Stuck in a Pattern of Frustration and Anger

In this episode: A parent laments the close relationship she used to enjoy with her daughter before having another child. Lately, her daughter has been testing limits, and she has found herself losing both her patience and her temper. “I really don’t want to continue this way with my daughter.” She’s wondering if Janet has any advice how she can remain calm and confident when her daughter seems intent on pushing her buttons.

Transcript of “Stuck in a Pattern of Frustration and Anger”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

Today I’m going to be sharing my response to an email from a parent who’s upset about what she feels is her deteriorating relationship with her almost three-year-old daughter. She feels like she spends most of their time together struggling to get her girl to cooperate or behave, and then, naturally, getting angry when she doesn’t. This parent really wants to find a healthier dynamic for their relationship.

Okay, here’s the email I received:

Hi, Janet. I have an almost three-year-old daughter and an almost three-month-old son. Since becoming pregnant and then having my son, my bandwidth for interacting with my daughter has lessened so much, which saddens me greatly. We used to have such a close relationship. And while I think we still do, it is tarnished with my lessened patience and losing my temper at times.

Today, for example, we went to the park. Leaving the park has become “a thing” now. It started with me losing my temper one time when she wouldn’t leave when I asked. Now it happens almost always. She runs away when I say we have to leave. I brace for it. Today I told her, “Bye, I’m leaving,” when she wouldn’t come. I did it out of anger and desperation. In hindsight, I realized that kind of threat is manipulative, hurtful, and maybe even scary for her. She was very overtired as it was. She sat down in the wood chips, crying and screaming.

She finally did come. I said, “You can hold my hand or go in the stroller.” As I’m writing this, I realize how much my angry emotion plays into all of this, and even maybe causes her behavior to deteriorate. Anyway, she sat down and wouldn’t walk. She wanted me to hold her. I told her I couldn’t. She said at one point she wanted the stroller, and then refused it. I was physically trying to restrain her into the stroller while she was shrieking. I felt absolutely terrible, I hate having to physically make her do something. It actually hurts me now that she’s fairly big. I ended up roughly pulling her along the grass to where we were going.

This was a low point in my parenting. I ended up crying, which I’m sure was very upsetting to her. It has happened before. A couple of times I told her, “I know you’re really upset that we have to leave,” but it didn’t help much. I was so upset, it was hard to focus on saying these things. I really don’t want to continue this way with my daughter, but once these patterns start, I find it so hard to change them. It also happened with diaper changing, but has improved since I stopped getting angry at her.

I just don’t know how to be calm and confident when I’m so frustrated. Any suggestions for what to do in the park situation and how to create a new pattern where I do not lose my marbles, and she actually complies in a reasonable time when I say we’re leaving? And then just random statements like, “Please don’t put stickers on the couch. You can put them on this, but not that.” I feel like I’m just constantly telling her to not do something. If she doesn’t stop, I usually tell her I will have to help her, but it just feels like I’m spending so much time on her back. No fun.

I know you have a million emails, so if I happen to hear anything back, I will be happily surprised. Thank you.

Okay, so I feel for this parent. This dynamic that she’s gotten into with her daughter, it’s actually pretty common. There are some elements that create this that I recommend this parent takes a look at and deals with at the cause. That’s always the most effective way to address children’s behavior. Just like with anything, we want to heal it at the cause, not just deal with it symptomatically. If we can address and heal what’s behind the behavior, that’s where we’ll see a change. And that’s very important to understand.

So in this situation, first of all, this little girl has a three-month-old sibling, and this tends to be an emotional crisis period for most children. It shows up in different ways for each child. They do have a lot of fear around this situation, around this change and what’s happened to their life. And usually it will need to be expressed by the child in the way that children do this, which is unfortunately through behavior, through limit pushing. And then when the parent is able to calmly and with, ideally, a lot of acceptance of the child’s feelings, push up against that and hold their boundaries, then the child is able to discharge the feelings, to release the feelings. And that could come out angrily. It could come out in a tantrum. It could come out in an overwhelmed flopping to the floor, crying, sadness. It can look a lot of different ways.

So the first thing I would say to this parent is, it sounds like she probably does understand that this is a big element to what’s going on and that she can expect her child to be pushing limits at this time. That is the healthy way that children get their feelings out. And those feelings ideally will feel safe for them to share, even when they show up in these most obnoxious ways. It’s not that we’re going to be joyful that our child is behaving this way and responding so unreasonably, just seeming not to listen, not to follow directions, pushing back at us. But we’re able to see this as a healthy dynamic, a typical dynamic, an expected dynamic, and understand our role in it, which is just to hold these limits and to accept the feelings. And see the feelings, see these desires just to stay at the park. And, like this mother said she did, acknowledging that.

But it sounds like the problem that this parent seems to already understand in herself is that she’s not helping her child to feel safe to land the feelings, because she is getting frustrated and angry when her daughter does these things. Now, there’s certainly nothing unusual or shameful about parents getting frustrated and angry with their children. We all do it, sometimes. But it’s important to understand that this actually creates more discomfort in our child. Therefore, it makes our job even harder because now we’re going to see that every time our child is uncomfortable, there’s going to be more of this kind of behavior because they need to release those feelings of discomfort and fear. So now we’re adding the fear that, from the child’s point of view, Not only do I feel so in a crisis that I’m doing these crazy, impulsive things, but my parents are angry with me. These people that I need to help me in these situations and see where I am and help me early, they’re rejecting me for this. They see me as wrong and bad, and yikes! What that does is it makes feelings that are already very scary and uncomfortable for a child, even more scary, even more overwhelming.

But on our end, the reasons we do get frustrated are that we have this different expectation than the one that will ultimately help us. We maybe have the expectation that our child should be able to leave the park, or our child should be able to not put stickers on the couch when they know they’re not supposed to. Because children are, certainly at three years old, intelligent enough not to do these things. They do understand what we want, so hey, why aren’t they doing it? Because they’re seeking, unconsciously, that boundary. They’re seeking that safe place to push up against so that they can land their feelings. And if we have that kind of outlook as a parent, that kind of perception of the situation, that expectation, that will help us to not get frustrated. There’s still nothing wrong with us if we do, but getting frustrated is perpetuating the problem. So it’s something to go for: a perception that helps us get less frustrated.

Then the other part of this is the way that we actually handle the behavior. It’s my sense that this mother may be waiting way too long to be physical with her child. She comments that she doesn’t like being physical, and yeah, that’s a problem that I hear often. And I really understand, especially if what we know of physicality from a parent was out of anger and frustration. That doesn’t feel good, right? But when we see all physicality as a problem, it really does get in the way, because caring for young children, they need this feeling that we can handle them, no matter what they throw at us. That we’re going to be able to somehow pick them up or get them out of those situations, and that we’re going to be able to help them do things that they’re not able to do. And, ideally, without losing our temper or being rough or being angry.

The way to do that is to first expect it on some level. Expect that there’s going to be this kind of behavior. If we’ve seen it in the past, if we know that our child is in a big transition, like the transition to a new sibling, we want to try to expect it and then see it at the outset when it’s starting. For example, with the stickers on the couch, I wouldn’t even say, “please don’t do that,” because I could see that my child is already doing something that my child knows I don’t want them to do. So instead of telling them something that they already know, I want to notice, Okay, they’re doing some funny business there, so I’m going to calmly make sure that this doesn’t happen. I go over to my child. Mm, you’ve got those stickers, I see. I’m not going to let you do that. And I’m already physically stopping my child right there. That physical limit-setting is what children crave, especially when there’s a baby involved who’s getting a lot of physical care, a lot of touch, a lot of holding and carrying. So for that reason as well, they feel the need for that.

And that’s why it’s so important for parents to perceive this, as much as possible, as positive. A positive, loving exchange when you’re actually doing something that, yes, it’s against your child’s will in that moment, but you’re doing it with love and kindness and confidence. You’re taking that little bear cub and you’re stopping those little paws from doing this or that. And you’re picking them up and taking them out of the park.

And, with the park, she says this has become “a thing.” So yes, see it coming. Anticipate, not in a negative, Oh, here we go again! way, but, Okay, my child’s struggling with this, so I’m going to help. And then go close when it’s time to leave. If possible, we don’t want to signal by saying, “Okay, it’s time to go!” when our child has shown this behavior of having difficulty leaving, because then we’re kind of signaling, All right, we’re going to enter this power struggle now! We’re going to go back to this routine that we’ve had up until now!

Toddlers that have babies at home or younger siblings or other reasons that they have strong feelings, maybe they’re in another kind of big transition, like they’ve just moved or they’re starting a new school or something’s happening with their parents’ relationship– they’re very likely not able to leave the park. It’s those little transitions that do them in. And, as this parent says, she realized her child was overtired. So yeah, it becomes impossible for them. But rather than putting your card out there for her to see, that it’s time to go, from afar, don’t say anything until you’re right up next to her. Okay, it’s time. It’s time for us to go. And now you’ll already have your hand on her shoulder or your arm around her back. Here we go. We’ve got to go now.

And then if you feel any resistance, you move right through it. Confident momentum. If possible, you pick her up, you help her into the stroller. The sooner you do it, the less likely that you’ll be facing a struggle in return. But even if there is a struggle, we want to still keep moving through it as best as we can. Yes, this can be hard sometimes with a bigger child, maybe it even hurts us. But every time we take one of these actions, we’re going to prevent more of this. So we’re actually improving this situation, healing it from happening again, by doing this messy thing. I know it’s not fun, and sometimes it’s not easy, you might get kicked or hit a little bit. But if we do the best we can to move through that, that’s going to save us from this happening a bunch of other times.

It’s going to take this out of becoming “a thing” into becoming a time when a parent puts their arm around you and moves you along with love. Seeing this as positive, seeing this as a loving exchange that our child wants to have with us, needs to have with us. That’s the key to not getting frustrated, not getting upset, not being too rough, or even anything remotely close to abusive. Is it forceful? Yes, forceful with love and kindness. It’s a loving act, and it’s a million times more loving than threatening that we’re going to leave or losing our temper or asking our child more than once, even. If we hear ourselves asking our child to do something or not do something more than once, then usually that means we’re already too late in physically following through with that limit.

But of course, we’re not going to be perfect at this. And, when we realize after the fact that it didn’t work or we weren’t at our best, we got angry, we yelled at our child, we did things we regret. It can be really helpful after this kind of situation, like after the park or whatever, when it didn’t go well, to consider with self-compassion, Huh? Where was I going there in my mind? Why did I get so upset? Exploring this in ourselves, with a lot of love and kindness towards ourselves. We’re all on a journey, and the goal is to make slow progress. Sometimes it’s going to be two steps forward, one step back, or one step forward, two steps back. But we can pat ourselves on the back if our goal is to continue moving forward.

So when this mother says that the little girl sat down and wouldn’t walk, ideally we would want to be there soon enough, and before we talk about leaving the park, so that she doesn’t have that time to sit down and get more set in that kind of power struggle. But if she does, I would still try to get in there right away, pick her up. And if the baby’s there, I would consider having the baby safe in a stroller and not be carrying the baby if that’s possible at that time. Because it can be really hard for a toddler to see the baby right up there next to you, and that’s going to make it more likely that she’s going to have a hard time in that exchange and need to express feelings around it. So just for ourselves, it’s easier if we can be physically available to our toddler, but I realize that’s not always possible. So if we’re not and we have a baby in a carrier, or we need to hold the baby, then just know that we have to be even more confident. And use what I call confident momentum: coming in early, ready to move, expecting that this might be an issue, getting that momentum going. It makes up for physical strength that we might not feel. And some parents have physical issues and they can’t pick their child up every time. Confidence makes up for a lot. When we have that motion going, we don’t need to use as much physical strength. Because we’re in the zone, we’re in this mode that we’re not mad at our child and we’re just going to help them. We’re going to make this happen.

So that’s how I would break this pattern. By being physical right away, by using confident momentum, and definitely not expecting that words are going to be enough. They’re just not. Our words don’t have that much power with a child that has reasons to want to dig their heels in. So I would say a lot less and expect to do more and do it a lot earlier. Not getting to that stage of telling her to do something, and then if she doesn’t stop, now I have to tell her, “I’m going to help you.” It will work better if she just helps her right away, without signaling it. And at this time in this child’s life, for whatever reason—in this case, there’s a good reason, the transition to the baby. But for whatever reason, she’s showing that she does need help right at the outset of these behaviors. And then this parent will see that she’s not going to be spending so much time on her daughter’s back. There may be periods where it feels like she’s constantly moving her daughter through or stopping her daughter from this or that, but it will all pass much sooner if she can move through with confidence as a leader. Perceiving this as loving, knowing that this is what children want. I hope that helps.

And there’s much more help on the way because … at last! I’ve created the No Bad Kids Master Course to give you all the tools and perspective you need to not only understand  and respond effectively to your children’s behavior but also build positive, respectful, relationships with them for life! Check out all the details at ♥

Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.













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

  1. What are your recommendations for times when physical intervention is very difficult, like during breastfeeding, when there are no other adults available to physically intervene with the toddler but the baby needs to nurse?

    1. Hi Eli – I recommend a gated off room or play area where the toddler is 100% safe. Perhaps the toddler could have the choice to be with you (without disturbing you and the baby) or hang out in his or her play area. You’ll likely be able to read right away as to whether the toddler is able to be there or not. I would communicate this very clearly and respectfully to the toddler.

  2. Hi Janet!
    My situations is very similar however it is getting out the door to school with my 4yo daughter vs leaving the park. She moves very slowly in the morning and wants me to do everything for her however I have a busy 1.5 year old who needs me too. It is winter so I need to get 2 kids in snowsuits at the same time and she refuses and whines and stalls. If I dress her first she overheats while I get my son and myself ready. She is fully capable, gets loads of attention from us but seems to always need more.
    Getting undressed at school is equally as challenging and my son overheats in the stroller waiting for her. We are late for school everyday. I am extremely frustrated and it is showing. Please help.

    1. Hi Shawna,
      While I work through all of my parenting issues, one way or another, just by devouring this site, a mother of six and a mother of 4 taught me that they decide what “late” is, when dropping off for school.

      Each morning is different, (i also have a 4y0) and I have different times to leave the house, rather than one, now. One morning a mom of two got her kid to school at 1030, no matter school ended at 1230.

      If there is great unrest in the house trying to get out at a certain time, change that time. If you can’t–DEVOUR this site daily, hourly. Just look for the nuances of each situation and how it actually does apply to your issue.

      For me, if there is more than three days of “study” missed, my parenting goes downhil (mainly, I forget my own personal boundaries and give too much), so I have been vigilant to keep up with reading and re-reading. People keep saying there is no Operations Manual to parent. Yes, there is, Janet

      Inch by inch, day by day, meal by meal, bedtime by bedtime, transition by transition, I am dealing with changes to make to, first, undo my stressed out mother’s parenting, and then, find my authentic parenting voice and sense of self.

  3. Any suggestions for mom’s of toddlers for whom physically setting limits, like picking the child up, simply isn’t an option in the months after the new baby is born, due to mom’s severe post natal complications?

  4. Laura Bao says:

    Hi Janet,
    Thank you so much for this article! I have been going thru a tough time with my 2 year old daughter after weaning her and her limit pushing at brushing teeth, changing clothes, bath time, etc has become a daily cycle and Ive been losing my temper often. These are the exact words I need to hear to get my mental and emotional state back on track. Your blog is a lifesaver for me! Thank you so much!

  5. Erin Parkinson says:

    This is a terrific article! Thank you! I resonate with this sweet mom who craves a close relationship with her daughter yet struggles because of her daughter’s challenging behavior.
    I have a question regarding this statement that you made: “Our words don’t have that much power with a child that has a reason to want to dig her heels in.” You talk a lot about the need for physically helping our children, and I I completely agree with what you have to say. I have a very strong-willed 5 and 1/2 year old daughter. She is the kind of kid that wants to do the very thing you say she cannot do. My question is this: what is the age at which physical help should be unnecessary? For example, I still physically help my daughter. I might guide her physically. Or, I might do something such as put something out of her reach if I don’t want her to touch it and she insists on touching it. My husband thinks that she should be able to listen the first time and refrain from doing something that he doesn’t want her to do. He will often tell her not to do something, she will of course do that very thing, and then he will want to do something like a time out. I am strongly opposed to timeouts, but my husband insists on using them himself. My approach would be to put the item out-of-reach. If she is grabbing for something, I will move it instead of assuming that she should be able to stop herself. Being that she is very strong-willed, is five and a half years of age a reasonable time when I should expect her to have more self-control?
    There was an incident a few months ago when my daughter was trying to carry a tomato cage down the stairs. Long story, we were using it as part of a Halloween costume. Anyway, my husband did not want her to carry it down the stairs because he was afraid she would get hurt. He told her to not even touch the tomato cage while he put on his socks and that after he put on his socks he would help her carry it down. Of course, she is a staring at the kid wantingly, and of course she touches it. So he immediately gave her a timeout. I felt that he was giving her a very unreasonable request. He could have gone downstairs with her and put his socks on downstairs, or he could have put the tomato cage in another location, or done something to help her instead of expecting her to not even touch it. I saw no problem with her just touching it and examining it while he put on his socks, but he gave her a very unreasonable request. So, again, my question is what age should we expect a child to refrain from doing these things on their own?

  6. Hello! We are in a situation where we had twins almost a month before our daughter turned one. They were delivered just over 3 months ago.

    One of the biggest issues is sleep for our eldest daughter. It never used to be much of an issue, but now there are inconsolable tantrums most nights. Or she tries to engage with my husband in a play tone of voice (who puts her to bed now as I’m with the twins). He either helps her to sleep, takes her out of bed and let’s her run around, or takes her outside for a walk or to calm down. Before she uses to fall asleep on her own most nights.

    What can you recommend so there is not a power struggle?

  7. I definitely needed this article today! I also have a question related to the moments immediately after a toddler does something “naughty.” While we try to intervene before it happens, it’s not always possible. (She is a bright, curious, energetic 27 month old.) For example, the other day she took a glass of water and chucked it across the room. She had the full attention of both parents, but she was just so fast. She also likes to rip my husband’s glasses off and throw them, which is extra problematic because he’s blind without them. What do we do when things like that happen? It feels like we’ve tried everything- ignoring the behavior, shouting, explaining why we don’t through things, “chill out” time where we sit with her and try to remove stimulation, and have her help clean up the mess (if it’s a mess).

  8. I recognise part of why I get so angry and frustrated with my son is my inability to effectively physically intervene to lift, carry, move, block, etc. due to physical disability too help him. He’s only 3 but already stronger and faster than me. What would you suggest in these situations?

  9. I recognise part of why I get so angry and frustrated with my son is my inability to effectively physically intervene to lift, carry, move, block, etc. due to physical disability to help him. He’s only 3 but already stronger and faster than me. What would you suggest in these situations?

  10. Hi! I loved this episode but felt worried about this mama. Some of what she said about feeling angry and crying at the park reminded me of when I struggled with postpartum depression and postpartum rage. I just want to encourage moms to get help if these feelings don’t go away ❤️ medicine and talk therapy were game changers for me.

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