Should We Resort to Using Force?

Janet consults with a couple who feel at odds with their 4-year-old at bedtime. “She stalls, refuses or delays putting on her pajamas, brushing her teeth, getting in bed, and staying in bed.” She’s also uncooperative in the mornings. The parents have conflicting ideas about how they should handle her behavior and hope Janet can offer some guidance.

Transcript of “Should We Resort to Using Force?”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

Today I’m going to be doing something a little different, thanks to a couple who graciously agreed to consult with me here. One of them reached out via email with concerns about her four-year-old’s unwillingness to cooperate with the steps leading up to bedtime and also during morning transitions. The parents wondered if there was a point when following through with limits around bathtime, toothbrushing, dressing should mean using force. And as a couple, they have differing views about this issue. They’ve tried sticker charts, taking away storytime if she doesn’t get ready in time, working with her to help develop a bedtime routine. But none of those strategies have worked out. So they asked if I could share any thoughts that I have.

As is often the case, when I read their note, I had way more questions than I did answers. So I very much appreciate them being willing to share with us here.

Hello, and thank you so much for being here and being willing to share with me and listeners about your issues. I imagine there’s other parents going through similar things, so I really appreciate you being willing to be on with me. I would like to start with your note that you sent me a couple of weeks ago, and here it is:

Thank you so much for all your lessons on parenting and developing respectful connections with my two daughters while holding boundaries and ensuring that my needs matter too. My current challenge is with my almost-four-year-old, who often engages in testing behavior at bedtime. She stalls, refuses, or delays putting on her pajamas, brushing her teeth, getting in bed, and staying in bed. For a few weeks we used a sticker chart and that helped motivate and then that behavior stuck for a while when we discontinued the chart, but now we are back to the same testing behavior. This behavior also happens when getting ready for preschool in the morning.

So my question to you is, how to enforce boundaries that seem like they would require physical intervention within the respectful parenting framework? When she won’t put on her pajamas, do we hold her body down to do so? If she will not go into the bathtub, do we pick her up and put her in, then keep putting her back in each time she climbs out? Do we brush her teeth for her while she tries to keep her mouth shut?

This has been a major area of conflict with my husband, who believes that these actions are part of following through after providing clear limits and acknowledging feelings, while I see them as overly controlling. To me it is really hard not to see it as too physical, and triggers my own history of being held down by my older brother when I didn’t do what he wanted me to do. I don’t want to be so physical, putting on her pajamas while my daughter fights it with her body and screams. But other options we have tried, like taking away storytime if she doesn’t get ready in time, using sticker charts, working with her to help develop a bedtime routine, haven’t worked.

Any thoughts you have would be so helpful. Thank you for your help.

As I mentioned in the note that I sent back to you, one of the reasons I wanted you to come on and talk to me here is that I have a lot of questions for you about what’s going on here. If you don’t mind, I’d like to start with that. Why do you think she’s struggling this way? What do you think could be going on there that makes her want to stall and resist and refuse?

Parent 1: Well, one piece that we’ve noticed just this last week is that we’ve moved up bedtime a bit. And realizing that some of it had to do with her just being overtired, and that’s helped some. It had gotten to the point where she was kicking and spitting when we were trying to help her get to bed, and that’s not typical behavior for her. And so recognizing that she, I mean she’s often going to be tired in the evening, but she was really overtired and that was making it even more challenging. That’s one thought that comes to mind.

Another is that she has an older sister who maybe she wants to be playing with and sometimes the older sister gets to stay up a little later.

And I think another part of it is just the testing part. She can see that I’m tentative, perhaps, in terms of I’ll say, “It’s time to put on pajamas,” and she just won’t answer and she’ll walk away and I kind of don’t know what to do. And I know from reading and listening to your podcast that sometimes that confidence is needed that can help them see that I’m her strong leader. And so perhaps that also plays a role.

Those are some of the thoughts that I’ve had. I don’t know if you have any others.

Parent 2: Well, you nailed the two big ones, which are that she’s probably been overtired and moving up the bedtime over the last week I think has made a big difference. I think a lot of it is sibling-related, dealing with her big sister is a big part of it. I think that her older sister, of course, is further along developmentally and more capable and more verbal. Even though our younger daughter is quite verbal and communicative, she’s not as communicative as our older daughter. So I think it often feels hard for her to get attention, get a word in edgewise, and she’s often using behaviors that are maybe more intense to try to get some of the attention that she’s looking for. And then I think part of it is the boundaries that you were just talking about. I think sometimes the boundaries aren’t totally clear to her.

One thing that I’ll add on to that is that you and I just do things a little bit differently as parents. Like when my back was hurting and it was really hard for me to reach to the far side of the bathtub to do her bathtime, that’s one place where I put in a boundary that I don’t think you have, which is that, “I can’t wash you if you’re on the far side of the bathtub. I need you to be on the near side of the bathtub.” And so she’d learned that that’s a boundary where she can try to test it and see what happens with me. So that’s one place where, to finish a bath with her, I would pick her up and take her out of the bath. But for you, that’s not something that you like doing and it’s not a boundary that you have in your mind. So there’s a difference between the two of us there. Does that make sense?

Parent 1: Yeah, yeah, that definitely makes sense. I think that we do have differences in some of the boundaries. I think she learns some of them really well and then other times I can see that might be confusing to her, to know where the boundary is between the two of us.

Janet Lansbury: Well, I’m hearing a lot of insightfulness here on both of your parts, so that definitely works in your favor as parents and in figuring this out, figuring out what’s going on and what we can do to help. I love that you both nailed the tiredness thing. It’s so all-consuming for young children and they aren’t able to see it coming in the way that we might as adults, where we’re like, Ah, I’m getting tired. And a lot of children have the temperament where they go right into this hyperactive, really unreasonable, dysregulated place. So that’s great that you’re both noticing that element, that you can help her there by starting earlier. I also wonder how old is the older one, your older child?

Parent 2: She’s six. They’re two-and-a-half years apart.

Janet Lansbury: And do they have time together at the end of the day?

Parent 2: Yeah, they do have time together at the end of the day. They often play together really nicely in the evenings for half-an-hour or an hour before dinner, after dinner, before bathtime, before bedtime.

Janet Lansbury: Wonderful.

Parent 1: And they also share a room, they have bunk beds, so they kind of are in the same space at night too.

Parent 2: They also do have conflict between each other and they work on resolving that. There’s lots of the older sister trying to keep things away from the younger sister and the younger sister trying to destroy the things that the older sister is working on. I mean, something along those lines probably happens every day, but they often are able to resolve it on their own, and then of the times that they’re not, they’re often able to resolve it with a tiny bit of observation from one of us.

Janet Lansbury: Yes, that I would say is par for the course, that they have conflicts. And that’s actually the benefit of having a sibling, is that you learn how to work through conflicts with other children and with peers and in all relationships in your life. It’s an incredible gift that they have this kind of relationship. It sounds ideal.

Why is it that you believe, though, that this is getting in the way with bedtime? Because it sounds like, well, your younger one has to go into the bunk bed before her sister does and be alone in there, and then her sister comes in later after she’s asleep. Is that how it works?

Parent 1: There was a period where we separated them because the younger daughter would just kind of scream, not letting the older one sleep. So we tried this for a year and we would just bring our older daughter into our room to sleep until the younger one stopped screaming and then we’d carry her back into the other room when our younger daughter was asleep. It was just a long time of really wanting them to share a room that wasn’t working, in the sense that I think that our younger daughter was getting some attention. I don’t know, I’m guessing that it’s attention, just doing a lot of screaming and yelling, not letting the older daughter sleep.

But that sort of got fixed in the last few months, so we had them in the same room going down at the same time, but half the nights there’s a lot of this testing behavior. And then in the last week, really, after I sent the message, we were like, Let’s put her down earlier! And that’s seemed to have helped some in terms of the intensity of the behavior.

Janet Lansbury: So now she has her own bedtime that’s earlier and she’s going to bed without the sister there?

Parent 1: Correct, yes.

Parent 2: Right.

Janet Lansbury: And that’s working better. That’s interesting. Yeah, the children can sort of play off each other, which does make it harder for them to let go. What all of us want at the end of the day when we’re going to sleep is to be able to kind of let go. Let go of the excitement in life, let go of the dramas that might be happening, let go of how we might be winding our parents up. She sounds like a very intense person, this younger one. I love that kind of child, but it does have challenges. It can be so much harder for them to let go.

Anyway, it sounds like you’ve gotten over one hurdle by figuring this out that she got too tired, which makes everything much harder for her and harder for you. The other part here that I wanted to talk about is, since you sort of know why she’s struggling, stalling, and resisting, so we want to be able to do what you’ve done by acknowledging the overtiredness. Which is kind of fixing this from the inside out by understanding what elements are making it not work, what she’s expressing here that she might need. And then from there, partnering with her. Because even sticker charts, while totally harmless, they’re kind of pitting you against her. That’s how children feel: Here, you get to do this fun thing if you comply with what we want. Whether that’s a sticker chart or storytime, it makes children feel a distance between them and us that can kind of make these matters worse. It just looks and feels a lot different to a child than when we’re partnering with her.

Another part of this, I don’t know if it’s the way that you expressed it in the letter, but it sounds like—and you can correct me if I’m wrong—that you are kind of asking her to do these things, in terms of getting ready for bed or in the morning, and she’s not doing them. Is that sort of the way it’s going?

Parent 1: Yes, I would say that’s correct. “It’s time to get dressed.” And she won’t get dressed.

Janet Lansbury: Right. So what she’s showing is that this is a time when she needs more of a helping her through these transitions. Especially the night transition is the hardest one of all because children are tired, but all transitions tend to be challenging. And getting up in the morning and getting out the door—I mean, I can totally relate to the stalling and the procrastinating and all of that stuff because I do that myself. At this age, though, children often need that parent helping them, guiding them through the channel. That feeling that we’re totally willing to do that. And actually we want to do that, because this is a way that we get to really separate from you when you go to school in a way that feels like there’s a lot of relationship that’s a part of it. And it feels better to us, too, than getting in a battle with her in the morning or at night before she goes to bed, certainly. It can feel better to us to hold on to that I worked with her and I helped her from the beginning.

Yes, she’s four years old and can do a lot of this herself, but there are often periods that children go through with transitions where it’s like they revert back to being a one-and-a-half-year-old, where they really need us to walk them through. And she sounds like she’s either going through that or she’s that kind of person right now. It doesn’t mean you’re going to be doing this forever until she’s a teenager. But for now, I would consider both these periods—the morning and the night—as this is time that you’re going to be connected with her, that you’re going to do caregiving. It’s like baby caregiving with her, to help her get from point A to point B.

Again, it’s that feeling of distance that she has where we’re over here and she’s over there. I want you to do this and you’re not doing it. But what she’s feeling is, There’s a part of me that’s still in independent-mode. Just because you tell me to do something, I can’t do it sometimes. And just be on my side and help me through. I mean, she can’t obviously say that, but that’s often what children are needing. That we are like, okay, it’s bedtime. And you said something about that you developed a routine, so here’s a routine that she hopefully had input on: What do you need at bedtime? What do you need from me? How do you want this to go? And then knowing that no, we’re not going to be able to make a deal that she’s always going to be able to shake on and follow through with. She still needs the backup of, We’re there, we’re taking you through.

That’s how I would approach it, so that right from the beginning, you’re, “Okay, now it’s time to get your clothes on. Here we go. And now we’re going to do this, and then we’re going to do that.” And I’m not saying that it’ll all be perfect and smooth then, but that’s the way I would look at this for yourselves. And you two could take turns or whoever’s available, to give her that 100% nurturing through that time. Okay, so now she’s saying, “No, I don’t want to do that!” The thing is, children often don’t, or they do it a lot less, when we’re in there with this positive, helpful, we’re doing this together, here we go, my love vibe, instead of the it’s time for you to do this attitude. So sometimes that will actually just override. They might still go, “No, I don’t want to. I don’t want to!” But they give in much easier because they’re getting that nurturing that they’re unconsciously asking for.

Parent 2: I think that is great advice. And just speaking for myself, I’ve heard you give that advice on other podcasts and we’ve been doing that and I think it has really helped. It has been great, for me at least, to switch my mindset from I need my daughter to do these things! to, Oh wow, my daughter really needs my help right now. And I remember you saying on a podcast about hard pickups from preschool or daycare, about kids running away: “Just don’t let your kid run away from you. Get there and give them a hug and then stay by their side for the whole time and then your kid can’t run away. And then there’s no conflict there anymore.” Or with these sorts of routines, to switch from saying, Wow, I just need my daughter to do her bedtime routine, to, Oh, my daughter is really tired and she’s only three, so she doesn’t know how to do this on her own and she needs my help. And I think that has made a big difference.

Even doing that, when we go into it and we let her know that the transition is coming: it’s going to be bedtime in 10 minutes, it’s going to be bedtime in five minutes, it’s going to be bedtime in one more minute, take one more moment to do one more thing. Then when it’s bedtime, I say, “Okay, it’s time to head up for bedtime. Do you want to walk or do you want me to carry you?” I will carry her or I’ll hold her hand. And I’ve had a lot of success doing that. Even so, she might start screaming that she can’t walk, and I’ll say, “Oh yeah, you are too tired to walk. I understand, that makes sense. I’ll carry you. I’m happy to carry you.” Sometimes that works.

Or sometimes she screams, “No, I want mama to carry me!” I mean, sometimes we look at each other and maybe mama is free and can pick her up and carry her, but I think this is where I start wondering about boundaries. Because if I’ve told her, “It’s time to go up for bedtime, I’m happy to carry you, I’m here,” is that a place where I ought to be saying, You really had these perfectly good options in front of you and you said no to walking and I’m here and I’m taking the lead in this bedtime, so I’m just going to pick you up. Even though mama’s on the other side of the house and she’s fully capable of taking you upstairs, right now I’m the one who’s doing it. But then that will often become a point of conflict between my daughter and me where she’ll just be screaming for the entire bedtime that she wants mama to do whatever. Does that make sense?

Janet Lansbury: It does, it does. And it’s great to hear these details of what’s going on. So the other thing I would say is, knowing that transitions are very challenging and a time of dysregulation, especially the nighttime one for young children. She’s still totally in that category at age four, four can be a challenging age. Six does get a lot easier by then, but four is still ripe for falling apart when it’s time to do these things. So knowing that going in, I would give her the most minimal choices, if any, and I wouldn’t give her that kind of countdown. Because putting my toddler hat on or my four-year-old hat on, I’m getting wound up by that. One more minute, here we go . . . For a child with this kind of sensitivity, it can be unraveling to feel that warning vibe. I know you don’t mean it that way, you mean it very lovingly, but it can come off as, Alright, here we go . . . and like, I have a feeling there might be trouble here. That’s the way you said it in your voice saying it to me. Maybe you’re not saying it that way to her, but that trepidation feeling.

Instead I’d say, “You know what? In a few minutes it’s going to be time to go upstairs and I can’t wait to do bedtime with you.” That’s the only warning part. And saying it very positively like that and then going up to her, “Okay, come on, let’s go.” Taking her hand, putting your arm around her. You see her starting to stall, “You know what, I’m going to pick up my little baby bear” or whatever, and, “I’m so glad I can still do this!” And now she’s screaming, Mommy, mommy! “Oh no, you want mommy.”

And maybe she can’t hear you from then out, but if she goes there—which again, there’s so much more chance of it when we’re leaving open those choices and all those things that she can’t handle. It’s like, I can’t handle this, I can’t handle that, I can’t handle that. And it’s like one on top of the other and, Now, I’m done. She’s gone off into that dysregulation place. And so if she gets like that anyway, even if you do kind of come in early with this, I call it the “confident momentum” of not giving her those choices and all those pauses and all those places of making decisions that are really, really hard for most young children. Or all of us when we’re in tense periods in our life, and young children still are in their development, there’s so much going on.

Even with all that, if she’s now screaming for mommy, I would see it as, You know what? She’s venting her day right now. I would perceive it that way. And, I’m going to be the hero that doesn’t get flustered by that, doesn’t try to call in mommy.

I would not do that, even if mom’s right there. I would not try to fix it that way because it will help her if she can just let go and be gone at that point. I would just take her up. If she’s screaming, cover your ears or if she’s trying to hurt you or something, say, “You know what? I can’t.” Or don’t even say it. Just put her down and just somehow get her along that way.

When you talk about force, you could call it force, but it’s not the kind that you two are both worried about where you have to hold her down. It’s that papa bear/mama bear momentum that I guess could be called force, but it’s really more when you can’t do it yourself, I’m going to carry you through attitude. And not all these words to her. I wouldn’t try to talk to her about it, especially if she’s at that point.

Then with details like the bath, I mean the bath is optional, really. Bathing is a nice luxury, I think. I mean for me at least! But for her it’s like you could wash her, you could washcloth her back a little if she’s been playing in mud or something like that or wash her hands. And I would do that with confident momentum. “You know what, we’re going to put these hands in here and we got to do this,” and, “Oh, you don’t want to and you want mommy and this is just not going your way!” If you’re going to say anything, just be understanding that she’s falling apart and coming from that place. But a bath should really be a voluntary thing because we want to present it positively. And like I said, I think it is positive.

It’s not make or break that if she doesn’t have a bath—unless she’s been working in a construction site or something—that there’s going to be something wrong with that. It’s just that we want this routine to go, and also maybe she said she wanted to do that. And then you might say, “It looks like it’s going to be too hard for you to be in the bath, so we’re going to skip it this time.” Not mad at her, not, Well, you said!, not going up against her in that way. But really on her side, as somebody that you see is almost like a basket case at this point. This is especially true if she was overtired.

Brushing the teeth, you do the best you can. The pajamas, I mean, if she has to sleep without pajamas, it’s not the end of the world. But I think you’ll find it’s easier—I mean, you say you’re already finding it easier that she’s not overtired, but I think you’ll find it easier when you approach it as, Okay, I got to get you dressed. That’s my job, and I got to do this. And we’re not annoyed with her, because we know she’s not in her best mind right now and she just needs help. She just needs us to get her from point A to point B as best we can. It’s not purposeful behavior that she’s doing. And then I think you’ll find there’s less of it.

I wanted to talk to your partner here about her feeling tentative because that is, as you both realize, that is also getting in the way. And understandably. I’m so sorry you had that experience as a child. A lot of parents that I work with have trouble with being physical in the way that I was just describing. Having that confidence to start early with momentum, to see your job as heroic, and there are physical aspects of that. If we’re tentative, then we’re leaving open all those spaces, we’re going to keep giving her those kinds of choices. Oh, you don’t want me? Okay, daddy, and, Okay, are you ready for me to do this? Instead of, You know what, I’m going to do this. I know I’m doing the right thing, I know I’m caring for you, that you’re showing me you need my help, and I’m happy to do it. It’s not the same as going up against you. I’m overriding some of the difficulty that you’re having, is really the way it is.

Parent 1: Yeah, that’s helpful. I think it’s some of what you described as putting pajamas on, the bathtub, those sorts of things, being voluntary, I think sort of trying to better understand that piece. Because I think there are times where we can come in with that more positive attitude and catching it earlier and it works. And other times where she just hides under the bed or hides behind furniture. I think she can kind of feel her power in terms of the pajamas, getting the pajamas on. And so I guess I wonder if in that situation when she’s—I’m using the word fighting, but that’s not what I mean—where she’s just really having a hard time or testing in those moments, would that make sense to let that go? Or would you say that’s important to get her pajamas on?

Janet Lansbury: That’s interesting. I don’t disagree with you saying fighting. But what you said is so key, about the power. So yes, she’s unconsciously trying to understand also, besides feeling not her best self and kind of a mess, she’s trying to understand and reckon with, in a way, the power that this has with her parents. That when she hides, now you’re frustrated or however you’re being or mad or trying to get her out of there. So what we want to do with that is not give it power.

That’s what I meant about cutting our losses sometimes and letting go of certain things. I mean, it’s not like I can give you a set plan. It’s a feeling that you have with her of she’s trying to get you wound up by something—again, I believe on an unconscious level—and you’re not going to do it. You’re not going to take the bait because you see beyond. Going under the bed, it’s so silly. So am I going to get annoyed with that? If I have this agenda, I’ve got to do this and she’s got to have the pajamas and she’s got to have the bath, that’s going to set me up to be annoyed when it’s not going my way. But if I’m just like, I’m going to do the best I can to help my little girl, and I’m not afraid of touching her and picking her up and doing all those things. Because it is loving, especially if I’m acknowledging.

If she’s screaming for mommy and daddy’s taking her and if you’re like, “You want your mom, you don’t want me,” knowing it’s not personal, then it’s so compassionate. It’s so loving. There’s nothing even remotely abusive or wrong there for her. She’s feeling that hero come in and take care of her.

But yeah, when she’s doing that kind of silly stuff, I would say maybe, “Okay, I’m going to go file my nails and let me know when you’re ready for the book because I’m happy to read it for a few more minutes.” Very positive, very you’re not going to get me with this stuff. And that will give you confidence when you realize you’re the one that actually has all the power, not her. She doesn’t want to have the power to annoy you with these antics, and she doesn’t have to if you don’t give it to her.

Parent 1: That feels really powerful. I could just feel myself, I have to get these nine things done to get her in bed! I think that’s where she gets the power. You’re absolutely right that I am like, Okay, now how do I convince her to put on her pajamas? And now how do I convince her to brush her teeth? And if she doesn’t, I have to make her do it. So then I’m trying all the tricks. We can’t read a book, or you’re not going to get to say goodnight to your sister, all the things. I’m pulling them out because she has to get the pajamas on. But if she doesn’t have to get the pajamas on, then okay. If she doesn’t have to brush her teeth. I mean, hopefully she doesn’t not want to brush her teeth every night, it doesn’t get to that. But I don’t think it does. The other day that came up and we were like, “Oh, okay, you don’t have to brush your teeth to go to school today.” She’s like, “Oh, I want to. I don’t want cavities.” And so she still did. I think that’s just really powerful to take the air out of it all by recognizing none of it has to get done.

Janet Lansbury: Right. I love that you had that experience where she wanted to brush her teeth! What does that tell you? I mean, everything, right there. This is about your dynamic with her. That’s all. And so what she’s feeling when you’re putting this really intense agenda on yourself. I mean, look what you’re doing to yourself. You’re kind of making it impossible for you to be a confident parent right there. No. Own your power.

You don’t have to tell her and talk her into things. Say, “Okay, here’s your clothes. I’m going to put this on.” You really can’t do it? Don’t do it, then. Maybe there’s ways that you can practice with her during times when she’s not having difficulty like this, where you come in very positively with physical touch. I mean, I’m sure you do have this. You just put your arm around her right away, you’re not tentative about touching her, that you have to ask her permission for everything or whatever. I mean, I know that that’s out there. You’re not one of these people that anybody should worry about making a child do things and breaking their boundaries physically. You’re the other direction. But children read that as, She can’t be the leader. I don’t want to be the leader, but I’m kind of stuck here trying to get her to be the leader. It’s not a comfortable feeling for her.

Parent 1: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. There’s definitely a place for picking her up and helping her and coming to it from that perspective as her leader and helping her through things. And letting go when it starts to feel like a power struggle. That feeling that I have in my body is a cue that, Huh, maybe this thing isn’t necessary. Maybe she doesn’t have to eat a banana before she goes to school. Let that go. If she doesn’t want to eat breakfast, then she doesn’t want to eat breakfast. I can let go of all those things.

Janet Lansbury: And you can take it in the car and, instead of that disappointment in her, say, “You know what? We’ll bring it in the car. Tell me if you change your mind.” If you don’t mind her eating in your car, but if you do, don’t do it.

You’re not willing to engage in a power struggle. You’re just not. Not because you’re afraid of it, but you’re just too big for it. You’re way too big for it, both of you. You’re not going to stoop to that with a four-year-old. And that’s what will give her heart so much relief. That she’s not in charge of these things, that she doesn’t have to make all these decisions, that her little antics don’t throw you off your game, you two. That’s the main thing that she’s looking for here, I think.

Parent 1: Yeah. I feel like I have a new approach that’s going to really help the evenings feel. I think you’re right, there’s a sense that, Here comes the bedtime routine . . . How is it going to go tonight? So hopefully I can shift that mindset, because I’m sure she feels that too.

Janet Lansbury: Yeah. And if you’re feeling that, this girl’s feeling it for sure. It’s like seeping out of you, that trepidation. And it’s a really typical thing, you’re not unusual, that we go into these things where our child, maybe we’ve had difficulty before and now, “Alright, five more minutes until your bedtime. Okay, it’s time.” Like we’re almost asking for trouble, right?

Parent 1: Right.

Janet Lansbury: Yeah. Even though of course we don’t really want it, but that’s how it can feel.

I think it’s also wonderful that you also have the connection now that you’ve made between your childhood experience and the tentativeness that you feel. Keep exploring that, maybe writing about it from a place of that feeling, of how it felt. So you’re not writing a story about what happened from this kind of objective, distant place, but you sit down with that feeling of how that felt when your brother was doing that, and you just write from that. Ah, I’m scared, whatever comes from that. That can be a helpful way that I learned from Elisabeth Corey, by the way, who I’ve had on my show. Do you go to therapy or anything like that?

Parent 1: I have at times. I’m not in therapy right this minute, though. Yeah.

Janet Lansbury: Well, just keep in mind that that may need more healing for you to be able to put it in its place and not let it interfere with this important role that you’re taking on.

Parent 1: I think the challenge is actually sometimes more just like when my husband has to help her put her clothes on. I kind of trust myself in those moments, but I think the conflict comes when I’m watching him put her pajamas on. That’s more of when the conflict arises within me, is kind of watching that and probably putting a lens on it that’s more related to what happened to me when I was a kid. He’s just trying to get her pajamas on, and in my mind, I often intervene in those moments. And not just in my mind, I intervene and I tell him to stop because that’s what comes up for me. And so I think figuring out how to allow him to parent in those moments. I mean, I certainly think it impacts me. I think in terms of how it impacts our parenting overall. It’s more in just my intervening in those moments when he’s having to be the confident leader and take those steps that it ends up being a challenge for us.

Janet Lansbury: Well, I would just keep your sense of humor about it if you can. What both of you are doing here, exploring this, is the way that I would recommend. Because it’s like, let’s say you’re building a wooden box and you have this lid and the lid’s not going on. We wouldn’t try to force it, force it, force it on. We would look and see what’s going on here that’s making this not go on. So that’s what we want to do with children, even though obviously they’re not wooden boxes, much more complex than that. But that’s the way we want to be as parents. We want to go from the inside out, helping our child with the issue that they’re having.

In this case, I think overtiredness, way too much power, getting people wound up, and maybe too much of a strict agenda on things that, really, we don’t have the power to force that easily. Like to make someone sit in a bath and enjoy it or to make someone get their clothes on or brush their teeth when they’re holding their mouth shut. So where we don’t have power, we really want to lean into mama/papa bear, loving, loving, loving relationship. And way above her struggles and tests and all the things that happen when she’s not at her best self.

Parent 1: That’s super-helpful. Thank you so much. I feel kind of relieved that I have a plan that feels a lot more doable than I had before. Yeah.

Janet Lansbury: Good. And if she starts screaming for one of you when the other one’s having their time with her, don’t other person come bail her out. Because then that can be that accommodating thing of, I really can’t do this, and you really do need daddy or you really do need mommy right now. It’s better then to just kind of face the music and carry on, knowing that you’re being a hero.

Parent 2: Can I ask a couple follow-up questions?

Janet Lansbury: Yes.

Parent 2: Since we’ve got you on the line, and normally I just have to listen to your podcast and then guess how it applies to our particular circumstance.

Janet Lansbury: Of course.

Parent 2: So yeah, I hear what you’re saying about if she is screaming at my wife that she actually wants me to do bedtime—it happens in both directions—that that’s not her decision to make, and we’re both capable parents and either one of us can do it. We don’t need to acquiesce to that. What about this morning when she was screaming at me that I was sitting in her seat at breakfast and she wanted me to move? I mean, am I acquiescing to some unreasonable demand? I mean, I can go sit somewhere else.

Janet Lansbury: But why would you?

Parent 2: Is that me being flexible? Or am I being too stubborn if I say, “No, I was sitting here already, I’m just going to sit here,” knowing that she is going to scream a lot right next to me as I’m sitting there eating breakfast if I don’t get up and move. I mean, she ended up screaming a lot about other nonsense this morning.

Janet Lansbury: There you go, that’s your answer. She needed to scream about something. I’m really glad you brought this up, because that’s a sign that there are some places where you’re kind of letting her have power that she cannot be comfortable with, and then it’s bleeding over into these difficult situations like bedtime as well. Because when there are things going on in one area, it always makes everything harder, especially the transitional times, which are already the hardest.

It’s an unconscious power play on her part. Yeah, of course you could get up, but for what? Of course you could get her a different color cup that’s right there, but you already brought that one with the water in it. The way that you respond matters, no matter what you do. So you could sit there still and say, “No, I’m going to sit here. You can’t tell me what to do.” Or you could be like, “Well, that’s really interesting. You’re giving us the seating arrangements. I’m pretty comfortable here. This is where I’m going to stay.” With that comfortable, confident attitude, instead of responding as if she’s making a serious request. And then she will scream anyway. And I love that you noticed that in a way. I mean, I’m sorry you noticed that!

Parent 2: It’s hard not to notice.

Janet Lansbury: I know. I’m sorry that happened, I guess I should say. But that tells you right there, she was going to find something to scream about. And by me doing this totally reasonable thing, which is staying where I’m sitting and not jumping up for the four-year-old pointing their finger at me, she gets a chance to.

And she also gets this incredible message that her parents are just not going to fall for that stuff. We’re just not going to take the bait. And she doesn’t have to worry that we’re going to take the bait. Because underneath what she seems like she wants is her wanting us not to do that, her wanting us to not give her all that power, that she can be the boss of all these adults. Because she’s only four and she knows that’s trouble if she’s the boss. Who’s going to take care of her?

Parent 2: Can I ask another follow-up, though?

Janet Lansbury: Yeah. I hope it’s along the same lines, because I love it.

Parent 2: It’s along the same lines. I know I’ve heard you give people advice that when your kid is screaming, if they’re actually screaming in a way that is bothering you, you can tell them that. So part of what I was thinking at breakfast this morning is that of course I can stay in my seat, but I know she’s going to start screaming. And then if she starts screaming at me, I can tolerate that for like a minute or two, but then I’m not going to like it anymore and I’m going to want to leave. And I’ll tell her like, “Oh wow, that noise that you’re making, that’s really loud. That’s actually bothering me, so I’m going to go somewhere else.” And then it’s like she’s gotten the thing that she wanted anyway. So she does have a lot of power, you know? She can scream and I can’t stop her from screaming. And I can white-knuckle it and tolerate it for as long as I can, but I’m still a limited human being. I can only take so much of my kid screaming in my ear before I want to go sit in a quieter room to eat my oatmeal. You know what I mean?

Janet Lansbury: Yeah. So putting your hand over your ear doesn’t help enough, it sounds like.

Parent 2: I guess I could do that in between bites.

Janet Lansbury: As much as possible, we want to try to do the most minimal thing, because that shows that we’re not bothered. And ideally we see this as a kind of ridiculous thing that’s going on here and that we’re not going to play into it. But if that’s really hurting your ears and you can’t take it anymore, I would say, “You know what? I feel like going over here.”

And then, no, she hasn’t gotten what she wants there. Or she has actually, but it’s not what we think she wants. So we think she wants us to get off that chair. But what she wants is to know her leaders are unruffled, she wants to know her leaders can totally handle anything she throws at them. So you not sitting there is not her getting what she wants. But your attitude about eventually moving or not moving is going to give her what she wants, which is an answer: You know what? You can try all these things and you’re not going to blow me off this chair. I may choose to get up, but you don’t have the power to force me. It’s that little subtle adjustment of you owning your power and seeing the ridiculousness of this and the need that’s really behind it, which is, Dad, don’t play into this with me. Don’t let me be this kind of boss-child instead of the little tiny girl that I am. So it’s the way that you do it. Does that make sense?

Parent 2: That does make sense. That makes a lot of sense. And I think that’s really helpful. Thank you.

Janet Lansbury: So making it your idea. “Oh, you know what? I’m going to go over here. I’m going to bring this in the kitchen because I have some things to do,” or whatever. I mean, I guess maybe it’s acting a little bit. But have there ever been other people in your life, like when you were a kid or something, that just were trying so hard to annoy you and bug you and get a rise out of you, and you finally realized, if I just kind of not ignore them, but ignore the bothersomeness of this, they stop.

So ignoring them is different because that’s actually a kind of aggressive response of, I’m just going to ignore you for doing that.

This is, Oh gosh, here she goes. Oh well, I’m just not going to give this thing power. It’s so silly. I’m going to get up because I want to.

Parent 2: Sounds really helpful, and I hear what you’re saying about it kind of being acting, but also just saying the line of dialogue out loud kind of forces you to go along with the scene. So that is good.

Janet Lansbury: It’s acting yourself into believing it, or it’s even better when you just really believe it. When you really see this as not this tremendously annoying child this moment, but this silly, tiny person that is not really asking for you to get off the chair, but asking for you to not be wound up by her.

Parent 2: Yeah, I think that’s really helpful advice. I’ve been using your advice along those lines during bedtimes when she’s just totally overwhelmed, overtired, completely fallen apart, saying out loud, “Oh wow, you’re having a really hard time. I love you. I’m here to help you.” That has really changed my attitude about what’s going on in those moments. And I think sometimes she’s so deep into her tantrum that I don’t know if she’s hearing me at all or, if she’s hearing me, I don’t know if she’s actively processing it at all. But it still helps me.

Janet Lansbury: Good.

Parent 2: And my wife can correct me if I’m wrong, but I think I’ve seen a change in her over time as I’ve shifted that attitude and the words that I’m saying to her in those moments.

Janet Lansbury: Yeah. Another one you could say to yourself is, This too shall pass. It’s all good. My son always says it’s all good to everything, but she’s venting away. It’s all good.

Parent 1: I don’t think we realized how much of our power we were letting her take. I think this is just really useful for getting a bigger picture outside of my own brain of what’s actually going on, than how I was seeing it. Super helpful. Thanks again.

Janet Lansbury: It’s my pleasure. And that’s the key: that zooming out, having somebody else to talk to about it so you can see the bigger picture. And then when you step away from her, you can see how tiny this person is. Do you ever go out on the street and think, How did she get so small? We thought she was huge in our minds!

You two are doing an incredible job. Kudos to you. All of this self-reflection and self-awareness that you have is really going to continue to inform your relationships with these two people that you’re raising.

Parent 1: We’re lucky that we ran into your materials.

Parent 2: We really are.

Parent 1: I don’t even know. I sometimes think, what would I be doing if I hadn’t run into your stuff online? Who knows! But we are just really grateful that you are around and you’re so good at explaining it in a way that makes it clear and understandable. And providing the language at times. Sometimes “I won’t let you do that” is so helpful. Just those little things, that you just have a gift of putting things succinctly in helpful ways. So thanks for putting that out into the world.

Janet Lansbury: It’s my pleasure. And thank you so much for your kindness and again, for your generosity in being here and sharing with all of us. Bye.

Parent 1: Bye.

Janet Lansbury: And thank you all so much for listening and for your kind support. We can do this.

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