Janet responds to 3 separate messages from parents who are having issues with their children that are making them confused and unsure of themselves. While the details of the children’s behaviors all differ, Janet identifies a common theme in the parents’ reactions and attitudes that she believes is perpetuating the behavior. She offers suggestions for how these parents can shift their perspective, gain more confidence in their role as leaders, and respond in a manner that resolves the true need behind the “wants” their children are expressing.
Transcript of “Weird, Worrying Behaviors That Our Child Keeps Repeating”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.
Today is an interesting one for me. I have three different messages I received from parents with issues that, on the surface, seem totally different from each other. But there’s actually a running theme in them. And many of the challenges that we face as parents come under these headings. Our children’s behavior makes us uncomfortable, confused, or at least a little unsure or uncertain. And that little rise that children pick up coming from us, it could just be the slightest raised eyebrow with some more sensitive children, it has this way of captivating children, holding their curiosity. And it can become a sticky place that they, on some level, need to keep exploring with us: Why do I have this power to throw this parent, who is god-like to me, off balance? And I actually receive many questions from parents that come under these categories, but I’ve chosen just a few that came in recently. And I really hope that these themes I bring up can help parents with all kinds of different specific issues that stem from this sense that children get of getting a rise out of us and how they need to explore that.
Okay, this first question came in an Instagram message:
I’m the mother of a wonderfully smart, curious, high-energy five-year-old boy. He often asks us questions he clearly already knows the answer to. Would love your wisdom on why he asks those questions. I thought perhaps it’s because he wanted to get our attention more or connect with us more. But he does it all the time, no matter the situation. For example, we could have spent the whole day together and he’ll still ask how old he is. It can be frustrating and tiring as a parent, and I’m wondering how to help the situation. Many thanks.
So that’s weird, right? Why would a child be doing this? With what this parent’s given me, well, the hint is “it can be frustrating and tiring as a parent.” So maybe she’s worried that she isn’t connecting with him enough or giving him enough attention, and that’s coming into this. But for some reason, understandably, she’s feeling like, This is annoying. There’s something wrong, and I don’t know what it is, and it’s really winding me up. That’s understandable, right? But it’s because she’s getting wound up that he’s stuck doing it.
So what I would recommend to this parent is, whenever he asks, just right away answer, without any attitude: Well, I think it’s ____. Another thing, sometimes we want our child to have the answers, and maybe we think, I shouldn’t be giving him the answers because I want him to discover these himself. Which might be true in some instances but in this case, because it’s become a thing for him, I would just give him that answer right away. Ah, you know, as a matter of fact, you’re five years old, last I counted. And with no attitude, just totally willing. That willingness will erase the curiosity that he has around this because he’ll be satisfied with that really comfortable, unruffled response he’s getting.
This happens to all of us, by the way, with certain things. Sometimes it’s about a personal fear. Like, When I was a child, I was shy, and I don’t want my child to have to go through that too. So whenever they’re behaving in a manner that makes it seem like maybe they’re shy, it makes me uncomfortable and want to help them out of that feeling into being less shy. That’s a loving parent thing that we can feel. But from the child’s point of view, that feels like, Wow, now they’re uncomfortable. Well, that makes me feel more uncomfortable and more shy in this situation. So it can be that feedback loop. It can also be things that we’re maybe beating ourselves up about as parents, which is obviously never a good idea. Like, Uh-oh, I’m not giving him enough attention, uh-oh, I’m not allowing him to problem-solve enough. Those kinds of uh-ohs.
So I have a couple more questions from parents that will echo some of these ideas. But this next one, the next two actually, have sort of a subcategory where I’m going to talk a little about the difference between accepting and encouraging feelings versus accommodating or honoring them. There’s an important difference there. So this next one came as a comment on one of my posts, I can’t even remember which one at this point. But this parent says:
My three-year-old struggles with confidence a lot, but in a slightly different way. She will say, “I can’t do this!” all the time, when I know she can. Like something very ridiculous, like grabbing a toy in front of her. I ask, “What seems to be the issue?” To that, she proceeds with, “I just can’t do it because I am Emma. Emma can’t do things.” She needs me to pick her up and carry her to another room because she says she can’t. And if I don’t do it, she will say I don’t love her and don’t help her and many other very similar examples. It’s truly breaking my heart. And I know I overdid it with entertaining her and helping her between ages one to two-and-a-half years old. However, I never said she can’t do something as a way of being critical. I don’t know how to turn it around anymore. I never pressure her, really, but she becomes so distressed when I lovingly place a boundary and tell her to do it herself, “Pick that toy,” for example, that she regresses even further into her behavior. I feel like I’ve messed up my child forever, as she believes she can’t do anything herself.
Wow. So yeah, this parent, they’re really bagging on themselves hard, it sounds like. And I would love to try to help relieve some of this pressure this parent’s putting on herself, because that’s exactly what’s creating the issue. I can see that because when she says, It’s breaking my heart, I know I overdid something, her child is sensing that brokenhearted, “these are such bad signs that I’m getting from this child” parent. And that is what’s drawing this child in to getting stuck doing this kind of on the surface silly stuff, right?
I know it’s hard not to as parents, but I would try not to rush to judgment with a child, deciding she’s struggling with confidence. Because I’m not seeing that at all in the rest of this comment. I’m seeing a child who’s exploring her parent with a lot of confidence and almost kind of controlling her by making these requests that play into the parent’s vulnerabilities. I mean, we could call this kind of bossy here.
What I would suggest to this parent is, first of all, try to step out of this story that she’s created around this, about herself and her failings, and that her child is struggling with confidence. Try to put that all aside because I think that’s clouding this parent’s perceptions so much. And from my perspective, I don’t believe really any of that is true or as severe as this parent is worried that it is. It’s definitely not as fixed as this parent says it is, because at the end she says, “I feel like I’ve messed up my child forever as she believes she can’t do anything herself.” So wow, this parent’s decided she’s already done something and it’s unchangeable. That’s really hurtful, right, for us? And, again, I would love for this parent to just stop believing this and to lighten up on herself. Because all this stuff this child is doing, as perplexing and as kind of odd as it is, it’s not unfamiliar to me. At all. And again, I’ll say, it comes from a place of strength, from what I’ve seen. So if this parent could put those fears aside, at least try putting those aside for a bit, absolving herself, absolving her child. Nothing is fixed with children or relationships or any of us throughout life, right? We’re always evolving, changing, growing, learning.
How can this parent change the messaging here that her child may be getting? If her child says “I can’t do this” and it’s something right in front of her, saying, Oh my gosh, you feel like you can’t do that right now. But if it’s easy for me, I’ll just do it, I’ll pick it up. Okay, here you go. Kind of like what I was saying about the boy: This is nothing. This is no big deal. This isn’t making me doubt myself, blame myself, and have all this fear around it. I’ll just do it. She’s kind of pulling my leg here, really. Like, Oh really? Are you going to fall for this one? And because I’m a loving parent who wants the best for my child and is maybe not as secure as I could be in my abilities as a parent, I’m getting kind of crushed by this instead of seeing that this girl is being so tricky and silly with me with this little test.
So the way I don’t fall for that is to not take it so seriously. This parent says she responds, “What seems to be an issue?”
So that sounds to me quite serious and coming from her own uncomfortable place. Understandable. But I wouldn’t let this little girl mess with me like that. Oh, you can’t do it. Okay, here you go. And then when this parent got serious with her, she said, “I just can’t do it because I’m Emma and Emma can’t do things.” And I can feel that going to the parent’s heart: Oh no, she’s got this terrible feeling about herself from me. But I believe this is a place that this child has caught on is vulnerable for the parent, and she’s just throwing it out there. I don’t believe in her heart that she feels that Emma can’t do things. I mean, Emma’s doing a lot. She’s got this adult jumping to help her. That’s not, I can’t do things. That’s, I’m controlling adults in my life. So don’t buy it. You don’t have to call her on it. I would just say, Okay here, or, Oh, you feel like Emma can’t do things. That’s a feeling you have about yourself, that you can’t do things. That’s accepting the feelings versus accommodating them.
But when the little girl says, Pick me up and carry me to another room, because I can’t, I can’t, I can’t possibly do this myself! If I don’t need her to go to that other room and I don’t feel like carrying her, I’ll just say, You want me to carry you, but I don’t feel like carrying you right now. I’m going to go in there and you come in when you’re ready. Or maybe I would just say, Okay, I love carrying my little girl. But I would be decisive from that place of confidence in myself that this little child and all children really need from us. They need to feel that we can do our job as leaders. So make a decision: I’m either going to carry her happily or I’m not, and she can be upset and that’s okay. Decide what would help you. Would it help you to get her there? Is this bedtime? Do you need to get her in the room? Or she wants to get from here to there and it doesn’t matter to you whether she moves there or not? That’s how I would make my decision.
And then if I said no, and then she throws all this stuff at me, Then you don’t love me! and, You won’t help me, you’ve never in your whole life helped me! Children will go to these extreme places when they’re exploring on this unconscious level our vulnerabilities and kind of, I truly believe, hoping that we’ll get it together and see through their three-year-old behavior and demands and attempts to control that aren’t healthy for them. Doesn’t mean there’s anything terrible wrong here. It’s just a dynamic that’s getting perpetuated, that this parent can stop at any time when she sees beyond all these fears that she has, all these mistakes she feels she might have made. Even if she’s made any mistakes, they’re totally fixable and reversible. All we have to do with children this young, especially, is switch gears.
It helped me to see this with a very strong two- and three-year-old, my oldest daughter. It helped me to see this as: If I let her carry on like this with me, I’m kind of leaving her high and dry as a leader. I’m just falling into all of her machinations and stuff. I can do this job. I can be what she needs. All I have to do is see that she’s three years old. She’s saying a lot of stuff that she doesn’t necessarily mean, that aren’t deep, dark feelings in her. She’s learned that these get a rise out of me and she’s doing what young children do, which is learning, learning, learning, exploring those reactions.
So this is not a threatening situation or a damaging situation at all. It’s an interesting little puzzle that can be so easy for us as parents to get caught up in, because we care, because we love our children and we think they’re marvelous. And gosh, if we did anything to somehow weaken them or make them feel less capable or not give them the attention they need, as in the other case, that feels terrible. We can feel guilty about that. But nothing is permanent. These are little tiny neophytes that have a lot of growing and developing to do, as our relationship has a lot of growing and developing to do. And we are just going to keep learning.
So this parent says, “I don’t know how to turn it around anymore.” So that’s how to turn it around, really step back and take a look at what’s going on here: She can’t pick stuff up that’s right in front of her. Is this for real? It doesn’t make sense to me. Trust your common sense.
So, accommodating the feelings would be worrying that she can’t get the toy, so I’m going to grab it. And this parent says she needs her to pick her up. Well, she’s saying she needs that, but that doesn’t necessarily reflect an actual need because children don’t have a need to be picked up and carried around the house at this age. It’s a want, it’s not a need. But if I believe that this is a need and this is just a deep feeling that she’s having, then I’m going to get stuck catering to that, right? And that’s going to keep the cycle going because then my child wonders how she has so much power to create doubt in me and make me jump to do these things for her.
Here’s another one that came in an email:
My daughter’s having a fourth birthday party in a couple of weeks. She’s been as involved with the planning process as she’s wanted to be. We discussed inviting family, which is usually all we do for her birthday given her age. This year, she expressed she’d like to invite two girls from her class. I said that sounded good, and we moved about our day. When it came time to fill out invitations, she mentioned the two girls from her class again. Again, I acknowledged and made sure to make them invitations. When I let her know that they’d RSVP’d yes over dinner, she was excited.
Tonight she’s been unsettled and unable to sleep. She’s called me into her room multiple times. She asked me if I could talk. (Internally jumping, “Yes! Always!”) So I laid in bed with her as she told me she no longer wanted the two girls to be invited to her party, that she wanted me to contact their parents and uninvite them. I just listened calmly as she told me in various ways that she’d like to take back the invitation. Every once in a while when it felt appropriate, I’d say something along the lines of, You don’t want them at your party, or Sometimes our bodies can feel certain ways when big things come up. She continued to repeat herself and wanted my confirmation that I would talk to their mothers about uninviting them.
I know that she’s probably nervous and that this party is totally foreign to her. It’s probably scary anticipating something she doesn’t know anything about. No matter how much we plan, who can really prepare a four-year-old on what to expect? And now it’ll be overwhelming, with grandparents and family wanting to love on her. I understand her energy towards this and do not feel threatened by her request or surprised. My question is, what do I do? Do I honor her feelings? How do I answer her when she’s asking me to confirm I’ve canceled their invite? I’m asking not only in this situation, but for future inevitable occasions where she will want to cancel a playdate last minute or not want to see certain people. As parents, do we carry on with our lives or do we honor our child’s feelings and look at these as a warning before they are put in a situation they don’t want to be in or can’t handle? Thanks for your help.
Okay, so it feels like this parent is at least 85% in the direction that she knows makes sense, which is allowing for a child’s feelings but not accommodating them, not doing something that would be unkind to others. But what happened, I guess, is that she went along with what her child said in the moment, which is, I want to invite these friends. And then this parent doubted herself. She doubted whether her child was really ready to make those decisions and should the parent have let her? So that’s where the uncertainty started to come in for this parent, I think. And then she starts wondering, Oh gosh, this is going to be so much for her and she didn’t know what to expect when she did this.
And so one thing we can do is, at the outset of these kinds of decisions, we can make the adult decision. Is my child ready to invite friends or not? In this case, my thought would be it does sound like she was ready to invite friends. The fact that she immediately said she wanted to, she was excited about that. But then, yeah, she started to doubt, have mixed feelings like children do, in all the excitement of her upcoming birthday. And making all these plans herself is something I also recommend, helping her be a part of the party as much as possible, keeping it child-centered. But that also can add to our child’s excitement about it too. It adds to their being able to prepare themselves for what’s going to happen at the party. But it also kind of adds to, Now I’ve invested all these thoughts into this and I’m into this. So it can be a mixed bag there. And yeah, that does bring up uncomfortable feelings and sounds like this girl had regrets, changed her mind, Is this the right thing? The parent said she realized that her child would probably want the children there in the end, but she’s doubting herself. So this is how just a little bit of self-questioning can get in our child’s way. And it’s always so well-intentioned, right? We want to do the right thing.
Here’s what I wrote back to this parent. I actually was in a place, I was able to write back to her. I said:
The key is to welcome your daughter’s understandably wound-up feelings but not accommodate them, because that gives an unintended message: When you feel uncomfortable or in conflict, you need me to fix that for you. I don’t feel safe when you are upset and demanding. When in truth, these mixed feelings she’s having are a normal part of life. If she disinvites friends, she will likely regret that too.
So the answer I recommend is to hold the boundaries while welcoming the feelings, however she shares them. Something like, Ah, unfortunately, disinviting people isn’t an option because that would be hurtful and unkind. I hear you, though. It’s normal to change your mind or have second thoughts about a decision. You wish you could disinvite them. You really wish they weren’t coming. And leaving it there, just reflecting back what she’s actually saying, not adding on.
The more solid you feel about this decision/boundary, and the more confident you feel about allowing her to blast you about it, the sooner this will blow over. I can almost guarantee you she’ll be glad she had her friends there. But if you’re uncertain or go at this hoping to please her in the moment, this can become more about the two of you and something she needs to keep pushing and testing, even at the party. I hope that makes sense.
So this parent did write me back saying that did make sense to her and thank you. I didn’t hear what happened at the party. But yeah, honoring her feelings, that would be being rude to these other children, right? And I think her actual feelings were feeling torn, not that she’d really changed her mind from a reasonable place. But just, as this parent seemed to really understand, was going through it. She was in the, Oh, what am I doing? This is scary. What’s this going to be like? Relatable, right?
So how can we avoid getting caught up in these sorts of tornadoes with our children?
1) We can remind ourselves that feelings are passing and they are not facts and they often don’t come from a reasonable place in our child at their immature stage of life.
2) We can trust our common sense and the decisions that kids need us to make from our adult maturity and experience. They can’t make all the decisions.
3) And, I guess most of all, to believe in ourselves, believe in ourselves as leaders, and to keep stepping back to get perspective on the situation. And if we have a partner, getting their perspective. Because if you’re like me, I get very caught up in my head and my own stuff, and I lose perspective all the time. So, to have somebody else that you trust, a friend or a partner or an advisor, to help you see your way clear.
I really hope some of this helps.
And I’m super excited because the No Bad Kids Master Course is live, and I can’t wait to hear what you think about it. Please go check it out and, if you decide to go for it, I would love your feedback. Please go to nobadkidscourse.com, or you can also find the information through my website, janetlansbury.com.
Thank you so much for listening. We can do this.