like that. They just need help. They can’t control the impulse. Even as adults, we can’t control the impulse sometimes. Right?

Parent:  Yeah.

Janet:  Well, they’re like that all the time. They’re just letting it all hang out. They have very, very little impulse control. They will have more…  you’ll be surprised at how much more they have when you start just doing things like locking the cabinets and going, “Mmm, yes, those sprinkles are delicious, aren’t they? Well, it’s my job to keep you guys safe and your bodies healthy and we’re not doing that.”

You’ll see that there’ll be less of that when everything doesn’t get a reaction out of you, because that is part of it. Not that they want you to be mad and they’re trying to terrorize you. It’s almost like the jack-in-the-box that scares you, but you have to keep doing it to get that scary response. So they’re getting caught up in that a little with you. Here’s the part where we ignite our mother again. And they’re not doing it mean-spiritedly, they’re doing it actually from fear of… We just need her to be the mom that locks cabinets and helps us. We just need her to be able to do that.

So that is a really good example. And the great thing about that, that you shared that with me, is that now that I know that you have an example where you’ve experienced… I mean, maybe you didn’t feel good about it because you listened to what other people said or whatever, but you experienced what helped. And that cabinet locking is what… You won’t be able to do something so succinct sometimes. Sometimes it’ll just be less of a mad reaction to something, but you’re still corralling them like, “Uh-huh(negative), oh, there you go with the doggy. No. I’m going to come stop you because I think you’re getting a little too wild with him.” Or, “It’s a little too much for him, and I’ve got to take care of both of you guys.”

So you’re just going to come in with, I can keep these guys safe. Not perfectly safe, urgently, like every little thing is getting stopped way before… But you’re going to be preventative as much as you can. Locking cabinets, checking their energy, not putting them in a situation that’s going to be a problem for you. And then when you do find that there’s something else that they’re doing, then you can come into that with, “Okay, there you go doing that too.”

There’s always a point of view that you can just acknowledge that also makes them feel that they’re not bad. They’re just-

Parent:  Yeah. I don’t ever want them to think that.

Janet:  Well, they won’t because you can start doing this right now. But again, all that language: the terrorists, the manipulative, I would love for you to just put that away for now and you can bring it back when they’re in high school. But it’s getting in your way. It’s putting pictures in your head that are making you feel more scared.

Parent:  And I will say, my husband is epically good at doing what you just described. The like, “Ooh, I can’t let you do that. We’re going to…” He is so good at that. He’s so patient. It’s me. I’m wound up too tight most of the time and my husband is just so easy and even tempered and he’s great. So they get it from him, which is excellent. I need to work on myself for sure.

Janet:  And just looking into that, maybe with a counselor or somebody, looking into, what am I so afraid of here? I can’t just say stop being afraid and you’re going to stop. You have to explore that with somebody, maybe. It’s going back to your story, right? Being yelled at and all the shame that you maybe felt. And that’s what’s getting touched off, probably. So helping yourself go through that because your feelings are valid, no matter what they are. They’re just getting in your way right now, making it harder for you. So if you could talk to someone that could help you resolve them, work with someone that’s good at these things.

Elisabeth Corey comes to mind for me always. She does these trauma workshops for parents. But yeah, something so you can say: All right. This was my past and this was me and it really, really hurts me. And I’m going to let myself feel those hurts, but I’m not going to bring it into this relationship with these boys because it’s not who I want to be for them.

Parent:  Right.

Janet:  So that’s kind of the process. It’s not just turning a dime, going: Okay. I’m not afraid anymore.

I would practice in your mind seeing these little movies of them doing what they do and seeing: Mr. Reason just left the building and here they go. Okay. How can I help these little boys? And they’re still babies, both of them. They’re tiny babies. And they have some probably traumas or something in their very early infancy, but that’s okay too. It’s just means that they’re even going to be more easily dysregulated. They’re even going to have more these stories to tell.

When you do stop them and they yell and cry, and I mean, do you get that kind of response sometimes too, where they let down some of the feelings? Where they-

Parent:  Oh yes. My two-year-old, especially. He’s a screamer.

Janet:  Yeah. So that is such a healthy, powerful… If you could see that as like, oh, here’s the primal scream therapy that I needed to do. I know it’s not easy in the moment, but just acceptance. Not a gracious, perfect lady. Accept, and see them for what they really are, which is very immature, sweet-hearted, adore-you boys.

Parent:  Yeah. With the two-year-old and his screaming… I don’t know if this is right or wrong, but with him, we’ll tell him, “You need to go in your room. You can scream in your room. When you’re done you can come out and we’ll talk.” That’s how we’ve been handling it for quite a while now because I want him to be able to get a screaming out, but I just don’t want him to do it in my face, I guess. So I don’t know.

Janet:  Yeah. I think I would do something that gives a little less of the message that your feelings have to be private and you can’t share with me. I think I would be more like, “Well, let’s go in your room. Yeah. I hear you.” And try to normalize it for yourself a little bit more, if you can. Maybe that’s another step in your journey. The first step is to work on these expectations that you have, and including of yourself, and the fear that you have, I would do that first. But then later you might want to bring this into where you start to see that actually they’re having therapy moments. Again, if we’re looking at this like, he’s trying to get something from me. If we’re at all seeing it on that wavelength, then it’s going to tick us off. Right?

Parent:  Yeah.

Janet:  But if we’re seeing, whoa, now he’s really splitting open and the scream is coming out. This poor boy. It really hurts to be him right now. It’s not a mean scream. It’s a sad, hollow, alone-type scream. If you can see it that way, that he’s not doing it at you-

Parent:  Yeah. And then just send him away when he’s feeling that way is probably not the best way to-

Janet:  Yeah. But it’s okay right now. I don’t want you to try to do too much at once. It’s better that you don’t go over the edge. It’s better that you stay calm. That’s the most important thing in all of this. And that’s what I started with and that’s what I’m going to end with. Unfortunately, we have to end. But it’s seeing more clearly so you don’t feel guilty. You’re not doing anything wrong. You’re doing really beautifully. This is going to help you turn it around, though. Turn the corner that you want to turn.

Parent:  Yeah. Thank you.

Janet:  You’re so welcome. Are you okay?

Parent:  Yeah, I’m good. That was really good. Thank you so much.

Janet:  All right. You take really good care. And again, thank you for sharing with us.

Parent:  Thank you so much for this time.

Janet:  Please give me an update, when you can, about how it’s going. I would love to hear from you.

Parent:  Yeah. I’d love to do that. Thank you so much.

Janet:  Thank you, my dear. Bye-bye.

Parent:  Bye.

I really hope some of that helps. And I just wanted to mention that these podcasts are edited for length and for privacy reasons. And I wanted to add that I highly recommended to this parent that she have her boys screened for possible sensory issues, because if they did have some processing issues, then sensory integration therapy could be very, very helpful in supporting them and, therefore, helping her.

And 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: 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 audible.com. You can get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast.

Thank you 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. “ Accept, and see them for what they really are, which is very immature, sweet-hearted, adore-you boys”

    So lovely, Janet. Such a powerful post you shared with us here. My boys are 9 and 5. When they were younger it was easier for me to be relaxed, take it in. Now I feel subject to social pressure about what they should do (the schools they should go to, the instrument they should be playing) and have a hard time letting go.

    As you said it is very much based around fear and is feeling like failures. I was just telling me this morning that it’s their life not mine.

    So that powerful dialogue came in at the right time.

    Thank you Janet and best wishes on the parent of these two little boys on her journey

  2. I was really feeling this post. It is a personal hurdle of my own, feeling fearful of raising a child set in bad ways, and so much guilt. Near the end of this article, the screaming was briefly discussed. This for me is a (the?) massive problem in my parenting difficulties, and I wished it had been thoroughly discussed here. I find the screaming physically hurts me, it is deafening and paralyzing, and I can only function to a means of wanting the screaming to stop. My child is highly sensitive, extremely emotionally reactive, and screaming about every little thing has been her default from birth up to 4 years and still going strong. My own mental resilience has been broken. Does anyone have coping strategies for this, for me and my child?

    1. Hi Hazel,

      In my parenting experience, trauma therapy has really helped (EMDR has been amazing and so healing in ways that other therapies have not been able to). Often, traumas from our own childhoods, even things that to our now-adult selves seem like we “should” have been able to handle, can be triggered by high levels of noise (along with so many other things). Being triggered can look/feel like the paralysis you described, “fried” nervous system, overwhelm/breakdown, sweating, numbing out, and many other sensations/experiences, and they result in intense desperation to make the trigger stop, understandably. Until I started really committing to healing my trauma, I would often feel disappointed in myself, like, “why can’t I just do what Janet is saying can help!? I know what I *should* do, what is wrong with me?!” Beating myself up was not helping, and looking for easier solutions to implement was not something I wanted to do, because I really resonate with respectful, peaceful parenting. I was just having a hard time, and I needed to get help. Help for my self, and so that I could parent the way I knew was best for the little people in my life.

      I know it’s not maybe the answer you were looking for, but it’s what I have learned from my own experience: once I have healed me (even if not totally) I can show up, I am resourced enough, to be with my kids when their emotions and corresponding behaviors get big because I have some space for it; I am no longer so uncontrollably overwhelmed by it that it tips the (already full) scales. And, when I don’t show up the way I want, I am able to offer myself compassion so much more readily, which helps me to move into a new space rather than stay locked in overwhelm. I really related to the parent in this article in many ways – wanting to be the “BEST” parent, worrying (catastrophizing, really) about what would happen if I failed, being so overwhelmed that I can’t parent the way I really want to, and then having produced evidence that I am actually a failure (with all the weight that carries for me and my kids). It’s so vicious. And I am so glad I stopped trying to go it alone and surrendered to healing what needed to be attended to. Doing EMDR therapy for trauma and anxiety has been life changing, and I’m hopeful and feeling more and more confident as a parent, and in all areas of my life.

      I hope this helps someone reading it to finally decide to put your own healing on the map of your (parenting) life. It’s so much easier and so worth it. It may be some work, but you absolutely won’t regret it.

      1. I’ve been absorbing and loving Janet’s information for the past 3 years. I have a 3 year old daughter and 5 year old son. Wish I had known about Janet 6 years ago!
        I came here to comment as I am listening to this podcast on my phone. This mom and her struggles have fully resonated with me, coming from a traumatic, physically/psychologically abusive childhood with lots of yelling and shaming.
        Just like the mom in the podcast said, intellectually I completely agree and understand everything Janet says about normal child behaviors, yet in the moment of challenging behavior it is soooooo hard to be “unruffled”.
        I can be telling myself in a tough moment “stay unruffled, stay calm, don’t yell, they’re not doing it on purpose, etc” and yet I am still screaming uncontrollably and hating on myself for not having control, feeling completely helpless, and then crying that I can’t be the mom I want to be. The struggle is real. You are not alone. All that matters is that you keep trying, be honest about your struggles, and apologize when needed.

        I am replying to Krista’s comment because as I was listening to this mom talk, literally feeling like she was saying the words from my head, I wanted to tell her that it sounds like she might need some therapy of her own to help her find and learn how to use the mental tools she needs to be the mom she wants to be. She’s getting triggered for sure, something I never realized about myself until a few years ago after seeking therapy. If we can’t recognize and acknowledge our triggers than it makes it that much harder to parent with calm confidence.

        I have also done EMDR therapy and so far, its the only therapy that I have felt actual progress and growth in myself. I am still in therapy and I also read (listen to) a ton of self-help books to improve my mental health and find the peace and calm I have been longing for, for my whole life. All I can say is learning and striving to be present, conscious, and mindful (noticing all the unproductive thoughts) has been my saving grace. It allows me to be more like the parent I want to be. I am not perfect, not even close, but week by week and month by month, my patience and kindness towards my kids in those challenging moments is growing and happening more and more often than before.
        I also work on self-compassion, because I am really hard on myself, just like this mom. I have high expectations for myself, my kids, and everyone around me. So my advice is to try and pat yourself on the back and notice all the times you do react the way you want, all the times you remain calm, or all the times you stop yourself and rephrase or change that tone of voice. Try and stay focused on all the positive things you do for your kids everyday. It’s a lot and it matters.

        Having children is the best reason to get therapy and become the best mother and best human you can be.

  3. Hi Janet,

    I love your podcast and approach. Thank you so much for all you do and share!

    As an adoptive mom to two young kids, I connected with what this parent said about feeling entrusted with her sons. Every day I am struck by what an incredible honor and privilege it is to be the woman who gets to mother them. And, as part of that privilege, we strive to be extra-super-double sure that our kids feel and know so deeply that we love everything about them unconditionally and that we wholeheartedly welcome all of their feelings/thoughts/questions/perspectives (the easy ones, super hard ones, all those in between). This all feels extra important recognizing that, on top of the usual big feelings and developmental growing pains, our kids have/will have added layers/complexities related to their adoptions and the inherent trauma of losing their first families that we need to be sensitive to and present for.

    As I think about how to best support my children in feeling truly seen and completely safe throughout their lives, I am learning a lot from adult adoptees who are sharing their stories and experiences so generously in books, blogs, on twitter, etc. It’s so powerful to be able to hear their perspectives and experiences. I carry those insights, along with your respectful parenting approach and other useful inputs that help me feel like we are on the track we want to be on (not some absolute “right track” necessarily, but the track that feels right and positive and nourishing for us and our kids).

    So when one of my children is having a hard time with something, I try think about the ways in which how I handle their big feelings and tougher moments now connect with how I want to be a completely soft and safe landing place for them and everything that comes up for them throughout their lives. Rather than add pressure to be flawlessly patient and other such impossible things, it actually gives me a really clear North Star to point myself toward and calibrate to. An added benefit of being centered on that long view is that it can also help me to reject (and refute, if I have the time and energy) suggestions from relatives and others that aren’t in alignment with that goal and what my children may experience and need, both now and in the future. I think it also helps me to steer clear of expectations or wishes that they be different in any way… recognizing that I certainly don’t feel seen or safe if someone is trying to change me (that said, we do occasionally eagerly await the natural decline of certain phases/developmentally appropriate behaviors).

    1. Thank you, J.A., your comments are beautiful and helpful. Wishing you continued joy in your journey!

  4. Hi…question about sensory screening. What behaviors specifically would you say the two toddlers exhibited that would be indicative of a sensory issue? Are there any general red flags for sensory issues in toddlers? I’ve suspected my toddler has a sensory problem, but I don’t know where to start. Where is this type of screening done? Thank you!

  5. This is so helpful. I have 2 boys (3 & 5 yo) & can relate to this mom 100%. I do struggle with how to distinguish a consequence from restricting things that are causing overstimulation? e. g. leaving the park/play date when they get overstimulated. Also, what if this sort of thing happens all the time? Do you stop going out altogether? Thanks.

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