Kids seem to have a sixth sense when it comes to detecting our vulnerabilities as parents. And as adept learners and explorers, they can’t help but keep pressing the buttons they discover in us. It can be easy for us to get stuck in an uncomfortable, unproductive cycle.
Janet shares two recent interactions she’s had with friends who are concerned about disconcerting new tendencies they’ve noticed in their children. One parent says her daughter is portraying herself as a constant victim, blaming others for every mishap, even for her own errors and misdeeds. Another writes that when her son is in tantrum mode, she gently stops him from hitting and kicking, but afterwards, he complains that she is “pushing him.” He remains angry and shouts, “I don’t love you!”
Janet identifies the common thread that could be causing these parents to doubt themselves and describes several additional examples parents have shared with her that fit this pattern. She offers suggestions for understanding and approaching these situations in a manner that ultimately curtails them.
(Janet’s “No Bad Kids Master Course” is available at NoBadKidsCourse.com.)
Transcript of “Parent Traps”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.
Today I’d like to share issues two different friends who are parents asked me about and the thoughts that I shared with them in response. Both of these touch on a very common area that we can struggle with as parents. It’s a kind of trap that we can easily fall into, out of all the love and care we feel for our children. And it’s around one of my favorite topics, which is our children’s perceptiveness in regard to our thoughts and feelings. The way they’re always tuning into us, and particularly, of course, when they sense we’re sad or fearful or even just a little bit off-balance, concerned, or worried about them.
So, when two of my parent friends asked me questions that were very different in terms of the specifics, but actually along very similar lines, it felt like I was getting a sign from the universe that I should address this topic in my podcast this week. So here it goes.
The first one came in a message from a friend of mine. She said:
I had a really tough day with my son today. I ended up in tears. He woke up about ten minutes to five this morning and said he was hungry. He spent the day exhausted. He had a (understandable) tantrum this morning and finally took a nap around 10:20. Around 2pm I was too wiped out to do anything and decided to let him watch an episode of Mister Rogers while I rested. We usually only watch it when I braid his hair, but I needed something else, since he’d already had hours of independent play, stories, and music. I was too tired to take him outside. He’s at the playground with his dad now.
Anyway, I just wanted to ask your advice on how to stop him from hitting, kicking, and biting me. I’ve been successful at stopping it, but I’m wondering if I’m doing it correctly, because after the tantrum ends and we talk about it, he tells me that I was pushing him. Because he perceives it this way, I’m wondering if that is why he continues and seems to be getting angrier. Today he shouted at me several times, “I don’t love you!” This was in response to me saying he could watch another episode of Mister Rogers later in the week when I braid his hair after he’d asked to watch another one. I had to leave him because I started to cry.
I had a therapy session today where I was telling my counselor that I spent years feeling that my mom just did not love me. Even up until her deathbed, when she reached for my hand I thought she mistook me for my sister. So, perfect timing for him to be saying that to me over and over again. Of course, I know he didn’t mean it, but it still hurt me.
Yeesh, sorry for the short essay. Just wanted to share. Any advice you have would be greatly appreciated. I was thinking I should try to let him down a little easier. I think, although my words were kind and not an outright no, maybe I need to pause and bring him closer and empathize first, then lay out the plan.
Just to give you some context, her son is three-and-a-half, and I know this parent and boy well enough to know that it seems almost impossible to imagine that she would be behaving roughly with him, pushing him. And also that he doesn’t love her, that’s just unimaginable to me. And from what I know about children, it takes a lot for them to not love their parent, especially at his young age. And his parents are very lovable people. So there’s no doubt in my mind that these are things he’s saying and doesn’t mean.
But here’s what I wrote back to her:
I’m sorry you’re going through this. It sounds like he has intuited your vulnerable spots and is unconsciously kind of testing them out through these responses. Usually these are just ways that he expresses his feelings of not getting what he wants, also being tired, etc. They aren’t literal. So ideally you will work on just acknowledging and not get caught in these little webs. So you might say, “It felt like I was pushing you. You didn’t like that.” Acknowledging his right to feel that way, but knowing that you did not actually push him.
Same with the “I don’t love you.” You’re right, he does not mean that at all. Quite the opposite—he adores you. He wouldn’t say that if he hadn’t sensed before that that that was pushing your button and an effective way to express his anger about the show. We all get blindsided by certain things, but try to remember that whatever he says out of frustration, anger, other emotions, is not literal, nor does he mean it. Underneath it, all he wants is for you to be able to see through this and see him as a little boy immaturely expressing himself to you.
And she wrote back: “Oh my God, this made me cry. I needed to hear this.” And then later: “Today was a much better day for both of us. Sleep is a huge deal!”
Right, sleep is an absolute game changer for our children and for us, of course. Yes, it is a big deal. And this is so much what children do, this is what they’re supposed to do. Be learning about the most important people to them— us. When they sense that they’ve sort of ensnared us in these places it is curious for them at the very least, it’s probably a little disconcerting for them. And that’s why they tend to flare up again and again.
And the one about—well, both of these are very common ones that I hear a lot and I’m sure it’s happened to me, it’s been a long time. But, yeah, absolutely, “I don’t love you.” I mean, that’s one that cuts every parent to the heart. And then this idea that when we’re actually blocking their behavior, we do want to address the hitting right away and stop him. And so often when we’re doing that, children will come back with, “You’re hurting me. You’re pushing me.” And oh my gosh, that makes us doubt everything, right? And then children feel that. Whoa, that scared my parent. And so they can’t help but keep going there.
Now obviously there are instances where parents are really hurting their children, but the parents that have reached out to me with this issue, the way that they describe everything they’re doing, there’s no reason that they would be misrepresenting that to me. It would not help them at all, and I doubt very much that they’re doing something that’s actually hurting their child because they’re already being so thoughtful about it. But it is something that makes us naturally doubt ourselves and, Yikes, I better stop, and I’ve got to do this differently. And that’s when we start walking on eggshells, being so careful, which actually reads to our children as we’re not confident, we’re afraid. And they need us to be confident and strong and be able to take care of them, in all their moods. So that’s why I said what I said to this parent.
And then, it might’ve been the same day or the next day, I ran into a neighbor on the street. She was actually driving by and I was walking. So she stopped her car for a minute and was just saying hi, because we hadn’t seen each other for a while. And she said, “When you get a chance, I want to talk to you about my daughter’s victim mentality.” And I said, “What’s that about?” She said her daughter blames everybody else for everything. It’s as if the world’s out to get her. And the parent said, and I knew this already, she said her husband and her are recovering alcoholics. So this was kind of an alarm bell for them because that is a very common thing that alcoholics feel. They rationalize their substance abuse because they’re the victim.
So yikes, right? As a parent, Oh no, maybe we’ve passed this on. And we always worry about these things as parents, right? The issues that we’ve struggled with, we tend to worry that our child will have to face the same pain that we did. And we love them, so we don’t want that to happen. It’s, Uh-oh, what have I created?, right?
So what I said to this parent, and this little girl is four, four-and-a-half, and has a younger sibling. I said, she doesn’t have a syndrome, this isn’t a mentality. It’s very likely that she’s sensed your vulnerability. And probably what happened is that she’s absorbed a bit of judgment or shame coming from her parents or from somewhere. It’s hard not to feel that as an older sibling because more tends to be expected of you than your younger sibling. And maybe you’re not always loving that this little person’s around. Other times you do, you adore them, but sometimes, I don’t know, it just rubs you the wrong way and you kind of get blamed for things, possibly.
You know, we all go through moments where we feel like the world’s out to get us and we’re the victim. It’s kind of a feeling that a lot of us go through when we’re overwhelmed. It feels like we can’t get anything right and everybody else is against us. And it is a bit extreme and hyperbolic often, but I don’t know, I feel like that sometimes. So probably wasn’t a big deal at all when she first did it, but she just had this impulse to not have any fingers pointing at her and pass it off onto her brother or someone else, to her parents. I didn’t do that. And, They did it to me. And then she noticed that got a rise out of one or both of her parents, that’s a vulnerable area for them. So now she has this impulse to say it again and again about everything.
I know it’s so hard, though, as parents, that we get worried all these things are going to stick and like, Oh no, this is getting etched in here in stone, for life. So we have to push back. And this parent told me what they were doing was saying, “Oh, no, no, no, other people don’t do it and you did it. These people aren’t doing it to you.” And the normal thing that we do as parents, which is pushing back on the things we don’t want our child to be thinking or saying. And then she finds herself going there repeatedly, doing that same thing, because it’s kind of fascinating. Wow, I did this one immature thing and that caught their attention. They got uncomfortable.
So this was a very brief conversation I had with this parent, but she got it. And next time I see her, I’m going to find out what happened. Because I said, just reflect back, just acknowledge. “Wow. Yeah, it feels like you want to say that he did it and they did it. And sometimes it feels like everyone’s doing stuff to you. Or right now it feels everybody’s doing it, to you.” These are feelings, not facts. So we can help children if we get on that wavelength. They’re passing through these different thoughts and feelings and impulses. These aren’t serious bad signs of things to come. But I can understand seeing them that way, for sure.
Some of the other common areas where this comes up that parents share with me: sibling behaviors. Perhaps we were the older one who was criticized and shamed, so the fear and shame that we absorbed around that, we’re passing that on to our child. Or it could be the other way around, that we were the younger one who had to deal with our older sibling taking their frustration and fear out on us. So any kind of sibling conflict where it seems like the older one is instigating a conflict, it sets off our protective instincts for the younger child. So we overreact, we react in a way that feels like we have to put a stop to this.
Another one: children who seem to be copycats. They’re imitating another child or their baby sibling or a friend or a relative. And yikes, then we worry, Oh, our child can’t be their own person. Being your own person is a value that a lot of us have, being authentic as ourselves. But what children who are copying other children’s behavior are doing is actually pro-social behavior. It’s empathy. It’s exploring that other person, what makes them feel like doing these things and acting like this, what it feels like to be them. When that’s about a younger sibling, it can be, I want to get that kind of love that I used to get when I was a baby that I’m not getting now because I’m not as needy. But I miss that. I miss that attention of being babied. That can be part of it. But that’s not a regression or, Oh gosh, now my child can’t speak age-appropriate language. They’re only able to speak baby talk and they were just learning these more complicated sentences and now they’re reverting back and they’re going to lose what they had. Or, My child is going to be as annoying as I think that other child is that they’re imitating and I liked my child the way they were. Or just this idea of they don’t have their own identity. All these scary places we can go when this is actually positive behavior, interesting behavior in a way.
Another one: our child’s too shy or they’re too aggressive or they’re too much. And too much is almost always because our parents struggle with consistent behavior boundaries and maybe we have a healthy, strong will or an intense personality. And yes, then managing our behavior, it’s going to feel like too much if a parent isn’t confident about setting boundaries. Because as the child, we’re unconsciously persistently seeking those loving but firm boundaries that we sense that we need from our parents for survival. We need them to look out for us and help us with our behavior. Give us those guidelines from a place of being on our team and just wanting to help. The way the best teachers are. We learn from teachers who get us and want to see us do well and aren’t afraid of us or intimidated by our behavior, threatened by where we are in our learning process.
Another one: maybe we have a son who seems obsessed with aggressive play when we really hoped to have a boy who was in touch with his sensitive side and not wanting to do gunplay or swords or be superheroes. Or we have a girl that seems obsessed with being a girly girl and frilly and princesses when we really hope that they wouldn’t buy into that stuff. We wanted them to be stronger and be in touch with their power as strong people.
Or maybe we have a toddler that takes a toy from another child and we worry that, Oh no, they’re going to be a taker, they’re going to be a thief if we don’t sternly stop them. When these are actually often the most social children in that group. They’re just trying to engage in one of the very few ways that one- and two-year-olds can engage. But actually making contact with another child, they don’t know how to do it. So taking toys is often the way that they do. Which isn’t to say we let that go on and on if a child is stuck in that, but it’s a harmless, very typical thing that they do. And depending on the crowd that we’re in, we’ll stop them gently. Or maybe we’re in a playgroup where other people have agreed that we’re going to allow the children to explore and we’re only going to stop a child from taking toys if they seem stuck doing that again and again.
Or it could be that our child seems to be the “victim” of that kind of behavior, and then we worry they’re going to be a doormat if we don’t correct the situation for them. We can’t let that happen, right? But our child is usually just feeling curious in that moment, Oh, what just happened? Maybe they get upset. If they do, it’s usually because they’re kind of tired anyway. Or that we’ve, without meaning to, fueled these situations with a lot of judgment. In other words, projecting this idea that, Something really bad just happened to you. They took that toy and you wanted that and you needed that. And children, they just aren’t as invested in the stuff and the toys as we can be as adults, which is really refreshing, right? And positive and healthy. And often that child who we worry is a doormat is just thinking, Okay, you want that so much? Alright. That’s actually often the stronger child in the relationship, the one who isn’t needing to take stuff or control stuff.
This idea of projecting into the future is a common reason that some parents believe in physical punishment or intensely shame-based responses to behavior. The rationale is, Well, if our child does this as an adult, they’ll be fired from their job. They’ll go to jail, maybe. But the thing is, children, yes, they’re people and they deserve the same respect as adults, but they can’t be held to the same behavior standards with the same consequences. They’re just learning. Boy are they learning.
So anyway, the list of examples goes on and on and on. It’s almost as personal as each of us, what we’re going to get drawn into, where our traps are going to be.
So how can we avoid falling into one of these traps? Well, we can remind ourselves that children are the best learners and explorers on the planet. Science shows this. And they’re just trying out behaviors and attitudes and feelings, exploring. All the time. They’re just passing through. They’re developing so rapidly, and these behaviors almost never become an actual pattern or a syndrome or a mentality that sticks.
But the thing is, it takes longer for a child to move through them when we unintentionally kind of feed the behavior through our judgmental responses. When we fall into those traps, our child has to pursue that particular way of learning for a longer period. So it’s not in our best interest. It’s not that we’re bad parents for doing these very normal, typical things. It’s just not going to work in our favor. It’s not going to get us to where we want to be— helping our child, encouraging their incredible learning potential.
So it’s about trust. There’s that word again. Trusting children’s learning process. With trust, we can be curious rather than jumping to that judgmental place where we want to push back on the behaviors. For an example, let’s say the imitation one, the copycat. “You’re really into doing what your cousin does these days. You’re learning a lot about him, hey? Does that help you feel closer to him?” Genuine questions, not leading, not with the subtext of, I really hate that you’re doing this. I know that’s the hard part, is really believing the curiosity, really being there, not pretending, to actually try to get them to stop. If that’s our motive, then whatever we say is going to be clouded with that and our child will feel that pushback coming from us.
Let’s say we have this shy child that we’re worried is going to be passive like we were. Maybe we reflect to them, “Sometimes you just want to hang out with me at the playgroup and suss out the scene, right? Is that true? It takes time to figure out how to join in with other kids, doesn’t it? That was true for me when I was your age. But you know, it’s an honor to have you want to hang out with me, so thanks.” We stay on our kids’ side that way and they’re fueled in a positive direction to keep learning.
This is a challenging but fun topic, right? I would love to hear some of the particular traps that you’ve gotten into. We all have those vulnerable places. That’s what makes each of us unique. And one thing we all share is how much we want the best for our children, how much we adore them, how hard we’re working. If you listen to podcasts like this one, man, you are working hard to be a good parent. So please be good to yourselves. That’s what I say to parents when they’re leaving my toddler classes. I say goodbye to their child. I say to their child, “Be good to your dad or your mom.” And I say to the parents, “Take care of you. Be good to yourself.”
Please check out some of my other podcasts at janetlansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you’re interested in. And I also have books on audio at audible.com: No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple.com.
Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.