Controlling, Rigid, Argumentative Behavior (What It Means and What We Can Do)

Janet replies to the concerns of 3 different families who all share that they’re struggling with their children’s controlling, inflexible, and, in one case, possessive behaviors. The children range in age from 2 to 6, and Janet observes they all appear to have personalities on the intense side. One parent is particularly worried about how her son treats his peers when he doesn’t get his way. She writes: “I worry he will lose friends or be unable to form deep connections if he yells and screams at his friends like this.” Janet suggests a point of view for understanding and addressing these behaviors which can apply to almost any issue parents might face. She also offers examples of responses for the specific behaviors in each of these situations.

Transcript of “Controlling, Rigid, Argumentative Behavior (What It Means and What We Can Do)”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m going to be responding to three different letters that I received that are all in the same theme. Some of the subject line comments these family shared were: “rigidity, possessiveness, control, inflexibility.” I always feel like it’s a sign when I get several notes together around the same theme. It feels like this means I should be doing a podcast on this topic. So I’m going to be exploring those topics and then speaking to ways to respond effectively with all these specifics that these parents have shared with me on these issues with their children.

Okay, so I want to start out by talking a little about the framework that we can use as parents to figure out what’s going on with our children. The wonderful thing about treating our children as whole people from the time they’re born is that when we realize that these are people just like us… They’re not exactly like us because they are much more immature, they are much more open to the world and more sensitive, they don’t have that life experience that we have, and they have much more impulsivity, it’s harder for them to control their emotions and their behaviors. But otherwise, we do share the same emotions, the same tendencies, although we don’t act them out as much as children do, we can have those same motivations based on our feelings.

The reason that’s helpful is that when we think about behaviors in children that show: rigidity, possessiveness, inflexibility control, when we are feeling those things or maybe have some of those tendencies as adults, what is that coming from?

And for most of us, it comes from a range of feelings, from fear to unsettled. We just don’t quite have our footing, so we’re trying to hold on. We’re more reactive. We’re not as able to let go and go with the flow. We’re holding onto some semblance of control when we feel a little out-of-control. So those are normal feelings that so many of us can relate to — I know I can — and that will help us to understand and even kind of diagnose what’s going on with our child and therefore be able to respond in ways that eases their behavior, that helps them move through these feelings rather than getting stuck there or or having it become something that builds and seems to get even more pronounced.

Okay, here’s the first note:

Hi Janet. I’m writing to you about my wonderful four, almost five-year-old son. He is a bright, deeply, feeling, articulate, thoughtful little guy, and so engaging to be around. In so many ways, he’s an easy laidback kid, but he’s always struggled with emotional regulation. And recently it seems to be escalating. I’d say we’ve gone through periods since he turned two years old of differing intensity in the ways the emotional dysregulation is demonstrated, some more challenging and impactful than others.

He’s always been very articulate so typically he turns to verbal, lashing out when he’s frustrated, sad, stuck or otherwise out of sorts. I think so much of his behavior is typical for a four-year-old who feels deeply and is porous to the outside world. But lately he’s had two issues that have me concerned and at a loss for how to handle them. Any support would be greatly appreciated.

First, anytime we try to tell him anything, he says, “I know!” in a very aggressive and almost teenage-like way. We can’t remind him to do anything he needs to do, tell him about plans for the following day, correct any difficult behavior. It can be the smallest thing and we’ll set him off for quite a long time. Yes, it happens more when he is tired, hungry, emotionally drained, et cetera. But lately it seems almost constant.

My partner and I have tried ignoring it, giving him a very calm but consistent response: “You may try again” and getting angry, but nothing seems to help. How should we deal with this? I have a feeling it’s a need for control and he’s exhibiting a somewhat typical four-year-old maturity, but it’s draining and we’re at our wits end with it.

The second and possibly more concerning behavior has to do with friends. We’ve had a few play dates recently with friends from his preschool. He plays so well with them at school and has been to a few of their houses without issue.

Recently they came to our house, three of them on three separate occasions. Everything is great and the kids have a blast until the friend decides they don’t wanna do exactly what our son wants. When this happens, he flies off the handle screaming and crying, saying he hates them and wants them to never come back again. It can sometimes take up to 45 minutes for him to calm down, and he’s completely closed off to any form of reasoning. Eventually each time, he’s finally regained composure and been able to rejoin his friend in a different form of play. But it takes a long time and a lot of support. I worry he will lose friends or be unable to form deep connections if he yells and screams at his friends like this.

How can we support him to handle these situations where he has a lack of control differently? Does he just need to mature out of it?

Yes. So what this parent said at the end, “does he just need to mature out of it?” That’s absolutely a big part of this because children do mature in their ability to handle disappointments and all other feelings and to regulate them better.

As I’m reading this note, I’m thinking how kind of prickly and sensitive this little boy feels as if he’s very, very sensitive to criticism right now or any kind of feeling that doesn’t seem trusting and agreeable to him. And like this parent. I wonder where this is coming from that it seems to be happening much more often these days. So like always, I have a lot of questions for this family. But a couple of things this parent says give me some clues. She says, “reasoning with him” and “trying to reassure,” and “it takes a lot of support when he gets upset and loses composure with his friends.” So I wonder what that support is looking like.

Because what I want to offer this parent is this idea that is so counterintuitive for most of us: that we allow children to feel the depth of their feelings of disappointment, loss of control, even of being criticized, that we really lean in to seeing and acknowledging and welcoming those feelings, helping our child feel heard and and safe to feel all the ways he feels instead of trying to correct or talk him out of them.

So to give you an example from the examples that she gave, she says: “He’s always been very articulate so typically he turns to verbal lashing out when he’s frustrated.” But lately he’s doing this “I know!” thing back at them in this very aggressive, she says, “almost teenage- like way.”

That’s a defensive reactive response, right? That doesn’t come from a comfortable place in him. It’s when we’re hurting inside that we lash out like: Don’t tell me things that I’m doing wrong. Don’t tell me anything I don’t know. I’m already bagging on myself right now!  Or I’m already feeling so vulnerable, so like, don’t tell me more.

And it’s not that I’m suggesting these parents correct themselves and never tell him anything anymore, but to really allow for his uncomfortable response. It’s actually a vulnerable response that he’s giving.

She says, “My partner and I have tried ignoring it, giving him a very calm but consistent response, ‘You may try again,’ and getting angry, but nothing seems to help.”

One thing about that is when children are getting all these different types of responses, it does kind of add to them feeling stuck in a behavior. So we want to try is to start, ideally, being consistent in our response. And the consistent response I would recommend is, “Whoa, you really don’t like when we tell you stuff.”

So we’re not ignoring him as if he’s not seen and we’re just kind of turning away from him. We’re not going to tell him, “Try again. Say it better, do it better. We don’t like that.” Which I think is what they’re saying, I’m not sure. And getting angry, that just makes him feel so powerful and unsafe. I know it doesn’t look vulnerable on the outside, but it is a vulnerable response that he’s having.

So if we could do that hard thing, instead of going to that reasonable place in ourselves of don’t act that way with us! What are you doing? Why are you overreacting to this? What’s going on? That’s not his reality right there. And we’re going to help calm all of this down, if that’s our goal, if we really allow him to share that discomfort and accept that and not let it drag us down onto his level in any way.

As always and with everything that I share it’s, again, it’s leaning into the feelings, letting it be okay for him to feel what he feels. It’s not something we have to fix.

And then she talks about him with his friends. One of the good things about our role with children is that we do have the most power. And oftentimes when children are bringing things into their relationships with friends, those are things that we can help our child adjust and do differently by the way that we respond. So when we start responding with more of this: it’s really okay for you to have this kind of crazy response when we’re just telling you something and wow, we see that, we notice that you don’t want to hear it. You really don’t want to know, and you don’t want us to tell you stuff like that. Okay, we’re still going to do our job as parents, but it’s really okay to feel how you feel, then he can feel safer. It can calm these needs that he has right now to try to hold on and then be rigid and control everything.

Children have different temperaments, so it’s a temperament too. It’s not going to completely go away no matter how we respond. He has these tendencies, but it will definitely lessen because he’ll feel better, he’ll feel less vulnerable, he’ll feel more seen, and he’ll feel more comfortable in his place in the family. Because when we talk about those kind of behaviors: rigidity, possessiveness, inflexibility, that’s often something in the relationship with us. Are these leaders really seeing me as this often unreasonable, immature little child? I really need them to see me that way as much as possible so that I could feel safe and I can be that little kid in all my f floppiness and blustery behavior and teenage words and responses.

So this would carry over to the way he is with friends. It’s interesting to me that he’s plays well when he’s at school, but then they come to his house… and most children, they do feel more possessive at their house. They do feel that this is their home turf that they want to hold onto. And it can be especially true if they don’t feel completely settled, because then they need to hold on even more. So, this is my house, I’m holding on here to the control. I don’t know why I’m doing it. And boom, he just explodes when he feels this slipping away from him. And yeah, this parent is so perceptive, so perceptive as she says he needs to mature his way out of it. Yes.

What I would try to do is lean in to those feelings, take him aside or even say in front of his friends to help them understand what’s going on, say, “Oh, you wanted to play that and they didn’t want to play that. Yikes, that makes you really uncomfortable, right? When your friends have a different idea, they have a different opinion, that’s so disappointing for you.”

So I’m not blaming the friends, I’m not trying to put them on the spot, but I’m helping them to hear him, and I’m helping him to feel: we love you in these states. It’s okay to feel this way. Yes, he’s being a unpleasant child right there, but that’s not where he wants to be. That’s not how he wants to be with his friends. He wants to have a blast with them and he can, but only if he’s able to release some of this holding on that he’s doing, this rigidity.

If he’s allowed to crack and loosen some of it up by exploding, and he know he won’t always explode, he won’t always act this way, but it’s happening more because you know, it’s like buildings in an earthquake, the tall buildings, right? You want them to be flexible and moving when things happen. It’s the buildings that are built rigidly that crack. But for him to be able to be that flexible structure, he’s got to be able to crack and sort of rebuild from there. And that’s how he will become more flexible by knowing that it’s safe to be inflexible and be a mess.

I don’t know what she’s doing in terms of trying to support him. She said it takes a long time and she’s trying to support him. I wouldn’t try to talk him down with reason. “Oh, they just want to do another thing and it’s okay.” All those things that most of us have the instinct to do, I would really trust and lean into that for him, it’s not okay. It doesn’t feel good. It feels awful. That’s his experience.

So connecting with his experience rather than trying to talk him out of it, or make it better, or calm him down with reason. Those things actually can make children, especially children with this kind of intense, sensitive temperament, it can make them feel more unsettled and afraid. What just happened to me? I just went somewhere that’s scary and everyone’s got to help me down from here, from this place. Instead of, Wow. Yeah, that happened. And that’s okay. And that’s normal for you to feel that way. Sometimes you have intense frustration when people don’t do what you want them to do. Seeing him, relating to him as much as possible and really welcoming him to feel how he feels.

Okay, here’s another note:

About two months ago, my son first grader was suspended from school. He got suspended because of an altercation on the bus and threatening another student, very out of character. We took this very seriously. Since then, we are working with his teachers and at home on calm down techniques, but I am not always there at school with him at home. I do my best, but I admittedly don’t hold it together all the time.

One of his main challenges is he has his own definition of what is right and wrong, and his own approach to dealing with said matters. He tends to have a mental block If someone disagrees and will argue and it’s nearly impossible to get through to him. I want to help him but I don’t know how. I’m just looking for ideas on how to help him out.

So I have even less information here, and this is obviously a pretty serious situation if this poor guy got suspended from school. That’s scary for a parent, right? His teachers working with him at calming down techniques… that may well be helpful, but I really feel from everything I know here, which isn’t much, that rather than trying to change his definition of right and wrong, I would try to welcome it, understand it as much as possible. While still being the leader that doesn’t let him act on it, that doesn’t accommodate all his wishes — that’s not what allowing him to share is about, because that’s saying: I’m afraid to be the parent here. I’m afraid to be the leader.

So we don’t want to do that. It doesn’t sound like his parent’s doing that, but it will help. instead of calming him down, to hear him out. This is how you see things. That’s interesting. Again, I don’t really have specifics here to go by, and it does sound like an intense temperament here if he could fly off the handle like that on a bus and threaten a student.

But there’s a lot of work a parent can do if they’re brave, if they’re up to this challenge of letting him have this other opinion, not saying, “You’re wrong and this is the way it is.” But, “What is this view about? What makes you think that way? That’s interesting. Well, we’re still going to do this because this is my job. I’m your parent. But I really want to know your side of of things. I want to hear it. I want to know how you feel. I want to know how you see the world.”

In other words, instead of arguing with him, hold your role as the leader in a way that’s so mature and unthreatened that you welcome his side. There’s no reason to argue. You are still going to make the decisions. And we’re in a very, very strong place when we are so okay with being in disagreement with our child that we can welcome them, all the way, to share how they feel.

You don’t have to see it my way, I want to see it your way, but because I’m the adult and you need me to be your parent and you’re a wonderful kid that needs the best parent, I’ve got to be the one to ultimately look out for you. You don’t have that maturity.

I’m not saying to say all this to him. Mostly you’d be saying it to yourself. I’m also not saying that this boy’s troubles will disappear and this parent’s issues with him will just vanish. But that’s the direction I would recommend working on because it seems like he’s very stuck in himself. And what happens… it’s like that tea kettle. He can’t release any steam, so it explodes. Let him release all that steam. Let him be that strong, opinionated, maybe angry person. The more he can feel safe to share this, the less he will ever take that out into other situations. He may still, but this is where it heals: with us. We have this power.

So obviously I’m not going to be the only resource that helps this parent with this situation. And I’m glad that they’re working together with his teachers. I hope they give him all the grace in the world, and if they’re coming from that place of help it’s great. But I would try to understand it and allow it and help him name it and walk through it rather than trying to tamp it down.

Okay, one more note here:

Hi Janet. One thing I can’t seem to find an answer to is how to react to my daughter’s rigidity and possessiveness, which she exhibits at home, at daycare, and with other people such as her grandparents. This has started as early as one year of age and got really obvious around 18 months when she started daycare.

For example, at 11 to 12 months, she cried and screamed when she noticed a younger child wearing one of her sweaters.  We were at the park, my friend’s baby was cold, and I had an extra sweater on hand. She wanted her sweater back.

Here are some examples of what I mean by rigidity slash possessiveness…

At this point in time, two years old at daycare, she’s the only child out of 15 that does not accept that her chair be used by another child or is at the wrong place/at the wrong table. Every child has a chair with their picture on it at daycare.

She’s the only child that picks a toy in the morning and doesn’t let go of it the entire day. Also, the only child who keeps her puppet for nap instead of putting it back in the bin. 

She does not tolerate that my husband or myself hold another baby or hug another child. She will scream, cry, tantrum, and say, “my mama!”

She reacts strongly crying, saying No papa’s chair, even tantrums sometimes to anyone sitting in the quote, “wrong chair,” not our usual place at the table or in the living room.

She spends a lot of her time identifying whose objects belong to whom. “This is papa’s, this is mama’s, this is mine. This is the dog’s.” And where objects go in the house: “Jackets should be hung on hook. Papa’s shoes need to be put back in the closet.”

Daycare and our doctor don’t think her behavior is linked to a medical issue. Still her behavior is more intense than most kids. I would love to have your help in identifying the right balance between reassuring her these behaviors provide her comfort so they are acceptable. Maybe she’s anxious and providing support for her to move out of that phase. Boundaries need to be put in place for her to navigate these situations better. She needs our help to do so.

In some cases, I feel the answer is somewhat obvious. She needs to accept that I’m allowed to sit in papa’s chair, so I will stay firm on this one while acknowledging that she doesn’t like it. On the other hand, it’s probably okay if sleeping with the puppet at daycare provides her comfort and there probably aren’t many consequences if she doesn’t want to share her clothes.

But in other situations, I’m hesitant on where to put boundaries versus letting it go.

There’s now another baby on the way, but for the record, the behavior started months before I got pregnant. So we work daily on describing what that will look like with conversations and books. We’ve also made all necessary transitions now as opposed to after the baby’s arrival so that she hopefully doesn’t associate them with the baby. We moved her crib, her change table, her rocking chair out of her room, for example, and created a brand new quote, “big girl room” that she’s excited about months before the arrival.

I fully expect a challenging transition nonetheless. I’m particularly apprehensive of how she will react to me having the baby in my arms most of the time. And I would like to be equipped with knowledge on how to react with confidence and consistency to help her navigate her new reality at a time where I will most likely not be at my best.

Okay, so again, I’m sensing temperament here. This is called strong willed sometimes, but it’s also sensitivity, right? Those two can go together. This parent says this started as early as one year of age. She cried and screamed when she noticed a younger child wearing one of her sweaters at the park and she wanted her sweater back.

So I have a big question mark. I wonder what the parent did there, because I could imagine a couple of things. Maybe they did give the sweater back, I’m not sure. Another normal thing to do would be to explain to her, “Oh, it’s okay, that’s your sweater, but this other child needs it. This other child’s cold and they didn’t bring their sweater and that’s okay.”

So those would be two instinctive things that many of us would want to do as parents in that situation. For one thing, we’re really thrown by it, right? What the heck is going on here? She’s 11 months and she doesn’t want this other baby to have her sweater. How does she even know that’s her sweater?  It’s interesting. But the way I would actually respond in that moment, and maybe the parent did this, I don’t know, is to say, “Whoa, I’m getting a big reaction here. You don’t want her to wear that sweater. That’s your sweater, that’s right. That’s yours. You usually wear that. Yeah.”

So I would acknowledge the feelings that way, even with this tiny 11 to 12 month old, take her on my lap maybe, and let her share this appalling thing that happened in her mind there, this surprising unpleasant thing. Rather than trying to fix that somehow by either trying to talk her out of it or taking the sweater back.

This is this idea that, that for myself, I had to shift 180 degrees as to what comforting is, what helping a child with their feelings is, what helping a child be more appropriate in situations really is. It’s helping that child to feel safe where they’re at.

I don’t need to change it to make you feel safe. I don’t need you to take that sweater back and I don’t need to tell you that you shouldn’t feel the way you feel to make you feel better. I’m helping you feel better because I’m letting you know that wherever you are is safe and okay with me. And it’s not going to change your world. It’s not going to have this power to change your leaders or change the way we respond to you or make us mad at you for being so possessive.

We’re holding those boundaries. In this case, the sweater stays on that little girl and we’re encouraging you to share and comforting you by allowing you to spill it to us.

It’s a reframe, right? And it really applies to all these notes and all these situations that this parent shares.

She says her daughter does not accept that her chair be used by another child. Well, we’ve got to trust the daycare or to do what they need to manage those situations. So we don’t really have power to decide how they manage it. But if I was working at that childcare, I would do just what I’ve said to do about the sweater. I would say, if it’s fully appropriate for that other child to be on her chair, I would say, “Oh no, they’re on that chair with your picture on it. That’s your chair, that’s right. And they’re sitting there right now. Ugh.”

And if I had to do something else and I didn’t have time to take her on my lap and maybe she doesn’t want to be on my lap, of course we have to be open to that too. We’re not trying to fix you and make you calm down by pulling on our lap. We’re just offering you that support in an age appropriate way and temperament appropriate way. Meaning, you might not be the kind of child that wants that. You might want to be really mad right there. But if I had to move or do something, I would say, “come next to me and share with me all the way that we’re going over there how you feel. I want to hear about that.” Or maybe I’d say, “I’ve got to come right back. But you really don’t want her on there. I can’t let you pull her off. I’m not going to let you touch her, but you can tell me.”

The last parent was talking about, “it takes them such a long time to calm down.” It will surprise you how much more quickly children calm down actually when you’re not trying to calm them down. When instead of calming them down, you’re hearing them at full force, acknowledging the strength of their feelings without fear or discomfort coming from us, because we feel safe too.

Getting to that place to feel safe with it, that is a challenge. It’s a huge challenge.

Let’s see, the other one’s here, she said, ‘picks a toy and doesn’t let go of it the entire day.’ I mean, if that’s okay with the daycare, that’s fine, but I wouldn’t be afraid to take it away if that’s not appropriate.

“Does not tolerate that my husband or myself hold another baby or hug another child.” Holding another person’s baby, probably not necessary. And maybe that is cutting a little too close to the core for her. I would be sensitive to that.

“Hugging another child,” that hug finishes and then you can hear her and respond to her. But I would not be afraid.

Reacting strongly to the chair, somebody’s in the wrong chair and having a tantrum, yeah, as this parent said, she, she realizes she needs to stay in the chair. And I would say, “You don’t want me to sit here! You want to be the one to tell us where to sit.” But I would show her by staying where I am that I’m not going to move, and she’s safe to share that with me.

And then this parent said, she spends a lot of time identifying whose objects belong to whom. So that’s a very healthy, appropriate way to be expressing your feeling of wanting a sense of control of your environment. No one’s getting bothered or hurt by her saying, “this is papa’s, this is mama’s, this is mine.” She’s settling herself into what she knows, the predictability of it, where everything is and where she fits in her world. And that is the opposite of unsettling (where some of these other behaviors come from). It’s settling. It’s okay, this is where I am. This is my power in the house as the child, and I know all these things and where everything goes. So that’s an example of healthy expression of wanting that sense of control.

So to answer this parent’s question about identifying the right balance, she needs the boundaries as his parents said. But I wouldn’t give her boundaries just to give her boundaries. I would give her boundaries because you know that this is getting to the point of I just want everyone to sit where I want ’em to sit and do what I want them to do. And that’s where it gets into unhealthy expressions of desire for control that are not her job in the house. They don’t come under the heading of healthy for a two-year-old. That’s where we want to draw those lines and not jump up and try to please her and make her feel, therefore, less settled. Too powerful. Everybody’s intimidated by me. They don’t want me to have a tantrum. They don’t want me to be upset.

It may look calmer on the outside, but it’s that tea kettle again. It’s like holding it all in. That’s an uncomfortable feeling for a child to have.

So this other baby on the way, it sounds like this parent handling it great, giving her a healthy sense of control with the preparation. But as this parent says, she still expects there to be a challenging transition, right? We can’t avoid that because I mean, there’s no preparation that can help a child prepare for all the feelings that will come up for them. And in this case, it’ll be that theme of, whoa, I don’t have control over this situation! So she’s going to be probably flailing around to hold onto those unhealthy places of control, but let her have the healthy ones.

This parent says she’s apprehensive. Well, yeah, I can understand that, but I would try to face the music knowing you can handle this as long as you’re okay with her having these feelings and having tantrums and going through that transition that she’s going to go through emotionally. And the sooner she goes through it, the sooner she’ll be on the other side of it. If you could face that without fear yourself knowing, yeah, she’ll scream and you’ll be wanting to hold the baby and maybe you will have nice, cozy places for the baby to be so you don’t have to be holding the baby all the time because most babies don’t need to be held every single second, maybe you’ll be able to be sensitive that way to the needs of your two-year-old. But when you do, then yeah, you’re going to get feelings coming at you. And the more you can feel safe, and welcome those even, the easier it’ll all be.

Because even in these preparations, if we’re telling her all about this stuff with this apprehension inside, that’s actually going to come through. It’s like when someone’s telling you, “well, it’s going to be like this and it’s all going to be all right. And look, you get to do this and you’re going to have this room…” but inside I’m feeling apprehension. That’s what my child’s gonna pick up.

So as much as you can, think about calming yourself, owning your power as this leader and knowing it is going to be messy. It is going to be a thing, but you’ll be there as a family and you’ll get through it as all families do. No matter what you do, it’s not going to be perfect. It’s gonna be rough.

And then you’ll have these moments where, wow, nobody’s crying right now. What’s going on? Let those be a happy surprise.

This parent says, and she uses all caps when she says, “I would like to be equipped with knowledge on how to react with CONFIDENCE and CONSISTENCY to help her navigate her new reality.” So help her navigate it by encouraging her to navigate it her way with her feelings. Not letting her make the decisions about who does what or who belongs where or what other people are doing, but letting her make her own decisions about herself when it’s appropriate, about her play, about what she wants to talk about, who owns this and that. “And I actually don’t want the baby to be in that bed.”

“Oh gosh, yeah, you don’t want the baby you used to be in that room. That was your room. You don’t want the baby to ever be there.” Or, “you don’t want me to be holding the baby right now.”

So all those normal impulses, consider. We’re still going to do them, we’re still going to have them. But just think about it a little after and maybe try to take a baby step towards shifting.

And this is for all the parents that wrote to me… We’re not going to be able to turn on a dime, but we can turn a corner to a new direction where we remind ourselves, oh, I’m arguing my case instead of not being afraid for her to feel in conflict with my wants for her. That’s the challenge. Letting the feelings be, once again.

I really hope some of this helps. And I also want to share this news with you that you may not have heard…

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

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