Janet Lansbury https://www.janetlansbury.com/ elevating child care Mon, 29 Apr 2024 03:45:52 +0000 en-US hourly 1 My Child Refuses Independent Play https://www.janetlansbury.com/2024/04/my-child-refuses-independent-play/ https://www.janetlansbury.com/2024/04/my-child-refuses-independent-play/#comments Mon, 29 Apr 2024 03:45:35 +0000 https://www.janetlansbury.com/?p=22674 With our most loving intentions as parents, we might find ourselves stuck in a full-time role we never wanted—as our child’s playmate and entertainer. In this episode, a mom asks Janet for advice regarding her “bright, busy, extroverted four-year-old girl who loves having my complete attention.” Unfortunately, this parent is feeling she really needs some … Continued

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With our most loving intentions as parents, we might find ourselves stuck in a full-time role we never wanted—as our child’s playmate and entertainer. In this episode, a mom asks Janet for advice regarding her “bright, busy, extroverted four-year-old girl who loves having my complete attention.” Unfortunately, this parent is feeling she really needs some time to herself, but when she tries to take a break, her daughter is unwilling to let her go and seems anxious and insecure, as if this is a personal rejection.

Transcript of “My Child Refuses Independent Play”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

Today I’m going to be responding to a question that’s very similar to many that I get, and I do understand this issue because I can totally relate to the struggle of it. How do we encourage our child to play independently of us? How do we separate from them to free them up to play when our child seems to continually want our attention?

Here’s the email I received:

Hi, Janet-

Thanks so much for your podcast and advice. I hope it’s okay to ask you about a situation I’m having with my daughter. I’m a stay-at-home mom to a very bright, busy, extroverted four-year-old girl who loves having my complete attention.

She goes to school in the mornings, and in the afternoons we try to stay busy with classes, walks, and going to the park. I try to give her as much attention as I can, but I’m an introvert with ADHD and I get overstimulated and irritable from constant interaction. The only way I can get her to give me some space is if I hand her a screen, and I’m growing uncomfortable with how much I’ve been relying on screens to keep her occupied. And it doesn’t always work. Sometimes she wants me to sit down and watch the show alongside her, and I can only watch so much Peppa Pig.

I would love to help her learn to entertain herself with toys. It’s not just for me, I think it would be good for her to be comfortable being by herself. She seems to get anxious and takes it as a personal rejection when I tell her that mommy needs some time to herself. If I tell her I’m taking a break and she’s going to play by herself for 15 minutes, I have about five minutes before the bids for attention start coming: “I’m hungry.” “I need help with this.” “Come look at this.” If I tell her that I’m on a break and I’ll help her when I’m done, she’ll keep asking, “How many more minutes?” Completely defeats the purpose of a break. Last night, she got out a craft project and said, “Let’s do it together.” I said, “Go ahead. I’m going to eat a snack first and I’ll come join you when I’m ready.” She had a meltdown and then reached for her iPad.

I love that she wants to engage with me, but I worry that her constant need for my attention means that she feels insecure about her bond with me. How do I convey to her that it’s okay for us to do things separately sometimes?

A lot of interesting themes here in this parent’s note, in the issues that she’s having, this theme of a child being willing to be independent of us.

I’m going to start by offering some context for how that develops, children developing their independent play and other independent activities, what gets in the way of that, and what we can do to aid this natural process. From there, I’m going to talk about the specifics in this parent’s note.

The wish for autonomy and independence is something that naturally emerges in children. But interestingly, sometimes we can get in the way of that without meaning to, at all. This was the topic of a recent podcast I did with Hari Grebler. It was called Every Child, Even a Tiny Baby, Deserves Time On Their Own. One of the things we talked about is noticing when, even as a baby, our child is expressing their autonomy, just through an autonomous interest that they’re having. They’re looking at something, they’re doing something that isn’t directed at us. And most of us don’t know—I didn’t know until I had my education with Magda Gerber—to recognize that and honor it and make space for it with our child. Because they are showing signs of independence and separation from us, even as tiny infants. So we want to nurture those moments if possible.

Another one is a very controversial subject. People will say that it’s impossible for a baby to do anything towards self-soothing, but the experts that actually observe babies, like T. Berry Brazelton, Heidelise Als, Dr. Kevin Nugent, they notice that even preemies are attempting to settle themselves. Not because the parent or the nurse in NICU abandoned them and they have no choice. Self-soothing is a choice that a baby makes to try to find their thumb. And when we observe, we can see babies wanting to do these things. Sometimes. A lot of the time they need us to help calm them down. And even when they’re self-soothing, they need our help and support. To be emotionally there for them, to be physically there, encouraging them by letting them know that we’re there, we’ve got their back, and we’re not going to just leave them to do it on their own. We see them and we see that they’re in a process of trying to do something and we don’t want to interrupt that. That’s what healthy self-soothing is.

It’s a very tender process that happens bit by bit. And it’s something, again, like having those play moments where children are just paying attention to something else, that we can nurture by allowing them, by giving some space for that when we see it happening. And of course that starts with observation. Being sensitive observers whenever possible. That’s how we can see what our child’s interests are, what they’re working on, what skills they’re developing. We can’t when we’re always doing everything for them, assuming their needs a little bit more. So we want to try to see our child as a separate person as early as possible, that’s capable of doing some separate things.

And that sounds easy when I say it, but it’s not easy. In fact, here’s a quote from T. Berry Brazelton: “In my experience, learning to separate and to give the child critical independence may well be the most difficult job in parenting.” So this is challenging. It doesn’t feel natural to a lot of us, especially if we’re worriers, if we are sensitive and we’re fearful, maybe, sometimes, of not always being there immediately when our child needs us and doing everything that we worry they need us to do. This is one of the reasons I love Magda Gerber’s magic word: Wait. Just wait a moment to see what your child is actually doing. If they can do that themselves or get a little closer to doing that themselves. If they’re doing something, maybe, that’s really valuable, that is so easy for us to interrupt with our best intentions, but maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe it’s better if we wait a moment first and really observe. This is challenging, right?

And then the other part of being able to separate like this parent wants to and have her daughter be able to play independently. This part I think is even harder than noticing when our child is being autonomous and not interrupting that. This is even harder, because it means being independent of them ourselves. And this is also what Brazelton is talking about in that quote. Being independent of them so that we can be interdependent as two autonomous people. That’s what we’re going for, right? A relationship of interdependence where we rely on each other, but we are two separate people, we are autonomous. That means tuning into ourselves and being able to say, I don’t want to do that. This is what I’m going to do. Because what can happen is that we unintentionally give a message to our child that they need us to do what they want. That that’s a need instead of a want.

I think that is part of what’s happening in this note. I’m going to get to the details in a minute. This idea that our child seems to want us always next to them, so we go along with it. And then it’s like that idea I talk about a lot here about accommodating. By accommodating that, we’re giving our child the message that we agree that they need our attention all the time, that they can’t be okay without us, in this case, playing with them. We’re only trying to do the right thing, but we’re giving our child the impression that we don’t trust them to be able to be separate. That’s the kind of feedback loop that happens here that none of us want, right?

In RIE parent-infant and parent-toddler classes, we do this really helpful thing that comes from attachment theory. In attachment theory, Bowlby and Ainsworth talked about being a secure base. Because babies need—and as they’re developing, children continue to need—that secure base, us, that they can leave to be free explorers, coming back as needed. A secure base isn’t forcing you to be independent. The way that we play this out in the classrooms is we ask the parents to please find a spot on the floor, there’s these backjacks to sit on. And please stay in that spot as much as possible and let your child be the one to move away from you. So the children have a choice, always, of being with us in our spot or venturing out to engage with other children, to engage with some of the toys that are there.

The RIE center where I mostly have taught has indoor/outdoor choice. Usually the parents are sitting indoors and the babies one day start to crawl or scoot on their tummies and they’re able to move out into the outdoors. And maybe they’re moving around the corner where the parent can’t even see them from where that parent is sitting. The facilitator, which would be me or whoever the teacher is in the classroom, can see them and make sure that they’re okay. It is a safe space, so there aren’t many ways that they could get hurt. But we can keep an eye on them and maybe we’re the ones that move around.

And then if two children are coming together or maybe a child is starting to climb on something that we haven’t seen them handle before, then we go close and we’re able to demonstrate for the parents minimal interventions. Interventions that allow children to develop their sense of competence and autonomy and develop their motor abilities or their problem-solving abilities or their creative abilities with play. So we’re there as backup to make sure they’re safe, intervene as minimally as possible to give them the most encouragement and confidence in themselves.

We recommend the parents do this at home too, of course. When they’re enjoying playtime with their child, that they plant themselves, allowing their child to move away from them and explore in safe areas. Sometimes when parents come into the classes when their child is a toddler, they haven’t been there since their child was an infant, so they’re coming in with their child as a toddler. And oftentimes the toddlers will try to bring the parent with them around this room to look at things. Of course, we never insist parents do it a certain way, but we suggest, we recommend that the parent insists that they’re going to stay there. Very kindly and not intensely, but just confidently. “I’m going to stay here. I’d love you to stay with me. You could sit on my lap. You could sit next to me. Or you can go look at the toys.”

I’m not trying to coax you to leave me and be “independent.” I’m not uncomfortable if you’re staying with me that, Oh, there’s something wrong and I really don’t want you to be here, because children pick up that vibe from us. Do they ever! And that makes them want to cling even more, when they feel that we’re not comfortable with them staying there. What works best is to be totally welcoming of your child being there. Children don’t want to sit on our laps for their whole life. It’s somebody like me, with the grown-up kids: It’s nice to have children want to be with you. And so they have that option.

But then sometimes the parents will worry, Oh, my child is getting upset that I’m not coming around with them. And that’s where we may have given a child that impression, because we’ve just tried to go along with things and be a good parent, they’ve gotten the impression that they need us to be there. When in fact they just want us to be with them. But what we want is for them to be free to explore and engage with other children without a parent looming over them.

It’s this interesting model that we can all learn from and that really helps children’s play to thrive and their social skill and everything else, all of their skills. And what I recommend to parents is that they do this everywhere that they go with their child that’s really a place for their child to explore. If they’re just on a playdate, at a birthday party, going to the park, this parent said she’s doing classes. Plant yourself, this is what I recommend, plant yourself somewhere as the secure base. If your child wants to drag you around with them, kindly say, “No, but I’m here for you. Whenever you need me, just come. I’ll be here.”

In the classrooms we do that also, because sometimes the children will be getting very involved in things and then they turn around and they want to know where their parent is. And if the parent’s moving around, then that’s discomforting for the child. It distracts them, they can’t focus on what they’re doing. That’s another reason we recommend staying put and being that secure base. Stay put. Insist on it, kindly.

Your child will maybe get mad at you and resist the first few times and try to coax you and act like they can’t do it without you. And this is the hard thing about all of this—and again, I’m going to get into this parent’s specifics—but the hard thing here is that if you’re a person who’s easily guilted, like me, or you go into that place of worry, then children are amazing the way that—I believe this is them wanting to shape us up, unconsciously, I believe that’s what they’re doing. But on the outside, it looks like they’re just not going to survive if we don’t follow them into a playground where all the children are and hold them by the hand. If we dare to be somewhere separate, they can make it seem like we’re doing this awful, awful thing to them. And we can fall into guilt about that, Oh no! Just as with children, when we’re in that feeling brain, when we’re in that less reasonable brain, we lose reason. Just like children do.

When we can get out of the fear place and the guilt place and see this from a place of reason, we notice, Well wait a second, I’m right here. I’m staying in this spot, I haven’t left. And they have a choice to come be with me anytime. So why does this feel like I’m doing something so wrong and abandoning my child? Just because I’m setting this boundary that I’m going to stay here. Whenever they need me, I’m still there to give them my attention whenever they need me. Children can take us to these places where we lose reason. It’s happened to me a lot of times, so I do relate to this. But we’re not doing our child favors when we do that.

Another way to think of the word independence is freedom, right? So it’s not like we want our child to be independent because we don’t care and we need them to take care of themselves. We want them to be free to explore their way, to create play that comes from inside them, to be able to thrive in all these situations. That idea helped me a great deal to get over the hump to setting the boundaries that I needed to set, allowing myself to separate.

I’m not talking about necessarily physically separating in another room, but just separate as a person, holding my own. This is what I’m doing. You can want me to do something else, but this is what I’m doing. And it’s okay if we’re in conflict. It’s normal to be in conflict in life, and I can love you through conflict. We’ll survive it. That’s part of being in relationships, that’s part of life. It’s interesting where children can take us in our minds because we love them so much, really.

These are the two aspects to work on when we want to encourage our child’s independence to emerge and for them to be able to be separate. The two things are to notice it when it’s happening. Those little things our baby even does, those moments our child has where they do have an idea. And it’s really hard not to jump on that sometimes and say, “Oh yeah, you can do it this way or that way,” and put our own two cents in, I always want to do that with play. But to hold back on that, to wait, use that magic word, wait, and allow it to be. So there’s that aspect. And then the other aspect is the boundary aspect, where we’re taking care of our independent self.

Now I’m going to talk about that and how it works with the particulars this parent has shared with me. It’s interesting. She describes her daughter as a “bright, busy, extroverted girl,” and that doesn’t sound like a child that wouldn’t be very independent as well, right? That’s the interesting thing is oftentimes it’s these extroverted children that are wanting to lead us as well. But underneath it all, they’re hoping that they don’t have to, because they know they’re only four years old, and that’s a big burden on them. That doesn’t free them, it does the opposite. Instead of playing the way children can play, now I’ve got to keep seeing if she really means it. Is she going to stick by what she said or is she going to melt for me like she sometimes does? They go to that place. So it’s very often these strong personality, intense, dynamic children that are the ones that can seem the most clingy and needy. That’s interesting, right? And when we go to that reasonable brain that we have, it doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t add up.

This parent tries to give her as much attention as she can, but she’s an introvert with ADHD, and she gets overstimulated and irritable from constant interaction. I can totally understand that, and I think a lot of parents do, even when they don’t have ADHD, because that’s not a natural situation with two people in a relationship. It’s not natural for us to be interacting all the time, so it’s not going to feel right and it’s not going to feel comfortable.

She says, “she seems to get anxious and takes it as a personal rejection when I tell her that mommy needs some time to herself.” One thing I would do here, because it will help us to be that autonomous person with her and see her as an autonomous person. Start using first person with her, instead of saying, “Mommy needs time to herself.” That’s not very direct. Children like this, and most children, really need that exchange as two people. “I’m going to do this now. I want to be by myself. This is what I’m doing.” I believe it will help you, it helps me, to believe that I’m talking to a person when I’m not talking about myself as mommy. When I’m saying, This is me. I have wants. You have wants. Of course, I’m always going to be there to take care of your needs as best I can, but I’m not going to take care of everything you want because sometimes it’ll be in conflict with what I want. It’s so much easier to do that when we’re in the habit of being you and me, two people.

In terms of her daughter being anxious and taking it as a personal rejection, I think that might be a projection on this parent’s part. Because how could this child feel personally rejected when we give them plenty of attention and now we’re just asserting ourselves? She may be acting like she’s rejected, but in her heart, she knows she’s not being rejected. She knows you’re being a leader, and the leader that she needs. And anxious. I mean, that may be there. And it might be a reflection of this parent feeling anxious about standing up for herself. That’s how tightly we can get involved in these things emotionally with our child. It’s really easy to do, we all do it to some extent about some things. To try to extricate ourselves from, Okay, I’m kind of anxious. Now that’s going to make her more anxious. And when I see her anxious, that’s going to make me more anxious. It goes back and forth, back and forth like that. And it doesn’t help either of us. Of course, it doesn’t help our child, it doesn’t help us, and we can get caught up in it and it just keeps kind of building on itself.

We usually have to be the ones to get into our reasonable brain and see our way out of this. It usually can’t be our child first. It needs to be us. So consider the reasonableness of what you’re picking up, the impression that you’re getting. Think about all the time that you do give her and that she’s this extroverted girl. I mean, you can’t be an extroverted girl and be that anxious about rejection because that would not make you an extroverted girl. So it doesn’t really go together. And there are other things like that. I’m sure that when this parent reflects, she can consider whether this is the truth or a reflection of her fears of what might be going on. Feeling maybe guilty, that she doesn’t deserve to take care of herself and do what she wants, that she has to give her whole self up to her child. Take your time to yourself. Say it confidently. Know that you’re going to get pushback.

She says, “If I tell her I’m taking a break and she’s going to play by herself for 15 minutes, I have about five minutes before the bids for attention start coming.” So when you do this, because you know her very well, expect that you’re going to get every bid under the sun for attention. Every clever way, every dramatic way, every upset way, every guilt-inducing way. She’s going to have to go there. She has to, to make sure that she can really be free of you. I mean, that’s the way we have to look at it underneath this. And I believe that. It’s not just something we have to tell ourselves to make it work, it’s the truth. So expect “I’m hungry,” “I need help with this,” “Come look at this.” And just answer from that place of I’m independent, I’m confident, I deserve to separate. She will be free when I do. When she knows that I can, it will free her. There’s only positives here in what I’m doing.

So, “How many more minutes?” “You know, I’m not sure. Five or 10, I think.” “I need help with this.” “I’m sure you do, and I can’t wait to help you when I’m done. I will when I’m ready.” “Come look at this.” “You know what, I’m not going to right now.” And it’s okay, also, if these statements are coming at you like rapid fire. Just let a couple of them go, holding your own pace. Don’t get caught up in her pace. Her pace is going to be urgent and persistent. Your pace is slower. It’s centered. It’s not reflecting her energy. It’s holding your energy. With practice, this gets easier, but it’s really important.

When you respond, you don’t have to respond right away. “I’m hungry.” “Oh, okay!” “I’m hungry.” “Oh, you must be getting ready for dinner soon. We’re going to have it soon.” “I need help with this.” “Well, let’s put it on hold for a little while.” Then she says, “Come look at this.” Maybe you just let that one go for a minute, because she knows, she knows what she’s doing. She knows that this can get to you, so don’t let it get to you. See this as her path to freedom. It’s a bumpy, bumpy path, right? Let her have her path. You hold your own.

“If I tell her that I’m on a break and I’ll help her when I’m done, she’ll keep asking, ‘How many more minutes?'” So let her ask, let her ask, and then, “Oh, you asked how many more minutes? I think it’s about 10.” And then let her ask. You don’t have to answer every time, but this parent says that “completely defeats the purpose of a break.” Yeah, it does. But it’s a temporary situation, if you can commit to your role. Not to that you have to say certain words or certain speech. Just consider it an improvisation, where all you know is your role and your role is to be inside yourself, strong, this kind of hero for her. That can be separate, that can take care of yourself, giving her incredible positive messages. And again, freeing her to be able to entertain herself and play by herself.

And then she talks about the craft project and that the parent said, no, she wasn’t going to do it with her right then, and her daughter had a meltdown. Yeah, those meltdowns, those are releasing control, meltdowns, oftentimes. And if she’s having a meltdown over that, think about it, she needs to have a meltdown, right? If children are having a meltdown over these inconsequential things, that means it’s not really about that. It’s some release that she needs to have. So try to trust that. It’s the truth.

But then here’s the part I want to help this parent with. She says, “she had a meltdown and then reached for her iPad.” So when I’m talking about boundaries, the first boundary that I recommend for this parent—this is going to give her some practice for the next one. The first one is boundaries around the devices, because a lot of reasons. But studies show that giving children free access to tech devices, it interferes with, among other things, the development of self-regulation. And that’s a big part of what you’re working on here. So children aren’t able to process uncomfortable emotions as they need to to build resiliency, because every time they’re going there, there’s a distraction for them. There’s this very powerful and potentially addictive distraction for them that allows them to avoid all the natural, typical feelings that children need to have, that they need to experience, and learn, with our support, that these are normal. Frustration, disappointment, boredom, anger, sadness. Life gives children all of these natural opportunities for this. Like her mom saying, no, I’m not going to do a craft project. It’s important that she has a chance to experience that all the way. Experience that meltdown, experience all those feelings, and get to the other side of them, without having this very potent distraction to lose herself in.

And then just on a practical level, using devices as the consolation prize for our attention, that means that we’re setting up a situation where they’re going to be wanting to be on devices whenever we’re not paying attention to them. There’s no time in the day for her to be freed up to pass through that empty, often uncomfortable, space needed to be able to initiate her play, to have all the wonders and the freedom that we want to give her of the free exploration and the play. The devices are getting in the way with us being able to be a secure base and her being able to be the free explorer. Except in this case, she wants us to be the explorer with her and we’re saying no. But now she’s got this other thing that she’s going to go to that has nothing to do with all the places we want her to be able to go, which is to be comfortable and even enjoy being with herself. That’s such a lifelong gift, so valuable. And it’s not likely to happen when she has the option of either the parent’s entertainment or an entertaining device.

I think we can all relate to that, just what our devices do to us as adults, that we don’t have those moments of boredom. At least for most of us, we were able to develop our abilities to entertain ourselves. But children are in the development stage, this is much more important for them even than for us.

So that’s boundary number one that I would set. And I’d prepare myself for a lot of blasting about this, and all the questions. So be really clear, set out times: These are the times you’re going to do it and not the rest of the time. If you leave that as an open question, then you’re going to have to be setting a boundary all day long. Not now, not now, not now. So set it out ahead of time: these times every day, or these two times a week, or not at all, or whatever you decide. Set it up that way so you’re not constantly having to set this boundary, because it’ll be easier for her and easier for you if it’s established early and established clearly and solidly, with all the noise she’s going to make about it. Oh, this girl is intense. She’s got a lot of pushback that she’s going to give you, so get ready. Maybe she’ll be persuading, she’ll be pleading, she’ll be vulnerable. Let her go there. Remind yourself it’s safe, if you can hold your center, knowing that what you’re giving her is actually freedom.

After that boundary, then the boundary of you saying no. That’s the order I would work on these. Because maybe if you allow that process with that boundary and all the grief you’re going to get about it to work, then it will give you more confidence to set this other boundary. Which is, for a lot of us, it’s even harder, because, as this parent said, “I love that she wants to engage with me.” Yes, and we’re not going to taint that at all by putting parameters around when we’re going to engage with her.

She says, “I worry that her constant need for my attention means that she feels insecure about her bond with me.” I think that’s, again, a fear place that this parent is going to. Because she actually said it, “I love that she wants to engage with me.” Yes, she wants to engage. “But I worry that her constant need for my attention. . .” So that’s where we can get hooked in and guilted and worried, when we see it as a need for attention. She was correct, I believe, in the first part of the sentence: wants, she wants to engage. She wants constant attention, she doesn’t need constant attention. What she needs is a parent who can be honest with her, who can be a leader, who isn’t afraid of her feelings.

That’s such a gift we can give children, that they’re not going to thank us for right there, but it is huge. To show her, You know what? You can melt down and I’ll have all the empathy in the world, but I’m not trying to change your feeling. I’m not trying to fix it. I know you’re safe, I know it’s healthy, and I know on the other side of this is freedom. And that’s what you really need from me.

I know this is a difficult reframe, so many people have a hard time with it. And we do play a big part in this. And that’s good news, because that means we can make this shift. But we have to be committed, as with everything with children, we have to go with it and believe in it. So that’s the part to work on even first, before you work on the boundaries with the tech device or with your attention. Working on why. Why are you doing it? None of it is selfish. It’s far, far from it. It’s being heroic. It’s doing the hard things because we love our children so much and they deserve the very best that we can give them. They know it’s easier for us to say okay, they already know that. And they know that real love is the hard things.

I believe in this parent. I believe in all of us because if I could do this, I feel like anyone can. Thanks so much for listening. I really hope this helps.

And for everything about boundaries, I hope you’ll check out my No Bad Kids Master Course at nobadkidscourse.com. And also my books, that are going to be re-released now with a new publisher. They had been self-published for years, and now they’re going to be with Penguin Random House. Very exciting! They’re now on pre-order, but will be available at the end of this month.

We can do this.

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As Our Kids Get Older – 5 Ways to Continue Building Lasting Emotional Bonds https://www.janetlansbury.com/2024/04/as-our-kids-get-older-5-ways-to-continue-building-lasting-emotional-bonds/ https://www.janetlansbury.com/2024/04/as-our-kids-get-older-5-ways-to-continue-building-lasting-emotional-bonds/#respond Wed, 24 Apr 2024 02:59:35 +0000 https://www.janetlansbury.com/?p=22661 What does respectful parenting look like as our kids get older? Where can we get advice similar to Janet’s but for older kids? Janet receives these kinds of questions often and takes the opportunity to answer them in this episode.    Transcript of “As Our Kids Get Older – 5 Ways to Continue Building Lasting Emotional … Continued

The post As Our Kids Get Older – 5 Ways to Continue Building Lasting Emotional Bonds appeared first on Janet Lansbury.

What does respectful parenting look like as our kids get older? Where can we get advice similar to Janet’s but for older kids? Janet receives these kinds of questions often and takes the opportunity to answer them in this episode. 


Transcript of “As Our Kids Get Older – 5 Ways to Continue Building Lasting Emotional Bonds”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

Today I’m going to be responding to a question, a couple of questions, actually, that I’m often asked—and by the way, I love any kinds of questions that you send me, so please keep them coming! The questions are around, What does your approach—respectful parenting or the RIE approach—look like as children get older? Does RIE end at two years old? What do you do then? What approach do you go to after that? Sometimes they’ll ask me, Who does what you do, but for older kids? And by “older” they might mean kids beyond three or four or five years old. So I thought I would take this opportunity to clarify some things about this approach I teach and my background.

What I’ve called “respectful parenting” is my interpretation of Magda Gerber’s Educaring Approach, commonly known as the RIE approach. And RIE is R-I-E, that’s the acronym for the nonprofit organization that Magda founded with pediatric neurologist Tom Forrest in 1978 called Resources for Infant Educarers, RIE. RIE was created for the first two years of life, and all the specific guidelines that Magda offered pertain to those first two years of life. In that sense, it does end at age two. But the whole purpose of this approach, and the whole reason it’s focused on zero to two, is that this is a foundational approach. It’s a way of understanding our children as babies and our relationship with them, a nurturing healthy relationship, how to navigate that in the first two years and give our child the foundation that they need, and our relationship the foundation it needs, to flourish for all the rest of the years. So this isn’t now we stop doing this and now we’re going to start spanking our child or molding them like clay. This approach lasts throughout children’s adulthood, and I can verify that as a parent of three adults.

Another question I’m often asked is, Is there a RIE person for older years? And there is not a RIE person for older years, because there isn’t a RIE approach for older years. What I’ve done is interpreted and also used my experiences—not only as a parent of three very different children with unique needs and temperaments and talents, but also the many families that I’ve consulted with over these past almost 30 years now, who have children up to age 10 or so. And some of these have been in-person consultations, some have been telephone conversations. And I’ve mainly learned that this approach is still totally valid and works for children of all ages. This same approach that is focused on the first two years of life continues to work. Personally, I’ve never needed anything else as a parent with my own children. Maybe because I’ve put so many years into studying and training, and then practicing and teaching this approach, that it’s foundational in me, in the way that I perceive everything.

I find it so interesting, too, that all these studies show that in the first three years of life, children are learning more, developing more than in the rest of our lives put together. And yet these early years are the ones we don’t remember, right? Magda focused on the first two years because it’s the beginning, and if we can set ourselves up in the beginning, then we’re giving our child something, and ourselves something, that will last.

One of the reasons is because of what science shows, that this is the most important time for children in terms of their self-confidence, their sense of self, even basic character traits, many of them that we’re modeling and they’re learning them that way. This is a precious time. We could say the most precious time in terms of learning and brain development and our relational development. So that was one reason.

Another reason is that while most believe—I don’t know if this is still true because there have been so many studies showing what amazing learners babies are, but yet still I would say we tend to discount these early years. We tend to see babies in this very limited way. Maybe because they’re not talking yet, they don’t seem like full people we can interact with. We maybe don’t understand that they might not want to be in somebody else’s arms, so we don’t bother to let them know or ask them and get a vibe from them whether that’s welcome or not. We maybe talk down to them. We don’t treat them as whole people so much. And yet what Magda believed, and studies confirm, this is actually a time we should want to be extra-careful, because they can’t express themselves. They can’t share nuances about what they’re feeling or their needs. So this is a time, in Magda’s view, and I’ve come to agree with this, to be more careful in what we’re doing with babies. How we’re engaging with them, how we’re treating them, because they can’t express themselves verbally. That’s why she was especially interested in all the things that are going on with babies in the first two years.

So, because it’s foundational and because they can’t tell us, we want to give them extra respect instead of less respect. And that’s why she talks about welcoming a baby as an honored guest when they’re born, not just a cute little thing that’s maybe a little empty-headed in the way that we see them. I mean, I definitely did that. Some people are naturally able to see into a baby and see the person there right away, but I was not able to in the beginning. Now that I do, I can’t stop seeing that with every baby. It’s like once you open this door, you never want to leave and maybe you can’t leave, if you wanted to.

That’s why there’s often this confusion around why this approach is focused on the first two years and what we’re supposed to do later. But I do understand that, just as everything looks different as our children grow, the way that we’re engaging with them looks different. And that’s why in this podcast, I do love to answer questions about children that are up to eight or nine years old. I don’t often go beyond that, because my basis of experience for those years is personal. But what I thought I would do in this podcast is share how I’ve continued to interpret Magda Gerber’s approach and how it has served me beautifully as a parent. I mean, I am not always beautiful as a parent, but this approach has served me that way.

Let’s talk about some of the major points that continue as our children get older and how they look. I mean, all of this continues as children get older, but how it looks.

First: keeping faith in our kids’ competency. One of the amazing lessons in this approach is that babies are born, yes, very dependent on us, and that’s good. It should be that way, right? That’s how we’re going to begin our attachment with them. And there’s so much that they can’t do. But even at birth, they have competencies. And the interesting thing about perceiving our children as competent right from the very beginning is not only is seeing believing, but believing is seeing in this case. So if we believe that our baby can learn how to communicate with us, we will see that this actually is true, because we will act on that belief, meaning we’ll try to include our baby in communication with us.

We realize that babies also have thoughts and interests that aren’t just about us. I remember years ago someone commenting on one of my posts saying, “Well, if a baby is away from you, if they’re out of your arms, they are just waiting to be in your arms again.” Basically, they’re putting life on hold. And first of all, it implies such a limited view of babies, that they couldn’t possibly have an independent thought or interest. Those of us that observe babies know that that’s not true. But if we don’t believe it, we probably won’t see it. We won’t see that the baby is actually quite content, sometimes, in their playpen or safe crib or on the floor as they get older. And they’ve got a lot to do, they’ve got a lot to see, they’ve got a lot to take in. When we see this limited view, we become very self-centered in the way that we’re considering babies, right? It’s all about us, adding so much more pressure to an already challenging job.

When we do begin this—and none of these things I’m going to say can’t be picked up on later in life. That’s the whole point of this podcast episode, is to show you how you can pick this up later in life if you want to, it doesn’t have to be when they’re babies. But when we start it when they’re babies, it becomes so much easier for us because we’re already into the seeing is believing, believing is seeing. We’ve believed and we’ve seen, and that just builds on itself. Wow, my baby can do this. They learned to roll over to their tummy all by themselves. We saw them trying, we saw them working on it, we saw them using their body freely, doing all these interesting intermediate positions. They can do that. And then from there, they can scoot, they can crawl, they can walk. They’re communicating with us. They’re practicing cognitive skills. They’re building higher learning skills like focus, attention, and critical thinking. Wow. Why would we get in the way of that if we saw it, right?

So this is never about abandoning a child or forcing independence. I mean, forcing independence is not possible anyway, right? Because independence isn’t a specific action someone else can teach you. It’s a feeling that you have. It’s something you want to taste, even as a baby. You want to have moments where you get to decide what to look at, what to touch. And the sense of agency that this builds is very powerful for children and carries them through adulthood. What we can do is honor independence, make room for it, notice it, and know that that’s such a positive aspect of our children’s development.

Also, it’s not only that children develop self-confidence and a sense of agency, this I can do it feeling deep within them. But this is also such a healthy relationship dynamic, right? That I trust you in all these areas. You know better than I do what you’re working on. You know better than I do what interests you. So why would I get in the way of that? And when we start opening ourselves up to that, we realize that children of all ages, not just the older ones but the little ones as well, they know what they’re doing. If we could stay out of their way in these areas of development and just create the environment that allows them to practice whatever they’re practicing. Not indicate to them, either overtly or subtly, that Really what you’re doing isn’t important, you need to be doing this right now. Because this is what I’m worried about you not getting, or this is what I was told you need to learn at this age or whatever.

And this can carry through with walking, talking, the way toys work, climbing, toilet learning, reading, homework. Eventually applying to college, choosing partners, choosing jobs, and navigating workplaces and relationships. Through all these autonomous struggles and accomplishments, our trust in our children’s abilities keeps growing, along with their self-confidence.

Alternatively, if we don’t truly believe that our kids are capable of handling their developmentally-appropriate tasks without our assistance—we’re not talking about putting children in a situation that’s traumatic, these are developmentally-appropriate tasks—I mean, if they ask for our assistance, we’re going to find a way to give it to them, right? Assistance, which doesn’t mean doing it for them. If they’re not asking, let them explore it. That’s the best possible thing they could do. But if we’re worried that they’re going to be crushed if they get too frustrated or if they make a mistake or get disappointed or, God forbid, they fail, then we can perpetuate this cycle of dependency. That, again, puts so much pressure on us and creates less security in our child, less self-confidence. The feeling that they need us for all these things that they really don’t, but we both got caught up in it that way.

If you do find yourself caught up in a situation where your child seems to need you to do all these tasks for them, then just try backing off. Not all the way maybe, but a little bit. If your child thinks they need you to sit there right with them while they’re doing their homework and show them how to do it, then just back off a little at first. I’m going to stay here with you the whole time, but instead of giving you the answers—and I’m not saying to say all this out loud, but this is the way to maybe approach it—instead of me giving you the answers, I’m going to ask more questions to help you find the answer.

I remember when my son was I think 10, and he had to make a book report and he had to draw a picture for the cover of the book report of this dog that was a big part of the story. And he said, “I don’t know how to draw a dog. I can’t do it.” And I thought, Uh-oh, yeah, that is a lot. That is kind of intimidating, for sure. But instead of starting to draw it for him—which believe me, I have that impulse. I have all the impulses everybody else has, but I’ve learned to kind of let them go and trust. So instead of taking that on for him, I just asked him questions, like “Is there a part of the dog’s body that you could draw first? What do you feel like you can draw?” And he said, “The nose.” So I said, “Okay, why don’t you try drawing the nose?” He drew the nose and then I said, “Okay, what next? What else could you draw?” “The ears. The eyes.” And it went like that, and he drew this really cool dog. I mean, it wasn’t a perfect dog, but it was perfect for him, at that time, to be able to do that.

I’ve learned, starting at the beginning with my kids as babies, that we want to help. But true help really means doing less, so that our child not only does the task, but learns that they can do it themselves. We want both of those types of learning to happen at the same time, ideally, as much as possible. Not only did you draw a dog, but you can draw. And he wouldn’t have had that part if I’d drawn the dog. He wouldn’t have had either one of those, actually. So this dynamic, keeping faith in our kids’ competency, continues.

There’s a really common thing that we can get caught up in with teenagers, which is we have to nag kids to do homework. And we can put an end to that cycle by stepping back, letting go, and having faith in our child to cope with these age-appropriate situations. And in the case of homework, encouraging our child, if they’re struggling with that, to bring that to their teacher. Because teachers love that too, right? Staying out of parts of parenting that are not really our job, that need to be our child’s job. Developing these skills is one of them.

Along with that is the second point I want to make: encouraging that inner-directedness, that process orientation, and the sense of self that that builds—the communion with self. When children are drawn to enrichment—if we are privileged to be able to give our child enrichment beyond school, in terms of hobbies or sports, if we can make that happen—what I’ve learned through this approach is to let that belong to our child. To let it be totally our child’s idea, if possible. Maybe they were exposed to it, they went to go watch their friend play a soccer game and now they want to do it. Never starting to lead that ourselves. Because once we put ourselves in the position of leading that, we can create a dynamic where our child feels like now they’re doing it for us. Maybe they’re now realizing they’re more interested in something else, but now they’re stuck with this because we feel like they need to finish everything they’ve started.

I don’t agree with that. If we have a child that keeps stopping things they’ve started, I would actually look at who’s really starting those activities and if it really is our child. Because oftentimes we think we’re suggesting things to our child, like, “Why don’t you do gymnastics?” And our countenance is telling them, My parent thinks I should want to do this. Really trying to prioritize letting our child lead these activities, because this is this precious bell inside them of their calling, of their interests, of all the things they’re going to end up doing in life as they get older. And doing with full commitment, because they’re their choice, right? It’s not going to be full commitment if it’s our choice or our suggestion, even. Wanting them to feel that full commitment. And trusting that some children don’t want to do anything after school, it’s exhausting. That’s perfectly okay too, and maybe there are things that they’re doing that are just as valid as going to take a class somewhere.

This looks, as children are older, like they’re choosing their subjects in high school, their electives that they want to take. I remember doubting when one of my kids said they didn’t want to continue with French and they’d done so well in French. I might’ve raised an eyebrow, but I let that go and I trusted and it was the best thing and perfectly fine for my child to do that. He’s a college graduate now and successful at a job already. They know better than we do. And even if we think they don’t know better than we do, allowing them to know better than we do will teach them so many more important things than that they should take French. That belief in: I can do my life, with my parent’s unconditional relationship and support.

And children benefit so much from downtime, what’s known as downtime, which is just they don’t want to do all those lessons that their friends are doing or the other parents are telling us we should do. They actually learn better because they have more time to digest and integrate and assimilate what they’ve been exposed to. And that’s the real brain-building part of experiences.

The other week I talked about praise and being careful not to overpraise, so that children can continue to be self-rewarded as much as possible. Yes, our communities and societies do give rewards, and that’s okay. It’s more important that our relationship with them is unconditional and trusting. They can get all those glossy things other places, but it’s not what our relationship is based on.

The third thing: accepting children’s feelings without judging or rushing them. What I talk about here all the time, because it is so integral to their emotional health, to being able to set boundaries—which I’m also going to talk about today—and really for them to flourish in life: Letting them express all those intense feelings. If they’re expressing them through behavior that might be aggressive behavior or unsafe behavior or even just annoying behavior to us, then all the more we want to encourage them to share those feelings another way. Not by saying, “Don’t do that, do this,” but saying, “It seems like you’re feeling this,” or “Is this what’s going on with you? Because you keep yelling at me.” Or, “Are you worried about something?” In that open, intimate way that we want to talk to our children. Not judgmental. Noticing the feelings beyond the behaviors.

Now, there are lots of ways that we can discourage feelings or diminish them that are far more subtle and loving, even. So we might want to keep our antenna up for those as children get older. Because of course, we never want to see our children hurt or upset in the least. We might say, “Look at all the things you have to be grateful for. It’s going to be fine.” Or, “Ah, they didn’t deserve you anyway.” There were so many times I wanted to say that about a problem with a friend or other relationship. “Oh, they just don’t get you.” No. Just allow the feelings. For me, it’s been about practicing zipping it. I mean, that sounds terrible, but just wait and let them keep going.

Because my urge to say something is often an urge to try to make them feel better or stop, and that doesn’t make them feel better or stop. What makes them feel better is to express it all, the whole way. Because it’s not our power to make our children feel a certain way, unfortunately, or anyone else for that matter.

And I will say that one of the reasons I talk about this so much in my podcast is that resisting the urge to calm feelings never really gets easier, at all. And our kids are going to get their feelings hurt a lot in life. They’re going to get rejected by friends, they’re not going to make the A-team, they’re going to lose the debate, they’re going to do poorly on the test, get their hearts broken. And all of this is life. As Magda always said, If we can learn to struggle, we can learn to live. And that learning to struggle is lifelong learning. And just acknowledging, “Ah, that was hurtful,” or that was whatever our child said it was. So children receive this healthiest message that whatever their moods, their darkest moods, their harshest feelings, even towards us, are safe for them to feel. Will be heard, accepted, hopefully understood by us, if possible.

This is really the biggest secret I know of to fostering a close lifelong bond with our kids. Not just accepting them and believing in them with skill development, but accepting and believing in them when they are at their absolute lowest.

And four, just in case you thought this was about letting kids do whatever they want: remember that the basis for all the healthy freedom that I’m talking about giving children is: boundaries. This could have been the very first point that I made, because none of the rest of this will flourish if children don’t feel safe in our confident, empathic leadership. Making those hard choices sometimes that are going to upset them, but we love them too much to not put ourselves on the line like that. We love them and ourselves too much to not confront it. I mean, I don’t want to confront things unless I absolutely have to, but I learned that this is real love. Real love isn’t just saying, “Okay, whatever, I don’t care.” That’s saying I don’t care. And we don’t mean it that way. We just mean, I can’t deal with another boundary right now. And I understand that, I’ve felt that many times. And maybe we can’t right then. But knowing that even though our children won’t tell us they love us so much when we state boundaries or hold boundaries for them, that’s how they feel.

What I’ve seen over the years is that the children know that. And the children that don’t have that, that seem like they’re so free to do whatever they want and the parent just accepts them, they will seek boundaries somewhere else usually, not necessarily in safe ways. Because it’s not a comfortable feeling when you’re a child—or a teenager, going through all the changes teenagers go through—that you’re in charge of your whole life. Yes, you want to be in charge of your skills and your learning and your free time, as long as it’s safe and reasonable, but not in charge of how you treat people or in charge of how you act on your moods or hurt yourself or hurt people. If we feel in charge of those things, we do not feel the slightest bit safe or loved or able to blossom.

Our boundaries are very often the dynamic that children need between us to be able to share their moods and feelings. So we want to keep practicing reasonable boundaries, sticking up for ourselves, while welcoming our children to disagree in whatever way that they do, as long as it’s not hurting us. And that’s the hardest part, right? Meaning they have a right to feel however they feel about our boundaries. It’s not, “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.” A parent shared with me that a teacher was saying that to her child. And no, that’s called stuffing our feelings. It’s that you’ve got a right to how you feel, and we’re reminding ourselves constantly, maybe, that them putting it out there is healthy and good. Much better for our child, and our relationship with them, than for them to hold it in.

As Susan David wisely shares—you know I always quote her here, I’m a big fan of her work, it’s very much in line with everything I believe. She says, “Research on emotional expression shows that when emotions are pushed aside or ignored, they get stronger. Psychologists call this amplification.” She also says, “When we push aside normal emotions to embrace false positivity, we lose our capacity to develop skills to deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.” And I believe she’s referring mostly to adults here, but all of this applies to children. Because we continue to have the same basic needs from birth until death: the need to have boundaries and know our place in the world, to express ourselves fully, the need to be in communion with ourselves, to be inner-directed, the need to feel capable that we can achieve things when we put the effort in, with lots of ups and downs in the process.

One more point, point five: connecting during caregiving. You hear me talk about that with babies and toddlers and maybe preschoolers, but this is a way to keep nurturing our connection with children throughout their life. And it does look a little different as children get older. Mealtimes is the obvious one, sitting down to a meal without having our devices out, having that time together. Sherry Turkle, who’s the author of Reclaiming Conversation and has done a lot of research on this topic of technology interfering with children’s development of empathy and our ability to connect with each other, she has some great ideas for helping us as a family to limit tech use at times like that. But she also said, I really love this, she said: you can have it be certain rooms, i.e., We’re never going to have tech devices in the kitchen or in the dining room. I didn’t do that with my family, but I thought it was a great idea.

So, mealtimes, bedtime rituals. One of my kids wanted me to lie there with them while they fell asleep, even up to the age of, I think it was 10. And you know what? I was available. We don’t have to do that, but I did it. Only one out of three wanted that. But I’m glad I did it, in retrospect. I’m not saying everyone should do that, but there are some things you can do. Read books, sing songs (until they begged me to stop), of course, we did that for years too. Have those goodnight rituals that are special between you.

Then so many things can be caregiving: Band-aids. Medicine. When kids ask for help with homework or studying for a test, I consider that caregiving, even though I know it’s also skill-building for them and everything. But when my children would ask for help studying for a test, I would leap on that, because I could. If I couldn’t, I wouldn’t. But as kids get older, there aren’t that many opportunities, like there are when they’re little, to connect in that way. And caregiving in all these realms is one of the main ways.

Seizing on those bedtime rituals, seizing on the mealtimes, help with studying for a test, and we used to laugh a lot. I’d be completely focused at those times, I would not have a tech device anywhere near me. Just with them. Shopping for clothes or whatever they need. You want me to go with you? I’m there. It’s an excuse to be with your child as you get older, as they get older and you get older. Helping them with combing and brushing their hair, hairstyles, detangling, make-up for the prom. Taking kids to the doctor or for a haircut. My kids are adults now and they want to go to the dentist with me. Yes! I’m there, I’m right there. And we’ll go get something to eat afterwards and mess our teeth up again. But it’s the best. It keeps that flame alive between us.

And then just simple things, like when my kids come into the house or I’m meeting them somewhere, I drop everything. I’m up, I’m going in for a hug, excited to see them. Those transitions, those transitional times, remain sensitive times for all of us. You’ve heard me talk a lot about how difficult transitional periods can be for young children or even just getting up and getting dressed and getting to school in the morning. Keep helping your child. Yes, they can dress themselves, but if they want a helping hand, they just want moral support while they’re doing it, we can try to be there. And if we can’t, not giving them a judgmental response, “You can do that yourself.” But just, “You wanted me there and I can’t. But next time.”

Because what children can do and what they want to do, what their real need is—which might be connection with us before they leave for the day—are two different things. So when we can, prioritize those activities. The same when I’m parting with my children, I try to jump up. And I mean, I always saw them off to school and everything, but my son’s living at home now, and I try to wake up and make sure I say goodbye to him before he goes off to work. And hello to him when he comes in the door. I stand up, I’m so excited. Basically, any excuse. That’s how it gets.

I know it feels overwhelming now, that you’re doing all this stuff and everybody needs you so much. And mommy, mommy or daddy, daddy, and you could barely take a free breath. Well, I’m not saying you should be happy because you’re not going to have that later and that you should feel bad about the times that you’ve missed. Absolutely not. However, just know that as you grow, you’re going to find these connection points still and find these areas to trust your child. And all of that is going to bring you so many surprises and delight, laughter and amazement, really, at how capable your children are.

And if you want to get on this track and you’re not quite there, you agree with some of it, you don’t agree with other parts of it—that’s okay. You can always step into trust, step into connection. Those are always available to us, and our children want those more than anything from us. So, it’s a win-win.

Now, for those of you who would still like to check out resources that are compatible with what I teach, but for older children, the first thing I usually ask people if I get a chance to respond to them is, what topics are you concerned about? Because that will help me to guide them. I do have a whole list of books that I recommend, that are in my books and recommendations section of my website, janetlansbury.com. There are books covering a variety of topics, and many of them pertain to older children. Also, many of these authors have been on this podcast. So, check out all my other podcasts, and I hope you find the help that you’re looking for.

And by the way, Mother’s Day is coming up, and I’ve got a great gift idea for you: my No Bad Kids Master Course. You can learn all about it at nobadkidscourse.com.

Thank you so much for listening. We can do this.

The post As Our Kids Get Older – 5 Ways to Continue Building Lasting Emotional Bonds appeared first on Janet Lansbury.

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The Magic That Makes Kids Want to Cooperate https://www.janetlansbury.com/2024/04/the-magic-that-makes-kids-want-to-cooperate/ https://www.janetlansbury.com/2024/04/the-magic-that-makes-kids-want-to-cooperate/#respond Sun, 14 Apr 2024 22:09:10 +0000 https://www.janetlansbury.com/?p=22653 As parents, we all experience moments when our kids just won’t go with the program – brushing their teeth, dressing for school, cleaning up their toys, going to bed (and staying there). We ask nicely, and they ignore us. Then we ask not so nicely, and they dig their heals in. Before long we’re frustration … Continued

The post The Magic That Makes Kids Want to Cooperate appeared first on Janet Lansbury.

As parents, we all experience moments when our kids just won’t go with the program – brushing their teeth, dressing for school, cleaning up their toys, going to bed (and staying there). We ask nicely, and they ignore us. Then we ask not so nicely, and they dig their heals in. Before long we’re frustration turns to exasperation, and we either get angry or throw up our hands in surrender. At a certain age, our kids are developmentally programmed to resist us no matter how much kindness and respect we show them. So, what’s a parent to do? Sometimes we wish we could just wave a magic wand. Well, the wands are on back-order, but Janet shares some magical recommendations that will make these interaction so much easier to navigate, win or lose.

Transcript of “The Magic That Makes Kids Want to Cooperate”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

Interestingly, lately my inbox seems to be flooded with questions about toothbrushing. So much so that I was even thinking about doing a podcast all about toothbrushing, helping kids to brush their teeth. But I kept thinking about it and it’s just not an interesting enough topic to me. I mean, it’s not interesting at all to me, to be honest. It’s this mundane part of my day, and I imagine also for kids, too. And probably—I mean, I could be wrong—but even dentists probably don’t find it a super-intriguing topic.

But then I received a question and a comment on Facebook on my post, This May Be Why You’re Yelling. The comment was not about toothbrushing, but it reminded me how all of these cooperative activities, these tasks that we need our kids to do, we want our kids to do, how they’re all related, and that there is a magical approach for helping our kids to do them.

This magic isn’t, unfortunately, a magic wand that we can just wave. And unfortunately it also isn’t saying some magic words or playing magical games, like what is sometimes offered on Instagram and TikTok for “getting” kids to do these things. This magic also isn’t about giving a child a certain period of attention, playing with a child, filling their cup. Even that, unfortunately, isn’t a formula for a child to be reliably willing to brush their teeth, help around the house, try new foods, clean up their toys. Yes, those do help to build intimacy and connection.

But the magic that works is when our relationship or connection is through and through. It’s through the happy times, it’s through the special times, it’s through the tough and disappointing times, it’s through when we’re setting limits, it’s through when our child is upset, when they’re having a tantrum. It’s staying on our child’s side, as I often say, partnering with them and, ideally, not being at odds with them with anything throughout the day. I know, this sounds probably superhuman, but I’m going to get to how we can do this.

When we do find ourselves at odds, we take responsibility for that. Because at least until kids are adult-age, it’s on us to be the more mature ones, to essentially be in charge of setting the tone for our two-person relationship. And when changes in our dynamic with our child need to be made, it almost always needs to come from us. Now, that’s good news and bad news, depending on how we look at it. It’s good news because it means we have the power to make changes at any time. We can do that, and our children will adapt readily. It’s bad news because we can’t count on our child to treat us a certain way, to be kinder to us when we’re asking for or demanding that they do something, just because they should respect us and do what’s right. If we aren’t setting the tone by modeling respect and honesty and kindness and forgiveness and helpfulness and taking responsibility for our behavior, we can’t expect our child to be the one to do those things.

The magic here, unfortunately, isn’t a magic bullet for gaining cooperation, but there is something that’s much clearer and simpler to understand and more effective and comprehensive than these bite-sized scripts and strategies that we hear about. Comprehensive in that it infuses everything, it works in all areas of our day with our child, with all kinds of behaviors. And it feels good, because it’s genuine. It’s not a strategy. And the positive effects it has are lasting and real. It’s relating to our child as—an imperfect, less mature than we are, much less mature—person. What a concept, right? Who we know intimately and we understand, or at least aim to, and we unconditionally adore.

That doesn’t mean we’re perfect. It’s this overall feeling that we have. Not every second of every day will we like the way our child’s behaving, what they’re doing, that we’re not annoyed with them. We are going to be. But we know that there’s something to understand there when we are. That there’s something in our expectation of them in that moment or something that, through their behavior, they’re sharing with us. Awkwardly, as it is with children a lot of the time. So we’re coming to that place eventually where we understand why they’re acting as they are. This is an overall job. It’s a relationship job. I know that probably sounded unclear and confusing. I’m sorry about that.

Now I’m going to explain via this exchange I had on social media with this parent who was responding to something I posted, a piece that I wrote a few years ago, This May Be Why You’re Yelling. This parent wrote:

I know I’m yelling because when I’ve asked five times, being calm, and nothing happened, I’m running out of patience. Sometimes it seems like when I talk nicely, nobody can hear me. I can’t be the only one, am I?

And I wrote back:

Can you give an example? I have a policy: never repeat yourself.

And then I link to a popular podcast of mine, Repeating Yourself Won’t Help (What to Do Instead).

This parent wrote back:

So I just read this article and I get what it says. [She read the transcript.] So here’s the latest example: Right now where I live, it’s Saturday morning, almost 8:00 AM. If my son’s behavior is induced by stress or tiredness, then he must be permanently worn out. My son, four-and-a-half years old, has a clock by his bed that indicates with a sleeping/playing bunny when he is allowed to get out of his room. He’s had it for more than a year now.

I had set this clock on 9:00 AM yesterday. I told him yesterday while putting him to bed, “Remember, you stay in your room until bunny is awake. You don’t come into our room. You let daddy sleep.” And he agreed. His dad is in an exhausting situation right now and needs all the sleep he can get.

Today at seven, our son came into our bedroom and started asking his dad a question about a new toy he got. I got up real quick, escorted him back to his room (right next to ours, and the wall is very thin, you can hear everything), and showed him his clock, whispering, “What did we agree on yesterday? You stay in your room, you are silent, you don’t wake us up.” I was upset, I admit. Plus he can’t for the life of him not talk. He talks all day long, from wake to sleep. He can’t keep his thoughts in his head.

And I don’t know how to follow your advice here in helping him to do what I ask him to do. There’s no lock on his door and he might need to go to the bathroom anyway, and I hate the thought of locking him in. And I can’t reasonably shut his mouth with duct tape to make him stop talking. Any thoughts?

And she put this distressed face emoji. And some other people commented before I was able to get back to her. Somebody said:

Lock dad in? Maybe after several times where he finds the bedroom door locked, he will just assume it’s not worth getting up to try it again. At first, maybe, with you on the outside but not really accessible to him—in the bathroom, for example—and go out if he becomes frustrated and help him work through it. But please, anybody correct me if you don’t think it’s appropriate.

That was all the comment somebody made back. And the original commenter said:

There aren’t locks anywhere on our doors. And the whole thing is about not waking daddy up, so we need silence. Rattling on the door doesn’t do the trick. I tried several times on other occasions to give my son a timeout in his room with the door closed, to no avail. He opens the door immediately and refuses to keep it shut. If I hold the handle from the outside, he turns total havoc, including screaming and door-kicking. And the whole point of the timeout—allowing us both to calm down by getting ourselves together before discussing the issue—is ruined because I can’t calm down either when I have to hold his door shut and listen to his screaming. So I’m stuck here.

And then a different commenter wrote to her:

What time is he going to bed? Does he normally wake up at 9:00 AM or was this a weekend thing? My son does, but I know our routine is a bit abnormal. If I were you, I would get up and go out with him so that dad can get some extra sleep.

And she wrote back:

He sleeps a good night and doesn’t lack sleep. I don’t ask him to stay in bed, much less to stay asleep. Just to stay quietly in his room. Most weekends he does just that. But this morning was particularly frustrating because I insisted on it yesterday evening and he didn’t follow through.

So then I finally commented that I had some ideas for her and it was very long, though, and I realized that this might be a good topic for a podcast. So I was going to share them here, and that’s what I’m doing now.

What I wanted to say to her is that this is one of those situations where I believe in letting go for the win, the win being next time. Because we can’t control when our child wakes up and asking them to stay in their room and wait for a clock to tell them it’s time to leave is not easy for them. And that is always going to be a voluntary activity on their part, right? It’s not something we can force if we don’t want to lock doors, and most of us don’t. And with voluntary activities, it’s always going to be about the positive connection that they feel with us. Both in general and around that particular activity, around that ask that we have of them. We make it harder for our child, and therefore for ourselves, when we make a big deal out of it not working. We get upset or mad, or we try to force them to do it, etc.

So what this parent might do instead is go into this expecting it to be an imperfect process and maybe problem-solving with her child ahead of time. “Hmm, I know sometimes it’s hard to stay in bed and to wait for that clock. What could help? Would you like me to leave some fruit or a snack bar there for you? Some special books or puzzles here by the bed?” And whether or not there’s an answer that we could both of us together figure out, I wouldn’t expect my child to be able to stick with the plan, because young children are impulsive. And the more emotion we have around something, the more intensity we have around it, the harder it is for them to not be impulsive. Because they’re absorbing that and it’s uncomfortable for them. It’s like the more we want them to do something and they feel that coming from us, the more it ruffles their feathers and the harder it is for them to do. You would think it would be the opposite, right? But he has the best chance possible of cooperating in this manner if we approach it with this kind of connection and empathy.

And then, if it doesn’t work, if he does come in or he makes some noise anyway, let it go for the win. For the win next time, and for the bigger picture of more goodwill and cooperation all around. That’s what I mean about this not being a magic wand or a quick fix, but it is magical when we commit to being on this less mature, more impulsive person’s side and requesting things from that team relationship, that very open, honest, teamwork relationship. So when it doesn’t work, we might say, “Oops.” And then while we’re ushering him out of the room, I might say, “It was hard for you to wait this time. I know, it can be so hard. Daddy will answer your question when he wakes up, of course. What would you like to do in the meantime? Let’s figure something out. You can go back to your room or play quietly here in the family room,” or whatever. Safety, connection. This is how we will get what we want. We didn’t that time, but it’s too late. So let’s give ourselves a better chance of getting it the next time and the next time and the next time, in all the other requests that we have of our child during the day.

Now, how does this look in regard to toothbrushing, or helping us with housework, encouraging kids to try new foods, help them to get dressed, or to be quiet while the baby’s going to sleep, etc. etc. etc.? Here’s some points:

  1. Expect that there might be resistance and that it might not work at all. Our expectations matter because they create certain feelings in us. When we’re putting an expectation out there that might not work, naturally, we’re going to get disappointed. And whether or not that’s a reasonable expectation, I don’t know. But it turns out it’s not reasonable for this child, at this time, at this age, in this situation.

I know that for me, we didn’t have those special clocks when my kids were little and I never once thought I had any control over when they got up and came in. I remember there was one point where I had tried to encourage my older child to stay in her room a little longer, and I did put a special snack there for her, because we explored it and one of the things she wanted was something to eat. So that did help for a little while. But mostly what helped was her feeling the safety in our connection and that she wanted to try to be helpful when she could, as much as she could. I wasn’t doing anything that might unwittingly put her into a zone of being at odds with me.

Our expectations are what can give us this light attitude and help us not set ourselves up for anger and disappointment that will end up hurting our chances the next time. Let’s use the example of hoping our child would try a new food. That light attitude, I’m not expecting they’re going to try it. Why would they? They don’t want to eat something strange that they might not like, right? So I just offer it, Oh, here’s something that you haven’t tried before. It’s quite an interesting taste. Let me know what you think. Do you want to try it? Instead of, “Here, can you please try this now?” And we don’t have to say all those words about it being an interesting taste or anything, just that idea of Would you like to try this? Instead of that kind of automatic demand mode that we get into as parents. Not even a demand, but that sort of request mode that we get into with young children where we’re telling them to do this and telling them to do that. And they don’t like it and they feel like there’s that distance between us.

This is true for all of these cooperative activities that we want our kids to do. Our expectation matters. So that’s number one: Expect that there might be resistance and that it might not work at all.

  1. Request from a place of authenticity and openness, maybe even vulnerability. Let’s say, the example of helping with housework. Okay, I’m going to be honest here: I did not do this thing that I hear so much being written about now, the importance of kids doing chores from the time that they’re little. I didn’t put a big importance on that. Maybe because I remember as a child that my sisters and I would get all excited about, Oh, now you’re going to do this chore and I’m going to do that chore and we’ll make a little chart and we’ll cross it off! And we wanted to do these things and got very into it for about two days or maybe a week, and then we didn’t want to do it anymore. My mother—who certainly, like all of us, was an imperfect parent—she let it go. She wasn’t one to put herself in the position of nagging at us to do things that she sensed were voluntary. Using her power that way, in a way that’s often not very fruitful for us. And she just wasn’t that kind of person.

And actually, I’m not either. I don’t like, I mean, the least amount of limits I can give… I’m actually very strict with limits around certain things, but I don’t want to be telling other people what to do all day long. That’s not where I want to put my energy. And when it’s something like this, that there has to be a certain intrinsic enjoyment of for young children for them to want to do it consistently, I trust that.

At the same time, all the way through from the time they were little, whenever I needed my kids’ help or really wanted my kids’ help for something, they never said no. Maybe I’m just lucky that way, but I really believe it’s because of the way that I asked. Which wasn’t a demand or a nag. It was, “Oh, I could really use some help here. Would you mind?” Or, “Could you give me a hand?” And because this wasn’t a dynamic where we had distance between each other, they always did. They knew I wasn’t using that “ask” card all day long. And in the rare case that they didn’t, and I honestly don’t remember this happening very often at all, but on the rare case they didn’t, there was a reason. They were unhappy about something that actually they needed to talk to me about. And at some point I would figure that out and I said, “What’s up with you? It seems like you’re not feeling that good, or you’re mad at me. Is there something we can talk about?”

So yes, I would offer opportunities for young children to help in ways that they want to. And doing chores, it’s great for their confidence, right? To know that they can do these things and contribute to the household. But I wouldn’t hold them to that in a way that became another limit that I had to try to set every day or another coaxing I had to try to do. And although I didn’t probably use this on a daily basis, I bet it would work if you did. I bet you could say every day, “Oh, and today I actually need a little help. Could you help me, my love, clean up this stuff?” Or offer a very reasonable, logical consequence that’s just honest. “I don’t want to take out more stuff until we put this away. So can you please help me put this away if you want to take that thing out?”

But I didn’t expect that they were going to have tidy rooms or that the play area was going to be clean. And in fact, I liked them to have projects that were left out so that they could revisit them the next day. But I know that’s me, and not everybody feels that way. All I know is that this works and that my kids, whenever they go to somebody else’s house, they’re always the first ones to help. They are well-mannered kids who are cooperative and helpful. So that’s two: Request from a place of authenticity and openness, maybe even vulnerability.

  1. Lean in to empathy and connection. Meaning, I understand all the reasons why you wouldn’t want to do this right now. Not that I have to get into them with you and make a whole list, but I’m coming from that place of getting it. Brushing teeth, it’s tedious, right? It’s this thing we have to do to clean our teeth, but please, let’s find a way we can do this so we can get it done and there’ll be time to do these other things. What can I do to make it easier? And again, I’m not talking about saying these exact words, but it’s that approach. Leaning in with empathy and connection. Connection, meaning, I’m wanting to help as much as possible for this to happen, and we’re making plans together. “How about you do this part and I’ll finish the rest?” Or, “Here, maybe you want to try one bite of this carrot and I’ll eat the rest.” Or again, going back to the comment on Facebook, “What can we do to help daddy get this time that he needs? He’s so worn out. I’d love any ideas that you have.” This is an issue we have going on in our family, and what can we do? Or, “What can we do? I know it’s so hard to not be exuberant right next to where the baby’s sleeping.”

So that’s three: Lean in to empathy and connection.

  1. Don’t come at this with intensity or be pushy or try to force or insist on these voluntary activities. (This is the only don’t on the list!) Remember, these are in the category of voluntary activities. We need the lightest touch. When we try to force or even bribe or threaten or punish in these situations that we have no control over our child doing, we and our child both tend to lose. Because we end up disappointed and maybe angry, and they end up with this feeling of distance between us, and maybe shame, maybe guilt. They failed. And for us as adults, maybe that feeling of failing makes us do better the next time. For children, it doesn’t tend to. It depletes their self-confidence. It tends to make them doubt themselves.

And interestingly, I think that might be the main point that got in the way this time with this parent on Facebook. Because she said something interesting, not back to me, but to another commenter. She said back to this commenter, “He sleeps a good night and doesn’t lack sleep. I don’t ask him to stay in bed, much less to stay asleep. Just to stay quietly in his room. Most weekends he does just that. But this morning was particularly frustrating because I insisted on it yesterday evening and he didn’t follow through.” And she also talks about times when she tried timeout with him in his room.

Let’s just take the fact that she insisted on it and the vibe her son got from her. That bit of intensity, it goes into a child’s system, and it’s almost like that ends up churning up the exact response that we don’t want and they don’t really want. Which is, Now I just have this impulse to get up and do this because it was so insisted on! So I know that sounds totally unreasonable, which young children often are, and maybe doesn’t make sense to anybody out there, but the toddler in me gets how that was a setup for failure for me, that obviously my parent didn’t intend that way. That my parent became so insistent instead of using that light touch, what I said was number two, request from a place of authenticity and openness, maybe even vulnerability. “Here’s something we need to do for dad, and how can we do this?” instead of, “This is really important and we’ve got to do this because daddy’s so tired.” Where I’m not really including my child, they’re not feeling the comfort of that connection.

I have the inkling that that insistence, along with the past experiences of the timeout in his room where she said she was holding the handle from the outside and “he turns total havoc, including screaming and door-kicking. And the whole point of the timeout—allowing us both to calm down by getting ourselves together before discussing the issue—is ruined because I can’t calm down either when I have to hold his door shut and listen to his screaming.” And right there is the common misconception about timeout. It’s sold to us as this way that is going to help children calm down and be more reasonable. Because maybe that’s what it does for us when we take a break, maybe for us it calms us down. But when we’re directing a child that they have to do this, what they’re feeling is, I’m being told to do this. I’m being punished. It’s not their choice, I want to calm down, and therefore they don’t calm down. In this case, he was screaming, but sometimes children will seem very quiet and they’re screaming on the inside. The studies show that they’re still dysregulated. They’re not calming down. In fact, they’re getting more upset because of the distance and the emotions they feel from the parent. So this parent really encapsulated right there why timeout doesn’t work, why punishments don’t help us. Definitely not in the bigger picture, but even in the short term, it didn’t help her to get what she wanted, which was for him to follow this direction.

So four: Don’t come at this with intensity or be pushy, trying to force or insist on these voluntary activities.

  1. If it doesn’t work or they turn us down if we’re requesting something, let go for the win. And that’s what I meant by this parent saying, “Uh-oh, that didn’t work. Let’s try again next time, and maybe we’ll make a plan.” And it helped that I didn’t have that expectation in the first place that it was going to work. Makes it so much easier to let go. And when we let go, our child gets all that comfort and safety from us that makes them desire, and also be capable of, cooperating the next time. They want to do that for us, because we’ve shown them that we understand them, that they’re not always going to be able to do it, and we don’t hold grudges. And yeah, sure, we’re disappointed maybe, but turning against our child right there—which none of us mean to do, but it can easily happen—is not going to be the answer. It’s not going to help.

So that’s five: If it doesn’t work or they turn us down, let go for the win. For the win next time and the next time and the next time. Without snarky comments, rise above, believing in the goodness of your child and the strength of your love for each other. From those beliefs, all the best things will come.

I hope some of this helps. And for much more detail and a very deep dive into all of this stuff, to really be able to internalize what it feels like to have strong boundaries from this relational perspective, please check out my No Bad Kids Master Course at nobadkidscourse.com, and consider if that might be for you. Also, all of the resources on my website, free for you to read, and the podcast, there’s 325 now, something like that. Every topic under the sun, all together. You’ll get this perspective, if it sounds good to you. It’s certainly saved me.

Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.

The post The Magic That Makes Kids Want to Cooperate appeared first on Janet Lansbury.

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Dr. Gabor Maté on Why Parents Matter More Than Ever https://www.janetlansbury.com/2024/04/dr-gabor-mate-on-why-parents-matter-more-than-ever/ https://www.janetlansbury.com/2024/04/dr-gabor-mate-on-why-parents-matter-more-than-ever/#comments Tue, 02 Apr 2024 21:24:38 +0000 https://www.janetlansbury.com/?p=22647 Physician and author Gabor Maté joins Janet to discuss the importance of developing secure attachments with our kids and why it’s crucial for us to continue nurturing these bonds into their adulthood. How do we remain our children’s most trusted influences while also encouraging their natural drive toward individuation? Can we maintain our role as … Continued

The post Dr. Gabor Maté on Why Parents Matter More Than Ever appeared first on Janet Lansbury.

Physician and author Gabor Maté joins Janet to discuss the importance of developing secure attachments with our kids and why it’s crucial for us to continue nurturing these bonds into their adulthood. How do we remain our children’s most trusted influences while also encouraging their natural drive toward individuation? Can we maintain our role as a primary attachment figure when our child is cared for by others? How do we help kids to develop healthy relationships with peers? What’s the best way to handle exposure to digital media? Gabor addresses these questions among many others and offers suggestions for maintaining positive attachments throughout our kids’ lives.

Transcript of “Dr. Gabor Maté on Why Parents Matter More Than Ever”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

For most of you out there, I’m guessing that my guest today needs no introduction. Dr. Gabor Maté is a family physician, renowned speaker, with a special interest in childhood development, trauma, and addiction. He’s authored five books, including the classic he co-authored with early childhood icon psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld. The book is Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers. And Doctors Neufeld and Maté are reissuing it with a brand new chapter called In the Wake of the Pandemic: Peer Orientation and the Youth Mental Health Crisis. I’m seriously looking forward to discussing the invaluable messages in this book, and more, with Dr. Gabor Maté.

Hi, and welcome to you, Dr. Maté. I’m an enormous fan of yours and it’s really an honor to be able to spend this time with you. Thank you very much for being here.

Dr. Gabor Maté: Thanks for having me. I’m sorry that due to technical issues, the main author of the book Hold On to Your Kids, Dr. Gordon Neufeld, can’t be with us. But since I wrote the book with him and have worked with him for decades, I think I can channel his wisdom here, as best I can. But listeners should keep in mind that it’s his work mostly that we’re talking about here.

Janet Lansbury: I believe in you as a channel for his work, and you have amazing work you’ve done on your own as well. And this book, well now you’re reissuing it because you’ve added a new chapter all about the effects of the pandemic. Which I found surprising, your take on it, because it’s very different from the take that we’re hearing from many about it. So I really hope that you’ll speak to that today. But this whole book, it’s really a unique perspective, and remains a unique perspective, even though it was first written back in, what was it, 2008, something like that?

Dr. Gabor Maté: I think even before then. I think it’s probably 2005 or 2004, something like that.

Janet Lansbury: You’ve also added some chapters about the digital explosion that’s happened and how that affects this issue. I’m going to let you speak about the issues that this book covers and brings to light for people. It was something that I hadn’t considered before reading this. I’ve known the importance of having a relationship-centered approach to parenting, that that’s what it’s all about. That attachment is everything, that it’s key to the way that children learn, the way that they live and become who we want them to be or who they’re supposed to be. And that attachment nest needs to be present. But what your book with Dr. Neufeld talks about is that, actually, this is even more important than we thought because there’s competition. There’s this powerful draw of peer orientation. Can you talk a little about that?

Dr. Gabor Maté: First of all, we have to consider human evolution. And from the evolutionary perspective, mammals, hominids and hominins, humanoid creatures lived in small-band groups, where the children were around the adults all the time, 24/7, from birth to adulthood. And even with our own species, we’ve been on the earth for about 150,000 years, that’s the way we lived until the blink of an eye ago. So for 95% of our existence as human species, children lived around their parents all the time.

It’s like a duckling. A duckling is born, hatches from the egg, looks at the mother duck and imprints on the mother duck, and then follows the mother duck. Not because the mother duck asserts authority or threatens them or anything, just that nature causes us to be attached to our caregivers and to follow their guidance. And that’s the way it’s been for a long time.

Now, in more recent times, kids spend most of their time away from their parents from a very early age on. In the United States, 25% of women have to go back to work within two weeks of giving birth, which basically means that children are deprived of the natural presence of their nature-intended caregivers.

The duckling, if it hatches with the mother duck absent, will still imprint on anything that moves. And that could be a dog or horse or mechanical moving toy, but none of which are designed by nature to bring that duckling up to adulthood.

Our children, spending most of their time away from us, imprint on who they spend most of their time with. Their brain is programmed to imprint and to attach, but nothing in nature tells the brain who to attach to. That’s the job of the culture. So when you have a culture in which kids spend most of their time away from the nurturing adults, they imprint on whoever’s around, they can’t help it. They’re not doing it, their brains are doing it.

That means our kids are now imprinting and attaching to, and therefore getting their orientation from, immature peers. Attachment is like a magnet. It’s got two poles. One pole attracts, but the other pole repels. So when you’re attracted here, you’re pushing away from there. So when kids get attracted to and orienting by and attached to their peer group, they start pushing away from the adult. And now we think they have a problem, there’s something wrong with them, and we ratchet up the authoritarian parenting, all the punishments, the timeouts, all this stuff, which further drives them away from us.

And so what we’ve got here in our society, to make a long story short, is a culturally built-in, normalized, absolutely abnormal situation, where kids are getting most of their influence from their immature peers rather than the nurturing adults. And this results in behavior problems, learning difficulties, a lot of what we call pathologies (which are not pathologies at all, they’re manifestations of abnormalities in the environment), difficulties parenting, frustration on the part of parents, all kinds of other consequences which you can talk about. But in a nutshell, it has to do with the loss of primary attachments to the nourishing adults and the replacement—gradually, but insidiously—by the peer group.

Janet Lansbury: When does this begin? When children are three years old, four years old?

Dr. Gabor Maté: For those kids whose mothers have to go back to work at two weeks, that’s when it starts. Because then where do they go to? They go to poorly-funded, very often, and poorly-staffed daycare centers where there’s not enough adults to really connect with each child. Furthermore, we have this idea in this society that somehow we have to socialize kids. They spent the whole week in daycare and then, at let’s say age three or four, we arrange playdates for them on the weekend where they can be with each other even more.

And so I’m just telling you that so many of the problems that parents are having with their kids, there’s nothing because something’s wrong with the kids or particularly something wrong with the parents either. But because in this culture, the loss of parental attachment has been normalized and even encouraged. And there’s this invisible competition that we’re actually taught to court and to encourage.

Janet Lansbury: So what does healthy socialization look like? I mean, when you say that we’re supposed to socialize, I never consider it that way. I consider that children are naturally socialized. It’s not something that we have to try to make happen for them.

Dr. Gabor Maté: That’s the whole point. Your assumption is quite right. Socialization does happen naturally. But we can over-encourage it, because we forget or we don’t know that child development goes through phases. It’s like a pyramid. And the base and the broadest grounding for that pyramid is attachment to the nurturing adults. And that has to be maintained. These are not phases that we go through, this is a pyramid that we build. And attachment is the basis of it.

The second basis of it is not socialization. The second tier in the pyramid is actually individuation, which means the child develops a deep, entrusting sense of themselves. Now for that, attachment has to be secure. When children develop a sense of themselves, they can then respect the individuality of others and hold on to themselves without having to fit in, without having to mold themselves to the expectations of the group. But if they don’t have a strong sense of themselves, individuation, then they’ll try and fit in with the group rather than being themselves. Then we can see where that leads to. You know what the extreme of that is: gang behavior.

Then the third tier, as Gordon points out, is socialization. So socialization is like the peak of the pyramid. In a healthy sense, it’s based on strong attachments, proper individuation, and then socialization happens spontaneously. We don’t have to make it happen. But we do have to respect the pyramid. And so when we try and push kids into socialization too early, before they’ve individuated, then we’re actually asking for them to just meld in with the peer group.

Janet Lansbury: When parents have asked me, How do I do this? I need to socialize my child. And I point out—because my mentor, who happens to be Hungarian, Magda Gerber, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of her, but she used to say, you’re socializing your child with everything you do in your relationship. That’s how they’re learning social behaviors, through you. You don’t have to put them in a group setting. Group socialization is a whole different thing. They’re learning this through your relationship.

Dr. Gabor Maté: As a matter of fact, this is counterintuitive perhaps, and we’re not here advocating homeschooling, that’s not something everybody just can do, for all kinds of reasons. But if you look at the research, kids who are homeschooled, they socialize better later on. Why? Because they have a stronger, more independent sense of themselves. And now they can respect individuality of others and hold on to their own.

Janet Lansbury: If parents are in the position where they do need to have their child be in childcare, then ideally we want them to be able to attach—hopefully not as their primary attachment, hopefully that still remains the parent, right? That’s what we want. But they need to form a secondary attachment with those adults caring for them, so that they have somebody that’s an adult to be attached to instead of prioritizing the other children to be attached to.

Dr. Gabor Maté: Yeah, we’re not saying kids shouldn’t be in daycare. That would not be realistic. A lot of parents, for economic and other reasons, simply have to send their kids to daycare. The question is to recognize what we’ve lost and how to supplant it, okay? So if the kid goes to daycare, the first point is: what the child’s brain cannot handle is competing primary attachments. The child can handle many attachments, but not competing primary attachments. By the way, that’s true of the human brain in general. It’s very difficult even for adults, for example, to be in love with two people at the same time. Eventually the brain goes this way or that way, but it can’t hold on to both.

Now, the child’s brain, being very immature, is absolutely incapable of handling competing primary attachments. So when the child goes to daycare, the parent needs to encourage the child’s attachment to the daycare provider because that doesn’t compete with the parent, but the peer attachment does. So we have to have healthy adult attachments if the child is not going to be with the parent. It’s like Gordon says: in the morning, the parent hands the attachment baton to the teacher or the daycare worker, and in the evening, we take it back. That’s the first point. When kids go to daycare, parents should hang out in that daycare for a few weeks and make sure that their child sees them, the parent, forming relationships with the daycare provider. So that the child then sees, Oh, okay, I can be attached to both of these people. That’s the first thing.

The second thing is, we have to understand how children attach. And the more immature we are, the more primitive—and I don’t mean that in a negative sense—but the more basic our attachment styles are. So the first way that children attach is physically. To the senses, by seeing, hearing, touching, smelling the attachment figure. Smell, by the way, is huge. It’s one of the first things that develops. Babies can distinguish the smell of their own mother’s breast pad from that of other mothers within a few weeks of birth. So the senses are very important to children.

And other forms of attachment, such as being loyal or being important, holding somebody else in your heart, those develop later. You might have friends that you might not see for two years, but you still love them, you can hold on to them. Children can’t do that. Young children, they have to see you, hear you, touch you. Now, what does that mean? If they haven’t seen you the whole day, that attachment relationship has been attenuated. You have to regain it. So when your kid comes home from daycare at whatever age, hang out with them. Not for the purpose of telling them what to do or watching television together or anything, but just for the purpose of reestablishing the attachment relationship.

So in the first place, kids go to daycare: form attachment relationships with the nurturing adults. And most daycare workers need to be trained or understand the importance of attachment. They’re not just physical caregivers providing food and supervision. They need to be attachment figures, number one. Number two, at the end of the day, you have to reconnect, reattach with your kids. Especially the younger kids, but any kids, at any age. So we can deal with the daycare, not by going back to some ideal time when kids are with their parents the whole day, that’s no longer available to most of us. But we can understand attachment and then we’ll follow the guidelines of attachment to make sure that the kids being away from us the whole day doesn’t undermine our relationship with them.

Janet Lansbury: Yes, I love these points that you and Dr. Neufeld made in the book about the four ways to nurture attachment. The first one is when they’re infants, when children are very little, you call it “being in their face.” It’s having that face-to-face. And then that becomes “collecting.” I really like that word to describe it. I mean, I’ve seen all these memes and things saying, children want us to light up when they come into the room. Well, there is something to that. When we’re returning to each other, we want to drop everything. It’s so important that we’re not texting in the car or whatever. We’re present, we’re there. I collect you. You’re somebody big to me. You’re important.

Dr. Gabor Maté: You would do that with a lover, wouldn’t you? You do that automatically. We do it automatically with babies, too. I mean, even strangers. I’ve been on many airplanes where there might be a little baby there in somebody’s arms and the baby cries a little bit. Everybody goes, Aww. We just all naturally attune with the baby. That’s just natural. Babies evoke that attunement/connection instinct in us. The problem is that with the separation from our kids, that instinct inside ourselves is actually softened, weakened. So we actually get alienated from our own parenting instinct.

When some parenting “expert” comes along and tells you to practice timeout against a two-year-old, basically they’re saying to you, Use the attachment relationship to punish the child. The child’s biggest need is that you should be delighted and welcoming and unconditionally accepting. And when you use a timeout technique, you say to the child, I know what your biggest fear is: the loss of that relationship. And I’m going to deprive you of the relationship for a certain period of time. Now, to a two-year-old, five minutes is forever. And so that, not only does the culture normalize alienation of children from parents, it even teaches parents to use the child’s biggest need—for your delight in them and acceptance of them, an unconditional connection with them—against the child, to try and control the child. Which creates tremendous insecurity in children. It makes them conform to your desires perhaps, but what does it do to the child’s development?

We have to collect them, which means gather them in under our wing again. And Gordon says, collect them before you direct them.

Janet Lansbury: It does become less organic as children get older and we think, Oh, they’re fine, or They don’t care, or we’re busy or whatever. And how important that still is with a teenager, with a child at any age. I have three adult children, I still stand up—whatever I’m doing—if they walk in the door. It’s like a huge thing to me, run and hug and so excited. I naturally feel that way. But I think we can get caught up in our work and our lives and forget, especially when children maybe are already gone into more of that peer orientation space and then they don’t seem like they care. But they do, right? They really do.

And what can we look for, then, with our younger children? What are some of the warning signs that, Uh-oh, there could be something going on here? I mean, when you talk about the behaviors that children have when they do have that peer orientation, the behaviors that they have toward the parents, what do those look like with young children?

Dr. Gabor Maté: First of all, let me just say that even teenagers need this. Not just even, but especially. Because it’s such a difficult time. They need orientation. And in traditional cultures that orientation was provided by adults and elders.

One of my sons and I are writing a new book together. I mean, we’re just beginning to write it, so I’m not advertising anything here. But it’s going to be called Hello Again: A Fresh Start for Parents and Adult Children. It’s based on a workshop that we do. And all the adults that we speak to, adults in their thirties, forties who still want contact with their parents. They may not want the contact that they have, which is often very troubled, but they want genuine contacts. Never-mind infants, even adults are still looking for that.

So what are the signs when kids are getting alienated from us? Well, first of all, they want to be with each other all the time rather than with us, number one. Number two, with the technology that we’ve very unwisely put into their immature hands, they’re connecting with each other all the time. They will not be soothed by us when they’re upset. They will be more oppositional and resistant to our expectations.

Janet Lansbury: And that part could show up with a child as young as three or four. There’s part of that that naturally happens anyway, but then it can become more of a warning sign if a child is consistently having “behavior issues.” But it’s always a relationship issue when children are having concerning behaviors, it’s usually a relationship issue between us.

Dr. Gabor Maté: Yeah. In our society, more and more kids are being diagnosed with this, that, and the other. And many kids are being medicated to control their behaviors, which is a vast social experiment in the manipulation of the child’s biology and the indication is that it’s not particularly good for the child’s brain development. In fact, on the contrary, in many cases. What we’re actually looking at is we identify pathologies in a child, but actually there’s no pathology in a child. What there is is a response in the child to the environment, and particularly to the loss of attachment.

So there’s a so-called diagnosis called oppositional defiant disorder. I say “so-called” because not only does it not exist in reality, not even in theory can it exist. Now, it describes something. So in that sense, it refers to something real. But to say that ODD, that a child has it, is to imply that the child has some kind of a disorder. But let’s just look at it for a minute. Oppositionality by definition is relational. Can you oppose somebody if you’re not in relationship with them? When I talk about this, I say to my listeners, if you don’t understand what I’m saying, lock yourself in a room by yourself, make sure you’re alone, lock the door, and oppose somebody. And if you manage to do it, please put it on YouTube because we want to see what it looks like. So oppositionality by definition implies a relationship. In which case, why are we diagnosing the child rather than looking at the relationship, number one.

Number two, I mentioned individuation, the necessity for us to become individual beings in our own right. That’s nature’s agenda. Why? Because the parents are going to die. And nature’s agenda is that by the time the parents pass, the child has become their own adult person, individuated, knowing themselves. That’s just nature’s agenda for any species.

At age one-and-a-half, the child starts saying no. What do we call that? We call that the terrible twos. Why do we call it the terrible twos? Because we don’t understand there’s nothing terrible about it. What’s actually going on is the child is developing their own will, and in order to develop their own will, as Gordon points out, they have to put up a little fence against the overwhelming and overbearing will of the parent. And that’s that no that they start saying. If you don’t know how to say no, your yeses don’t mean anything at all. So there’s nothing inherently oppositional about it, it’s just that—Gordon calls it counterwill. Counterwill is just countering the will of another so that you can develop your own.

Now, we can manage that easy enough if the attachment relationship is strong. But if we mistake it for a problem, then what we do is when a child expresses their counterwill, their nature-built drive for independence, we push on them even harder. It’s in the nature of counterwill that the more you push on it, the stronger it becomes.

So who are these kids with the so-called oppositional defiant disorders? Number one, they’re kids who have lost the primary healthy attachment with adults. Now, if you’ve lost a relationship with somebody, you’re not going to heed them. You’re not going to listen to them or allow yourself to be guided by them, because orientation follows attachment. We follow, orient by, those people that we trust and are connected to. If, because of all the multiple pressures in our society, which is not the fault of individual parents, children’s relationships to parents have been attenuated, weakened, then their oppositionality increases naturally, number one. Number two, the more we push on it, the more confirmed and out-of-hand it becomes.

So who are these ODD kids? Kids who have lost their relationship with the parents and who’ve been pushed on too much. And then we say they’ve got some kind of pathology. No, they don’t. What we have to do is to go back to basics and rebuild that relationship with them. Trust me, that oppositionality will melt like snow on a warm day. We’ve seen this over and over again. But unfortunately the tendency in our society is to pathologize children’s behavior, rather than to see its sources and its remedies in the attachment relationship.

Janet Lansbury: Yes, that makes a lot of sense.

And then the second point that you make about maintaining that attachment is giving children something to hold on to. In the beginning, that’s a body part, that’s very physical, but it soon becomes emotional as well. And just that feeling of, There’s this person that sees me, knows me so well, is always in my corner, and somebody loves me. And I can go out in the world and deal with some of the challenges, knowing that I have this person to go back to, that sees me better than anyone else.

Dr. Gabor Maté: Even in adult relationships, on separation, don’t we give one another little objects, little mementos? Those are something to hold on to. Children need that. So if the kid goes to daycare, give them a picture of yourself. Give them some cherished, not expensive obviously, but some cherished shared object that they can hold on to. So that’s what we’re talking about, is let them take a piece of you to the daycare or to the school.

Janet Lansbury: And then inviting them. The third one is inviting them to depend on us.

Dr. Gabor Maté: Yeah. Again, in this society there’s this belief that we have to push kids towards independence, but we don’t. I mean, a mother bear doesn’t have to push the cubs towards independence. At a certain point, it just happens. And the more secure the child is, the more independent they can become. If you look at these attachment experiments with little babies or little toddlers and so on, those kids that are more securely attached are the ones more likely to be able to play independently and then to come back to the mom or the parent when necessary. As Gordon says, to promote independence, invite dependence.

Janet Lansbury: Right.

Dr. Gabor Maté: That drive for independence is inherent in the child. At a certain point, the child developing in a healthy way will say, “I’m going to do it myself.” So you’re going to tie their shoelaces: “I’m going to do it myself.” That drive for mastery is inherent in a human being. It has to be. So we don’t have to promote it, we just have to provide the security so that it can unfold naturally.

Janet Lansbury: Right. And be that person that says, I mean, unless we can’t possibly do it at that moment, and then we say, “Well, I wish I could but I can’t right now.” But that welcomes them. To say, Oh, you want help with your shoes? You know how to do it, but so what? I’m going to help you with your shoes. Of course, I’m always here for you.

And yeah, I mean, the only thing I was thinking when I was reading that that I would maybe add is just that sometimes we have to honor independence when children do show it. Even as an infant, I want to look over here and notice this right now. That we consider honoring that instead of, Come look at me! I’m the only one here! So when a child does choose it—it’s never pushing a child that way, never. But it’s noticing those expressions of independence and honoring them, not stepping on them. Because one thing I really wanted to ask you—

Dr. Gabor Maté: Let me just quickly comment on that.

Janet Lansbury: Okay, yes!

Dr. Gabor Maté: Yes to what you just said. That’s called attunement. Attunement means being aware of and respectful of the internal experience of the other. At a certain point, the infant may have too much of you looking at them. They wish to look away. You let them. You don’t get anxious, Oh, come back, hey! You don’t try to inveigle them back into relationship with you at that moment, because their need at that point is that it’s become too intense for them and they need to just detach for a minute. If you’re attuned with them, and if you’re not anxious, you’ll allow that to happen. If you’re not attuned or if you’re bringing your own needs to bear, your need to connect with the child to dominate, then you’re not going to honor their experience.

So yes, you have to be attuned with the child, which means sometimes you have to let them look away and do their own thing. Usually it won’t last very long, but you need to give them the space to do that. So it begins very early. And very often parents hover too much in that sense. They should be attentive to the child and be there for the child. But hovering means that you’re bringing your own needs.

Janet Lansbury: And fears often, right?

Dr. Gabor Maté: Your own needs and your anxieties, rather than getting your cues from the child’s experience.

Janet Lansbury: I’m sure you’ve been asked this, you and Dr. Neufeld probably both, but how does your advice in this book stand with all of this research that’s come out about the over-parenting and the stifling of children, and how that’s linked to children who are depressed, anxious, have no sense of themselves, no individuation, I guess.

Dr. Gabor Maté: So for sure. It’s like I just said, it’s—

Janet Lansbury: Lack of attunement, right?

Dr. Gabor Maté: It needs to arise from the child’s needs, not from the parents’ anxieties. So a lot of that stuff has to do with the parents’ fears. We’ve got to take them to this class and that class and make sure they get into the right school. And if we don’t push them academically, they’re going to… In other words, it actually comes from the anxieties of the parent. And it also comes from the sense of the parent that they’ve lost a relationship with the child and they need to overcompensate. So as long as the relationship is healthy and well-attached, you can’t over-hover.

Let me tell you about a study that was done quite some years ago now. They looked at mothers and young children, I don’t know, about a hundred or 200 mothers. I quote the study in one of my books, not in this one. And some mothers, very few, were kind of distant and unavailable emotionally for the children as they interacted. Most mothers were good, they interacted, they played with the child. Some mothers were called supermoms. These supermoms cuddled the kid, extra loving, extra connection, and so on. Attuned, but very warm. Thirty years or more later, the kids most emotionally stable or the adults most emotionally stable, were the children of these supermoms. And what the researcher said is, you can’t love children too much. Now, loving them is not the same as hovering all the time and controlling them.

So the research doesn’t have to do with attachment, it has to do with control and intrusion. And yeah, if you control kids and intrude on them, you’re going to get negative results. But that’s got nothing to do with attachment. In fact, it’s a substitute for genuine attachment.

Janet Lansbury: Right. And do you also think it threatens the attachment relationship and could cause this peer orientation? That if a child feels like, they’re too controlling or they’re trying to mold me. I mean, I think sometimes parents feel like they’re supposed to judge their child, they’re supposed to keep on them. That that is what love is. That they’re supposed to mold, they’re supposed to be on them for everything and make it all happen. And there’s no trust in the child’s nature. And so naturally children can grow up to not trust their own nature, because their parent that they look to never trusted theirs.

Dr. Gabor Maté: Returning, I mentioned this book I’m writing, we do these workshops, my son and I, for adults and their parents. This is what we hear so often from parents. I wish I had left them alone. I wish I hadn’t tried to control them so much. They just needed me to be there for them and be there with them, not to try and direct them all the time. And the residues into adulthood are so negative. So we’re not trusting the child, we’re not trusting ourselves, we’re not trusting nature.

See, children who are connected to adults naturally want to learn from adults. We use this word discipline, but what does the word discipline actually mean? We think it means punishment. No, it doesn’t. Who had disciples? Jesus, for example, had disciples. Not because he punished or threatened them, but because he loved them and they loved him. So then naturally they wanted to learn from him.

So that’s one of the ways we attach, I mentioned the attachment physically. The next way to attach is actually by wanting to be the same as. So when children are well-attached to parents, they’ll copy what the parent does. I mean, look at all the teaching that that saves. There’s a lot of things we don’t have to teach our kids, they just learn it by watching us. Kids who are well-attached to parents will naturally want to emulate the parent, to be the same as the parent. Kids who are peer-attached want to be the same as their peers and behave like their peers and talk like their peers and look like their peers and wear the same shoes.

Janet Lansbury: And as you point out, these aren’t unconditionally loving peers. They can’t be, towards that child. And so the child is not getting the kind of attachment that they need.

Dr. Gabor Maté: No, but they’re getting the only one available to them. And the point is, these parents who think we have to guide and judge and control our kids. No, you don’t. You have to provide the warm attachment relationship. And then you set the guidelines, for which you don’t need to use force because the child who’s connected to you will naturally want to follow your guidelines. So you can back off on the coercive aspect.

There are limits. You’re not going to let a kid run across the street in order to find out for themselves how dangerous it is. You will not allow that to happen. If you live in New York, you’re not going to let your kid crawl out into the winter snow naked. I mean, parenting is a hierarchy, but it’s a benign, beneficial hierarchy.

The problem with peer orientation is it actually flattens the hierarchy. So when kids start looking to each other for guidance and validation, they start resisting the parents’ natural authority. As long as we have that natural authority, we don’t have to keep pushing our kids or cajoling them or judging them or controlling them. They will naturally, literally, fall into line. And by the way, this book has been out now for what, almost 30 years? Published in close to 40 languages. We get messages from all over the world that it changed their whole family dynamics and how they relate to their kids. And things are so much easier now and so much warmer now and so much effortless now. The stronger the attachment relationship, the less the effort you have to make.

Janet Lansbury: Because you’re prioritizing what really works. You’re putting your energy into what actually does help children with their behavior and every other thing that you’re trying to do, if you’re thinking about trying to mold them.

Dr. Gabor Maté: The problem is that by now, we’re talking 2024, by now, we’ve had several generations of parents who themselves were brought up peer-oriented. So to them this looks totally natural. They can’t even see the alternative, even though historically it’s an aberration. Evolutionarily, as I said earlier, it’s simply a blink of an eye. Not even that. And even historically, it’s just a few generations old. But it’s become so entrenched and so endemic in our culture that we take it for granted.

My most recent book is called The Myth of Normal. What I’m saying in general in that book, and I mention the peer orientation dynamic as well, is that things have become normalized in this culture that, from the human point of view, are neither healthy nor natural. And so peer orientation has become so normalized that most researchers don’t even realize it’s there. They just think it’s the way it needs to be. It’s unseen. It’s like a hidden epidemic that’s striking almost every family without people recognizing it. And we’re dealing with the effects of it, rather than dealing with the causes of it.

Janet Lansbury: So you’ve added on chapters about the digital age and then now this recent one about the effects of the pandemic with children. Could you talk a little about how parents can navigate the technology and screens and all of that with a very young child? If you have guidelines for that?

Dr. Gabor Maté: First of all, as a physician, I can tell you that the parts of the brain that are excited by the technology are the same parts of the brain excited by addictive drugs. The dopamine circuits, primarily. As a matter of fact, there’s a technology company called Dopamine Lab. The technology companies hire neuroscientists. I’m not making this up. They hire neuroscientists to target children’s brains in the most addictive fashion so they get hooked on the technology. And if you look at the research on brain scans of children who watch a lot of digital media, that interferes with the circuits of thinking and emotional connection and insight and creativity. So this is serious stuff.

Furthermore, I used to work with a highly addicted population here in Vancouver. One of my medical interests has been addiction. You take a child who’s hooked on technology and try and separate them from technology. You know what you’ve got? You’ve got an addict in withdrawal. The same rage, the same disdain, the same oppositionality, the same outrage, and the same obstreperous holding on to that object. This stuff is addictive.

If I was parenting kids today, I wouldn’t let them look at the screen for years. Certainly I would not let them look at a screen on their own for years. I would not give them a cell phone. I would not give them an iPad. If I watched television with them, I’d be choosing what they’re watching. But mostly I’d stay away from it. And I would stay away from texting and emailing in their presence.

Janet Lansbury: I was just going to ask about that, yes.

Dr. Gabor Maté: I don’t know if you’ve seen this, but believe me, I see it all the time. A parent is pushing a kid in a tram, a buggy, and their parent is on a cell phone. What message are we giving the kid when we’re absent in their presence? So it’s not that I would do without my computer or my cell phone, but I would not be letting them interrupt my relationship and interaction with the child.

And so it’s like everything else. There’s age-appropriate behaviors that are okay for one age, but not okay at another. I mean, it’s okay to have a glass of wine every once in a while, but nobody wants to give a glass of wine to a two-week-old. It’s not age-appropriate. Developmentally, it’s harmful. But there’s no rush. Even if they don’t see technology until age 10, which seems like a sacrilege in this society, they’ll learn it overnight. It’s not that they’re missing anything.

The problem is that parents are so busy and so stressed. Parents are desperate for a respite, and one way to get respite is to plunk the kid down in front of a TV set or to give them a cell phone. Now they’re going to be okay for hours, but at what cost? So while I understand the desire for the parents for a break and respite, and therefore using the technology as the babysitter, it comes at a great cost.

Janet Lansbury: I like that you pointed out that even pushing the pram when you’re not maybe facing the child or if the child’s on your back or front or whatever, that they can sense, because they sense everything about us, that you’re doing something else. Even when they can’t see our face. You know, that “still face” experiment always comes to mind when I think of us being on the phone with the baby there and suddenly we’re down a rabbit hole of something else that has nothing to do with them and how strange that is. But even not seeing our face, they sense that I’m not being collected by this person. I’m not in relationship with this person right now, in that moment.

And this is going to sound extreme to a lot of parents I think out there who have a lot of reasons for wanting the phones, but I believe as you do. And I feel thankful that my children are older and I don’t have to deal with it right now because it is very challenging. And I really do hand it to parents that are able to, not get rid of their phones, but have boundaries for themselves. Especially in those times that are togetherness times, the collecting when we’re in the transitions, when we’re greeting each other, saying goodbye to each other, the meal times.

Dr. Gabor Maté: Not to mention what that constant engagement with technology does to the parent. This last summer, I took a two-week break from digital media. I tell you, I was an addict in withdrawal. I turned the cell phone off. But even having turned it off, I picked it up several times a day, and then I thought, What am I doing? It’s not even on.

Janet Lansbury: How many days did it take you to not be checking it anymore?

Dr. Gabor Maté: The impulse never quite went away, but I never did turn it on for two weeks and I got calmer and more present to life as time went on. So what I’m saying is, quite apart from the impact on our kids, our constant cell phone obsession, what does it do to us? We become more scattered and less present, which then has an impact on the child.

Janet Lansbury: Yes. I wonder if you’d like to talk a little about this additional chapter, and then I promise to let you go.

Dr. Gabor Maté: Thank you. So look, COVID, the pandemic was interesting because it imposed an isolation on a lot of people, a lot of families. And I know there’s a lot of controversy in retrospect about those policies, and I’m not going to get into that. I’m going to talk about actually what happened. Two interesting things happened. On the one hand, the incidents of child abuse went up. More children ended up in emergency wards throughout North America with injuries sustained in home violence. Home violence went up. In some families, drinking behavior went up. On the other hand, in some families it was a godsend. And some parents said, My God, I got to be at home to see my kids’ milestones and I got to interact with them. I learned how they played and I played with them.

So what actually happened was that in families where there was multi-generational, unresolved trauma and fewer resources, emotionally speaking, the pressure of isolation took away from some parents their usual lightning rods, their usual ways of dispersing their stress and their anxieties. They couldn’t go to football games or sports events, entertainment events or to the pub. So the unresolved frustrations and stresses and traumas became expressed in the family. And for those people and for those kids, COVID was a disaster. And furthermore, for the peer-oriented kids, it was a huge loss because all of a sudden they lost their attachments with the people that they were naturally—not naturally, but unnaturally oriented towards, and they were at a loss.

Those families where the attachment dynamics were functional, and those parents who were either economically or emotionally or both resourced enough, this is an opportunity to deepen and warm up and build the attachment relationship with the kids.

So some people think that the COVID experience showed the importance of peer relationships, because look how kids suffered in their absence. Actually what it showed was how unnaturally important peer relationships became, so that in their absence, kids suffered. That’s what it actually proved. Rather than countering our thesis, it proved it. But again, because people took that for granted that it’s the way it should be, they didn’t notice that. They thought it was the loss of the peer relationships that created the problem. No, it was the already-absent relationship with the adults that created the problem. In the absence of the peer relationships, the kids just got more unbalanced, which just shows that the peer relationships had been overemphasized in the first place. So that’s how we understand it. And for us, it just meant we have just doubled down on that relationship.

Janet Lansbury: Wow, fascinating. Really eye-opening, and it makes a lot of sense. It really does.

I just want to say for everybody out there that this book, it will help you at every stage. It will help you to form secure attachments. And it will also help you notice when things might be not going the way that we hope and there’s some weaknesses in our attachment. And it also helps at any age to know how to get it back. As you said earlier, there’s nothing our child at any age wants more—or that we want more—but there’s nothing they want more than to reconnect. They just don’t know how. And we have to be the ones to lead that way back. But it will work, because it’s what children want more than anything. Whether it’s the two-year-old that we yelled at that just wants to feel safe with us again, or the adult child that feels estranged and doesn’t want to go through the rest of their life feeling that loss.

Dr. Gabor Maté: The two major responses we get to the book, some people say, Thanks, this saved our family because now I understand things. But the second interesting response we get is, Thank you, this book validated my instincts. So much of the parenting advice people get actually separates them from their instincts. So that when parents say to us, Thank you, your book validated my instincts. And now I can tell my friends who are telling me to use separation and timeout, “You know what? Here are these experts telling me that my instincts are right.” Now, you shouldn’t need experts to tell you that your instincts are right. As a matter of fact, I’d say in any contest between experts and instincts, listen to your instincts and forget the experts.

Janet Lansbury: Because your instincts know how to attach, that’s a primal thing that we all have. Your instincts know how to attach to your child. Your reasonable advice doesn’t necessarily.

Dr. Gabor Maté: That’s right. But again, instincts have to be evoked by the environment. So anyway, the two responses we get are Thank you, now we see it differently. But the other response we get is Thank you, this validated my instincts.

Janet Lansbury: Yeah, I mean this book is so informative and it’s alarming, though. And I could see where you might also get people saying, Oh, come on, that’s hogwash. It’s good to be with peers and it’s the best thing that could happen. But as you two point out, it’s when you come to that peer relationship from a place of you’re still holding on to your parent as a primary attachment, that that’s when it is healthy and works well.

Dr. Gabor Maté: We’re not saying kids shouldn’t play with each other. Children always have, since creation. But what was the context? The context of kids playing with each other was under the watchful eyes of caring adults. I remember growing up in Budapest, Hungary, in the 1950s. We played out in the street with other kids, but there were always parents on the balconies looking at us. And every neighborhood home was a home to all the kids so that we would go to each others’ homes and other mothers would give us lunch or look after us and so on. So that there was a community, a community of caring adults. So it’s not that children shouldn’t play with each other, it’s that that should not be the primary relationship, number one.

And number two, it needs to be in the context of adults being present. So if you’re going to have playdates on the weekend, for God’s sake, be there in the same room with the kids. Don’t have the adults chatting away here and the kids on their own. And adults should always be present with them. So maintain that primary relationship with the adults. Yes, kids should play with each other. No, that should not be the primary relationship.

Janet Lansbury: Because it’s about influence, right? Who’s influencing your child the most? We want that to be us.

Dr. Gabor Maté: That’s right.

Janet Lansbury: It’s such a hopeful book. And that last chapter was just such a beautiful ending, really hopeful and will leave parents feeling not afraid, but that this is normal. I mean, it isn’t normal like you said, but it is the new unfortunate normal and that there’s a lot that they can do to counteract some of the draws and influences. That that really is in our power and that children want it to be and need it to be.

Dr. Gabor Maté: That’s right.

Janet Lansbury: Thank you so much for sharing with us and for this book. Your work is really profound in so many ways.

Dr. Gabor Maté: Thanks for having me.

Janet Lansbury: It’s an honor. Thank you so much. Take care, and we’ll hopefully engage again at some point in the future.

Dr. Gabor Maté: Take care.


Thank you so much for listening and for all your kind support. We can do this.

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When Kids Hide Their Feelings and Reject Our Comfort https://www.janetlansbury.com/2024/03/when-kids-hide-their-feelings-and-reject-our-comfort/ https://www.janetlansbury.com/2024/03/when-kids-hide-their-feelings-and-reject-our-comfort/#comments Tue, 26 Mar 2024 21:38:14 +0000 https://www.janetlansbury.com/?p=22639 We’re trying to be there for our kids, let them know we care, and give them positive, healthy messages about their feelings. What could possibly go wrong? In this episode, Janet responds to a parent who worries that when she tries to comfort her upset 3-year-old daughter, the child seems ashamed about her feelings, even … Continued

The post When Kids Hide Their Feelings and Reject Our Comfort appeared first on Janet Lansbury.

We’re trying to be there for our kids, let them know we care, and give them positive, healthy messages about their feelings. What could possibly go wrong? In this episode, Janet responds to a parent who worries that when she tries to comfort her upset 3-year-old daughter, the child seems ashamed about her feelings, even angry, and yells at the parent to go away. The parent asks, “Do you have any advice for helping her to be more comfortable with feeling sad or angry?”


Transcript of “When Kids Hide Their Feelings and Reject Our Comfort”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

Today I’m going to be talking about an issue that many of you have asked about over the years. It’s the natural concern that we have when our child seems to be pushing us away when they’re upset or they seem uncomfortable expressing their feelings, even when we make sure to let them know we’re very, very open to that. Maybe we’ve read or heard or listened to podcasts like mine, talking about how important it is for children to feel safe to share all their feelings with us. That we want to cultivate an environment for them where all feelings are allowed—not all behaviors, but all feelings—and how this is a path to their resiliency and emotional fluency and emotional health.

So it’s obviously worrisome when our child doesn’t seem to be following that pattern, that they’re rejecting us when we try to comfort them, they’re trying to hide their feelings. Maybe they’re saying, “I’m fine, I’m fine,” or running away from us. What does this mean? How can we unpack this and what can we do to make it better? That’s what I’m going to be talking about today.

This time I’ll start with a note that I received from a parent. Some of the specifics in this note you probably won’t relate to, but the dynamic between this parent and her daughter is a common one. This was a message I received on Instagram:

Hi, Janet-

My husband and I are separating. We still co-habit, but I go away when it’s his turn to have them 50% of the time. I’ve noticed when I come back, my three-year-old seems very mad at me. I understand this feeling, but what worries me is the way it plays out.

It seems when she is upset or angry, she is afraid or ashamed of her emotions. She runs and hides, refuses any comfort, tells me to go away and shouts, “Mummy, I want Daddy back!” Today she shut herself in the bathroom and told me to go away if I opened the door. I sat outside, acknowledged her feelings, and let her know I was there and ready to help her when she needs me. The more I spoke, the more angry she was. She eventually just snapped out of it after 20 minutes. She denied hunger and had had a nap, so I don’t think she was tired.

Do you have any advice for helping her to be more comfortable with feeling sad or angry?

Okay, so one thing I appreciate is that this parent really pegs the issue in her last sentence here, that’s a question: “Do you have any advice for helping her to be more comfortable with feeling sad or angry?”

There aren’t that many issues in parenting that we can say, It always means this across the board, and You should do this or that. Because every child is a unique individual, every parent is an individual, our dynamic with each child is unique. That’s why I’m not a fan of categorizing children. I know it’s very popular these days to say that this is this type of child or that type of child. Dr. Mona Delahooke—who I miss so much in these spaces. She had a severe brain injury and she’s still recovering and healing, but she will be back. She agrees with me on this. I appreciate that so much because she is an expert in children that are neurodivergent. And she says as well, let’s approach each child as an individual. Yes, there are some issues children have that are measurably different, but mostly, everybody is a range of things, right? And we can miss so much when we try to adhere to advice that categorizes.

That said, I love that we can say across the board that when children are behaving in ways that are concerning, as in this case, any kind of what we might call “misbehavior,” there’s one thing we can say for sure, and that is that our child is uncomfortable. They’re uncomfortable in some way. It can be very minor discomfort, that, Hmm, they’re not quite giving me a clear answer on this. My parent seems a little uncomfortable, they’re unsure of themselves. So that very minor type of discomfort, ranging all the way to intense fear, trauma, stress, that kind of discomfort.

So when we want to understand and know how to help a child and how to make a difference, like this parent wants to make, what are they uncomfortable about? And why? In this case, she’s uncomfortable expressing her feelings with her parent. And maybe with both of her parents, I don’t know that, but we know she’s uncomfortable expressing it with this parent. And it doesn’t necessarily mean something that the parent did, it could mean the way other people besides this parent have responded to her. But something has made her uncomfortable with being in these emotional states.

Now I’m going to talk about some of the things that it could be, and then I’ll share what I think might be going on in this case with this child, because there’s some clues in this message. But let’s talk about generally what’s going on when children are uncomfortable around their emotions and around us witnessing their emotions.

First, some children are more introverted and more likely to internalize feelings. So, that tendency is there.

Two is the very obvious and severe ways that we make children uncomfortable around their feelings: punishing, shaming children for their feelings, reacting violently or in scary, threatening ways to our child. That makes sense to us, right? When children experience those responses, they’re going to learn very early on that they’re not safe to share their feelings. They need to hide them or stuff them. So I absolutely don’t believe that’s what’s going on in this message, but that’s one of the most obvious ways.

Similarly, if we’re judging, mocking, laughing at our children. There’s been trends that have come and gone where people are sharing that on social media, unfortunately. And no, the child doesn’t know the parent’s sharing it on social media and laughing at them, but they know the parent’s taking a video of them. So that’s obviously not going to encourage them to be open about their feelings.

Then it can be when we’re perceiving these as problematic situations that children need us to address and help them through. And this is where I’m not a fan of the advice to get children to take deep breaths and using calm down jars or other methods to try to help children to calm down. By doing that actively, with all this power that we have as parents—remember, there’s a power differential here. We are so powerful in the way that we respond to our child. In their eyes, we are god-like, especially in the early years. If we’re addressing, with the best of intentions, our child’s feelings with this perception that this is something we need to help them get through and do something about, that can create fear in them in regard to feelings they have that are already uncomfortable. So they’re having the uncomfortable feeling and now my parent’s reacting as if this isn’t a safe place for me to be in myself, that I need to feel better. Well, that can make me feel scared or just uncomfortable with the idea that I’m feeling this. My parent is teaching me that it needs to go away. It’s a problem and I need to do something about it to make it better.

So yes, while it can help children to have a quiet, call it a calm-down place or whatever, but a quiet, unthreatening place to be. Let’s say we’re in a group situation, there’s a calm-down area for a child. We want to approach that not as we’re secluding that child or we’re banishing that child or forcing them to be alone or that now you go in there and you’ve got to feel better. We don’t want to approach it that way, as a problem, but as just a safe place that we trust you to be in while the feelings run their course. In other words, we want this to be a choice that’s helpful to our child, but doesn’t give the message that there’s something wrong here that we need to make better.

Another one, I guess this is number four, when children get into the habit of pacifiers or even thumb-sucking as a comfort tool that they go to as soon as they’re upset. Now, a child’s need to suck can help them to center themselves as babies and toddlers. Thumb-sucking especially is, I believe, a fine and healthy choice. But as children are passing age two or three, we just want to take notice of how they’re using those tools. And I wouldn’t try to change everything overnight or rip those away from them at a certain age. Maybe dentists are going to tell you to do that, but I’m not. When children are used to something, we want them to actually be ready to let go of that, and then we can work together with them to change that.

But in the interim, what I recommend—and actually I’ve never had a chance to say this on a podcast before—is to notice when your child is going there, to that thumb or wants that pacifier, and giving it a moment. Where we, not in a worrisome way, but we just gently reflect: “You’re wanting to suck your thumb right now,” or “You’re wanting your pacifier right now because you’re sad, it seems like.” Whatever we know happened: “This happened and you seem sad or you seem mad about it. You can always tell me those things. I want to know.” So we’re just opening that door. We’re not trying to force or push that our child has to share with us. Because that’s going to do the opposite, right? That’s going to make our child feel pressured and even more uncomfortable. But just opening that up, I see you and I’m here and I’m not going to judge you or make a big deal out of it. I mean, that part we wouldn’t say, but just show. You can always share with me. I see how you’re using that right now. So just that very light, opening the door for them to share a little bit or share a little bit more. But not stressing ourselves out about it, because that’s the other thing, with all our power, that makes children uncomfortable.

That’s why co-regulation, when we hear that term, it really describes this beautifully. Because co-regulation is both of us together. That means I’m not calming you down, I’m calming myself down so that you can calm down, in your time. Oftentimes it helps in these situations for us to actually take the focus off our child and put it on ourselves. Telling ourselves, I’m safe. I can be calm. This will pass. This is actually the best thing my child could be doing right now, expressing what they’re feeling.

Number five, we can make children feel uncomfortable or pressured when we make An Event out of any hurt or other unhappy feeling. So this is related to the problematic situation, right? But in this situation, maybe it’s not about us actively saying, “deep breaths, deep breaths,” but we’re putting a focus on the situation. And I know this is an impression I think maybe I give sometimes about feelings. Because I often get asked, or parents often comment, that they’re going through a hard time with their child and they have other children and they just can’t work their child through all these big meltdowns that they’re having. And how do they manage? Because it’s just too much.

I think this idea that every feeling our child has is a big event may be why some in the press are doing these articles that are mocking gentle parenting or suggesting that it’s damaging. Now, I still don’t know what “gentle parenting” means because nobody seems to define it. I do know that bashing it seems to be sort of clickbait lately, people love to pile on in comments on articles that are about all the awful things that parents are doing. I don’t think that helps anyone. But I do think that at least part of the reason for that is this misunderstanding that parenting advisors like me think that fostering emotional health means we’re giving this big, drawn-out attention to every feeling a child has, indulging them in that way, putting everything aside while we wait this out. And parents complain, understandably, that this is way too much work on top of everything else that they have to do.

And I couldn’t agree more! Doing work around children’s emotions is not a job I recommend taking on because it’s not possible for us. It’s impossible. And it doesn’t help our children, because making a big event out of an every-day, perhaps multiple-times-a-day, life experience that children have—younger children especially—that’s just going to wear us out. We’re not going to survive that. What I recommend is a letting go. That’s why I say letting feelings be. Let go, let feelings be. Focus on acceptance, anchoring and calming ourselves while the rough waves pass us by. We’re not trying to do anything with them or about them. We’re not trying to stop them. We know they need to flow, so we’re just going to accept them and let them be.

Being an anchor doesn’t mean we have to stand there watching either. It’s an attitude, it’s a conviction in this idea of acceptance. And I can accept from across the room, I can accept if I have to leave the room, I can accept if I need to help carry you into the car or out of the car while you’re having a hard time. Acceptance is an attitude, it doesn’t take work. It does take practicing a perspective on feelings that I’ve shared about umpteen times in this podcast, but I know it’s never enough, because it’s never enough for me to not forget: that feelings are safe, feelings are normal, feelings are okay. When we do make an event, then children can feel everything ranging from pressured to embarrassed. It’s too much focus on them in a vulnerable time, and that can cause them to want to push us away, hide.

That can happen when a child falls down or bumps themself and a parent gets really upset about that or so sympathetic, and we’re running towards our child as if it’s an emergency. That’s an impulse a lot of us have, and it’s a good one to try to get perspective on. Because our tone is always going to set the tone. And children don’t want a big fuss made over them, especially when they’re upset. A good default is to observe, listen, receive your child’s energy first, and maybe all the way through if they’re having a feeling, instead of trying to talk or do something about it. So even if our child falls from across the room, we look first. Maybe we start to approach, but slowly, not running over. “You fell.” And then we see that our child is crying, or maybe they’re not crying, but let’s say they’re crying first. “Oh no, did that hurt? Ouch. You didn’t like that.” With a very small child, we might just go over with them what happened, but in this very reflective way. We’re not trying to talk about it, we’re not trying to say words. We’re just noticing: “I think you tripped on this, right? On this toy. Yeah, ouch.” And then we let it go. And if we’re reading that our child seems to want to hug, then we hug. Mostly we’re just receiving, allowing, and accepting.

Of course, if there’s something we could do physically to help our child feel better, we will. Ideally not in panic mode, making a big event out of it. Because then children feel that too, that it’s too much. It’s too uncomfortable, it’s too much pressure, it’s too embarrassing. They’re the center of attention. And sometimes they can sort of feel like it’s their role to help us feel better, because they sense that we’re feeling as uncomfortable as they are. And it’s hard not to as parents, because we do love our kids and we never want to see them hurt or sad or anything besides happy. But I guess that’s where being brave for our child really can be a positive thing. And just being receivers.

Getting back to this parent’s note, she knows, as she says, that these feelings her child has make a lot of sense. She says, “When I come back, my three-year-old seems very mad at me. I understand this feeling, but what worries me is the way it plays out.” So this parent is sharing, and this is why she shared the note with me, that she’s worried. One thing I can know is that her child is feeling the parent’s worry in these moments. And even that can add to a child’s discomfort and make it harder for them to want to share. Maybe one or two times we noticed they didn’t seem to want to talk about it, so now we’re worried. And our child is feeling that. They just want to have their feeling. They don’t consciously think like this, but Just let me have my feeling! I think we can all relate to that. Sometimes when a partner or a friend or a relative or someone is trying to make us feel better and, Just let me have my feeling! If you’re worried about me, now I have to worry about you and I can’t just feel how I feel myself. So that’s something to look at, possibly.

Then this parent says, “It seems when she is upset or angry, she is afraid or ashamed of her emotions.” Again, this parent, very perceptive, insightful. She’s sensing her child is afraid or ashamed about her emotions. That’s the discomfort that her child feels. Now, why would she be afraid? Maybe because her parent is worried. Maybe because she feels a little bit too much attention around this and that’s why she’s ashamed. Maybe she’s ashamed because she feels the parent is too concerned about this, putting too much attention on it. I’m just throwing these things out here, I obviously don’t know for sure. And I don’t blame this parent for anything she’s feeling. She’s going through it, it’s a tough situation all around.

The parent says, “She runs and hides, refuses any comfort, tells me to go away and shouts, ‘Mummy, I want Daddy back!'” The running and hiding—yes, it could be that it’s too hard to try to contain that parent’s feelings while I have mine, as a child. So I need to just get some privacy with this.

“Refuses any comfort.” I wonder if the dear mother, out of her worry, is wanting to comfort her child, but in a way might be wanting to comfort herself that this is going to be okay. I don’t know that, but I mean, I can feel that as a parent. I can feel, I want you to feel better so I can feel better. That’s often where our wish to actively comfort comes from. And I don’t know what this comfort looks like when she says her daughter refuses it. Comfort in this case will come when the parent lets go a little bit more, lets go of worrying. Because, as she says, she understands the feeling. And the feeling makes sense to me. So it’s safe for her child to have this feeling all the way through, and that’s what she needs to do to get to the other side of it.

She says that her daughter tells her to go away and shouts, “Mummy, I want Daddy back!” That is her expressing her feeling. She’s expressing her anger and her upset feeling there and her sadness, maybe. I want Daddy back! I have to make this transition. Go away! I’m not ready to transition from Daddy to you yet. I need to have this passage of feelings first. So let me have them. Don’t get in my way. Even though the parent is trying so hard to do the right thing, right?

She says, “Today she shut herself in the bathroom and told me to go away if I opened the door. I sat outside, acknowledged her feelings, and let her know I was there and ready to help her when she needs me. The more I spoke, the more angry she was.” Yes. So when our acknowledging and our words make our child angrier or more upset, it’s often because, and I think that’s true in this case, maybe our intention in saying these words, maybe it’s coming out of our worry. Our wanting to work her through this, that this is a problem, that we’ve got to say these things and let her know that we’re there. When our child just needs to not be thinking about us and just to be in herself and her feelings.

And then of course, you’ve got to love this: “She eventually just snapped out of it after 20 minutes.” Snapped out of it. That’s what children do, especially at this age. They do snap out of it, when they’re ready to.

So, in answer to this question, “Do you have any advice for helping her to be more comfortable when feeling sad or angry?” Yes. I would calm myself. Not try to talk, not try to comfort. Know that your child feels your presence, they feel your worry or they feel your acceptance. If we can let go of worry and let ourselves drop into acceptance, let the feelings be, just keeping the focus on ourselves, then our child will feel that safe space to express her feelings. And when we’ve done this a few times around all her feelings, especially these ones that are so triggering for us, right? Because I’m sure this parent has her own feelings she’s processing and navigating about this situation. It’s so hard. But trying to keep that separate and just focus on herself, and let her child have it her way, the way that she does it. Which may be shutting herself away for a while, that’s okay. Trust that it’s a process.

And if we can show, not tell her, that we’re there for her and ready to help when she needs us. Even that—obviously this parent doesn’t mean it that way, but it can be pressurizing. Alright, I’m waiting. Let me know if you need me. It feels, as the child, like we’re getting rushed, like we’re supposed to feel better because our mom is doing all this stuff to try to help us feel better, saying the right things, doing the right things. We just want to feel how we feel. Just leave me alone! It can make sense when we put ourselves in our child’s shoes. And if we can trust more and accept more, she will feel safer to have them in our presence. But I wouldn’t have that be your goal. I would just have your goal be to let her do her thing the way that she does it, and trust that she’s going to come out the other side and feel better, probably snap out of it the way children do.

And that’s our job, we’ve done it. Accepting the feelings and also accepting the way our child is expressing them. Even if it doesn’t look the way that we imagine or the way it is in the movies or the way that looks like this wonderful parent and we have this moment together where we hug. That’s just not the vibe of these feelings right now. Giving into that and just letting go of it is the way.

Just a couple details about separations. Understanding more, again, how much sense these feelings make. This is a big transition for this child, or any child, to let go of one parent and be with another. Even if they’re staying in the same house and the parents are moving back and forth, or if they’re the ones that are moving from house to house. All transitions tend to be challenging for children, just getting up and going from here to there. And now here’s one that’s especially challenging, separating from one attachment figure and embracing another.

This can be easier for children when they feel like their attachment figures are aligned, not separate. But that’s not always the way our lives as parents work out, right? So no guilt there. But it’s something to realize, just to help us even more to normalize what she’s going through. Realizing that this is a natural time for her to express the strongest feelings, and the best thing she can do is to vent them out. And it can help kids if we’re able to give our partner who we’re separated from or divorced from grace, so children can still experience as much as possible a harmonious unit between parents. But that’s not always possible, I know.

Here’s some general suggestions for any parent going through something like this, where their child isn’t allowing them to comfort them or showing them their feelings the way the parent wishes them to. Allow. Allow children to express their feelings in their own immature way. Yelling at us may be a part of that. It’s not personal. Allow children to find their way to calm in their own way and time. So we’re not trying to dictate that for them or affect it in any way. That can be a tough one for us, right? And lastly, allow children to hide or not talk about it or stuff it with their thumb or their pacifier, after we’ve opened up that door for them to share with us very briefly. Don’t impose any pressure at all on what they’re doing, that they have to do it differently for us because we want them to. This is easier when we let go of feelings as some kind of agenda for us, and we’re just available. Within reason, I mean, we’re not going to let ourselves be screamed at in the face or pummeled or otherwise abused. We’re just being available, trusting. We’re calming ourselves, and that is the best way to comfort them or co-regulate, if we want to call it that. Calming ourselves, letting the feelings be. So simple, yet so not easy.

I share a whole section on meltdowns and tantrums and other feelings that children have, whining, and how we can handle that, how we can approach it, how to feel about it, in my No Bad Kids Master Course. You can check it out at nobadkidscourse.com.

Thank you so much for listening. I hope some of this helps. We can do this.

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Praise That Encourages Intrinsic Motivation https://www.janetlansbury.com/2024/03/praise-that-encourages-intrinsic-motivation/ https://www.janetlansbury.com/2024/03/praise-that-encourages-intrinsic-motivation/#comments Sun, 17 Mar 2024 03:09:25 +0000 https://www.janetlansbury.com/?p=22631 We can be our kids’ greatest fans, and they need us to be. How do we praise them in a manner that truly encourages them? We may have heard that “good job!” or “you’re so smart!” aren’t the ticket. In this episode, Janet shares her specific suggestions and a simple way we can find clarity … Continued

The post Praise That Encourages Intrinsic Motivation appeared first on Janet Lansbury.

We can be our kids’ greatest fans, and they need us to be. How do we praise them in a manner that truly encourages them? We may have heard that “good job!” or “you’re so smart!” aren’t the ticket. In this episode, Janet shares her specific suggestions and a simple way we can find clarity on what can be a confusing topic.

Transcript of “Praise That Encourages Intrinsic Motivation”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

Today I’m going to be talking about praise. It’s an interesting topic. It can be confusing because there’s a lot of different advice out there. A lot of it is these really strict do’s and don’ts: don’t say these certain words, don’t do it this certain way. And a lot of those don’ts are actually against our instincts, so that makes it doubly hard to navigate. One thing my mentor Magda Gerber always said is, children don’t need big hooplas. And she recommended that we acknowledge, rather than praise. One thing I loved about Magda was she was all about clarity and simplicity, she didn’t use complicated terms. But she was very exacting in the words she used to communicate; maybe that’s because her original degree was in linguistics.

If we think about it, acknowledge, that’s something that we do that’s really about noticing what our child is doing, noticing what they’re accomplishing. So they have ownership, and we’re just the ones noticing. With praise, we’re more subjective. It’s more about us imbuing what we see—our child’s accomplishment, their activity—with certain qualities. We are giving it a certain value. So it’s more about us than just acknowledging is. Which isn’t to say that we should only ever acknowledge and never, ever praise. Children need a little of both, I think. They want to know what we think sometimes. And one way to be able to discern that for ourselves is to wait for them to ask us what we think, look up at us for that acknowledgement.

But I can understand why Magda emphasized acknowledging over praising. Because she put such a high value—and so do I, I’ve learned the value of it and that it’s really possible for us to nurture it—on intrinsic motivation. And it’s kind of a delicate thing, intrinsic motivation. We can, without meaning to, sort of take that away from our child and make it more about them pleasing others, like us. So we just want to be a little more careful with praise, that’s all. That we’re encouraging our child to still have ownership and not subtly taking that away from them.

Hari Grebler, my friend and associate and my first RIE teacher, she was a recent guest on this podcast in an episode called Every Child, Even a Tiny Baby, Needs Time On Their Own. She has an Instagram page that I love, Hari’s RIE Studio. And she did a post recently, it was just a little video clip, and this was the message on it: It’s okay to be quiet while children are creating. Wow, that’s something kind of surprising to a lot of us. That frees us, right? We don’t have to say something to encourage them. We can just be quiet and honor what they’re doing.

And then she said: When they show you one of their creations, you could ask how they thought to do that. So when they’re asking for feedback, when they’re showing something to us and sharing it with us, then we’re interested in where that came from in them. What made you want to make that? We’re still encouraging the intrinsic desire to make that, instead of labeling it with some kind of praise or qualification of our own. And what that also does is encourages our child to stay in touch with that creative part of them. We’re showing that we value that by asking about it, we’re interested.

Hari also notes: They can get hooked on our oohs and ahs. And why do we ooh and ah sometimes? Because we feel like we’re supposed to, we’re supposed to say something! They’re going to feel discouraged if we don’t talk about what they’re doing, right? That’s a fear that a lot of us have, but it’s not the truth.

The next thing she says: Don’t interrupt them. When children are creating something, just the way that we create or focus on an activity, focus on a skill, we’re in it. And we want to encourage children to be in that flow of what they’re doing. So when we go, Ooh, ah, we’re interrupting that, which makes it a little harder for them to have that longer attention span. They can become accustomed to being interrupted. One of my most popular early posts I wrote is called Baby, Interrupted, and it’s all about that.

Then she says: Never (and I don’t hear a lot of “nevers” coming from her!) never ask them what it is. So, why wouldn’t we want to ask a child what it is? We do want to ask them what it is sometimes, right? Because we’re seeing from this product mentality that we tend to have as adults: You must have been trying to make a thing here. But children, they’re in the process and they’re interested in what it feels like to be painting on this piece of paper, what the brush is doing, what the colors are doing, or whatever they’re working on. They’re interested in what’s going on moment to moment and—especially very young children—they’re not trying to make a finished product. They’re not trying to make something, they’re just making. And they’re into the making of it, openly exploring. All qualities that we want to encourage, right? So it can be counterintuitive for us, but it’s so much more encouraging to not try to get them to zero in on, You have to make a thing here. You have to make something that looks like something, that you can call something, that represents something. You can’t just explore what’s inside you. Big difference, right?

Of course, this is specifically about creative projects, but it really holds true with all kinds of skill development that our children are doing. They’re figuring out a process, and they’re learning. As Magda Gerber said, they’re learning how to learn every time they get the opportunity to do this.

And then Hari says: You could ask them to tell you about their drawing, but that’s even over the top sometimes. Because that’s putting pressure on them. Maybe they don’t have words to describe their drawing, right? Adults that create things can’t always talk about what they’re doing, or they don’t want to.

Finally she says: When I did art with kids at preschool, I would just play with color, abstract, so as not to distract them from their own work. Mostly, let kids work. No need to put up all their work, wait until they think of it. Some children don’t care at all about the piece itself after they’re done. It’s truly the process for them. Hari shares all kinds of jewels like this on her Instagram page.

Most of us have heard that it’s not a great thing to say “good job” or to use terms that represent fixed traits, like, “You’re so smart,” “You’re so pretty,” or “You’re so great at this!” Carol Dweck did the famous study on this where children who were told that they were smart, they would perform far worse on the test afterwards than those who were praised for their effort, who were told, “You’re working so hard to get this.” But being told that they’re smart, it imposes pressure. It’s almost like, I can only go down from here. And they would fall apart and not be able to do their best. Fascinating study.

But before we start doubting ourselves too much, I recommend considering what really matters. And, as with everything to do with our relationships with children, what matters is authenticity between us. When we’re talking about what they’re doing, it’s coming from us truly paying attention, noticing and appreciating what our child does. In other words, it’s all about our intention. Because we could say the perfect words or the words that aren’t recommended. We could say, “Wow, you’re a stupendous artist!” or, “Look at all the colors you’re using!” And either way, if we’re doing this purely to try to encourage our kids, because we feel we need to say something, not because we really mean it, children will sense the difference. And this is how they can get hooked into needing that kind of empty validation. It’s empty because we’re doing it because we’re just trying to come up with something to say that’s going to make them feel good. 

That doesn’t work with other people, right? When we’re just trying to say something to make them feel good rather than really meaning it. When the people that are always authentic with us, when they acknowledge something, that feels amazing, right? Because we know that they really mean it. We want to be that person for our children if possible, and try to prevent them from falling into that trap of people-pleasing and being outer-directed.

Here’s some guidelines that I put together that have helped me in terms of praise:

First, don’t praise to deliberately encourage, acknowledge what you genuinely think, like I was just saying. And, as Hari Grebler said, it’s okay to be silent. Children can feel when we’re genuinely interested and attentive, they have a sixth sense for this. Try to trust your child.

Next, be careful about overdoing it. Big hooplas, as Magda called them, tend to make it more about us than about our child. Big hooplas for going on the potty or for eating that certain food. Those will reveal our agendas to our kids and very possibly get in the way of our child going on the potty and eating that certain food. Because now, instead of doing this for themselves because they wanted to and it felt good to make that autonomous choice, they now realize they’re doing it for us. And young children don’t like being told what to do, neither do teenagers, neither do most children. Yes, if this is truly something rare and extraordinary that you’ve seen them struggle with, they’ve worked so hard on it, you both know that—yes, make a big hoopla then, if that’s how you really feel. But save those for those momentous occasions.

Finally, don’t use praise with the intention of gaining cooperation. I see it as misusing praise. So instead of saying, “Oh, good job, good job, good job,” I would say, “Thank you.” “Thank you for helping me do that, that really helps.” Or, “You’re able to do that now with me, and that’s much more fun for me to do it with you. Thanks for your help.”

But even with good job, there are ways we can say that authentically. It’s when we’re looking into our child’s eyes with that twinkle, we’re sharing something we’re both excited about, and we’re saying, I see you and you did it. Good job. When it really means something. That feels so much better than this sort of automatic stamp of approval that “good job” can often be. Good job, good job, I want you to keep going, keep doing this for me. Children don’t need that, and it can get in the way and have the opposite result from what we’re hoping for.

And then getting back into that intention part of this again. This can be our north star: intention. It just sort of clears everything away. What is my intention and how can I achieve it? I think in most of these examples, it seems like mostly our intention is to encourage. We don’t have bad intentions here, it’s very positive. We want to encourage our kids, we want them to feel good about themselves, to have self-confidence, to know they can do things. That’s what we want, right? So here are some ways that are quite related to what I’ve been talking about, about praise, but these are surprising ways to encourage our kids.

First, don’t try; instead, trust. Encouraging kids is not this active process, as I once thought it was. It’s about facilitating rather than doing. Since, as I was saying before, children feel our presence and they sense our emotions and our intentions, trusting in them as capable, unique, evolving individuals is the most valuable support we can give them. And, as Hari Grebler said, it can be silent.

Second, don’t cheerlead. You can do it! Good job, good job, good girl, good boy! Or coax. Come on, just give it a try! Give it a try. Instead, calm yourself and reflect what you see. There’s that acknowledging. “You’re working hard on that. It’s really difficult. Ah, it’s frustrating at times, right? To try to figure that out.” Or, “You did it.” And now I just have to say, my impulse when I first became a parent was to cheerlead, for sure. It’s what I grew up with. The way my family did things is to go over the top, and I still kind of love that in a way. But I see how it interferes and how with me, it interfered with me being outer-directed, looking outside of myself for validation, not feeling self-confident. I don’t think that was the only reason, but that was part of it.

Kids don’t need as much reassurance as we think, especially if they’re not asking for it. I try not to assume that my kids need to be reassured and reassured that I’m in their corner, that I’m rooting them on. They feel if we are or we aren’t, because they’re so magnificently aware. So they feel more genuinely supported when we’re not trying to push it or sell it on them. I mean, then they can feel like they’re letting us down too, right? When they don’t achieve whatever it is.

I’ve also realized that my impulse to actively demonstrate support for my kids mostly stems from my own discomfort with the possibility that they might become frustrated or fail. In other words, it’s not my child needing this feedback as much as it’s my need to want to give it to her. And so that was a big aha! for me. Calming myself is the best way for me to keep the air clear of the pressure and the urgency that can make it seem way more important than it is to my child. And that’s going to create pressure.

Point three, don’t direct or fix. Instead, be patient, fully attentive (if we’re available to be), providing the most minimal direction needed for children to be able to accomplish self-chosen tasks themselves.

Four, don’t over-sympathize or attempt to actively comfort frustration. Instead, allow it, accept it, empathize, acknowledge feelings. Doing all those things normalizes the experience of frustration. Because it is a life experience, and if we can feel it, allow it to be, it passes, we get through it, and we become used to those walls that go up. It doesn’t feel good, but we know it’s going to pass. Or maybe we need to take a break and come back, or maybe we need to give up on it altogether that time and come to it another day or later when we’re more ready. If we offer too much sympathy and comfort, we can teach our children, without meaning to, that this is a really negative situation, a problematic situation that you need my help with, that you can’t handle, that I need you to feel better.

Five, don’t project your own agenda or your urge to get it done and done “right.” Instead, let go and enjoy the journey. Enjoy the surprises. If it doesn’t work, the child learns from that too. If we can be okay with it, they can be okay with it.

Just to continue on this idea that it’s really not about the words, it’s about our intention, and that that can be our north star in helping us to give children praise or acknowledgements in ways that are genuinely connected. I received a note. It’s not the first one I’ve received with this issue, so I thought it would be interesting to respond to regarding this topic of praise.

Hi, Janet-

I can’t thank you enough for your work. It’s been life-changing to our family, and I wish we would’ve found it sooner. We have two daughters, a four-year-old and a one-year-old. We regrettably didn’t start following your methods until our oldest was about three, but she has a great attention span and plays well by herself.

Lately, however, she’s been a constant look at me, look what I’m doing, watch this, Mom, you’re not looking!, Mom, say good job! (Which we haven’t said to her in years and do not say to her sister.) I know this has everything to do with her younger sister, who is now able to do so many things. But I find myself getting exhausted and not wanting to watch every little thing she does. I also don’t want her to feel ignored. I tell her “not right now,” but that doesn’t seem to stop the constant requests. I’ve tried, “Ah, I hear you want me to watch you, but I’m a bit busy,” but the constantly responding to her requests is just exhausting. I find myself more and more withdrawn and lost in my own mind and needing space the more she requests my attention. Other people in her life say things like, “Good job!” or, “Wow, look at you!” And I just don’t feel like it’s authentic. I cannot control how other people speak to her, but she seems more and more bothered that I don’t speak to her that way.

Any encouragement or recommendations would be so greatly appreciated.

This parent gets that certain kinds of common ways we praise children aren’t authentic. The thing is, though, they are still going to get that input. Either from us, before we started considering the way we use those words, or from someone else—relatives, teachers. And what children do when they hear or observe or otherwise experience things, the healthy thing they do is that they process these experiences out. And often they do that with us, their trusted leaders. They’re exploring it. Wow, people are getting all excited with this praise thing. They’re not articulating it this way in their mind, but, Whoa, there’s this energy around this and I’m going to explore that. What does my mother think about it?

Then, if children come up against some resistance with us around something that they’re processing, we’re either shocked or we’re angry or, in this case, we’re just kind of annoyed because we don’t want her to be hooked into that stuff. And then also, Ugh, she wants me to give her this validation that doesn’t seem authentic. And I don’t want to do it and I don’t have time. But it could have just been that very first time we could have just been like, Oh, uh-oh, she wants me to say good job. Or, She’s all into needing validation. What have I done wrong? Or, This isn’t a good sign. So there’s that little bit of hesitation on our part, that little bit of maybe disappointment or worry. They feel that resistance from us. They’re coming up against some resistance, and that can be curious. So they want to explore it further. What if I ask this every second? Why is she getting more and more annoyed? And that can become a stuck place for them.

I believe that could be what’s happening here. She’s getting this subtle pushback when she requests this kind of empty praise, so she’s getting stuck. That means she’s struggling to get that need to just process this out filled. So what I would do in this case, especially because she’s asking for it, I would give her what she’s asking for without hesitation or reservation. Which we can still do authentically, I’m going to try to demonstrate. And I’m also sure that this parent is spot on in that her child is craving that extra attention and validation because of the rivalry with her sibling. So she’s a little more vulnerable, and then now she’s getting this feeling from her mother that what she’s asking for is this kind of annoying big deal. So then she’s getting stuck there doing it again and again and again, not wanting to be this more annoying child, but that’s where it’s going.

I want to try to assure this parent that she can give that validation while still holding onto her personal boundaries. And the way to do that is we’re giving it with an attitude that’s open, welcoming, encouraging. Generous, if you will, instead of stingy. Like, Sigh, alright, I’ll say good job. “You want a good job? Sure! That’s a great job! You’re doing a great job, I’m sure of it! I didn’t see what that was, but great job!”

So just to go over this, the parent says, “Lately, however, she’s been a constant look at me, look what I’m doing, watch this.” “Look at you? You know what? I want to look at you! I have to do this for now, but I can’t wait to come look at what you’re doing. Can you hold onto that? Just let me do this first.” I didn’t stop everything I was doing to go look at her, but I had an open, welcoming attitude about it, while still having my boundary. Which helps free her from that stuck place. I’m not annoyed, I just can’t do it right now, but I’m excited to do it when I can. She says, “Watch this!” “I wish I could! I can’t wait to see you do it after I do this thing.” “Mom, you’re not looking!” “Oh, I know, I know, but I will be!”

And then, you know what? We don’t have to keep talking every time she talks. We can let it go too, but just not with that tension that I’m guessing this parent is feeling. I mean, I understand why she’s feeling that because what her child is asking for is a bothersome thing, and then she won’t let up. But she will let up, I believe, as soon as this parent lets down her guard about it and lets it be. And when she says, “Mom, say good job!” And the mom says, “Which we haven’t said to her in years and do not say to her sister.” “You want me to say good job? Good job! I’m sure you’re doing a great job.” Or if we do see it, let’s say: “Good job, that is a good job actually!” We’re still not using it the way that we don’t want to use it. We’re using it in response to her wanting us to say it. And there’s no harm in that for her.

This parent says, “I tell her, ‘not right now.’ Or I’ve tried, ‘Ah, I hear you want me to watch you, but I’m a bit busy.'” Even saying those things could be fine, but the way she’s saying them, if she’s saying them with, Oh, not right now, but I will! Can’t wait to! Or, You want me to watch you and I wish I could, and I’m sure you’re doing something amazing. I’m a bit busy now, but I’ll be with you. It’s just a different attitude. It’s an unruffled attitude, it’s a there’s nothing to fear here attitude. Me saying those words to her is not going to harm her. It’s only going to help her move through this and see that there’s no pushback coming her way, there’s no odd resistance here. Nothing is a big deal. And it’s that daily diet of the way that we respond that matters. It’s not the once-in-a-while and the aunts and uncles doing it or whoever else is doing it.

I wanted to share this because I feel like it’s a good example of us getting tripped up in words, with all our wonderful intentions, to say the right words. There’s so much focus on words in our environment around parenting. But we’ll find much more clarity and freedom when we let go of those words, so we’re able to see beyond them to what really matters. And I would love to encourage this parent and every parent listening to believe in themselves and know that, in this case, this parent, she could free herself to do both. She can respond lovingly and exuberantly and affectionately with that empty validation her daughter wants right now, while still holding her boundaries and believing in what she believes in: being authentic. I mean, that’s a great value right there, in my opinion. I’m all about authentic. That’s one of the most important things to me, and I feel like it’s underrated these days, but that’s another story.

Let’s not get ourselves hamstrung worrying about words. We can trust ourselves more if we can also trust our child. Trust their intrinsic motivation, that they don’t need us to babble on about what they’re doing. It’s not up to us to mold certain outcomes for them. We provide the environment and the relationship of authenticity and trust, and these qualities we want to mold for our child will bloom on their own. That’s what I’ve seen with my children, the families I’ve worked with. I believe in that 100%: that trying to mold the outcome will only get in our way. It’s not our role at all. Instead, when it comes to our child’s abilities, be an interested spectator. The most interested spectator. Not judgmental, just interested.

Overall, we can stay on track as parents by considering: What do we want? Not just for now, but for the years to come. What do we want? Most of us want honest, authentically and mutually appreciative relationships with our kids. And we hope that they’ll know from the inside out that they are capable, that they are valuable, that they are worthy. Not because we say so, but because we both know so.

I know that we can do this.

The post Praise That Encourages Intrinsic Motivation appeared first on Janet Lansbury.

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Should We Resort to Using Force? https://www.janetlansbury.com/2024/03/should-we-resort-to-using-force/ https://www.janetlansbury.com/2024/03/should-we-resort-to-using-force/#respond Tue, 12 Mar 2024 23:36:26 +0000 https://www.janetlansbury.com/?p=22625 Janet consults with a couple who feel at odds with their 4-year-old at bedtime. “She stalls, refuses or delays putting on her pajamas, brushing her teeth, getting in bed, and staying in bed.” She’s also uncooperative in the mornings. The parents have conflicting ideas about how they should handle her behavior and hope Janet can … Continued

The post Should We Resort to Using Force? appeared first on Janet Lansbury.

Janet consults with a couple who feel at odds with their 4-year-old at bedtime. “She stalls, refuses or delays putting on her pajamas, brushing her teeth, getting in bed, and staying in bed.” She’s also uncooperative in the mornings. The parents have conflicting ideas about how they should handle her behavior and hope Janet can offer some guidance.

Transcript of “Should We Resort to Using Force?”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

Today I’m going to be doing something a little different, thanks to a couple who graciously agreed to consult with me here. One of them reached out via email with concerns about her four-year-old’s unwillingness to cooperate with the steps leading up to bedtime and also during morning transitions. The parents wondered if there was a point when following through with limits around bathtime, toothbrushing, dressing should mean using force. And as a couple, they have differing views about this issue. They’ve tried sticker charts, taking away storytime if she doesn’t get ready in time, working with her to help develop a bedtime routine. But none of those strategies have worked out. So they asked if I could share any thoughts that I have.

As is often the case, when I read their note, I had way more questions than I did answers. So I very much appreciate them being willing to share with us here.

Hello, and thank you so much for being here and being willing to share with me and listeners about your issues. I imagine there’s other parents going through similar things, so I really appreciate you being willing to be on with me. I would like to start with your note that you sent me a couple of weeks ago, and here it is:

Thank you so much for all your lessons on parenting and developing respectful connections with my two daughters while holding boundaries and ensuring that my needs matter too. My current challenge is with my almost-four-year-old, who often engages in testing behavior at bedtime. She stalls, refuses, or delays putting on her pajamas, brushing her teeth, getting in bed, and staying in bed. For a few weeks we used a sticker chart and that helped motivate and then that behavior stuck for a while when we discontinued the chart, but now we are back to the same testing behavior. This behavior also happens when getting ready for preschool in the morning.

So my question to you is, how to enforce boundaries that seem like they would require physical intervention within the respectful parenting framework? When she won’t put on her pajamas, do we hold her body down to do so? If she will not go into the bathtub, do we pick her up and put her in, then keep putting her back in each time she climbs out? Do we brush her teeth for her while she tries to keep her mouth shut?

This has been a major area of conflict with my husband, who believes that these actions are part of following through after providing clear limits and acknowledging feelings, while I see them as overly controlling. To me it is really hard not to see it as too physical, and triggers my own history of being held down by my older brother when I didn’t do what he wanted me to do. I don’t want to be so physical, putting on her pajamas while my daughter fights it with her body and screams. But other options we have tried, like taking away storytime if she doesn’t get ready in time, using sticker charts, working with her to help develop a bedtime routine, haven’t worked.

Any thoughts you have would be so helpful. Thank you for your help.

As I mentioned in the note that I sent back to you, one of the reasons I wanted you to come on and talk to me here is that I have a lot of questions for you about what’s going on here. If you don’t mind, I’d like to start with that. Why do you think she’s struggling this way? What do you think could be going on there that makes her want to stall and resist and refuse?

Parent 1: Well, one piece that we’ve noticed just this last week is that we’ve moved up bedtime a bit. And realizing that some of it had to do with her just being overtired, and that’s helped some. It had gotten to the point where she was kicking and spitting when we were trying to help her get to bed, and that’s not typical behavior for her. And so recognizing that she, I mean she’s often going to be tired in the evening, but she was really overtired and that was making it even more challenging. That’s one thought that comes to mind.

Another is that she has an older sister who maybe she wants to be playing with and sometimes the older sister gets to stay up a little later.

And I think another part of it is just the testing part. She can see that I’m tentative, perhaps, in terms of I’ll say, “It’s time to put on pajamas,” and she just won’t answer and she’ll walk away and I kind of don’t know what to do. And I know from reading and listening to your podcast that sometimes that confidence is needed that can help them see that I’m her strong leader. And so perhaps that also plays a role.

Those are some of the thoughts that I’ve had. I don’t know if you have any others.

Parent 2: Well, you nailed the two big ones, which are that she’s probably been overtired and moving up the bedtime over the last week I think has made a big difference. I think a lot of it is sibling-related, dealing with her big sister is a big part of it. I think that her older sister, of course, is further along developmentally and more capable and more verbal. Even though our younger daughter is quite verbal and communicative, she’s not as communicative as our older daughter. So I think it often feels hard for her to get attention, get a word in edgewise, and she’s often using behaviors that are maybe more intense to try to get some of the attention that she’s looking for. And then I think part of it is the boundaries that you were just talking about. I think sometimes the boundaries aren’t totally clear to her.

One thing that I’ll add on to that is that you and I just do things a little bit differently as parents. Like when my back was hurting and it was really hard for me to reach to the far side of the bathtub to do her bathtime, that’s one place where I put in a boundary that I don’t think you have, which is that, “I can’t wash you if you’re on the far side of the bathtub. I need you to be on the near side of the bathtub.” And so she’d learned that that’s a boundary where she can try to test it and see what happens with me. So that’s one place where, to finish a bath with her, I would pick her up and take her out of the bath. But for you, that’s not something that you like doing and it’s not a boundary that you have in your mind. So there’s a difference between the two of us there. Does that make sense?

Parent 1: Yeah, yeah, that definitely makes sense. I think that we do have differences in some of the boundaries. I think she learns some of them really well and then other times I can see that might be confusing to her, to know where the boundary is between the two of us.

Janet Lansbury: Well, I’m hearing a lot of insightfulness here on both of your parts, so that definitely works in your favor as parents and in figuring this out, figuring out what’s going on and what we can do to help. I love that you both nailed the tiredness thing. It’s so all-consuming for young children and they aren’t able to see it coming in the way that we might as adults, where we’re like, Ah, I’m getting tired. And a lot of children have the temperament where they go right into this hyperactive, really unreasonable, dysregulated place. So that’s great that you’re both noticing that element, that you can help her there by starting earlier. I also wonder how old is the older one, your older child?

Parent 2: She’s six. They’re two-and-a-half years apart.

Janet Lansbury: And do they have time together at the end of the day?

Parent 2: Yeah, they do have time together at the end of the day. They often play together really nicely in the evenings for half-an-hour or an hour before dinner, after dinner, before bathtime, before bedtime.

Janet Lansbury: Wonderful.

Parent 1: And they also share a room, they have bunk beds, so they kind of are in the same space at night too.

Parent 2: They also do have conflict between each other and they work on resolving that. There’s lots of the older sister trying to keep things away from the younger sister and the younger sister trying to destroy the things that the older sister is working on. I mean, something along those lines probably happens every day, but they often are able to resolve it on their own, and then of the times that they’re not, they’re often able to resolve it with a tiny bit of observation from one of us.

Janet Lansbury: Yes, that I would say is par for the course, that they have conflicts. And that’s actually the benefit of having a sibling, is that you learn how to work through conflicts with other children and with peers and in all relationships in your life. It’s an incredible gift that they have this kind of relationship. It sounds ideal.

Why is it that you believe, though, that this is getting in the way with bedtime? Because it sounds like, well, your younger one has to go into the bunk bed before her sister does and be alone in there, and then her sister comes in later after she’s asleep. Is that how it works?

Parent 1: There was a period where we separated them because the younger daughter would just kind of scream, not letting the older one sleep. So we tried this for a year and we would just bring our older daughter into our room to sleep until the younger one stopped screaming and then we’d carry her back into the other room when our younger daughter was asleep. It was just a long time of really wanting them to share a room that wasn’t working, in the sense that I think that our younger daughter was getting some attention. I don’t know, I’m guessing that it’s attention, just doing a lot of screaming and yelling, not letting the older daughter sleep.

But that sort of got fixed in the last few months, so we had them in the same room going down at the same time, but half the nights there’s a lot of this testing behavior. And then in the last week, really, after I sent the message, we were like, Let’s put her down earlier! And that’s seemed to have helped some in terms of the intensity of the behavior.

Janet Lansbury: So now she has her own bedtime that’s earlier and she’s going to bed without the sister there?

Parent 1: Correct, yes.

Parent 2: Right.

Janet Lansbury: And that’s working better. That’s interesting. Yeah, the children can sort of play off each other, which does make it harder for them to let go. What all of us want at the end of the day when we’re going to sleep is to be able to kind of let go. Let go of the excitement in life, let go of the dramas that might be happening, let go of how we might be winding our parents up. She sounds like a very intense person, this younger one. I love that kind of child, but it does have challenges. It can be so much harder for them to let go.

Anyway, it sounds like you’ve gotten over one hurdle by figuring this out that she got too tired, which makes everything much harder for her and harder for you. The other part here that I wanted to talk about is, since you sort of know why she’s struggling, stalling, and resisting, so we want to be able to do what you’ve done by acknowledging the overtiredness. Which is kind of fixing this from the inside out by understanding what elements are making it not work, what she’s expressing here that she might need. And then from there, partnering with her. Because even sticker charts, while totally harmless, they’re kind of pitting you against her. That’s how children feel: Here, you get to do this fun thing if you comply with what we want. Whether that’s a sticker chart or storytime, it makes children feel a distance between them and us that can kind of make these matters worse. It just looks and feels a lot different to a child than when we’re partnering with her.

Another part of this, I don’t know if it’s the way that you expressed it in the letter, but it sounds like—and you can correct me if I’m wrong—that you are kind of asking her to do these things, in terms of getting ready for bed or in the morning, and she’s not doing them. Is that sort of the way it’s going?

Parent 1: Yes, I would say that’s correct. “It’s time to get dressed.” And she won’t get dressed.

Janet Lansbury: Right. So what she’s showing is that this is a time when she needs more of a helping her through these transitions. Especially the night transition is the hardest one of all because children are tired, but all transitions tend to be challenging. And getting up in the morning and getting out the door—I mean, I can totally relate to the stalling and the procrastinating and all of that stuff because I do that myself. At this age, though, children often need that parent helping them, guiding them through the channel. That feeling that we’re totally willing to do that. And actually we want to do that, because this is a way that we get to really separate from you when you go to school in a way that feels like there’s a lot of relationship that’s a part of it. And it feels better to us, too, than getting in a battle with her in the morning or at night before she goes to bed, certainly. It can feel better to us to hold on to that I worked with her and I helped her from the beginning.

Yes, she’s four years old and can do a lot of this herself, but there are often periods that children go through with transitions where it’s like they revert back to being a one-and-a-half-year-old, where they really need us to walk them through. And she sounds like she’s either going through that or she’s that kind of person right now. It doesn’t mean you’re going to be doing this forever until she’s a teenager. But for now, I would consider both these periods—the morning and the night—as this is time that you’re going to be connected with her, that you’re going to do caregiving. It’s like baby caregiving with her, to help her get from point A to point B.

Again, it’s that feeling of distance that she has where we’re over here and she’s over there. I want you to do this and you’re not doing it. But what she’s feeling is, There’s a part of me that’s still in independent-mode. Just because you tell me to do something, I can’t do it sometimes. And just be on my side and help me through. I mean, she can’t obviously say that, but that’s often what children are needing. That we are like, okay, it’s bedtime. And you said something about that you developed a routine, so here’s a routine that she hopefully had input on: What do you need at bedtime? What do you need from me? How do you want this to go? And then knowing that no, we’re not going to be able to make a deal that she’s always going to be able to shake on and follow through with. She still needs the backup of, We’re there, we’re taking you through.

That’s how I would approach it, so that right from the beginning, you’re, “Okay, now it’s time to get your clothes on. Here we go. And now we’re going to do this, and then we’re going to do that.” And I’m not saying that it’ll all be perfect and smooth then, but that’s the way I would look at this for yourselves. And you two could take turns or whoever’s available, to give her that 100% nurturing through that time. Okay, so now she’s saying, “No, I don’t want to do that!” The thing is, children often don’t, or they do it a lot less, when we’re in there with this positive, helpful, we’re doing this together, here we go, my love vibe, instead of the it’s time for you to do this attitude. So sometimes that will actually just override. They might still go, “No, I don’t want to. I don’t want to!” But they give in much easier because they’re getting that nurturing that they’re unconsciously asking for.

Parent 2: I think that is great advice. And just speaking for myself, I’ve heard you give that advice on other podcasts and we’ve been doing that and I think it has really helped. It has been great, for me at least, to switch my mindset from I need my daughter to do these things! to, Oh wow, my daughter really needs my help right now. And I remember you saying on a podcast about hard pickups from preschool or daycare, about kids running away: “Just don’t let your kid run away from you. Get there and give them a hug and then stay by their side for the whole time and then your kid can’t run away. And then there’s no conflict there anymore.” Or with these sorts of routines, to switch from saying, Wow, I just need my daughter to do her bedtime routine, to, Oh, my daughter is really tired and she’s only three, so she doesn’t know how to do this on her own and she needs my help. And I think that has made a big difference.

Even doing that, when we go into it and we let her know that the transition is coming: it’s going to be bedtime in 10 minutes, it’s going to be bedtime in five minutes, it’s going to be bedtime in one more minute, take one more moment to do one more thing. Then when it’s bedtime, I say, “Okay, it’s time to head up for bedtime. Do you want to walk or do you want me to carry you?” I will carry her or I’ll hold her hand. And I’ve had a lot of success doing that. Even so, she might start screaming that she can’t walk, and I’ll say, “Oh yeah, you are too tired to walk. I understand, that makes sense. I’ll carry you. I’m happy to carry you.” Sometimes that works.

Or sometimes she screams, “No, I want mama to carry me!” I mean, sometimes we look at each other and maybe mama is free and can pick her up and carry her, but I think this is where I start wondering about boundaries. Because if I’ve told her, “It’s time to go up for bedtime, I’m happy to carry you, I’m here,” is that a place where I ought to be saying, You really had these perfectly good options in front of you and you said no to walking and I’m here and I’m taking the lead in this bedtime, so I’m just going to pick you up. Even though mama’s on the other side of the house and she’s fully capable of taking you upstairs, right now I’m the one who’s doing it. But then that will often become a point of conflict between my daughter and me where she’ll just be screaming for the entire bedtime that she wants mama to do whatever. Does that make sense?

Janet Lansbury: It does, it does. And it’s great to hear these details of what’s going on. So the other thing I would say is, knowing that transitions are very challenging and a time of dysregulation, especially the nighttime one for young children. She’s still totally in that category at age four, four can be a challenging age. Six does get a lot easier by then, but four is still ripe for falling apart when it’s time to do these things. So knowing that going in, I would give her the most minimal choices, if any, and I wouldn’t give her that kind of countdown. Because putting my toddler hat on or my four-year-old hat on, I’m getting wound up by that. One more minute, here we go . . . For a child with this kind of sensitivity, it can be unraveling to feel that warning vibe. I know you don’t mean it that way, you mean it very lovingly, but it can come off as, Alright, here we go . . . and like, I have a feeling there might be trouble here. That’s the way you said it in your voice saying it to me. Maybe you’re not saying it that way to her, but that trepidation feeling.

Instead I’d say, “You know what? In a few minutes it’s going to be time to go upstairs and I can’t wait to do bedtime with you.” That’s the only warning part. And saying it very positively like that and then going up to her, “Okay, come on, let’s go.” Taking her hand, putting your arm around her. You see her starting to stall, “You know what, I’m going to pick up my little baby bear” or whatever, and, “I’m so glad I can still do this!” And now she’s screaming, Mommy, mommy! “Oh no, you want mommy.”

And maybe she can’t hear you from then out, but if she goes there—which again, there’s so much more chance of it when we’re leaving open those choices and all those things that she can’t handle. It’s like, I can’t handle this, I can’t handle that, I can’t handle that. And it’s like one on top of the other and, Now, I’m done. She’s gone off into that dysregulation place. And so if she gets like that anyway, even if you do kind of come in early with this, I call it the “confident momentum” of not giving her those choices and all those pauses and all those places of making decisions that are really, really hard for most young children. Or all of us when we’re in tense periods in our life, and young children still are in their development, there’s so much going on.

Even with all that, if she’s now screaming for mommy, I would see it as, You know what? She’s venting her day right now. I would perceive it that way. And, I’m going to be the hero that doesn’t get flustered by that, doesn’t try to call in mommy.

I would not do that, even if mom’s right there. I would not try to fix it that way because it will help her if she can just let go and be gone at that point. I would just take her up. If she’s screaming, cover your ears or if she’s trying to hurt you or something, say, “You know what? I can’t.” Or don’t even say it. Just put her down and just somehow get her along that way.

When you talk about force, you could call it force, but it’s not the kind that you two are both worried about where you have to hold her down. It’s that papa bear/mama bear momentum that I guess could be called force, but it’s really more when you can’t do it yourself, I’m going to carry you through attitude. And not all these words to her. I wouldn’t try to talk to her about it, especially if she’s at that point.

Then with details like the bath, I mean the bath is optional, really. Bathing is a nice luxury, I think. I mean for me at least! But for her it’s like you could wash her, you could washcloth her back a little if she’s been playing in mud or something like that or wash her hands. And I would do that with confident momentum. “You know what, we’re going to put these hands in here and we got to do this,” and, “Oh, you don’t want to and you want mommy and this is just not going your way!” If you’re going to say anything, just be understanding that she’s falling apart and coming from that place. But a bath should really be a voluntary thing because we want to present it positively. And like I said, I think it is positive.

It’s not make or break that if she doesn’t have a bath—unless she’s been working in a construction site or something—that there’s going to be something wrong with that. It’s just that we want this routine to go, and also maybe she said she wanted to do that. And then you might say, “It looks like it’s going to be too hard for you to be in the bath, so we’re going to skip it this time.” Not mad at her, not, Well, you said!, not going up against her in that way. But really on her side, as somebody that you see is almost like a basket case at this point. This is especially true if she was overtired.

Brushing the teeth, you do the best you can. The pajamas, I mean, if she has to sleep without pajamas, it’s not the end of the world. But I think you’ll find it’s easier—I mean, you say you’re already finding it easier that she’s not overtired, but I think you’ll find it easier when you approach it as, Okay, I got to get you dressed. That’s my job, and I got to do this. And we’re not annoyed with her, because we know she’s not in her best mind right now and she just needs help. She just needs us to get her from point A to point B as best we can. It’s not purposeful behavior that she’s doing. And then I think you’ll find there’s less of it.

I wanted to talk to your partner here about her feeling tentative because that is, as you both realize, that is also getting in the way. And understandably. I’m so sorry you had that experience as a child. A lot of parents that I work with have trouble with being physical in the way that I was just describing. Having that confidence to start early with momentum, to see your job as heroic, and there are physical aspects of that. If we’re tentative, then we’re leaving open all those spaces, we’re going to keep giving her those kinds of choices. Oh, you don’t want me? Okay, daddy, and, Okay, are you ready for me to do this? Instead of, You know what, I’m going to do this. I know I’m doing the right thing, I know I’m caring for you, that you’re showing me you need my help, and I’m happy to do it. It’s not the same as going up against you. I’m overriding some of the difficulty that you’re having, is really the way it is.

Parent 1: Yeah, that’s helpful. I think it’s some of what you described as putting pajamas on, the bathtub, those sorts of things, being voluntary, I think sort of trying to better understand that piece. Because I think there are times where we can come in with that more positive attitude and catching it earlier and it works. And other times where she just hides under the bed or hides behind furniture. I think she can kind of feel her power in terms of the pajamas, getting the pajamas on. And so I guess I wonder if in that situation when she’s—I’m using the word fighting, but that’s not what I mean—where she’s just really having a hard time or testing in those moments, would that make sense to let that go? Or would you say that’s important to get her pajamas on?

Janet Lansbury: That’s interesting. I don’t disagree with you saying fighting. But what you said is so key, about the power. So yes, she’s unconsciously trying to understand also, besides feeling not her best self and kind of a mess, she’s trying to understand and reckon with, in a way, the power that this has with her parents. That when she hides, now you’re frustrated or however you’re being or mad or trying to get her out of there. So what we want to do with that is not give it power.

That’s what I meant about cutting our losses sometimes and letting go of certain things. I mean, it’s not like I can give you a set plan. It’s a feeling that you have with her of she’s trying to get you wound up by something—again, I believe on an unconscious level—and you’re not going to do it. You’re not going to take the bait because you see beyond. Going under the bed, it’s so silly. So am I going to get annoyed with that? If I have this agenda, I’ve got to do this and she’s got to have the pajamas and she’s got to have the bath, that’s going to set me up to be annoyed when it’s not going my way. But if I’m just like, I’m going to do the best I can to help my little girl, and I’m not afraid of touching her and picking her up and doing all those things. Because it is loving, especially if I’m acknowledging.

If she’s screaming for mommy and daddy’s taking her and if you’re like, “You want your mom, you don’t want me,” knowing it’s not personal, then it’s so compassionate. It’s so loving. There’s nothing even remotely abusive or wrong there for her. She’s feeling that hero come in and take care of her.

But yeah, when she’s doing that kind of silly stuff, I would say maybe, “Okay, I’m going to go file my nails and let me know when you’re ready for the book because I’m happy to read it for a few more minutes.” Very positive, very you’re not going to get me with this stuff. And that will give you confidence when you realize you’re the one that actually has all the power, not her. She doesn’t want to have the power to annoy you with these antics, and she doesn’t have to if you don’t give it to her.

Parent 1: That feels really powerful. I could just feel myself, I have to get these nine things done to get her in bed! I think that’s where she gets the power. You’re absolutely right that I am like, Okay, now how do I convince her to put on her pajamas? And now how do I convince her to brush her teeth? And if she doesn’t, I have to make her do it. So then I’m trying all the tricks. We can’t read a book, or you’re not going to get to say goodnight to your sister, all the things. I’m pulling them out because she has to get the pajamas on. But if she doesn’t have to get the pajamas on, then okay. If she doesn’t have to brush her teeth. I mean, hopefully she doesn’t not want to brush her teeth every night, it doesn’t get to that. But I don’t think it does. The other day that came up and we were like, “Oh, okay, you don’t have to brush your teeth to go to school today.” She’s like, “Oh, I want to. I don’t want cavities.” And so she still did. I think that’s just really powerful to take the air out of it all by recognizing none of it has to get done.

Janet Lansbury: Right. I love that you had that experience where she wanted to brush her teeth! What does that tell you? I mean, everything, right there. This is about your dynamic with her. That’s all. And so what she’s feeling when you’re putting this really intense agenda on yourself. I mean, look what you’re doing to yourself. You’re kind of making it impossible for you to be a confident parent right there. No. Own your power.

You don’t have to tell her and talk her into things. Say, “Okay, here’s your clothes. I’m going to put this on.” You really can’t do it? Don’t do it, then. Maybe there’s ways that you can practice with her during times when she’s not having difficulty like this, where you come in very positively with physical touch. I mean, I’m sure you do have this. You just put your arm around her right away, you’re not tentative about touching her, that you have to ask her permission for everything or whatever. I mean, I know that that’s out there. You’re not one of these people that anybody should worry about making a child do things and breaking their boundaries physically. You’re the other direction. But children read that as, She can’t be the leader. I don’t want to be the leader, but I’m kind of stuck here trying to get her to be the leader. It’s not a comfortable feeling for her.

Parent 1: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. There’s definitely a place for picking her up and helping her and coming to it from that perspective as her leader and helping her through things. And letting go when it starts to feel like a power struggle. That feeling that I have in my body is a cue that, Huh, maybe this thing isn’t necessary. Maybe she doesn’t have to eat a banana before she goes to school. Let that go. If she doesn’t want to eat breakfast, then she doesn’t want to eat breakfast. I can let go of all those things.

Janet Lansbury: And you can take it in the car and, instead of that disappointment in her, say, “You know what? We’ll bring it in the car. Tell me if you change your mind.” If you don’t mind her eating in your car, but if you do, don’t do it.

You’re not willing to engage in a power struggle. You’re just not. Not because you’re afraid of it, but you’re just too big for it. You’re way too big for it, both of you. You’re not going to stoop to that with a four-year-old. And that’s what will give her heart so much relief. That she’s not in charge of these things, that she doesn’t have to make all these decisions, that her little antics don’t throw you off your game, you two. That’s the main thing that she’s looking for here, I think.

Parent 1: Yeah. I feel like I have a new approach that’s going to really help the evenings feel. I think you’re right, there’s a sense that, Here comes the bedtime routine . . . How is it going to go tonight? So hopefully I can shift that mindset, because I’m sure she feels that too.

Janet Lansbury: Yeah. And if you’re feeling that, this girl’s feeling it for sure. It’s like seeping out of you, that trepidation. And it’s a really typical thing, you’re not unusual, that we go into these things where our child, maybe we’ve had difficulty before and now, “Alright, five more minutes until your bedtime. Okay, it’s time.” Like we’re almost asking for trouble, right?

Parent 1: Right.

Janet Lansbury: Yeah. Even though of course we don’t really want it, but that’s how it can feel.

I think it’s also wonderful that you also have the connection now that you’ve made between your childhood experience and the tentativeness that you feel. Keep exploring that, maybe writing about it from a place of that feeling, of how it felt. So you’re not writing a story about what happened from this kind of objective, distant place, but you sit down with that feeling of how that felt when your brother was doing that, and you just write from that. Ah, I’m scared, whatever comes from that. That can be a helpful way that I learned from Elisabeth Corey, by the way, who I’ve had on my show. Do you go to therapy or anything like that?

Parent 1: I have at times. I’m not in therapy right this minute, though. Yeah.

Janet Lansbury: Well, just keep in mind that that may need more healing for you to be able to put it in its place and not let it interfere with this important role that you’re taking on.

Parent 1: I think the challenge is actually sometimes more just like when my husband has to help her put her clothes on. I kind of trust myself in those moments, but I think the conflict comes when I’m watching him put her pajamas on. That’s more of when the conflict arises within me, is kind of watching that and probably putting a lens on it that’s more related to what happened to me when I was a kid. He’s just trying to get her pajamas on, and in my mind, I often intervene in those moments. And not just in my mind, I intervene and I tell him to stop because that’s what comes up for me. And so I think figuring out how to allow him to parent in those moments. I mean, I certainly think it impacts me. I think in terms of how it impacts our parenting overall. It’s more in just my intervening in those moments when he’s having to be the confident leader and take those steps that it ends up being a challenge for us.

Janet Lansbury: Well, I would just keep your sense of humor about it if you can. What both of you are doing here, exploring this, is the way that I would recommend. Because it’s like, let’s say you’re building a wooden box and you have this lid and the lid’s not going on. We wouldn’t try to force it, force it, force it on. We would look and see what’s going on here that’s making this not go on. So that’s what we want to do with children, even though obviously they’re not wooden boxes, much more complex than that. But that’s the way we want to be as parents. We want to go from the inside out, helping our child with the issue that they’re having.

In this case, I think overtiredness, way too much power, getting people wound up, and maybe too much of a strict agenda on things that, really, we don’t have the power to force that easily. Like to make someone sit in a bath and enjoy it or to make someone get their clothes on or brush their teeth when they’re holding their mouth shut. So where we don’t have power, we really want to lean into mama/papa bear, loving, loving, loving relationship. And way above her struggles and tests and all the things that happen when she’s not at her best self.

Parent 1: That’s super-helpful. Thank you so much. I feel kind of relieved that I have a plan that feels a lot more doable than I had before. Yeah.

Janet Lansbury: Good. And if she starts screaming for one of you when the other one’s having their time with her, don’t other person come bail her out. Because then that can be that accommodating thing of, I really can’t do this, and you really do need daddy or you really do need mommy right now. It’s better then to just kind of face the music and carry on, knowing that you’re being a hero.

Parent 2: Can I ask a couple follow-up questions?

Janet Lansbury: Yes.

Parent 2: Since we’ve got you on the line, and normally I just have to listen to your podcast and then guess how it applies to our particular circumstance.

Janet Lansbury: Of course.

Parent 2: So yeah, I hear what you’re saying about if she is screaming at my wife that she actually wants me to do bedtime—it happens in both directions—that that’s not her decision to make, and we’re both capable parents and either one of us can do it. We don’t need to acquiesce to that. What about this morning when she was screaming at me that I was sitting in her seat at breakfast and she wanted me to move? I mean, am I acquiescing to some unreasonable demand? I mean, I can go sit somewhere else.

Janet Lansbury: But why would you?

Parent 2: Is that me being flexible? Or am I being too stubborn if I say, “No, I was sitting here already, I’m just going to sit here,” knowing that she is going to scream a lot right next to me as I’m sitting there eating breakfast if I don’t get up and move. I mean, she ended up screaming a lot about other nonsense this morning.

Janet Lansbury: There you go, that’s your answer. She needed to scream about something. I’m really glad you brought this up, because that’s a sign that there are some places where you’re kind of letting her have power that she cannot be comfortable with, and then it’s bleeding over into these difficult situations like bedtime as well. Because when there are things going on in one area, it always makes everything harder, especially the transitional times, which are already the hardest.

It’s an unconscious power play on her part. Yeah, of course you could get up, but for what? Of course you could get her a different color cup that’s right there, but you already brought that one with the water in it. The way that you respond matters, no matter what you do. So you could sit there still and say, “No, I’m going to sit here. You can’t tell me what to do.” Or you could be like, “Well, that’s really interesting. You’re giving us the seating arrangements. I’m pretty comfortable here. This is where I’m going to stay.” With that comfortable, confident attitude, instead of responding as if she’s making a serious request. And then she will scream anyway. And I love that you noticed that in a way. I mean, I’m sorry you noticed that!

Parent 2: It’s hard not to notice.

Janet Lansbury: I know. I’m sorry that happened, I guess I should say. But that tells you right there, she was going to find something to scream about. And by me doing this totally reasonable thing, which is staying where I’m sitting and not jumping up for the four-year-old pointing their finger at me, she gets a chance to.

And she also gets this incredible message that her parents are just not going to fall for that stuff. We’re just not going to take the bait. And she doesn’t have to worry that we’re going to take the bait. Because underneath what she seems like she wants is her wanting us not to do that, her wanting us to not give her all that power, that she can be the boss of all these adults. Because she’s only four and she knows that’s trouble if she’s the boss. Who’s going to take care of her?

Parent 2: Can I ask another follow-up, though?

Janet Lansbury: Yeah. I hope it’s along the same lines, because I love it.

Parent 2: It’s along the same lines. I know I’ve heard you give people advice that when your kid is screaming, if they’re actually screaming in a way that is bothering you, you can tell them that. So part of what I was thinking at breakfast this morning is that of course I can stay in my seat, but I know she’s going to start screaming. And then if she starts screaming at me, I can tolerate that for like a minute or two, but then I’m not going to like it anymore and I’m going to want to leave. And I’ll tell her like, “Oh wow, that noise that you’re making, that’s really loud. That’s actually bothering me, so I’m going to go somewhere else.” And then it’s like she’s gotten the thing that she wanted anyway. So she does have a lot of power, you know? She can scream and I can’t stop her from screaming. And I can white-knuckle it and tolerate it for as long as I can, but I’m still a limited human being. I can only take so much of my kid screaming in my ear before I want to go sit in a quieter room to eat my oatmeal. You know what I mean?

Janet Lansbury: Yeah. So putting your hand over your ear doesn’t help enough, it sounds like.

Parent 2: I guess I could do that in between bites.

Janet Lansbury: As much as possible, we want to try to do the most minimal thing, because that shows that we’re not bothered. And ideally we see this as a kind of ridiculous thing that’s going on here and that we’re not going to play into it. But if that’s really hurting your ears and you can’t take it anymore, I would say, “You know what? I feel like going over here.”

And then, no, she hasn’t gotten what she wants there. Or she has actually, but it’s not what we think she wants. So we think she wants us to get off that chair. But what she wants is to know her leaders are unruffled, she wants to know her leaders can totally handle anything she throws at them. So you not sitting there is not her getting what she wants. But your attitude about eventually moving or not moving is going to give her what she wants, which is an answer: You know what? You can try all these things and you’re not going to blow me off this chair. I may choose to get up, but you don’t have the power to force me. It’s that little subtle adjustment of you owning your power and seeing the ridiculousness of this and the need that’s really behind it, which is, Dad, don’t play into this with me. Don’t let me be this kind of boss-child instead of the little tiny girl that I am. So it’s the way that you do it. Does that make sense?

Parent 2: That does make sense. That makes a lot of sense. And I think that’s really helpful. Thank you.

Janet Lansbury: So making it your idea. “Oh, you know what? I’m going to go over here. I’m going to bring this in the kitchen because I have some things to do,” or whatever. I mean, I guess maybe it’s acting a little bit. But have there ever been other people in your life, like when you were a kid or something, that just were trying so hard to annoy you and bug you and get a rise out of you, and you finally realized, if I just kind of not ignore them, but ignore the bothersomeness of this, they stop.

So ignoring them is different because that’s actually a kind of aggressive response of, I’m just going to ignore you for doing that.

This is, Oh gosh, here she goes. Oh well, I’m just not going to give this thing power. It’s so silly. I’m going to get up because I want to.

Parent 2: Sounds really helpful, and I hear what you’re saying about it kind of being acting, but also just saying the line of dialogue out loud kind of forces you to go along with the scene. So that is good.

Janet Lansbury: It’s acting yourself into believing it, or it’s even better when you just really believe it. When you really see this as not this tremendously annoying child this moment, but this silly, tiny person that is not really asking for you to get off the chair, but asking for you to not be wound up by her.

Parent 2: Yeah, I think that’s really helpful advice. I’ve been using your advice along those lines during bedtimes when she’s just totally overwhelmed, overtired, completely fallen apart, saying out loud, “Oh wow, you’re having a really hard time. I love you. I’m here to help you.” That has really changed my attitude about what’s going on in those moments. And I think sometimes she’s so deep into her tantrum that I don’t know if she’s hearing me at all or, if she’s hearing me, I don’t know if she’s actively processing it at all. But it still helps me.

Janet Lansbury: Good.

Parent 2: And my wife can correct me if I’m wrong, but I think I’ve seen a change in her over time as I’ve shifted that attitude and the words that I’m saying to her in those moments.

Janet Lansbury: Yeah. Another one you could say to yourself is, This too shall pass. It’s all good. My son always says it’s all good to everything, but she’s venting away. It’s all good.

Parent 1: I don’t think we realized how much of our power we were letting her take. I think this is just really useful for getting a bigger picture outside of my own brain of what’s actually going on, than how I was seeing it. Super helpful. Thanks again.

Janet Lansbury: It’s my pleasure. And that’s the key: that zooming out, having somebody else to talk to about it so you can see the bigger picture. And then when you step away from her, you can see how tiny this person is. Do you ever go out on the street and think, How did she get so small? We thought she was huge in our minds!

You two are doing an incredible job. Kudos to you. All of this self-reflection and self-awareness that you have is really going to continue to inform your relationships with these two people that you’re raising.

Parent 1: We’re lucky that we ran into your materials.

Parent 2: We really are.

Parent 1: I don’t even know. I sometimes think, what would I be doing if I hadn’t run into your stuff online? Who knows! But we are just really grateful that you are around and you’re so good at explaining it in a way that makes it clear and understandable. And providing the language at times. Sometimes “I won’t let you do that” is so helpful. Just those little things, that you just have a gift of putting things succinctly in helpful ways. So thanks for putting that out into the world.

Janet Lansbury: It’s my pleasure. And thank you so much for your kindness and again, for your generosity in being here and sharing with all of us. Bye.

Parent 1: Bye.


Janet Lansbury: And thank you all so much for listening and for your kind support. We can do this.

The post Should We Resort to Using Force? appeared first on Janet Lansbury.

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Tantrums, Meltdowns, and Other Intense Outbursts: My #1 Secret for Staying Calm https://www.janetlansbury.com/2024/03/tantrums-meltdowns-and-other-outbursts-my-1-secret-for-staying-calm/ https://www.janetlansbury.com/2024/03/tantrums-meltdowns-and-other-outbursts-my-1-secret-for-staying-calm/#respond Tue, 05 Mar 2024 05:18:35 +0000 https://www.janetlansbury.com/?p=22616 How do we stay unruffled when our children are anything but? It’s never easy, but in this episode Janet shares the personal mindset that has helped her most, and gets SO much easier with practice. She also shares a success story from a parent who is walking through her own fears to be the parent … Continued

The post Tantrums, Meltdowns, and Other Intense Outbursts: My #1 Secret for Staying Calm appeared first on Janet Lansbury.

How do we stay unruffled when our children are anything but? It’s never easy, but in this episode Janet shares the personal mindset that has helped her most, and gets SO much easier with practice. She also shares a success story from a parent who is walking through her own fears to be the parent her daughter needs.

Transcript of “Tantrums, Meltdowns, and Other Intense Outbursts: My #1 Secret for Staying Calm”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

This podcast is called Unruffled, and you’ve heard me share many different perspectives on how to be an unruffled parent, how to stay calm in all different situations. But I haven’t really zeroed in and talked just about my own personal favorite mindset. The secret I’ve used for myself to be able to manage the incredibly uncomfortable, challenging task of facing my children’s intense emotions.

Before I ended up sharing this little secret, back in 2010 I think it was, on my website, and it’s also in my No Bad Kids book, I was worried it was too silly. It felt embarrassing, and that maybe I’d be laughed at. But I was wrong. I think! I mean, maybe people are still laughing behind my back about this, there’s a good chance of that. But I’ve also heard how this advice has encouraged people. I guess there’s a lesson in that, that if something helps you, no matter how personal and silly it might seem, it might yet help someone else.

And that’s also why I love sharing your success stories, and I have one of those to share today. Sure, it’s validating for my efforts when my perspective helps somebody, but I don’t share success stories to toot my horn. I share them to encourage you that if a certain way of addressing or seeing behavior, a certain way of responding to it, helped that family, helped that parent, maybe I could brave that too and it would help me. It gives us more permission, it gives us more inspiration. Oh, people are really doing some of these things that seem scary and hard and it’s working for them.

I’m a fan of Dr. Susan David’s work in her book Emotional Agility. And this is one of my favorite quotes from her: “Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is fear walking. Walk directly into your fears, with your values as your guide, toward what matters to you.” And that relates to the little secret I’m going to share about.

Alright, so cough it up already! My silly secret is imagery. And again, if you’ve read or listened to my book, you’ve heard me speak of this. It’s my superhero suit. I imagine myself putting on a superhero suit, with a cape, the whole business. And it has a shield that covers my chest and it allows for all the intensity, the frustration, the anger, rage, or dysregulation that my child has to kind of bounce off of me. It deflects it, so all of that emotion doesn’t get into my heart. I’m safe. I can be in hero mode.

Slipping into this suit also reminds me, and this is from my book, that this is a V.I.P.M., a Very Important Parenting Moment. Releasing these feelings is so good for my child. This explosion will clear the air and lift my child’s spirits. Staying present and calm, sticking with whatever limits I’ve set and being a safe channel for these emotions is the very best thing I could ever do.

Here are some of the superhuman parenting powers my suit provides. You could see these kind of as affirmations. They have been for me.

  • I understand that difficult behavior is a request for help — the best my child can do in that particular moment.
  • I remember to acknowledge my child’s feelings and point of view. The importance of this can’t be overemphasized.
  • I have the confidence to set and hold limits early, before I get annoyed or resentful. And I do so calmly, directly, honestly, non-punitively.
  • I know that my words are often not enough. I’ll likely need to follow through by intervening to help my child stop the behavior.
  • I’m not afraid of what others think when I need to pick up and carry my crying, screaming child out of a problematic situation, because my child comes first.
  • I have the courage to allow feelings to run their course without trying to calm or rush or fix, shush, or talk my child out of them. I might say, “You have some very strong feelings about that,” rather than yelling, “Enough!”
  • I move on without resentment once my child’s storm has passed. Rather than feeling angry, guilty, or dejected for the rest of the day, I hold my head high and congratulate myself for being an awesome, heroic parent.

And just to touch on that point about “I’m not afraid of what others think when I need to pick up and carry my crying, screaming child out of a problematic situation”—it did take a couple of times of this happening before I could really proceed with confidence. With those blinders on that are so helpful to us sometimes as parents when we’ve got a lot of input from disagreeing sources or the public or we’re embarrassed, all of that getting in our way. These blinders can help. And we can get those when we practice this, it takes practice. But after a few times or even the first time to a great extent, I did feel that. I started to feel like instead of, Oh gosh, I’m so ashamed I have to do this and my child and what’s the matter with them? Because I knew it wasn’t that my child was being a bad person there. I knew, and I would soon realize, what had caused this. Often it was tiredness, hunger, but mostly tiredness actually, in most of my cases. And kids just can’t show us that so easily, when they’re very young especially.

I began to feel like, I’m actually a model right here. I’m a model for all these people watching, whoever they are, of being a brave parent. Of, as Susan David says, fear walking. I’m walking through it. And it was like I would open up this channel for myself to be in it and to own my benevolent power at that point. And people may have snickered or thought terrible things about me and my children, I don’t know. But I know that it felt right, and that’s all I needed and that’s all my child needed, was to feel the positiveness of this. I mean, I wasn’t smiling and laughing and enjoying it, but I was okay and I was centered and I was doing the right thing. And that always proved true.

So when parents talk to me about what everyone else is thinking on the playground or wherever they are, the relatives, I encourage them to believe in themselves as the hero in those moments. Because they really are. And the more we believe it, the more others will tend to see that kind of glow around us, Wow. That’s not being permissive, it’s not letting our child unravel and continue the behavior with people or hurt someone else or make a scene. Instead, we’re rescuing them from that.

One of the toughest aspects of the job of superhero is that our kids are usually showing us that they don’t want us to be doing what we’re doing. And it’s easy to take this as that they’re mad at us and they’re even madder that we’re intervening. It’s like we’re trying to save someone who really doesn’t want to be saved and that makes it so much harder, right? To have conviction. Many months ago I did an episode around that. I called it When Our Kids Reject Us (A Step-by-Step Response). And I offered the steps and how they applied to the issues that parents shared with me in three different letters. So here are those steps again, but I’m just going to be paraphrasing them.

  1. Be prepared, do the homework. Working on our perspective, that’s the homework. How are we perceiving our child’s behavior? Because that’s going to direct our actions and decide our feelings. If we see a hurting child, it brings up totally different feelings in us than when we see what really is a mask on the outside, that seems really mean and ugly and hurtful. And then another part of being prepared and doing the homework is that if this is repeated behavior, we know that something’s up. We know maybe not exactly what’s happening, but that our child is expressing something that needs to be expressed, that they need to express. And they’re not quite getting what they need around that, not quite getting the response that they’re looking for, unconsciously. So that’s all part of the first point, being prepared, doing the homework.
  2. In the moment, block the physical behavior as best and as confidently as you can. And confidently means we’re not overdoing it, we’re just blocking as needed. We’re kind of trying to make it look easy if we can. And that comes from being ready for it, because we’ve done the homework. And blocking early. I mean sometimes it’s going to happen anyway, but we’re not waiting until after something happens and then it happens again. We’re ready that next time or ideally, we’re ready before the first time, because we see it coming.
  3. If there’s a chance to have eye contact during these explosions, try to be open, soft-eyed, as empathetic as possible. Breathe. Maybe nodding your head ever so slightly. I know this is hard, but it comes from seeing the hurt behind the mean behavior and connecting with that.
  4. If there’s a break in their shouting or their screaming, just reflect back what your child is saying. We’re just staying in the moment, acknowledging it right there as it comes. “It feels to you like I’m the meanest person ever.” “You didn’t want me to be the one to pick you up, you wanted daddy.” Or, “You hate me so much right now,” if that’s what they’re saying. “Those are angry words.”
  5. Show more than tell. Not talking a lot about, “I can’t let you do this behavior,” especially if it’s repeated behavior. That part goes without saying. We just want to show, without tell, that we’re going to stop them, we’re going to block them, that we can’t let them do the behavior. And for the most part, children already know that this is unwanted, wrong behavior.
  6. Let it go. After it’s done, don’t rehash, unless it’s to make some kind of helpful, non-judgmental plan together about how we could do this differently. And the non-judgmental part of that is key. So it’s not, “Well, what are you going to do next time?” It’s really, “This keeps happening. Is there anything I can do? What can we do to make this easier?” That kind of openness makes our child feel safe. And sometimes even just that interaction, that we’re open, we’re not judging them, and we want to help. Sometimes that’s enough that we don’t actually have to have a plan, but just the fact that we’re open to that can be enough for them to feel better and not do that behavior, whatever it is.

Here’s one of the particular notes that I responded to, which I’ve edited. This is the parent that just this week gave me an update. She says:

Dear Janet,

I feel my daughter is a well-adjusted, wonderfully expressive kid who’s securely attached to her parents. However, five weeks ago, my mother, whom my daughter adores, was in the hospital with emergency surgery. Although my mom had cancer, this surgery came out of left field and for three weeks I was at the hospital every day. I still made sure to spend at least three hours with my daughter daily in a present, attuned way. Still, she knew something was wrong with grandma. She kept saying, “Mommy, hospital, care, grandma.” And I told her where I was going. Plus, she felt her schedule change when I wasn’t there as much.

Then my husband took her away to see her other grandparents for three nights. She’s never been away before and her sleep completely unraveled. She could only fall asleep by falling asleep right on daddy. She’d also never been away from mommy that long.

Then the very next day they returned, my mother died. That was two weeks ago. This came out of left field for my daughter. I never even got to the part where I planned to slowly tell her grandma was really ill. So it’s a shock for all.

Since then, our daughter’s refused to let me put her down to sleep at night. She frequently pushes me away, says, “Go away, Mommy.” This has blossomed into not even letting me pick her up when she’s finished napping or sleeping, demanding daddy all the time and shrieking and tantruming whenever daddy isn’t there. Whereas we used to cuddle every afternoon after her nap, now she sobs hysterically and asks me to leave her alone. I do. I do my very, very best to be nonchalant, but in a loving way, letting her know I’m here for her. Eventually she gets up and wants to play, but seems only to feel truly okay when daddy returns.

She’s never had tantrums before, she’s never preferred daddy before or pushed me away or said, “Go away!” I’ve put her down almost every night of her life. It seems that in some way she blames me for losing her grandma or associates me with the bad feeling she has about it.

She talks about grandma a lot, is very upset about this weird death thing. I’ve been straightforward about explaining that grandma died and her body stopped working and I’m so sorry and we will miss her and be sad and mad, but also still feel her love in our hearts and all of that. We talk about it every day, but only when she brings it up. I follow her lead. I allow her to see me cry or be sad about grandma, but I do shield her from seeing me sob hysterically, things I think would be burdensome to a child. I have tried to really role model a healthy approach to grieving.

And although it’s very painful to be constantly pushed away from my daughter at the exact moment I lost my mother, I do my absolute best to be nonchalant in the sweet way you always role model. Like, Sure, go with daddy. I admit she has probably picked up on my hurt here or there, but I really try not to burden her with that or manipulate her in any way. I understand she’s going through something and I don’t blame her for any of this, obviously. But I really don’t know what to do to make it better for her or to be included in her sphere of affection and safety again.

I responded: First of all, I want to say I’m so sorry for this parent’s loss. As children are, her daughter seems she’s especially tuned in to how her mother is feeling. That can be almost stronger for a child than the feelings they have about the relationship because though they feel the loss, they don’t really yet understand the implications. They don’t have that frame of reference. And so the more that we can be plain and simple and truthful, the easier it is for kids to process it. This parent is showing wonderful empathy and instinct for how she’s caring for her daughter.

A couple of things stood out to me. First is that this parent concludes: “It seems in some way she blames me for losing her grandma or associates me with the bad feeling she has about it.” That part doesn’t ring true to me. To me it feels like this is more about that she senses there’s a lot going on inside her mother, but her mother isn’t quite expressing that to her in the moment. And children, they pick up on this, this whole devastation that’s going on inside this mother. And that can be what’s making them uncomfortable around that person. It’s that the mother’s sitting on a lot of feelings that she’s not sharing and that’s disconcerting.

When she is with her mother, she’s doing this really, really healthy thing that children do so beautifully, which is that they reflect back to us our insides. They’ll put the feelings they’re picking up from us on the outside. So when she’s saying, no, no, no! and has these tantrums and refuses to be with her mother, I would stand tall and face that if you can. I mean, this mother’s going through her own thing. And number one, she obviously needs to take care of herself. She’s being so gracious about her daughter and trying to protect her from these feelings. But maybe the simmering inside of such strong feelings in the mother is uncomfortable for the child.

The way to help her through that is to actually stand by her when she’s pushing you away. And doing those steps that I mentioned. Blocking the physical behavior. If there’s eye contact, being open, soft-eyed, empathetic. If there’s a break in the shouting or the tantrum, just reflect back what she’s saying, just what you know for sure. “You want me to go, you just want daddy, you’re not comfortable with me.” Letting it be okay for her to share that and not shying away from it. I was flattered that this parent said that I role model nonchalant. The way I see it, though, is not so much nonchalant, like I’m pretending I don’t care when I actually do, but as something that I can believe, which is that I’m unthreatened. And then we could say, Ouch, you don’t want to be with me. But you know what? I can hear that. You can tell me that. I’m still going to be there for you.

And then I said, now if it gets too much for this parent, yes of course, let daddy do it. But remember: every time we do that, we’re accommodating. We’re agreeing with our child that, Yeah, you need to be with daddy now and not me. And she’s still going to be expressing these feelings to you in this seemingly mean, awful, rejecting way. That’s going to happen for a little while until she processes it through.

I love how this parent said she’s trying to show her daughter a healthy grieving process, but wow, she’s putting a lot of responsibility on herself. Because a truly healthy grieving process is exactly your unique human grieving process. In other words, there isn’t a perfectly healthy grieving process, so we don’t need to try to make it smooth or right or hit all the right notes. Because each person has a different grieving process with each type of grief that they’re experiencing. And so the healthiest grieving process is just to allow that, to express it, to share it. And I said, hopefully this parent is sharing it with people besides her daughter.

But even with her daughter, the key here is just to say in the moment when it comes up, “I miss my mom so much right now, this makes me want my mommy.” Opening that up a little bit more, because I don’t believe this parent will let herself lose control and get hysterical and scare her daughter that way. And it’s safe for her to open up some space to show her pain so it’s not this mysterious, uncomfortable thing for her daughter. So we’re letting her in, in the moment, just when the feelings come up. “Ugh, I just got a pang of how much I miss my mom” while I’m doing this random thing. That’s how our grief often comes. Some random thing happens that triggers us. So it’s safe to share that. In fact, it’ll bring you much closer to each other, as being honest about feelings does. Always.

Just this week, this parent got back to me, many months later:

Hi, Janet-

I’ve wanted to write you back since you responded to my letter in your show so long ago. I think I kept waiting for a time I could report feeling like a healthy, happy human again. In fact, eight months after losing my mom, the grief is still very intense and I still feel I’m on an alien planet. Losing my mom was more life-changing to me than becoming one. Thankfully, it does not stop me from enjoying my daughter, it only adds a sadness that my mom is missing this incredible kid. Or maybe she isn’t, who knows?

All that said, I never got a chance to tell you that your advice to me, while terrifying, completely worked. You told me to stay the course when my daughter screamed in my arms demanding her father and to show her that I was not going anywhere. I was genuinely scared to try this out, but I did so, the very night I heard your podcast.

The first night she cried for 15 minutes straight, constantly tried to wiggle out of my arms. It was absolutely awful. And then she stopped and we went back to our old ritual. When she fell asleep, I felt like Marlon Brando at the end of On The Waterfront, completely brutalized but triumphant. The next night she cried for about five minutes and then just stopped and we were fine. The third night she started to cry for one second, seemed to remember all was good now, and gave me no pushback whatsoever, ever again. It was actually amazing to see something work so incredibly well so fast. So thank you so, so much, forever.

Lately, my daughter, who is now two years and seven months, is definitely sliding into frequent meltdown mode, being defiant at every turn, and saying no to everything, usually quite cheerfully. “No, I think I will not put on a new diapie!” and instantly going apoplectic when she doesn’t get her way. I feel like I’ve spent almost three years preparing for this moment by listening to your podcast. I set the boundary while remaining totally sympathetic to her feelings. There are some things I can’t physically force, such as making her blow her nose, so I let those go. And sometimes I do just let things go because I’m tired, like I’ll let her run around naked for too long and then she pees on the floor. But on the whole, I feel like your counsel has given me such a concrete goal to constantly practice.

In your message to me in the podcast, you made the distinction between being nonchalant versus unthreatened. This difference is really powerful. Deep down, I admit I am kind of threatened by the intensity of toddler emotion. My first thought is always, Well gosh, if it means this much to you, I relent. Or I fear I don’t truly have the authority. But it is downright palpable the way my daughter ultimately relaxes against a boundary. As an anxious type, it really helps to remind myself that this is a way of protecting her from the anxiety of always getting her way.

Thank you for everything.

And I wrote back to this mom:

I’m thrilled to hear that you are walking through the terror (It’s real, I know!) of facing your daughter’s intense emotions. Laud yourself for showing such courage. I hope you’ll savor these moments when you succeed and savor the experiences of your daughter, as you say, “ultimately relaxing against a boundary.” Replay those moments to bolster yourself whenever you need to be in hero mode for her and know, without question, you can do this.

I’m sorry to hear you’re still suffering in regard to your mom. I believe that somewhere, somehow she’s proudly witnessing the developments in her incredible granddaughter and in you.

And here’s what I wrote at the end of my chapter on being a superhero:

Occasionally (though it’s pretty rare) my superhero perspective even allows me to recognize the romance in these moments. I’m able to time travel at hyper-speed into the future, look back and realize that this was prime time together. It didn’t look pretty, but we were close. I’ll remember how hard it was to love my child when she was at her very worst and feel super proud that I did it anyway.

Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.

And by the way, you may have noticed that my audiobooks are not available at the moment and the paperbacks of both books, No Bad Kids and Elevating Child Care, are going to be re-released at the end of April. I believe you can get them in Kindle still and you can buy some used copies that Amazon is selling. But the reason for this is a positive one. For years, those have been self-published books and Random House is now taking over the publishing of them. And they’re also publishing my upcoming book, which you’re going to hear a lot more about as it gets closer! So, this is obviously thrilling for me and I’m sorry for the inconvenience of not being able to get the paperbacks right now, but the audiobooks should be back on any day now. I just wanted to give you that update, and thank you again for all your kind support.

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We Don’t Like Upsetting Our Kids https://www.janetlansbury.com/2024/02/we-dont-like-upsetting-our-kids/ https://www.janetlansbury.com/2024/02/we-dont-like-upsetting-our-kids/#respond Wed, 28 Feb 2024 22:45:45 +0000 https://www.janetlansbury.com/?p=22607 Do you sometimes say “yes” to avoid your child’s negative reaction? You’re definitely not alone! None of us wants to upset our kids, and when faced with that option, we tend to second guess our boundaries: Should I keep playing this game even though I’m busy, tired, or not in the mood? This week, Janet explores … Continued

The post We Don’t Like Upsetting Our Kids appeared first on Janet Lansbury.

Do you sometimes say “yes” to avoid your child’s negative reaction? You’re definitely not alone! None of us wants to upset our kids, and when faced with that option, we tend to second guess our boundaries: Should I keep playing this game even though I’m busy, tired, or not in the mood? This week, Janet explores the reasons we doubt ourselves, particularly when it comes to personal boundaries, how to overcome our hesitancy, and why our kids really need us to.  


Transcript of “We Don’t Like Upsetting Our Kids”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

I love this topic I’m going to get into today because it very much relates to my personal struggles as a parent and the perspective shift that I needed to eventually work on to be able to overcome them and why that mattered. It’s the difficulty that many of us have with setting a boundary that our child resists or gets upset about. With my people-pleasing tendencies, this has been a big one for me. And while I can’t say that I’m completely cured of this, I’ve come a very long way, and I’m going to share how I’ve done that.

First, here’s an exchange with a parent who I very much relate to and appreciate. We had this exchange in Instagram messages, actually. Which I’m unfortunately not always able to respond to, but in this case, the timing worked out for me and I got on the hook. Here’s the first message I got:

Hi, Janet. I hope you’re well. I was wondering if you could help. At parents’ evening, I was told that my daughter (who started school six months ago) is emotionally dysregulated, that she cries over small things such as not being able to finish her work for the next activity or wanting to explain her ideas during focus time when she should be writing.

At home she is not displaying this. We have always let her let out her feelings, and she has become good at doing this. I usually have been calm and held her emotions. I have struggled with boundaries. Not the usual ones, such as lifestyle expectations, crossing the road safely. These are all fine. It’s been the boundary of demand that she puts on me, such as wanting me to play characters for extended amounts of time, so much that I had to say no characters at the dinner table or out of the house. And when she’s tired, she’s been controlling and wanted things a certain way. At times, I’ve adhered to that controlling behavior.

I wrote back:

This reflection you’re doing about boundaries may be the key. Why do you think it is that you cave to her demands? What do you fear about disappointing her in those situations?

And she wrote back:

Thanks, Janet. That’s a great question. Two things which I’ve never put into words before: When I cave into those demands, it’s not always obvious to me. Especially with playing characters, it’s how we entertained ourselves in the pandemic. I might get a sense of irritation, like, She’s asking too much, but I’m not always aware enough to see it for what it is, which is her calling out for a boundary, I guess. I think I’m a people-pleaser and avoid conflict. I think I fear hurting her feelings? I can happily say no to buying her things in a shop, though. Also, I don’t always feel I have the capacity to deal with the fallout when caring for her one-year-old sister.

Funnily enough, today she wanted to play characters before we entered the house. I said, “No, that’s the rule, no characters outside.” She didn’t want to come in, so I gently picked her up and took her inside. That went well. She had a little cry, but it felt like the right decision not to cave in. I think it reassured her. Where I struggle is the alarm bell that tells me that a boundary is needed now. I don’t always hear it, or if I do, I’m good at ignoring it.

So I wrote back:

Well explained! Yes, it sounds like you aren’t accustomed to sticking up for yourself with loved ones if you fear it might upset them and they might reject you. If that rings true, I can totally relate. And I would try to consider this an important step to figure out in your journey, gradually. Maybe consider what it’s like to have someone play with you or do anything that they’re not really into. It’s not a great, clear feeling, right? It’s not satisfying or truly enjoyable.

And she said:

Yes, it’s the rejection. I think I was probably brought up with conditional love, which is why it’s been so refreshing to allow my daughter all her feelings and so helpful to have you out there guiding parents through this different way. But I’ve never reflected about it so specifically like this, Janet. Never been brave enough to have the conversation. When you write about it like this, I can see how healthy it is to try to get those boundaries in because they matter to my daughter and will benefit her more in the long run, and even the short run. Thank you so much for sharing that with me. I think my goals are: Have a sheet up on the wall at home, a script for me to say if she’s being particular and what to look out for. Set a limit for character play. If I know the parameters, it will mean I can implement them. So I’ve set myself homework.

And I said:

Sounds great. And keep in mind that any amount of character play is not your job. It’s not our job to entertain our kids and, as you’ve noticed, it can create a kind of dependency. Also, without us meaning to, our ideas tend to take over our child’s, so they’re not getting the opportunity to freely and thoroughly explore their own imagination. I’m only sharing this to hopefully encourage you to give yourself permission to say a loving no. And you don’t need perfect words, just conviction in yourself as a fair and loving leader who isn’t afraid of your girl. We are teaching kids how to get along with others and how to take care of ourselves and emotional intelligence. When we’re honest about our feelings and say no when we feel no, it’s far from selfish. It’s heroic, truly.

And she wrote back:

Oh, that’s interesting. The character play is very much led by her. It’s almost in the realm of drama therapy, where I feel that her fears and feelings come out. However I agree that a sort of dependency is occurring and it hadn’t occurred to me that this type of play wasn’t really what she needed. In the past couple of days, I’ve already been saying no more and it feels good. I’m working towards reducing it down to once a day—which might sound a lot, still, it’s progress for us. I’ve just been reading your article How Our Boundaries Free Children to Play, Create, and Explore, and it’s sort of blown my mind a little bit. My daughter also enjoys the laptop. She’s not on it every day, but what will she be freed up to do if I say no to characters and no, sometimes, to laptop? It’ll be nice to see what’s inside of her, not just what she does when she’s stuck.

And I’ll just add that that article she refers to, How Our Boundaries Free Children to Play, Create, and Explore, that’s actually a transcript from another podcast episode. And it is about how these boundaries that we can perceive as negative in some way are actually so freeing for our children.

So then I wrote back to her and asked if I could please use this exchange in a podcast. And several days later she wrote back and said:

Yes, of course, especially if it can help other parents or carers who’ve been stuck in a similar cycle. Two days ago I said no characters, and we did none all day, and there wasn’t the major fallout I’d imagined. She was tearful and cross a couple of times and tried to encourage me in, but I explained that it was too much for her to be in control and that I’m her mummy. So she can just relax and play now.

It has been like the scales have fallen from my eyes. My daughter looks different to me somehow. I think because the power balance has shifted, she seems younger and calmer. I was told that she was often tearful at school and I saw her being particular at home, wanting things a certain way. It was giving me concerns. My daughter is five, and I was worried that I’d messed things up and it was too late, that the path was set. I knew something wasn’t right, but I didn’t have a clue about what needed to change. It took some reflection with your support and the courage and understanding to make the change. It’s a hard thing for me to accept that I was the problem, as I see my errors as a rejection as opposed to being part and parcel of being a human.

Boundaries are so clear to me when they’re physical things like brushing teeth, it’s not okay to hit, cross the road safely, but this boundary was an emotional one and I just couldn’t see it. I can’t thank you enough. The impact of our conversation will last long into the future, and this girl has a more confident mummy now, and she can go back to being little again. Thank you.

Wow, thank you to this mummy and she really articulates her whole process so beautifully. I can’t say how much I appreciate this.

I want to touch a little more on what gets in our way. Often it’s old feelings, worries, fears that we’ll get rejected if we assert ourselves too much. Maybe we felt that significant others’ feelings were our fault and that our behavior—meaning us, in the way a child thinks of that. When we scold a child for being bad, they take this as that they are bad. So as the child, we might believe that we’re making people feel a certain way, and that’s scary and guilt-inducing, and we have to be careful, right? Whenever we’re stuck and concerned and it feels like maybe there’s a cycle that’s continuing that we don’t know how to stop, looking into our feelings around boundaries is often the key.

And here’s another parent who wrote a comment on a post that I put up on Instagram about being stern and how setting boundaries with confidence is not the same as sternness. Sternness doesn’t really project confidence. It’s overkill. If we think about the feelings behind when we’re stern, we’re usually not feeling on top of it but under it. So we force it a bit. And that’s why it doesn’t work as well as really projecting confidence as a leader. Children are sensing what we’re feeling, that we’re not comfortable. So I put up a post about that and this wonderful parent who often comments on my posts, and I love that, she wrote:

This is something I’ve been having to work on. And in most situations, it honestly feels uncomfortable to me to set boundaries. I overthink the perfect words and then get so confused about what to say or do whenever I know my child is stuck and needs my help.

And I replied:

Great that you’re getting to this. “It honestly feels uncomfortable to me to set boundaries.” That’s the key right there—exploring why you are so uncomfortable, what you’re afraid will happen, what you might lose by upsetting your child and sticking up for yourself. Figuring that out and making peace with it is the answer. Realizing that our children need us to walk through those fears for them. This is far from selfish. I would dig deep on this with yourself, ideally with a counselor or therapist. Because the words we say matter very, very little. It’s all about how we feel when setting and holding the boundary. When we are stern, it usually means we’re uncomfortable or unsure of ourselves and trying to compensate. That’s why it doesn’t work as well.

This parent, as I said, often leaves comments and they are very focused on words. So I felt like this was such a gift that she’s gotten to this place of recognizing that really she could say any perfect word in the world and her child would still sense her discomfort, because it’s there.

Of course, none of us want to upset our children. We never want to upset them, right? But here’s what helped me, focusing on these things that I do want and that most of us do want.

One, we do want to teach them about self-care and boundaries in relationships. This is the most profound way that they learn that: through their relationship with us and our self-care and boundaries. So it’s not just respecting their personal boundaries that teaches them that, not handing them over to the adult who wishes to hug them, but it’s ours also that instill this.

Two, we do want them to succeed with peers and other adults, to be liked. Because they know how to respect and not overstep other people’s boundaries. We’re teaching them that.

Three, we do want to avoid unwittingly adultifying our kids. Giving them unsettling responsibility and power over us, making them responsible for choices that are really ours to make. So I don’t mean this to the extent of adultifying a child that’s seriously harmful or abusive. That happens, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about our children deserving the freedom and the messy emotional fluidity of childhood. And when we’re tentative around that, their feelings, and maybe afraid of them, it interferes with that. As that first parent shared about her daughter, she said, “My daughter looks different to me somehow. I think because the power balance has shifted, she seems younger and calmer.” That’s big, right? And don’t we all want that for our children? The way to get there isn’t always what we think. It’s doing this hard thing. Standing up for ourselves, being personally honest with them. And not loving it when they’re upset, but not fearing that either. Facing that music.

Four, we do want a free and clear, honest relationship, rather than one where there’s resentment or annoyance on our end. That means sticking up for ourselves, not giving into demands that we aren’t really into.

Five, we do want emotional health and resiliency for our kids. They need to vent these emotional roller coasters they’re often riding, particularly in the early years and in adolescence. Getting upset about our reasonable, honest boundaries is the organic, therapeutic way children do that. And they learn that the feelings are normal and healthy and that they pass and then they feel better. And that starts with us knowing that and showing them that, because that’s what we believe. And these feelings are not really about their need for us to play characters or do that specific thing. It’s a bigger theme that they’re expressing. Reminding ourselves of that is how we’ll be able to do this.

And knowing that this is a priceless message that we can give our kids that will help them function in their world. They’ll know that they won’t always get things their way and that they can be disappointed for a time, but soon they’re going to feel better. And they can live with it. It’s not a scary, strange, overwhelming situation for them. It’s life. Sometimes things go my way, sometimes they don’t. And I can handle both. I prefer them going my way, but I’m not tied to that, because I know I can make it through the other situation as well.

And the last point, we do want the profound bonding effects of welcoming our children to share uncomfortable emotions. You’ve heard me talk about that a lot, and many of you have experienced it and you’ve shared that with me. The safety we can provide another person by accepting and allowing them to feel however they do, even if we are the cause of their disappointment or their anger.

So for all those reasons—and there’s six there, and there’s probably more if I think about it—we might be encouraged to work on processing our own discomfort. Which can indeed be a lifelong, continuous process. But any step we can make towards that will make the day-to-day of our job as parents easier and set every relationship in our life in a more positive, authentic, trusting direction. We’re worthy.

And now I thought it might be helpful to share what’s actually a follow-up question that I received in regard to a podcast I did a few weeks ago, Coping With Your Child’s Possessiveness. Because this also relates to the idea of upsetting our children by setting limits. And sometimes it can cause us to be tentative, which doesn’t help our child as much as when we can proceed with confidence. Knowing that yes, they may get upset, but that can be a natural—and even I would say a healthy—reaction to our boundaries.

Here’s the message. It was on Facebook, actually, where I posted Coping With Your Child’s Possessiveness. And the parent said:

The day after listening to this podcast, my three-year-old got very upset about his new baby brother wearing the same diapers that he wears. My husband picked them out without thinking. He tried pulling it off of him. So I tried to remember what you said and replied, “Oh man, I know that’s so hard seeing him wear the same diapers. I can’t let you take those off him, though,” while as gently as I could trying to release his grip. I hope that was the right way of going about that.

I also know you said it’s okay to allow them to take a few toys, but if it seems they’re stuck to kindly stop them. However, what if it’s a teething item in the baby’s hand and they shout, “I want that! It’s mine!”?

And here’s what I responded:

Yes to this, well done!

Where she says, “‘Oh man, I know that’s so hard seeing him wear the same diapers. I can’t let you take those off of him, though,’ while as gently as I could trying to release his grip.”

I added:

You can be firm, though. With that wonderful empathizing you’re doing, removing his hand as easily as possible will come off as love and care. Too gentle can come off as tentative, which won’t be as helpful to him. And regarding the teether, no, I wouldn’t allow him to take that away from the baby. So do the same: acknowledge and firmly, kindly block or remove the teether from your older child’s hand.

So yes, sometimes we can feel, Aah, I want to do this so carefully, and that projects our own discomfort in a way, or our lack of conviction in what we’re doing. And it kind of prolongs the interaction for our child, instead of doing the kind thing and just taking it out of their hand. And again, that idea of empathizing is what makes this a loving interaction rather than an overly strict, harsh interaction.

For more about boundaries and our children’s feelings and responses, for more encouragement, more examples, more demonstrations, please take a look at my No Bad Kids Master Course, because I’m able to offer some video demonstrations, some of them are with children. Many people have told me that this has been a game-changer for them, so have a look. And my books (No Bad Kids and Elevating Child Care) of course are available on Amazon. We’ll put the links in the liner notes and in the transcript of this podcast. Thank you to these parents for allowing me to share their comments and our exchanges.

And please know: every one of us, we can do this.

The post We Don’t Like Upsetting Our Kids appeared first on Janet Lansbury.

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Toddlers That Won’t Go to Bed (Solutions from Eileen Henry) https://www.janetlansbury.com/2024/02/toddlers-that-wont-go-to-bed-solutions-from-eileen-henry/ https://www.janetlansbury.com/2024/02/toddlers-that-wont-go-to-bed-solutions-from-eileen-henry/#comments Wed, 21 Feb 2024 20:52:55 +0000 https://www.janetlansbury.com/?p=22577 Eileen Henry is a pioneering sleep consultant who for decades has helped exhausted, concerned parents guide their infants and toddlers to more restorative sleep. As Janet’s guest this week, Eileen shares her wisdom and detailed suggestions in response to emails from Unruffled listeners struggling mightily with their toddlers at bedtime. A one-year-old seems to get increasingly wound up … Continued

The post Toddlers That Won’t Go to Bed (Solutions from Eileen Henry) appeared first on Janet Lansbury.

Eileen Henry is a pioneering sleep consultant who for decades has helped exhausted, concerned parents guide their infants and toddlers to more restorative sleep. As Janet’s guest this week, Eileen shares her wisdom and detailed suggestions in response to emails from Unruffled listeners struggling mightily with their toddlers at bedtime. A one-year-old seems to get increasingly wound up as bedtime nears, escalating to biting her mother. A 23-month-old refuses to nap. An almost 3-year-old won’t separate from her parent at any time of day, calls “mommy, mommy” whenever her parent leaves her side, making bedtime impossible. Eileen offers her experienced perspective, warm support, and actionable advice. “Sleep is not a problem to be fixed,” she believes. “It is a skill to be learned.”

Transcript of “Toddlers That Won’t Go to Bed (Solutions from Eileen Henry)”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

Today I have the pleasure of hosting Eileen Henry. She’s a longtime friend and fellow RIE associate. And she’s a pioneer, as one of the first child sleep consultants in the U.S. She’s been helping families achieve peaceful and lasting sleep for decades. Eileen offers effective, holistic solutions that end up transforming parents’ experience with sleep and common behavior issues in the early years of development. Eileen’s the real deal, and when she works with you, it’s with her and the unique method she developed, not borrowed ideas from other experts.

She says: “Underneath most behavior is a need that longs for expression. Often these needs are in conflict with one another in the early years.” I’m really excited for the second opportunity to share Eileen’s sage insights with you on Unruffled.

Hi there, Eileen. Welcome back. Thank you so much for returning to share with us.

Eileen Henry: Always a pleasure.

Janet Lansbury: As Eileen knows, I sent her a whole bunch of questions. They were just some that I’ve been saving because they’re all around what Eileen is an expert in, which is sleep issues. All of these are about helping our child to get to sleep. It’s not about what happens after they’re already asleep and it’s done, but it’s that process of helping them get to bed, which can be very challenging, obviously.

I thought maybe we could start by having you say a little bit about what you thought about all these notes, if there’s something that stuck out for you as a similar theme in the issues parents are having. Some general guidelines, maybe, that you could offer before we get into the specifics.

Eileen Henry: Yes, I’m happy to. I noticed they’re all toddlers. I think the youngest one is a year old, and that’s coming in the beginning toddler. And then there is the accomplished toddler: two, two-and-a-half, coming into three years old. Very verbal, and they’re accomplished in their basic skill set and they’re practicing their skills. And they really show up in the night before bed when it’s time to let go and say goodbye to the day and separate from parents.

I like to look at this in the macro and then the micro. The macro, the family system, we’re working on meeting the needs of the child in the context of the most dynamic stage of growth and change in a human being’s lifetime: development. And development is the most interruptive thing to sleep. And it’s kind of an entropic system, early family life. It’s going from order to chaos to order to chaos. Order is when the habit formation solidifies and there’s a good habit, a good routine, and things are rolling along. And then chaos comes in big leaps of development and change. And toddlers are really apprehending a lot of emotional change, cognitive change, and change is happening in the environment too.

Janet Lansbury: And physical change too, in their development.

Eileen Henry: Oh yeah. And our job is really, if we think of the overall, is to create a sense of order just enough that over time we’re modeling the ability to return to order when life and change and growth and development takes us into chaos. So we’re always ushering them back into a place of order, into a place of stability. And that learning, that’s a two-decade proposition and learning experience, really. Because that’s how long this kind of dynamic brain development is going on.

I really identify with the toddler. This is the training ground and it really paves the way to the young child, the adolescent, and the teenager. Ninety-nine percent of the time, when people come to me with toddler sleep, it’s not a genuine sleep issue. It’s a boundary and a habit issue. And that’s great news because, as you know, Janet, Magda told us we can change anything we’re doing with our children at any time. And I love that because we’re going to do this over and over with our children.

Janet Lansbury: That’s right. It’s never too late. It’s never too early to start thinking about creating routines that you want to work in the future or that you hope will work.

And I am with you totally on loving the toddler years. One of the reasons is they’re just a mess, putting it all out there. Hopefully we see it as kind of a lovable mess, but as we get older, we’re more hidden in our feelings and things we’re going through. Toddlers just are like an open book.

Eileen Henry: They are. And what they’re grappling with is a lot that human beings, we do all our lives. And I think one of the most interesting elements of humanness is desire and longing. And toddlers, we see it in their behavior—and you’ve talked to this a lot, and I love how you speak to this—that underneath the behavior are needs. And if we can get under the behavior, the desire, the longing, the asking, mommy, mommy, mommy, running around, that wild burst of energy they can get before bedtime. Underneath the behavior is the desire to connect, the desire for some control.

And I like the word “apprehend” because it really captures how the embodied toddler is coming into these natural human feelings of desire and longing and wanting and expression and mischief and curiosity and all of that. They apprehend it in an embodied, physical, highly expressive way. And they’re having conflicting needs.

Janet Lansbury: Yes, and that’s what you’re reminding me of is that even though I said they’re putting it all out there, they’re putting it all out there, but not in a way that’s clearly going to communicate to us all the time what the actual need is. Sometimes it’s, “I need to be with you all the time!” That’s what I’m saying and that’s what I’m demonstrating. But what I really need is the order that you can give me. What you’re talking about, about order. And so that’s where it’s so easy to get misdirected by them because obviously our heart goes out when they’re saying, “I just need to be with you. Don’t ever leave me!” kind of thing.

Eileen Henry: And the truth of the matter is, because they’re still immature, so this rising up, this first time in toddlerhood, these genuine feelings are coming up, they’re still immature and they don’t know the difference between a need and a want. And that’s our relentless job, to discern that for them. If we think about it, we look around, a lot of grown-ups struggle with that, so we can really give toddlers a big break.

Janet Lansbury: Absolutely. Okay, we better get going on these questions because we do have a lot and I want to get to as much of this as possible, get your expertise. And I know parents really appreciate hearing advice on these issues. Here’s the first one:

I’ve recently bought No Bad Kids and I’ve been implementing some of your disciplinary guidelines and I’ve noticed them make a huge difference in my relationship with my daughter. Meal times are much smoother. I’ve noticed that she appears so much more confident to explore and play on her own. I’m feeling less guilty and much more confident about setting boundaries. Yay! And our time together feels really connected.

One area I’m still struggling with is bedtime, which has never been particularly easy for us. My daughter has a sensitive nervous system and definitely takes a while to wind down in the evening. That being said, we had a nice little rhythm going until this last week. The rhythm was: physical movement and dancing, wind down, dinner, bath, husband reads with her, he leaves the room, I come in and sing songs with her, sleep. We’ve been staying at the in-laws’ while they’re away, I think this might be a contributing factor. And as soon as bathtime is over and I’ve finished reading to her, singing songs, and winding down, she all of a sudden becomes giggly and starts climbing off and onto the floor bed, crawling around the floor, picking up anything on the floor that she can find. Last night it was a lamp, which I’ve since moved away.

And then she starts either hitting or biting. Last night after she had bitten me twice, I told her that I wouldn’t let her do that and that I’d send her dad to finish bedtime. She cried for about 20 minutes straight until I eventually came back into the room and from there she managed to get to sleep, but this was already way past her bedtime. We’re facing the same situation tonight. I’ve been bitten twice and I’ve now left the room and her dad is reading to her. No tears yet, though.

Any tips you could offer would be so greatly appreciated.

Eileen Henry: Okay, yes. The first thing I would ask is how the naps are. Most toddlers at this age still need a combined two minimum, preferably three hours of day sleep. And so if they don’t get that, the cortisol builds up and the wild child shows up right before bed. I love the ritual that they have—the physical activity, dancing, moving around, and how they wind into the night. And I trust mother’s intuition that she has a sensitive nervous system. Those nervous systems need a little longer to wind down, and so I would start earlier with that winding-down process, but I really love that. I love the dance before dinner and then coming in to dinner, then books. And once we enter the bedroom, we want to create a really intimate, close connection.

I wonder about the floor bed, too. Sometimes for this age child, that can be a lot of room and, depending how the setup is, I always ask for pictures of the physical environment. So once they start crawling up and down and off the bed and all around, the container might need to be brought in. And I’m also not sure if the parents are the body boundary, if they’re laying down to have her stay on the floor bed. Our presence can become really stimulating for our little ones, especially this age. So if we combine a little lack of sleep during the day, or even if she’s getting enough sleep during the day, let’s say she’s getting great naps and this behavior is still showing up, I would recommend bringing in the container to give her the ability to move around.

As far as the biting goes, my daughter, when she was two-and-a-half, left a RIE class after her best friend bit the heck out of her, and she looked at me the next day and there was still a mark on her arm and she said, “Ava didn’t mean to hurt me, she just meant to bite me.” It’s so true. It’s that impulse, that compulsion, just like that nyump expression. And sometimes it’s an expression of passion, excitement, this idea called cute aggression. When human beings get really excited, it’s just like, I want to bite it! I would say, in a quiet moment: “I notice that you get really excited before sleep time and you bite.” And offering something to bite in the bathtub, offering a lovey, the transitional object, something they can bite. And I would remove myself after the first bite. So, “Oh, you bit me, I’m going to step away.”

But the need for attachment, closeness, connection, and the opposite, equal conflicting need for autonomy, separateness, authenticity, those are usually the two conflicting needs at this time. So I give a lot of preparation to the physical environment and the emotional environment because we’re sculpting a container that holds our children, it holds our toddlers, it holds their sleep. And it also holds these expressions of needing to move and needing to get that out of the body. That’s what they are in charge of. They’re in charge of moving their bodies and finding the rest, and we’re in charge of holding the boundary and coming and going in what I call “co-regulation in motion.”

In toddlerhood, these natural behaviors come up and the parent being next to the child is really stimulating. Quite often the child can find rest sooner if they have a safe environment. They can roll around, play with their lovey, play with their toes and their hands, and walk around and let the body find rest. So I would just need more information on the physical environment. And I know they’re at their in-laws’ house. So it’s a new environment, that’s challenging. But the floor bed at home, what is that physical environment like? And how to create a little more containment for the one-year-old to move about and get that energy out of her so that her body can find rest.

Janet Lansbury: I was thinking about what the parent said about the sensitive nervous system too, which would make a child even more sensitive to the energy of the parent. And then if the parent’s getting annoyed—which is very normal for us to do, we want our day to be over as a parent, and now it’s taking longer and longer. And so now our energy is not just exciting because it’s a parent, but it’s unnerving because our vibration is not a comfortable one.

Eileen Henry: Yes, and they’re interested in that. That’s curious . . . They’re learning in relationship. And sensitive nervous systems don’t usually happen in a vacuum. They happen within the nervous system of the family. And so we want to be mindful of any somatic practice of self-regulation starting earlier. When we notice these things in our children at a year old, it’s not too young to say, “I see and I hear you. I see this at night. Let’s get to the bedroom sooner so you can crawl up and down off of the bed for a bit, and then settle in for story time.” I don’t know what time they’re hitting the bath, but by bathtime she might be a little overtired. This is classic a-little-jacked-up-on-cortisol behavior.

Janet Lansbury: Yes. And one of my three children, bathing actually stimulated him, so it didn’t have that effect that we hope it’s going to have. So it’s not necessarily a calming-down experience for children. It can be an excitable experience too.

Eileen Henry: Good point. Then that way we would want to put that earlier in the ritual, maybe after the dance party, then the bath. We’re going from an upright, active love, family environment to horizontal, quiet love, sleep environment.

Janet Lansbury: Great, I love that. Okay, here’s another one:

I’m a mum to T, a delightful, curious, intuitive, and strong-spirited 23-month-old who’s an incredible communicator, strong verbal skills. Myself and my partner follow a gentle, respectful approach with her and have done from the beginning. I’m currently at home with T full-time except for naps, and one afternoon a week when my mum has her. I really feel I need this time and space to refill my cup.

In the last few weeks, my mum has received a cancer diagnosis, and whilst we are awaiting a full diagnosis and prognosis, I believe the cancer is advanced and we are perhaps facing the end of her life. I—understandably, I know—feel overwhelmed and sad and find my tolerance and patience with my daughter is in much shorter supply than usual. In light of the diagnosis, I’m not asking my mum to look after T, as I feel she has enough to manage and process at the moment.

T is also beginning to refuse her nap, which I’m finding so frustrating and feel myself becoming uncompromising and resentful with her in the moment. We have recently stopped feeding through the night, which on the whole T has managed and accepted very well.

I wonder if you can speak to how to navigate this time— the frustration I’m feeling towards my daughter when she refuses to nap, losing the small window I have to myself now, and also how to navigate any changes that may help support me during what I feel will be stormy clouds ahead for our family.

I’m mindful that the gentle approach to making changes such as stopping feeding or bed-sharing is to do this when there are no big life changes imminent. Whilst I don’t particularly want to stop either, I worry that if my mom’s prognosis is poor, I’m going to be rocked to my core and I’m not sure I will be able to manage feeding and the lack of space bed-sharing currently allows going forward.

Any insight, wise words, and tips gratefully received.

Eileen Henry: This is when human beings are the most human: grieving. Yeah, all these feelings that are coming up for you, “uncompromising and resentful with her in the moment.” That’s so human. That’s so understandable when you’re going through grief. And this is a unique grief, this mother is in the middle of the past of being mothered by her mother and mothering. This is a huge transition. It’s kind of this mom to not want to put too much on her mother as far as doing the caregiving with her, given what she’s going through. I would say if you could carve out time of just the three of you being together and just being present with each other as much as possible and really sinking into this time, this huge transition.

You stopped feeding through the night, which your toddler accepted very well—hold on to that. Developmentally, she’s capable of holding on to night weaning and you don’t need to go back to that, because that’s going to deplete you. And you want to be as resourced as you can going through this time. As far as bed-sharing, you could make that change. But I would say, trust yourself. Is that a change that you really feel like you could make right now?

And as far as the nap goes, if you’re doing bed-sharing at night, I take it that your daughter is reliant on you to lie down with her for naps. Here again, it would be setting up the sanctuary of rest, relaxation, downtime, and not even call it nap. But at this age, if she’s used to you being with her to get the nap, it’s going to be hard to change that at this age. You could just transition to downtime and go to bed earlier or be with her. Your body might need a nap at that time. Grief is exhausting, it takes a lot of energy to be present with grief. But if you could create a space that you could just give her permission to, you can make noise, you can sleep, you can hang out, you can play. And this is the downtime. And we give them an environmental cue. I like using a light cue. Red is slow down, hang out, quiet play and green is go, dog, go!

Janet Lansbury: Are you saying that the parent would separate and say, “This is your time. You can go to sleep if you feel like it. You don’t have to.” And letting go of that pressure the parent’s putting on herself. Often it’s letting go of something around sleep that makes it work, just because sleep is letting go, right? That starts with us letting go. So letting go of that it has to be this way. Like, Here’s some things in your room. Hang out, but I’m going to rest. I’m going to go rest now.

Eileen Henry: We’re modeling self-care and we’re showing our daughters how to love the self, how to take care of the self as far as the basic needs. And it’s okay. Because we also have that need for closeness and attachment versus self-preservation, authenticity, and autonomy. And we want our children to integrate those two because those two needs, that are in conflict, they’re going to have to navigate and even negotiate in every close relationship they have in this life, especially their intimate relationships.

So what we want to do is create, again, a sanctuary, a calming, peaceful place that we can release the child to. And I don’t know how this little one, how her autonomy muscle is. If she’s used to having the place in RIE, the yes space, where we can release our little ones to and they have autonomous, self-directed play. And we come and go. Check in, go do our thing, come back and check in. And that can be built at any time. I just don’t know, going through grief, if this is something this mom can take on. I would encourage her to let go.

Toddlers are great at grief. They can cycle through every stage in like 20 to 30 minutes. Denial, bargaining, sad, disappointment, anger, rage, sad, frustration, acceptance. And when I work with mothers who are going through a grieving process and changing sleep habits in their home, what they’re faced with is their own grief and then their child going through their loss in grief of separating, saying goodbye to the day, letting go of mom and dad as their sleep rock. And I do discuss in toddler sleep the process that toddlers are going through. A letting go, a loss, a grieving. If they’re letting go of the breast as their sleep crutch or being in constant contact with a parent. And as we usher them and support them into moving into greater abilities and autonomy, they have to let go of that. And they experience all the feelings of grief.

The only other attachment person that talks about this and the grief around sleep and saying goodbye and letting go is Gordon Neufeld. He really speaks to this beautifully. And we both agree that we meet that letting go with ritual—storytelling especially, as part of the ritual—and lullaby. Those are the two perfect ways to meet grief and letting go, because that’s how we’ve dealt with it for thousands of years. Before the written word, we did oral storytelling. And the lullaby is an ancient, ancient form that we use in rituals, especially rituals to deal with sadness, loss, and grief.

Janet Lansbury: And do you feel like since this is a grieving, letting-go process, that this is also a time to consider that there may be some really healthy crying children need to share?

Eileen Henry: Yes.

Janet Lansbury: Generally I always feel like, and I would notice this in my children, if children this age, that are in such emotional turmoil for a good part of the day, if they don’t have regular venting periods, which is usually around when we set a boundary with them, Sorry, we can’t play outside anymore. It’s really time to come in. If we could see those all as positive sharing that our child needs to do, if we could keep reminding ourselves of this perspective that, Oh, I haven’t done a bad thing as a mom, this isn’t bad. This is actually really a positive thing. Then our children don’t have to store it up until the end of the day.

Eileen Henry: Yes. I’m thinking of that previous letter, the little two-biter. Mom stepped away and her daughter cried for 20 minutes and then she came back and she was ready to go to sleep. She had the release she needed. Here again, release is so important.

Janet Lansbury: Yes. I like that analogy of the container, but for my survival it’s been more like that little bit of emotional distance of kind of being the therapist that I guess contains, but it’s more like witnesses. It’s more like allows for, makes room for, and doesn’t have to take it onto myself in any way.

Eileen Henry: Yeah. We’re doing something with our children that therapists will intentionally do but don’t want to unconsciously do. We’re in parallel process with them. And that’s going to be the challenge of this mom. Parallel process is if we start to feel the feelings of the other so much that we get carried and swept away in their experience and we don’t remain differentiated.

Janet Lansbury: And it’s really hard not to do that, by the way. Really, really hard. But that’s why I like the visual for me, the feeling of being the anchor. People will say to me, “Well, I’m riding these waves.” No, don’t ride the waves with your child! If you’re surfing all day, you’re going to be wasted.

Eileen Henry: You’re going to get swept away.

Janet Lansbury: But if you can be an anchor, then it’s passing through and you expect it to. You’re not trying to stop the waves or tame them. That’s why I hate that term “taming tantrums” and things like that. No, that’s us trying to control something that we don’t any of us control, which is our feelings.

Eileen Henry: No. I think tantrums are absolutely something that the child can handle. They can’t control it. It kind of has to ride its course, right? It just rides its course and then it comes down and all of a sudden it’s, “Oh, a bird!” They move through.

Janet Lansbury: Right. And it’s very sudden a lot of the time, like, What just happened? They’re fine and I’m still a mess. What’s going on here? But yeah, that always amazes me. I’ve seen that so many times with children I’ve worked with, my own children, that you feel like, as a parent that’s sensitive like I am, It’s the end of the world! And now two seconds later, What just happened? They’re all, La la la, everything’s great. What happened? And that’s why people think they’re faking it, right? Because how can they do that? But that’s the healthy way that children vent.

Eileen Henry: That’s what I mean by integrate. So the more we hold that anchor for them—I like the anchor too—holding that space, they’re able to move through those feelings. And I’ve noticed with my own and with children that I’ve worked with and the feedback I get from parents, it’s scary. And yet over time as they develop, it integrates into a very fluid and flexible emotional system. No one feeling takes them out. They’re able to have all the feelings of being human and all the feelings of grief and all the feelings of loss and all the feelings of frustration and disappointment, all of it. I think it may have been Gordon Neufeld who says, and they have every right to have every feeling.

Janet Lansbury: Right. And Magda said that too, all the time. Even about infants, that they have a right to cry. Okay, so moving on. That was wonderful, thank you. Here’s another one:

My daughter is turning three in March. She is soooo needy. She has been this way from the day she was born. She still needs me to put her to sleep. I stay with her until she’s fallen asleep. If I try to leave while she’s still awake, she screams and cries in despair to the point she will vomit. My back aches on a daily basis from carrying her. That’s the only way she will fall asleep.

On another note, she’s extremely needy. I get stressed because she doesn’t let me do anything. I tell her I need to get ready and will come back in five minutes. As soon as I step into my room, she’s calling for me. “Mommy, mommy!” It goes like this all day long. I give her my undivided attention, but it’s just not enough for her. I’m a stay-at-home mom and only work on Sundays as an RN.

I’m exhausted. Please budge me towards the right direction.

Eileen Henry: Oh, the three-year-old’s on top.

I’m going to go into the language of, “she still needs me to put her to sleep.” In my book, I talk about the difference between authentic need and parent-reinforced need. So, this is good news: This is a parent-reinforced need. She doesn’t need you to put her to sleep, but in her little mind she does because that’s the only way it’s happened. So, she can do it. She wants you to put her to sleep. And this is the discernment we have to do, the difference between a need and a want. And if you don’t, “she screams and cries in despair.” That is because she hasn’t learned another way to do it. But she can. She can.

And the great thing about working with a three-year-old, they have all their skills, they’re just practicing them over and over. They’re verbal. If there are any words coming out of the mouth, that means they do have access to what higher brain they do possess. And that actually isn’t distress or despair, that is longing and desire and come fix it because I don’t know any other way.

So I would encourage her to allow her daughter to learn how to navigate the liminal space of consciousness. From consciousness to unconsciousness, that’s the space that our toddlers have to confront to become skilled sleepers. And we help them. We set them up, we prepare them. I use storytelling, lovies, play, dress rehearsal, lullaby to set them up with a ritual that is irresistible to the toddler to prepare them, to release them into that space and learn how to navigate that space.

“She doesn’t let you do anything.” That means she’s in charge. And when toddlers are in charge, no one really gets what they need. It’s chaos. If I see an amount of chaos in an exhausted parent, it’s she’s gotten on top of the sleep ritual.

And the vomiters, oh my goodness, that’s a longer discussion. I’ve worked with varying degrees of vomiting. And it’s disheartening and it’s really upsetting to parents, yet it’s one of the easiest things for them to do is vomit. Crying and vomit is easy. It’s not like the vomiting that grown-ups do. It’s very different. We give them permission to vomit, actually. That’s just flat-out honest. We prepare them. We set up the crib, we set up the space, we put out new jammies. I have some of the most incredible stories I have about the cathartic experience vomiting children went through and got to the other side. A two-year-old who went to the crib and pointed and gagged and pointed to the crib and shook his head and said, “No more, no more.” Because his mom told him over and over, “It’s okay if you vomit. You don’t have to, but if you vomit, I’m going to clean it up, I’m going to take care of it, and we’re going to put you back to bed.” A toddler who is three years old at the gate, and his mom set him up, he had his bucket, they went through the dress rehearsal. And she sent me an email the next morning, she said, “I was in the kitchen and I heard the bucket fly over the gate. And I went and he looked at me, he said, ‘I don’t need that.'” And he went and got back to bed and he went to sleep. He was given permission for even that expression.

Janet Lansbury: Because the parent had the perspective that you gave them to not be deeply alarmed, like most of us are, especially the first time that happens.

Eileen Henry: Two to three years old, I tell parents, this is the age where we titrate the bad news and the great news, because it’s both for the child. That grown-ups are in charge and we don’t harm ourselves anymore to take care of our children. If our back is genuinely hurting, we look at the child and say, “You know what, sweetie? When I do that over and over, that hurts my back. So I’ll come sit down. You can sit in my lap.” We give them options, but we don’t do things that hurt us anymore. Because again, we’re modeling what it’s like to take care of ourselves and treat ourselves lovingly.

Janet Lansbury: Yes, I think it’s so hard for us, it was for me at first, to frame these kind of boundaries and sticking up for ourselves as such a positive, important teaching moment that will benefit our child their whole life. If we can see boundaries that way.

Eileen Henry: So underneath is the need, we want to meet the need. And then the behavior, we’ve talked about “letting it ride,” that expression and then it integrates and the nervous system calms down. The more the behavior meets the strong boundary, the loving limit, and the environment stays consistent, strong, and it holds, the behavior, even the vomiting, it goes away.

Janet Lansbury: Right. Because there’s a calming effect of, Oh, I don’t have to run everything. They’re comfortable being my leader, they’re comfortable doing this.

What I would say to this parent too, what I would suggest is that she gets the practice. Because I feel like bedtime is the hardest time to set a boundary. We’re tired. They’re tired. It’s this sensitive time for us separating from our children. It’s not just them separating from us. It’s us. And we want to feel like it was a good day and it’s all nice so that we can get to sleep and not feel agitated and worried that it’s all wrong and everything’s bad. It’s a really important time for a positive feeling. So I would just lean into the boundaries all day long so that you get a lot of practice with the dynamic of: I set the boundary. You get upset. I hold the boundary because I love you too much to not hold this for you. You need me to. And yes, you’re going to rail at me and scream at me and whine and say my name 50 million times, but I love you too much to crumble for you. It’s this really powerful, loving reframe. And the more practice she gets, the better chance she’ll have of being able to do this at night. Which is the hardest time, for me at least.

Eileen Henry: Yes. And setting the stage. A three-year-old, we can look at them and say, “You know what? I want to create a bedtime we look forward to.” That’s why I involve toddlers in their own solutions. We actually collaborate a solution with them. Now, we’re in charge of it, we show them the structure of it. And then we allow them to invite in the stuffy support animals, we invite in this creative connection we forge with them—what bridges us to the next day, where we’re going to meet, where we might meet in our dreams. A verbal child, this is when we really want to create an intimate, lovely preparation to then release them and let go of them.

Janet Lansbury: And I think the more mutual it is, the easier it’ll be for us to release it. Because there’s trust. Our child will make deals with us that they will not follow necessarily, they will not come through on. We shake hands on like, “Alright, we’re going to hug three times and say goodnight, and that’s going to be it.” And we can’t expect them to go with the deal, but at least we know they made this deal. And so I’m going to trust that if they’re not accepting it now, it’s because they need to vent something with me as I’m leaving or whatever it is. And it helps them to get a sense of control too. So yeah, I love that idea of children participating in the ritual. Their ideas about what do you need, what do you want, what should we do? And then, Okay, here’s how we’ll do it, then. Us having the final say.

Eileen Henry: Right, we’re modeling. So we’re saying, Okay, what are your non-negotiables? What do you want before bedtime? We’re going to have this, we’re going to have that. We’re going to make sure to make time for you crawling up and down off the bed. We build it into the ritual so that the child feels seen, heard, and understood, that they’re an active part of this and we’re creating something together to look forward to. And then we literally release them into the sanctuary. We release them into their imaginations, their wonder. They have their lovies. We give them what they’re in charge of in their environment, the lovey, the support animal.

I use storytelling kind of like lore, and there are archetypes in the story. There’s the vulnerable one we take care of and nurture. There’s the protector, maybe a bear. Lately dragons have been really popular with little boys as the overall watching over, protecting the space. And we give them these archetypes and we release them to it. We release them to the self, and we release them into their unconscious where all the shadow material waits for us in our dreams. They’re so good at it.

Janet Lansbury: Yeah, they are. And if we go into that knowing that we’ve done this together, and sometimes I even say, or even suggest, I remember saying this to my children, “If you have more feelings as I’m leaving, you get to share those and I will be back to check on you.” And that’s in the routine. We practice that. So it’s really, it’s in the play for us. It helps us kind of settle into our role a little bit better. I needed a lot of help with this. That’s why I’ve got all these ideas and why I have ideas for other parents too. Because there’s no one with a harder time setting limits than me. I mean, I love the expression, “I never let go of anything without leaving claw marks in it.”

Eileen Henry: Me too. I think I know where you got that one from. I like that one.

Janet Lansbury: And children are like that, right? Young children are. And they’re supposed to be, and that’s okay. If we can normalize that for ourselves and expect it, even, it’s just going to be easier for us to face it with that heroism that we need so often as parents around boundaries.

Eileen Henry: It is. And I tell parents, you just have to be good enough. My kids are way better at boundaries than I am, to this day. Just good enough. Thank goodness we don’t have to do it perfectly.

And that checking in on them, if we can lead the check-ins and reassure the child, I’m going to go do X and then I’m going to come back and check in on you. And if you can keep it a little lighthearted—you talk about this, I’ve heard you talk about this—staying in lighthearted and almost playful. I used to tell my daughter, “I always have three more kisses in me, so when I come back, you tell me where you want those kisses.” And she’d want them on her doll, on her elbow. And it was a little playful.

Also, a magical little phrase and mantra is, “You know what, sweetie? I’m going to give you longer to work this out. I’m right over there. I’m going to be back. I’m listening. I hear you calling mommy, mommy, mommy. I hear that. And I’m going to give you longer to work this out and settle down and go to sleep.” A three-year-old, we can start to speak to them. And I think that is a respectful, gentle way of speaking to a child. It’s just their reaction can be anything but gentle. They’re ruckus, they’re rough and tumble, so that’s going to come back at us.

Janet Lansbury: They’re not unruffled, which is partly what I love about them. But yeah, the reason to have that light attitude too is—and not that we can snap our fingers and have this, it’s all about this perspective and everything that you’ve talked about here today. It’s important because then our child isn’t feeling those intense, uncomfortable things coming from us that they’re going to absorb, and now they’ve got to deal with that too at bedtime. If we can be clear and confident and light in what we’re doing, they have nothing else to dig into there when they’re clawing. There’s nothing, it’s like we’re light as a feather. What are they going to claw into? And that’s what they need. They don’t want to be stuck either, in their heart of hearts. They don’t want to be in that in-between place. They want to go to sleep too, down deep, because they’re exhausted.

Eileen Henry: They don’t want to work that hard. They will.

Janet Lansbury: It’s like they feel like they have to, they can’t be the one to let go first. It’s this wonderful way they’re built.

Eileen Henry: When you’re in the moment, I do appreciate how hard it is when your child’s tugging on your heartstrings.

Janet Lansbury: It really is. And so we do whatever we do and then later we look at it and say, Okay, maybe I want to be kinder to myself the next time. And I’ll try it, and we just do our best. And at some point we realize, because we see it evident in front of us in all the boundaries that we set, that, Oh my gosh, that was a gift that I just gave my child.

Eileen Henry: Yeah. I think there’s a magic in preparing ahead of time, preparing the child, walking them through, having one last night. Especially if they’re heavy sleep crutches, like still holding them to sleep or nursing them to sleep or being with them or picking them up a bunch of times to fix their sleep for them. To really prepare the self, then prepare the child, and then walk through with that confident momentum. I love your term. Confident momentum is co-regulation in motion. It has a momentum, it has a confident movement to it.

Janet Lansbury: Yeah. And it doesn’t have the trepidation. Because sometimes when I suggest to parents that they prepare, they interpret it as if they’re using this warning tone. Well, now I have to do this, and here’s your last kiss. And that’s not the comfortable parent that we’re talking about, that’s so vital to this process.

Wow. You are just a wealth of information and inspiration, and I hope that everybody checks out your website if they haven’t already: compassionatesleepsolutions.com. And your book, The Compassionate Sleep Solution, Calming the Cry. Check that out too. Check out her social media. We’ll put links into the transcript.

And she does this amazing thing: 15-minute free consultations with Eileen. That is huge. So you might want to check that out as well and take advantage. And I love the work that you’re doing and how you’ve spearheaded this work, this role of sleep consultant. You’ve provided a service that is so essential. If we’re not sleeping, everything is much harder.

Eileen Henry: It is. It’s the foundation of our well-being. It really is, to be resourced as parents and human beings. It certainly was for me.

Janet Lansbury: Thank you so much, Eileen.

Eileen Henry: Oh, it’s always a pleasure to hang out with you. Thank you.


Janet Lansbury: Again, Eileen’s website is compassionatesleepsolutions.com, and you can also hear our previous conversation on Unruffled, The Beauty of Sleep.

Thank you so much for listening and all your kind support. We can do this.

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