It’s Hard to Feel Compassion for Unreasonable Emotions

A concerned parent writes that her 3-year-old seems to be in a constant state of frustration or anxiety, and she makes outlandish demands and cries when she doesn’t get her way. While this mom tries to be compassionate, it’s getting more and more difficult, and she worries that her own postpartum anxiety may have modeled the behavior. She’s looking for healthy ways to help them both cope.

Transcript of “It’s Hard to Feel Compassion for Unreasonable Emotions”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m going to be responding to an email from a parent who is concerned that her three-year-old seems to have entered a stage of constant frustration and anxiety that’s a stressful situation for both of them. And this parent, she has a theory that’s disconcerting to her about what might have brought this on with her daughter, and she’s looking for ways to help them both cope in a healthy manner.

Okay, here’s the letter I received:

Hi, Janet. My daughter just turned three. She’s always been full of passion and drive, but lately it has turned into near constant frustration. I know that this is age-appropriate to an extent, but it has begun to control our days and leave me having a hard time being compassionate. I always make sure to acknowledge her feelings and be present with her while she feels them, but they’re always accompanied by screaming, crying, and whining, which is hard to listen to so very often.

The bigger issue though, is that I’m becoming increasingly concerned about her ability to deal with frustration in a healthy way. Her reactions are escalating in both frequency and intensity with triggers from “I dropped my raisin” to “I don’t want you to stop peeing. Mommy.”

I have a hard time knowing what to do. And I feel guilt both about this and the fact that she saw me dealing with undiagnosed postpartum anxiety disorder for the first 18 months of her life. I worry that I modeled this behavior for her and that she has her own anxiety issues, and that my compassion has begun to turn into frustration. How can I help her cope with her frustration in a way that’s healthy for both of us? Please help.

Okay. Wow. I feel for this parent. And one of the things that I hope to do in this podcast is help alleviate her concern and the guilt that she says she’s feeling, because that’s not called for at all in my opinion. And it’s the last thing any of us need to be getting down on ourselves for what our children are going through, especially to blame ourselves for things that are completely out of our control, like anxiety or depression.

I see a very clear way to shift this situation. At the root of what this parent is sharing with me is a dynamic that I admit I find kind of fascinating actually. It’s sort of been one of my consulting secrets, and that is when a parent has a concern, a big enough concern for them to want to ask me a question about it or consult with me, there’s one thing that I can deduce for sure off the bat. Well, almost for sure, because of course, nothing’s for sure between parents and children and the dynamics that go on, those are individual situations. But I can be fairly sure that the child is aware on some level of the parent’s concern, the child is feeling it too. The bigger the concern, the more likely that the child is aware of it.

That doesn’t mean the child’s aware of every detail of the specifics, but they’re picking up discomfort or fear or anxiety, or even just a particular focus around an issue. They feel their parents thrown off by it.

So then what commonly happens is that something that was maybe a one time action or behavior or just a little phase a child’s going through that’s just impulsive, or maybe just an expression of a child’s temperament, and I’m going to go into that part in a second, the child feels their parents’ concern around that particular behavior or that theme of behaviors in this case that the child is overreacting and getting frustrated about these tiny things. And then the parents’ concern, that they’re picking up, gives it this sort of increased power that can tend to cause it to develop into more of a continuous issue. It’s as if our child is feeling: my parent, who sets the tone for how I feel about everything isn’t on top of this. They aren’t comfortable, and they’re worried and they’re upset by my behavior, and they don’t quite trust themselves or me in this situation.

So while it may be normal for parents to feel that, that can become puzzling and then maybe even worrisome to our child, because of course, to feel free and easy as a child, or kids need leaders who can be mostly okay handling what goes on with them. Comfort in a house, it’s always top down.

That’s why much of my job, I feel, has been to help parents realize how normal and typical behaviors are, because that alone can help us to take a step back and breathe, stop blaming ourselves and stop worrying that there’s some kind of permanent damage that I’m creating with my child or that I’ve done to my child, for us to stop feeling all those big uh-ohs, so that we’re actually able to see our way out of these feedback loops that our concerns help to perpetuate.

Again, though, we want to do this without self blaming, but with greater awareness, maybe more self-awareness.

And in this case, from what this parent says, she seems to know this already. Objectively, she knows, and she’s totally correct, that her child’s behavior is age-appropriate and normal. Children do express frustration, sometimes huge frustration over the smallest things. Because what happens is that other feelings that maybe they’re holding onto or maybe older feelings that they need to offload, they get touched off by these small frustrations and disappointments, these minor experiences. It’s like these are what finally open up that spout on the tea kettle for them to let off all this steam that’s been simmering inside.

In this case, I don’t know what else is going on in this family’s life, but it’s true that some of these feelings may be old feelings to do with that discomfort that the child absorbed from her parents’ anxiety in those first 18 months, because children do absorb whatever their powerful leaders their parents are feeling. They’re sensitive learners that way. And that’s okay.

So that might be one of the reasons why this child seems to have a very low frustration tolerance. Maybe there’s this backlog she’s needing to offload, and so she’s doing this really healthy thing, doing it through these opportunities of minor disappointments. That’s what she’s supposed to do, offloading the feelings. And children are self-healing geniuses. I mean, their body knows how to express the feelings that are in there. So it’s actually a very healthy process that she’s doing this. Some of these feelings that could have been from those first months of discomfort around her parents’ feelings or a lot of other things, and she’s getting those out of her body, very, very healthy.

This parent says, “but it has begun to control our days and leave me having a hard time being compassionate.” And this is something I hope I can help with because it really is about our perspective. The only way that someone else’s feelings can control our day is if we’re perceiving those feelings as that there’s something wrong, that their feelings are a problem and that in this case, this parent worries that she’s created. Instead of something that’s naturally healing and healthy.

Therefore we’re taking them on as our responsibility to work our child through to make better, rather than what I talk about a lot in this podcast and in my posts, just letting them be just accepting that these are this person’s feelings, my child’s feelings. She’s doing her job expressing them, and they’re not my responsibility to try to do something with, or even be compassionate about. All that I need to do is accept that she feels whatever it is, maybe acknowledge that and support her to share that. 

Our children are going to have lots of responses to situations that don’t make any sense to us. Lots. We’re not going to be able to be compassionate when our child’s upset about dropping her raisin. We can’t be compassionate about things like that. And there’s no need to be. In fact, it doesn’t really help children if they feel like we’re so involved in their feelings that we’re concerned about everything, and we’ve got to help them feel better, because that can end up sort of confirming for our child: oh, this is a big deal that I felt disappointed about something.

So instead of expecting ourselves to be compassionate, we just want to notice, “Whoa, you really didn’t like that that happened.” We’re not feeling sorry or sad for her, which would be pretty much impossible for most of us in the case of a raisin. Instead, we’re speaking to her strength and her right to express to the full extent what she wants to express from our own strong place of not feeling responsible, not trying to make it better, not trying to somehow get her through this to feeling better. That will happen on its own.

The feelings have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The message children get when we, we try to work them through things is actually the opposite of what we want them to get. What we want them to get is: It’s okay to express your feelings. Feelings come and go. We express them and they pass. Instead, children can get: Wow, this feeling that’s come over me is, is a big problem, and it’s not okay. It’s not quite safe for me to go here. My parent has to work so hard and she seems concerned. Or, she’s trying to be compassionate and help me through this feeling. So this isn’t just a natural downer in my day that I need to express. It’s this is a problem that she’s got to help me work through

So we can understand how that might not help our kids to have as healthy an approach to these feelings and to know in their hearts that these are natural, normal, a part of life, especially in these early years.

Then the mother says, “I always make sure to acknowledge her feelings and be present with her while she feels them.” And there again, acknowledging feelings, that’s important. Acknowledging, accepting, being present when we can. But it’s not the end of the world if we need to be occupied with something we’re doing. We can still acknowledge if children continue, “You’re still mad about that poorly behaved raisin, ah, I’m going to do this and I’m going to come back and check on you in a little bit.”

Overall, we wanna be comfortable with this, comfortable and normalizing of these overreactions, knowing that whatever comes out of that is healthy for our child.

And an accepting attitude is a passive attitude toward the feelings. We’re not trying to do something about them. We’re not trying to be eye-to-eye present. It shouldn’t be work. It should be a respectful interchange between us and our child. Yes, I see this is what you’re feeling, and that’s okay with me. That’s the subtext behind acknowledging: “Hmm, you want me to not stop peeing. That’s how you’re feeling about this.”

So it’s not my job to change that in any way or to try to defend my right to stop peeing, right? As if we have control over that.

That’s one of the things I’m sensing here, that maybe this mom is taking on a lot of responsibility around her child’s feelings, when the opposite would be better — to let her child express them to the hilt as much as she needs to and not to get involved. Because our involvement, as I was saying earlier, can send a message to our child that tends to make these situations last longer and happen more, because now it’s like our child’s starting to feel that we have a problem with her going to these places, and that makes it a scary place to go instead of a normal place to go.

Then this parent says, “The feelings are always accompanied by screaming, crying, and whining.” Yes. So unfortunately, those are all par for the course. And then as children get older, they’ll also be accompanying these feelings with statements like, “I don’t like you!” and other unkind words. It sounds like this parent’s not necessarily getting those yet, but she’s getting the whining and the screaming and the crying.

Feelings are expressed all different ways. These are all healthy ways actually, even though they’re not fun ways for us, but they’re healthy ways that feelings are expressed at this age and even older. And it doesn’t mean at all that she’s going to be a whiner as she gets older. It’s a healthy expression of feelings for children who don’t have mature self-regulation yet. And that’s where the three-year-olds are definitely at.

It’s hard to listen to, but it’s even harder when, as this mother comments, she says that “I’m becoming increasingly concerned about her ability to deal with frustration in a healthy way.” So it’s hard enough just to hear those sounds, but to hear that and have it feel like, oh, this is really worrying me, that’s just amping up the discomfort for us, right? Because it’s like it’s pushing a huge button in us every time.

So this is the crux of it. This is what’s being felt by her child, this concern, and it’s coming through in these situations when this mother feels like she should be more compassionate. When instead, understandably, it’s really bothering her because her perspective is: Yikes, this is a big problem. This is a big concern. I’ve created something. I’ve done something wrong, and I’m a terrible parent. You know, all those places that we might go in ourselves. This is my fault, but it’s really not. And even if we did contribute to it, we can support our child to process these feelings out, moving through them by trusting our child and trusting the feelings.

These concerns this parent has that have created this responsibility she’s taking on around the feelings is what’s making this into a constant issue instead of just a healthy release that any child is going to have about a whole gamut of things. There are lots of reasons that children have residual feelings to discharge, and it couldn’t be more healthy.

But if we’re concerned, then our child is going to sense these are dangerous places or that my parent can’t quite handle this. She can’t handle me. She can’t do her job just letting me be the wobbly one in this relationship because she’s wobbling there with me.

The somewhat amusing thing that children do, and this is not to make light of this parent’s concerns at all, but it is amusing that children, when they’re unconsciously seeking a different kind of response from us and tried to give us this message that they just need to be seen for these little people that they are, they’ll often go to wilder and wilder, illogical extremes, impulsively, and as I said, it’s unconscious on their part. It’s an impulse, but it’s what they do to sort of try to open our eyes and get that calm, comfortable parent leader response that they need.

It’s like they’re saying: it was hard for you to let me have feelings about the raisin. Okay, let me try something more blatantly ridiculous. See if you can feel sure that this isn’t your fault or your problem somehow don’t stop peeing. And then the next thing might be to insist that the parent jumps over the moon right now. It’s as if she’s saying: I’m asking for you to be okay with my ridiculousness, to not feel worried about it, not feel responsible for it, and just have a calm response.

So with the example with the peeing thing, “Huh, wow, you really wanted me to keep keep on peeing when I was done.” And then I would hope that my child would melt down there because that’s what’s underneath this. That’s what she needs to share, that release, that relief, because these feelings are what’s getting kind of funneled into all these little ridiculous requests and concerns and overreactions.

Then this parent says, “I’ve had a hard time knowing what to do.” Yes. And that’s what her child is feeling too, that her parent doesn’t know what to do in these situations, and that’s what makes it uncomfortable and makes the child have to kind of keep doing it.

This parents says, “I feel guilt both about this and about the fact that she saw me dealing with undiagnosed postpartum anxiety disorder, and I’m worried that I modeled this behavior for her and that she has her own anxiety issues.” That is such an uncomfortable feeling for this parent to have. And as I said in the beginning, her feelings are her feelings, but that doesn’t seem like a foregone conclusion to me. And even if it was true that she modeled the behavior and her daughter picked up on it that way, she can always help to shift that by modeling something else.

I see what her child’s doing as typical behavior. Obviously, if this parent continues to be worried about her having issues, she should seek the advice of a mental health professional, if she hasn’t already. But these are behaviors that I recognize and make sense to me in terms of… she probably does need to discharge some of the fear around those 18 months of her life. That doesn’t mean we should feel guilty about that. What I hope is that it could help you feel empowered to help her heal this, because she’s showing this parent that she is healing this, if the parent could see it that way, and the parent, understandably, is having a hard time letting her and trusting this process, but children are brilliant at this. They know what they’re doing, and if we take that process and turn it into something we should feel guilty about painting it in a negative light, then it’s harder for our child to heal. Because she can only feel as comfortable as we are.

So this dynamic, it can change quickly with a different perspective, with a real and true and healthy perspective. So much of my time consulting with parents is trying to assure them that it’s typical behavior so they can feel good about approaching it as a leader. Our kids, they want us to be solid, you know, and this little one’s telling her parent again and again that she believes her parent can do this, and trying to help the parents see what a little girl she is with all these overwhelming overblown feelings and bizarre requests.

I really hope this helps, and again, please trust your instinct to be in touch with the mental health professional. Hopefully you’ve already talked to someone about what you’ve gone through. If you need someone for your child, please consult with them as well. I believe in you.

For more… my books make great holiday gifts! No Bad Kids:Toddler Discipline Without Shame, and Elevating Child Care, A Guide to Respectful Parenting are available on Amazon, in audio on Audible, and wherever eBooks are sold.

Thank you so much for listening. We can do this.

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