Our children’s repeated behaviors can be baffling, exhausting, and sometimes infuriating, particularly after we’ve tried everything we can think of to make them stop. What are we missing? In this episode of Unruffled, Janet shares some of the common reasons behaviors persist and offers her actionable suggestions for helping our children (and ourselves) get unstuck.
Transcript of “When Troublesome Behavior Continues… and Continues”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I want to address an issue that most of us face at one point or another. It’s when behavior that our child has, difficult behavior, challenging behavior, concerning behavior, whatever we want to call it, keeps happening. What do we do? Maybe we’ve tried everything that we can think of to make it better, and it’s still happening.
Okay. So, first I just want to talk about a couple of terms that I’m not a fan of because I don’t believe that they’re very helpful. One that we commonly hear is “behavior is a reflection of an unmet need.” While there may be some truth in that one, I find it very guilt-inducing, personally. I don’t think it’s completely accurate because a lot of the time behavior is a reflection of a new need that a child has. It’s not saying that we’ve neglected something or that we’re missing something, we’ve overlooked something.
I don’t know, I feel like, underneath all that it’s saying, you’re not being a good parent. You’re not being a conscientious parent. I don’t think that’s what’s happening when children’s behavior turns up or when it continues.
The other term that I’m not crazy about is “behavior is a bid for connection,” because that’s very general, again, sort of like unmet need is general, and it’s not always the case. Oftentimes, a behavior is reflecting a question a child has about how we handle things.
Let’s say we’ve been paying attention to our child for hours, and now they want more. They want us to keep playing with them. This is not a bid for connection. It’s a bid for clarity from the parent. It’s a bid to be able to express feelings that a child has, the typical frustration of not getting what they want. And often there are other feelings underneath that, that are building up when a child asks for something pretty unreasonable like that.
The reason I bring these terms up is not that I think that you have any interest in what I feel about certain terms, but because they’re confusing, and I don’t think they’re helpful. If, when we finally say no to our child, after we’ve been giving them attention, or we know that we’ve given them some attention that day, and we just can’t right now, and now they’re saying, “I need you to play with me. I need you to keep playing with me…” If we’re worried that means that we need to give our child more connection, that’s going to mislead us, and make us feel guilty for having a reasonable boundary and self-care.
Children aren’t inclined to welcome us to have any kind of self-care or just a moment to ourselves. We have to make that happen. They can’t be the ones to do it. But if we’re worried that every time they react or they act out in some way, throwing something, because we’ve said no to them, and now we’re feeling, oh no, they need more connection from me, that’s not going to help us. It’s going to make matters worse.
For me, a helpful way to look at these behaviors continuing is to see them as my child is stuck in this behavior, and oftentimes that means that we’re stuck in a dynamic with them. So, they’re stuck. How can we help them get unstuck?
I have a couple of specific questions parents have sent to me, and I’m also going to be sharing sort of a checklist for figuring out what’s going on when this behavior keeps happening.
The first thing I would look at…
1) Ask yourself: What do you think is really going on here? What do you think this is about? Because you are the person that knows your child better than anyone.
I find it fascinating and very cool that someone will share what’s going on and “this keeps happening, and what can I do?”
I’ll respond, “Do you have a sense of why this is happening?”
Nine times out of 10, the parent does have a sense, and what they’re guessing sounds right to me. The parent knows but, they’ll even say this, they needed that validation. They needed corroboration to trust their instincts.
So, for what it’s worth, I’m validating your instincts. You know your child better than anyone. You know what’s been going on in your family and what’s been going on for them. You probably do know what’s happening here. What’s your child communicating? What questions are they asking through their behavior? What is the response that they need that maybe they’re not getting?
Use your intuition to tune in beyond the surface of what’s going on, because that child that says they need us to keep playing with them — what’s often going on underneath there is, I just need to share these feelings with you, things that are going on for me, me feeling a little too much control in that house, maybe, because you aren’t as comfortable with boundaries as I need you to be, and I can let it all go when you set that boundary.
It’s going to be noisy when I let it go, maybe, or I’m going to keep nagging you and whining, but if you stay certain, I can let these feelings go. I can express them all the way, and then I feel better.
So, trust your instincts. Often, it’s about some change that’s happened to the family. It’s almost always about something uncomfortable that’s going on for that child, which could be a change, a transition of some kind. It could even be a positive event that’s coming up, like their birthday. But that anticipation that children feel is stressful for them. It’s dysregulating. So, anything that touches off their emotions will make them at least a little uncomfortable, and that’s often behind their behavior.
When you’re thinking about it, when you’re using your intuition to figure this out, there are two things I hope you’ll cross off your checklist right away, 1. that you’re a bad parent in some way, or, 2. that your child is a bad seed, a problem child in some way. I can almost guarantee you that the behavior is normal for your unique child, with their unique sensitivities, under those unique circumstances.
I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I can’t even think of a time when behavior could not make sense to me at all. So, trust your instincts. Normalize this for yourself.
Okay. The next point I want to make…
2) What could be missing: confidence. Confidence is crucial. This was the biggest struggle for me personally, as a naturally unconfident person, and very often it’s what’s missing when our responses and directions aren’t working. When we’re confident, we’re decisive. We have conviction. Even if we decide to change our minds later, in that moment, we project conviction.
It’s often upbeat, not angry or stern because there we’re projecting discomfort rather than being comfortable, which is what confidence gives us — that we can comfortably be a leader for our child.
Children sense our feelings, and they can easily detect whether we believe in our decisions or our directions or limits. If we don’t, then there isn’t a chance in the world our kids can feel comfortable, which means they’re far more likely to cry or whine or protest, object, or keep pushing those limits. This is a universal law of parenting: Children can’t approach situations with confidence and get unstuck unless we do first.
So, what does confidence look and feel like? Here are some more questions to ask ourselves:
Am I being clear, simple decisive, upbeat, matter-of-fact, even maybe somewhat nonchalant or bored, rather than tentative or ambivalent, wavering, uncertain, anxious?
Am I feeling calm and capable, unruffled, like I can handle it, rather than urgent and emotional?
We have to keep in mind that toddlers are tiny. They’re impulsive. They’re non-threatening people, even though they may seem very mature on the outside sometimes, even when they’re behaving in ways that are challenging: talking to us in a mean way, pushing that limit, doing that behavior that they know we don’t want them to do. There’s a tiny child inside there that can’t help themselves.
So, when we’re confident, we’re matter-of-fact, rather than rushing in there and shouting. We’re being brief. Do we have a coaching tone, rather than a lecturing tone?
Sometimes it’s just that extra split second that we give to correcting behaviors that can turn them into this interesting experiment, uncomfortably interesting, that children have to continue. Maybe they’re feeling: Hmm, why is hitting such a big deal? Why can’t they easily stop me? There’s so much bigger than me. Why such a pointed lesson? I definitely got a rise out of them.
This is unnerving, which is why children are smiling sometimes because they’re unnerved. So, they get stuck repeating this.
Do we believe in our decisions and directions? That’s very important, and there’s no reason not to because if we’ve been too rash, we can always change our minds later. With confidence, hopefully. That’s great modeling to say, “You know what? I thought about that, and actually, you can do this.” Or, “Actually I do have some more time to be with you.”
Not because we’re afraid of our child’s feelings about it, but because we have tuned in to ourselves and realized: Oh, actually this is okay, from a place of leadership.
We can say, even, “I’m sorry, I didn’t think that went through carefully. You know what? There is more time for you to play before you go to bed.” Whatever it is.
Okay. So, how do we get that confidence? That’s easy for me to say, but how do we do that?
Again, this has been my journey, so I can tell you what’s helped me and helped a lot of parents that I’ve worked with…
3) Prevention. That’s the third point I want to make. Setting our children and ourselves up for success.
A recent guest I had, expert and childcare provider, Erica Orosco Cruz, who spoke about balancing the needs of more than one child, on my podcast, I love the way she referred to this as “creating an environment that supports us.” Because, if we’re caught up on our heels, we aren’t going to come in as that assured leader. There’s no way we can. If our child’s doing it again, we’re going to get touched off. That might happen anyway. But we want to give ourselves the best chance possible to respond in a way that gets our child unstuck and ends this behavior.
It’s not about: we’re not good parents if we’re not doing it, or we’re doing something wrong. It’s just about: how do we get what we want? And what we want to help our child with, which is to make this behavior end.
So, how do we create that environment or set ourselves up for success? Children learn by exploring and testing their environments, right? So, if we don’t want to keep telling our child to stop jumping on the couch or climbing on the dining table or playing roughly with the baby, then we want to create an environment that supports that, so we’re not a broken record constantly saying no, and trying to limit this again and again and again, which of course, is going to lead to frustration for us. It can’t not. It’s not going to be comfortable for us when it’s not working.
So we want to have that separate place for the baby, have childproof areas or what I call a YES Space. A YES Space is a completely safe place, enclosed with a gate. Everything in there is safe to use so that we don’t have to keep jumping up and stopping things and setting limits again and again. That’s why I call it a YES Space. We don’t have to say “No, no, no. Don’t do this. Don’t do that.”
But there will be things that we can’t limit in the environment. Maybe our child has gotten a little bit older, and they’re kind of growing out of an enclosed space, so we want to have doors that can lock up high or close so that children can’t get into areas that are not safe or appropriate for them.
Then when we do have those things like the dining table or the couch that we can’t change in the environment, we can’t keep them away from there, then we want to have that very calm, even boring, nonchalant response. “Oh, there you go.”
So, we’re not rushing up. We’re going to make it safe enough that none of these things is an emergency.
So, let’s say our child is on the dining table again. Well, if this is available to our child, we’re going to maybe put padding under there in case something happens. But this isn’t a red light situation. We’re not going to leave out anything that would be a red light, where we have to rush in.
So, it’s a yellow light. We don’t want our child to do it. We can walk in, “Oh, there you go. No. I’m going to help you down.”
When a behavior doesn’t ignite us at all, then children don’t actually keep repeating this. They might in the beginning if we’ve been a little charged up by it in our response, they might keep trying it again for a few days. But pretty soon, if we can be boring about it, they will stop. So, that’s even more reason to have that confidence. There’s nothing that’s going to happen here that I can’t handle. Walking in, striding in, or even standing there going: “Ah-ha. There you are. Can you come down on your own please, or do you need my help?”
Confidence and setting ourselves up for success, these two work together.
Other ways to set ourselves up well are to have relatively peaceful, calm routine days, as predictable as possible because predictable routines create comfort for children. Even if there are things in those routines that they don’t really like to do, or they have a hard time doing, it’s easier for them when it’s part of the routine that they know. Every day, they’re going to go brush their teeth and we’re going to help them. Sometimes it’s harder, I know, but this is what we always do. It’s easier for children to accept. We’re not going to have as many struggles or things that throw us off balance.
Young children greatly appreciate being able to predict what will happen. I know sometimes adults say they don’t like predictable environments, and I totally understand that, but it’s something to consider. Like: when we walk near the road, we always either hold hands or my parents carry me. There are still going to be complaints and resistance, but not as much.
Another part of the environment or daily routine that helps is… Do I spend time observing and understanding my child and give them moments (moments, just a few minutes here and there, is all that’s really needed) of positive, full attention? So, that’s 100%. Our phone isn’t right there, ready to interrupt us. We’re not busy with other things, just for those moments.
With the approach I teach, we recommend utilizing caregiving where you really need to pay attention anyway to that diaper or that nail clipping or whatever it is, that bedtime routine, helping your child get dressed and undressed, and then dressed in their pajamas. Those are natural times to be intimate, and when we refuel children with 100% attention during those times, we can actually fill their attention needs. Not their attention wants, mind you, but their attention needs. They’re always going to want more.
All right. The fourth point I wanted to bring up, I call this…
4) Early action. It’s not that children don’t understand our words. They do, especially if we’ve been in this situation before, but they need more from us when they’re stuck in that impulsive behavior.
So, that can mean that we’re calmly shadowing a child who’s hitting, we have our hand there ready if our child’s getting close to another child. We’re ready to stop it early rather than seeing them hitting children, and then we have to run in, or now we’re getting triggered.
The reason this helps children get unstuck is that, ah, they can feel safe. They can feel calmer: my parents have a handle on this. They’re helping me. They’re even anticipating the help I’m going to need. They’re on this. I don’t have to worry about that. I still have all the feelings I have of being a young developing person, and being in whatever transition I have or whatever sensitivities I have, but I’ve got this most important thing, which is a safe leader who has my back and is not only not blaming me for my behavior and angry at me but is even anticipating what I might do because they know me so well.
Anything that calms children and helps them feel safer is going to help them get unstuck.
Then maybe if a child’s behavior is getting too much, we bring them to us. “I’m going to bring you over here to me, because this isn’t safe, and it seems like you’re having a hard time stopping.”
“I know you want to go back in there” and maybe they’re starting to hit me. “I’m not going to let you hit me. Not going to let you hurt me. I’ve got to stop you. This is my job. But you want to keep playing, I know.”
The reason that often happens that children react strongly when we do help them with a boundary like that is, that was what was fueling their behavior in the first place. They didn’t think it was something we wanted them to do, to go around behaving that way. They knew reasonably that they weren’t supposed to do that, but they had this feeling that they had to keep going. Something was pushing them there. It may be that they feel unsafe with us in those situations, because we haven’t taken care of things early enough or confidently enough.
So, again, not judging, just suggesting what we can do to help children get unstuck, and get ourselves unstuck. It’s also about our confidence. It’s asking ourselves, Am I ready and willing to take the actions necessary to help way, way before I even get the slightest bit irritated or annoyed by my child’s behavior? Sometimes, we’re still going to get irritated and annoyed, for sure. That’s just par for the course. But whenever we can act early without that happening, because we’ve normalized this behavior for ourselves, and we have this intuition about what’s going on with our child, so we can help them, then we’re going to take a step forward to easing the behavior. Instead of staying where we are, which is maybe stuck.
The next point is…
5) Acceptance, which is rolling out the red carpet for feelings, accepting and acknowledging, and really acknowledging, not just saying, “Oh, you’re upset. You didn’t want to do that.”
“You didn’t want to. I know. I saw that.” Really trying to connect, even if it seems like a ridiculous point of view. That’s what acknowledging is. Because, often when children feel heard in that way and understood, and that we’re not threatened by it, in fact, we agree with their right to feel that way, we may not agree with that feeling, but that they get to feel that way, then that feeling that may have been driving their behavior is heard. It’s understood. They get to exhale it out of their bodies. It might take a little while, but they do it.
All right. So, here are a couple of notes I want to address from parents, so I can help demonstrate how to apply these points I’ve just made to specific situations.
A parent said to me on Instagram she was at her wit’s end…
” …so I thought I’d reach out. My daughter’s almost two, and she’s awesome, super curious, smart, adventurous, quite verbal. She has a baby brother. She’s been wishy-washy on him, sometimes super excited, but often when he’s lying on the ground playing, she will sprint over and out of nowhere, grab his face and say, “Baby cry” or “baby will cry.” I think she’s testing to see what makes people cry, but also jealous of others who were her people, and are now with her brother. It’s been going on for five months, and the baby has scratches on his face constantly and his eyes have even been bloodshot and swollen at times.”
This parent says she’s said, “I see you want to grab your brother. I won’t let you do that,” or simply, “I won’t let you hit the baby.”
“But often she beats us to it, and so I grab her arm away and say, “Don’t hit him,” or “I don’t want you to hit the baby. That’s not okay.” I don’t know what else to do. This has been very hard, and I’m obviously concerned about the baby’s well-being, and feel very sad we’re unable to give him floor time, but also keep him safe. Any advice would be amazing. We feel like we’ve tried everything, yet it persists.”
Okay. So, this one seemed to me that it’s about setting up the environment for success. This little girl is showing that she cannot be allowed near her brother right now unless she’s in a calm space with somebody right there ready to intervene when they see her behavior amping up.
First of all, we’re going to set up the environment in a preventative way, so the baby has maybe a playpen or a safe area that she can’t just dive into when he’s having floor time.
If the baby’s in our arms, we’re going to have our arm ready to hold her back if she comes running over. We’re not going to overdo it like this is an emergency, but we’re ready. We’re going to take early action, which is just to block her from coming in too quickly. My hand is out there. I see her coming towards him. Let’s say on the floor, this is if he’s not in the playpen…
“Oh, I see you’re coming close. You want to see your brother right now, I guess.”
So, my hand is there. She’s coming up. “I’m going to hold you back a little because you’re coming in really fast. I know you’re excited about him, right? But we’ve got to keep you safe. We’ve got to keep the baby safe.”
So, yeah, prevention in the environment that I would take care of and then early action and confidence, rather than letting her surprise us, and then trying to say, “Don’t do that,” and then she does it anyway. Then we’re going to, naturally, we’re going to lose our cool at little one. We’re going to be angry. We don’t want to let ourselves go there if we can help it.
While also encouraging her feelings, because this little girl has the usual, I’m sure, very mixed feelings. It’s a very scary situation for a child when the baby is born, and their world shifts in such a huge way. So, welcoming her to share those feelings, either it’ll be in that moment when we’ve stopped her, and she’s crying, because we’ve had to hold her back a little.
If she’s really out of control there, I would say, “We’ve got to bring you over here,” but now my baby’s in a safe place, so I can help her, bring her in for a time in. And that may be when she shares feelings.
“I know it’s so hard. You’re so excited about him, but you also want to hurt him. That’s normal stuff to feel about your baby brother. That’s normal stuff. But yeah, we’re always going to be here to help you with that.”
Those messages, not that you would always say all those words, but those are the messages we want to get across to her that will help her feel much less alone in these scary feelings that she has that she’s acting out on. And that should ease the issue.
All right. This other one, it’s a long note. I won’t read the whole thing.
“I’m wondering if you can speak to a situation I often experience with my five-year-old daughter, which has many layers to it. The recurrent scenario is that my daughter has tantrums, and meltdowns daily that come out of nowhere, and are so big and explosive that it often disrupts the entire day for the whole family. A common way this happens is as follows.
We, myself, and my other daughter, who’s two, are sitting at breakfast. Everything is fine. People are eating and suddenly her affect shifts, and she says she has “the grouchies.”
I’ve learned that there is no going back from this moment. It is the point of no return, and it is the first few seconds of the meltdown. There are no words, strategies, distractions, or skills that can avoid what happens next. She fills with rage. She screams and cries. She convulses and grunts and melts to the floor. I have to bring her to another room to protect my other daughter from the stressful scene.
This transition always escalates the situation further. She will kick, hit, pull hair, throw things, and has even bitten me on occasion. I often take her to the bedroom and wait with her. Sometimes I wait in silence. Sometimes I try to comfort her.
The fastest “solution,” which I never intend to use, but ends up happening when I lose my temper is that I will scream at her to stop. My lost temper shifts her mood from angry to sad, and from her sadness, she cries and seeks comfort instead of trying to harm me. I hate this cycle and I feel so much shame.”
Then she talks about how she has underlying anxiety whenever she (the daughter) is around now. She also describes her, later, as a very capable girl who’s taught herself songs on the piano by ear and things like that. So this sounds like a strong, talented girl, and children like that have strong emotions as well. Those two things go together. It’s like they’re achieving on a very high scale, and then they have to go the other direction, releasing feelings.
I don’t know what her feelings are about, but it seems she’s gotten stuck in a cycle where when she’s expressing her feelings, she feels her parent get tense, get scared and then act kind of, it sounds like, a little bit fearfully in trying to help her with the feelings. Because she said she’s worried about her younger daughter witnessing this scene.
Mostly younger siblings don’t get distressed by their sibling’s emotions, especially… I’m sure this child is well aware that her sibling has these feelings and acts this way sometimes when she’s expressing them.
What is more concerning for the younger child is the parent who is anxious and tense and angry about these feelings. So, that would be more disconcerting than the sibling’s feelings. Most children can relate to another child’s meltdowns because they kind of know what that feels like.
But from their leader, they need confidence. And that’s what this little girl needs, too, the five-year-old.
“Oh, the grouchies, oh, yikes. That doesn’t feel good.”
She may have a full-on meltdown right there. I would normalize this for yourself, and not try to do something. This parent says that she’s tried all these things to make it stop, and it doesn’t stop. That’s right because feelings have a life of their own. They have their own beginning, middle, and end.
So, I would say that what will really help this family get unstuck, at least with this short response that I can give right now, is welcoming those feelings, and rolling out the red carpet for her to be… to have the biggest meltdown. Even though she’s five years old, even though we think she shouldn’t be doing this at this point, she is. So, these are her sensitivities. It’s her feelings. They’re not ours to decide if they’re valid or not. She just needs to know that it’s not going to scare everybody for her to feel this way, and that it’s not something we need to try to fix or take care of.
I mean, if she was in a public situation, I would try to get her away just for her own privacy reasons, but not with her sibling. Her sibling has seen it all from this sister, I’m sure.
If the parent could see the feelings as positive and acceptable, and just what this girl’s doing right now, I think that will help them get unstuck. Right now she’s putting a lot of energy of her own into the feelings, which just kind of builds on them. As the mother said, taking her away makes it stronger. Well, that can be because she feels our uncomfortable energy and that builds on hers.
So, just let her do it at the table or on the floor right there. I would just hear her and say, “Ah, you’re really having a meltdown. This is so tough,” or say nothing. Just say, “The grouchies. Yeah. I know sometimes that happens with you. You get that.”
Not changing the family, not it becoming this event that takes everyone’s attention and emotion. It’s just part of who she is right now.
So, having said all this, another thing to check if our child’s behavior is continuing is that maybe they need an assessment of some kind. It never hurts to do that. I’ve experienced that where a child I was working with would come into the play space with other children and just start hitting, and he didn’t seem dysregulated at all, but it turned out that he had some sensitivities and neuro-divergence. It was a lot for him to be with those other children. Then the behavior made a lot of sense because it wasn’t going away. We realized that was just his discomfort with a group of children in that setting. It was just a little intense for him.
So, the more we know, the more aware we are of what’s going on with our children, the more confident we can be in helping them get unstuck.
I hope some of this helps. And if my podcasts are generally somewhat helpful to you, then please consider giving a positive review on iTunes. And thank you to all of you for listening.
Please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com. There are many of them, and they’re all indexed by subject and category so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. Both of my books are available in paperback at Amazon: No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can get them in eBook at Amazon, Apple, Google Play or barnesandnoble.com, and on audio at Audible.com. Actually, you can get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast.
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