Reasoning with a Very Young Child (4): When Parent and Child are Unhappy

Larissa Dann: posted 29 June 2015                                                 Image used under license from Shutterstock                  

Part (4) of the series: Reasoning with a Very Young Child

Understanding your own reasons for being upset, and helping your very young child understand a reason for their upset, leads to problem-solving where both of you are OK with the solution.

No-Lose Conflict Resolution

When I try my best I-messages (followed by Active Listening) and discover that both of us are still feeling dissatisfied, I need to try Problem Solving.

Firstly, I have to find out why my child is unhappy. Using Active Listening, I am trying to discover what need of my child is not being met.

Then I have to be clear about the reason I am unhappy. This means being honest with myself (and taking responsibility for my feelings). I then use a non-blameful I-Message.

The next step is to come up with ideas to solve the problem together. “What can we do so that we’re both feeling OK?”

Examples of Problem Solving with very young children

Here are some real-life anecdotes of problem-solving with my children Ben and Emma*, and some examples from parents in my class. 

Two Year old - Getting out of bed and not sleeping

Not wanting to go to childcare

26-month-old friends and conflict over toy box

27-month-old not wanting to go in stroller

A reflection on no-lose conflict resolution and very young children

Two Year old - Getting out of bed and not sleeping

A P.E.T. participant brought in this story, after listening to a recording in the P.E.T. class (‘The Bonnie Recording’), where a Mum discovers her daughter needed more time with her.

Mum: “Layla*, you know when I put you to bed at night and you keep getting out?” (Layla nods) “What do you think is going on there?”

Layla: “Layla cry.”

Mum: “Yes you cry. You are sad so you cry?”

Layla: “Layla want mummy.”

Mum: “Ah, so you cry because you miss mummy when she leaves you.”

Layla: “Layla want mummy.”

There is a long pause while mummy thinks what to do next!

Mum: “Well I get frustrated when you don’t stay in bed because I have to do all the housework and get everything ready for the next day so I can go to work and you can go to school (childcare). When you keep getting out of bed I don’t get that done.  And then I get mad…”

Layla: (interjects) “Mummy get mad.”

Mum: “Yes, mummy gets mad because she gets tired and wants to go to bed too.”

Layla: “Mummy get mad.”

Mum: “Well I’ve got an idea.  How about after I put Adam (younger brother) to bed at night you and I have some “special time”, where we do what ever you want to do before you go to bed. Then when I put you to bed you stay in bed quietly until you go to sleep.  We could read or do a puzzle or draw or play a quiet game.  It would be Mummy and Layla’s special time after Adam goes to bed.  Then you need stay in bed.  Do you think we could do that?”

Layla: “YES!” (big smile)

Mum tries to summarise their agreement but Layla is happy, and she runs off to play. She stayed in her bed for at least the rest of the duration of the course (two weeks) .

Not wanting to go to childcare

Emma* was 2 years and 9 months old. She did not want to go to childcare (which we called Toddlers), and was crying despairingly.

Emma: “I want my Daddy”.

Mummy: “You really don’t want to go to toddlers. You sound sad and a bit worried about going to Toddlers – that you’ll miss your Daddy and want his hugs”.

Emma quietened down, and then began to cry loudly again.

Mummy: “The thought of going to Toddlers makes you feel sad and lonely. You really don’t want to go there today.”

Emma (calming down a bit): “No.”

We repeated the cycle of crying, Active Listening, becoming calmer, then crying, a couple more time. Then, in one of the quieter moments I moved into problem solving, as I needed her to go to childcare so I could go to work.

Mummy: “I wonder what you could do that would make you feel happier about having to go to toddlers?”

Amidst her tears, she choked out a solution.

Emma: “I want a toy to cuddle”.

She continued to cry on and off until we reached Toddlers. I found a toy in her bag, which she cuddled closely. She walked calmly into Toddlers and was happy for me to leave her.


Strictly speaking, no-lose conflict resolution means that both parent and child are flexible in their solutions. That is, they do not have a preconceived outcome, and are open to all ideas.

In real life, sometimes we, or our children, may be required to participate in an action that we’d prefer to avoid. For example, we may continue to work at a job we don’t really enjoy, because we want to pay the mortgage. Our children will have to be immunised, and they don’t like the pain of a needle. (I say this while recognising that there may also be choices, such as selling the house and renting).

This problem-solving example involved just one pre-conceived solution – which was the parent’s. On this occasion, the parent’s need to go to work overrode the child’s wish to not attend childcare. Active Listening helped the child develop resilience, because she found a way to live with a solution that was out of her control. She found something in the situation that she could control, and this enabled her to live with her Mum’s solution.

25 month old friends problem solving together

Emma was aged two years and one month. She was playing with a friend of hers, who was one week older. Holly* sat on a small bottom-sized-box, reading a book. Emma wanted to sit on Holly’s box, and read Holly’s story. So I ‘modified the environment’ by finding a different box for Emma to sit on, with a different book, and she seemed to accept the solution. Then Holly got off her seat, and went out of the room to find some toys.

Emma promptly swapped seats, and sat on Holly's tiny box and read the Holly’s book. Holly returned. She was very unhappy to see Emma on her seat. She began to talk to Emma, asking her to sit on the other seat.

Holly: "This is Emma's, this is Holly's. Sit here".

Emma shook her head, and did not move.

Emma: “Mine, mine!” pointing to Holly’s box, on which Emma was sitting.

This conversation continued for a little while, with neither child changing their mind. As I didn't want the argument to escalate I went over to the girls to act as mediator. I initiated the principles of resolving sibling conflict.

Mum: "Emma, Holly would like to sit on her box, and when she can't she's sad. Look how sad Holly is.”

Emma looked at the book in her hands instead.

Emma: “Mine!”

Mum: “You like sitting on Holly’s box reading her book”.

Emma: “Mine”

Mum (trying to substitute a behaviour): “How about you sit on the other box?"

Emma (shaking her head): “Mine!”

Mum: "You like sitting on that box. I'm concerned that Holly will be sad if she can't sit on her box".

Emma still would not move. At this point, I was desperate. Here was I, an instructor in a parenting approach that did not use rewards or punishment, trying to solve a conflict in front of another child’s mother. And it was my child’s behaviour that was causing the problem! The pressure was intense.

I’d used the skills I thought would work to resolve the conflict. The only skill left in my tool-kit was no-lose conflict resolution. However, I was doubtful that problem solving would work, as the children were too young. How could they come up with a solution at just 25 months? I’d already suggested all the solutions I could think of, and they’d been rejected. But I had to give it a go.

I took a deep breath, and trusted in the process and the children.

Mum: "Emma, can you think of anything that would make Holly happy and you happy?"

At this, Emma sat up.

Emma (in a big, loud voice): "uuummmm, Holly . . .?" Then she pointed to a miniscule space next to her, on the tiny box on which she sat.

Emma: "Holly here - next me!"

Mum: "You would like Holly to sit next to you?"

Emma nodded. I looked at Holly

Mum: "Holly, would you like to sit next to Emma?"

Holly nodded. The two toddlers then proceeded to make room for each other on the one very small seat. After a few seconds, they discovered there wasn’t really any room, and Emma then moved happily away from the box.

Holly's Mum and I were blown away by what had just happened. These two little girls had just successfully resolved a conflict, where both won! The solution suggested by Emma was never on my radar. At a very young age, these children were learning to: a) consider other people; and b) creatively find a win-win solution.

27 month old not wanting to go in stroller

I was taking Emma shopping (aged 2 yrs 3 months). I needed to do quite a bit of walking, and she did not like going in the stroller. As I was about to get Emma out of the car seat, I explained what we were doing.

Mum: “I have a lot of walking to do today, and I need to walk quickly. I would like you to go in the stroller, as this will help me walk faster”.

Emma did not want to go in the stroller, and shook her head passionately.

Emma: "I not go in stroller!!"

Mum: “You really don’t like going in the stroller. You prefer to walk. I’m concerned that when you walk with me, I’ll take longer, and you will get tired because we have so much walking to do”.

Emma shook her head.

Mum: “Do you have any ideas that would let you be happy to go in the stroller?”

Emma (shaking her head): "Want to walk".

Mum (suggesting a solution): “How about you walk to the road (just a short distance away), and then I put you in the stroller?”

Emma: Nodded her head and smiled, happily getting out of the car.

We walked to the road, with her pushing her stroller. When we got to road, Emma initially looked a bit cross, but then happily clambered into the stroller.

I was relieved, and reflected on what might have happened if I hadn’t listened or allowed Emma some control through problem solving. I would probably have ended up strapping a screaming child into a stroller, at the beginning of a long shopping and bill-paying day! Or, I may have gone home, and been pretty unhappy with my daughter, as well as not getting my shopping completed. Both of us would have been stressed, and our relationship would suffer.

A Reflection on Problem Solving and Very Young Children

Including children in the solutions is empowering. Problem solving helps children consider the needs of others, as well as their own needs. They develop consideration and resilience.

* 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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