How to Make Peace With Your Demanding Child

A parent worries her 3-year-old needs more connection, but the attention that she and her partner give him never seems to be enough, even when they make themselves available for play. He demands they play a certain way, sometimes refuses to participate, throws his toys and has tantrums when they try to hold their ground. “The play ends up becoming him just wanting to watch us play and he stops engaging,” the mom says. “Any advice you can give on how to navigate these reactions from him when we can’t or won’t play would be much appreciated because I find for the most part I just freeze and can’t think of anything to say.”

Transcript of “How to Make Peace With Your Demanding Child”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

Today I’m going to be responding to an exchange I had with a parent whose son is very demanding and she really doesn’t know how to meet his demands and help him stop doing it. No matter what she does, it seems to continue. And what her note brings up are some very commonly misunderstood and confusing issues that we deal with as parents. These are: One, connection. What does that really mean? What does that really look like in all kinds of situations? Two, how do we help kids share their feelings? And three, how do we encourage independent play, or at least encourage our child to play with us in a way that isn’t draining on us? Where we don’t have to perform, we can instead enjoy more and learn through their play about them, learn about our child.

First, here’s this parent’s note:

Hi, Janet-

I’m having a hard time figuring out how to respond to my toddler (three years old) when he becomes very demanding.

It’s almost always around play. He will ask me or his dad to play, which if we can, we will for a little bit. But the play ends up becoming him just wanting to watch us play and he stops engaging. When we say, “You do it,” he starts to get very sad and says, “No, you do it. I can’t do it,” etc. We really do hold our ground, so once we have said we’re all done playing, we really mean it. But he gets very upset and starts to throw his toys, then throws himself on the floor, and tells us to go get the toy. To which I always say no and find myself feeling very stubborn/defensive. Nobody likes being told what to do, right? Sometimes he will even stomp his feet and point and say, “You go get it!”

I just don’t know how to break this cycle. It is definitely to the point that I dread him asking me to play because I know it will end this way. I’ve been resorting to screen time to calm him down because nothing else seems to work. I know this likely all stems from his seeking connection, but I feel we do a lot of connecting all day long. I’m home with him four days a week, he is in daycare the three other days, and he’s our only child for now. I’m pregnant with our second, due in two months.

I know everything is play for a three-year-old. Sometimes if I don’t want to play, I will suggest something else like doing the dishes, making dinner, watering the gardens, etc., because he really does enjoy all of those things as well.

Any advice you can give me on how to navigate these reactions from him when he can’t or won’t play would be much appreciated, because I find for the most part I just freeze and can’t think of anything to say. Sometimes when he’s calm, we do try to talk about it, and I explain to him that sometimes people want to do different things and that’s okay, and that play is his time to do exactly what he wants to do without any rules. But I’m not sure how much he understands that.

Thank you for all you do.

I wrote back to this parent:

Thank you so much for reaching out. I would love to try to give you helpful feedback, maybe as part of my next podcast, even. But first I have a few questions for you if you don’t mind.

As I read each of these questions that I asked this parent, I’m going to read her response, so it’s all clearer and easier to follow.

  1. What kind of play are you engaging in? Can you give some examples?

He usually wants us to build things for him: towers, train tracks, sandcastles, etc. Other times it is more pretend play. He almost uses it as an opportunity to role play. He will say things like, “The dump truck is sad because the digger knocked his tower over.” He will be holding the digger, I will have the dump truck. So he wants me to pretend to be sad. I usually say something like, “Maybe he can help the dump truck build a new one to help him feel better.” And he really enjoys that. But again, as soon as we say we’re all done, he gets upset, unless I can distract him by helping me with something around the house or going somewhere.

  1. Does this happen all times of day? And is this a more recent development or has it happened for a long time?

Time of day doesn’t matter. It can be first thing in the morning or at night when he is tired, it doesn’t change his reaction.

  1. Does he play on his own at all? Has he ever?

He does play on his own a little bit throughout the day, mostly with his sensory bin. He used to be very good at pretend play. We always joked that he didn’t sleep well, but at least he played well. That was from about eight months to 24 months. It’s been more in the past year that he’s wanted us to lead the play more. As I say that, he did start daycare about a year ago. Not sure if there could be a relation there.

I do recall an episode you did where the person writing in talked about how she drew a picture for her daughter one time, and from then on, her daughter always wanted mommy to draw it. I told my husband about that because he was always making elaborate magnet tile towers or marble towers that my son really couldn’t do on his own. So my husband has stopped doing that, but it’s hard because we want to do those cool, fun things with him sometimes. We just also want him to be content when we can’t or just simply want to sit down and relax for a bit. It feels like we can’t do that because he immediately will ask us to play. We tell him we love to watch him play and we’ll engage with him about his play, but that doesn’t usually cut it for him.

  1. Have you talked to him about the upcoming birth of his sibling? Exciting news!

We do talk about his new brother often. Again, it’s really hard to tell how much of it he understands, but I think it’s starting to make sense to him, especially as my tummy gets bigger and he can feel the baby moving.

  1. How do you usually respond when he gets upset and throws his toys, etc.?

We don’t really react too much at all. We just let him know that we can see he’s frustrated and ask him if he wants a hug. Sometimes he says yes, sometimes he says no. And we sort of let him have his tantrum and just tell him we’re here if he needs us. And sometimes we ask if he wants to watch something, which is probably not ideal, but it seems to help regulate him. But we definitely don’t go get the toy, even when he tells us to.

As I said at the outset, there are some important, cool themes to talk about here that I hope will help this parent or any parent having any of these kinds of issues.

Probably the biggest one, because it covers all of what’s going on here, is this idea of connection. This parent said something that stuck out in her first note to me. She said, “I know this likely all stems from him seeking connection, but I feel we do a lot of connecting all day long. I’m home with him four days a week, he’s in daycare the other three days, and he’s our only child for now. I know everything is play for a three-year-old.”

I have a feeling that maybe this parent is getting a message that’s easy for any of us to feel about connection with our child: that it’s supposed to be this happy, positive thing where we’re pleasing our child in that moment. And if they ask us to play or want to do something with us, that we should want to say yes. That if we’re not doing that with our child, then we’re not connecting. I agree with this parent a hundred percent that this is about her child seeking connection, but not this kind of connection that we commonly—myself included—interpret as, I’m making my child happy. We’re having intimate time together that’s secrets and love and hugs and feels really positive that way.

What connection really means to children, and really to all of us, is honesty. Two people meeting together, for a short or longer period of time, as themselves. That means authenticity, honesty together. And children often seek this from us because they want to know us and because they have a need—a bursting need, I think in this case—to share themselves. Not just the happy, playing side of themselves that’s enjoying being with us, but all sides of themselves, including the scared, angry, frustrated—in this case, the way it’s coming out—demanding side of themselves. But children can’t share that if we appease them by heeding their demands, they’re not going to be able to share it that way.

And they’re not going to be able to share it if we move them onto something else or, without meaning to, distract them by giving them another activity like, Here’s screen time! Which is very easy for children to of course get involved in and sucked into. And for all of us, we know it can be a distraction. Studies actually show that too much screen time interferes with a child’s development of self-regulation and emotional intelligence, emotional fluency. Because oftentimes we want to use it as parents in a situation like this, especially, to soothe feelings. So then a child doesn’t process those feelings whenever we do that, and they can come to believe that they need that distraction that seems to make those feelings disappear. But the feelings don’t disappear, and when feelings don’t disappear, they keep flaring up again and again, and often come out as demands, as in the case of these parents.

Getting back to this idea of connection, it’s so easy to misinterpret this, as parents, as, This is pleasing our child, even when it’s not pleasing us, even when we’re bored out of our minds trying to play with them and please them that way. Or they’re making demands and we’re tired and we don’t want to do it, and we just want to break. All the things this parent expresses, that are so human and real and aren’t being shared. So in a sense, the way that we “connect” when we’re playing with our child and we don’t want to be there is not connecting. It’s not connecting with our child in a way that’s filling them.

Part of what makes this confusing—and this is why I don’t like these soundbite-y memes that are very simplistic and guilt-inducing around connection and being with our kids. They’re misleading. There’s this really popular one, I don’t even know who wrote it, and whoever did is going to be mad at me: Children don’t say, “I had a bad day. Can we talk?” They say, “Will you play with me?” So a child asks us to play with them, and we’re supposed to want to do that, right? Because we love our kids and we want them to be able to talk to us. But the interesting thing here is that we could see this as actually meaning something that probably isn’t intended and not communicated to most people. And that’s, I had a bad day, can we talk? But me talking isn’t actually about you playing with me. It’s about you being yourself and saying no, that you don’t want to play or you want to watch and that’s what you’re going to do. And it being okay that I’m really mad about that, that I have a whole tantrum and I want to throw things. And you’re there to keep me safe and nod your head and allow me to be myself. Not turning away and ignoring it, but welcoming it. Okay, this is what my child wants to talk to me about, apparently. We can only do this by being our reasonable selves.

Another one I just caught online when I was googling this idea of when children want to play, it’s because they need to connect. A website was saying: “Their request to play means your child is looking to connect with you when you are with them. They need to know that you miss them during the day just as much as they missed you. In the stay-at-home-mom life, your child is with you every minute of the day, therefore they shouldn’t need to connect with you, right? You’re always there. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.” And then it goes on to say you’re doing the laundry, you’re doing dishes. So I guess we should feel guilty then that, Oh gosh, we still haven’t spent enough time with our child because they’re asking us to play. Uh-oh, we’ve got to connect with them. We’ve got to make this work for them and please them. We’ve got to play with them.

I mean, talk about demanding! The demands that are put on us as parents, it’s incredible. I feel blessed that there wasn’t so much social media when I was a young parent, or much of any actually. Because gosh, if I had to see all these messages that are oversimplified, that aren’t really thoughtful, easy ways to get a lot of interest and likes and sharing. We already have this tendency as parents to want to please, and this just makes it so much worse, so much harder to be ourselves, to say no. But again, that’s what connection is. Children feel the difference, they know the difference, and if they’re not getting real from us, they’re going to keep trying. They’re going to keep demanding and doing that behavior. They want to get real from us, so they can give real to us. And giving real to us is about them sharing their feelings.

In this case, it could easily be the daycare, right? The timing’s right, this is when he stopped being able to play on his own. And the pregnancy, because as children are sensing our feelings and thoughts and they’re noticing what people say to each other, they’re very aware. We’re more aware as young children than we are for the rest of the time in our life, studies show this. So they are soaking in all of those feelings, all those little whisper discussions, and the smiles parents have with each other. And maybe they’ve talked to him about, You’re going to be a big brother!, and they said he’s feeling the baby move now. But a child has no idea what the reality is of that baby coming into their life, into their family. They have no idea what that’s going to feel like. I mean, we barely have an idea what that’s going to be like. I mean, maybe if we had one, now we kind of know, although this baby’s going to be completely different, their own person. But we don’t know what it’s like having two. We can imagine because we’re adults and we have those frames of reference, but a young child doesn’t. All he knows is this big, mysterious thing that people are excited about. And I’ve seen my parent’s energy shifting away from me, towards this. I’ve sensed that for months now, and it’s getting stronger and stronger. Yikes, this is scary stuff. Or at least very mysterious.

So yes, I’m going to have a lot of feelings about that, and they’re not going to be pretty ones a lot of the time. They’re going to be me just wanting to throw things and lash out and demand and try to get control over what feels so out of control, this shift in my life. Maybe if I can control my parents and just get them doing everything I want them to do, maybe that will feel better. But ugh, it doesn’t. And I keep trying and trying and then they don’t want to do it anymore. But it’s like I’m trying at things that actually don’t help me because what I really need to do is vent. I think we can relate to that as adults, maybe. That thing of just trying to get control so that we’re able to control these feelings we have a little better. But it doesn’t work, it’s not sustainable. And that’s what he’s showing.

The way that we can be aware of this, the reminder that we can have as parents that, Oh, wait, this isn’t about him being upset because we’re not playing with him enough and connecting with him that way. This is actually about, He needs us to be ourselves and say no, so that he can vent all the way. The way that we can know this is by the level of unreasonableness of the behavior. If we take a step back and look at this situation these parents have gotten themselves into—with all the love in the world and being mindful, wonderful parents: they’re performing play for their child and he’s not even engaging with it. It becomes about them playing, as if that’s going to help him in any way at all. But we can believe that as parents, because we so want to connect and do the right thing, right? But it makes us unable to take a step back and say, Wait a second, we’re grown-up people and we’re playing and our child is being the grown-up, watching us. What’s going on here?

When children make unreasonable demands, it’s a sure sign that this is not about the specifics at hand. It’s not about what it seems. It’s about something rumbling underneath that needs to erupt safely with us, with us seeing him and welcoming him to do that. So this is the second issue that I would like to try to cover: helping him share the feelings. You hear me talk about that a lot here, but it’s really never enough because in every situation we’re going to say, Well, wait, this feels a little different. And as his parents said, What do I say? I’m freezing. I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to say.

Well, the first thing to do is to see what’s going on here. What’s my job here? What kind of connection are we talking about? What is my role in this situation? So I’ve tried to set that up and now, How do I continue to help him share these feelings? The two ways that I’ve talked about.

The first is, in quieter times together, talking about this baby. And not just talking about, This is what it is. Can you feel it? I’m going to have a baby. There’s going to be a baby here. But exploring with him every angle of that. He does understand. And if he doesn’t understand, he understands the sentiment and the intention of wanting him to be assured he’s not alone in feeling this way, these are normal things to feel. It’s normal to feel like you just want to demand and demand and nothing’s satisfying, and you just want to yell and have a tantrum when there’s a baby coming and when you’ve started a new care situation. So she could speak to both of those, but I would definitely talk about the baby because that’s what’s happening right now. And say, This big brother thing, it’s not always easy. Sometimes it can feel really scary or sad or make you angry, that you don’t want things to change. That’s a normal thing for kids to feel. We even feel like that sometimes. We are a little scared about what our life’s going to be, but we know we’re going to still be loving you like crazy. It’s not easy for any of us, so we want you to always tell us when you’re feeling anything uncomfortable. You can always share it with us. We get it and we love you. And we’re going to make mistakes. We’re going to do our best to be there for you, but it’s not going to be perfect. And we just want you to keep letting us know when you feel sad or mad or scared or just over the top, you have no idea what you’re feeling. We want to know.

So that’s the first part. And then the second part, that’s the harder part, is in the moment to perceive his feelings accurately as about so much more than playing magnet tiles or playing trucks or whatever it is. It’s not even related to that. The only thing that’s related is this sense of feeling out of control, and therefore I’m trying to gain control in these really unsatisfying ways. But I’ve got the impulse to keep trying. So when this parent says, “This is when I want to play with you at this time,” or, “Okay, I’m going to be done now in a couple minutes. And now I’m done,” whatever those boundaries are, when he’s not getting what he wants and he starts to get very upset, starts to throw his toys and throws himself on the floor, tells us to go get the toy, opening up space for that. Expecting it even, ideally, because this is the gold. This is where he’s going to vent and get some of this safely out of his body. It’s a positive thing, and we don’t want to get in the way of that.

Even that frame of mind, that perspective will I hope help this parent unfreeze herself. Because this is safe, this is welcome. This is what’s going to help change everything and make these demands stop, just on a practical level. It’s a really positive thing. So if you could see it that way: Okay, here he goes. He’s stomping his feet, he’s pointing, he’s making demands. If there’s a chance to acknowledge anything, instead of saying “You’re frustrated” and kind of analyzing it, the most connected way to acknowledge, that feels the best to children, is when we just acknowledge—with as much empathy as we can muster, or at least emphasis to the extent that he’s emphasizing, what I’ve said is that 30% of what he’s giving you, give it back—but only using the specifics of what he’s saying, of what he’s doing. “You just want to throw yourself on the floor. You want to throw stuff,” while you’re stopping him calmly. You’re like, “We can’t let you throw that, but you really want to! Ah, you want us to get the toy and we’re not going to do it.” You could say “That’s frustrating,” but I wouldn’t say “You’re frustrated.” I would just say, Yeah, I can relate to this feeling that you’re having and I’m glad you’re sharing it with me. That’s the subtext. Not, Can I say something to make you feel better?, which is where most of us want to go.

This is making a whole mental shift, it’s 180 degrees from where most of us are. So please be patient with yourself. But that’s the key to unfreezing yourself, to helping him to release these grasps at control that he’s doing, and feel calmer. And feel, most of all, genuinely connected because he’s being himself and we’re being ourselves. There are no glazes, no masks, no distance between us. But we’re seeing him from a place of knowing what’s going on with him. And if a child is doing this and they don’t have those elements in their life like a baby coming or another change like school or care or anything like that, then more will be revealed. It is something. When children are unreasonable, it’s something. It’s a feeling, and true connecting is allowing them to share it.

So those two ways: talking to him about it in quieter times and welcoming it in the moment. And he’s not going to give you feedback there, probably, at age three. “Yes, you’re right. I do feel this and that about the baby.” Sometimes children do surprise us, but you’re likely not going to get that. But that’s where you’re just putting messages in for him. We see you. It’s okay to feel what you feel. We want you to share. And then the “show” part of this. We’re not just telling him, we’re showing him when it comes out in these random ways. So we’ll want our attitude—not our words—to be: We don’t know why you’re acting like this, but it’s in you, it’s coming out. And we’re the ones you can share it with. We’re going to keep you safe. We know you don’t mean to throw all this stuff around. We know your tantrum is a physical response, you’re not in control. We’re safe and we welcome you. Our job is to roll out the red carpet for you to share. That’s it. It takes a lot of pressure off us in a way, right? Once we get in this mindset and practice it a little bit and see how well it works, it’s so freeing and so healing. We’ll see the results.

The one more topic that comes up in this note that I wanted to speak to is how to encourage his play by playing in a more passive manner with him. This parent mentions that her partner “was always making elaborate magnet tile towers or marble towers that my son really couldn’t do on his own. So my husband has stopped doing that, but it’s hard because we want to do those cool, fun things with him sometimes.” Okay, I’ll speak to that first because I totally relate to this. I remember feeling, oh, I can’t wait to share this with my child, this movie and this amusement park. All these things that I loved as a child, I wanted to do those with my child. I wanted to get to relive those for myself. I feel like especially if you’re feeling on the spot to play with your child or perform for him in play, which I’m hoping to relieve you of completely, then yeah, we’re bored with this other stuff, with the pretend and playing we’re diggers. We want to do something fun like make the tiles, right? That makes sense.

But this parent’s right that it is intimidating for a child to want to create something like that, like a tower, even, when they see it done so beautifully by their parent. How can they feel like they have anything to contribute to that? So I think it’s great that he stopped. I would love to encourage you, because this is what I’ve learned for myself, to be patient. Because you will get all of those experiences, believe me, with your child. They will at some age be ready to do those things with you, and you can just help them or be part of it. You’ll get to see all of that fun stuff and enjoy those things with your child, I promise. And it will be a million times better when your child is actually ready for those experiences and can lead them. That’s when they really embrace them, when they soak them up and learn so much, when they feel a little on top of them. Not when they see it done for them, but when they’re able to do it and enjoy the results. It’s like you’re on a whole different playing field when you wait for readiness.

That’s part of this message, but the rest of it is how can we be in that passenger seat to play, instead of getting to the point where we’re the ones doing it, like these parents are? The first part of that is to know that they don’t have to do it to connect with their child, quite the opposite. But the next part is how do we dial this back?

I love that this parent brought up the therapeutic play that her child is doing with the dump trunk being sad because the digger knocked his tower over and then he wants the parent to play her part. Children have wonderful therapeutic play that we’re not included in, so we’re not necessary to that. In fact, we can get in the way of it because we’re directing a little bit, we’re taking it in a direction that might not be the direction that our child really needs right then. We’re kind of assuming that this is where we should go with this, but maybe our child, of their own volition, would take it in a whole different direction.

So just keeping that in mind: He says, “The dump truck is sad because the digger knocked his tower over.” She said, “He will be holding the digger, I will have the dump truck. So he wants me to pretend to be sad.” I could pretend to be sad and have a sad expression. But I think what I would say to bounce the ball back to him, because that’s what encouraging them is in these play situations. He gave me the ball, but I want to bounce it back to him. How can I do that? One way would be—because I’m curious about this when I hear him say that—I would say, “How is the digger feeling right now?” And maybe I would say it with that sad expression, because he told me to be sad so I could be sad. “Oh, I’m so sad. How are you feeling, digger?” Something like that. Because I believe the sadness is something that he’s expressing through the dump truck, and I want to hear more about that, so I want to encourage that. But that’s the idea to keep in mind: bouncing that ball back.

When he’s making a tower and you’re available to play with him, bounce the ball back. He says, “You do this.” You say, “Well, where would you want to start? What would you put down first, which tile? Where would that go? What do you want to connect with that?” And then if he gets frustrated at any of those points, try to see that as positive. There he goes. Okay, it’s happening. And I’m not doing anything wrong. In fact, I’m doing something really brave and right. And then our child can gain all those benefits of play that are much more beneficial than him watching two adults play. Therapeutic, cognitive development, creativity, fine motor skills, and gross motor skills. That’s how we free him up to do that. It’s a freeing thing that we’re doing. We’re freeing him to share feelings that are there because he’s behaving unreasonably and they’ve got to be there. And we’re being reasonable, just saying, We’re adults. We give you this much attention, and then sometimes we do our thing. And you get to be mad about that. It’s brave, but it’s freeing.

So this is what I recommend, and it’s all under the heading of connection. All of this is connection. Helping a child share their feelings, being honest in the way that we engage with them, honest about ourselves, what we want to do, if we’re into something or not, and allowing him to own his play, even when he wants to give it to us. We’re not going to let that happen, because we see him as the child that needs this tool. And you can do this step-by-step, you don’t need to change things all at once. You can just slowly retreat, keep bouncing that ball back and retreat out of his play in the time you have together.

And this parent said, “We tell him we love to watch him play and we’ll engage with him about his play, but that doesn’t usually cut it for him.” I would say more. I would say, this is what we want to do with play, and that’s what we’re going to do. So we can say that just as lovingly, but more directly: “We’re actually not going to be the ones to play pretend right now, but we’re here. If you just want to sit there with us and yell at us, we’ll be here for that.” Whatever time you have where you can give him that kind of attention. That’s where we want to try to get to, that level of honesty.

I hope this doesn’t seem like a tall order, because I know for a fact—because I have all these tendencies of this parent and every parent that’s shared with me, pretty much—I know we can do it. So believe in yourselves, be patient with yourselves, be forgiving, radically forgiving. And I hope some of this helps.

I give many more details for all the reasons that children behave the way they do, and how to uncover what’s going on for yourself and your child, in my No Bad Kids Master Course. There’s also a lot of information on these topics in my books, especially No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame.

Thanks so much for listening. We can do this. 

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