March 5, 2024

Salimah Part 3 of 4: When Your Happy Kid is Mean to You

This is part three of the four part series with Salimah, single mother of three. This week, Leslie and Salimah focus on 5 year old Terrel.

Terrel is the youngest child and also the only “man of the house.” He is typically a happy go-lucky child. But there are other behaviors that have Salimah confused and frustrated. He can sometimes say mean things, he can be quick to anger and he is dealing with issues with his bowel movements. These different parts of the same child motivated Salimah to come to this session to understand what is at the root of these behaviors.

Credits: Is My Child a Monster is produced by Alletta Cooper, Dale Rubury, and Leslie Cohen-Rubury. Theme music is by L-Ray Music. Public relations is handled by Tink Media. Graphics and Website Design by Brien O’Reilly. by Eric Rubury. A special thanks to everyone who contributes their wisdom and support to make this possible.


Leslie-ism: Turn your challenges into opportunities.


  • 2:35 Reviewed homework of validation
  • 5:16 Learning how to read the shoulder shrugs and what they mean
  • 7:40 When our children “push our buttons”  which really describe our vulnerabilities
  • 8:15 ABC of looking at a child’s behavior: Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence in order to understand problem behavior
  • 13:29 Give your child back the actual problem without personalizing their behavior.
  • 14:01 When children say mean things it’s often a reflection of how they are doing
  • 26:05 Children can have control of their lives in two ways: eating and bowel movements
  • 26:50 Control helps the child feel a sense of safety.
  • 30:52 Finding other means to find happiness
  • 31:30 Dealing with his vulnerabilities of his sad and angry emotions
  • 34:09 Learning to sit with uncomfortable emotions
  • 34:35 Give your child the chance to feel capable and independent
  • 36:48 Teach him to be able to handle the fears


[Music: The Wilds Beyond by L-Ray Music]

0:02  Salimah:  When he gets upset or when he gets angry, it’s kind of shocking. He’s expressing himself and he’s saying what he’s thinking. But because he’s five, he doesn’t have the filter. So it’s, like, when he’s upset he goes for the jugular.

 0:21  Leslie Cohen-Rubury:  Welcome to Is My Child A Monster?, a parenting therapy podcast where you get to listen in, as real parents and caregivers share their trials and tribulations in therapy sessions recorded live. I’m your host, Leslie Cohen-Rubury, and I’m a parent and a therapist with 38 years of experience helping families navigate this question. And no, your child is not a monster. 

The last two weeks, we’ve spoken to Salimah about her seven-year-old daughter, Rene, and her 13-year-old daughter, Alani. Today we discuss her third and youngest child, who also happens to be the only man in the house, five-year-old Terrel. Change is hard for everyone, not just kids, and is an unavoidable part of growing up. And children respond to it in a lot of different ways. For Terrel, who is generally a fun loving kid, that comes out in mean jabs at his mom that surprise and hurt her. He’s also a picky eater, and is having issues with his bowels. These are all things a child might do if they are living through a lot of changes and want to feel control over their lives. 

Salimah has a hard time not taking Terrel’s behavior personally; and we talk about strategies to help manage those feelings. Your child’s behavior is a form of communication, so let’s see what Terrel is trying to tell his mom. And just a note, the conversation about his bathroom behavior does get pretty graphic. It starts about halfway through the episode. And I’ll give you a heads up when we get to that part, if you want to skip ahead. 

Okay, now as a reminder, all the names and identifying information have been changed. And this show is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for therapeutic intervention. So let’s get started. 

Leslie:  Hi, Salimah. Good morning.

2:25  Salimah:  Good morning. How are you?

2:26  Leslie:  I’m good, thank you. How are you today?

2:29  Salimah:  I’m getting through it.

2:30  Leslie:  I know it’s been a little while since we had our last session. I sent you home with a big homework. That validation was a lot and we didn’t really get to go over it. So I wouldn’t be surprised if you said it was too much for you and you didn’t get to do it. But do you want to give me any feedback on levels of validation or anything else that went on between our sessions? 

2:55  Salimah:  When I looked at it, I actually was anticipating that it would be a lot. But when I read through it completely, it felt like things that I had already been practicing. So it wasn’t as hard—it was more so trying to pull it in the moment. So it was one of those things where I was, “Okay, this isn’t going to work in an on-the-spot conversation.’ But if I knew that we were going to sit down, I was like, okay, I can pull it up on the phone and have it there’s a little cheat sheet. So it worked out.

 3:20  Leslie:  I love it—a cheat sheet is a great idea; and not a bad idea to put a copy of it on the refrigerator, because this is not a secret. We want to raise our children learning about what validation is. And yes, I think it’s a great idea that you practiced it not in the moment, because we have to get good at it before we go to the performance, before that moment of I-need-it-now-I-need-it-in-the-moment-of-stress. Alright, that makes sense. And you said you’re already doing these things. Some of them are common. Can you think of any examples?

3:52  Salimah:  So, the first one of just listening—listening and actually looking at the person when they’re speaking to you—that’s always been a big thing with me. So I was like, “Oh, I’ve got this one. This one’s easy.”

4:02  Leslie:  Okay. And you know what, even though it is easy, it’s so powerful that we have to remember to intentionally do it a little bit more, especially if you think about it in that moment when you’re having a reaction. If you just say, “Well, I have a tool here, I’m just going to listen.” That’s a powerful moment of: “Maybe just listening is all I need to do in this moment. Because, actually, I don’t know what else to do.”

4:27  Salimah:  Right, right. And making it a bigger moment was that I’m peeking at the phone for a reference but not having the phone in my hand. So she sees that I’m not looking to the phone and scrolling on Instagram. Like she knows, “Okay, she’s looking at something real quick, but she’s paying attention. So she’s trying to be Mom, but she’s talking to me.”

4:47  Leslie:  Okay, there’s that narrating that we talked about. Were there any other situations that you wanted to bring up, or anything else that was working or not working for you? Any questions before we move into what our agenda is today? 

5:00  Salimah:  I did want to bring up that, in a moment of her being upset and angry, instead of pulling for information, I started to tell her about her body. So she would get upset and I’d go, “Uhh: there’s that shrug. And I said, “Is that a regular shrug?” No, because there are different shrugs—which shrug was that? I think that was the shrug of: ‘I’m frustrated. Stop asking me questions. I don’t have an answer for you.’ So I’m going to back off, I’m going to leave you alone. It’s fine. See, Mommy’s not upset.” 

And she peeked out the corner of her eye. And she was kind of laughing. And I was like, I’m breaking through! And I had to actually back away. 

5:41  Leslie:  Oh my goodness, that’s beautiful. That’s amazing, that you just have a whole new way of looking at those shrugs that actually drove you nuts. Now you’re going to get what you want, which is a little more engagement from her. 

5:56  Salimah:  Right. I can at least read the shrug. So it’s like the shrug is a response versus something that sets me off.

6:02  Leslie:  Beautiful. All right, thank you for sharing that. I’m so glad it’s helping. Because I know that we have these moments with our children that they get to us. They get to us, and people like to call them my-child’s-pushing-my-buttons. We don’t actually have buttons, so there’s no buttons to push. 

But we have vulnerabilities. We have areas of sensitivity, areas of past wounds, whatever you want to call it—past traumas, whatever it is—that legitimately give us these big reactions. And having another way of looking at it is wonderful, or dealing with it. 

Okay, so we’ve talked about Rene and her big, intense emotions. We’ve talked about Alani with the opposite—her shrugs, and her shutting down. What about your youngest? Tell me about Terrel.

6:54  Salimah:  So, my youngest is five years old, and he is the only male in the house. He has a lot of energy. He’s constantly moving. And so he is the fun-loving kid and it’s hard to look at him and see emotion. When there is emotion it is there is present. It’s not something you have to really try to identify like—it’s in your face. But it’s kind of shocking, because it’s not his everyday personality. And so, when he gets upset, or when he gets angry, it’s kind of shocking. And he can be very direct—when he’s upset, he goes for the jugular.

7:35  Leslie:  Wow. Okay, so when you say he goes for the jugular, can you define that? Does he get mean, does he call you names? Does he…what does that mean, in the moment

7:47  Salimah:  He gets mean. He’s expressing himself. And he’s saying what he’s thinking. But because he’s five, he doesn’t have the filter. So it’s like, you can’t react like you normally would, you got to kind of have to water it down and repeat it to him. And then react to it and then explain the reaction. And sometimes he picks it up, and sometimes he doesn’t. But the last couple of times, he’s been pretty mean. 

8:11  Leslie:  Okay. So, there’s an ABC way of looking at a child’s behavior. This is a functional behavioral analysis. A stands for the antecedent—what happened before the behavior. B is the behavior— getting mean and saying whatever. And C is the consequence, both his consequences and maybe your reaction, which is also a consequence to the behavior. So let’s break it down to assess it. What’s happening before it? Have you ever noticed a pattern?

8:44  Salimah:  For the first time he did it, it shocked me. We were crossing the street at the mall. And the cars weren’t slowing down. And so I aggressively crossed the street and my girls were kind of upset like, “Mom, you’ll get hit by a car.” And I was like, “Well, Mommy has the right-of-way. Mommy has to let the cars know that she is crossing the street. And it’s their job to stop.” And then my eldest said, “Well, what if you get hit by a car? What am I going to do without you?” And I was like, “I’ve raised you to be strong. You’re going to tell my story.”

And it kind of turned into a joke where I was like, “You’re both going to tell my story, you’re going to make sure that I’m defended if I get hit by this car.” And then I looked at my son, and I said, “And you’re going to tell my story, right?” And he goes, “No.” And I was like, “What?” And he goes, “No, I’m not going to tell your story. I’m not even going to miss you. I’m not going to care if you get hit by a car.” And I was in shock. So…yeah. It was big. 

9:41  Leslie:  It was big. Do you have any understanding of why it came out like that, which was so shocking to you? Why do you think it came out like that? Let’s just guess—we don’t know why he’s not here. He can’t tell us, but…

9:55  Salimah:  I thought maybe it was supposed to be funny at first. But we made it all the way to the car, all the way to a restaurant…and he stood by it. And so I had to meet him where he was. And I said, “Oh, well, that was a very mean thing to say. Mommy’s going to have to remember how mean you were, and keep that in mind when she’s buying stuff and she’s doing stuff. Because Mommy doesn’t do nice things for people who wish bad things on her.” And he kind of didn’t like that, because it was like, “Oh, what do you mean, you’re not going to do stuff for me?”

10:29  Leslie:  Mm hmm. So, it’s important to be honest—you were honest about how it felt. And I’m not sure we understood his perspective. Because remember, misbehavior is communicating something to us. So I really encourage parents to start with curiosity. I have said to my kids, “I don’t know how to react in the moment when I’m so upset.” So sometimes I actually give myself time and I let them know I can’t react right now. “So give me time. I’ll think about it. I’ll get back to you.” In this case, if we’re curious and give him a moment before you start to share, “Yes, I’m upset. And there’s a consequence to the way you spoke to me,” which is fine. What else would this misbehavior be trying to tell us? Because yes, he could be a mean person. The bottom line is he could be a mean person, but most children are not mean. 

11:28  Salimah:  Yeah. The only thing that would make sense is the underlining I-miss-my-dad. I kind of related it to the I-miss-my-dad, because it was followed up with, “I could go live with my dad.” And I was just like, “Okay…”

11:40  Leslie:  I didn’t even think of that. And, wow, I wonder if you responded to that and started there. If that came to mind, of course, you need a moment to think—if that came to mind, because he said it—I wonder if you had said, “I’m wondering if you were mean, because you’re trying to communicate that you missed your dad. What do you think?”

12:03  Salimah:  I think if I said that, he would definitely agree with it. Like, he would go, “Yeah, I was.”

12:09  Leslie:  Okay. So missing his dad is totally understandable at five years old. Children, when they have two homes, and they don’t get to live with both parents, they miss them, and they can feel badly. And I would think you just hit the nail on the head, and you’ll know by his response. “So you’re telling me you miss your dad?” “Yep.”

12:30  Salimah:  Yeah, that sounds like him. 

12:33  Leslie:  And you might get more of a conversation. He’ll say, “I miss my dad, I worry that…” Maybe a lot of kids are worried that Dad’s upset. So he might say a lot more about missing his dad, it might have nothing to do with you. He just didn’t know how to say they took advantage of the fact that, “If you’re not here, I get to go live with my dad. Whoa.” And then you can actually ask him to say, “You know what, hearing that you missed your dad is so much more helpful than hearing that you don’t care about me.” I would ask him, “Do you see the difference between one is mean, I don’t care about you? And one is maybe how you feel, which is ‘I miss my dad’?”

13:13  Salimah:  Yeah, I can see that working. It doesn’t it doesn’t focus on what I felt in the moment, it centers around him. So yeah, so that would be a good strategy.

13:24  Leslie:  Yes. So that’s very important. We give him back the actual problem. If you make it about you, which is: it was mean…and I get it. I think children need to hear some honest response. “Whoa, that was a shocking statement. That doesn’t feel good. But let’s find out what’s going on with you. I can take care of my feelings. What’s going on with you, buddy?”

13:46  Salimah:  Yeah, it has that modeling in there. Yeah.

13:50  Leslie:  It has that modeling, it actually means you’re not going to personalize it. Right now, you want to find out why would someone say something mean? And that’s really the truth. When people say mean things, it’s a reflection of them and their well being or lack of knowledge. 

Salimah:  Yeah.

Leslie:  Can I take a guess? Because you figured it out beautifully, but my mind went to: Is it possible that when he heard your oldest daughter say, “Mom, what if you get hit by a car,” that may be a part of him got scared and didn’t know how to express being scared? This whole idea of losing Mom might have been way too much for a five year old to comprehend.

14:30  Salimah:  I think it’s possible. It wouldn’t be my first train of thought, so I wouldn’t put the puzzle pieces together like that. But I do see where that’s possible.

14:39  Leslie:  Okay, so we don’t know. There may be, like you said—I like your first guess. And sometimes I like to get my mind being flexible, so I think of lots of different options like, is it anxiety? Was it because you just heard your sister say that I could be gone and all of that? Like you said, not having that first response about how you felt, but turning it back to him can be a very effective strategy. I really like to do that. 

15:08  Salimah:  But it’s situations like that where it’s hard to read him. Because then you can have a situation where he’s having the best time of his life jumping off the couch, jumping off the stairs, because he thinks he’s Spiderman, and he thinks he’s Mario and Luigi. And then all of a sudden, he does slow down, and he walks over and he’s like, “I’m sad.” And he just lays down. You’re like, “Oh, okay, well, let’s lay here.” And then he’ll look me in the face and go, “I’m finished,” and then walk away.

15:36  Leslie:  Oh, is that cute. Do you think he says, “I’m finished”, because he doesn’t like feeling sad, or because he gave it a moment? I mean, that’s so beautiful. He experienced a sadness,he came for comfort, which is a very positive urge when we’re feeling sad to actually find comfort and support. How lovely. And then he might have been finished with it and said, “I’m done.”

15:58  Salimah:  Yeah, I think it’s a combination of him being done. Yes. But then also the learned behavior of, “Okay, we’ve hugged, counted it out, times up.”

16:08  Leslie:  Is that your philosophy, that you have to be done with an emotion within 30 seconds?

16:14  Salimah:  I don’t count it out loud. But I’m not big on the whole touching thing. But you’re supposed to teach your children about affection. So it’s like, “Alright, come, we can do hugs.” And then in my head, I’m like, “5-4-3-2-1: Get off me. Okay. This is great. Thank you.” 

16:30  Leslie:  So, the hug is hard for you. What if we also offer them alternatives? I love that you’re willing to do something that’s uncomfortable for you. And what if, when he comes over, you wrap him in a little blanket and say, “Snuggle and get cozy while you’re feeling sad. I can sit on the floor right next to you.”

16:51  Salimah:  Yeah…that works. It’ll even be where I can switch the roles. So he’ll come over and sit and he goes, “Oh, you look sad. Now I’m sad.”And I’ll lay in his lap. And now he’s like, okay, I got him. He’s patting my head. I’m, like, “This is more my speed. I can handle this. This is fine. We mesh together. 


17:15  Leslie:  That’s sweet. So, you keep saying you’re surprised by his—I think you’re saying—his negative emotions. But he is, like you said, a kid who’s very active, probably really enjoys being happy and pleasant and interacting. Do you think—because he’s the younger of two older sisters—do you think their emotional lives sort of take up a lot of air in the room? Does he worry that, “I better not rock the boat in the house”?

17:47  Salimah:  I haven’t seen it. But I mean, I wouldn’t say that it’s not happening, but I don’t think so. I feel like his presence is big enough to just push it. Like, “They have their emotions, it might be their moment. But, no, no, no, no: this is about me.” He’s got that energy. I could be in the middle of talking to one and he’ll walk up to me, two hands in my face and push me, like, “Alright, listen.” And I’m like, “But I’m talking to someone else.” And he’s like, “No, listen.” And I’m like, “Okay, I’m so sorry, whoever-I-was-talking-to. But apparently he needs me out. Just give me a minute. He’s holding my face. I’m sorry.” 

18:22  Leslie:  Sounds like he feels unique as well, not just the youngest, who’s either not getting attention or who actually needs to get attention. It just sounds like he feels like he’s got his own personality. And it’s so cool that they are all uniquely different. 

Salimah:  Very much so.

[Music: Stand in the Forest by Olexy] 

Leslie Cohen-Rubury:  I’m just jumping in here to let you know the second half of this episode is focused on what some might consider disturbing bathroom behavior that actually many parents have to deal with. 

If you can handle some poop talk, the rest of the discussion focuses on the root causes of Terrel’s behavior, which may actually be very similar to the root causes of your own child’s behavior. If that’s not for you, you’re welcome to skip ahead to the wrap-up, which starts at about the 40-minute mark. Or join us next week for Salima’s final session, where we focus on parent burnout.

Okay, now back to Salimah.

19:39  Salimah:  So, just trying to read his emotions, within our entire family, there’s been a lot of changes. When we first moved out here, one of the things I noticed is that he was having issues going to the bathroom. He was potty-trained, he could go on his own, but he kind of just didn’t go in there and I kept finding him in, like, corners. But it was past that potty-training stage, so I wasn’t too sure what that was about. 

I took him to the doctor. And they said that he had a condition. I don’t remember the name of it off the top of my head. But it’s been a struggle. It seems to me like it doesn’t bother him. I find wonderful Picasso-smudging in the bathroom on the shower tiling. It’s just trying to combat emotions—well, changing verbiage—trying to handle or maneuver around emotions. And then having this actual physical thing happening is a lot.

20:36  Leslie:  Wow. First, let me say that’s a lot for a parent. It can be disturbing. It’s just a lot of extra work. It’s confusing. So I really want to support you and say: you’re doing a lot, and I know how much you care. So that’s got to be tough for you. And there’s something going on with him. So first, I want to acknowledge and really say:, excellent job of taking him to the doctor, getting it checked out. 

Do you remember…did they call it encopresis

Salimah:  I think so. 

Leslie:  Okay, there’s a few different things that could be going on. There’s primary and secondary encopresis, is when a child makes in their pants. And when they do that, the primary encopresis  is they were never toilet trained, and it just continued. Secondary encopresis is when they were already toilet trained, and then it comes back that they’re making in their pants. But you also describe the smearing, that’s slightly different. Just to say, there are many, many causes for these conditions. Very similar, I would look at both of them in the same framework, because there’s a medical possibility, there’s a sensory cause, and there’s also a behavioral cause. 

Salimah:  Okay.

Leslie:  So you took him to the doctor, you tried to rule out a medical cause, but medical causes would include things like constipation, stomach aches, when he goes to the bathroom, possibly hemorrhoids, itchy butt. There might be many, many medical reasons why a child has difficulty—you might have ruled that out. Then there’s the sensory of feeling discomfort of going to the bathroom. So instead, they go in their pants. Or there’s the sensory of being uncomfortable and smearing which somehow, believe it or not, can bring them comfort. And then behaviorally is: is the behavior creating a consequence or an avoidance? Is he trying to get out of something he doesn’t want to do? Does he want to communicate? Sometimes it’s all three. 

Sometimes it starts with constipation, and then led to this. Children who have some processing issues may be more vulnerable to doing these behaviors. So you did say he’s very active. So that could be ADHD, autism, anxiety, depression—there’s a lot of reasons why these things can happen. So one of the things, as we talked about, is to say, Okay, if it doesn’t go away with some of the things we talked about, you might continue to think about getting more support and consulting with other professionals about it. What have you done?

23:35  Salimah:  So, the first thing I did was taking him to the doctor, they had put him on Miralax, they said to give it to him every day to get rid of a blockage. So, in doing that, I noticed the change in how it was coming out. And then it got to a point where he would come and he’s like, “Mommy, it’s leaking down my leg.” And I’m like, “Oh, no, oh, no, no, no, no, no, this is not helping. It’s not what we wanted.” So I kind of saw how it helped, but then it still wasn’t stopping it from happening. So then we ended up buying pull-ups for the night time because he wasn’t really controlling his bladder at night. I changed his intake of liquids at night. But as he is the determined child that he is, if he’s going to get some water and I’m sleeping, he’s going to get some water. So pull-ups were the way to go. 

24:23  Leslie:  And that’s another issue, which is often biological, where children…some do not get control over their bladder till later. They tend to outgrow that around 11 or 12, but some sooner. And there is actually medication, if he gets older, and he’s still having difficulty with that, that’s very effective. 

Did you get angry—which is totally understandable—when he would smear or have a messy pair of pants?

24:52  Salimah:  In the beginning, yes, because I couldn’t understand why he didn’t just go to the bathroom. It’s like, “You know how to go to the bathroom. And then if you had an accident, why aren’t you saying something? Like, how do you not smell it? I smell it. I’m all the way on the other side of the house and I can smell it. And you’re just sitting there playing with toys, around other people like this makes no sense.” He’d go to school and do it. And then he’d come home and be like, “Hey, how was your day,Mom? I had a great day.” And I’m like, “I’m sorry—do you realize you smell like poop? Like, you had an accident?” Sometimes he would admit it, sometimes he wouldn’t. But in the beginning, I was screaming and yelling, “Oh, you are going to be on punishment,” and this, that, and the third. And it just got to a point where it’s like, there’s no possible way that he could be doing this on purpose with all these consequences, and it’s still happening. So it has to be something bigger. 

25:41  Leslie:  I love that you took a step back and said, “Whoa, I’ve got to look at this again, because, (A) my getting upset is not helping the problem.” And (B), we’ve got to figure it out, it’s still going on. So I really appreciate that you take that step, and you stop and you question your own behavior. Fantastic. 

There are two areas that children get control over us as parents: their eating, and their bowels. Those are the two areas that they can have control over their own body. It’s like having agency—”I want to be strong, I can control what I eat, and I can control how I go to the bathroom.” So sometimes we want to look at it as a child’s sense of individuality and sense of control over their own life. 

So when children feel out of control—you said you went through many, many changes when he was young—children look for a sense of control. “If the outside world is not giving me control, if I have a move or changes, then I want control.” It makes sense in the big picture. It’s like, “Wait, that’s how you want to gain control?” But that is how some children gain a sense of control. It reduces anxiety about the outside changes, it reduces discomfort, if people are upset or things are going on. So, that’s not uncommon. That’s often a very common psychological response when this is happening. 

27:08  Salimah:  That brings Rene to mind, because that has been our struggle. This I-want-to-eat-raw-ramen-noodles-thing that the two little ones are doing. And then he’s very picky. So I got to a point I was like, “If you eat fine. If there are vegetables you like, they’re available. You want to eat junk, it’s available. If you’re eating too much junk, now it’s not available.” That’s what I learned. My new thing that I learned: can’t get mad at them for doing things. You bought it, you put it in front of them—take accountability and get rid of it. That’s been great. I can see those two areas being the most controllable things for them.

27:52  Leslie:  Excellent. You’re backing off a little bit, providing good food for an example, as a model, putting it down in front of them, you can’t control what goes in their mouth. And I like to look at the bigger picture here—it’s not just a child, trying to get you upset. 

However, I will go back to that as a second point. We were talking about control creating safety in his life…”This is what’s making me feel safe.” It doesn’t logically make sense. It’s an emotional response, not a logical response. The other area is if you did have big reactions. It’s a way of saying, “I have power, not just control, but look at the power I have to get Mom upset. I’m a pretty powerful kid.” Now they’re not thinking this. They’re not intentionally, they’re not manipulating—none of that. It’s just behavioral, like, “Wow, I do this. I smear, she gets upset. Wow, I smear and I can get Mom upset.” That’s pretty powerful. 

It is highly recommended in these situations, even though it’s really hard advice but, to be as neutral as possible. “Okay, time to clean up. Here’s the sponge, let’s go, let’s wipe it down, clean it up, clean you up, you can do this, throw those…” It’s really matter-of-fact, because we want to take the emotion out of it, we want to take the power out of it. 

29:14  Salimah:  So, that is difficult, but not in the way that you think. So when he does that…there was a time that he drew a smiley face in the shower in feces. And I saw it and it took me some time to get him to clean it, because I kept forgetting about it. And then I walked in one day and was like, “Hey, come in here.” He came in. And I was like, “We’re cleaning this now.” And so instead of like it being a strict moment, or being very focused or there was no specific emotion to it; it turned into a funny, happy moment where now he’s dancing in the tub and he’s spraying the spray and he’s doing the dance. And we made up a song about the poop. 

And I’m like, “I don’t even know if this is a lesson anymore. I don’t know what happened, like we’re having too much fun. What just happened?”

30:02  Leslie:  Okay, so we still learn our lessons when we’re having fun. So, I don’t worry about that. That’s fine. Except I’m beginning to see a pattern that he’s a little boy who wants to be happy all the time. He doesn’t like his sad emotions. I think you’ve even named this. And look at the message, it could not be clearer: “I’m going to smear poop, which is really not okay, but I’m gonna put a happy face on top of it.” So he is saying, no matter how bad life is, he is putting a happy face in his poop. “I want to be happy, world. There’s a lot of stuff going on in my life, and I’m going to put on a happy face.” 

Now, what we need to do is help him get his goal, and in the healthiest, healthiest of ways. “You know what? I want you to have those happy feelings. And there’s five other ways, there’s probably 500 other ways. Let’s get a piece of paper and pencil and say how else can you tell me you want to have a happy face?” Get him happy face stickers and say, “I’ll keep some in the bathroom, every bathroom is going to have a happy face sticker. So when you feel like smearing happy faces, I’m going to give you a happy face. You can stick it on your hand, on the sink or the toilet.” And let him have other means to express, I want to get to that happy place

It also might mean helping him deal with the vulnerability of his unhappiness. Going back to the very first example, “Hey, are you missing Dad when you’re at my house. Maybe you get to have a teddy bear that Daddy can give you and you get to hug your daddy teddy bear when you miss your daddy.” So we do want to gently help him deal with the negative, sad, angry emotions without them being sort of like these huge, violent surprises that come at you. We want to give him an opportunity. So, working on giving him an opportunity to feel sad, be sad, express it. And saying, “And you want to be a happy kid—you’re going to be. You’re going to be the life of the party, you’re going to make sure you’re happy in life. That is a beautiful thing. Now let’s make sure you have many roads getting there when things are tough.” 

32:21  Salimah:  That makes sense. I can see that. Because we, definitely the other day, I was like, I told him, I said, “I’m frustrated. And we need a break.” And he was like, “Okay.” I said, “Come on,” and took him upstairs to the bathroom. He said, “What are we doing?” I said, “We’re breaking rules.” He said, “We’re breaking rules?” I said, “Yeah, go get a marker.” 

And he was like, “For what?” I said, “We’re writing on the walls.” And he was like, “What?” I said, “Come on.” And then he went in the bathroom. And like the whole point of it, I was trying to get him to take a bath, because he didn’t want to take a bath. And I was like, “Okay, start counting. Count from 1 to 20, write all your numbers on the wall, just write them on the wall.” And we were in the bathroom, so I could easily get it off. And I was like, “If you mess up, I’m turning the water on, you’re going to get wet.” So, he was trying to get to 20 without messing up. And I would turn the water on and he’s wet. And I was like, “Oh, you’re already wet. I might as well throw some soap in there.” 

So I was able to get him to do what he wanted to do. I was able to practice counting with him. And I wasn’t frustrated. And it was funny. And I think that’s what he’s used to. He’s used to, “I want to laugh. I want to be happy.” And as I say it, it sounds like me again. These are learned behaviors. Okay. 

33:28  Leslie:  Yeah, and I’ve got to say, it’s very adaptive to say when life is hard, bringing humor into it is actually brilliant. And I know you’ve mentioned it with all three of your children, that something you share together, is: we’re going to have fun. And I think that’s a beautiful thing. Now, we don’t want the fun to be an avoidance for him right now—for him, not the other two. And maybe for you as well. There’s a little bit of avoidance of, “I don’t want to deal with the hard stuff.” Maybe—I’m not diagnosing. Maybe it’s coming out with the hard stuff is the poop and the smearing. “I just want to have fun in life. I don’t want things to be tough.” And so we want a combination of, yeah, humor and joy and laughter is brilliant. And I want that to be a family trait and a family thing that we celebrate. And at the same time, “We’re all learning, I’m learning as well,” you can say, “to deal with and sit with some of those uncomfortable things.”

34:27  Salimah:  I agree, one hundred percent. 

34:29  Leslie:  There was one more thing that I wanted to say for him when you were doing the shower idea. And it reminds me of a story that a parent allowed me to share with lots of people because it was so great, for my parenting class, years and years ago, where she came in and the problem was: “I can’t get my daughter in the bath.” Five years old, so, same age. “She puts up such a fight.” So I said, “Tell me a little bit about her.” “She’s extremely independent, wants to do everything on her own.” “Okay, you can stop there. I can tell you, right now, you have a strong-willed child who wants to be independent.” 

So I said, “Just as an idea, can you let her run the bath for herself?” And she looked at me like I was crazy and said, “That’s dangerous.” And I said, “Sure, I totally 100% agree with you that there’s a risk involved that children can get burned. And we want to teach children in life to handle risks, not to avoid risks.” So the mom went home, she gave it a try, she came back the following week and said, “She loves it. She goes and she turns on the water, she checks, I taught her to look for the steam, she puts her hand in the water quickly, I taught her how to run a bath, and she’s doing it every night.” So another quality that you might think about with your son is, he might be an independent little guy, he’s the only male in the house, he might feel this is a special power, he really might have some of this independence, I-want-to-do-it-for-myself kind of power control—all things that are fine, as long as we respect it. So what do you think of that idea?

36:01  Salimah:  He will tell you, he will say it, if he wants to do it for himself, he will tell you, he will turn that water off and go, “I got it,” and then turn it back on. He is that kid. Lately, he’s been afraid to go places herself. So I’ll turn the lights on upstairs and he still won’t go upstairs. In order for me to get him to take a bath, I have to go upstairs. But that’s fine—I have my chair, I put it in the corner. I’m in the room. Do what you’ve got to do. 

 36:26  Leslie:  That’s beautiful. That is very, very common. Children, when they’re younger, go upstairs, they might go upstairs in the dark. They get older, they have a greater understanding. It’s actually a conceptual growth, that they have more understanding. And then all of a sudden, it’s like, “I’m not going upstairs.” Fears really kicking around five. So that could last a few years. And that it’s okay. And I love that you go up there and don’t make an issue out of it. 

36:50  Salimah:  So, I have a question. Would you say I should stop asking him when he says, “I don’t want to go upstairs because I’m scared,” I’ll counter with, “But you said you’re not afraid of anything.”

37:01  Leslie:  I want to enhance his vulnerability. I would say, “Hey, being scared is part of being human. Welcome.” Give him a high five. “Give me a high five. Welcome to what it feels like to be human. Adults have fears, kids have fears. We don’t want fears to run our life. But right now, this will pass.” 

And another conversation could be, “Afraid that there’s something up there? At five years old, your imagination gets bigger, you’re learning more, you know more. That’s part of why you now have fears you didn’t have a year ago, because now your brain’s actually developing.” So actually, instead of making him have to man up, power up—I don’t know that you want to send that message to your child. It’s your choice. But do you want to send that message that he has to muscle through it, as opposed to rationally be able to say, “I can handle my fears”? 

37:58  Salimah:  Okay, that makes sense. And then it also allows him space to change—just because you were brave yesterday, doesn’t mean you have to be brave today. 

38:04  Leslie:  Exactly. And send the message: “This won’t last forever. Look at your sisters—they go upstairs and downstairs. You will do that. I can tell you right now, it’s going to change.” And it also lets us know: he’s sensitive. And that’s not going to change.

38:28  Salimah:  I see that. I see that. 

38:31  Leslie:  Right. You’re sensitive. All three of your children have, I think, a beautiful part of you that you’re dealing with, as we’ve discussed with all three, and there’s no shame that your children are part of who you are. It’s a beautiful thing. Now, you’ve grown up with doing, you know, keep growing. I mean, you’re here, you’re asking questions, you’re making changes. I mean, it’s beautiful to see the changes you’re making. And quite impressive that you are working hard on this stuff that we’ve talked about. And you’re willing to keep looking. And as you model that, no matter even if they got the sensitive parts of you, the vulnerable parts of you, that’s great. That’s going to be a beautiful thing. Doesn’t have to be negative. 

39:16   Salimah:  I hope so. It’s a lot of work.

39:18  Leslie:  It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of work. And I’m so glad you came to talk to get support. You’ve been working hard on this. Keep going. Your children are very lucky to have you. 

39:30  Salimah:  Thank you.

[Music: A Walk in the Forest by Olexy]

39:48  Leslie Cohen-Rubury:  There is an unspoken pressure as a parent to understand human behavior. And yet there’s no training to prepare you. So it’s easy to get caught up in your child’s behavior. And you may not even know to look for the underlying causes. In this family with Terrel, his concerning behaviors are about a need for safety and control. I want to remind you that this child has two homes, and has recently moved to a new school and a new community. That’s scary. Children need to feel both physically safe, and also emotionally safe. So they react in ways to help them feel in control over their environment. 

One way to help your child feel safe is to give them a chance to feel capable. And I’ve got resources on how to help you do that, linked in the show notes. Another thing that happens when you’re trying to manage your child’s behaviors, rather than addressing the problem is that your dynamic with your child becomes about power struggles. But there are ways to work with your child, not against your child. And yes, that’s your job to figure out. I put the onus on the parent to step out of the power struggle and into the space of asking, “What’s happening to my child.” 

I once heard someone say that instead of asking what’s wrong with your child, try asking what happened to this child. It’s been incredible to see the amount of care and commitment Salimah has given to our sessions. Her growth is noticeable and her children are lucky to have her. Join us next week to learn more about Salimah’s personal struggles as a single mom. It’s an emotional, honest and vulnerable session about how hard parenting can be.

[Music: The Wilds Beyond by L-Ray Music]

Subscribe to Is My Child A Monster?  wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss an episode. And if you like what you hear, tell a friend. You can find a full transcript of this episode. And you can subscribe to my newsletter at The Is My Child A Monster? team is Alletta Cooper, AJ Moultrié, Camila Salazar, and me. Special thanks to Eric Rubury and Mia Warren. Our theme music is by L-Ray Music. I’m Leslie Cohen-Rubury. Thanks so much for listening. And this week, give your child a chance to feel capable.

Transcribed by edited by Eric Rubury

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