Our Child Won’t Listen

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:

Dear Janet,

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.


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

  1. Hi Janet,

    We’ve been struggling with a similar situation but with a 6-year-old. His younger brother is almost 2, and while a younger sibling could play into some, he’s reacted this way from time to time since toddler hood. But since turning 5, it’s been a little more frequent and more difficult to deal with as a bigger kid.

    I feel much more confident and successful with the RIE approach with my toddler, but with my 6-year-old, I sometimes feel these strategies just don’t work with him (though I do not believe in a non-respectful alternative). We are pretty good about remaining calm and respectful but sometimes need to resort sending him to his room.

    That said, even though it feels like it’s not working in the moment, I do know he is absorbing it by the way he talks to his brother. Sometimes he lashes out at his brother, but sometimes I hear him saying something like “I see you want mama right now, but she’s making dinner. Do you want to play cars instead?” or “I see you want my legos, but these little pieces aren’t safe for you.”

    How would your approach change for this same situation but with a child a few years older? It’s harder to physically stop actions as he gets older, and respectful sportscasting and limit setting (such as “I see you don’t want your brother to play with your legos.” “I can’t let you hit him”) often fuels his frustrating… it feels like he thinks we’re patronizing him.

    Thanks in advance for any suggestions you have.


  2. Yes! You have helped me so much with the physical touch is another means to help and love. If I have to repeat something, then I get up from where I am and say looks like you need help following through with this. What I have noticed is she is sending out feelers to see my emotional intent: punitive? Or helpful. She completely lets me ‘help’ her when she feels it is helpful. I am raaaarely punitive anymore. My heart is really settling into the right place because of all I have learned here. I am punitive when I haven’t had good boundaries and I am mad at myself and exhausted.

    Speaking of: the parents who wrote in must be exhausted. I recommend they scour this website! SCOUR. I used to read it while the baby finally fell asleep and I had a minute. The other day I read a post while walking up the stairs to do bed and bath: I was exhausted and mad at my husband but knew if I brought that upstairs I would have a horrible transition to sleep for my daughter. By the time I got to the bath filling I had my Lansbury game plan.

    Just keep reading here for the emotional support you need. And I always appreciated Janet’s advice to make the world small when the baby arrives. Once I did as little as possible I calmed down and got to just learn about parenting and enjoying my beautiful daughter: and be strong for her deep needs.

  3. Thanks so much for your information.. the basic concepts really do work..Now the next stage given here really makes sense…

  4. Thanks for this article and the many other helpful ones on your site. We are using positive parenting on our nearly 3-year-old daughter and while it generally seems to work I have noticed her deliberately testing me lately; mostly, I calmly ask her to stop a behavior and tell her why I want her to stop, then she does it again deliberately while watching me. I think she is actually just seeing how I will react. For example, today we told her not to throw food on the floor (something she hadn’t done in months!) and she deliberately picked the rice off her plate and threw it on the ground while looking right at us and almost smiling. Our response was to calmly let her know that she could not have the yogurt treat for dessert that we were planning to give her. She was sad but seemed to accept the consequence. We then asked her to apologize for not listening. Is that overkill at her age?

    Another example is that she knows we never hit in our family. This is not generally a problem for her. A few days ago at bedtime I was actually praising her for her good behavior that day, telling her she had been a good helper and that I was very happy. She then hit me – not hard, but very deliberately. I asked her what she was doing and she answered “Trying to make a mistake and make you sad.” !!!! This baffled me. I think she is trying to understand what I would do as a reaction but I had no real idea how to handle that. I had to really think about your advice not to take it personally because it really hurt me. Can you offer any advice?

    1. I think this is totally 100% normal and healthy. My son, who is just about as perfect as a 3-year-old can be, has done all the same type of stuff. One thing I’ve noticed is that he is really interested in seeing ALL the emotions… Not just our happiness, but also sadness, anger, etc. Sometimes he will simply ask me to act sad or angry, and I’m happy to oblige. Other times (often when I’ve been busy all day and he’s needing more attention than I’ve been able to give), he will choose a behavior that he thinks will elicit a strong emotional reaction from me. I’ve noticed that he does this more with me than with his dad, who is both more actively attentive and more emotionally expressive.

      One of my favorite responses is to tell him I can see that he is wanting some attention and if that is what he needs, he can always ask 🙂 Otherwise I try very hard to recognize it for what it is–he is a researcher studying how emotions work and how he can change the variables to get different results. Sometimes he gets the best of me, but not when I keep this in mind. I also find that recognizing this helps me to have a sense of humor about his “naughty” actions, which really seems to be the response that he needs in order to move on most of the time. Not that I tell him it’s ok to do whatever, just that I see what he’s doing and it amuses me–but he still has to stop.

    2. Kim, it seems to be more punitive / manipulation instead of respectful parenting. Behaviorist parenting is when we “punish”
      for very typical toddler situations such as in your case withholding desserts. A natural consequence for throwing food is mealtime is over (said to them with understanding and kindness not anger and shame). Also conditioning your daughter via praise for being “good” gives a lot of pressure. Your daughter is normal. She is testing limits as all toddlers do and watching for your reactions. Toddlers know you love them when they follow your rules but what about when they don’t? When they throw food? “Do you still love me?” I am guessing she was tired and ready to sleep when she hit you and didn’t want to hear more about how “good” she was for doing what you wanted. Janet is the best at articulating these truths. Good luck.

  5. I’m concerned about my 4yo daughter acting like the 4yo here. But she’s the only child. There’s nothing new going on at home, school, violin practice- the only places she goes. I ask along with my husband if she has seen her teachers or other schoolmates act a certain way, or if she’s seen it in books maybe. (She doesn’t use tech or watch TV except a couple of things with us, which make up about 2-4hrs in a month.) She tells us. All the time. Sometimes just on her own, she tells us about something she witnessed that she doesn’t like or has questions abyif it’s ok or kind. So I guess I need advice about what to do when I have to remove her from a situation physically for her safety, but she continues to fight back so much that even this becomes a safety issue. Or when she hits, pushes, squeezes, pulls away, or a new thing today- tries to bite as you situate her in her car seat or hold her in your lap or just in a hug out of harm’s way (like traffic or something). I have tried to see if she’s tored or hungry or just needs more hugs. I can help almost immediately with all those. Sometimes she says yes to those to things. Other times she says yes to at least one thing, but only after fighting me for a long time and saying no to all of it. If I lose my temper, it scares her or makes her more upset. So I do apologize later, because I mean it, but also because I want to model that for her. I share that I need a breath or a break so I can get my own upset out before continuing. I’m so frustrated. I try to be calm. I prep her so she knows what the plan is, or what times we will move on to the next thing or leave a place, etc. She’s fine with prep usually. But not so much usually once it’s time to move along. I want to hug her if she needs me and wants me to. But I feel like I shouldn’t if I’m so upset or angry myself, until I have had a chance to breathe and calm down myself. The only thing I think I haven’t tried is finding Mom and Me yoga because, well money and time. ‍♀️ My husteps in to help when he’s here. But he goes to reasoning and discussion first most of the time. She’s not ready to talk yet or is just too “gone” still, so it doesn’t work. And she often says she’s just too sad or upset to talk or sit or hug a stuffed animal or read or any number of totally acceptable options for a few minutes. So it’s like an excuse not to deal or even to answer a question. Frustrated sad and more frustrated. Please help of you can. Otherwise prayer, puxue dust, or whatever positivity you got couldn’t hurt.

  6. I’d just like to add that it sounds like 4yo is longing for connection. Finding some set times (5min) a day while baby is napping or first thing in the morning where Mom spends some quality time with 4yo might help. Finding a special activity for 4yo to do during diaper changes or nursing might help as well. My 3yo has trouble sleeping and we have found that rewarding her with a book on tape at bedtime gives her something to look forward to (she only gets her diskman at night), and allows us to get ready for bed/check email/prep for our workday as needed. We also have a special craft activity only brought out when I bring work home. This way Mom being occupied becomes less of an exclusion and more about the fun and exciting things that big girls can do by themselves.

  7. I have a similar situation with my 3 year old when he is hungry. Often this is the worst in the morning when he’s gone all night without eating. He gets horribly volatile and hangry with us, which then causes him to refuse to eat simply because of the emotional dysregulation and the power struggle. We try to empathize and explain that he is hungry and not feeling good because of that reason, but he throws toys and complains and becomes frustrated at Every. Little. Thing. We ask what he wants to eat, make that for him, and then the power struggle begins. Unlike a situation where we can remove him from the stressor or unsafe behavior, we actually need his compliance to solve the problem which is happening in his own body. There is usually a lot of “you really need to have a few bites,” etc. until one of us finally loses our patience and barks at him or I have to just walk away because I’m so frustrated. One of these final events usually (sadly) triggers his attachment radar and he starts crying, pleading for me. I tell him I’ll sit with him but he needs to eat or I can’t sit with him while he yells about everything. As soon as he eats, he’s our little boy again. I don’t feel good about the way we’re handling this, but we’re at a loss.

  8. We’re dealing with these same kinds of issues in our 3.5 year old daughter, and I have to admit, I often feel frustrated that the only answer gentle parenting techniques seem to offer is physically intervening.

    Physically intervening every single time is so exhausting, and it negates the possibility of the parent doing, you know, just about anything else that an adult might need to get done during the day. I often feel that I can’t even make a 5-minute necessary phone call (say, a dentist appointment I’ve been needing to schedule) without it being interrupted by the need for me to physically intervene with something that isn’t allowed to happen. I have a very “spirited,” extroverted child that requires almost constant engagement all day long, except for brief and rare moments that are so unpredictable and delicate that I don’t dare even open the washing machine lid (to try and make use of the time) for fear of ruining the moment by alerting her that An Adult Is Trying to Do Something.

    I get the truth of it, it’s just so exhausting, and so frustrating, especially when someone else’s child seems to be able to follow an instruction.

    1. I would look further into the “why” of your child’s behavior. The point of physically intervening in a safe, confident — not annoyed — manner is that it usually eases the behavior. If this behavior continues, there is more to understand and do to set your child up for success.

      1. Is there a way to do this when you are physically unable to pick up a 4 year old (such as with lifting restrictions after surgery) but need to set limits for safety and the child is testing/acting impulsively?

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