Two discouraged, desperate families write to Janet for help with 4.5-year-olds who seem perpetually angry. These children are lashing out verbally, screaming and shouting at their parents and siblings, and seem particularly explosive at the end of the day. One parent writes that her child “seems like she is very intentionally trying to be hurtful,” and adds, “It doesn’t seem like she should be able to get away with treating us and her sister this way.” The second family writes that when picking their daughter up from school “and the tiniest thing is not right, the screaming and shouting begins. Everything is catastrophic.” Janet recommends specific adjustments these parents can make in the way they are perceiving their children’s behaviors that she believes will bring relief.
(Learn more about Janet’s “No Bad Kids Master Course” at: NoBadKidsCourse.com)
Transcript of “Angry Outbursts, Screaming, and Mean Words”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.
Today I’m going to be responding to two questions I’ve received from different parents. There are a lot of similarities in these issues: These are both four-and-a-half to five-year-olds, intense children, those kind of vibrant, strong, intense personalities, and they both seem to be angry, screaming, saying unkind things to their parents and siblings. And these families express that they’re feeling desperate, that they’re doing something wrong, this isn’t getting better. What can they do?
I’ve got to admit, I feel a little humbled in responding to these dynamics expressed in emails, because it’s complicated, right? And how can I really know what’s going on there? I can only do my best based on the many other families I’ve worked with and what I know about child development and behavior, what it means, what we can do to make things better for ourselves and for our children. And so I’m going to do my best. Just having this feeling today like, Wow, this is a lot to try to take on. I’m game, though.
Here’s the first question:
I don’t know what I expected motherhood to be, but it’s a million times more challenging than I would’ve dreamed. I have two beautiful daughters. One is turning five tomorrow and one is two-and-a-half. They’re both very spirited, fierce, vibrant souls. I’m writing today in regards to my oldest. I can’t help but cry as I type this because I’m feeling so very lost and confused by this current season we are in—and I hope it’s just a season.
I consider myself a pretty aware and rational person, and I’ve tried to adopt your approach through your book No Bad Kids. Recently, my five-year-old has become extremely mean and angry towards me, my husband, and my youngest. She can also be super sweet, but this recent shift has me at a loss. We do our best to remain calm, but she’s calling us names, a lot of “meanest mama, stupid, I don’t love you,” etc. But the tone and attitude behind it feels deeply angry. She seems like she’s very intentionally trying to be hurtful. I don’t understand where it could be coming from. It seems mostly triggered by her being told no and not getting what she wants.
I listened to a recent podcast you did about being the sun and rising above difficult behavior, but I’m equally struggling because it doesn’t seem like she should be able to get away with treating us and her sister this way. Perhaps that is some of my childhood being triggered by it, as you’ve mentioned. Is there a way to approach and handle this aside from only telling her it’s not okay to talk to people in that way? We don’t discipline her or give her timeouts, but I feel there has to be something I’m missing.
I’m so terrified of parenting the wrong way. I hope I’m not letting too much go. At this stage, I’m also terrified of what she’ll be like at another five to 10 years from now if this type of anger and hurtful behavior is already surfacing at four to five years old. I’m trying my very best not to take it personally, but it does make me feel incredibly depressed. There’s a fair amount of consistent screaming in our house when I feel they should be happier. They have an extremely loving home. Both parents are pretty patient most of the time. Maybe my expectations for their behavior are too high. Her teacher says she’s amazing and we don’t receive any reports from school, so I know she’s only this way with us.
I’m desperate to learn any tips or approaches for this period. Lately I’ve been trying to focus on remaining calm, making light of things, but I’m shocked at the level she’s taking things.
Thank you so much for your time and guidance.
So I did write back to this parent with a couple of questions. My first question to her was, “Do you have a sense of what might have caused this shift? Any thoughts about what’s going on with her and what might’ve changed recently?”
When reflecting on the past few months, there are a couple of things I’d consider big events. First, she is no longer napping Monday through Friday in her preschool since she’ll start kindergarten next year. She does typically nap at home on Saturday and Sunday. When she moved up to this class in September, we saw an immediate change in her behavior upon pickup. Evenings were, and still often are, very difficult. She tends to immediately break down and go into full-on screaming tantrums over small things like being asked to wash her hands. I attribute this to no nap.
Secondly, I potty-trained her sister the first week of October. That caused her sister to become much more attached to me than she already was. My husband and I used to take turns with bedtime, switching every other night. But I was putting her sister to bed every night until this past week, when we made it a point to reinstate the every-other-night routine. I was concerned my older one would feel I was choosing her sister over her.
They are both very ONLY MAMA. Her sister also has very intense tantrums involving a lot of screaming, which I know can be hard on the older one at times. I find them more forgivable because she is two, versus my older one who will be five in mere hours. Other than these two events, nothing else has changed in her routine.
And then I asked her, “Can you tell me a little more about how you’ve been handling responding to her behavior? Examples?”
She wrote back:
Honestly, until this past week, I would break more. After listening to your podcast about not becoming triggered, making light, etc., it really resonated with me and I’ve made a point to try my very best to use this approach. But again, it’s only been a few days. It’s actually a huge learning and growth opportunity for me personally. I realized this while reflecting upon it in my own therapy session.
Some examples may include yelling once being pushed to a certain point, saying things like, “Why are you acting this way? This is not okay.” If she was fully screaming and becoming physical, one of us may take her to her room and stay with her in it while she screams. I’ve gotten very emotional, cried in front of her. If I have ever yelled at her or behaved in a way I know is not okay, I always apologize, every time. She has also apologized to me as well, so I know she’s hopefully seeing the repair aspect.
My husband and I are so drained by her behavior. I’m praying I’ll be able to continue this steady “rise above” approach and hopefully in time see a shift back to my sweet little girl. I know she’s in there, but lately there are times I feel like I don’t know who she is anymore. Maybe that’s the evolution of children and parenting.
Thanks a million.
Okay, just to respond to this part first. “I know she’s in there.” Yes, she’s absolutely in there, that sweet little girl is in there. And that’s a really important idea to hold onto throughout all of this. In fact, because our perceptions are so important, our perceptions of behavior and our child and what they should be doing now and what’s going on with them and what’s our role in discipline, just responding to their behavior—all of those are dictated by our perceptions. And that’s why I focus so much on that. Because our perceptions of any situation decide how we feel.
I would never ask a parent or expect a parent or expect myself to change how I feel and just decide, I’m not going to feel upset by this behavior. I’m not going to feel worried about this behavior, or angry at my child for acting like this. That’s an impossible thing for us to do. But what we can do, and what I recommend strongly, is working on our perceptions of them. Which means knowing that that sweet child, with all the things we love about them, that sweet little baby that we gave birth to, is in there. That’s who they are. This other stuff that’s going on is a shell that they’re kind of trapped in or they keep falling into being trapped in. All these unpleasant things are not the actual essence of our child.
And something that can really help across the board—this is something that I did for myself that really helped me—is practicing in your mind. So it’s not just in the situation with your child, where it’s so easy to get triggered into taking things personally. But practicing in between times as much as we can, maybe when we’re just alone having a moment or having our own thoughts. I know we don’t get many of those as parents of young children! But when we do, seeing a little movie in our minds of this behavior that we’re seeing, this ugly, unattractive, maybe scary to us behavior, seeing beyond that to that child that’s in there. That vulnerable, immature, probably scared child behaving like this. Because, really, most of the behaviors that they have, the angry behaviors, they boil down to hurt, fear, or some other discomfort.
So practice seeing that behavior that we don’t like and then seeing beyond it. As if we had a special camera that could take away those layers and see what’s inside, like an X-ray. Seeing that sweet heart of our child, all those loving ways that they’ve been with us, that vulnerable child. That’s who’s there, that’s who we need to try to hold in the front of our minds. Because that’s the child that we can respond to in a manner that really does heal their behavior and end it, making our lives easier. That’s the child we can find our way to empathy with when they’re acting horribly. That’s the child that we want to bring forth, obviously. So focus on the person in there that you want to see. Practice that. That’s the key to, if we want to call it being unruffled, a calmer, happier, more capable parent, even when you’re going through these tough spots.
I also want to agree with this parent that she is in a season. This is a season. And there are a lot of reasons here for her child to be dysregulated and off. Switching to a different class where you suddenly don’t have that same routine and you’re not getting your nap. And the fact that this child naps on the weekends, wow, that’s a big sign that she still needs naps. Children need them especially when they’re in challenging situations like a preschool setting or a daycare setting. That drains even more of their energy than being at home on the weekend. So if she’s sleeping on Saturdays and Sundays, imagine how much she actually still needs that sleep during the week.
But I’m not suggesting that this parent change the school situation, just that she understand this incredible tiredness that her child is coming home with. That will help this parent expect what she’s getting, which is an intense child who’s totally exhausted. It’s not going to be a pretty sight, it’s not going to be great behavior. She can barely function.
Therefore, our response is to just try to get her from point A to point B, allow her to explode all the way, and not take it personally, not be offended by it. Not feel like there’s something wrong that we’re doing here or that there’s something bad about our child that is going to show up. As this parent said, “I’m terrified of what she’ll be like in another five to 10 years with this type of anger if it’s already surfacing at four to five years old.” Well, there will be less of it when she’s older because she won’t need the same kind of sleep that she needs at this age. She’ll be a little better able to self-regulate. Especially if her parent keeps in this direction she’s going, which is seeing that little girl that’s inside, still there, totally exhausted, can barely function, and needs her parent to understand that and just try to help get her through as she slowly, gradually adjusts to this sleep schedule.
And it sounds like this family has two intense daughters, so that makes it doubly hard, right? But that is the way that children this age show their tiredness. They blow up, they explode, they say unkind things. And it can seem like, as this parent said, “She seems like she’s very intentionally trying to be hurtful.” So that’s where we are mistaking dysregulation and exhaustion for intentional mean behavior. It may come off like that, but that’s not the intention. The intention isn’t really to hurt others, it’s to share her own discomfort. And maybe she has felt judged for her behavior. That would be normal for us to do, right, as parents? So that just creates more of the sense of, I’m alone, it hurts, it’s scary. I’m being annoying. She’s been paying more attention to my younger sister. My mother’s annoyed with me. But I’m not being annoying because I want to or I want to hurt her. I’m being annoying because I’m overwhelmed.
And this parent is worried. “I’m so terrified I’m parenting the wrong way. I hope I’m not letting too much go.” I don’t think she’s letting too much go, but I know it feels like that when her perceptions are still the way it’s easy to see for us as parents, which is reasonably. Why is she acting like this? She’s intentionally trying to be hurtful. She’s treating her sister this way. She shouldn’t get away with it. She thinks it’s okay to talk to people this way. In truth, she doesn’t believe it’s okay to do any of these things. She needs us to help her stop, which isn’t usually telling her to stop. It’s usually letting it go, commenting on it a little bit like, “Wow, those are hurtful words you’re saying. You’re really upset. Seems like you didn’t want your sister to do that.” And acknowledging separately the sister’s feelings: “She’s saying hurtful things to you, you don’t like that. Yeah.” So we could acknowledge that they’re hurtful words, but not trying to correct impulsive behavior. Because what that does is it tends to put a wedge between us and make it harder. Harder for our child, therefore more of the behavior, and harder for us to connect with them. It creates that distance.
And the interesting thing, both of these notes from parents have exhausted daughters. Exhausted. And I just remember—I mean it seemed like it only just changed a few years ago, and my children are all adults now—that this tiredness thing, it gets away from us so easily. Because children are just so much more prone to exhaustion and dysregulation from that, to the point where they cannot function. I remember about a year ago, I got an interesting note from a parent. I don’t think I was able to respond, but she was saying how appalled she was that it was her daughter’s birthday and I think her daughter was five or six. And they’d had this amazing party, it had all gone really, really well, with all her friends and neighbors. And then the next day she thought, Wow, I’m going to give my kids a treat and take her and her brother over to their favorite place, which was kind of a parkour setting, I think, as I remember. And this parent couldn’t believe it, that they behaved appallingly. And I can’t remember the details, but they were rude to her, they were mean to her. And here she was bending over backwards after she’d thrown this birthday party. Now she’s giving them this other incredible treat. She was so offended by their behavior.
Understandably, right? Because when we’re on the inside, it’s really hard to see. But from my outside view I could say, Well, that makes sense. Because how exhausting was it for these children, especially the child whose birthday it was, to have a birthday party that went really, really well. So it’s not only negatives, like hard changes that kids make, that tire them out. It’s these really positive experiences of excitement, of pleasure, stimulation. They’re down for several days after that usually. And that’s important to know as we’re coming into the holidays. It’s a time for exhaustion and it will get away from us if we don’t keep reminding ourselves of how different children are in this way and their needs, how much more sensitive they are.
So yes, I believe this parent that they have an extremely loving home, that they’re patient most of the time. But the other thing she said is that she does blow up sometimes. And that’s nothing to feel ashamed of, or that we’re doing something wrong. It happens. The thing about it, though, is that children will, if they sense that that’s there, they can keep unconsciously kind of pressing us towards it. Because they can sense something building in us that’s uncomfortable, that’s making them feel uncomfortable and kind of anxious. And oftentimes children with this type of temperament, they can’t help but push us beyond our limit because they know that’s possible. I don’t know, it’s a hard one to explain, but it’s a very common thing that children do.
So what that means is that if we have exploded, then our child will be venting that with their own explosions. Maybe a couple days later, but they absorb it and then they discharge it. So in a sense, every time that we lose it, we’re kind of adding more times that our child’s going to be screaming as well. That’s just something to know. That’s us being reasonable about ourselves and the situation, even though it’s an unreasonable situation from our child’s point of view. They are not in a place of reason. But we can be and we can objectively say to ourselves, Okay, well, I scream sometimes so it makes sense that they’re reflecting that back. They’re getting that out of their bodies. That’s a good thing.
So, getting to this parent’s question: “Is there a way to approach and handle this aside from only telling her it’s not okay to talk to people in that way?” The way to approach is working on practicing our perception, seeing that child inside. And when she does say things, we don’t want to ignore it, that’s not natural, right? But we want to respond to it from a place of understanding that it’s her lashing out, sharing her snarls and her hurts with the people she’s safest with.
Another interesting thing is, in both cases, the children are doing great at school, no problems there. So this is the dynamic that we want. It should relieve us even more that this is okay, this is a season, this will pass. I can help it pass through my perceptions and my perceptions will guide my response. As an example: Yikes, alright, I’m picking her up from school. It could be very rough. There’ll be lots of explosions. That’s okay, I can handle this. I’m not going to take any of it personally because I’m expecting it. She’s going through something. And this will pass, this will get better. It’s not a bad sign about me, my parenting, or about my child and their future.
Not only can we get through this, but we can get through this with a closer connection instead of getting through this and creating more distance between us. And that’s what we all want, right? That closer connection. That’s very, very possible. Even if we make a bunch of errors and yell and do all of that, we can still end up in that place of closer connection if we keep practicing our perceptions. Which means letting go of the fear. Everything’s going to be fine with this family. I believe her that they have this incredibly loving home.
And she says, “Maybe my expectations for their behavior are too high.” It’s not necessarily even too high, but it’s different. We can’t expect reasonable behavior from children dealing with these dysregulating things like development, siblings, changes at school, and, number one, tiredness.
She says, “Lately I’ve been trying to focus on remaining calm, making light of things, but I’m shocked at the level she’s taking things.” So, focusing on remaining calm and making light of things. If that’s what our focus is, we’re not addressing ourselves from the inside out. That’s what we do when we practice the perception and then we actually feel calmer about this behavior, expecting it. For this child, in this situation, this makes sense. So I can remain calm. I’m seeing through to that child inside. I know the rest of this is just shell and things that are happening on the surface. That’s not her. And making light of things. Yes, I can treat things lightly, but honestly, like her words to me or her behaviors or the screaming, if I am expecting this. And maybe my partner and I talk about it, Oh, okay, we got to go pick her up. Are you ready? Okay, we can do this. We high-five and yeah, now we can approach it lightly. And from there we won’t feel like we’re trying to be something. We’ll just be being honest.
That’s what this work is about. Because this parents says, “I’m shocked at the level she’s taking things.” But that’s the thing, she’s not taking things to this level, her shell person is doing that. It’s just all blast on the outside, it’s not deep, intense feelings on the inside. If this were an adult acting this way, yes, maybe this would be an indication of intense anger. But with children at these ages, everything feels more intense and then the situation and the tiredness only heightens it. So when she says angry words, when she says, “meanest mama, stupid,” I wouldn’t say, “It’s not okay to talk to people that way.” I would say, “Ouch. Oh, you don’t love me right now. That hurts. I still love you and I want to know more about that, even. How you’re just not liking me right now.” It’s safe. And then with the screaming, just nod your head. Yeah, wow, whew. Yeah, that’s strong stuff. You’re not making fun of it. We’re not trying to make light of it, but we’re also not just ignoring it like it’s not there. Because then children do feel alone in that way, that they’re in this shell and they can’t be reached and we’re not going to try. So, respond. But just from that place of getting it.
And the names, she’s not trying to hurt. She’s doing this really immature way of sharing her hurt that we can see through. It’s kind of sad and silly, right? And this parent’s saying she and her husband are so drained by the behavior because they’re taking it personally. They’re taking it literally. They’re seeing it as worrisome. It’s that concern and that worry that’s going to drain us, and we don’t want that to happen because we need every bit of energy we have as parents. Perception will prevent us from taking things in in a way that drains us.
Here’s another question:
I write in desperation and heartbreak. I’m lucky enough to be the mother of three perfect children, a four-and-a-half-year-old, a two-year-old, and a nine-month-old. Unsurprisingly, it is the oldest that I’m writing about.
She’s a wonderfully funny and intelligent little girl, but her behavior is becoming hard to bear. Overall, she still seems to be struggling a lot emotionally with the transitions she’s had to face, which manifests as abject screaming and rage coupled with sadness.
After school pickup, the pattern of behavior is the same. As soon as we have left and the tiniest thing is not right, the screaming and shouting begins. Everything is catastrophic. This continues at home and during bedtime. The shouting is either indiscriminate or directed at me or her little sister. It is so loud sometimes that the baby becomes distressed and starts crying and I have to move her out of the room. Mornings are also particularly bad, screaming-wise.
On paper, the problems are obvious. She has two siblings in two years, started school, and we have just moved house. She clearly has a lot of anger and frustration with us she still has to process. But the main reason I’m contacting you is that there has not been any improvement in the last two years, despite all of our efforts. It is now becoming mentally debilitating to be screamed at every day, and I have started to lose my patience. She has also started to say worrying things like, “I’m not going to be your children anymore” through her tears.
This morning, for example, she climbed into her carseat and there was something on her seat, so she screamed as loud as possible. Both myself and my husband shouted and told her to wait and ask for help. “There’s no need for screaming!” I shouted. (This irony is not lost on me.) “Can you wait and ask Daddy for help? Have you ever known Daddy not to help you?” I continued. She stopped immediately and shook her head and then waited for my husband to sort out her carseat. We then proceeded to school in silence and we didn’t say goodbye. She will carry this with her all day now, shouted at by mommy and daddy and no goodbye kiss. Not great prep for a four-year-old to navigate the rest of her day, whatever it may throw at her, without us by her side for reassurance and guidance. I cried all the way home and while feeding our baby. I’m failing as a person and as a mother.
And as I’ve said, the main sticking point is that there’s been no improvement. I’ve read every book and podcast by you and Tina Payne Bryson, in addition to others, such as Siblings Without Rivalry. We have patiently implemented these strategies, such as allowing and acknowledging the feelings, including accepting her when she says that she wants her sister to go away and that she doesn’t like her. We have worked a lot on our authenticity in this area. We reinforce the idea that it’s okay to cry and be angry. We draw the line at screaming full-force in either of her siblings’ faces. In these situations, we move her away and, when she’s calmer, acknowledge her feelings, but explain it’s not okay to be that loud so close to the others. We carve out one-on-one time whenever possible, read stories, and tuck her in every night. Cuddle, tell her how much we love her all the time. As we have lost our patience more frequently, we do always make a point of apologizing unreservedly and repairing.
I’m at a loss as to what to do next. This situation is untenable for everyone and I now worry about our younger children living with frequent screaming. She frequently shouts and says unkind things to her sister, and as much as I try not to see her as a victim, it is hard not to worry about the effect it has on her emerging confidence.
It is also important to note at this point that I think she’s often crippled with tiredness. This has been an ongoing theme for a long time and we’ve tried to tackle it with consistent early bedtimes, insisting on lunchtime sleeps at weekends, quiet times, screen time limited, and reducing extracurricular activities, but it remains a factor. I’m currently on maternity leave and so I’m around for her as much as possible when she’s not at school. My husband is incredibly loving and supportive to all of us and diligently adopts the various strategies suggested by yourself and other experts you have suggested. He also works from home a lot, so is there to help out when needed, including all bedtimes.
We would be so grateful for your take on all of this. I sometimes feel that in our quest for healthy mental wellbeing and emotional intelligence, our desire to make expression of emotions okay has gone too far and she has missed the opportunity to start to learn to control her behavior. If you have any time at all, please would you help us to walk the fine line between emotional expression and age-appropriate self-control?
Okay, so I also reached out to this parent to ask for some examples and here’s what she shared:
Thank you for replying. We’ve been thinking a lot about the most helpful examples to explain. Like I’ve said, tiredness plays a huge part in her behavior and always has, which probably explains why the screaming often, but not exclusively, occurs at the beginning and end of the day. But I don’t believe it is the whole story, and she clearly has things she needs to process.
Example one: On the way home from school in the car the other day, my oldest was holding a toy which she dropped on the floor and therefore couldn’t reach from her carseat. All three children were in the back and she immediately started screaming and then kicked the back of the seats full-force. As we were on a quiet road, I stopped the car briefly, turned around, and said, “Oh, you dropped something. It’s annoying when that happens. We’ll look for it when we get out of the car.” As always, trying to keep my tone even and genuine. She stopped screaming but continued to cry and whine until we were home.
It usually helps her mood after she has had an outburst, especially if I sit there and nod and offer her a cuddle, like she does have things to release. However, the frequency and ferociousness of the outbursts makes me think we need to help her deal with her feelings in a more refined way.
A slightly different reaction she may have is shouting threats, such as when the other night she asked me to help her with a game she was playing, putting pieces into the right holes. I put one piece into the wrong place and this frustrated her endlessly. “Mommy, I’m not your best friend anymore and I’m sending you to jail!” she screamed. This is a frequent threat leveled at myself and her little sister if something is not right. I let this one go and went back to whatever I was doing. She continued her game on her own.
This parent talked about their play together:
She’s always very dominant with her sister as well. When they do play together, I hear, “Do this, do that. No, no, no, not like that. Give me that thing. Go over here,” etc. And her sister will diligently follow or get bored and wander off. Again, I don’t know when to step in. I fear if she gets used to playing this way, her peers will not be as forgiving as her sister.
And then she gives one more example:
The following example demonstrates a slightly different, less favorable approach I have used more and more in the last couple of weeks, probably due to feeling more worn down. In the car on the way home from school yesterday, she again dropped something, which immediately elicited a screaming response. I said in an even tone, “I don’t want to hear any more screaming now.” She did adjust her volume somewhat and continued to moan in a more measured way. On arriving home, she entered the house first and then immediately ran back screaming because she couldn’t find something. While taking my shoes off, I again said, not in an angry voice, but probably stern, “What have I said about screaming? Tell me what you want in your normal voice.” She then did talk normally, and then I then helped her.
A few minutes later in the kitchen, she seemed happily walking around in a circle, singing a tune and playing with a toy. I couldn’t help but wonder on observing her that at this point she didn’t seem too bothered that instead of always acknowledging her frustration, I had simply directed her to a better behavior. She didn’t seem emotionally stifled, just a normal child playing while waiting for dinner.
I’ve also asked my husband to separately give his take on things, and this is his reply: Often when my daughter gets home after school, she can appear very tired. When in the bath she can scream and shout if her sister takes something she is holding or wants to play with. I try not to always take the item away from her sister and return it, but instead acknowledge that it can be frustrating when you’re playing with something and it goes. When time allows, I take her out of the bath and sit and give her a cuddle and try to ask her how she feels. “Were you upset because your sister took your toy? I understand. That can be frustrating.” After a moment, she’s calm. But often the bathtime/bedtime routine for three kids continues in a busy manner, not allowing for any time of prolonged calm.
And then another example, he says:
I often get up and make the kids breakfast, and our oldest can be very demanding and wanting to make breakfast, to the point of if I have gotten a bowl out already, she can complain and, in rare occasions, shout/scream because she wanted to do it. I allow her to make the breakfast when I can and guide her. But if she’s at the point of being too upset to actually complete the activity, I step in and gently but assertively take over while saying something to the effect of, “I can see you’re telling me you’re tired and need some help.” Sometimes this is fine and she sits in her chair and carries on with her breakfast. But other times it may just make her more upset because she didn’t get to complete the activity.
And this parent says at the end:
We have not had any negative reports of behavior from her previous nursery or her new school. And we have inquired often.
Right. So, as you can maybe hear in this note, there’s a lot of similarities to the other situation, but these parents, they seem to have been working at this a lot longer and trying to do the right thing. Which they are doing. Again, though, the answer here, well, it’s twofold.
The answer is in our perceptions, which means understanding the why. That’s part of our perceptions. And it sounds like these parents are not quite a hundred percent there, and I want to encourage them, just as with this other family, to even practice this a bit more and believe in this a bit more. For example, when this parent says, “She comes out of school okay, gets in the car, waits for something to not be right, and then screams.” So it’s just this really subtle little wrinkle in the way this parent is seeing, this idea that her daughter is consciously waiting for something to go wrong. This parent says the screaming eclipses things. Well, it’s this tiredness that’s eclipsing everything. And I would try to understand that tiredness is really the trigger for these other things.
As this parent says, there’s been all these transitions—a new home, two siblings in two years. This is big stuff. So the why is pretty understandable. Tiredness, which makes everything harder. Transitions, which are very, very challenging for young children and often at the source of their dysregulated behavior. Sibling issues, one of the hardest transitions for children to face and very hard for these parents as well, juggling the three children, the new baby. So it’s understandable that they don’t have a lot of bandwidth to try to empathize with their daughter and try, as they say, so hard to be even in their tone and to be authentic. What I want to encourage is they consider this work on perceptions instead of working on their tone and being authentic. Because this is the way to be authentic and have the tone. Maybe not all of the time for sure, especially when you’ve got three little ones and a new baby. But more often than not—and children don’t need it to be all the time, they just need it to be a little more than half the time for them to start to be calmer and know that we are on their side.
The way for them to feel that is for us to be on their side because we’re seeing past this shell, this screaming person that just goes off at the drop of a hat, after school especially and in the morning. Sounds like she’s not a morning person, I can relate to that. Tired in the morning, tired after school, new baby, another sibling that’s two that she probably still feels a lot of rivalry with. It’s all par for the course. And it’s very, very challenging for us to keep holding open that perception of the child behind the shell, the hurting that causes that, the hurting that causes that screaming, the feeling that this child has that she’s a minefield, just so easily touched off. It’s tough, right?
And I find it so interesting, the difference this parent felt with the third example that she gave. I believe the reason that seemed to be more effective and help her child to move through it was that this parent was actually authentic then. Which I’m wondering if she really wasn’t—again, this is not something I can know just from reading these thoughts the parent shared with me—but I have the sense that in these previous examples. Well, there’s the one where the parents were both shouting. And so that goes back to that other message I was giving to the previous parent. That just adds more to what our child has to discharge from us. And again, it’s okay. We forgive ourselves and we just know, Okay, we’ve added a few more screams because we’ve lost it today. Nothing wrong with us for doing that, but that’s going to be the result. So okay, now we understand this is going to happen and we can expect it.
But this way that this parent describes responding to her daughter, she says her daughter was holding a toy that she dropped on the floor and therefore couldn’t reach from her carseat. And that “all three children were in the back and she immediately started screaming and then kicked the back of the seats full-force. As we were on a quiet road, I stopped the car briefly, turned around, and said, ‘Oh, you dropped something. It’s annoying when that happens. We’ll look for it when we can get out of the car.’ As always, trying to keep my tone even and genuine.” So besides this being a lot of work for the parent to try to keep her tone a certain way, I would consider that, from her child’s point of view, there’s a real distancing effect of her parent not saying, “Ouch, that hurts when you kick me like that. Don’t do that. And you want your toy. I get that.” Something that’s, I don’t know the way this parent talks or relates to her, but that sounds real, that sounds authentic.
And we’ll say those things when we really are in that frame of mind, with our perceptions in order, or when we’ve practiced them. That’s the kind of thing that we might say, because we’re not trying to say the right words, we’re not trying to get the right tone. And that’s what my whole podcast is about trying to help parents with: getting to be authentically unruffled with your child, getting to be your authentic self, the freedom of that, the comfort in that. And seeing how that works. When we’re not threatened by her kicking the back of our seat, but we’re annoyed by it. Ouch. That we don’t like that. We understand why you’re doing this, but we’re not going to act as if it didn’t happen.
So when this parent says that she thought it almost worked better when she said, “I don’t want to hear any more screaming now. Tell me what you want in your normal voice, please.” It feels to me, putting myself in that child’s shoes, that now she’s feeling responded to by her parent saying what she actually feels. And that is comforting for a child. And as children get beyond two and three and they’ve absorbed all kinds of language around feelings at that point that we’ve offered each time, asking them questions, “Are you feeling frustrated?” So we’re not assuming, but we’re asking and we’re bringing those words up. We don’t need to keep saying a lot of words to an older child. If we’re really authentically in that relationship with them, we can say, “Oh, oh no, it fell. Oh, you hate when that happens.” We don’t have to go through a whole explanation about what’s going on.
I’m not saying this parent is doing this, but maybe they’re saying more words than they need to. And they’re saying it from a place of trying so hard to do the right thing, which I really appreciate and will take these parents far because that intention is really all that matters to being the best kind of parent. And these parents are both very intentional in this work that they’re doing. I just want to help try to make it easier for them and clearer for them.
The bossy behavior with her sister totally makes sense. And it’s fine, as long as she’s not hurting her sister. Children learn to stick up for themselves or move away, like this two-year-old is doing. And that’s more helpful to them than a parent defending them or getting involved in it. Because what the parent getting involved in it does is tell that younger child, I don’t think you can handle this situation with your sibling. Now, if they’re getting verbally abused or physically abused, obviously we would stop it at that point. Say, “Oh, I’ve got to stop you there. You could say that to me, I get why you need to say those things sometimes. But not to your sister.” But still knowing that it’s going to happen. And we’ve made it clear to the younger sister and the older one that that’s not acceptable and we don’t believe it’s true.
The description of the dad’s responses, it sounds like—and I don’t know, again, I could be imagining this, but I sense that he’s a little more comfortable with the behavior than the mom is. Which makes sense, she’s dealing with three children all day. But that’s where we want to get to. We see through this, we see beyond this. No, we’re not going to jump to get you something when you scream at us. That’s where we have our boundaries. We’re taking care of ourselves in this relationship. But we know that, again, this is a season and this will pass. And what we want to do is keep being connected to each other.
Just to go over some of the tips I want to give both of these parents:
Perceptions. Practice those movies in your mind. Seeing beyond, seeing the child inside the shell, the shell behavior.
The why. Why the shell? In both these cases, there are a lot of reasons. And even if you can’t figure out the reason with your child, know that there is a reason and the reason is not that you’re a terrible parent, that you’re doing something wrong, or that they are a doomed child in some way. And if you’re overwhelmed and you feel like you really need more assistance, talk to a professional, in your area ideally. Someone that can come and be with you in person and help you that way.
Tiredness. Boom, the main reason that children go off and behave in ways that we don’t want them to. Too tired. We often don’t see it coming. These are all under the heading of why. Which our perceptions will help us to focus on and react from. React from their why so that we can empathize.
Transitions. Siblings, getting up in the morning, coming home from school, bathtime, all of those are transitions. And the evening transitions, the after-school transitions tend to be the hardest. That’s why I did a podcast called End of the Day Crazies with Kids. It happens, even without any other element happening in a child’s life.
And then I would say, parents getting touched off. That’s true in both of these situations. Parents getting touched off to worry, to get offended. And it can happen from our own childhood experiences, very common. It also happens because we are more reasonable people as adults, and we are less tired people as adults usually. Well, maybe the one with three kids is more tired than most of us, but compared to a child, we are less sensitive around those things and we have a whole lot more self control. But then when we do get touched off, that adds more discomfort to our child and therefore we’re going to see more of the uncomfortable behavior. That tends to be the cycle that we get caught up in with children when things are going in the way that these parents say that they’re going. We can stop this cycle by, even just some of the time, working on our perceptions and calming ourselves that way. Putting these behaviors in their place in our minds and hearts, seeing them for what they are: immature, overwhelmed expressions of hurt. Yeah, they can look really angry, but they usually boil down to fear and hurt and tiredness. And none of these are things that we can’t handle, if we believe in ourselves.
I believe in you, and we can do this.
Please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. And my books, No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame, and Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting, you can get them in paperback at Amazon and in ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and apple.com.