Janet helps a struggling parent understand her spirited toddler’s aggressive behavior and offers suggestions to respond more effectively.
Transcript of “Hitting, Screaming, Calling Us Names (and What We Can do About it)”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. In this episode, I’m going to be responding to a question I received via email, about a spirited child who is hitting, screaming, calling her parent names, and other behavior that seems out of control. Obviously not at her best. And I’m going to be talking about how this parent can help calm her child’s behavior.
Here’s the note I received:
Hi Janet. I’ve read your book and I follow you on Facebook. I’m so impressed by this style of parenting, and would really love to be able to apply it in my own home. A little background, I have two daughters, Bella, who is three, and Sarah, who is one. Bella has always been our emotional child who can go from hot to cold in two seconds. When she’s happy, she’s the sweetest funniest little spirit, but when she gets upset or triggered by something it’s immediate, no, and screaming, and we struggle to get it to stop. Our recent struggle is hitting, screaming, and saying “Stupid.” And, “Shut up, Mom.”
Before I really started to try to follow your guidelines, we tried time-out spanking, ignoring, taking things away, et cetera, but obviously, they don’t seem to work. And they seemed to just escalate the tantrum and issue. A lot of the time, these tantrums will start when she thinks she’s in trouble for something. For instance, if she’s playing too rough with Sarah, I will tell her “be soft, don’t push.” They’ll wrestle and it sometimes leads to hitting and pushing. She then responds “no” and will hit again. So I’ll grab her arms and tell her “I won’t let you hit, hitting hurts,” and she’ll then proceed to spit hit, say “stupid” and “shut up, Mom.” I then usually say, “You’re still hitting, your blanket is taken away for five minutes now.” But she continues to scream and name-call. This is when I really start to struggle. I feel like we’re going down a road leading nowhere and I’m just not sure what to do in these instances, which are starting to feel more frequent.
When she continues to scream relentlessly. I tell her if she wants to continue to cry, that’s fine, but she’ll need to do it in her room. She’ll then scream in her room. And once she starts to show signs of settling, I go up and hold and talk with her. But when it still doesn’t resolve, that’s when I lose patience and start yelling, which never helps, but I can only be patient for so long.
There are also issues with her wanting me to do things for her, but it’s more in a sense of, she wants to be in control. We’ll be trying to leave somewhere and I’ll ask her with my arms full, “Please grab your coat so we can leave.” And she’ll then proceed to cry and say, “No, you grab it, mom.” And falls to the floor. I’ll explain I have my hands full and need her help grabbing her coat. She’ll continue to cry on the floor until I eventually grab it myself and help her up.
I know a lot of this is me having to learn how to deal with her emotional little spirit.
I feel I always have good intentions and can stay firm for the first little bit, but when she doesn’t let up on her screaming or hitting her name calling, I don’t know where to go or what the next move is. I would really appreciate your help on what I can do myself to handle her better and make her feel more comfortable. Thanks.
Okay. So first of all, I just want to say that at least 85% of the families that request consultations with me have a similar issue to this one. They have a toddler or they have a four-year-old, or maybe even a six-year-old or older, and then they have a baby or a toddler who is one. This is a very difficult time for an older child. And I remember this myself with my own children. She’s lost her world as she knew it. And what oftentimes happens is children in this situation — because of their behavior that comes out of that discomfort they’re feeling, they start to feel more and more estranged from their parents.
That’s exactly what we want to try not to let happen because it is such an extremely uncomfortable place for children to be. It’s like we’re adding discomfort and fear on top of the discomfort and fear that was already there, causing them to act in the ways that they’re acting.
So the overall goal in these situations is to provide safety for our child in our relationship. And in that specific situation with her own feelings, the feelings that are creating this behavior, what it sounds like here is that this parent has a particularly emotional, spirited child. And therefore this child is sensitive and feels things, perhaps even more deeply and intensely than a less spirited child. So these feelings that she has around this change in her life, accepting a new sibling, at age one, the new sibling is becoming more of a person in that older child’s eyes, then on top of that. Not to judge this parent for doing this at all, but some of the ways that she’s been handling it have created more of a feeling of distance for her child.
Sending a child to time out, spanking, ignoring them, being scolded, taking things away as a punishment from a child’s perspective, that feels like rejection, messages that you don’t have my love and affection anymore when you act like that. Those things don’t help because the root of these behaviors is impulsive. It’s emotionally driven behavior that children don’t control at this age. They don’t know why they’re doing it. They know they shouldn’t be doing it, but they really don’t know why they keep doing it.
So when we blame them for this behavior and get angry with them and tell them that they’re wrong to do this, all that does is make them feel more estranged from us and more uncomfortable in themselves. Because it feels like as a child, I’m doing all these things and I don’t know why I’m doing them, and they’re really bad, I know. And I must therefore be a very bad person and I’m really scared and even more freaked out. And then that’s going to make me behave worse.
This is why it doesn’t help, and why we want to try to get off this track as soon as possible. Not that there’s anything wrong with us, or we’re bad people for getting angry and getting triggered by these things and resorting to the things we resort to. Those are all normal reactions. But because those reactions are actually creating more problems for us instead of helping us to stop these behaviors.
So even just for very practical reasons, it’s helpful to approach this differently, which means perceiving it differently because we can’t approach it differently unless we perceive it differently. And the way that I recommend perceiving this is that we have a very impulsive child who is really out of herself at this time and going through a difficult patch here. Rather than a girl who’s doing really bad, horrible things, Seeing it that way can help us to be able to come into this situation with this sense of uh-oh, my child needs my help. I can be this helpful caretaker when my child’s behavior is going off. We might even say some of the same things, but it will look and feel entirely different to us. And that’s what matters to our child, how we feel and how we are coming in, our attitude about them and their behavior at these times, the tone that we have, that’s what will make a difference.
One of the things that it’s felt like for me, and for many that I’ve worked with, it feels like we’re trying to rise very tall in ourselves, above this behavior, rather than getting caught up in it or taking it personally and worrying about it. Because maybe we feel there’s something wrong with our child or us that this is happening. It’s true it doesn’t look great, this behavior, but it’s still within the range of normal behavior for a child this age, in this situation.
As I said, most of the parents that want to work with me are having issues with this adjustment that an older sibling has to make. Their child may have had wonderful behavior when they only had that one, but now they have a second or third or fourth, and they just don’t know what’s happened to their child.
If we can come in as this bigger person, when we see hitting, instead of saying what this parent says that she said, which is “be soft, don’t push.” That’s an okay reminder, but it’s not really seeing that our child already knows those things: that they should be soft and they shouldn’t push. What they don’t maybe know enough and need to know more about is that we’re going to help her stop whenever she loses control like that. If we can be there. And we’re going to try to notice when she’s in that state and what that state is, which is I’m unhappy right now with you, mom, I’m hurting. I need to share this with you. I need to express this.
And this is, by the way, one of the reasons that separating the child or sending them off is okay as a last resort, maybe, but it’s really not going to help our child in that moment with what they need, which is to tell us that they’re upset and have us notice and be there to help.
So let’s just take the hitting first. Maybe we would say, “Whoa, you feel like hitting your sister. I see you’re showing me you’re not safe with your sister right now. You feel like hitting.” And meanwhile, you can’t see me, but my hand is there, making sure I’m stopping her as I’m saying this. I’m seeing that she may not be able to stop herself because she’s doing behavior she knows she shouldn’t do and needs my help holding a boundary there. My hand is there in between the children, but I’m doing the most minimal thing I need to do there. I’m showing her I’m here to stop you. I’m here to help you. If her hands and her fists are still coming out at her sister, I might need to hold her wrist and say, “Yeah, I see you want to do this. You feel like hitting. I’m going to stop you.”
Generally, we want to do less talking though. I’m kind of talking to explain what I’m doing in the moment and my attitude towards her behavior, but generally less talking and directing. Much more being there for her, doing the minimum of what it takes to effectively help her not cross lines with her behavior because her behavior is showing she’s not in a state to take direction.
So we might even gently block the wrestling as that can be a lot for a one-year-old to engage in. “That’s a little too rough. I’m going to stop you there. Maybe there’s another way you can play.” And my hand is there stopping her. I’m not being judgemental, not blaming her. I’m gauging her comfort level by tuning into mine. And I see this could go too far. So I’m going to stop it early and gently at the outset, and then be there to keep blocking as long as she needs me to.
We might even say, “I’m not comfortable with this. So I’m going to stop you there. Or I’m not sure I’m comfortable.” Confidently, non-judgemental.
I realize that may sound very time-consuming. But actually, if we can give these messages a few times, we’ll end up doing so much less because this is going to be really, truly filling the need that our child has in those moments, which is notice me, let me know if it’s actually okay with you that I feel like hitting, and that you are going to stop me from doing it because I know it’s not safe and you’re there to keep me safe. Please don’t blame me, that doesn’t keep me safe. Just help me, help me stop. Stay on my side. I need you.
So now let’s take the screaming. Screaming is actually a very effective way that feelings are released. It’s actually one of the healthier ways they’re released. Hitting isn’t one of the ways that we want them to release feelings but screaming, ideally, our attitude about that is let it out, let it out.
Yeah, she feels scared. She feels scared that she’s so unacceptable, that her behavior’s been so unacceptable and she knows it. She feels judged and she fears that she’s lost her place in her parents’ hearts. So I would see this as rage and terror and I would work on really encouraging her to let this out of her body. If she can share her feelings, she won’t need to share them through unsafe behavior. So I know this is challenging, but I would try to say yes to screaming. It’s really hard to hear, yes, but for children this age, it is the way they release emotions. And really it’s not hurting anybody. I mean, if she’s screaming in our ear, in our face, definitely get a little distance, put your hand over your ear, move away a bit and say, “Whoa, I hear you feel really strongly about this.” If she could even hear that, if not, and they’re likely not if they’re screaming, I would just nod my head a little bit, accepting, letting the feelings be, letting the storm pass.
Saying stupid and shut up, mom… This is where rising above, that image of us rising really tall, will really, really help. It will help us to realize that comparatively, she’s this tiny person at our knees, just waving her arms, wanting to hit and call us stupid and say, shut up to us. Words like those are actually a very common way that four-year-olds express feelings. Maybe they say, “I hate you. You’re this you’re that you’re stupid.” All things that they don’t mean, but ways to get our attention. And it’s like another form of screaming. See me, everything’s not great in my world right now, I’m struggling.
So if we can rise above this and see how small and unthreatening this behavior is and how much more powerful and in control we are, then we can say, “Whoa, you’re really not happy about that I said this or that or that I separated you from your sister.” Whatever it is. Only what we saw, only what we know. That’s all we have to reflect on. And that makes it simple. It means we don’t have to try to empathize because where the empathy comes into this picture is in our overall sense of understanding where a child is in this stage of life, how challenging it is, and how they process their feelings and what their behavior really means.
So it’s like an overall feeling of empathy. We’re obviously not going to be able to empathize when she’s hitting or when she’s calling us stupid. We’re not going to empathize in those moments. So take that pressure off of yourself and just acknowledge. That was Magda Gerber, my mentor’s wonderful word that she used. It’s so helpful because it’s not trying to jump in any emotional way.
We want this to be genuine. It can’t really be, “you want to hit,” without that genuine feeling of acceptance in our acknowledgment. And then it can just be, “Wow, yeah, it seems you’re mad. You’re telling me to shut up. You’ve got really strong feelings about that.”
Now, if she were to say, “Shut up, mom, and go get me some milk.” Then I would say, “That doesn’t make me feel like getting you milk. Can you ask in a different way?” So I wouldn’t try to jump to get her things when she speaks to me that way, that’s where boundaries are. But even there again, I would try to understand that my child’s feelings have put her in an out-of-control state.
This feeling of rising above can be so empowering for us and feel so good. I’ve shared how I recently felt this kind of empowerment when I was parking at the RIE Center where I was teaching once a week and it was trash day on this residential street. All these trash containers are outside in the street and there was some right in the middle of the area I wanted to park in, but all I had to do was move them over about five inches and I’d have plenty of room to park on that street. So that’s what I did.
Well, this elderly man comes storming out of the house. He’s obviously seen me do this through his window. And he started flipping out on me saying, “you touched my trash cans, you move my trash cans!” And he was very upset about it. And for some reason, and I’m not always going to be able to do this by any means, especially with adults, but for some reason that day I was able to just acknowledge. “That didn’t feel good to you that I touched your garbage. I understand. I’m really sorry I did that.”
I didn’t get defensive. I didn’t try to argue my case. I didn’t try to fix it by moving my car out of the way. I really just heard him. And by the end of this rant and the screaming, he ended up asking me where I work. And he knew somebody that worked in that building and he said, “Oh, please say hi to so and so for me.” And that was all in a matter of a minute and a half. And I felt so good and proud of myself walking away from that. It didn’t hurt me to rise above it. It felt wonderful. And it reminded me of the many, many times this has happened with my children over the years.
So I wouldn’t go to where this parent says she tried, “you’re still hitting, your blanket is taken away from five minutes now” because that’s kind of getting involved in it on a petty level. It’s coming down there and saying, “All right, you did this. I don’t like that. So now I’m going to do this.” And it’s not going to help her child feel more comfortable.
I love that this parent says that’s what she wants: to help her child feel comfortable. Because that’s the key to everything. She says it at the end. “I would really appreciate your help. What can I do myself to handle her better and make her feel more comfortable?”
That’s it. Making her feel more comfortable is what will help her stop doing these things. They’re just coming up for her when she’s tired. Maybe when she’s a little hungry, overexcited, and unsettled, or maybe when her sister does something amazingly adorable. But generally, she will calm way, way down because she feels more comfortable because she doesn’t feel like a bad girl or a problem child in the house.
Children that are intense like this, they do scream more. They do have larger-looking meltdowns. That’s par for the course. So I would try to accept that and kind of recenter yourself, bracing yourself for these storms. They are going to come at you. That’s the way it’s going to be. And she will learn to control herself if she feels like she has our support. And if we can model not yelling.
Once in a while, we’re going to yell, for sure. But the more times there are that we don’t yell and that we give her a safer response, that will help.
Then this parent asks about issues with: “wanting me to do things for her, but it’s more in a sense she wants to be in control. We’ll be trying to leave somewhere and I’ll ask her with my arms full, please grab your coat so we can leave. And she’ll then proceed to cry and say, no, you grab it, mom, and fall to the floor. I’ll explain I have my hands full and need her to help grab her coat.”
So at that point, when you see that reaction, I wouldn’t try to keep explaining and talking her into it. I would hear her side of it, which is “you don’t want to grab your coat. You don’t want to go right now. You don’t want to do this.”
Sometimes it just takes that moment for her to know that we hear her expressing her dissatisfaction to us in the guise of a coat. It could be anything. And we don’t know exactly why she’s choosing that specific at that moment, but maybe it’s a transition. We’re getting ready to leave. And all transitions tend to be sensitive times for children, especially for emotional, spirited children. So I’d be ready for those things, if possible.
In fact, I would consider not even setting her up by saying, “Please grab your coat.” Because when we put children on the spot like that when they’re in this kind of state where they want to say no to us, and “you’re stupid” and they want to tell us that they’re not feeling good and they’re hurting, I don’t like what you did having this other child, or whatever it is when they’re in these states, it can be kind of a setup for us to say, “Oh, please do this for me right now.” We can be pretty sure that they’re going to want to do the opposite of that. So I wouldn’t even set myself up that way. I would say, “Oh, can you get that for me please so we can go?” Just something very light, undemanding, and understanding of where she’s at.
So then let’s say she still proceeds to cry, “you grab it, Mom!” Then I would say, “You really want me to be the one to get that.”
Let’s say she falls to the floor. I just wouldn’t get into a power struggle over that. I wouldn’t explain that you have your hands full and you need her help because that’s kind of setting up for a standoff by continuing to plead our case. So I’d let that go. I would just know she couldn’t do it that time and know that the way you’re going to be handling this will help her to do it the next time. That’s what we want to keep our eye on, that relationship of safety, comfort, and acceptance. Because that is the preventative measure that we can take.
So overall, this parent’s intention is totally right on. It sounds like she just maybe needed some help with the details of how to get there.
I really hope this helps. We can do this.
Please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, Janetlansbury.com. There are many of them and they’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. And both of my books are available in paperback at Amazon, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can get them in ebook at Amazon, Apple, Google Play or barnesandnoble.com. And 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.
I just need to say, Janet, I think you are incredible. Your insight, understanding and expertise is so unbelievably helpful. I especially love the part in this where you you say drop the pressure of having empathy in the moment. That was a light bulb moment for me. I often find that I’m trying to understand the behaviour/empathise with the behaviour as it’s happening and it just makes it really difficult to deal with the situation. Usially from there it just escalates because of my (dysregulated) reaction and then shame comes flooding in. Instead I will deal with it at face value in the ways you’ve suggested then when I’ve got a chance reflect on it. So helpful!
Thank you for all your kind support! I’m thrilled to hear that letting go of trying to empathize was helpful to you. It really is not feasible and it’s too much to expect of ourselves a lot of the time. You’ve got this! Thank you again x
Thanks so much for this. I never considered our child to be particularly emotional or spirited. She was so “easy” the first 3.5 years of life. At 3.5 though she just became more…challenging! She just turned 4 and we’re finding ourselves needing so many new tools these last few months – it’s like we’ve been taken by surprise!
Anyway, her father and I have also been going through a lot of hitting (us and the dog), screaming, and calling us “stupid”. I came online to see what you would have to say and read the above transcript realizing I also listened to this episode a couple of months ago.
My main question is not really a question, but more of a comment. So many of your podcasts mention that the addition of a new family member or major transition in a young child’s life can unleash challenging behaviors. However, in our case, everything continues to be status quo. We haven’t moved, my partner (her father) and I have a strong relationship, we don’t have another child on the way, etc. Yet, we still face these challenges. I suppose I am hoping for some reassurance that we are not raising a brat (hah) given that we don’t fit into any of the situations you so commonly mention. And perhaps, a friendly reminder as you formulate your responses to your writers, that not all families listening/reading are necessarily going through the common transitions you mention when experiencing challenging behaviors. 🙂
Also, Going back specifically to your response above, I am uncertain how you would see the jacket situation through. You say that you would let that one go – in terms of the writer battling her daughter to pick up her jacket – what does that mean you would encourage the mother to pick up the jacket for the child? Or decide the child just simply doesn’t need a jacket that day? The same situation happens with us in a variety of circumstances, and I’ve never exactly sure how to see it through.
Thanks very much for sharing your experience and counsel, as always.
Thanks, Rachel. A lot of questions come to mind for me in trying to figure out your situation, mainly: How do you respond to her behaviors and how have boundaries gone for you generally? It’s true that transitions, changes of any kind (many of which in the early years are internal as children develop so rapidly!), create stress and sensitivity to dysregulation. The changes can even be very positive ones. But it can be other kinds of stressors as well. Behavior doesn’t come out of the blue. and the discomfort she’s feeling could also be in your responses… and it could be as minor as her feeling something like, “My parents don’t quite have a handle on this behavior, they seem puzzled by it, so I have the impulse to do it again to try to get a more confident response.” This is why our confidence and unfuffledness can be important. Regarding the jacket, my suggestion is not getting into a power struggle there (or anywhere, actually) which is part of projecting confidence as leaders. So, instead of making an issue out of that, I’d pick it up myself or leave it.
Hello Janet – i listen to your podcasts and have read No Bad Kids. I’m confident in what to do when my 4yo tries to hit or pull or be rough with other kids (be swift in getting in there to hold her arm and tell her i cant let her do that and even end play dates early as she’s struggling) . But i haven’t read much on helping my 4yo to be less rough with ME. She is often very physical with me, even when she hugs me out of love if she hasnt seen me for a little while. She might stand over me and jump on me or shove my head down or squeeze my head etc. When helping her get dressed she will pull on my head even though i tell her “no i dont like that, it hurts me”. In bed at night when we are cuddling, she is often too rough and squeezy and i find it very difficult to give her what she needs before bed as i feel physically hurt. At other times she will pull on my clothing and when i ask her not to do that and hold her arms she will continue. If i physically walk away she might follow me hanging onto my top. Yesterday she was doing this when i needed to go to the toilet – while i was sitting there she was still pulling at me and i had to try wee and push her off me. The only time she is calm and tender with physical touch is if we are sitting on the couch watching tv together – she cuddles in and lets me kiss her. Its really affecting how i am with her and im starting to resent my time with her. For context I’ve been separated from her dad for 2 years, I know this affects her however she has 2 stable homes and we coparent well. She doesn’t do this with her dad or her grandparents. No complaints at daycare etc. No other siblings.
I havent seen this covered – have i missed something?
Hi Mieken. Sounds like she needs a lot more physical help from you. I would NOT let her do anything physically bothersome to you, even something only slightly annoying. Stick up for yourself! Not just with words but by blocking her, removing her hands from you immediately, etc. She may be strong but she is only 4 years old and you can certainly keep her at bay. If she can’t behave while you are in the bathroom, get a lock for the door. You deserve your personal boundaries and to be treated gently. You are the #1 model for her of how to respect others. So this is crucial, not only for you but for her as well. You’ve got this!