Sensitive, Moody and Defiant

Dear Miss Faith, My son is 3 and a quarter, and he’s very sensitive and moody, and often defiant. I correct him and tell him what I do want him to do, but I feel conflicted about punishing him because he often seems like he’s not feeling good and then that leads to challenging behavior, and my heart is telling me to love him and connect no matter what. So i just pour love into him as much as i can because he seems to need it, crave it. But I worry that this may be forming him to be even more tender and unsteady, like maybe he has gotten into the habit of feeling like he needs my love and snuggles whenever he doesn’t feel good or is challenged. He is also much sturdier around other people, grandparents, teachers, babysitters (when i’m not there).

Dear Mama,

I do have a couple of thoughts. One is that yes, if he experiences that being moody and fragile gets lots of positive attention from you, of course he’s going to do it more for you. If you’re starting to get the feeling that this is not serving him, then you’re probably right. But the other thought is that kids often save their ‘worst’ for mom, because that’s where they feel the safest and can let down their guard. So how can you continue to be a safe place for him, and a resource for him, in a way that helps him to get along in the world, instead of hindering him? Also, how can it be done in a way that you can enjoy, instead of through defiance and unsteadiness?

I think that there are a few things you can do. Just like in my last post, the main messages you want to be giving him are 1) It’s OK to feel however he’s feeling, and 2) no matter how he’s feeling, he still needs to act in appropriate ways. But not to worry, you’ll help him figure out what appropriate ways are, and you love him so much.

So how can you do that? One way is to start ‘translating’ his actions into words that name his desires (I find that naming desires is much more effective than naming feelings; but that’s a topic for another post). For example, say he wants to go into the basement and you tell him ‘we’re going to stay upstairs,’ then he looks at you and walks down. What’s going on with him? Is he tired? Hungry? Wants attention? What kind? Is he feeling playful? Needs a snuggle? Then go after him, and be quite clear and stern: “Oh my. When I tell you to stay upstairs, I expect you to stay upstairs. Back up we go.” Bring him back up, then kneel down or pick him up. “Now, what were you trying to tell me? … I think you were saying, ‘Mom, I need to play!’ Is that it?” Wait for a nod, then say, “Ok, come on! I can play with you!” (If he doesn’t nod, but pushes you away, then you’ve translated wrong. Try again: “No, you’re saying, ‘Mom, I need a hug and a snack.'”) But assuming the play translation is correct, jump in and play some chase-catch-tickle-kiss-repeat games. When it gets to the point where he’s happy and tired, look at him and say, “Next time, you don’t have to go in the basement [or whatever he did] in order to play. You can just say, ‘Mom, I need to play,’ and I’ll come play like this.” In this way, you’re still being clear about your boundaries: you expect him to do as you say. But you’re still connecting and giving him love, which he also needs. You’re just doing it in a way that creates the possibility of growth and change in the future.

Or perhaps he disobeyed you because he was tired and cranky. In that case, bring him upstairs, pick him up and say, “What were you trying to tell me? I think you were saying, ‘Mom, I need a snuggle.'” Then take him to your favorite armchair, pull a throw-blanket over both your heads, start stroking him and singing a soft song. Give him some direct, soothing attention. Towards the end, say, “Next time, you don’t have to go in the basement [or whatever he did] if you want a snuggle. You can just say, ‘Mom, I need a snuggle,’ and I’ll stop what I’m doing and come snuggle you.”

You are teaching him how to ask for what he wants/needs, in a way that a) is more likely to get him what he actually needs, both from you and from others as he grows older and b) is enjoyable to both of you. Give him the same words each time as much as you can, and then be sure that you actually listen and respond when he uses those phrases, so that he doesn’t have to misbehave in order to get you to step away from whatever you’re doing. If you’re busy, it doesn’t have to be a long snuggle (or game, or snack, or whatever). Stop what you’re doing and give him a little infusion, then tell him, “I need to finish making dinner now, and then I can snuggle some more. Would you like to come with me while I finish?” Then, make sure that you remember to do it again when you get to a good stopping point.

Good luck, Mama, and hugs to you! It’s a dance, it’s always a dance. Teach your son to dance in a way that he can get what he needs, and both partners can enjoy.

Warmly, ~Miss Faith


I love your comments! Please post below.


  1. So one main question – this seems to be a great method of you have an only child and can tend to your child’s play, cuddle or attention desire every time he misbehaves BUT what about the times where you cannot? For example, I have dinner or other kids and I cannot stop to cuddle or play at that moment… What’s the best method in this scenario?

    Thanks in advance.


    • Monique, I’ve used this technique in groups all the time. Say I have a child at the table who’s being disruptive during a group meal. “Michael, it seems like you’re saying you’re ready for fun! Well, we don’t have time for a noisy game, but let me tell you a story about being too noisy. When I was a little girl…” and go on from there. I’m acknowledging his desire, and responding to his need for stimulation, in a way that’s acceptable for the situation. Often, responding with humor, with imagination, with a story or a song can help kids feel connected again and settle down, where simply telling them to sit quietly won’t. Does that make sense? Seem feasible?

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