Dear Miss Faith,
I have a 5yo, 3yo and 1yo. My challenge is with my 5yo, who sometimes wakes up whiney and just can’t seem to stop, often for 2 hrs or more. When this happens, nothing is right. For example, this morning he didn’t want me using the muffin tin (said it was his), didn’t like the bowl he was given, wanted cereal after he’d chosen eggs, etc. etc. Each problem was king and drawn out and I kept just trying to solve it and move on to the next thing. Finally I got mad. He shaped up but by then I was annoyed all morning. I’d rather not lose my calm but it seems that the kids only start listening when I get mad. Looking for ideas on how not to resort to yelling.
I’ve noticed that when kids start making demands like you’re describing (wrong color bowl, you didn’t put that in the right spot, that wasn’t how I wanted it, etc. etc.) that “solving” these problems (by putting the food in the correct bowl, moving the thing, etc. etc.) almost never actually solves the problem of the child whining. Instead, they just find something else to complain about. Does this ring true for you? If so, what might be going on? How could you approach it differently?
In my experience, this pattern of a child of making a string of ridiculous demands can have a couple of different sources. One possibility is that it’s really a “who’s-in-charge” issue, where your child is asking for boundaries by making more and more ridiculous demands until you put your foot down. The fact that your kids “only start listening when you get mad” suggests that this may be part of what’s going on. Another possibility is that this is attention-seeking behavior. Attention-seeking behavior, while almost always annoying to the adult, is really a veiled request for connection. Since you say that your son wakes up grumpy and can’t seem to shake it, this also seems like a distinct possibility. Of course, this is not really an either/or situation; it’s quite possible that it’s a combination of the two, maybe with something else thrown in as well—perhaps he’s telling you he needs an earlier bedtime, for example.
So what to do? It seems like you’d approach a “who’s-in-charge” issue much differently than you’d approach a request for connection. However, that’s not necessarily so. When I’ve had kids engage in this type of behavior, as soon as I realize that “solving” the problems is not really solving anything, I stop making the requested changes. I do this as calmly and matter-of-factly as I can, working to be firm without losing my cool. Sometimes, when kids can tell that I “mean business,” they will simply accept this response and move on. Other times, however, this boundary results in a big disappointment for the child. At that point, I work on connecting. Not by trying to solve the problem or by offering more choices, but by offering compassion and love. Sometimes tears met by compassion and snuggles can really clear the air and allow us to move on in a more connected way. Sometimes, especially if the behavior came from a combination of needs, a child is not ready to accept my offer of connection right away. Then I might say, “Do you just need to be disappointed for awhile? That’s fine, you go ahead and be disappointed. I’ll be ready with a hug whenever you’re ready to get one.”
Warmly, ~Miss Faith