How to Avoid a Stand-Off When Kids “Disobey”

Janet responds to a parent who wonders how to react to her daughter’s consistently stubborn behavior. “I feel like I have a set of tools to handle my 4-year-old daughter’s outbursts of emotions, but I am at a loss for what to do when she stoically disobeys or ignores me altogether.”

Transcript of How to Avoid a Stand-Off When Kids “Disobey”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury welcome to Unruffled. This week I’m going to be answering a question I received via email. The subject line is “stoic disobedience.” Here’s what this parent writes:

Janet, I feel like I have a set of tools with which to handle my four-year-old daughter’s outbursts of emotions, but I’m at a loss for what to do when she stoically disobeys or ignores me altogether. For example, the other day we were at the store and she picked up a bracelet off of the shelf and asked to have it. I explained calmly and confidently that we were not going to buy it and asked her to put it back. She simply refused. She did not throw a tantrum. She just continued to hold the bracelet and say, no, I wracked my brain for how to get her to put it back. It seemed that anything I said was being met with a simple, no, and I knew that trying to take it out of her hands would reinforce both of our feelings of anger.

We stood there for several minutes. I summoned all of my patience and hoped that she would magically decide to put it back if I just calmly and confidently waited. But after an employee asked if we needed help, I realized that we could not stand off in this store aisle all day. So I used a method that I almost always end up using and which works maybe 75% of the time. “I need you to put the bracelet back on the count of three, or I will put it back for you.”

And after counting, I tried to take it from her, but she only clung to it harder, which meant I felt even angrier. And now I was worried about hurting her fingers or damaging the bracelet, but I was out of ideas. So I pulled it from her hands and put it on the shelf.

I felt awful and embarrassed because I played tug of war with a small child and won.

It was almost a relief when she started to cry because I know how to accept her feelings and sportscast them to her. And I could do it while walking out of the store. I really dislike physically engaging with my daughter when either of us is angry or annoyed because I know that taking something out of her hands or picking her up against her will is going to reinforce both of our feelings of anger and probably cause her to get physical in response. Many times it ends with one of us getting hurt. Plus I don’t want to teach her that I get my way because I’m bigger and stronger than her.

Another time after I tucked her into bed, I went to use the bathroom. She immediately came out of her room and told my husband that she wanted to show me something. He did his best to respect my privacy and take her back to bed, but she refused to go and just started walking toward the bathroom.

He also did not want to physically restrain her, knowing that it would end in a loud fight while her brother was sleeping. So he came in to get me but was very angry that he was unable to come up with some way to get her to obey.

What can I do when all of the words fail and she just refuses?

Okay. So first of all, a four-year-old or a two-year-old or three-year-old, or even a one-and-a-half-year-old, even a six-year-old deciding to do the opposite of what I ask would be something that I would try to expect. Particularly during phases, when my child was going through some kind of transition or other stressful situation, it’s really par for the course for children to express their everything’s-not-so-perfect-with-me, feelings to the people closest to them, their parents. And that’s often the way they do it.

In this case, this parent indicates that there is a younger sibling, and as I’ve often discussed in these podcasts, the feelings of fear, jealousy, and hurt that children might have in regard to their parents’ relationship with a younger sibling are one of the very common reasons that children push these kinds of limits. Transitioning to a new school or new class, moving houses, and stress the parents might be experiencing that children will tend to absorb are all other reasons. Then the more immediate stressors and dysregulators like tiredness, and hunger, cause children to get kind of stuck in a seemingly defiant stance.

So I would consider framing stoic disobedience as “stuck in ‘disobedience’ or “stuck in not listening” or whatever terms the parent uses. It’s stuck behavior that children can need help moving through, but what they really want to do is express a feeling to us.

Usually, they want to express something that they don’t even understand, but it’s something. Because she knows that holding onto the bracelet is not okay behavior. She doesn’t know herself why she’s doing it.

So I wouldn’t be caught surprised when I ask my child to do something and she says, no. I would even try to see that as healthy behavior for a four-year-old. Four, especially, it’s this kind of pushing-out year. It’s similar to a classic two-year-old and to teenagers actually.

What I mean by pushing out is that it’s when children are becoming more independent, they’re individuating and they’re needing to branch out and assert themselves as different and separate from us. And that often means disobedience or a kind of obstinance. “If you want me to do this, no, I’m gonna do that.” It’s very, very common for this to happen. So I would try to expect this at all times with children, especially toddlers, four-year-olds, and teenagers, I would expect them to want to do the opposite of what I ask. And I would try to not see that as a bad child or a troubling sign of any kind.

Next, I would be prepared that I very well may have to help my child by doing something physical with her, to help her follow through with what I want her to do. And I would be prepared to do that immediately.

So when I saw her holding up that bracelet, which I imagine she already knew I’d say no to, I would in my mind think, okay, well maybe I need to help her put this back. There’s a very good chance she will get stuck and not be able to do it on her own.

This parent says that she asked her to put it back calmly and confidently. What I’m not sure about is if there was also… It almost sounds like… I’m wondering if she could have been already a little annoyed that her daughter even asked to buy the bracelet when they weren’t there to get her a gift. Obviously, I don’t know, but I kind of got that impression from reading this, that maybe she said, the parent said, “You’re not going to have that.”  Instead of something a little more open sounding like, “oh, that’s so cool. I wish I could get that for you, but I can’t, I can’t do that today. So can you please put it back?” I think if she asked that way that maybe her child would’ve felt like she was a little more on her side in this, instead of already feeling kind of at odds with her, for even doing such a thing. But again, this is only conjecture, obviously.

Ideally, we wanna try to approach these situations with openness, not: ah, there she goes again, where we’re already in a kind of standoff. So instead, giving her the benefit of the doubt of seeing this as maybe she did really see the bracelet and thought I’d really love to have this.

And speaking to her from that perspective, children definitely feel the difference as we all would.

If we fall into an attitude that sort of pitting ourselves against our children, it’s easy to do then they’re probably going to keep pushing back on us and getting stuck in that standoff. So calm and confident, that’s great, but I’d also try to be a little empathetic. “I wish I could get that for you, but I can’t.” And then I would, as I said, I’d be ready to help her put it back. So I’d probably be starting to walk towards her as I’m looking at the bracelet and talking to her about how I wish I could get her for her, but I can’t. And could she please put it back so that we could move on?

So then she says, no. Now at this point, I would acknowledge: “You really don’t want to. It’s hard when you want something and I have to say no, but we have to do this.”

And then right away, boom, help her get unstuck by taking it out of her hand and putting it back. And if she makes a move to grab it again, kindly block her. Because with her best intentions, what this parent did was allow room for that standoff to happen.

She says, “I knew that trying to take it out of her hands would reinforce both of our feelings of anger.” This sounds like the mother was maybe thinking there she goes again. And she was already angry or at least annoyed from the outset. Perhaps she was anticipating a battle. I’m only guessing here. And maybe that’s why drumming up some empathy and politeness was really hard at that moment. That would make sense if what this mom refers to as stoic disobedience is maybe a kind of pattern with the child lately.

If that’s the case that this has become a dynamic between them of late, then the child may be playing into that a bit to sort of test her parents’ reaction. And behind those kinds of dynamics are often feelings that a child wants to share, feelings that everything isn’t so perfect in my life right now.

I have the sense that she maybe knew when she asked about the bracelet that you were going to say no, but she still had the impulse to do it. So impulsive means that they know they’re doing something that we don’t want them to do, but they don’t exactly know why or what they’re feeling that’s causing them to do this. They sense this winds their parent up, and maybe on some level, they’re hoping for a more connected response or they want to release feelings with the parent in some way, which it sounds like she did when she started to get upset.

This parent waited because she didn’t want to physically intervene and get even angrier. That’s a great instinct not to want to be physical with her child when she’s angry because that does scare children. And it often can lead to more emotionally-fueled behavior. But when we intervene physically early on, right at the outset, particularly if these standoffs have been a pattern that our child is getting stuck, we can intervene like this helpful Mama or Papa bear, helping her to get unstuck, helping her out of a mode that is going to anger or annoy us.

We want to do this way before we feel even the slightest bit annoyed, much less angry.  Mama or Papa bear, we’re coming in to help you do the things you’re having a hard time doing these parent bears were very protective of you. We’re protective of our relationship and we don’t want to let things get out of hand or to where we’re mad at you. We don’t want to put that in our relationship.

So going back to the details here, that’s what I would’ve done. I would’ve just helped her by taking the bracelet out of her hand, or I would ask, “Can you give that to me? I know it’s hard. You wanted that. It’s very cool.” Then giving that a moment, but not expecting her to be able to do it. And then, “I’m going to put it back.”

Then this parent says, “I summoned all my patience and hope that she would magically decide to put it back if I just calmly and confidently waited. But after an employee asked if we needed help, I realized that we could not stand off in the store aisle all day.”

Right. So it’s important to know that we can create this standoff. It’s not coming from our child. We can cause it with our expectation that our child should behave reasonably when they’re already indicating that they can’t at this time.

This parent said that she’s used what I call a countdown method that’s worked before, like 75% of the time. There are a few reasons. I’m not a fan of those types of methods.

One, these are tactics. They’re methods that we’d only use on a child. We wouldn’t use them in an interaction between any other two people who love and respect each other and are on the same team.

And secondly, countdowns and other tactics, contribute to this, us-against-them feeling. In other words, a standoff.

What works is a relationship-centered relationship-building approach to all these situations. It really does work better in the short and the long term. It works to be real with our children, understanding that they’re going to test limits and they need us to help and maybe be a Mama or Papa bear before we get mad, staying on their side, not in this position where we’re giving them warnings or 1, 2, 3.

For a sensitive child, there’s a scary sense of anticipation when parents do these countdowns. It doesn’t create the kind of calm connection that helps children feel safer and more connected and less likely to resist us at every turn. And in this case, I guess it didn’t work anyway and the parent naturally got angry.

If this parent had taken back the bracelet and her child may be screamed, then in that case, I would usher her out of the store, really for her own privacy’s sake and to not be disruptive to others, but not because she’s shameful or bad or that we are. It happens. So I’d usher her to the car. And then when she’s calmer, acknowledge her feelings.

It sounds like this mother knows how to do that part, accepting her feelings. And that’s what makes these kinds of physical interventions respectful. It’s that full-throated acceptance that our child is in disagreement with us and has a right to be.

So I wouldn’t see this as a technique but as a way of being in a relationship with another person who has conflicting feelings. “I know you wanted that bracelet so much. I know that’s hard. That’s really hard.” And then I would let her cry knowing that the crying is not about a bracelet. It’s about other things. It’s very rarely about these inconsequential things, these details. We don’t need to know why children are behaving as they do. We’re probably not going to figure it out in that moment.

Later on, we might think about it and realize, oh wow, I was gone at work all day and she needed to have this reassurance with this kind of interaction with me. Or maybe: she’s been getting blamed for everything that goes on between her and her brother lately. She’s hurting. And I’ve been kind of taking things out on her and maybe she needs to share that with me.

Those are thoughts we might have later. But in the moment all we have to do is be that big benevolent bear that helps her instead of getting angry. Expecting our child to push limits. It’s healthy, it’s positive. That’s how they become more independent people with a healthy will.

Okay. So now let’s go on to the second example. This mother says:

Another time after I tucked her into bed, I went to use the bathroom. She immediately came out of her room and told my husband that she wanted to show me something. He did his best to respect my privacy and take her back to bed, but she refused to go and just started walking toward the bathroom.

So bedtime is a transition with a capital T because it’s classically the hardest one of the day. We’re tired. Our child’s tired, all bets are off. So I’d expect resistant behavior at this time.

Popping out of the room, showed us a big UH-OH. She’s going to that place. She needs our help. This means our calmness, our confidence, and some very early physical intervention in helpful mode. We can’t be tentative.

So I wouldn’t give her that room to get by him and go to the bathroom. Instead, I’d stop her Papa Bear style and I’d help turn her around. “Come m’dear, we’re headed to bed. You can show mom tomorrow.”

So you’re in motion in what I call “confident momentum.” And when we get more comfortable in our Mama or Papa bear roles, we might do these things with a smile even. It’s not heavy stuff. This is what parenting often is. The majority of the energy that we need to put out really is in being those leaders, those Mama and Papa bears.

This parent says that her spouse did not want to physically restrain her, knowing that it would end in a loud fight while her brother was sleeping.

If her dad came into this early with confidence, it’s less likely that she’d end up screaming, but she still might. And I can definitely understand not wanting to wake the brother up. But I think if there’s something that needs to be let go of here, I would let go of her screaming because the more important thing here is that she’s getting the message that she has leaders at bedtime. And that it’s okay for her to express the feeling she needs to express at bedtime, which is actually a very good time for children to clear these feelings so they can sleep better. If we’re sitting on feelings from transitions happening and stresses in our day, it’s harder to go to sleep. And so if we can give her these messages that it’s okay for her to share her feelings, we’re not gonna be intimidated by them, then she’ll stop doing that eventually.

So bedtime is a great time for children to push those limits with us so that they can express their feelings. And I believe that’s unconsciously what’s behind that impulse for this girl in that moment. Because she’s doing something unreasonable and she knows it. She doesn’t need to tell her mother something. Then she’s pushing to see if she has leaders that she can share her feelings with. Not consciously, but I believe that might be what is behind this.

Instead, though, she got somebody who was a little reticent, a little afraid to do that, which I do understand. It’s very scary if we feel angry and upset at our children and that’s scary for them too.

So the most important thing here is, again, that perspective: Oh, this is normal behavior. This is in fact healthy behavior. That will make us feel much less afraid to restrain and guide her with our bodies if needed.

But keep it light. We want to do the most minimal things to intervene.

I understand being afraid that it can end in a loud fight, but we can consider that a fight or a standoff takes two. So we’re not going to fight. We’re not going to struggle with her. We’re just going to stop her and guide her to what she needs to be doing.

The mother says, “He came in to get me, but was very angry that he was unable to come up with some way to get her to obey.”

Right. So obeying means that our child will do it just because we want them to we’re their parents. Unfortunately, that’s often not where children are at these ages unless we’ve parented them with a lot of fear attached to it. And it sounds like these parents aren’t like that. They’re committed to being very respectful.

I know for a lot of us, if we grew up with this feeling that you never disobey your parents, it is very hard to parent differently. It’s hard to not get triggered into how dare she?! and to go to those places of anger. But if we don’t want to use that shame-based fear-based parenting with them, then it will help to perceive what I believe and what studies actually show what’s really there, which is somebody doing impulsive things, not somebody being mean to us, not somebody saying “I hate you” through their behavior. Not someone disobeying. Somebody that’s just temporarily lost her mind and is lost in an impulse.

The key to this way of parenting is perception and then those expectations that our perceptions create.

So mother goes on to say, “I really dislike physically engaging with my daughter when either of us is angry or annoyed because I know that taking something out of her hands or picking her up against her will is going to reinforce both of our feelings of anger and probably cause her to get physical in response.”

And I agree that parents’ anger at least should be avoided by seeing our role a bit differently and by being always ready to physically intervene intervening early so that we can do it calmly. Why would we then get angry when our child has just lost their mind for a moment and needs our help? But I really do hear, and I can relate to this parent’s discomfort with being physical. This was a huge hump for me to get over too. And that’s why imagery like this helpful benevolent, even heroic mama bear and other imagery helped me with that. I could see that was what was needed sometimes with some children.

That reticence this parent has is very worth pondering, asking ourselves what we’re afraid of. Perhaps this is part of us that’s getting triggered, that’s getting angry. That’s definitely something to look at and work through. And that can be a challenging process.

But there’s nothing to fear about being physical with our children if we do it Mama or Papa bear style. It’s actually very loving and caring and often what children want. Show me, you can carry me back to my bed. Take care of me, be my parents so that I can be a little kid. That’s what it takes for them to feel free, to be a little child: parents that aren’t afraid of their roles.

So this mother says “many times it ends with one of us getting hurt.” I believe that maybe because the parent is letting things build rather than just stepping in right away, confidently and fine with doing this. She says, “plus I don’t wanna teach her that I get my way because I’m bigger and stronger than her.”

Yeah. So it’s not so much about getting our way. It’s about having personal boundaries. When we wanna go to the bathroom by ourselves, is that getting our way? I don’t see how that can be a negative thing.

For some of us, we can only associate being physical with a child as something really negative. I get that. But it’s not If we do it right away, calmly and confidently, and with an expectation that this is a helpful caring part of parenting, that we need to be bigger and stronger than them actually. Because if you’re a little kid and your parents, aren’t stronger than you, that’s pretty scary because you know, you sense that you need a lot of help. You know that you can’t be the biggest strongest one in the room. You need leaders.

So strength is not negative. Strength is positive.

And this parent ends with “what can I do when all of the words fail and she just refuses?” I guess I could have just gone with that question alone and skipped all the rest of this. What do we do? We help. We are benevolently bigger and stronger, sweet, bigger, stronger parents that adore our children, adore them enough to be what they need, instead of getting mad at them for doing things that are very typical for children this age.

So if we do our job, our children can do their job, which is to be kids — to be happy, go lucky to be impulsive kids working on it, figuring it out. They can’t do that easily unless they’ve got these benevolently bigger, stronger parents.

I hope that helps.

Please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com. 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. As a matter of fact, you can get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast HERE and HERE.

Thank you so much for listening and for all your kind support. We can do this.

 

 

 

9 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. What do you do when the child is phisically strong and it gets hard to take that object away or take the child out of the store?

    1. You anticipate as much as possible that you don’t get stuck struggling with your child, but inevitably it may still happen. Do your best to project confidence and politeness escorting your child with an arm around their shoulders, or a hand on their back. If we come at this with kindness and a “helper” attitude, children will tend to melt into our leadership, because in their hearts, this is what they want.

      1. Love this so much. I sense it is a paradigm shift within our perspectives we may work our whole lives to fully transform…. And the resulting joyful (and authentically human) relationships with ourselves and our kids are so worth it.

        1. Thank you, Willow. Yes, a huge paradigm shift which is why most of us need plenty of examples and reminders of how this looks and feels. As a parent of 3 adult children who I delight in and am very very close with, I can’t confirm enough how worth it this is.

  2. I notice so many parents “asking” when it’s not really a question–“can you put your shoes away please?” versus “put your shoes away, please.” Maybe they think it’s more gentle. Children are very literal so this actually seems more confusing. My two-year-old has responded better overall to not disguising a command as a rhetorical question so I am curious why you endorse this approach.

    1. I totally agree with your premise about false questions. You are right that it’s not ideal to pose a direction as a question if we’re not prepared to accept whatever answer they gave. As the same time, most children don’t take well to be ordered to do things. And most of us would not treat another loved one in our life that way, unless we were a bit angry: “put that down, please.” We’d say, “Could you please put that down? Thanks!”

      Also, commanding children to do things tends to get their back up and create resistance, particularly if the child has a healthy strong will like the one is this story. I’m glad it works for you!

      Also, I don’t consider this a false question because if the child couldn’t or wouldn’t do as asked, I’d follow through by doing it myself. That’s different from asking, “Would you like to go to Grandma’s now?” And then the child says no, which makes that a false question.

      1. Thanks for your thoughtful response, that makes a lot of sense.

        Certainly I do not speak in commands to adults in my life, even our nanny, which arguably could be justified (done in a respectful, gentle tone) since we employ her. But–my boss definitely does phrase things as commands (usually by email) and that’s never bothered me; it’s just her personality.

        I’m sure that the strategies we employ will have to change as our child matures. And I guess the area it most seems to make a difference is a *statement* “We’re going to leave the park soon” versus “We’re going to leave soon, ok?”

  3. So I love this approach and I will say – IT WORKS!… with one kid. It gets significantly more difficult with two kids… and now we are expecting our third – we will have 3 under 5 – and I honestly have no idea HOW this is all going to work. To be honest, I’m terrified.
    One of my big thoughts regarding RIE/Respectful parenting is that one of the shortcomings is for families with multiple young children – how is it possible?

    1. I’m so glad to hear that, Emily! Erica Orozco Cruz (a longtime RIE Associate who also trained with Magda) shared some of her wisdom regarding multiple or groups of children in the recent podcast: https://www.janetlansbury.com/2022/05/balancing-the-needs-of-more-than-one-child-with-erica-orosco-cruz/

      And here are a couple of mine on this topic: https://www.janetlansbury.com/2015/11/outnumbered-managing-sibling-conflicts/
      https://www.janetlansbury.com/2018/10/5-hints-for-raising-twins-that-will-help-every-parent/

      I hope these help ease your mind. You can do this!

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