The parent of a 4-year-old says he and his partner “have done the best we can to follow the principles of positive parenting,” but their boy has been refusing to follow instructions and often seems to ignore them entirely. His behavior is unsafe around their toddler and newborn, so this couple is struggling to remain calm and respectful. Janet offers them some insights and strategies to connect with their son and hopefully bring some peace to the household.
Transcript of “Our Child Won’t Listen”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.
Today I’m going to be responding to a parent who wrote to me. He has three children, but he’s mostly concerned about his oldest, who doesn’t seem to follow instructions and has been acting out. The parents are both using positive parenting, but it doesn’t seem to be effective for them. They’re looking for what they might be missing, and hopefully I’ll be able to give them some ideas about that.
Okay, here’s the letter I received:
I listen to your podcast regularly and I’ve heard multiple letters that you’ve read from parents with questions I have as well. And now I have a question of my own.
My partner and I have three children, ages four, two, and almost a month old. My son who is four is normally a very sweet and caring child, and we’ve done the best we can to follow the principles of positive parenting. One of the issues we struggle with is what to do when our son refuses to follow instructions and begins to act out. We don’t approve of timeouts and we don’t spank, but there are times when I feel that calmly talking to him and using the phrase, “I see that you want to do that,” and similar phrases seems to have no effect.
The issue we struggle with often is him not listening at all and ignoring us and continuing the behavior we say we can’t allow, such as pulling his younger sister around, climbing on our back and shoulders while we’re trying to care for the newborn.
What is the positive parenting method of dealing with a child where removing them from the situation, talking to them about the behavior, explaining our expectations, trying to understand their perspective, etc. does nothing, and the attitude and actions continue? Thank you for any assistance you can provide.
First of all, I can’t help but notice that there’s a new baby here. So right away, this oldest child’s behavior, and the second child, if they’re having any behavior like this, makes a lot of sense. And this could have been going on since nine months before the baby came, or close to that, when children get a sense that there’s a big change happening. So even if there weren’t any other stressors in this child’s life at all that he’d be responding to —and obviously there are a lot of normal difficulties that all children go through, changing to a new school, a new caregiver— even if none of those were happening, he has a big reason to be feeling a little kerfuffley in his behavior.
He’s showing that he isn’t able to stop himself even when his dad is very kindly and respectfully speaking to him about it. He’s not able to control when he is jumping on his parents or being rough with his younger sister with words alone. I love this note because it reflects a common type of misunderstanding that positive parenting, or what I call respectful parenting, means that if we say something to a child politely and respectfully, they’re going to stop what they’re doing or they’re going to do what we want them to do. That that will be enough on its own to set a limit or elicit cooperation. And often it isn’t in these early years because children are very sensitive and emotional, and that means they’re impulsive and they don’t have the self-control that, most of the time, we have as adults. Their feelings get the better of them. They feel threatened and they get stuck. Here I am climbing on my parent again. I know I’m not supposed to do this, but I can’t help myself. They get stuck and they need us to do more than talk to them in those times.
I definitely wouldn’t try to reason with a child who is, as children often are, showing us that they’re beyond reason, that they’re kind of gone. They’re not acting out of thoughtfulness and using their minds. This boy, he sounds like he’s very unsettled in these moments. That doesn’t mean he’s like this all the time, I’m sure he’s normally very sweet and caring and all those wonderful things. But it still comes up for children, especially in these situations where his whole place in the family seems to have shifted again. And maybe he hasn’t completely even resolved with the first transition to his sister. And now here we go again, all this attention is going to this baby. And yikes, what have I lost here?
So with these two understandings: First of all, that this boy does have a lot of good reason to be in a bit of an emotional crisis, at times, at least. And two, that our words are not going to be enough and appealing to our children’s minds when they’re kind of out of their minds is not going to work. What can we do? What I recommend is what I sometimes think of as being a papa or a mama bear. Using that part of ourselves that’s ready to give our child that physical help, picking them up, stopping them, putting the object away, helping them move off their sister, from a place of confidence in ourselves. And not being surprised by the behavior, being ready. Because we’ve normalized this for ourself, we expect it.
This is a huge adjustment for the whole family when another baby’s born. I’m sure I don’t have to tell this parent that, or any parent that. And this is especially challenging for the children because they feel this massive change in their relationship with their parents. It’s scary, it’s threatening. And then in the way that they’re viewed by their parents, if we get into a cycle where they know they’re disappointing us, they hear us losing our temper, getting annoyed, and it’s hard not to, right? With the behavior that we see. But that amplifies the discomfort and fear that they have. And yet this commonly, commonly happens. No matter how conscious we are as parents and how committed we are to gentleness, we’re human also, and it’s going to be upsetting if our child is suddenly doing these upsetting things and we can’t seem to reach them. So be prepared and, whenever you can, reach him right away physically, but from a place of being confident about what you’re doing.
What this dad is doing is wonderful. He’s acknowledging, he’s saying things like, “I see that you want to do that.” And talking to him about the behavior, explaining his expectations, trying to understand his child’s perspective. Those are all part of connecting with our child, but they can’t replace setting physical limits. Our children need more. And sometimes with the explanations, it can be a little too much. What’s even more respectful, and these parents are obviously respectful towards their children, is just to briefly explain, “Oops, that’s not safe. I see, yeah, you want to pull your sister around the house. No, I’m going to stop you right there. Mmm, I can’t let you grab her that tightly. And it sounds like she’s saying no, so I’m going to stop you.” And as we’re saying this, we’re gently preventing him from doing those things. We’re putting our hand in between them, we’re taking his hands off of her. We’re helping him when we see that he’s gone over the edge.
If we get into too much explaining in those times, it becomes us trying to reason with him. We start to feel that, and he feels that. And there we’re actually not going to be connecting with our child because our child has just gone to this unreasonable place, and now we’re trying to connect with them in a way that they are unable to, they just can’t get it. At another time, our child can get this, but when he’s in the middle of these moments, he can’t. So briefly noticing and acknowledging the, “I can see you want to do that” part that this dad mentions— wonderful. While you’re doing that, I would already be stopping him. Maybe even stop him before that and then say, “Oh, yeah, I see you want to do that. That’s not safe.” Or “I can’t let you.” Or “I’m going to help you stop.” And each time a child repeats these same actions, say even less. So maybe it becomes, “Oops, nope,” as we’re moving his hand or we’re putting a hand in between the two children.
This dad mentions that one of the options that they’ve tried is removing him from the situation. He says, “What’s the positive parenting method of dealing with a child where removing them from the situation does nothing?” The problem with removing him all the way from the situation is that it’s a little bit of overkill. It comes off as, Ugh, this is just overwhelming. We can’t handle you right now. And that’s quite appropriate when a child has really gone overboard and you can see that they’re just completely gone and they’re wreaking havoc everywhere, then yeah, sometimes we do have to take that extreme approach of, Okay, you’re just not safe here right now. You’re showing me. I see you. I’m going to help you here because I’ve got to go do this and I need you to be safe. But if we use that for these smaller, everyday incidents, then we’re not going to be giving our child the helpful, calming message that we want to give them, and that will help make a change in their behavior, help calm these impulses. Because we’re saying, Hey, we’ve got a handle on this. You’re not throwing anything at us that we don’t, at some level, expect and understand. And, even, we want to see you asking us for help, and we’re going to be there.
Ideally both parents would do this. Children can be very clear in that if maybe one parent is doing it but the other one isn’t, then they kind of keep going to get help from that other parent, almost like they’re training us, right? I mean, on some level, obviously it’s not conscious. They need both their leaders to be solid and comfortable in their role and understanding of the child as much as possible, so that the child can feel safe and feel a little more settled. And then when children are more settled, there’s less of the behavior. So that’s our goal in everything we do. Our goal is a safe, settled child who feels understood and that they can count on us to help whenever they need us, as much as possible.
So climbing on his parents’ back and shoulders. Now, that’s obviously going to be a difficult one to handle in the moment, gracefully and confidently. It does, again, make a lot of sense though. Look at me here. I see you busy with that baby. I’m not comfortable with what’s going on. How are you going to handle me? Those questions are coming up for him, and it’s going to be very hard for us, with a newborn, to receive that with empathy in a way that’s helpful to him. It’s going to be very hard. So we just do our best. But all of these things happen less when we’re taking care of the bigger picture of being the kind of leaders that help him feel safer and more settled. In that actual moment I think I would, with your body, as best you can while still holding the baby, get him off. But if he keeps doing it and there’s somebody else there that can move him away, that would be good. “Oops, I see you can’t handle this right now. So dad will help.”
Another thing I would do, if we need to be privately with the baby, say we’re putting the baby to bed or changing a diaper, and our older children are showing us that they can’t handle that safely, or quietly, in the case of putting a baby to bed, then we close the door. Not from a punitive place, but from a place of, You’re showing me you really can’t be safe with me right now, and I need to do this. It’s a place of confidence that it’s okay to give them that physical barrier when you need to. And I know a lot of parents are reticent about this, but it’s really about the way that we handle it. And then what children often do is they yell outside the door or they bang on the door, and right there, he’s actually having a really healthy release of his feelings about what’s going on, letting some of that fear out. And if we’re doing this from a place of love, not anger and punishment, then the feelings our child has in response, even if they seem terrible to us, are very positive. That’s the release that will, again, help him to feel more settled. But we’ve got to do it with acceptance of him and, maybe not necessarily tons of empathy in that moment if we’re not feeling it, but an overall attitude of empathy towards him and his situation.
Another way to help with this is to, at a calmer time, or before you have to do this activity with the baby, make a plan with him. “I know it’s hard for you sometimes to see me caring for the baby. You want my attention then too, right? That’s what big brothers often feel. Is there some way that we can help you feel better at these times? Is there something special you’d like to do while I’m feeding the baby?”
With my oldest daughter, who was four when her sister was born, this became playing with her dollhouse. She came to that on her own after one or two sessions of yelling outside the door where I was putting her sister to bed. And I just had to move through that as best I could, knowing that if she could share these feelings —or hoping, I should say— hoping that if she could share these feelings, if I’m accepting of them and I’m not mad at her, she’ll feel better. Letting them out will be helpful. And that was how it worked. She decided to go play with her dollhouse. And I know she did a lot of venting with those dolls, I could hear it sometimes because she would play with them almost every day after her preschool, emotionally processing the events of the day.
A plan might also be to say, which I also did with my children, “As soon as I’m done with the baby, it’ll be your time for me to read a book or play something, whatever you want. And I’m looking forward to that. So as soon as I finish with the baby, the sooner we’ll have our time.”
Another suggestion: empower him with a task that he can do to help you with whatever you’re doing with the baby. And even better maybe, ask him as a favor to help with his sister, help occupy her while you’re doing whatever it is with the baby. And right after that, you’ll be there to give him your attention.
But the main message I want to get across to these parents is: don’t be afraid to step in physically. Children need a lot of physical care from us, even when they’re well past infancy. On some level, they can crave it. And it’s not just when we’re hugging and cuddling and doing those things that feel clearer to us as being loving. It’s also in these other moments when we’re using a gentle but firm hand to help him when he needs help. Perceiving it that way and responding with that perception that we have.
I often used to say to myself, and I still do this with the children I’m working with, sometimes I say to myself, Don’t worry, I will stop you. I won’t let you do those things like hurt the baby, hurt or bother me. And that don’t worry attitude, that voice inside my head, don’t worry, help to give me confidence and stay in mama bear-hero mode when my child was showing they needed me.
So I hope some of that helps and clarifies. Also, please checkout some of my other podcasts at janetlansbury.com. website. They’re all indexed by subject and category so you should be able to find whatever topic you’re interested in. And I have books on audio at Audible.com, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple.com.
Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.