In this episode: Janet responds to a parent with a toddler and four-year-old who struggles to connect with her kids individually, and neither reacts well when the other is getting mom’s attention. For instance, she says when she tries to give her older son some lap time, “my 18-month-old clearly gets jealous and starts squealing, attempting to climb on me, hitting his brother.” She’s wondering if it’s possible to really connect with either child when both are upset.
Transcript of “How to Connect with Your Upset Child, Even When There’s More Than One”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.
Today I have a question from a parent who wonders how she can connect with her children when she has two of them and there’s only one of her and they both seem to be needing her attention. I’m going to talk a little bit about what connecting with our children when they’re upset and in need of our attention actually looks and feels like.
Here’s the question I received:
I’ve been reading more about respectful parenting and I have a question. If I’m interpreting it correctly, when I can tell my four-and-a-half-year-old son is feeling disconnected from me due to his behavior —whining, acting out, etc.— I should focus on connection to prevent power struggles and escalation of his behavior. I’m just wondering how to focus on the connection right there in the moment when I’m by myself with an 18-month-old as well.
My four-and-a-half-year-old likes to connect by climbing onto my lap for a cuddle, but my 18-month-old clearly gets jealous and starts squealing, ear-splitting, not possible to tune out, attempting to climb on me, hitting his brother, etc. If I pick him up too and cuddle them both, then he pushes, hits, kicks his brother, who then retaliates. Instead of properly focusing on connecting with my four-and-a-half-year-old, I’m trying to console/fend off my 18-month-old. My 18-month-old refuses to be redirected or distracted by anything. I’m just unsure of how to make this work with two children when I’m by myself the vast majority of the time. Partner works long hours.
Okay, so I chose this question because she brings up so many important points that I want to address. These are common, nuanced misunderstandings and misconceptions about the respectful parenting approach that I teach. And it’s easy to have those, even if I was the perfect communicator of this approach, which I’m not.
Yes, in a general sense, a child who is whining or acting out, etc. is in a place of disconnection and they do need us to connect with them. But what does that look like, and then what does that look like when we have another child or multiple children there as well, and they seem to need our attention? How do we connect with all of these children at once and how does that connection actually look with each child?
This parent gives the example that her four-and-a-half-year-old likes to connect by climbing onto her lap for a cuddle. Now, I’m not sure what has gone on before that and what the behavior or the feelings are that cause them to want to climb into her lap. But first I’ll say that the way to connect with children is not necessarily to give them what they seem to want on the surface in that moment. That is not what it means to connect with an upset child with this approach. When children are upset and behaving erratically or they’re even just whining, they’re not in that logical, rational part of their brain. They’re in the emotional centers of their brain. They’re just in their emotion, and the things that they ask for or demand or want in those states aren’t logical either.
And when it’s out of those feelings, often it’s just a part of expressing that feeling. When they’re wanting to tell us what to do, they need this, or they need another one of those. These are feelings, not facts. So when it’s out of these feelings, what connection is about is really just holding space and supporting those feelings to be expressed. It’s not to try to offer a solution to make the feeling stop. True connecting is seeing what’s really going on with our children, which isn’t always easy because we get touched off by their behavior and the emotions that they’re expressing. We can get easily overwhelmed.
So what I try to work on with parents is to perceive as accurately as possible, to see what’s really going on beneath the surface when our child is going to these places. And to recognize it as early as possible. Recognize that these behaviors that our individual child commonly displays aren’t reasonable requests. It’s more that they’ve just gone to a place that they need to ride out, with our support. And what our support is in those times is really mostly emotional support and acceptance. And out of that acceptance can come acknowledging: “Oh, you want this and you want that, and now you want to sit on my lap.” And if that’s something that the parent can’t comfortably do in that moment, she’s juggling things on the stove or she’s otherwise busy with something, it doesn’t work for her to cuddle right there, then I would cuddle a different way: with my emotional connection with my child. Which means seeing them, seeing and hearing what they’re saying. You want to cuddle and I can’t, and that’s so hard, isn’t it? It’s frustrating. You really want to be with me. Not necessarily even saying those words or any words, but looking at our child with that acceptance, welcoming their feelings while we keep doing what we have to do as the adult in the room.
Ideally, we can pause and give them that moment, but we don’t even have to pause. We can actually connect while we’re doing something else. Connection is in the way that we accept. It’s the way that we’re looking at our child, making that eye contact with that soft, accepting gaze. Calming ourselves, that’s a big part of this. Seeing that dysregulation our child is experiencing, not blaming them, not getting personally offended by what they’re doing. Understanding that this is just a place they’ve gone for now and it’s bigger than they are and it will pass.
But now let’s say that cuddling with our child is a good idea, right then. It’s something that we can do and we want to say yes to our child’s request. That’s lovely. Now, what happens if here comes her other child, who she says clearly gets jealous and starts squealing, ear-splitting, not possible to tune out, attempting to climb on her, hitting his brother, etc. What’s happened there? Her 18-month-old is venting some feelings of his own. He’s going into an emotional state. Oftentimes, a child’s feelings tap into another child’s feelings, giving them the opportunity to vent as well. And this is actually a form of empathy. You’ll see babies crying when they hear other babies cry or when they hear their older sibling upset. It doesn’t mean that they’re having some deep sadness. It’s a reflexive response and it’s kind of a nice thing that they’re joining with their sibling in those feelings.
And now her 18-month-old, he’s not going to be behaving reasonably either, and he starts squealing. Yes, it is ear-splitting, but the important thing here is that we don’t try to fix those feelings. We don’t follow that impulse that we all have as parents to comfort those feelings away, to console them away, to make them better. This mother says, “I’m trying to console and fend off my 18-month-old.” Consoling. Now, that’s a word that sounds very active on the parent’s part, to try to change something, and that can’t be our role. We don’t have that power, and that actually isn’t as connected —or I would say, even as loving— as seeing, accepting, allowing the feelings. What’s known as co-regulation. I’m not regulating you, I’m staying regulated along with you so that you can come back to that state. And now let’s say the 18-month-old comes over, and I’m still cuddling my four-and-a-half-year-old, and I acknowledge, “Ah, now you want me too.” And I’m looking at him. “You want to get up here too.” But I wouldn’t give into that because both children need the message that when we’re there for them, we’re there for them. We’re not going to move them away to make room for the other child because the other child is demanding it. And we can still connect with that 18-month-old, but trying to please both of them, as his mother shares, pleases neither child.
And it’s not our role in the situation. Again, connecting, it’s not about pleasing our child with what they’re saying on the surface. It’s about seeing in and allowing our child to be where they are in that moment, even encouraging our child to be where they are in that moment, because the feelings are not logical facts. This isn’t a deep need that our younger one has to be on our lap when the older one is there. We have to believe that, I know it’s hard. But our 18-month-old might behave that way after we’ve spent the entire day cuddling with them while the older one was in preschool. And now we give five minutes to this older child and the 18-month-old still complains, maybe. He has a right to, but what does that tell us? Hopefully it tells us that it’s not about getting what they seem to want in the moment. It’s venting. It’s an emotional release that’s super important. Maybe that child has been holding onto some control of getting his way with his mother and getting stuck there, instead of letting go and releasing some of that toddler angst.
Toddlerhood, it’s a very emotional time, and four-and-a-half is an emotional time too. It’s another stage of growing towards more autonomy and all of the push-and-pull feelings that go along with that. Both of these children, even if there weren’t any other stressors in their environment, have lots of reasons to vent feelings. And if this parent, like a lot of us do, has been trying to console or make things better, rather than rolling out the red carpet, supporting those feelings to be expressed, then there can be a buildup. And children, in this healthy manner that they have, will keep pushing up against us to —on an unconscious level— find those ways to vent. They’ll keep trying to release those feelings.
And that may be what the 18-month-old is doing here, pushing up against a limit that he needs to be able to let go of. Connecting with him is seeing that, seeing that he doesn’t actually need to be on his mother’s lap at the moment. What he needs to do is be in that place of frustration, be in a place of I don’t control everything and this feels awful, that kind of letting go. The way this could look would be, I’m cuddling my four-and-a-half-year-old and here comes my other baby. Oh shoot, you want to be here too, and I’m with your brother right now. That’s so hard. You don’t like when that happens. Again, not saying those words. I say a lot of words in these podcasts because I’m trying to demonstrate an attitude towards the feelings, an accepting attitude. And not accepting with sadness, but with, You have a right to the power of those feelings! I’m not trying to throw cold water on them and I don’t feel sad about them. I want you to feel heard.
Being that leader that still holds onto what I’m doing, the choices I have to make in these situations. Which is, in this case, I’m giving cuddles to this child who asked me first. I’m not going to erase that because his brother wants it as well. And she’s giving this older child some really, really important messages about his worth, about him getting to be prioritized sometimes. He’s already given up his parents to the birth of this sibling and now there’s this rival there and somebody else that he has to share it with. He can’t be expected to share every moment, so it makes sense to me that when she does allow the 18-month-old on her lap, wanting to please him too naturally, then there’s kicking and then the brother retaliates. Yeah, of course he does. It’s hurtful to never get to just have your mother to yourself for a moment because she wants to please your brother as well. So this is where it will help us to rise up to this job and be that person that can say no, even to an 18-month-old.
When she says that he attempts to climb on her and hit his brother, the 18-month-old, I would have your hand there firmly, not even letting him start to climb, if possible. Being very firm in a loving manner, being on this physically. So you’ve got maybe one arm around your four-and-a-half-year-old, and then maybe you have to take your other arm and your hand to hold off this 18-month-old, putting your hand up to physically block him. So we’re not even letting him start to climb up. And if he does get a chance to climb up a little, you gently but firmly help him down again, holding him off so that he can’t get up there or hit his brother or hit you. Be on this in a preventative manner if possible. Strong, convicted in your choice here. As a parent, that’s what both these boys need in this situation, a confident leader.
And other times this scenario may be reversed and it’s the 18-month-old whose right to be with his mother and have her attention at that moment is protected. Yes, of course we’re not going to really be able to pay full attention when there’s another child there screaming about it, but it’s that message that we give each time that makes this kind of rivalry not happen as often. Because children know that we’re not going to let them battle that way for our attention. That we’re strong and confident. We don’t feel it’s our job to please everybody and to calm down every emotion and try to make it better. That’s an impossible job for us as parents. This would be true with twins, with multiple children, in a classroom. We have to be the leader that displeases people, knowing that it’s really healthy for children to be in that situation and to vent those feelings.
So, trying to let go of the squealing, but I would fully prevent him from hitting or climbing on you. Holding him off firmly, not feeling like, Oh, I’ve got to let him get up and now I’ve got to get him off again. Being as preventative as possible physically. This parent says, “I pick him up too and cuddle them both.” So I recommend absolutely not doing that. I would stay focused as much as she can on just being with her four-and-a-half-year-old, letting his feelings be in the comfort of her arms, not trying to console the 18-month-old. When she says “fend off,” that sounds like maybe she’s letting him get too far. We don’t have to fend off when we’re confidently on it from the beginning, not even letting it start.
At the same time, we’re encouraging those feelings that the child has. Connecting with him by allowing his frustration, encouraging him to share that with you. Not feeling responsible for it, definitely not wanting to fix it. Understanding that it’s actually not just about this specific situation, that he needed to be on your lap. That is simply what touched him off. That’s what it means to connect, it’s a mindset. Obviously, she’s not really getting to focus on connecting with her four-and-a-half-year-old when this is going on, but maybe the next time or in a couple of times, because she’s being so clear with both of them so they can both receive this important message.
She says, “My 18-month-old refuses to be redirected or distracted by anything.” Right, and that’s actually healthy on his end because redirecting or distracting are really the opposite of connecting in this situation, and children feel that. Distracting a child from what’s happening, it can only be disconnecting. It’s literally saying, What you’re feeling isn’t happening. Focus on this and don’t feel what you feel. Don’t be where you are in this moment. I don’t recommend distracting a child no matter how young the child is and disconnecting that way. And redirecting is, again, in this situation, saying, Ooh, don’t want what you want. Don’t feel what you feel. Why don’t you do this? And that’s also putting the onus on us to try to fix it and make it better. I’ve got to do something to change this! But that can’t be our job because it’s not a job that’s going to work in the short- or long-term, and it’s not really going to be what the parent wants, which is to connect with her children.
In her final sentence, she says, “just unsure of how to make this work with two children.” What I would like to help her reframe is what “making it work” looks like. What connecting looks like. It’s not, Okay now I’ve made it work and everything is smooth. Unfortunately, it’s not that. Having young children is emotionally messy for them, and that’s why our attitude towards and perception of emotions is so crucial to ours and our child’s wellbeing. And we can do this with one or two or 12 or a whole classroom of children all venting together. Teachers can encourage at the beginning of the preschool year, for example, when several children are having a hard time with separation, Ah, you too. Ah, you all miss your moms and dads so much right now. It’s so hard to say goodbye. Yeah, it’s okay for all of us to feel sad. It’s like a group therapy session where our only role is encouraging and empathizing, not trying to make it all better. I suggest that actual thing all the time in teacher trainings and they think it’s bizarre when I suggest it, but it works. And it takes the pressure off of us. It takes demanding the impossible off of us.
I hope some of that helps. Also, please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. And my books, No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting, you can get them in paperback at Amazon and in ebook at Amazon,
Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.