Janet shares a family’s inspiring success story about dealing with their 3.5-year-old’s repeated, seemingly wanton problem behavior. The parent admits that both she and her husband were frustrated and “triggered” by the behavior, and they reacted with anger and scolding. The situation came to a head when their boy started lying about his actions, which was particularly hurtful to his dad. After reading some of Janet’s advice, they were able to consider their child’s POV with empathy and realize how their reactions may have “made the truth feel unsafe or uncomfortable.” They changed their approach completely and now feel confident their relationship with their child can survive any future storms.
Transcript of “How to Stop Feeling Frustrated by Your Child’s Behavior – A Family Success Story”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I’m excited to share a success story that a parent submitted to me. And honestly, it seems like a gold mine. I think a lot of people will relate to this and benefit from it. This mother discusses what she calls a very frustrating and triggering behavior by her three-and-a-half-year-old child that kept continuing, no matter what the parents did, they got very stern in their responses and it didn’t help. And then it got to the point where when they confronted their boy about it, he lied, which was even more concerning. This parent shares how they were finally able to understand and reframe the situation and turn it into a success for all concerned, including their son who was able to own and celebrate his own successful part in it. \
Okay. So, here is this letter that I’m looking forward to sharing with you:
Hi, Janet. I’m writing to share a recent success story that came out of your teaching and approach to working with small children. This was just one little win but it’s part of the bigger success that our family is having since we’ve started trying to model our parenting after the approach you teach.
My three-and-a-half-year-old son recently started a new, very frustrating, and triggering to us, behavior. He is fully potty trained but still uses a portable potty that is in a corner of the living room because the bathroom is on a different level of the home. After he uses the potty, he knows to go into the kitchen to wash his hands and we help him with this. About two weeks ago, he started a new thing where he will run as fast as he can to get into the kitchen ahead of us. And then he touches beverages, cans of seltzer, and protein shakes that are on a shelf a few feet away from the sink with his dirty hands. He especially does it if he has just pooped.
Both my husband and I reacted strongly to this the first couple of times he did it, out of instinct. It’s gross. And it seems to have inadvertently reinforced the behavior. Since then, my husband especially has gotten very stern with him about it, raising his voice at times and repeating, “Do not touch the drinks with dirty hands,” et cetera, many times. And the problem continued.
Dad tends to take the majority of the evening poops. So, I was kind of letting him handle it but was thinking perhaps it was time to move the drinks off the shelf to remove the temptation altogether. Not thinking I could necessarily stop or fix the behavior until it had run its course.
Then the other night, this drama played out again, while I listened from the living room with our five-month-old. This time, my son had already touched the drinks when my husband arrived. He asked, “Did you touch the drinks,” knowing full well that he had. And my son said, “No.”
My husband got sterner and angrier, “Why are you lying to me?” My son said, “I’m not,” et cetera, and it spiraled with both of them getting more and more upset.
We both had felt frustrated but unconcerned about the initial behavior. It seemed obviously something he was doing, almost compulsively because it pushed our buttons. But this was the first time our son had ever directly lied to one of us. And my husband seemed concerned and hurt.
After bedtime, I Googled, “Janet Lansbury Lying,” and immediately found a blog post and a podcast. The first paragraph of the blog post hit me like a ton of bricks: “As the leader in our parent-child relationship, I would take it upon myself to discern how I had made the truth feel unsafe or uncomfortable for my child.”
It was immediately so clear that our reactions and, in particular, my husband’s escalating sternness about the behavior was making my son feel unsafe and uncomfortable and probably increasing his compulsive urge to do the behavior again. When called out about it, he felt scared so he lied.
I shared this with my husband, reading him excerpts. He got it right away too. We had a really productive conversation.
The next day after my son used the potty, my husband completely changed tactics. He said, “Hey buddy, when we’re done here, it will be time to go wash your hands. I know you sometimes touch the cans with your dirty hands and maybe you don’t know why but I’m going to help you not to touch the cans.” And they went in together and then, amazingly, my son was suddenly incredibly proud of himself. “Mama. I washed my hands and I didn’t touch the cans.'”
The next day he, again, didn’t touch the cans and he brought it up spontaneously later that evening. And even the next day, “I didn’t touch the cans!”
We often talk about our favorite part of the day during dinner and one night his favorite part was, “I washed my hands and didn’t touch the cans!”
He and his dad also had a conversation about lying but I think we all feel clear now that lying was really not the issue here. My kid got caught in a loop that he did not want to be in. And when we reacted un-thoughtfully, we made it so much worse. By stepping back and hitting reset on our understanding of the behavior and approach to it, we got dramatic and immediate improvement in both the problem behavior and we’ve honestly had a little boost in our kiddos overall cooperativeness and mood over the subsequent days. While this was a small thing, it gives me confidence that we can figure things out in general.
Thanks also for the help you provided during this spring when my second son was born. My oldest had a very, very hard time. He never expressed anger or negativity toward the baby, just aloofness. And he seemed very, very sad and was very, very difficult to handle for about two months. Daily, enormous explosive tantrums, extreme defiance, and a generally sour mood all day and night.
Initially, we were tired and frustrated by him and I think I was distracted by worries that he was a sad kid. Daycare and some family members started viewing and describing him as having behavioral problems, tantrum problems, et cetera. Basically, being a troubled kid. And I honestly started to wonder also. But then thank goodness, I got back on the Unruffled wagon and it helped reset my approach. I reflected on all he’d been through over the past year.
Besides his new brother, he had lived with his grandparents for two months in spring 2020 during the pandemic because my husband and I were on the COVID front lines. Then those same grandparents had moved across the country and he didn’t see them for over a year. Then I got pregnant and didn’t feel well for several months.
When it hit me how hard his year had been, I literally wept for him. A bunch of times. We are so lucky to have been safe and secure and we have a lot of privilege and good things in our lives but I realized that from his tiny perspective, that didn’t mean life was easy. I couldn’t believe how blind to his burdens I’d been. Reflecting on his tiny grief, created so much compassion for him inside of me. Again, I shared and discussed it with my partner.
Instead of trying to minimize, avoid or shorten his tantrums, we started letting him rage and storm, letting the tantrums explode and last as long as they needed. And suddenly we found that often it would end with a huge squeezy hug initiated by him. It was definitely not as instantaneous as the other story I shared but we eventually got through it. And I think he learned that we’ll always be there for him.
Things aren’t perfect by any means but it was so, so, so hard for a while. And now, we’re all okay. And really, truly, it’s because of you and your podcast. I am one million times a better parent than I would be without this approach. So, thank you. Thank you.
Wow. So, these parents blow me away because of their openness and because of how quickly they were able to shift. That’s not typical. Everything they were going through I can relate to and I’m sure a lot of parents will — the way they were perceiving their son and his feelings and his behavior. It is par for the course for almost every parent I’ve worked with including myself.
And sometimes I feel like I am kind of a broken record with talking about this transition of becoming a sibling. But honestly, I think we can’t hear enough times how difficult that transition is for a child. I’ve heard of children that have to put their emotions underground for a while or feel they have to because they feel wrong for having them. So they suppress them. But I’ve never heard of a child who just went smoothly through this. And it doesn’t make sense that they would, right? Because they’re human and it’s a huge change and it’s a scary one. Somebody else taking my parents’ love, being adorable and sweet and vulnerable when I don’t always feel that way as a three-and-a-half-year-old. It’s very scary and throws a child off balance.
And so, there are two common ways that children express these feelings or show us they have these feelings. And this parent is describing both of those.
The first is these strong, overwhelming feelings that can seem to come out of nowhere. And the second is: I’m just a little out of myself and I’m doing these kooky things. I’m off balance. I can’t control my impulses. I’m thrown off.
And his parents say there have been other changes in his life too. So yeah, it makes sense. And I guess the reason I keep emphasizing that is that it’s so common. So many of the parents that reach out to me, this issue is behind it — some kind of major transition and often it is the transition to a new baby in the house.
This little toddler at three-and-a-half is still kind of a baby himself in terms of his ability to understand what’s going on with him and definitely to have that self-control and emotional self-regulation. It’s almost impossible in a time like this for a child this age to behave calmly and the way we want him to all the time.
So the first thing I want to talk about… Well, first, again, I laud these parents. They’re very insightful. They’re obviously open-minded, willing to self-reflect, consider. All of that flexibility and openness and really the self-compassion it takes to let ourselves go there is really important and can be challenging for a lot of us. So, all of that is what made it possible for the parents to make these changes so quickly or even in the time that they did.
And let’s talk first about the behavior with the dirty hands. So, yes, the parents were seeing this as most of us would as this annoying thing. Why does he keep doing this? But even then, she said that they realized that they were probably making it worse because they had these very normal instinctive reactions to what he was doing. Then their child is feeling that… what she calls “frustrating and triggering to us,” which is making him more uncomfortable and making it harder for him to control this impulse.
He doesn’t want to keep going there but he keeps going there, right?
So, it sounds like this little boy’s dad… Yeah, he’s doing normal things like getting more and more stern, right? What’s the matter with this guy? It’s not like we’re asking him to do something difficult.
But right now at this moment, it is difficult. It’s impossible, in fact. He’s showing that it’s almost impossible for him to stop this.
So, then the whole situation got amplified when the dad asked, “Did you touch the drinks,” knowing full well that he had. And she says, “My son said, ‘No.’ My husband got sterner and angrier. Now, our child is lying to us.”
That feels really scary and bad because we’re seeing it that way and we’re trying to approach the situation with reason. But behaviors in young children, those kinds of concerning behaviors very seldom have anything to do with our child being in a reasonable place. In a reasonable place, he wouldn’t do that. There’s no joy in it. There’s no fun in it. Children don’t want to annoy us and feel like we’re against them. That’s really scary. What they do want is to be seen and helped in their awkwardness and their impulsivity and their overwhelm. And that’s what these parents came to, ultimately.
Then this mother nails it here. She said, “Our reactions were making my son feel unsafe and uncomfortable and probably increasing his compulsive urge to do the behavior again. When called out about it, he felt scared. So, he lied.”
The fact that these parents are both working as a team here is also incredible that they are discussing and uniting in what they’re doing and not every parent has a partner like that, I realize. So, this is an incredibly positive gift that they do have that.
If a parent doesn’t, then they can still be that parent that does see the child, even if the other parent doesn’t. To have one parent that sees you and wants to help is enough.
And so, that was the big transition that these parents made. They went from seeing this as something reasonable: He was just defying them and needed to be talked to about it again and again. They’ve reframed this as Oh, he needs help. Behavior like this is a call for help.
So the parents realized: Oh, he’s not in control of this in any way. There’s too much energy around this. There’s too much discomfort around this behavior and he can’t stop. It’s like uncomfortable power in it that he needs to keep tapping into, but he doesn’t want to be that guy. No child does.
So when they reframe this as help, then the dad does this amazing, amazing thing. And it actually makes me want to cry.
“Hey buddy, when we’re done here, it will be time to go wash your hands. I know you sometimes touch the cans with your dirty hands and maybe you don’t know why but I’m going to help you not to touch the cans.”
So, right there, instead of being against me as a child, I feel this enormous sense of relief. Oh, my dad sees me. He’s on my side. He wants to help. We’re on the same team. The relief in that.
Sometimes you can see it in a child. In a way, they did see it in him with all his pride in himself and how he immediately was able to see this whole situation differently, because now he has the people he needs most on his side. He’s not being talked to as a bad kid.
I know these parents would never use that word, but it feels confusing and scary when you’re doing something you don’t want to be doing. I don’t know if any parents can relate… Even as adults sometimes when we find ourselves doing that thing that we said: I don’t want to do that anymore. And here I am doing it again. It’s a very scary feeling that we don’t have control of ourselves and that we’re pushing the people we need most away from us and turning them against us.
So in the description of what this dad says… I can feel myself as the child going Phew. Letting go of that fear is what helps a child to be in the part of their brain that can be reasonable because we feel that safety in the relationship with our parents, we feel that connection. And yeah, then being able to celebrate with them, “I didn’t touch the cans!” It’s like the team at the end of the game, celebrating that they won. That’s how it felt for him. We’re a team.
And then the mother, again, nails it when she says, “My kid got caught in a loop that he did not want to be in. And when we reacted un-thoughtfully, we made it so much worse. By stepping back and hitting reset on our understanding of the behavior and approach to it we got dramatic and immediate improvement in both the problem behavior” and their child’s overall cooperativeness and mood. Yep. There’s that relief.
Then this parent says, “While this was a small thing, it gives me confidence that we can figure things out in general.”
Yes. Put that on your refrigerator. Put that in your mind and your heart because I believe that too. These parents turned a big corner here. It wasn’t just about the dirty hands. Now they have the process for every behavior their children will have from here on out and what our children need from it: Help, safety, and connection. We’re on the same team.
So, just talking a bit about this other part that she shared about the emotions. Yeah. So, again, I totally relate to this parent feeling tired and frustrated by her son because he had this aloofness, he seemed so sad and that just cuts us up, right? We’ve had this other baby and now our older child is sad. I had that every time. And every parent I know feels that, because our child has feelings that are very valid, that all children have, as I was saying before. They have some version of this. But we want them to not have those feelings.
If we could reframe that for ourselves into: Here’s this challenging passage in our lives, as a family. Instead of feeling guilt or worry about my child’s process and his feelings here, I’m going to hold space for them because we’re in this passage and there are a lot of feelings in this passage. I’m going to see them as normal. Not just normal, actually as the healthiest thing that could happen and that my child expresses these. If it comes up through behavior, I’m going to help them with the behavior but at the same time, hope that I’m giving the message as much as possible that, yeah, this is what we feel. And giving it to myself too. Because when we’re feeling guilty or worried about our child’s feelings, then every time those feelings show up in some way, it is more triggering. It is scarier for us and harder for us to stay in that safe zone and that trusting letting-the-feelings-be zone.
So, we all have to approach it this way, ideally, as a time of ups and downs and everything in between. And then it gets better.
This parent said he was having behavioral problems at school. People were describing him that way and she started to wonder and worry and was feeling nervous about it, feeling upset about it. And then she reset. She turned that fear into empathy and compassion for her child. “Instead of trying to minimize, avoid or shorten his tantrums, we started letting him rage and storm.”
Yeah. He has a right and a need to express that. Children are better at expressing these things than we are, but we often feel them too.
And they saw that the tantrums would often end with a huge hug and that hug was relief, feeling better. And that gave this parent more confidence in trusting them.
So again, huge kudos to these parents. Thank you so much for letting me share your story. And I hope the story helps other parents in their process as well.
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 in 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 for all your kind support. We can do this.
How do I get the free version of your book?
This is what I’m struggling with after reading this article “How to Stop Feeling…” I deeply believe in accepting my child’s feelings, creating a culture of it in our home, but to do so, it seems like I need to avoid or suppress or deny my own feelings of anxiety and concern about the way my child processes his feelings. What if my child lies more than he tells the truth? What if he nearly always chooses instant distraction or manipulation as his coping mechanisms? What if he is highly resistant to using or learning other skills?
I already do my best to appear “unruffled” and my child simply cycles through attention-seeking behavior, testing everything he can think of to bother us. He spends most of the day in this state (it seems stressful for him!), whether or not I spend an hour or several giving him quality, one-on-one attention early in the day. Unfortunately, what I believe are the sources of the problem are largely outside of our control, and he refuses to talk about them. He is intensely preoccupied with having “fun” and not experiencing negative emotions, not even for a second.
I am already having trouble accepting and processing my own fears—that my child is not going to build effective social, emotional, and problem-solving skills and that I cannot help him if he doesn’t want to be helped—and now I’m confused. Do I need to negate my own feelings to truly create this atmosphere of unconditional acceptance for my child? This seems contradictory—am I missing something important?
Great questions, Claire, and I would love to clarify for you. The family in this story did not try to act as if they were unbothered by their son’s behavior. The shift for them came when they understood better what was going on with him. That shift in perception is what caused them feel differently than they previously had. Our perceptions of behavior will be what dictates how we feel about it. So to “stop feeling frustrated…” as in this case, we’ll want to take a closer look at the “why.” Why is our child behaving this way? And also, why are we reacting to it with frustration? What fears, concerns, worries, traumas maybe, are behind that for us? Sounds like you are connecting with some of that, which is great: “I am already having trouble accepting and processing my own fears—that my child is not going to build effective social, emotional, and problem-solving skills and that I cannot help him if he doesn’t want to be helped—and now I’m confused.”
But what about your boy? Why do you imagine he keeps cycling through these behaviors? “What if my child lies more than he tells the truth? What if he nearly always chooses instant distraction or manipulation as his coping mechanisms? What if he is highly resistant to using or learning other skills?” Do you have a sense of what these causes are? If so, why would your boy be uncomfortable acknowledging them? “what I believe are the sources of the problem are largely outside of our control, and he refuses to talk about them. He is intensely preoccupied with having “fun” and not experiencing negative emotions, not even for a second.
When children lie and avoid it is usually a sign they are afraid or otherwise intensely uncomfortable, often it’s that they feel judged, misunderstood, rejected rather than accepted. I’m not saying that’s what is going on here for your little guy, because I don’t know. But if you are having those fears about him… can you imagine how afraid he might feel about himself?
Please know that nothing I teach is about stifling or negating or denying our feelings. I would never recommend such a thing. It’s the antithesis of what I believe and would be unhelpful, impossible to sustain, unhealthy for us and our child.
There’s always a reason children behave as they do.I’d recommend pondering this so that you can close the distance that may have developed between you and your boy. x Janet
Thanks so much for your reply, Janet. I think I need to work on more than a mindset shift, because my partner and I empathize with our child quite a lot. I think we need to continue practicing the ways we engage, respond, and hold boundaries, and I need to figure out how to process these emotions more away from my child. I think burnout from intense empathy itself might be producing some “push/pull” that is difficult for all of us.
I think my anxiety about his development has so much to do with his circumstances (too complicated to explain) and my own trauma, as you noticed. I believe in him so much (which is part of why I am so frustrated!) but I wonder whether he has trouble receiving that message through my anxiety. I talked to my partner about taking your course together—I think we need stronger guidance and structure and unity to provide our child with a safe place to vent his feelings amidst this chaos. A stronger framework would also give us more confidence in our parenting, which would help our anxiety too.
I also think I need to have more patience with both myself and my child. Just yesterday he took my suggestion to “draw about his feelings” and drew a very tiny angry face when he was upset about a game not loading. I felt like the sun was breaking through the clouds. He seemed more relaxed and engaged that day in general. I’m thinking of keeping a journal to help me stay in touch with the big picture.
Thank you so much for your refreshing and piercing perspective. We still have so much to learn from you.