A parent’s email describes her 4-year-old daughter as smart, funny, incredibly strong-willed, but sometimes “downright mean.” While she appreciates her child’s spirit and doesn’t want to stifle that, when she says mean things to her she doesn’t feel it’s enough to simply acknowledge her daughter’s emotions and let slide her hurtful words and behavior. “I need her to find a better way to express that she is angry with me,” she writes. Janet offers a perspective on the situation that she believes will help this mom better understand her daughter’s unconscious motives and intent, and ultimately ameliorate the behavior.
Transcript of “My Child Is So Mean to Me”
Hi. This is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I’m going to be responding to an email I received from a parent who shares, “I have not heard the topic of quote, ‘mean four-year-olds’ being addressed. There must be a better way to say that but that’s what it feels like.” Her daughter is in her description, smart, funny, incredibly strong willed, lively, and the parent doesn’t want to dampen her voice but is struggling with the treatment that she’s getting from her daughter. Okay, here’s the email I received:
Hi Janet. I’m a huge fan of your podcast and listen whenever I can. So far I’ve not heard the topic of quote, “mean four year olds,” unquote, being addressed. There must be a better way to say that but that’s what it feels like. My four-year-old daughter is a firework. She is smart, funny, loves an audience, loves existing and is incredibly strong willed. I love that about her and I don’t want to dampen that voice because I know that as a girl growing into a woman, she will need to continue to be strong willed and use her voice, but maybe not now at age four with mommy. Sometimes she is downright mean.
She is obsessed with her father and basically tolerates me, which I don’t argue with, but if I come home from work without a present for her, she’ll say something like, “You’re the worst mommy in the world.” Or if I give a toy back to her little brother that belongs to him and she ripped it out of his hands, the face she gives can turn me to stone. Or if I tell her to, “Please give me the pen back because we’re not drawing right now,” she will rip it away from me and grip it for dear life, calling me the worst. She does not use curse words, we don’t use them as parents.
I try to let most of her emotions exist but when she’s trying to hurt me and make me sad, I can’t just let it pass. I really feel like I need to address it in some way other than, “It’s okay to feel this way and I’m right here with you.” Because, yes, you can feel like you hate me but you cannot pull things out of my hand. You cannot slam doors on my face and you can not throw everything off the table in a fit of anger.
I don’t know what to tell her to do in place of those actions. I will add that I was raised by strict parents and I’m actually a huge fan of rules. If my father told me to go outside and mow the lawn, I was outside mowing faster than you could say, “Don’t forget the weeds.” I would never, ever have opened my mouth back to my parents. They had the first and final word.
I don’t need my daughter to be a robot like I was but I do need her to find a better way to express that she is angry with me other than saying hurtful things and doing unsafe actions.
Police officer’s daughter.
And then she leaves her name.
Okay. This is kind of a complicated one and I’m sensing that the dynamic between this four-year-old and her mother has gone on a bit in this direction, so it’s not going to be this quick, simple thing to change tracks. But that doesn’t mean that this parent can’t make a change quite soon if she’s committed and if she believes in the perspective I’m going to be offering. Which she may not. And there may be a lot of other people here who don’t, and I think that’s always the case with my podcast. I do always feel like my point of view is not going to be agreed with by everyone. And that’s okay with me. I have to go with what I 100% believe.
In this story, I believe it’s about lenses. It’s about the lens this parent is wearing through which she sees her daughter and her daughter’s behavior. And I would like to encourage her to try on a different lens.
Really, there are two lenses that we can see through. I don’t even know what to call the first lens, but it’s one that this parent seems to be seeing through right now, which is a little more on the surface of what’s going on, which is her daughter is behaving in a way, in a lot of ways that, without question, could definitely be perceived as mean. She’s saying unkind things, she’s doing unkind actions.
So that is a valid lens to see through. In my own experience with children I can see through that lens too. I definitely can see: whoa that’s mean, that’s not very kind. I can see that way. But what I’ve learned through many, many experiences and a lot of practice is that there is a better lens.
And that lens is one that takes us deeper, takes us beyond the surface of the behavior that’s in our face, into the why, into the other levels that are going on here. You could call it a lens of empathy. And because it’s a lens of empathy, it brings us closer to the other person, our child, and heals.
The other lens where we’re seeing everything on a surface level actually has a distancing effect. You could call that a farsighted lens.
This parent says a lot of interesting things. The first thing that I noticed is she says about her daughter, “She’s smart, funny, loves an audience.” You could also say that this parent is a certain kind of audience to her child in this behavior and she’s wearing the farsighted lens. And again, that lens totally makes sense. It’s one that makes us offended by our child, hurt and attacked and scared because this behavior… What do we do? This is just getting worse and it looks really bad and my child hates me. Or as this parent says, “Basically tolerates me.” That lens makes us believe all of these things that I don’t believe are true.
And when we try on the lens of empathy, it’s a lens that helps us consider… Here’s our sweet little girl who’s got this wonderful spirit and she’s intense. She feels things deeply. Strong willed children tend to be more sensitive in a lot of ways.
Why would a child do these behaviors that this parent describes? Why would she be unkind to her mother? Unkind to her brother? Why would she do these disruptive, angry, lashing out things?
Well, how do we feel inside when we’re doing those things? Does it feel good or does it feel really scary and uncomfortable?
I know that I can relate to my baser impulses that make me want to lash out at people I’m mad at. Make me want to get revenge. Make me want to say hurtful things, because I’m hurt. This person has hurt me and I’m scared that I’m going to lose something.
I have those feelings and I think a lot of us can relate to that.
What happens when you’ve got a child with just a few years on the planet, very immature in their ability to regulate their emotions, control their behavior and she’s a spitfire, intense? Keeping a lid on that and channeling it positively and with control is challenging.
This mother says, “I don’t want to dampen that voice.” No, we don’t want to dampen the voice but we do want to help her learn to control it and channel it positively into strength. Right now she knows she’s not doing that. It doesn’t feel good to be pushing her mother away, being the quote, mean child. How do we feel inside when our behavior is like that?
She could be jealous, scared, angry but underneath all of this is probably the fear that she’s turned into the bad guy with her mom and probably with her dad, too, in a lot of ways because he can’t be approving of this. Why is she getting stuck there being the mean girl that she doesn’t want to be? Nobody wants that.
That’s the kind of probing and considering that we want to do. And again, it will help if we just try on another lens. And I’m not talking about even engaging with her yet, I’m just talking about in our own self reflection and reflecting on the situation, thinking about this.
I’ve talked a lot about the second child and how the older child can feel — the emotional crisis they often go through. It can show up differently in each child, but snatching a toy away angrily is a very common one.
This is the way I’m showing my parent that this little boy snatched everything away from me. Some of the regard my parents had for me, the time, the love.
Even if we love her just as well, it feels like that to children, that they’ve been pushed aside. And then when they act out of those feelings and have these concerning behaviors, they feel our disapproval. So they create what they dread. They can’t help but do that. They create their biggest fear, which is that the parents do disapprove of them, do like the younger child better who doesn’t have all these conflicted feelings in the situation, who’s just there accepting the life that they have.
To me, a lot of this behavior sounds right on track. But because this mom is feeling vulnerable towards her daughter’s lashing out, instead of seeing it from a stronger place of empathy, she’s getting pulled into it. And then, because she’s seeing through this lens of how mean this all is and how unkind her daughter is being, her daughter is feeling that. So then her daughter gets even more frightened and uncomfortable with the way that she’s being viewed, because children always know, no matter what we say or don’t say. It’s the way we feel that matters. She feels that, this little girl.
And then what does that do? Make her behavior seem even more mean, more out there, more rude, more need to lash out and show her mother how hurt she is. It’s effective in that it’s getting her mother’s attention and getting her mother to feel something. And that’s another reason it’s continuing, but it doesn’t help anything for this child. It doesn’t make her feel better in any way. She’s just going down this hole she doesn’t want to go down. Being stuck as this person who’s a mean girl.
She needs help to stop this. And the great news is this parent or any parent can do that if she considers another lens.
The reason I know that this parent is feeling vulnerable is many of her comments… First, even that she’s seeing it as being mean to her. And she says… when she gives the toy back to the little brother that belongs to him and the girl ripped it out of his hands, this mother says, “The face she gives can turn me to stone.”
The power this parent is giving to that behavior, that her daughter can give her a look and the parent feels scared by it, hurt by it, thrown by it. She’s a vulnerable audience here, instead of a strong, confident one who can see beyond all this bluster and ugly stuff. Let’s face it, it’s ugly stuff. We’ve got to see through it to the pain that makes any of us behave in these ways.
And this parent says, “I try to let most of her emotions exist but when she’s trying to hurt me and make me sad, I can’t just let it pass. I really feel I need to address it in some way other than, ‘it’s okay to feel this way and I’m right here with you.'”
I wouldn’t address it that way. I wouldn’t let it pass and I’m going to get into what I do recommend. But I’m spending the majority of this talking about perspective because that’s what matters most. That’s the only thing that can help this parent to feel differently about what’s going on — she’s going to start to see differently first. She’s going to try on this other lens that sees beyond to the why would my child be acting like this? What’s this about?
She wasn’t born mean. Something’s devolved here in our relationship, in her feelings. When we get that, then the other pieces fall into place.
It’s really interesting but another big challenge this parent has, and it’s great that she brings all this up, is she says she was raised by strict parents. They told her to go outside and mow the lawn “and I was outside mowing faster than you could say, ‘don’t forget the weeds.’ I would never, ever have opened my mouth back to my parents. They had the first and final word.” And she puts AND in caps.
Then she says, “I don’t need my daughter to be a robot like I was.”
Wow, but this is a big challenge for a lot of us as parents, especially if we were raised in that authoritarian manner where you’d better not have those feelings, whatever they are, you just do it. You just do what we say.
And we get a very clear message as children that the relationship that we need so badly with our parents will not survive us having any kind of pushback feelings. We learn that very early on.
What happens to those feelings that children naturally have of hurt and anger and those lashing out type of feelings or even just pushing back on what parents are saying or doing or having our own feelings about it? What happens to those feelings? In this parent’s case she says she was a robot. Well, what is a robot in terms of their feelings? They’re so tamped down their feelings aren’t even there.
This is something to really look at for parents. We all have to, at some point, take a look at our inner child and try to understand that, because we’re bringing it into parenting, especially in a stressful situation.
And what this parent may be bringing in is that this is just unacceptable. And now, actually this is tapping into my feelings that I buried. The hurt I felt. Those are getting stirred up about my child.
Or it could be that her parent gave her a look that turned her to stone as a child and she’s going to that place of vulnerability with her daughter. Her daughter’s somebody that’s putting all those feelings out there in a strong way. Maybe this parent would have done that if she was allowed to, if it wouldn’t have been too risky for the relationship that she needed with her parents for survival and everything else.
There are a lot of layers there to look at in where we want to get to with this, contemplating and connecting with ourselves. The place we want to get to is acceptance of our own feelings, acceptance that we weren’t wrong to want to shout “No!” to the lawn mowing, that we weren’t bad, that we weren’t shameful for maybe hating our parents for making us do these things, for not giving us an inch, for making us into robots. Our feelings around that are totally acceptable.
Magda Gerber used to talk a lot about the only way to accept our child “as is,” is to accept ourselves “as is” first.
Maybe it’s not the only way but it’s the easiest way: accepting ourselves. That would be a big part of my advice to this parent to consider this other lens and also turn it on herself, consider her own feelings and what happened to the robot. Where did those feelings go? What were they? Looking at that.
And this is brave hard work. I hope this doesn’t feel like too much to this parent. It’s not a day’s process for her. And she might find a therapist or counselor really helpful.
Once she changes her tune with her child though, she will see results quickly.
Let’s consider how this will look in practice. Again, the practice is the perception. The lens is what to practice.
This mother says, “She’s obsessed with her father and basically tolerates me.”
Okay, so with this new lens of empathy, she’s going to see that actually what’s going on is the opposite. She’s obsessed with her mother right now. Well, I don’t know if obsessed is the right word, but she’s working through something, her feelings with her mother are amplified. It could be that her mother betrayed her by having this other child, which is sometimes how children feel, that betrayal, that jealousy.
It could have started with that. And now the child is having the normal feelings a strong willed child has around that, which is out of control and lashing out, unreasonable behavior. She senses her mother is repelled by that. She’s not getting the empathy that she needs around that. This is what’s going on here.
It’s not about that she’s just tolerating her mother and I’m obsessed with my dad.
I care about this person TOO much right now and so I’m throwing all these things out to show her my hurt and to show her my hurt by hurting her.
Then also I’m wondering if the parent working… sometimes that can bring up guilt, that I haven’t been with her so I’m vulnerable as the parent. We can understand that. I just want to have a nice time with my daughter and I’m tired and I’m coming into the situation with all this vulnerability.
When in fact, us being away tends to charge up… now our child is going to explode at us because we’ve been away or they’ve been away and they’re tired.
So, that’s where our needs aren’t going to exactly match our child’s right there at all. And again, the perspective is going to help this a lot.
So, she comes home from work without a present. She says something, “You’re the worst mommy in the world.”
“Ah, I know it feels that way. You really wanted a present.” And even if we think it’s the most entitled, crazy thing that she would ask that we can still say that with a bit of empathy, coming in way up high here, because I’m so powerful with my empathy lens on. I’m seeing, oh my poor little girl. She’s hurting so much that she’s lashing out of the person she needs most. Wow. But I’m way up here. I’m so powerful because I know it’s going to be anything. She’s going to find any reason right now to vent with me. Let it be about a present. I’ll go with that.
“Yeah, you didn’t get the present. You really wanted the present. You love when I get you presents.” Just something, we don’t have to say much.
And then she says, “If I give a toy back to her little brother that belongs to him, she ripped it out of his hands.”
Depending on the age of the little brother and what’s really going on there, I wouldn’t necessarily make a big deal about fixing that. I would allow some of that to go on, because little brothers tend to be engaged in that too. It’s almost like a drama that they’re playing out. And she’s definitely, again, playing to an audience here in terms of her mother.
Look, I’m going to do this. I know this makes you angry.
It’s not even really about the boy that much directly. And so I wouldn’t give that message, you did a wrong thing and now I need to fix it. Instead I’d be like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Oh gosh. Now you want this and that and you want to take everything. And what do you think of that little brother?”
I would not just make a judgment call on that, that this is my job to fix this because she did something bad. Because that’s the most typical thing that older siblings do with the younger one. I would need to know more details to know exactly how to handle that but something that doesn’t trigger this parent.
She says, “If I tell her to please give me the pen back because we’re not drawing right now, she will rip it away from me and grip it for dear life calling me the worst.”
Here’s a case where… because one thing was mother says, is that, “Am I supposed to just say it’s okay to feel this way and I’m right here with you and you can feel like this if you want to and do these things?”
I’m actually saying the opposite of being a doormat and just, okay, I accept you. You can do whatever you want. I’m saying to come in from a place of strength, which empathy will give us.
This parent also said she loves rules. Well, my approach is strict. That may surprise some people that have just been listening here a little, but this is a very strict approach. But it’s strict with respect and empathy. And one of the things we do when we’re strict is we don’t let her start with the pen if we know that we’re leaving, we don’t want her to use it, or that she tends to use things in a way that’s not okay, not appropriate.
Instead of waiting to say, “Please give me the pen back because we’re not drawing…” “You know what? You’ve got the pen, I’m going to take the pen right away.” And I would take it out of her hands right from the beginning. Or I would block her from getting it in the first place if I could. I would help to not get engaged in a struggle over these little things by being strict on the side of: I don’t want to get annoyed with her. I’m not going to let myself get annoyed with her.
She’s doing stuff to get my attention in this certain way to show me her feelings and I’m just not going to give any of this power. I’m not going to give her the power to bother me with that pen, where I have to ask for it back and we get into that power struggle.
And then, this is a tiny detail in the whole picture, but she says, “Please give me the pen back because we’re not drawing right now.” Just something a little more direct. When we say, “We’re not drawing right now,” well, somebody there is drawing right now and it’s just not as clear and direct as when we say, “Yeah, I can’t let you have that. I’ve got to help you put this away.”
Or, “We have to put this away,” would be fine but just something that’s direct: me and you, I’m in this relationship with you. I’m not afraid of you. I’m not going to let you get carried away with things that you’re not going to have control with and you’re not going to give me back. I’m taking care of it. That kind of strict really helps.
If she does something like knock stuff off the table, “whoa, okay wow, that’s a big hello to me. You really want to show me you’re not pleased.” And maybe that’s connected to something that we could reflect on and acknowledge. “You didn’t like that I said no” or “that really bothers you when I do that” or “you’re really hating on me right now, aren’t you?”
But again, all of that comes from I’m in such a strong place. I’m not going to be vulnerable to this little girl who’s so in love with me that she’s acting like this. Turning this around.
And then we don’t need to be the one to help her find a better way to express it. We can’t really tell our child how to express something. They’re going to express it the way they express it. But what we can do is take away all the power and the hurt on our part and then she will find other ways, because those ways aren’t as effective for her. It’s effective in an uncomfortable way but it’s effective. It’s getting our attention. If we can give our attention in the way that we want the feelings to come, which is I’m talking to you about it. I see you’re mad at me. You don’t like this. Everything I say is showing you that I accept that you have these feelings. I really, really do.
And that has to be from our heart, because of the way we’re seeing.
I hope some of that helps 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. 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.