Independent Play, Meltdowns, Boundaries — Success Stories from My Inbox

A parent who’s always been her toddler’s playmate helps her child over the hump to flourish in independent play. Another parent learns to set boundaries, shift her perspective, and accept her child’s meltdowns. Janet shares a special milestone and much more in this latest episode of Unruffled.

Transcript of “Independent Play, Meltdowns, Boundaries — Success Stories from My Inbox”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury, welcome to Unruffled. Today, I’m going to be sharing some very revealing stories that I received from parents. These are success stories. I find them also to be instructive and I think you will too. They demonstrate how respectful care really does work. I’ll also be sharing an announcement about a special milestone.

I am blessed to receive so much wonderful correspondence. And of course, I especially love the stories parents share with me about how they’re using this approach I teach, how it’s helping them, and how they’ve faced the challenges that we’re getting in their way. So I’ve curated a few here that I want to share with you today.

Here’s the first one. It’s about encouraging independent play:

I just wanted to say, thanks for all your help and support. I have two children, a boy who is four and a girl who is one. I first became aware of you when my son was around two-and-a-half. I have really appreciated your insight around self-directed play. I must confess I played with my son around the clock, taught him rather than let him work things out for himself, and prompted him with play. I thought I was doing the right thing and nurturing him.

He’s fiercely intelligent. He’s also very cautious. I’ve been really honest with him recently that I love him dearly, but that I don’t feel like playing or that I have things I need to do. We had a few months of upset around this, him becoming angry and saying he can’t play on his own. We’ve validated this. We treated his responses with kindness but remained calm and boundaries when we are not able or don’t want to play.

He’s now loving the independent play. I’ve seen such development these past few weeks, he’s had a hair salon, a shop, and he’s been using the sofa cushion as rocks and rescuing things. It’s a delight to listen to him talk in his made-up world. It’s also a great relief, understandably. Playing all the time was becoming tedious for me. And this was feeding into feelings of guilt. He played independently for hours yesterday.

So what did this parent do? She did the hard thing that really is what gets in the way with so many parents that I’ve worked with. They don’t want to say no to play. And there are all kinds of guilt-inducing quotes around out there on social media about how we should always say yes to playing with a child and how they need this time with us. So it’s hard to be honest.

The truth is that’s not our job to entertain our children. And our play does tend to, without us even realizing it, take over theirs, because we’re very powerful in this relationship. It’s not an even dynamic in terms of power. So with our best intentions, we can interfere with play both by the way that we naturally play with our child and kind of end up directing the play and also by not being comfortable freeing our child. And freeing our child often comes with boundaries. It feels mean, right? So getting over that hump to how positive it is, how freeing it is for a child to develop all these incredible things in their self-directed play, how therapeutic this is for them, how educational it is, how creative. We could never devise a curriculum for our children with play that would be as constructive for them as the one that they create for themselves.

I love that this parent took the plunge and allowed for those weeks of the feelings that her child shared, which could not have been comfortable for her. So kudos!

Okay, here’s another note I received about setting boundaries and allowing for a child’s feelings in response:

My wife and I have a foster daughter who is four, almost five. She’s been part of our family for just over a year.

I’ve been in childcare for quite some time and expected to be a bit more prepared for parenting. While there are certainly helpful things I’ve pulled from nannying and preschool work. I was nowhere as prepared as I thought I was to be a mom. She has quite a bit of trauma. The meltdowns are frequent and long. She has a hard time with boundaries. And while I can hold boundaries with my nanny kids, it’s been much harder to hold them with my daughter. I break at the first sign of her crying or being upset, particularly because of her trauma history. And I was giving in far too easily. Even when I knew better.

I started listening to Unruffled on the recommendation of a good and trusted friend. I wanted a better way of parenting, especially for her. I wanted to give her respect, love, and safety. I started with an episode surrounding “no,” and went back to start listening to them all.

All of my perspectives started shifting almost immediately. I could see she was venting her emotions and the trust that indicated.

I could see I wasn’t helping any of us by not holding boundaries. I started seeing where she was struggling and that it wasn’t “coddling” her to stop and help when it was too hard for her. That in and of itself was huge for us.

As the way I saw her behavior shifted, I saw everything actually getting easier.

Her meltdowns had receded for quite some time but recently resurfaced due to some big changes and some triggers. We were at a loss for what to do until I remembered that these were her venting her emotions.

So one night I held a boundary I wasn’t sure I could hold, but I could see her pushing it and I knew she needed the meltdown. I knew she was asking me to give her what she needed. So I held it and the meltdown started. I took her gently to her room where I knew she’d be safe if I had to step out and sat with her. I didn’t say much, just took breaths and sat, occasionally telling her that I heard her and I was here for her.

The meltdown ended so much sooner than any previous ones. And that’s continued to hold true, even when I’m not sure I should hold a boundary I do, gently and respectfully. My wife and I sit with her while she vents, giving space for her to have that and trying our hardest to sit in acceptance.

I used to get so frustrated when she’d have these big screaming meltdowns. And now I recognize that she’s just done venting and it’s okay to let her move on and be done.

I used to wanna rush her through meltdowns and just calm her down. Now I can see when it’s just too hard for her and I help her move through it. I don’t get frustrated and annoyed when she won’t listen. It’s easier for me to see that she just can’t. I pay more attention to her early cues and see where it’s going to be too hard. I walk her through things more. “Ah, this is too much for you tonight. I’m going to help you with brushing your teeth and putting on your pajamas,” et cetera. Instead of thinking, well, she knows how to do it herself. I see where she’s asking for connection instead of just seeking a negative “attention seeking” behavior.

Wow. So yeah, this parent is stepping up to hold the boundaries, realizing that letting her daughter release feelings with her is really the deepest and most bonding kind of connection that there is. We’re saying: I accept you as you are — your bright and your dark sides — and I help you when you can’t at that moment do it yourself for whatever reason. No questions asked.

It’s not that she won’t listen. It’s that she just can’t in that moment. Once we start seeing that way, we don’t go back. We’re uncovering another layer, and life with a child can be a little bit easier.

I also thought it was interesting and understandable that she said when she was a nanny it was a lot easier. Yes. It’s almost always easier for a nanny or a teacher to set those boundaries with children. Why? Because they don’t resist in the same way. They don’t have the same trust level where they’re going to push harder and share those feelings and maybe have those meltdowns. They’re not nearly as likely to do that with someone who they have a more professional relationship with and who’s not their parent or their primary caregiver.

And when a child does have trauma or any uncomfortable feelings inside, there’s going to be even more of that pushing to get the limits so that they can vent their feelings. So that’s where we can see the limit-pushing and the meltdowns as a high compliment that we’re trusted. We are their person. We’re the close ones to them. And with that understanding, the whole picture becomes clearer and easier. We’re still going to maybe get triggered by certain behaviors or certain feelings our child shares, but we have a place to go back to — a perception that this is all right, this is how it’s supposed to be. This is actually a positive thing that my child is pushing and pushing. And that I have to say no, and be the quote “bad guy” and allow them to get mad at me or frustrated in response or sad.

So, well done to this parent.

Okay. Here’s one that’s a little bit lighter and it’s about modeling respectful boundaries and the power of our modeling. This one came to me on Instagram in a message:

My husband and I listened to your podcast and really appreciate all of your work. So first and foremost, thank you. We had a laugh this morning when I was detangling my three year old daughter’s curls. And she very calmly looked at me and said, mama, I can’t let you do this. It is not safe. She then proceeded to show me safe ways to touch her hair.

So there you go. They’re listening. They’re watching and we’re teaching all the time just through caring for our children. It’s an organic process.

And they’ll show us the things that we’re not proud of that we do as well. That’s okay. Maybe that’s hard to take, but if we can see that as the kind of mutual training that’s going on there — they have this ability to reflect back to us where we need to grow and the things that we’re doing well that we can be proud of.

Okay, now I have a little milestone to announce. Unruffled has been going on for seven years. Seven years. Wow. It’s unreal to me. The time sort of flew by. I still have a million ideas for things I want to share about, and then I get new ideas from parents’ notes and messages every day. So I appreciate that.

And I want to take this opportunity to say, thank you for listening. Some of you’ve been listening for a long time. It’s an honor, and really a joy to be able to share with you this way.

Unruffled started on a whim. I was wondering at one point if audio might be easier than writing to answer readers questions and especially to demonstrate perspective and tone, which I found much more challenging to do with written words. And it matters a lot. Much more important than what we say is what we’re feeling when we say it — therefore, our tone, our manner, our attitude. That’s a little easier for me to convey through audio. So I thought, Hmm, all right, I’ll give this a shot. And then my husband, Mike, he agreed to try doing the engineering. And the editing was all new for him.

We were both really quite stunned that Unruffled caught on the way it has. And that I’ve had this added privilege of getting to have fascinating conversations with many, many eloquent, brilliant guests. So thank you to all of them as well!

I thought I should share, in honor of the seven years, the seven most listened to, most downloaded podcast episodes. And in the transcript of this podcast, I’ll be linking to all of these:

#1) Finding Our Best Response to Children’s Turbulent Emotions.”

In that podcast, I respond to issues shared with me by four different parents. One writes that her two year old rejects her comfort when he has a meltdown, she says, “It breaks my heart. And I feel like I must be doing something wrong.”

Another writes that their seven-year-old says he doesn’t feel loved. Another email describes how a three-year-old’s tantrums last all afternoon and into the evening disrupting the rest of this family’s routine, and they all feel trapped by their three-year-old. And another one is a therapist who observes that their child holds in emotions in front of their family and peers.

I noticed that there was a common thread in all of these family situations, and I offer some specifics for how my overall recommendation to trust feelings and let them be applies in each of these cases.

#2)A Holistic Approach to Baby and Toddler Sleep (with Grace Koinange).

So, an incredible guest, a hot button topic. This was controversial as everything on sleep tends to be. What I found really interesting though maybe not that surprising is that Grace got hundreds of people reaching out to her for help. What that tells me is something I already knew, which is that there’s so much shame and judgment around this topic for parents, with their peers, with people online, even with experts who maybe have extreme one-sided views. These parents need help and they’re afraid to openly say that in a comment online. But what did they do? They reached out to Grace because what she said resonated with them and was hopeful for them that maybe some of the issues they’re having could be resolved and they didn’t just have to wait it out. There were changes that they could respectfully make.

#3)Parental Burnout and a Reasonable Approach to Screens (with Dr. Meghan Owenz).”

You might be interested in Dr. Owenz’s book, it’s called: Spoiled Right: Delaying Screens and Giving Children What They Really Need. And in the podcast, Meghan offers some of the latest research on the effects of screens on young children, along with this whole host of practical alternatives. And we acknowledge that the many months of homeschooling and severely limited socializing and close quarters of the pandemic and exhausted parents have understandably caused most of us to rely more on screens to get those break times that we need just to survive. This podcast answers the question that many weary parents ask, which is how to manage all of this and what can they do instead of using screens.

#4)How to Stop Feeling Frustrated by Your Child’s Behavior — A Family Success Story.”

This was wonderful. A family wrote to me a story where they shared their step by step process in dealing with their child’s very annoying, frustrating behavior. And as is often the case, it was their perceptions of the behavior which then dictated their attitude towards it that was getting in their way. So when they realized that and they shifted it, it not only made all the difference in ending this behavior, but brought them closer together as a family.

#5)When Your Child Keeps Ignoring Boundaries and Breaking Rules, Try This.”

In that podcast there were three different families who had very different issues, but there was one common element that was missing. It’s a common one for us all to miss, actually. And similar to that #1 podcast on responding to turbulent emotions, I was able to offer specifics for how the families can apply this missing element to each of their situations.

#6)It Will Get Easier — The Intense Struggles of a Parent with Childhood Trauma.”

This podcast is with Alwynn Hynes. She is a parent who actually wrote to me about how much she’s struggling to use a respectful approach to caring for her children with her own history of intense trauma. She is an amazing, courageous person. She has a very supportive Facebook group that she started after this podcast called: “Let Me Be Free: The Wounded Inner Child.” I’m a member of it, and I highly recommend her group. And she’s also coaching parents to help them with the struggles that she has faced and is facing.

#7) “Can We Be Angry or Sad and Still Unruffled?”

I hope you can guess that the answer to that is yes. A parent had written to me asking:

“I’m hoping you can clarify something for me that I’m struggling to understand. I know as parents, we should appear unruffled and be the calm, confident leaders for our children. As you’ve stated many times, I understand that this leads to them feeling stable and secure. I’ve also understood that it’s beneficial to let children see when we’re dealing with strong emotions rather than to try to hide them and pretend that we’re okay — that it’s helpful to know when we’re sad, disappointed, or frustrated, for example, as a way to model that everyone has these feelings, and to show how we handle them. What I’m confused about is what to do when those emotions are caused by our children.”

So that’s the question that I speak to in this seventh most popular podcast.

Those were the most popular of all.

Again, thank you so much for supporting this podcast. And I want to finish this episode with one more success story, which is about helping a child feel seen beyond the words that they say, beyond the way that they’re acting. Seen to what they really need and to feel that message: I see you, your words and actions don’t frighten me. I don’t take them personally. I don’t take them as facts or reasonable statements.

This parent says:

I just wanted to share a little proud moment. My son is three years old and I’ve been following you since he was about 18 months. We’ve had our fair share of challenges and always you give me peace and confidence with a respectful approach. Most recently, I spent a few hours away from my son, which is not significantly unusual, especially when his dad is in charge.

I did what I usually do and told him what to expect: Dad would give him lunch and pop him down for his nap. He happily accepted and was a charmer the whole time I was out.

I arrived back just in time for him to wake up and went in to rouse him. He was slightly grumbly, but that’s not out of the ordinary.

Slowly, slowly. He got more and more upset, telling me to go away, all the while trying to hit me. I did not go away as requested. I stayed and prevented the hitting, allowing him to express himself despite my husband saying, “Maybe you should leave him.”

As he let it all out, he slowly became more and more cuddly. After some time he went and took a book, sat on my lap and said, “Mum, Mum, you came back.” It was so beautiful.

Thank you to all these parents for sharing your stories and allowing me to share them on my podcast.

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 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.

 

4 Comments

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

  1. avatar Mary Jane Shippen says:

    Dearest Janet,
    my shift in how I think about my granddaughter’s episodes of screaming made all the difference in our relationship. Since birth almost 9 yrs ago, she screamed almost constantly. When I picked her up she screamed and I instantly blamed myself and tried to figure out what I had done to make her scream. I really thought it was my fault and because of that I stayed away from her more than I wanted.
    Searching desperately for help, I stumbled upon your book and blog. Slowly I started testing the idea of creating a space for us inside a bubble of calm, intending to allow her to be who she is and express herself as she feels, and slowly, the tantrums lessened.
    At about 3 years old she visited me and had the most horrific tantrum over brushing her teeth before bed. So, I repeatedly and gently told her to do it.
    Well, I don’t know what the other people in the building thought of me (perhaps a torturous child abuser?) but I sat with her for over an hour just allowing this safety bubble to expand and soft acknowledgment to continue as her strong voice vibrated the building with painful screaming.
    She wound down, sweaty and exhausted and we sat together in this love space for a while. Since then, she hugs me and cuddles with me and we have a “knowing” between us. It is the opening I enter her world through now, in this age of iPads. She knows I’m the boss and I have her back, no matter what, so she speaks truthfully to me and tells me exactly how she feels. The tantrums still occur as she enters puberty early and is taller now than everyone in third grade. But she always finds a way to enter our safe bubble, even if it takes a while.
    Because of that one change in my thinking I don’t exhaust myself as much but pause, and let myself take charge. It still takes vigilance and energy as the world impinges on us from all sides but I have a foothold now.

    My joy is indescribable.

    1. Dear Mary,
      I will treasure your note and story. Thank you so very much for taking the time to share it with me. I needed that today. Such a bright future for you two! Your granddaughter is blessed!

  2. avatar Debora Bertka says:

    I have been following all of Janet’s advice on independent play (listened to every episode on it), as well as the Parenting Junky on YouTube since my daughter was 18 months. She is now 4 and still won’t play independently, hardly at all.

    She simply doesn’t like to play on her own. She just… doesn’t like it. She likes playing with other people only, and that’s that. And nothing I’ve done, and continue to do, has been able to change that. Every single day is a struggle with this, and I continue to set the boundaries I’ve been setting for the past 3 years. But it still hasn’t changed her, or our struggle with independent play. It’s awful.

    I also highly suspect she is ADHD, which could greatly contribute to her strong aversion for independent play, and always seeking the high of playing with someone else.

    I hope neurodivergent children like my daughter can be kept in mind when talking about this, and not making the parents feel like our kids are like this due to something we did wrong.

    1. Hi Debora! Can you share some details about how you set boundaries and deal with her reactions to them? I may be able to help, I hope.

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