A single parent writes that she is frustrated and exhausted by her almost 3-year-old’s constant resistance. Every aspect of their lives is either a negotiation or a struggle: dressing, leaving the house, getting into his car seat, drop-offs at school. This mom describes some recent big transitions in her boy’s life, and she is sensitive to the possibility that he may have separation issues. She says she does incorporate many of Janet’s ideas into her parenting practices, but she’s desperate for some guidance to make their relationship less challenging.
Transcript of “Choose Not to Battle with Your Child (Here’s How)”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m responding to an email I received from a parent who feels like she’s constantly battling her almost three-year-old. What I’m going to be talking about, which I think will help this parent and hopefully, other parents as well is navigating where children need us to lead them and put boundaries in place, and where they need us to follow. And understanding these differences is key to making our lives easier as parents, having fewer power struggles or battles, our child is more comfortable and we’re more comfortable.
And another issue in this parent’s note that comes up as an underlying theme is her child’s sensitivity towards separation. So I’ll be talking a little about that as well.
Before I read this email, I want to preface it with a couple of thoughts. First, I want to say that this parent is very obviously like the majority of the parents that reach out to me: a wonderful caring person and parent. The feedback I want to give is not at all in criticism of her, but only to help.
Another thing I want to mention is just to share a little about my process. I receive a lot of notes. I’m very privileged to be in that position with parents needing help. I wish I could help all of them, of course, but that just isn’t possible. What stands out for me, what makes me want to do a podcast around a particular note is if I almost want to have a dialogue with the parent as I’m reading and say, “Oh, if you just try this, it’s going to be so much easier. Oh, I think I can help you here.” If I feel that coming up for me, then that tells me that maybe I have something to say about this issue that could be helpful to this parent or other parents. And that happened to me a lot in this note.
So all of that said, here’s the letter:
Hi, Janet. Help! I feel like I’m constantly fighting my almost-three-year-old. We never went through the terrible twos, but in the last six weeks, I’ve learned what they mean by three-nager. I’m stubborn. So when I say no, which isn’t often, I mean no and, unlike my parents, I’m not going to eventually give in. And he constantly challenges that. When I say it’s time to go, it’s time to go and he constantly challenges that. When I say it’s time to get dressed, it’s time to get dressed and he constantly challenges that. I’m at my wit’s end.
I’m an avid reader. I’ve read so many books on discipline and your methods make the most sense to me. I try to incorporate them into our daily lives, but we’re still butting heads.
We wake up early, 6:00 AM, so he gets breakfast and gets 20 minutes of tablet time while I shower and get dressed. Then he plays for another 20 minutes and I give it another 20 minutes to get out the door by 7:00, but it’s never 7:00. It’s usually 7:15 or later, which is ridiculous given the time we start.
I’ve started giving just the FYI notice, “the train is leaving for school in 10 minutes” and he’ll negotiate.
“Mama say ‘Alexa, four more minutes.'”
So I’ll give him four more minutes and then I’ll ask him if he wants to walk to the changing table or be carried and he’ll run and hide. And then I have to chase him around the house every single day.
Then we finally get him dressed and it’s “do you want to go climb into your car seat or do you want me to help you in?” And he’ll run into the garage and hide. I don’t even open the garage door until he’s buckled in anymore because he’d be halfway down the street if I did.
In the rare instance he does get in the car without being forced, he’ll bypass his car seat and run around the car, running from door to door as I get more and more frustrated every single day.
Before we leave the house, I’ll give him hugs and kisses and then another round or two, and I tell him to have a good day and I’ll see him after school. We have to do this before we leave, as they pick him up directly out of the car at school. But in the last couple of weeks, he started fighting the hugs and kisses. So I’ll go get in the car and then he’ll cry that he didn’t get them, and then when I go to give them, he’ll fight them again. This could happen three or four or more times and put us really behind schedule, but I don’t ever not go back for those hugs kisses because I don’t want him to think I don’t want them.
Needless to say, by the time I drop him off at school by 7:15, 7:30, I’m exhausted and in a terrible mood.
We have a few struggles at night, but not near as many and I have to wonder if it’s because he knows we’re going to be separated while he is at school. He’ll even say things like, “Mama, you came back,” most days when I pick him up like he’s surprised I came back. Yesterday I heard him having a conversation with his stuffed monkey and he told him, “See, I came back.” How can I make him feel secure in that?
Another issue we have is around potty learning. He’s shown interest since right before his second birthday, but he’s had so many adjustments to make since then that we’ve struggled with consistency. He turned two in March. In April he went back to school part-time after being with his nanny full time for eight months. In December, our nanny moved away, and in January, he went back to school full time.
Now that I’m writing this, I have to wonder if some of the behavior issues are because we don’t have our nanny anymore even part-time.
With potty learning, he won’t even try anymore. I ask him if he wants the diaper or the underwear, and he’ll say underwear, and then proceed to go hide and poop in his underwear. He knows he is doing it. He could just as easily go to the potty. What gives? He does the same thing at school though, he has fewer accidents because they put him on the potty on a schedule with the rest of his friends.
I adopted my son as an infant, as a single mom. I know very little about his family history, but I did meet his dad briefly. He had such a great spirit and a great dimpled smile that my son inherited, but it seems he also had a troubled childhood. And from the few minutes we spoke, I picked up that he constantly fought authority because he was strictly disciplined and never challenged mentally.
My son is smart. He has been since he was little and it’s not just me. The social worker who did our home studies picked up on it when he was an infant and his teachers tell me now. And he’s also got a lot of spunk and a ton of spirit and oh so much energy. I try to give him everything I can to foster his intelligence. We read books together every night. We tell stories. We draw pictures and practice writing letters. If he shows interest in anything, I probably go overboard and provide it all. It’s important to me that I help him achieve his potential, especially as an adoptive mom.
Oh, and also somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m thinking if I can help bring out his full potential, give him opportunities, then maybe he won’t fight me/authority when he is older.
We spend a lot of time together. It’s just me and him after all, and we have our little routine. I pick him up from school, he’ll play in the playroom or with our kitties while I fix our dinner, then bath. Then we play for a little while and read books and then off to bed. He’ll often ask me to sleep in his bed for a while, or he’ll ask to sleep in my bed and I often let him. But generally, our evening routine is fairly uneventful.
All this to say, I don’t know what else to do to reassure him and make things a little less challenging. Help. Thank you so much for taking the time to read this novel.
Okay. So there are a lot of great details here — so many universal ideas that parents share with me that they have problems with. So I’m excited to go over this.
The first thing I want to say is going to sound so nitpicky, I know, or fuddy-duddy or something else negative, but I have to say it. I don’t think this parent or any parent helps themself by using words like “terrible twos.” Although she said she never went through terrible twos, she said she’s learned what they mean by “three-nager.” And these are terms that, while harmless in themselves, put images in our mind that are going to mislead us and make us feel more in a power struggle with our child than we need to be. Because we’re seeing young children as this other.
We hear people talk about taming tantrums and taming toddlers as if they’re animals and these wild beasts, and three-nager is seeing a tiny little guy who’s not even three as a teenager with that maturity, with that attitude. I mean, even teenagers underneath the swagger are just sweet, vulnerable kids underneath it all.
But this guy is just an innocent tiny little boy doing exactly what he’s supposed to do at this age and exactly what every parent should on some level welcome children to do, because it’s a great sign.
Reading later in this note that he’s adopted, he’s so comfortable with this mother that he’s pushing back, being more his own person, showing his autonomy and his will, and that what he wants is different than what his mother wants. This is exactly what toddlers need to do to individuate and develop more of their independence and autonomy. But of course, they always want it on their terms, not when we want to separate. They want to be the ones to push us away and that’s how it’s supposed to be.
So seeing that for what it is will help our heart to go out to this child and to want to help him in the areas where he gets stuck and is struggling. But not see him as this scarier older person than he is. He’s very immature emotionally, as he should be at this age.
So getting off that soapbox, then she talks about how he’s constantly challenging her when she says no. When she says it’s time to go he challenges that. When it’s time to get dressed, he challenges that. And what he’s showing in “time to go” and “time to get dressed” is that he is also a very typical child for his age, struggling with transitions.
I talk a lot about that on my podcast because it will help us so much as parents if we can know that transitions are a big, big challenge for young children. Even if they weren’t going through any other kinds of transitions in their life like losing their nanny, starting a new school, moving houses, they are in this ginormous developmental transition and it’s really hard for them to keep their balance and not go off the edge a lot. Every inclination in a child this age, again, the healthy inclination is to say no. Even if they want to say yes, even if they prefer to eat the ice cream cone, they kind of have to say no first. It’s who they are. It’s this very harmless healthy aspect of development.
So she’s getting stuck, as parents do, with trying to get his cooperation at a time when she’s probably least like likely to get it — during a transition. Because this small transition of getting out the door to school can be the tipping point for a child for all the other transitions that they’re feeling. And then she’s absolutely right when she later realizes that separation may be part of this as well.
So why are other transitions that he has not as hard? Well, this one for him is about separation, and what this all means is that he needs a lot of help. What I want to help this parent see is how she can help more getting through the transition and not get caught up in wanting him to lead this, because transitions are an area that children almost always need us to lead. Especially in these toddler years. They need that extra helping hand to get the momentum going and get from point A to point B.
So that’s why he’s challenging her. Not because he wants to be a teenager or even that he doesn’t want to go to school. I think he does, but this is so hard to get from point A to point B. It’s really hard to get going.
One of the things she says here is that she gives him 20 minutes of tablet time… and this is just a small thing, but it stuck out for me because it is a little bit harder for children when what they’re doing is so engaging, like any kind of tech use or screen time. They get pulled in more deeply and it’s harder to stop than playing with toys would be. So it’s just something to look at that she may want to change. She says, while she’s showering and getting dressed, he has the tablet time, and then he plays for another 20 minutes. So at least he’s playing without the tablet after that. So that’s good. Anyway, just for us to understand that that’s something more challenging for him to come out of than just playing with toys. Just for our own information.
Then she says she gives him the notice “train is leaving for school in 10 minutes” and he’ll negotiate.
So if we know that this is a challenging situation, that children need a lot of help with,… the momentum, what I call the confident momentum, they need that from us to get them through the transition, then we won’t open up space for negotiation. Because negotiation is us giving up our leadership to the child.
Now sometimes there’s room for that and maybe there’s room for that even in this if they did it the night before saying, “Let’s work out a plan for tomorrow. We have to get out the door, this is what I’ve got to help you do. What would make it better for you? What would make it easier for you?” That’s the time to negotiate, but not in the moment in the middle of a transition. It will put the brakes on everything because our child is telling us, or showing us, through their behavior in this case pretty clearly, that he can’t handle it. So he can’t be in charge of this.
And then she asks him if he wants to walk to the changing table or be carried. So that’s a great thing to offer him, but maybe not in a transition like this when he’s showing that it’s a struggle. This parent is realizing that because of her own frustration and exhaustion at the end.
And if she’s human, which I imagine she is, she’s not really liking him very much at the end of that. We don’t want to put ourselves in that position if possible, and the way to do that is to see transitions for what they are: big challenges. And to not be afraid on her end to be the bad guy who’s not going to negotiate. We do that with love and a smile, and we’re not angry, but we’re not going to let him negotiate.
Maybe ask him if he wants to climb in the car. But if we see the slightest pause, we’re already ready to be on that, to just give him a little helping hand. “You know what? I’m going to do it this time.” And then maybe we don’t give him the choice sometimes because he really doesn’t need it there when you are in a hurry, trying to get him out the door to a separation situation that he’s showing he’s kind of sensitive to, as a lot of children are.
So if he tries to negotiate saying, “Mama say Alexa four more minutes,” I would say, “Aha, that’s an interesting idea, but no, we’re not going to do that this time. We’ve got to go.”
I’m not getting mad at him for saying that. I’m allowing him to try to negotiate, but I’m not going to come to the table with him, because I understand that he can’t handle that.
Then she says when she asks about the changing table, he runs and hides. So we don’t want to give opportunity for that. If that’s his M.O. or a possibility, don’t give him that option and allow him to be in charge of that. Have your hand behind his back, say, “Okay, now we’re going to change your diaper.” Very confidently. “Here we go.”
And then he tries to run and we already have our hands around him, on his arms, on his shoulders and we’re not going to let him run. “You want to run? Nope. I’ve got to hold onto you.” Not letting him follow his impulse there.
Then she says he finally gets him dressed and she’s asking if he wants to climb in the car or does he want her to help him in. And he runs into the garage and hides again.
Don’t signal that you’re giving him a choice. Don’t offer him a choice, open the door, say, “Okay, now it’s time. We’re going in.”
Parents sometimes say to me, “Well, I can’t do this. My child’s too strong. Or my child’s too…” It’s not about that we have to use brute force. It’s about our confidence going in knowing that we’re being heroic here helping him do this and saying no to his request for choices or more time and all of that stuff. It’s not as loving to just let him anger us, and frustrate us, and do all these pauses that he really doesn’t want to do either. He’s getting stuck there and we want to help him get unstuck.
We want to help her avoid getting frustrated with him because that doesn’t feel good to her or to him.
So all of these machinations with the diaper changing, and the four more minutes and the I can’t get in the car, I’m going to run around the garage. All of that is like he’s waving a flag saying: I need help. I need leadership here. I can’t do this.
If she could see it that way, that will help her to be the hero.
Then she says before they leave the house, the hugs and kisses, and wow, I could feel how it would be so hard for her to say no to the hugs and kisses. But if she takes a little step back out of that fear that he’s going to feel somehow that she would reject him, or doesn’t love him or want to be affectionate with him. If she could take a step back, she could see that this is quite unreasonable what he’s asking of her.
He’s saying: I don’t want it. I don’t want it. I’m going to fight you. But now when you carry on, now I want it. And then I don’t.
And this is really torture for both of them. It’s not helpful for her to keep that going. It would be more helpful for him and her to say, “Okay, now’s the time for the hugs and kisses.” And he says, “No,” and say, “Okay, my love, I can’t wait to give them to you when I pick you up.” Then let him be angry about that. Let him vent these feelings that are maybe below the surface here with the separation and just the challenge, the emotional challenge of a transition.
I really hear her that she’s so afraid of giving him those feelings, but I can promise her he will feel relieved that he can vent and that his mother adores him and is being the leader that he needs right here.
Then when she drops him off, I think she’ll be there on time and she will not be exhausted and in a terrible mood. If she can image this as what it is: somebody that needs help, her coming in as the hero, so many little pitfalls he’s opening up for her to fall into and she’s not going to, she’s going to keep moving ahead with confidence.
This idea about the separation is another place that sounds like it’s making it so much harder for her be this confident leader, because it’s like there’s a little uh-oh in her head saying: Oh gosh, he doesn’t feel secure about separation. He’s not sure I’m coming back.
And I don’t believe that’s what’s going on here at all.
It sounds like he is sensitive to separation and that is common with children that are adopted. Even if they’re adopted at birth, they have experienced a separation. What helps them to heal it is not for us to tippy-toe around separations or avoid them or feel sorry for our child whenever we have to have one with him. But it’s actually to face the separations with confidence in yourself, confidence in him, and holding that space for him to share the feelings, whatever they are. And children, as I’ve said many times in this podcast are very, very adept at this. They do it naturally. It will come up in every situation where there’s separation. There’ll be a little more healing.
He’s also had this separation with his nanny. That was a huge realization this parent had as she’s writing the note. Yes, the loss of that nanny, that’s a big deal. This is somebody with whom he’s been intimately connected. So yes, separation, but how does he heal this and feel better? By experiencing it and feeling the feelings around it, which may be her saying no to his request for hugs and kisses after he’s pushed her away all those times. That is his moment that he’s sort of arranged for, unconsciously, where he gets to feel that, and that’s how he’ll get better.
And the fact that he’s playing it out with his toy, that’s what children do as well. And it’s so beautiful when we can see it that clearly. They use play for therapy in a lot of situations, but it’s not often this clear. He’s playing with his monkey the separation and that he will come back. And he’s saying it to his mother. “You came back, you came back.” So it’s not from insecurity that that is coming from. It’s self-therapy.
Then she talks about potty learning. So this is an area we cannot control how he’s moving his bowels or urinating. We can’t control that in any way and we can’t lead that. That’s a place that children need to lead. But children still need boundaries, even in these areas that they need to lead. And the boundary he needs is for his mother to see him, see where he is right now and not give him that option of underwear, because she’s the adult able to see that he’s not ready for that right now. Too many transitions happening. He’s processing a lot of stuff. He can’t do this right now. He will soon, but I wouldn’t make that another area of frustration for both of you, because that will only make it harder for him and for her.
So “he won’t even try anymore.” Right. Just trust that. You could still ask him sometimes if he wants to go and then if he says no, let it go. Accept his answer, let it be. This will pass. He’s in a bit of a grieving mode here with the nanny, maybe, and the other changes: going back to school full time. As this parent notices, he’s thriving in school, but he’s got a lot of feelings about it. And that’s okay. It’s healthy that he’s sharing them and sharing them with his mother who he totally trusts and is obviously very bonded with.
And actually, toilet training is sort of about separation as well. Someone pointed out to me after my podcast, well actually somebody was writing… They thought they were writing to their friend, I guess, because there was a name on there that they were writing to, but they actually wrote it back to me about my toilet learning post that I did last time with the podcast. She kind of criticized me that I was a bit wishy-washy, and I was, in terms of describing the three aspects of development that need to be in place for children to achieve toilet learning. She said it better. So I really appreciated her feedback and I’m going to share it here.
She said, “One, knowing physically the flow of the bladder. Two, emotional, knowing that she is going to feel separation from her insides go down the toilet! And then, three, cognitive understanding of how they are all interwoven.”
So she said it better, those three aspects of development that are needed. But interestingly, the emotional part is separation. So again, this separation theme… he’s really working on this it sounds like, and that’s just so healthy. And all these pieces will fall into place when he’s allowed to process the feelings.
I love what this mom shared about meeting her adopted son’s birth father, and I just want to help her see the part about him constantly fighting authority. She even says it was because he was strictly disciplined and never challenged mentally. So these issues were the result of his upbringing, not the innate traits that he has. So I don’t think she needs to worry the slightest bit that her son will have that and that somehow she has to compensate to help him to succeed and reach his potential, as she says.
I believe that she can trust that he’s got all he needs in her: a nurturing relationship, and that she can trust him to let her know what he wants to work on in terms of books, drawing, and eventually writing letters or reading that he can lead those aspects. And she really can trust that he, like all children, knows what he’s doing better than anybody in terms of his learning and that the best we can do is believe in him, enrich him in the ways that he requests, not push him into things that maybe we think he should be doing or want him to be doing. Really following him there with all the trust in the world that he’s got everything he needs with his relationship with his mother.
Then her last question is: “I don’t know what else to do to reassure him and make things a little less challenging. Help.”
I hope some of these ideas that I’ve shared will reassure her that he doesn’t need reassuring. He just needs her honesty, her leadership when he can’t be the one to do it in these transitions, and her love, which sounds like she has in abundance for him. And when she takes on the leadership role, it will be a lot less challenging. I want her to believe in herself and allow him to share and experience the feelings that he needs to feel.
I really hope some of this helps and thank you again to this parent for trusting me and sending me her note, her novel. And please check some of my other podcasts on my website janetlansbury.com. There are 200-and-something of them at this point and they’re all indexed by subject and category so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. And I have two books, they’re available 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.