Exhausted By A Whiny, Cranky Child

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury, welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m responding to a question I got on my Facebook page from a parent who says that her three-year-old has recently started to exhibit what this parent calls some extreme behavioral changes. She describes her as cranky, easily frustrated, incredibly emotional, and she’s hoping for some reassurance and guidance.

Good morning. I first want to thank you for the marvelous information and resources you provide. Your book has been very helpful and constantly brings me back to the place I want to be in raising my daughter.

My husband and I are currently struggling with the right way to respond to our daughter’s newest behaviors and I’m hoping you can point me in the right direction. Our daughter just turned three and has recently started acting out more. I know that some behavioral changes happen around three so I’m trying to reassure myself that this is normal but it seems excessive.

She’s generally cranky, yells at her dad and me, gets more easily frustrated, and is incredibly emotional. Examples: Yesterday she woke up and was happy for about one minute. Dad asked, “Are you hungry? Would you like scrambled eggs and a biscuit with honey or jam?” Our daughter whines and yells, “I said no, stop!” Then rolls around in bed whining and crying. Our daughter asks me to read a book and I say, “Sure, let me finish doing these dishes and we can read a book together on the couch.” Then she whines, “No, stop, I said I didn’t want to.”

It’s like we have to constantly walk on eggshells. She asks us to dance and then whines that we’re dancing the wrong way. She yells and throws tantrums, running away and throwing herself against the couch. It’s so exhausting. I’d love some reassurance and guidance to either nip this in the bud or at least feel confident in our responses. Thank you so much.”

Okay, so what I want to help this parent do and any other parent in this situation is to shift her perspective a little bit. For instance, she says her daughter just turned three and has recently started acting out more. Then she describes crankiness, yelling, frustration, emotions, obstinate behavior changing her mind — she wants something, then she doesn’t want it. All of that, I wouldn’t even perceive that as acting out in terms of pushing limits, because she’s really not pushing limits there as a child does when they’re hitting us, let’s say, or hitting a sibling or a friend, throwing toys.

What this girl sounds like she’s doing is releasing a lot of feelings, releasing a lot of frustration, and stress, and uncomfortable feelings. Now there may be other reasons that this parent hasn’t shared for these kind of feelings to be bubbling up at this time. It’s not necessarily just that a child turns three, oftentimes there are other things going on. Maybe the child is starting school or the parent is expecting another baby or there are other things going on in the family; they’re moving houses, there’s other reasons that children have a lot of … We can just call them cranky as this mother does, cranky feelings, frustration and just angst that she needs to express.

I wouldn’t see this as behavior that you would need to nip in the bud or even try to control in any way. If it becomes pushing you, hitting you, biting or something damaging or dangerous then, yes, I would stop it there. But the feelings, the crankiness, the yelling, all of this is just her stuff. It’s not something that we as parents are responsible for, required to fix or do anything about. The best thing we can do is, as I’ve said before, roll out the red carpet and let her fall apart. Let her flounder, let her be cranky, as cranky as she wants to be.

Perceive this as healthy and not a problem. It will help a lot. This idea that they have to walk on eggshells… The reason we feel like we have to walk on eggshells is we’re trying to avoid our child going to these uncomfortable places. Yes, that’s not fun as a parent and it is going to be exhausting for sure if we’re trying to avoid cracking an eggshell or stepping on a mine field or however you want to think about it.

If we’re in that position, it’s tense for us. It’s tricky.  We have to put energy into trying to fix this and make it better or avoid it. We’re going be exhausted. We’re going to get frustrated.

To use another completely different analogy, it’s like trying to dam up the flow, something that needs to flow by that actually is healthy, and we’re trying to dam it up and it’s impossible. The more we dam it up the more it gathers in intensity and has to burst even more. Letting it flow, letting it go, not seeing it as your problem is the best thing you can do.

Usually what happens is that more is revealed as to what is causing this. Maybe there are some things these parents could look at now, some factors in this little girl’s life, but it might just be she’s moving into the next level of development and, whenever there’s development, there are uncomfortable feelings. Is this unhealthy? Absolutely not.

To go into the details for how to handle this… this mother says she’s generally cranky, yells at her dad and me. Let her yell. Don’t let it bother you. Children yell. Children younger than this yell and scream. That’s how they express the feelings. They don’t have the maturity and the understanding of their feelings to be able to articulate them in words and say, “I woke up on the wrong side of the bed and everything feels, ugh, and I’m too tired and I can’t handle anything.” They can’t express it that way so it comes out as, Nothing feels right. I think I want this but I don’t want this!

I can relate to this, I still feel like this sometimes and I probably behave almost the way she’s behaving. I think we all feel overwhelmed sometimes and nothing feels right and we just want to yell at everyone or flop on the floor and be cranky. It’s okay to be cranky. It’s okay to be all of these feelings.

The examples she gives are: “Yesterday she woke up and was happy for about one minute and then dad asked, ‘Are you hungry, would you like scrambled eggs?’ Dad offered her really nice breakfast ideas and she whined and yelled, ‘No stop!'”

She wanted to blast. She just wanted to express her difficulty waking up and facing the day. Let it go.

If she says, “No stop,” I would stop. I would breathe. You might say, “Shoot, you’re having a hard time. Let me know when you’re ready to come eat and I’ll help you get out of bed.”

I don’t know what kind of bed she’s in, but you could pick her up if she’s in a crib still. Let her flop, let her roll on the floor and be cranky, it’s really okay and it will all pass more quickly if you let it, just like that river flowing by that needs to happen.

I wouldn’t rush to get her her breakfast if she’s expressing it like that. We don’t want to be doormats. We don’t want to not have our own boundaries, but I wouldn’t get angry with her either and get insulted or feel like it’s rude behavior. It’s behavior that really makes a lot of sense for a three-year-old even if she doesn’t have other stress in her life.

You can step out of the way of it a little, not on eggshells, but confidently, stepping aside to let the river flow by. Then when she feels better she’ll have an idea for something to eat.

If you think that part of this is that she woke up too hungry, you could make some food for her and let her know, “Your food’s right here when you’re ready for it.” Again, letting her have her feelings, not trying to rush out of it, not judging her for feeling like that, and definitely not judging yourself or feeling like you have to fix this and make it better for her.

Then she says the daughter asked to read a book and the mom says, “Sure,” very nicely, “Let me just finish doing these dishes.”

Yeah, so it’s tough when we get dumped on, when we’re making an effort and we’re being upbeat. It’s such a typical thing that children do, it’s that thing of taking out their feelings on the people closest to them, the people that show them the most love and are the kindest. Those are the people that they feel safe to blast on. So I realize it’s hard not to take it personally sometimes and that’s why I would be somewhat protective of yourself but I wouldn’t have a grudge either. I would just, oh well, look at your husband, share a little knowing glance, breathe and let it go, and wait, wait for her to feel better and to be ready to do something with you.

If you’re still available then, great, and if you’re not don’t feel bad about that either. If you make a nice offer like that and she says, “No stop, I said I didn’t want to,” you could say something like, “Oh, that’s funny, I thought you did. Okay,” and let her go. Again, seeing it as not a problem, nothing that you have to fix or worry about.

I realize it’s a hard mindset to truly let go and let feelings be and trust that there’s a reason and that it’s the best thing that she could be doing right there.

This is when the mother says, “It’s like we have to constantly walk on eggshells. She asks us to dance and then whines that we’re dancing the wrong way.”

Let the bombs go off around you. The other thing here is don’t dance if you don’t want to dance. If you don’t genuinely want to, if you think you’re doing it because this is another eggshell you can avoid, don’t do it. Don’t come from a place of trying to please her. Listen to yourself. Only offer things that you genuinely want to do and that you won’t mind her rejecting, you won’t take it personally. You won’t feel like, Oh, look how much I did for you!

That’s where we have to have our boundary, and have that confidence in ourselves.

And if you do dance and she whines that you’re dancing the wrong way, shrug your shoulders and know that it’s not about dancing. It’s not about the specifics. It’s just about her needing to gripe, needing to reject, needing to take it out on you. There’s so many times like this as parents where we really have to rise up tall and be that bigger person that doesn’t stoop to taking this stuff that a little three-year-old does personally.

I understand it’s hard, they seem to huge and mature sometimes to us and we forget, we all do, we forget that they’re very immature, that they don’t know why they’re behaving the way they are. They don’t want to be treating us that way. They don’t mean it most of the time. And in another mood we’d see a totally different side that is grateful for us, that tells us the truth, which is that they adore us. We can’t get that when we want it, only when they want to give it to us, unfortunately.

So yelling and throwing tantrums, running away, throwing herself against the couch, those are all the ways that intense children show their feelings. They fall apart so that they can feel better again.

She said I’d love some reassurance and guidance, so I hope to be reassuring that this is normal, there’s nothing wrong going on here, and that really all she has to do is trust it, let it be, and stop trying to avoid it in any way or make it better. Bring it on, bring it on. Let her be the crankiest girl in the universe that day, it’s healthy to feel like that.

She says it’s so exhausting. Yes, it’s exhausting if we’re trying to battle it or fix it or prop it up or dam it up. It’s going to be exhausting. Don’t buy into that role. Don’t put that on your job description. Let it go, give it up.

I hope that helps this parent feel more confident in her response.

Thanks for listening. We can do this.

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