Reasoning with a Very Young Child (2): When Your Child is Unhappy

Larissa Dann: posted 29 June 2015                                                       Image from Shutterstock

Part (2) of the series: Reasoning with a Very Young Child

Very young children can respond to Active Listening and reasoning by becoming calm, and even finding a solution to their difficulty. 

Active Listening

Active Listening is the best way I have to show empathy, and is the first skill I turn to when my child is unhappy. Firstly, I have to recognise the cues and clues that my child is not OK. Often ‘naughty’ behaviour is simply a signal that things aren’t going well for my child.

I then need to remember that there is a reason for them to be unhappy. For example, they may need my attention, or something happened at childcare, or their basic needs (food, water, rest and toileting) have not been met.

Now, I need to listen to my child, so they can talk about their unhappiness. This will help me to understand what is happening for them, and help them to understand themselves. I try to guess their feelings, and the reason they feel that way. I put these into a statement such as “You’re feeling . . . because . . . ”. For example “Sounds like you’re feeling frustrated because your toy truck’s wheels fell off”.

Careful listening can help children find a solution to their own problem.

Real-life examples of Active Listening with very young children.

Here are some real-life anecdotes of using Active Listening with my children Ben and Phoebe* when they were very young, and some examples from parents in my class.

Being scared to go to sleep

Afraid of dying

Missing Mummy

A Dad’s story

A reflection on Active Listening and very young children

Being scared to go to sleep


In this situation, my son, aged 3 and a half, was scared to go to sleep one night. I reassured him. However, the next day while we ate lunch, I thought I would revisit the problem, to make sure he would be OK to go to sleep that night. Below is a transcript of our conversation.

Mum: “Ben*, I want you to go to sleep”

Ben: “But I don’t want to be lonely” (tears)

Mum: “You don’t want to be by yourself”

Ben: “No!”

Mum: “You’re afraid to be by yourself”

Ben: (crying) “I don't want anything to happen to me”

At this my heart melted, and I came in with reassurance. Ben went to sleep, as he was very tired. However, this reassurance was what is known as a ‘Roadblock’, as I found out the next day. At lunch, I brought up the trouble he’d had sleeping the night before.

Mum “Last night, when I came to you because you were sad and crying, because I’d left you to go to sleep by yourself, when I asked you, you told me that you didn’t want to be lonely anymore. What else did you tell me?”

Ben: “I said that I didn’t want to be scared”

Mum “So you were scared that something would happen to you”

Ben: “Yes. Something really bad. I thought that a monster and a lion and a tiger and some scary dogs would come and eat me all up, and I didn’t want to be eaten all up. That’s why I wanted to come in to the lounge room with you.”

Mum “You wanted to come in the lounge room with me. You didn’t want to be in bed all by yourself in the dark”

Ben: “Yes. So I cried out “Mummy, come turn the light on””

Mum “You wanted me to be there with you. What - you wanted the light on, and you wanted me there as well?”

Ben: Shook his head

Mum: “You didn’t want me there. You wanted the light on so those scary monsters couldn’t get to you, because you were scared that something might happen to you”

Ben: (coming up with a solution)”No. No, I was worried that the next night, when I go to sleep, I won’t say that to you, because I’ll bring my alarm on in my bed, and with my remote control I’ll switch the alarm on. “ (we had just made a pretend remote control and alarm for him, as we had recently had a real alarm installed)

Mum “You’re going to switch the alarm on, so when you switch the alarm on . . .”

Ben: “The monster will get caught”

Mum “The monster will get caught”

Ben:  “Because the alarm catches you when you move around.”

Mum “The alarm catches you when you move around. So then you’ll feel safe,”

Ben: “Yes”

Mum “ Because you’ll have your own alarm control to press. And you won’t feel scared then.”

Ben: “No”

Mum “To go to sleep by yourself”

Ben: “No”

Mum “So I’ll be able to put you in bed, give you a kiss good night and a big cuddle, and read to you in bed and I can come out here, and you’ll know that you’ll be safe.”

Ben went happily to bed that night, and did not need the pretend alarm.


The three-year-old daughter of a father in my class did not want to be left alone to go to bed. She was hard to get to bed at the best of times, but this was worse than usual. Normally, her parents would become annoyed, telling her to just go to sleep. This time, however, Dad decided to try Active Listening.

Daughter: "Don't go, Daddy"

Daddy: " You don't want me to leave you - you're feeling lonely"

Dad continued to actively listen, and the story became deeper. She was actually really upset that, at one stage, she had been unable to get a hug from her 18-month-old brother. During her talk with her Dad, she became so upset about her problem, that she cried. Then she was fine. Her Dad suggested that she give her brother a hug in the morning. She happily accepted that suggestion, and went to sleep.


My daughter, Phoebe* was 26 months old. She was having trouble going to sleep. As I put her to bed, she said something about a crocodile being in her bed. It was on the tip of my tongue to reassure her (which is again, is a Roadblock). Instead, our conversation went like this:

Mum: "You're worried about the crocodile".

Phoebe* (relieved): "Yeah - I don't want that crocodile".

Again, on the tip of my tongue, was reassurance.

Mum (beginning to problem solve):"What can you do about that crocodile? We could leave the light on, and scare it away".

I thought this would be it. But Phoebe came up with her own solution.

Phoebe (in a loud, strong voice): "Say one, two, three - go away scary crocodile!"

Mum: "Then the crocodile would go away, and you wouldn't be scared".

Phoebe: "Yes".

I sat by her bed for a while. Phoebe said one last thing about the crocodile, then began playing with her doll.

Afraid of dying

My 3.3 year-old and I were at a shopping centre car park, getting in to the car. I vaguely heard a motorbike go past.

Ben: “I don’t want a motorbike to be near me”

Mum: (assuming he was scared of the noise, but a bit surprised, as he was a motorbike fanatic) “You don’t like the noise a motor bike makes”

Ben: “No”

Mum “You’re frightened when motorbikes make that noise, and you don’t want to be near them”

Ben: “ Yes. And I don’t want the motorbike to make me like Billy (our newly deceased dog). Because when motorbikes come near me on the road, they might run over me and make me dead”

Missing Mummy

Phoebe had just turned two. I had gone away for the weekend, leaving her with her Daddy. This was the first time I had left her overnight. We had tried to prepare her, but she had no idea what it would really mean for me to be away. I flew away on a plane on Saturday morning.

Saturday night was a difficult night for Phoebe’s Daddy. At four am she woke up, distressed, and demanded to go to the airport. Daddy did a lot of active listening.

Daddy: "You're really missing Mummy. You're sad Mummy's not here".

Phoebe settled for a while, and then become upset again, and wanted to go to the airport. She wanted to wear her pink stockings, her pink dress and her orange shoes, because that’s what she’d worn when she took me to the airport.

Eventually, Daddy got her dressed in her pink stockings, her pink dress and her orange shoes. Then they sat on the bed and had a talk. Daddy realised that she had no idea of what "flying away on a plane" meant

Daddy: “Mummy’s gone on the plane, and the plane has gone to another place, and that’s where Mummy is. She’s in another city. Mummy is going to get into another plane, and fly back. We’re going to go back to the airport and pick her up today.”

That was all Phoebe needed to know. She had not understood why I was not there with her, after going in the plane. Phoebe lay down on the bed, fully dressed, and went off to sleep.

A Dad’s Story

A father at one of my classes reported how frustrated he had been with his three and a half year old daughter, Jenny. She would not engage with him at all – she looked away whenever he spoke to her. He was very confused, and a bit hurt. Even when he got down on his knees, to be at her level, she would turn away from him. He was frustrated and annoyed with his inability to communicate.

Dad did not take his daughter’s behaviour personally. Instead, he recognised that his daughter’s behaviour was a cue that she was very unhappy. He decided to use Active Listening.

Dad: "You seem frightened when I talk to you".

She nodded.

Jenny*: “When I go to childcare, some of the big boys push me around if I go up to talk to them”.

Dad: “That sounds scary when the big boys push you away when you were trying to be friendly.”

Jenny (nodding): "The big boys push me around at childcare - and you're a big boy".

Dad: “So you’re a little scared of me because I’m a big boy, like those boys at childcare”.

By this stage, Jenny seemed much happier, and began to tell her Dad more about what was happening at childcare. From this point on, she was much more approachable, and he felt their relationship grow close and warm again.

A Reflection on Active Listening and Very Young Children

These examples illustrate that small children have the capacity to respond thoughtfully to empathy and understanding. In each story, there was an unmet need underlying their behaviour. With encouragement, children were able to find a solution to their problem.

Our young people are in a world where new experiences and imaginings happen every day. They may not differentiate between what their imagination sees and what their eyes see, and so to them, their response to their unmet need is perfectly rational. As parents, it is important to try and understand children from their point of view. What does ‘going away in an aeroplane’ actually mean, if a two year old has never experienced this before? How frightening are crocodiles in a bed?

These anecdotes demonstrate how real and overwhelming children’s feelings can be. By Active Listening, we can help our little people move from being disabled by emotion, into rationalising a solution.

*Not their real names

Reasoning with a child age 3 and under (1): background; some development theories; and observed outcomes of respectful verbal communication with very young children

Reasoning with a child age 3 and under (2): when your child is unhappy

Reasoning with a child age 3 and under (3): when parents are unhappy with their child’s behaviour

Reasoning with a child age 3 and under (4): when both parent and child are unhappy.

© Larissa Dann. 2015.  All rights reserved

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