Can We Be Angry or Sad and Still Unruffled?

A parent struggles to control emotions like anger, frustration, and disappointment when they’re triggered by her toddler. While she strives to be a confident leader by appearing calm and unruffled, she also wants to model her emotions authentically for her child. Janet clarifies what it really means to be “unruffled” and how parents can approach this goal without faking or stuffing their emotions.

Transcript of “Can We Be Angry or Sad and Still Unruffled?”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury, welcome to Unruffled. Today, I’m going to be responding to a note I received from a parent via email. The subject line is “How to stay unruffled when I’m angry or sad.” I’m fascinated by this topic. It’s one of my favorites, and I’m thankful for this opportunity to explain some misconceptions about the title of my podcast and what it really means to be unruffled. And how do we get there in a way that isn’t also stifling our own emotions?

Okay, first of all, you may have noticed something going on with my voice. I’ve had this really intense laryngitis for a week now, and I’m just kind of starting to come out of it. So I hope it’s not super annoying to listen to. I’m going to do my best. I’ll read this note that I got from a parent.

Hi, Janet. I’m hoping you can clarify something for me that I’m struggling to understand. I know as parents, we should appear unruffled and be the calm, confident leaders for our children as you’ve stated many times. I understand that this leads to them feeling stable and secure. I’ve also understood that it’s beneficial to let children see when we are dealing with strong emotions rather than to try to hide them and pretend that we’re okay. That it’s helpful to know when we are sad, disappointed, or frustrated, for example, as a way to model that everyone has these feelings and to show how we handle them. What I’m confused is what to do when those emotions are caused by our children.

For example, if my toddler does something that makes me feel angry or frustrated, should I hide it the best I can so that she can feel secure knowing she can’t do anything to ruffle me? I find it extremely difficult to do this sometimes, especially when someone could get hurt or something could get damaged. I can’t help reacting angrily, but I try to take charge of it by explaining to her that I need to step away for a moment to calm down. Or sometimes I let her see me take a big breath and try to regain control. After I feel calmer, I go to her, bend down to her level and assure her that I love her and that it’s okay for her to feel angry or silly, but I can’t let her scream in my face or throw books or do whatever it was that’s unacceptable. Is that the wrong approach?

I’m trying very hard not to lose my temper and stay calm, but my emotions often get the best of me. So handling it this way has become my way of at least not letting it escalate, acknowledging my emotions to my child, and trying to repair any damage I may have done from my initial angry response.

My question also applies to other emotions. For instance, I understand that it’s considered okay to let our children see that we’re upset if something sad happens. But what if we are sad because of them? My daughter is sometimes very affectionate, but most of the time these days she doesn’t want to be hugged or kissed and is constantly rejecting any affection I try to show her. I’ve taught her to clearly state when she doesn’t want to be touched. And I always respect her wishes, but sometimes I find it hard to hide my disappointment at not being able to connect with her in that way.

Is it bad to let her see that disappointment? I’m not trying to purposely make her feel bad. I simply say something like, “No goodnight kiss tonight? Okay.” But my tone usually gives me away. Should I be trying to hide it more? I want to be as authentic as possible with her, but I do understand that I need to project a calm demeanor, at least when it comes to how I respond to her in order for my daughter to feel secure. These ideas seem to be at odds though. If you’re able to shed any light as to what I may be doing wrong or misunderstanding, I would very much appreciate it.

Okay. So… yes to what she said about clearing up a misunderstanding, because this is what I want to start off with. I would not be doing a podcast called “stuff your feelings, hide your emotions.”

If you do listen here, then you know that I’m all about the opposite. I’m all about encouraging normalization of emotions, all emotions, having a curious attitude about them, encouraging our child to express all of theirs — no judgment on emotions. And yes, we do need to do that for ourselves as well and model.

But when I speak about being unruffled, what unruffled really is, is an understanding of our child and child development and behavior. What causes children to do these kinds of things that this parent shares about? Screaming in her mother’s face, throwing books, saying she doesn’t want to be hugged or kissed. Those are the only actual examples that she gave, but I can picture a lot of things that children this age do. So why did children do this? What’s going on with them? When we understand that and can connect with it…

We’re still not going to be perfect. Yes, we are going to get triggered or have an emotional reaction to certain things, but not as much. And the more we practice what we’re seeing here, which is, in all of these cases, maybe not quite the affection one, but I’ll get to that. But in these cases of behavior that, yes, could make us angry or annoyed, the reason our child is doing that is impulse. Impulse that comes from dysregulation. Their emotional centers, they’ve gone into fight flight or freeze. They are in what Mona Delahooke calls the red zone. They’re not using their brains and their reason to do what’s right, what they know in the frontal part of their brain is right. That part is getting hijacked by their emotions. And Tina Payne Bryson, and Dan Siegel, talk about children “flipping their lid.” Well, that sounds very extreme, like something we would definitely notice. If my child was just going off completely, sometimes that does happen, we notice that.

But there are all these other subtler forms of it. Things like… Here’s one that maybe we can relate to as adults… Maybe I’m on a diet and I’m cutting sugar out, but you, my friend, see me… there’s a candy bar there and I grab it, tear the wrapper off and start taking bites.

Am I super upset there? Am I flipping my lid? Not really, but I’ve done something impulsive that I don’t want to do. And so my friend telling me, “Janet, you shouldn’t do that” wouldn’t be a helpful thing to say, because I know I’m not supposed to do it. And I did it anyway. An impulse made me do it. Maybe I was just a little tired and I wanted that pick me up, and I just felt I needed a little sugar energy. Or, emotionally, things are going on for me and I just wanted to change how I was feeling.

So there are all different levels of dysregulation and almost all behavior that toddlers have and young children have, and even older children have, almost all of these concerning behaviors are from some level of dysregulation or impulse. So when we practice this understanding and we actually try to train our lens to see our children that way, we’re not always going to be able to do it. Sometimes they will just look like they’re being horribly mean to us and just such awful people. And how could they do this to me after I’ve done all this stuff for them today?  Then we realize all that stuff we did together today made them tired, but it seems really unfair. It seems all of those things. So please don’t anyone beat themselves up for having normal reactions.

But we can also train ourselves to have less of those through practicing this different lens.

It’s that expression, “my child isn’t giving me a hard time, they’re having a hard time.” Janet didn’t grab the chocolate because she thought that was suddenly good for her, but because she was having a bit of a hard time in that moment controlling herself.

So point being, the way that we perceive affects the way that we feel. It actually is the only way that I know of to change our feelings about something in a healthy way: to practice the way we’re perceiving it. There’s no other magic wand that does this.

This parent is right that stuffing her feelings and pretending is not a healthy thing, because what happens if we do that is there’s a buildup and we just get madder and madder inside trying to stuff it down, trying to stuff it down. And then we explode. So that’s not going to help us and it’s not going to help our child.

But what does help them and us and our relationship is to see them, to see them for what they are, their place in our life and ours in theirs. We’re their whole world. So when we do have an emotion, it is jarring for them. That doesn’t mean that we, again, that we want to stifle all emotions, as this parent really does understand very clearly. She actually understands a lot here. I think she’s just getting a little stuck in that lens, taking it all a bit too personally. It’s really easy to do because our children seem so capable to us. They seem so mature a lot of the time. And then there’s these other times when they’re really not, it’s not their fault. It’s not our fault, but depending on how we see it, it can make us reactive.

Or, alternatively, it can make us feel: wow, I better put that stuff away because sometimes when she goes off, she starts throwing the books or screaming in my face. She really needs to share this feeling with me. And I’m just going to put my hand here so she can’t get right in my face. I’m just going to hold her back a little bit. But wow, that’s some powerful stuff coming out of my child. It’s not about me.

Now I also understand that we have triggers. We have traumas. We have different ways we were handled as children that will get touched off in these situations. For example, if anger wasn’t acceptable to our parents, which a lot of parents I talk to it wasn’t, including myself… Then our child showing that emotion does tap into our own suppressed anger that we had from childhood. So that can happen. That’s why, again, self-compassion. You’re not going to be perfect, but our odds will improve on being able to be authentically unruffled or less ruffled if we practice perceiving.

And that’s why so much of what I try to share is about perception and perspective — understanding what’s going on with our child and this type of behavior.

The way this parent is actually handling this sounds really, really helpful and healthy to me. The only part of it I think that could work better for her is the way she’s feeling inside when she’s doing this. But her actual actions sound very respectful and positive. She says she moves away. Yes. “Step away for a moment to calm down.” If that’s where we’re at… Again, we want to try to work on that happening less, but it’s going to happen. No guilt here. No shame here, but that’s the perfect thing to do. “I just need a minute.” And then taking a moment to pause, breathe, to say: Oh, this is coming up for me. This is getting tapped into in me. These old wounds, these old feelings are getting touched off. I’m getting angry about this.

Again, the more a child does sense our dysregulation, the more this behavior happens, unfortunately. Which again, isn’t for us to feel bad about. It’s for us to understand… that if we’re getting a lot of it, it could be that our child is reflecting back to us, which is often what happens, our own feelings and ones that probably when we were children that we didn’t get to let out, so they’re coming up now.

And what are they doing with those feelings? It’s vibrating through their body. It’s making them throw, it’s making them scream. They’re showing us our insides.

But back to the way this parent is handling this, she says, “Sometimes I let her see me take a big breath and try to regain control. After I feel calm, or I go to her bend down to her level of assure her that I love her and that it’s okay for her to feel angry or silly.”

Yeah, I would more there just… “Sometimes you feel like throwing books. I want to know about that. Where does that come from?” Or maybe we know that it was in response to something specific that happened and then we can say that.

She says, “But I can’t let her scream in my face or throw books or do whatever it was that’s unacceptable.”

So yeah, “I can’t let you get that close in my face when you scream, let’s go over here where you can scream because I know you feel like screaming right now, I see that. It’s not safe to throw the books, I got to stop you. Ah, you really want to throw, you want to do all this stuff right now.” Trying to connect with our child’s feeling.

But that may come later. In the beginning, just working on our perception of our child in these moments.

So if we’re noticing. like this parent is. that it feels like our child is making us angry, our child is making us frustrated. Again, it’s not about that we just put those feelings away. It’s something to take a look at in ourselves. Maybe not in that moment, but when we can, with a mental health professional, maybe, or a counselor, to look at what’s happening to us when our child is doing these very typical normal things. Take a look at that so that we can process what we know and understand it. So we can separate it out from our child and it becomes about us.

Just like our child’s feelings were about them, our feelings are about us, and we want to have that same curious attitude towards ourselves.

So this parent says, “Is that the wrong approach?” No, again, I think her approach is spot on, but the way she’s feeling, the kind of simmering that’s going on, it can’t help but be disconcerting for a child and create, maybe, more of this kind of behavior. So just on a practical level, it’s not going to be helpful. That’s why we want to look at that. And just for our own comfort, we want to look at that.

Then she says, “My question also applies to other emotions.” And she describes how, even though her child gets to decide if she’s hugged her kissed, that when her child makes this decision not to be affectionate, that the parent feels rejected. Which again is very understandable. But it’s not actually what’s going on here that the child is saying, I don’t want to be close with you because I’m angry with you or I don’t like you.

It sounds like this is about you told me I could do this so I’m doing it. And I’m also sensing that this is uncomfortable for you. So that can be curious for a child. Why would they tell me to do this if when I do it, it makes my mom sad?

And whether we’re saying we’re sad or not, children are feeling that from us usually. So it’s an interesting kind of uneasy place for her that she may be getting a little stuck in. This is so curious. She said to say this, so now I’m saying it and she’s taking a personally.

Which again, I understand. Our days are long as parents, toddler years are… every parent deserves a medal for getting through each day. Emotions are all over the place. Behaviors is all over the place. They’re so easily dysregulated with all the changes that are going on inside them, and then all the transitions and stressors on the outside. That’s just life. So yes, of course we want our little reward at the end of the day, especially if we’ve gotten angry at our child that day, we want to feel better.

Unfortunately, our child can’t be that person for us. They just can’t. No one will ever love you as much as your child does, but they can’t be our nurturer and comforter, unfortunately. That’s just not a position they can be in. Sometimes they will do it and they’ll amaze us and we’ll be so touched and grateful, but that’s not their role.

Understanding where our child fits with us in this relationship, what they’re capable of, what they’re not capable of, will help us to see it differently and therefore feel differently about it. It’s not about her deep feelings for her parent, I can guarantee you. This sounds like an exceptional parent, so loving. This one adjustment I think will really, really help.

So what this mother is saying is, “‘No good night kiss tonight? Okay.’ But my tone usually gives me away, should I be trying to hide it more?”

No, don’t try to hide things. But if we’re expecting that our child should, of course want to kiss us good night every night, and if she doesn’t, then she’s mad at us or doesn’t like us, or we’re doing something wrong, then we’re setting ourselves up for the way this parent is feeling.

If we know that we taught this lesson and that our child for sure senses that we’ve been vulnerable around this, then they need to check that out. And that’s what she’s doing, that’s all. She’s just interested in what’s going on here with her sweet, wonderful mother.

And the place you want to try to get to, I know you may not be there yet, is a response that takes it all sort of lightheartedly because you don’t take it as this heavy rejection. You’re seeing it for what it is. And so you might say something like, “Okay, well I’ll keep my fingers crossed. Maybe tomorrow will be my day to get that hug.” Or something, but it doesn’t really matter what you say, but how you feel about it.

Just quickly along these lines, a note that I got on Instagram in a message, and it’s a very unusual situation. It won’t apply to very many people, but it actually blends really well with this topic. And I thought it was interesting. This parent says:

Hi, Janet, I have a nine month old daughter and something I struggle with is that I cry when she cries. Not because I’m overwhelmed or frustrated, but because I really feel for her, I generally cry very easily and I’m not bothered by, ashamed of that, but I don’t know what the right thing to do is here. Should I try to hold back more? I don’t mention or address it for example, oh, look, I’m crying too. But I just let the tears flow silently while giving her a hug, talking to her, but still I have this doubt that I’m being self-centered and am making the situation about me. Am I taking away from her by crying as well?

So I didn’t have an answer for this right away. I thought it was so interesting and sweet that this mother is feeling with her child. Then I started to think about the baby’s perspective. And we also need to understand this with the toddler in the other story and any child.

So a nine month old or a toddler’s perspective is that these people that are caring for me, this is the biggest, most important part of their world. And now when I’m, as a nine month old, I’m expressing feelings, I’m sad or I’m tired or I’m overstimulated or something, I’m having a feeling and the world is having this feeling with me. Does that feel comforting or does it feel a little scary?

I’m guessing for a baby it feels a little disconcerting that if I’m kind of crumbling and my world is crumbling around me, it doesn’t feel like I have a safe place held for me to have these feelings.

So yes, I would look at that and I would look in herself if she’s feeling really sorry for her daughter. Again, feelings we want to encourage as a strong, powerful thing, actually. A positive thing, not something that we feel sorry for. That’s the healthy attitude for all of us about our emotions. This is information. This is telling me something about what I care about, or what’s happening in my day or how I feel. It’s a positive thing.

So that’s what I would look at there. Again, I just thought that was a very interesting, unusual situation. Thank you to this parent and thank you to the other parent as well for sharing and allowing me to respond. And I really hope some things that I said brought some clarity and thank you so much for listening.

Please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, JanetLansbury.com. There are many of them and 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 get them in eBook at Amazon, Apple, Google Play or barnesandnoble.com, and an audio at Audible.com. Actually, 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 and all your kind support. We can do this.

9 Comments

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

  1. Hi.
    Reading this just made me realize how far I have come. Yesterday we had family over. Grandparents and my husband‘s brother and his toddler and baby.
    And my 5yo had a tantrum. She is usually the sweetest, most cheerful girl, but she just had this tantrum. I might have wished it was not with everybody there but nothing I could do about it… so I just asked everybody to please stop cheering her up, told them it was fine, and went a bit to the side with her. She stormed and yelled a bit, that‘s what I am here for, to take it. Then she wanted to sit a bit alone, I went to check on her a few times, then she snuggled on grandma‘s lap for story and was super affectionate the rest of the evening.
    There was s time when this tantrum would have bothered me terribly and the „spectators“ would completely have pushed me over the edge. I realize it only now on reading.
    The really good thing that happened is that the other family apparently said to my husband something like „oh good, then our son is ok after all“. I know I have told them big feelings are ok for kids, but they never quite „bought“ it. They see my kids, usually sweet and cheerful and eager to play with their little cousins and think children should be like this all the time- so though I was not too happy to have them watch it might have done some good and normalized children’s tantrums for them.

    1. I love hearing this, Martina. What a gift to see behavior for what it is, right? And from there we can handle it in a helpful manner. Well done!

  2. This was very helpful for me as an early childhood educator. I experience occurrences like these on a daily basis while caring for 9 kids in the classroom. However, I would like to know more about the part where you suggested asking the child about wanting to throw. Will the child be able to explain why she is needing to throw in that moment? I’m curious because I could see how if a child is upset, this could be a chance to help them identify their emotions. However in my classroom we have a child who throws things all the time, and the child is never angry. This child knows (because we remind them about 100 times a day) that throwing (rocks, blocks, and other hard objects) will either hurt someone or break something. So the child seems to be caught in a loop of throwing in order to get our attention. What is the best way to respond to this behavior? I do think the child is dysregulated and acting on impulse as you said, but also knowingly “pushing our buttons” as teachers. It is so challenging to be trying to help other children and be there for them when this kind of thing is happening. Do you have any suggestions for this?

    Thank you!

    1. My pleasure, Lily! So glad it’s helpful. My suggestion to ask a child about wanting to throw is intended to give them a “I see you and I’m curious and I don’t judge you” message. I would not expect a child to be able to actually explain. No more than I could explain why I went for the chocolate bar :). Often this openness and acceptance on our part, while we’ve made it clear we can’t allow that, helps children to feel safer. They feel “seen” and, if not understood, at least they get the message that we are open to understanding. So my verbalizations are intended to reflect a helpful attitude.

      If I were you, I would stop with the 100 reminders and focus more on showing your openness to understanding him, and that you are there to help, rather than keep correcting. I would also try to notice if there is a connection between the throwing and hunger, tiredness, noise level, difficulty connecting with peers, so that you can help him with those possible needs and also be more ready to help block this behavior at those times, maybe even having him stick by you, holding his hand while you prepare snack or the activity or whatever you are doing. His throwing is showing you that he needs some help with his impulse, not more reminders that he shouldn’t be having it. When you and your team see it this way, that perception alone will help him feel more supported and less likely to throw. Hope this makes sense! Wish I could be there with him to demonstrate, it would be so much easier than trying to explain in words. 🙂

      1. Thank you, Janet. That is very helpful. We are documenting some of the major behaviors and keeping track of when they happen in order to see if there is a correlation/time of day that we can alter what we’re doing to support him so that these behaviors are minimized. It has gotten to a point where other children are mimicking the behaviors that seem like this child is feeling overwhelmed or overstimulated… which makes it even more challenging because then he gets enjoyment out of watching them do the same things.

  3. Hi Janet, that was so interesting, thank you. I think the word that really clicked for me was “curious”. That word really allowed me to frame ans visualize the mindset that would be the most helpful. Great. Thanks again

    1. My pleasure, Cecilia, and I really appreciate your feedback about “curious.” It helps me to hear what helps! x Janet

  4. avatar MH Walker says:

    I use this podcast series constantly to recenter myself in my parenting approach after absorbing your books. Both have been amazing resources and guiding lights in learning to be a respectful parent. This episode really brought to my attention a big misunderstanding that I have been struggling with as well. Being a middle (diplomat) child from a family where big emotions were not welcome, suppressing my own feelings is not unfamiliar. My in tune and wise 4 year old always seems to sense it and even asks me about it. I have found myself denying my feelings to her when we talk about it to protect her feelings, which has not felt right. I have ongoing work to do with both myself and my children around healthy expression of emotions, but I wanted to let you know how thankful I am for this ongoing conversation about being Respectful Parents. Thank you for all that you do!

    1. I appreciate you taking the time to share with me! You’ve made my week! Thank you x Janet

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