• Kathy Whitham

"Why Are You Acting Like This!?"

Updated: Oct 12, 2018

Annapurna was at her wit’s end. At 8 ¾ months pregnant, she was short on patience and feeling the pressure of needing to be ready for the new baby yesterday! There was so much left to do. It was Saturday and the day’s plan included a family trip to IKEA to get a crib and other errands. She was in a hurry to get going but her 3 year old was standing in the hall by the bathroom refusing to go pee before the long ride in the car. It wasn’t that he couldn’t do it. Every morning before school he happily peed on the potty before they left. Her patience frayed, she call her husband to come take over.


Subbu came up the stairs feeling annoyed that their son was making things harder for his wife. “Why are you acting like this?” burst out of his mouth a little louder and harsher than he would have wanted. Little Raj immediately ran to his parents bedroom and threw himself on the bed crying uncontrollably.

Here’s my take on why Raj was “acting like that.”


Deer in the headlights! In your child’s brain, defiance is a freeze state. Anna and Subbu, by pushing harder and harder to try to make Raj do what they needed him to do, unwittingly pushed him into a flight state. (For another child, this could have been a fight state - where they started hitting, for example.)

As I talked through this incident with them, they came to see for themselves how stressed out everyone was that morning, and how pushing harder didn't have the results they wanted. As a matter of fact, by the time mom had to come back upstairs and calm Raj down, it just made getting out of the house take much longer!


A parent-centric solution would have had the parents “in control” rather than “trying to control.” It might look like this. Mom would impatiently call dad (because I want to keep it real here!) Dad would start up the stairs, notice how annoyed he felt and pause a sec to take a breath. Then he would see his son as a deer in the headlights and sit down at the top of the stairs, as calmly as he could. He might say, “I’ll keep you company until you’re ready,” and then focus on his own breathing to feel even calmer. Gradually this would help his son calm down out of the freeze state so he could go pee on his own. In other words, Dad would step back rather than push harder.


I’d love to hear about your experiences with defiance and tantrums (or anything else you'd like to share.)


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