A frustrated parent writes that she and her partner are feeling like failures because their 2.5-year-old is pushy and demanding to the point that they end up losing their patience and yelling. Most challenging of all is that the toddler screams when she doesn’t get her way — and sometimes for no reason at all. Occasionally, they’ve screamed right back. “I know,” this parent admits, “a very low point.” Janet offers insights as to the cause of the child’s behavior and a perspective shift to help ease this mom’s concerns while also improving their parent-child relationship dynamics.
Transcript of “Worn Down by a Toddler’s Screams, Tests, and Demands”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.
This week I’m responding to a parent who reacted to an article of mine that I reposted recently called Set Limits Without Yelling. She has a two-and-a-half-year-old, and the child seems to be constantly testing her, and this parent’s struggling to keep a cool head.
So just to give you a sense of this article, if you haven’t read it, I discussed what I call some common discipline missteps. And by missteps I don’t mean that we’re terrible parents or we’re doing these terribly wrong things. It simply means that these are things we do because we think they’re going to help, but they actually get in our own way because they tend to exacerbate and maybe intensify our children’s concerning behavior. Now, these are normal things that we all do, so there’s no judgment here. But it will help us to notice that these can set us up for more problems, so it’s good to get a handle on them. One is yelling. Two is not setting limits early enough, which often leads to us yelling or feeling like yelling. Three, we’re not following through, which can also lead us to yelling.
And here’s the comment I received:
Oh, Janet, this comes right in the moment when I’m feeling so sad because I feel like a failure. I’m struggling with my two-and-a-half-year-old, who’s testing me dozens of times a day. Reading this makes me think that I too wait much longer than I should before taking action, until I feel worn out with no patience left at all, and I end up yelling. It doesn’t help that she’s always looking for me, doing things with me, being on my lap, or even nursing. As soon as I sit down, she comes looking for nursies. When she plays, she wants me there eight times out of ten. And since beginning playschool (not sure what it’s called in English), anyway, it’s the school I work at as well. So she sees me there with other kids. It’s obviously gotten worse. She wants mommy for every single thing, even feeding sometimes. She doesn’t want to be left home with anybody else but me when I try to go out once a week, the only two hours I keep for myself all week to exercise. I try to have quality time with her every day, but I obviously have a house to run besides work, so I can’t spend all the time playing with her.
The icing on the cake is the screaming. She’s done that for ages. First, screaming for no reason, and she has a voice so loud, it’s unbelievable. Now, both for no reason and when she can’t have something the way she’d like. We tried ignoring first, then telling her that’s not the right way to ask or say things, and replying only when she would say things in a normal voice. That worked sometimes, but not every time. Possibly because we lost it a few times, me and my partner. Maybe she knows that’s a switch for us. When she yells right in your ear and you go deaf for a moment, it’s really hard to keep cool. So sometimes we actually yell back: Stop screaming! Do you like this? I know, a very low point.
I never thought it would get like this, that I would end up this tired, frustrated, and miserable for knowing I’m not doing her any favor by being this weak. But that is where we are right now. I have to admit, I’m relieved those days when she naps in the afternoon. Happens rarely, and I know it shouldn’t be this way. I portrayed her like a bad kid. Obviously she’s not. It’s just as if there was a communication breakdown many times. Sorry for venting this out. This article made me think I need to try again in a different manner. Hopefully, we’re still in time. I will try to make some time for reading as many older posts as I can and read again your book. I have it and loved it, but it seems I need a lot of repetition to get things to stick in my brain.
Okay, so let’s see what we can do to help this little one and help this family. It sounds like this parent is having a hard time taking that leadership role in the house with her child. And this is a very young child, just two and a half. So she really needs to know that she’s not the one with all the power in the house and that, ideally, even her loudest scream isn’t going to jar her parents too much.
Now, I know that’s asking a lot of this parent or anybody, and maybe it seems impossible, but it’s just a mentality to work toward. Of course, sometimes, the scream, it’s going to catch us by surprise and it’ll be right in our ear and we’re going to jump a little. And this child sounds like the kind of child that really does have a lot of intense emotions to share at this age. That doesn’t mean she’s going to grow up to be a screamer or a person that just loses it at the drop of a hat. So if that’s a concern for you, you can cross it off your list. She has very low impulse control and emotional self-control at this age, as all children do. And this sounds like an intense character. She’s probably going to be a very powerful person in a lot of ways, strong-willed. And so I would meditate on the truth that she’s a dynamic person that needs to vent loudly. In these cases, scream.
And she actually has reasons to scream. She’s in group care for a good part of the day. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s a lot of stimulation and there’s stress that’s created in these situations, along with all the positive learning and socializing. And then on top of that, her parent is in the vicinity there. Yet, she doesn’t have her parent’s attention like she does at home. She has to share this most precious, important person to her with all these other children. And that becomes a big distraction for her and makes it even more challenging to be in that group environment, which is already a challenge for most children. Yes, it’s also a plus for her to have her parent there, but it brings up mixed feelings because she’s sharing her, and sharing her parent is hard.
And the reason to understand all of this is to know that, particularly at the end of the day, I would expect that she’s going to have some blasts and some venting to share with her loved ones. It can help us so much to try to accept this as part of the situation that we’re in. It doesn’t mean we need to change this situation, but just to understand the whole picture and how it’s likely affecting our child, and normalizing that for ourselves.
And then the big key to navigating this is to know the difference between what she wants and what she really needs. For example, she doesn’t need to be sitting on your lap all the time. She doesn’t need to be nursing whenever she wants. She doesn’t need to have her parent playing with her and have her attention all of the time. She really does not need those things. She’s wanting them right now, on the surface at least. But what she actually needs is to be able to share the feelings from her day, and how so much of it was out of her control and yet she managed.
And this theme of control, it’s also a big one for this developmental age that this girl is in. She’s a toddler. This is a time when children are feeling this separation from their parent into being more of their own person. Which is positive and exciting, right? That autonomy. But along with that comes, Yikes, if I’m more separate, that means my parent is also separate from me and I don’t control them. How dare they? So this girl pushes for control. She demands of her parents, she screams. And then that tips over into her becoming completely unraveled, crying, more screaming, dysregulated, tantrums. She’s letting go. She’s releasing the feelings she’s been holding onto. And on some level hoping, I believe, that her parent could accept these feelings and not be intimidated by them. Which we do when we can remain that safe leader with our own strong personal boundaries around our bodies and our comfort. So, we’re deciding when it’s okay for her to sit on our lap and when it’s comfortable for us and when it’s okay to nurse. The clearer we can be about that, the better, because the clearer we are, the less distracted and caught up in all of this pushing and seeking boundaries our child is going to be. The freer our child will be to vent what she needs to vent. The more comfortable she’ll be, knowing she is not in charge, knowing that, at two and a half, she doesn’t control and have all this power to upset these giant grown-up people in her life that she needs to be rock solid.
So, I know it’s easy for me to say you’ve got to be more of a leader and you can do this. The hard part for all of us is the part where our children don’t agree with our decisions and they say they really want something or they show us that they really do seem to need something. And our heart, especially if we’ve been working all day and maybe we don’t have tons of time with our child, our heart sinks and we think, Oh dear, maybe I’ve been neglecting her, or maybe she does need this, and oh gosh, she only asked for a hug, or she just asked to sit with me. Yes, I was just sitting with her before and hugging her, but it’s all she’s asking. Or, she just wants somebody to play with her. What’s wrong with that? We question ourselves. I can go there very easily with children. I’m a big softie myself with all of that, so I understand those thoughts that can go through our minds and those worries and how hard it is.
Children, I mean, especially children like this, they can be very persuasive. They know what gets to us. And this child has sensed that this perfect scream, that’s going to rattle you and demand your attention, even if she’s gotten a negative reaction to this, she’s compelled to keep going there until this is somehow normalized for her. Meaning you can find a perspective shift in yourself to help this stop getting such a big rise out of you. She doesn’t do this because she’s an evil child, as you know, but it’s as if she’s got to see if her parents are really on top of this. If they’re really seeing how tiny and in need of leadership she is. She may seem so powerful and huge in those moments, but she doesn’t want to be. She wants to be the child, nested by her loving parents. So this girl’s going to have to go all the way to all of the usual things that get to her parents. Which she knows quite well, children are expert learners this way. So she’s going to check, Is this going to get to them? Is that going to get to them? How do they feel about their leadership and their decisions in this area? How do they feel about it there? Ooh, how does my mom feel about saying no to nursing? And of course, this isn’t a conscious strategy or manipulation on her part. It’s this healthy instinct to find where the boundaries are, and to find the strong leaders that she knows she needs to keep her safe.
And it all stems from this positive connection that she’s had with her parents since she was a baby. So, to be able to help her find those safe boundaries, we’ll need to get clarity on the difference between her needs and her wants. Yes, she needs attention from her parent every day. It could be just a few minutes here and a few minutes there, a full attention. Sometimes we’ll have longer to give her. But the goal is to give her undivided attention periodically, when we can. Especially I would prioritize when she’s eating, when she’s nursing, the times that you do decide that you’re going to nurse.
And I would decide that ahead of time with her and have a routine around that that you stick to. Because, yes, babies do need nursing on demand. But with a toddler, part of their job is to demand. To see if there are reasonable boundaries, that in this case will ideally stem from that parent being authentic with the child about their wishes, rather than as an aim to please. And will also stem from our ability to see the bigger picture, which is that demanding nursing, demanding anything, especially when children sense we’re unsure about it, it’s a stuck place for toddlers, preschoolers, and beyond. It’s a big distraction for them when they have an unclear, ambivalent parent. So I recommend deciding when are the good times for you to do this that would work for you and your child, and then really sticking to that. That releases a child from having to ask all the time. She may still ask, but at least she’s getting that consistent response that, This is when we do it. And then she can accept that more.
But, if we feel a little bit guilty when we say no, or if we’re unsure, or even just a little sad about it, or we’re wavering in any way, then our child’s going to have to keep asking and asking. And that’s true with all of these limits: sitting on your lap, having you play with her. With play, I recommend sitting with her while she plays when you do have the time. Really giving her your full attention, not having your phone, not having any distractions there. So that you feel clean and clear about it, and she gets what she actually needs there, which is some quality attention.
And then also clearly deciding when you need to do your own thing. So when she comes and wants to hang out right next to you, it’s okay for her to hang out right next to you. You’re not going to get rattled by it. You’re going to expect it, because this is what she’s shown you she does. And she’s still asking those questions: Is my parent sure? Is my parent going to be comfortable with setting her boundaries? So, you’re not going to stop what you’re doing. And, by not stopping, you’re going to actually take the power out of that activity for her, of following you around. Because you don’t mind whether she wants to follow you around or not. And even if she wants to ask 50,000 times to play with her, that’s okay. You’re still going to do what you’re doing.
And then every once in a while, not every time she says it, but every once in a while you’re going to say, Ah, I hear you, you still want to play with me. You don’t have to repeat the part about, I’m going to play with you after I do this or that. I would say that the first time. I’d be very clear and say, You really want me to play with you now, and, ah, it’s hard because I have to do this. I can play with you after dinner for a little while. I’ll sit with you then and I’m looking forward to it. So I would say that the first time. But from there, I would only periodically acknowledge her side of things, her feelings, from that place of assuredness in yourself, and not keep pleading our case with her. Because if we think about it, the reason that we get caught up in pleading our case and repeating our side is that we really just want our child to stop objecting and just agree to it. They usually can’t. Because they need that feeling of disagreement with us so that they can let go and be mad and release these tensions of the day.
But we’ll need to remind ourselves a lot that this needs to happen. It would be so nice if the feelings looked like, at the end of the day she says, Oh, it was so stressful today. All these children were there and it was so much fun and we did this or that. But, you know, I’m exhausted and I just need to scream! I need to run around! I need to yell! I need to cry! If children could just say it like that, wouldn’t it be easier for us to make peace with this for ourselves? I mean, I would love that if children were that clear. But they’re not, because they don’t know themselves what’s causing these things and what’s going on with them, exactly. So instead, it looks like what this child is doing: Play with me. Play with me. I need to nurse. Nursies! All these things that they know are going to get to us.
Yes, they need our attention and connection in these situations, but it’s a very different kind of attention. It’s our willingness to see, hear, and still lead them. That kind of attention. They need to have us be able to say, Ah, you’re saying this, that you’re not happy with my choice, but this is my choice. And for us to know in our heart, in every soul of our body actually, that we’re being a great parent here. That we’re being a respectful, empathic leader, accepting that our children aren’t happy with our choices. That’s parenting right there in a nutshell. Tell me more about how mad you are that I’m not playing with you right now. Like, really going all the way to that extent, where we can even start to feel like this is a positive exchange for us to be in. Instead of the usual thing: Oh, yikes. Maybe I’m doing it wrong. I’m not giving her enough. She’s not happy. And that means I’m a failure and I’m a terrible parent. That’s where most of us go. And, by the way, every parent I’ve known, myself included, is relieved when their child goes down for a nap. So please, this parent, don’t beat yourself up for that or anything else.
And again, I realize it’s so easy for me to say this girl needs more leadership from her parent, but what that actually looks like is challenging. I know. It’s our job, though. I mean, this is the job that we take when we become parents. We have to be the leaders for our children. They can’t be the ones that are leading in the house and charging everybody up with their two-and-a-half-year-old shenanigans.
So, to this parent, you’ve got a great girl here. You’ve got a blustery, strong girl. She’s going to be very persuasive in whatever she does. But she may also need to scream, at least a little, or cry every day. And the more fluid this dynamic can become for both of you, the better. You’re not abandoning her to do that. You’re just accepting. And accepting means that we don’t try to fix it, that we trust it, and we go about the things that we need to do. And if we can’t stop to be there for her when she’s upset, then we’ll say, Ah, you just want to scream when I say no to you about that. I’m going to go in here right now and I’ll be back to check on you. And then if she follows you, just carry on and trust that it’s a really okay dynamic to be in.
In fact, I honestly believe this is quality time. Especially for us when we’re working or we don’t have a lot of time with our children. This is what quality time will end up looking like: hearing the feelings as we hold our boundaries. And then later, if we’re lucky, we’ll continue to get to hear these disappointments that children have. Their first love and maybe the feelings aren’t returned, or they didn’t make the team. This is the same thing. Creating that safety and accepting these disagreeable exchanges and strong feelings. This is where it starts, and ends up being all those things that most of us want to be as parents, that safe person that accepts our child in all their states.
So this mother says she needs a lot of reminders and repetition. Well, we all do, I think. I still do with my much older children. I still need to remember, Oh, that’s right. This is healthy for them to not be happy, either with me or with their life right now. And thank goodness they can express it. Thank goodness they’ve bestowed me with this gift of being able to trust me with their feelings, and that I’m not going to try to take them away, or I’m not going to try to shift them and give into something, just to make them feel better. So I really hope some of that helps.
And, by the way, I want to tell you about my No Bad Kids Master Course. This course delves deeply into the topics I shared in this podcast and many, many more, so that I can finally give you, all in one place, the whole picture on my respectful, empathic discipline approach. You can check out all the details at nobadkidscourse.com or via my website, janetlansbury.com. I can’t wait to share this with you.
And thank you so much for listening. We can do this.