A parent writes that her 3.5-year-old just started pre-school and has been bringing home some new behaviors like “lifting her dress to expose her bottom… or making poop and fart sounds.” She especially likes to perform these behaviors for her grandparents or when company comes over. “I like to be funny,” she says. This mom has tried several strategies to reign in her daughter, including ignoring the behavior, but so far without success. Janet offers perspective on both the little girl’s behavior and her parent’s reaction to it that she believes will help this situation and their relationship.
Transcript of “Attention-Getting, Inappropriate Behavior”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m going to be responding to a Facebook message exchange that I had with a parent who’s concerned about her daughter’s inappropriate attention-getting behavior and is wondering how to handle it to make it stop, because it’s embarrassing her and she’s struggling to understand what’s going on and help her daughter to stop doing this. Okay, so here’s the message I received:
Hi, Janet. I wanted to reach out and tell you how much I enjoy listening to your podcasts. They’ve been a big help through my parenting journey. I’m having concerns with my 3.5 year old daughter. She’s very bright, sweet and a lot of fun. She started preschool this year and began coming home with new behaviors. When we are FaceTiming with her grandparents or when people come over, she will start lifting up her dress to show her bottom, touching herself or making poop and fart sounds. I understand some of this behavior is natural self exploration.
We recently had an electrician work on the house and she proceeded to try and take off her clothes and say she wanted to shake her butt. I asked her to stop and I told her that it is something to do in private and that it wasn’t safe to do that when company is over. I’ve asked her why she likes doing that and she says, ‘I like to be funny.’ I told her, ‘let’s try to find other ways to be funny,’ but she says no or begins having a tantrum. We’ve also tried ignoring the behaviors, but that seems to escalate things further. Do you have any recommendations for us? Thank you.
So the specifics in this parent situation may seem a little unusual, but all of the themes in this type of behavior are very, very, very common and they show up in a lot of different ways that parents ask me about. So I’m really going to touch on not just the specifics here, but all of the themes. And the first thing I thought of was something that my mentor Magda Gerber always did, and it was so patient and wise of her. Instead of jumping in with, “here’s what might going on and here’s what you can do,” which is sometimes my tendency, because I like to figure out what’s going on and try to help, she would ask the parent questions. Because her goal and my goal, too, was to help the parent become confident in themselves and self-reliant, able to figure out situations. So it’s that thing of teaching somebody how to fish, trying to help people do it for themselves.
I remember my acting teacher doing this, and it used to actually drive me a bit mad that after I did a scene, he wouldn’t let the other students applaud because he didn’t want us to be playing for audiences. He wanted us to be self-reliant. And so after the scene, he wouldn’t say, “oh, this was good,” or “this part worked” or “this part didn’t work.” He would say, “Tell me about your experience. Tell me about your experience.” Because he wanted you to be able to have a sense of: this is where I went there. I was in this. The story was very real for me at that time. And then I kind of got jarred out of it at this point. Because that’s where the power is, that’s where the confidence comes from.
And it’s the same with parenting. What I want to give parents is confidence in themselves that they’ve got this job. They can do this. And when they’re out in front of other people, maybe their family members, or strangers on the playground, or wherever, that they are proud of what they’re doing, that they feel like they do know what they’re doing.
That’s my goal, and it was Magda Gerber’s as well. So she used to probe. “Well, what do you think about that?”
So, anyway, I thought of that with this parent, and I also was genuinely curious what she thought about all of this. So I asked her, “Do you have a sense of why she is continuing this behavior?”
And the parent came back to me, and I had to smile because she totally is all over this. She gets it so well it surprised me a little. She says:
Thanks so much for your response. In the beginning, her grandparents would laugh if she did something outrageous and say, ‘oh, you’re being silly.’ I think she can tell it bothers me, so I wonder if she is getting a reaction. We also have a six month old, so I think part of it is adjusting to being a big sister.
I loved getting this response from her. Yes, yes, yes to all of this.
So when we know, then we can figure out the need that is not quite getting filled here. And so I want to get into those specifics.
First I’m just going to talk about how some of these themes affect a lot of families in a lot of different way: the child bringing home behavior that they’re experiencing in preschool or some other group situation. Or maybe they’re being cared for by relatives one day, and they notice that certain behavior has a bit of power, maybe with teachers or with other children — that people are laughing, that maybe the adults are getting a little riled up by it.
So they see that and it’s interesting to them. And as these expert learners, they want to follow their interests and explore.
So she probably saw some of this happen at preschool, I’m guessing. Maybe it was just making the poop sounds, or maybe it was that somebody actually showed their butt at preschool, I don’t know.
With children, it can be words that they hear, language, behavior around violent play in terms of gunplay or “good guys, bad guys” type of play. They’re interested in the power that something has, so they bring it home like she did. And she tried it out with her grandparents.
Her grandparents thought it was funny. And I don’t actually think that’s what encouraged her to keep exploring this. I think it was much more the parent being bothered, being worried, naturally, when she saw that. Uh oh, that’s not good. I don’t want her to be doing that. That’s what children zone in on, these most important people to them — their parents or primary caregivers.
And how interesting this situation was for her, because these people are laughing, but this really, really important person is not amused. And I sense she’s bothered by it.
That’s something that most of us, if we were young children, would want to try to figure out. Whoa, what is the power in this? It’s bothering her and these people are getting a kick out of it. Hmm. So she has to pursue that. And again, this type of exploration is common.
The first time… somehow they get the feeling that this might be something that bothers their parent and that their parent also really doesn’t have a lot of control over, isn’t able to just stop me doing that easily.
Sometimes it can be telling a parent rejecting type of things. And I’m just seeing that the parent is taking it personally, even though I’m just this little, tiny girl who is just learning and trying to figure it all out. And I love my parents more than anything, and I don’t really, really want to bother them, but it’s just interesting to me.
And then another common reason that children do these things is not just pure exploration of the parent’s response, but also because they sense that this is a way to communicate something to my parents.
None of this is on a conscious level, by the way.
It gets my parents attention in a certain way, and it communicates that everything is not hunky dory in my world right now. I’m going through a transition of some kind.
Very commonly it’s this sibling transition. Other transitions can have this effect too: moving houses, a new school, parents separating or other big changes happening, and it throws children off balance. They don’t understand, oh, this is just this thing happening right now and then it’s going to be better. It’s just this period of adjustment. It just feels like somebody pulled the rug out from under them and they don’t know that it’s ever going to end.
So she’s got some uncomfortable feelings, and she notices, as children do: this is a way of getting a reaction out of my parent that feels like I’m getting through to them, that I’m feeling kind of out of control and off-balance about a situation that’s going on. It’s not all okay with me.
Often what can help is this child getting enough opportunities to share “negative feelings.”
It’s very challenging for us as parents to see all the places the feelings pop up, and to remember to encourage those rather than do the normal thing, which is kind of push back on those, or explain children out of them, or even a little bit deny them, because oftentimes they don’t make sense, because feelings don’t.
So a child will say, “I don’t like these clothes today.” And a parent wants to say the sensible thing, which is: “Well, that’s your favorite dress. What do you mean? Or, “those are your favorite shoes.” Instead of trusting every feeling our child expresses as something that actually just needs a place to land.
With the younger sibling, who she may adore, I mean, it’s not about that; it’s about the transition she’s going through with the betrayal of her parents loving somebody else, somebody taking all of this time, wondering where she stands at any given moment with the parents. That’s where children are feeling it.
It’s not a bad sign that they don’t like their sibling or any of that. It’s really all about them on the inside and the way they’re perceiving the situation.
So sometimes parents will say to me, “We’re giving our child so much attention (the older child), because we know this is a tough time and we’re giving them so much one on one attention.”
But this isn’t about giving more attention. It’s a certain kind of attention. It’s that attention of, “Huh, you don’t like that dress today. You don’t like this food for breakfast.”
That doesn’t mean I’m going to go run and make you another one. It just means I accept you get to feel this way.
So it’s that certain kind of connection and attention the children are looking for. And people call it negative attention, but it’s not negative attention. It’s see-my-disruptive-feelings attention. See that I’m doing things I know I’m not supposed to do, or that really don’t make sense, because I’m not comfortable 100% and I need you to accept and help me with these uncomfortable parts of me too.
So understanding all of these elements, how do we approach the behavior? How do we dial it back?
By seeing it, and pondering it and understanding where it’s coming from, it helps us not be bothered so much as feel, wow, she’s found this interesting way to get to me.
I mean, you’ve got to admire them because they find these ways. Sometimes they’re a little less obvious than this one, which would bother any parent I’m sure.
So let’s say it does bother us the first time because we’re not expecting it. It’s a little scary that our child does something like this. Uh oh, what’s going on here?
Again, children will bring home everything they were exposed to. That’s what they’re supposed to do. That’s how they learn about it. That’s how they process it. It’s even empathy — understanding where that child was coming from that was doing that. Exploring, learning, that’s what they’re all about. It’s really positive.
So this parent could almost, in her mind, admire what her daughter’s figured out here, when the parent can stop being afraid about it. Because it will go away. And one of the big signs that it will go away is that with the electrician, she said “she tried to take off her clothes and she said she wanted to shake her butt.”
She’s sharing the feeling there instead of doing the behavior. And that just shows how she just wants to be seen in this.
She doesn’t really want to do it. She has a filter that is telling her that wouldn’t be safe with the electrician. I mean, even at three and a half, she’s already sensing that. But she has to gauge her mother’s response and share this with her. “See me, mom. See me wanting to do this inappropriate thing. This is where I am right now.” What is she going to do now?
So right there, if this parent could say, “Ah, hmm, well, I’m not going to let you do that but that’s an interesting idea.” Or, “do you think he would laugh like your grandparents did? Yeah. I can’t let you do that, babe. But interesting idea you’ve got there.”
Again, that has to come from the place that I’m not actually bothered and I’m not worried.
So that’s the most important thing is to work on our perceptions so that we feel more comfortable about the behavior. And this can be a gradual change for us. We’re not going to right away snap into it. That’s okay. But the sooner we can, the sooner this behavior will vanish, because we’re not going to give it the power to upset us anymore.
We’re going to be open to the more appropriate ways that are less bothersome and scary for us that our child will be sharing.
And even in this moment right here, we’re going to hear the feeling while we stop the behavior. “Come over here,” if we see her running off to try to do that. And that’s what she wants us to do. She doesn’t want to run in there and expose herself to the electrician. She’s looking for a certain kind of attention and connection here.
See me. Don’t judge me. Don’t be mad at me. See that everything’s not perfect in my world right now and I’m feeling a little goofy. I’m a little out of control. Is it okay to feel like this? Can you handle me?
And then asking her why she likes doing that, that could be a way to connect, actually. “Is that really fun for you? Are you enjoying that?”
But if she’s asking from a place of being bothered, then it will only keep communicating to her daughter that she’s bothered, which keeps giving power to the behavior.
The girl said, “I like to be funny.” And then the mother said, “I told her, let’s try to find other ways to be funny, but she says no or begins having a tantrum.”
So I wouldn’t get into that kind of dialogue, because the parent saying, “let’s try to find other ways to be funny,” it’s again, communicating: I don’t want you to do this and it’s uncomfortable for me. So don’t do what you’re doing.
Instead of really genuinely trying to understand what she’s doing.
But then if she says no or begins having a tantrum — that may happen if the mother’s gently, but firmly keeping her away from disrobing in front of the electrician. She may start to cry. She may start to protest. And that’s exactly what she needs to share. Those are the feelings that will heal her.
If we can accept those just as what they are, but knowing in our heart that it’s not about that, it’s not about the need to do something with the electrician, it’s not about the need to bother her mother. It’s about, I need to share that I’m sad. I need to share that I’m scared. I need to share that. I’m worried that you don’t love me as much. I need to share that.
All of that is going to come through by the parent stopping her and then simply saying, “I can’t let you be funny with the electrician in that way, my love.”
She starts to cry, and maybe we just let that happen and we just calm ourselves. Or maybe we say, “yeah, you wanted to have some fun there and your mom said no, and that’s upsetting.” Saying those words and meaning them.
So instead of trying to talk her into doing this another way or whatever, I would meet her where she is. She’s trying this out. I get it. And yeah, it’s bothered me in the past, but it doesn’t bother me. “Sweetie. I know you’re just having fun, but I can’t let you do this in certain situations. You can do it with me at home, just us, all you want.”
Because if we see that as just silly, and that it’s not intimidating to us in any way, we can just laugh and not make a big deal out of it, and that’s how it goes away. It doesn’t get the uncomfortable type of attention that we’re giving it anymore, and then it doesn’t have a purpose anymore for her.
So, anyway… A gain, this applies to so many kinds of behaviors that they do catch wind of or bring home from school to try out. They try it out and the result will either keep them hooked into it and stuck there repeating it with us, or we’ll see it for what it is.
I remember this friend of mine, actually, her son was my son’s best friend, and he heard the phrase “chicken butt” at preschool. And the mother wasn’t prudish or anything, but for some reason this particular expression just drove her mad. And sure enough he was saying it the entire year. And I don’t think my son ever said it, or maybe he said it once, because he saw me when his friend would come over and say it, I would just shrug my shoulders and smile like: ah, okay, sure. Whatever. So my son saw it didn’t have power, no reason for him to keep saying that.
But it’s just so interesting. We don’t mean to do this as parents, but we give things power and then our child has to keep checking it out. Not because they don’t like us or they’re mean to us. They’re learners. They’re expert learners. And the thing they want to learn most about is their relationship with their parents, where they stand, where they fit, how my parents feel about me, how they perceive me, if they accept me, if they’re on my side, always helping me. Those are the things children explore. It’s really, really healthy.
So I hope some of this is helpful to this parent or any parent listening. And if my podcasts are generally somewhat helpful to you, then please consider giving a positive review on iTunes. Not very good about asking for these things. But as we’re getting towards the end of another year of this podcast and we’re considering devoting our energy to this for another year, it’s always good to get some encouragement.
And thank you to all of you 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. 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.