A Guide to Becoming the Parent you Want to Be
by Dr. Becky Kennedy
After finishing this book in Februrary of 2023, I wrote,
"It's uncommon for me to read books about parenting. I'm so happy I took my friend's recommendation to check this book out. Becky gets so much right in this book. And she guides us with word-by-word recipes in how to handle those difficult encounters that can occur between parents and children. I was especially impressed with her emphasis that the parents take care of themselves and not be living their lives through their kids. I collected so many notes that I was prevented from copying many good ones from the last third of the book."
My clippings below collapse a 332-page book into 25 pages, measured by using 12-point type in Microsoft Word."
Here are the selections I made:
In my work with patients, I often say that two things are true: practical, solution-based strategies can also promote deeper healing.
I believe you can be firm and warm, boundaried and validating, focused on connection while acting as a sturdy authority.
Let me share an assumption I have about you and your kids: you are all good inside. When you call your child “a spoiled brat,” you are still good inside. When your child denies knocking down his sister’s block tower (even though you watched it happen), he is still good inside. And when I say “good inside,” I mean that we all, at our core, are compassionate, loving, and generous. The principle of internal goodness drives all of my work—I hold the belief that kids and parents are good inside, which allows me to be curious about the “why” of their bad behaviors. This curiosity enables me to develop frameworks and strategies that are effective in creating change. There is nothing in this book as important as this principle—it is the foundation for all that’s to come, because as soon as we tell ourselves, “Okay, slow down . . . I’m good inside . . . my kid is good inside too . . . ,” we intervene differently than we would if we allowed our frustration and anger to dictate our decisions.
As a result, many parents see behavior as the measure of who our kids are, rather than using behavior as a clue to what our kids might need.
The Most Generous Interpretation (MGI) Finding the good inside can often come from asking ourselves one simple question: “What is my most generous interpretation of what just happened?”
Your younger son responds: “You and Daddy are going out with Nico without me? I hate you! You’re the worst mom in the world!”
“Wow, those are big words, let me take a breath . . . I hear how upset you are. Tell me more.”
But my MGI of my child’s response is this: “Hmm. My son really wishes he was included in this special lunch. I can understand that. He’s sad. And jealous. Those feelings are so big in his small body that they explode out of him in the form of big hurtful words, but what’s underneath is a raw, painful set of feelings.”
We orient them to their internal experience, which includes thoughts, feelings, sensations, urges, memories, and images. Self-regulation skills rely on the ability to recognize internal experience, so by focusing on what’s inside rather than what’s outside, we are building in our children the foundation of healthy coping.
Convincing has one goal in mind: being right. And here’s the unfortunate consequence of being right: the other person feels unseen and unheard, at which point most people become infuriated and combative, because it feels as if the other person does not accept your realness or worth. Feeling unseen and unheard makes connection impossible.
Understanding (“two things are true”) and convincing (“one thing is true”) are two diametrically opposed ways of approaching other people, so a powerful first step in any interaction is to notice which mode you’re in.
Parent: “You have to put a jacket on before you go outside. It is freezing!” Child: “I don’t get cold! I’ll be fine, let me go outside!” Parent: “Okay, one second. Let me take a breath. Let me see if I understand what’s happening here . . . I’m worried about you being cold, because it’s pretty windy outside. You’re telling me that you feel your body doesn’t get that cold and you’re pretty sure you’ll be okay, huh? Did I get that right?” Child: “Yeah.” Now there are lots of possibilities. There’s an opening in the conversation. Let’s continue with two different options. Parent: “Hmm . . . what can we do? I’m sure we can come up with an idea that both of us feel okay about . . .” Child: “Can I bring my jacket with me and if I’m cold, I’ll put it on?” Parent: “Sure, what an awesome solution.” When children feel seen and sense their parent is a teammate and not an adversary, and when they’re asked to collaborate in problem-solving . . . good things happen. Now, let’s say you’re insisting your child wear the jacket—it’s two degrees outside with fifty-mile-per-hour winds. This isn’t a control thing but a true safety thing.
Boundaries are not what we tell kids not to do; boundaries are what we tell kids we will do.
The absence of a sturdy adult keeping them safe is more dysregulating to them than the original issue. “Please stop hitting your brother!” “Stop running! I said to stop running! If you keep running with those scissors, you’re not going to get dessert!” “Didn’t we say you’d be done after this show? Can’t we be done? Why do you have to make this so hard?” In each of these examples, parents are asking their kids to inhibit an urge or desire that, frankly, they are developmentally incapable of inhibiting.
“You’re upset, that’s real, I see that.” Invalidation, or the act of dismissing someone else’s experience or truth, would sound like this: “There’s no reason to be so upset, you’re so sensitive, come on!” Remember, all human beings—kids and adults—have a profound need to feel seen in who they are, and at any given moment, who we are is related to what we are feeling inside.
Now you have your job description: keep your child safe, emotionally and physically, using boundaries, validation, and empathy.
A child’s job in a family system is to explore and learn, through experiencing and expressing their emotions and wants.
When those emotions transform into dangerous behavior, we set appropriate boundaries, while still validating and empathizing.
Then I review: I said to my son in the time before separation, “Sweetie, I know it’s so hard for you when Mommy has to do work. That makes sense; you love being by Mommy’s side! You will be with Daddy, and I will see you for lunch. Mommy always comes back.” I set boundaries that felt right to me, and I expressed validation with my words and empathy with my tone. My son protested. And screamed. And cried. He did his job: he experienced and expressed feelings. In response, I said, “I know it’s so hard, sweetie. You’re allowed to be upset. I love you,” and then left. Validation, empathy, boundary. He cried. Again, experiencing and expressing feelings.
Here’s the big takeaway: kids wire themselves to adapt to their early environment, forming expectations about the world based on the data they take in; that early wiring impacts how they think about themselves and others long after childhood.
A child who sees a parent as his secure base feels a sense of safety in the world, a sense of “someone will be there for me and comfort me if things go wrong.” As such, he feels capable of exploring, trying new things, taking risks, suffering failures, and being vulnerable.
The more children feel they can depend on a parent, the more independent they can be. Our confidence that someone will understand us, not judge us, and support us, comfort us when things go wrong—this is what allows kids to develop into adults who are assertive, confident, and brave.
This is why it’s so important to distinguish behavior from underlying feelings and experience.
So when your child says, “I hate my baby brother, send him back to the hospital!” and you yell, “Don’t say that about your brother, you love him!” the lesson they learn isn’t that their words were inappropriate. The lesson they learn is that jealousy and anger are dangerous emotions, ones they shouldn’t have at all.
There’s one question I hear from parents more than any other: “Is it too late?” My answer is always no. Because it’s always true.
I often think that parenting is really an exercise in our own development and growth; when we have kids, we are confronted with so many truths about ourselves, our childhoods, and our relationships with our families of origin. And while we can use this information to learn and unlearn, break cycles, and heal, we have to do this work while also caring for our kids, managing tantrums, getting by on limited sleep, and feeling depleted. That’s a lot.
One recent study confirmed this effect in the context of parenting: it examined the impact of parenting programs aimed at two-year-olds through eleven-year-olds, and found that as long as the interventions were adapted to the age of the particular child, parenting programs had equal effectiveness.
Since parents are the most significant fixture in a child’s environment, perhaps it should come as no surprise that when a parent changes, so too does a child’s wiring.
But there’s another, more optimistic and encouraging interpretation: “Wow, this is amazing. If I can work on some of my own emotion regulation abilities—which will feel good for me anyway!—my child will change in response. How empowering!”
Here’s what I always tell parents: It’s not your fault that your child is struggling. But it is your responsibility, as the adults in the family system, to change the environment so that your child can learn and grow and thrive.
Psychiatrist Ronald Fairbairn may have said it best when he wrote, regarding children and child development, “It is better to be a sinner in a world ruled by God than to live in a world ruled by the Devil.”
It’s more comforting for a child to internalize badness (“I am bad inside”), because at least then he can hold on to the idea that the world around him is safe and good.
Mommy was having big feelings that came out in a yelling voice. Those were my feelings and it’s my job to work on managing them better. It’s never your fault when I yell and it’s not your job to figure out how I can stay calmer. I love you”)
Remind yourself, right now: “Good parents don’t get it right all the time. Good parents repair.”
And this is one I’ll remember forever, from a grandparent: “A few months ago, my daughter asked me to follow you so I could understand how she is parenting her kids. Wow, has this been an education for me. I called my daughter this morning and told her that I wish I could rewind and parent her in this way and that I see now that it must have felt so bad to her when I yelled or saw the worst in her, not the best. She cried. I guess she really needed to hear this. We talked about it for a while. It was one of the most important moments of our relationship.”
What are we talking about when we say, “Cheer up!” or “You have so much to be happy about!” or “Why can’t you just be happy?” I, for one, don’t think we’re talking about cultivating happiness as much as we’re talking about avoiding fear and distress.
And yet, I’m not sure that “the best” for them is to “just be happy.” For me, happiness is much less compelling than resilience. After all, cultivating happiness is dependent on regulating distress. We have to feel safe before we can feel happy.
Happiness is not my ultimate goal for my own kids. Unhappiness certainly isn’t my goal for them, but here’s a deep irony in parenting: the more we emphasize our children’s happiness and “feeling better,” the more we set up them up for an adulthood of anxiety. Setting happiness as the goal compels us to solve our kids’ problems rather than equip them to solve their own.
When we tell our kids, “I just want you to be happy,” we are telling them they need to get out of distress and into comfort.
You are the architect of your child’s resilience, and that is the ultimate gift you can give them.
Behavior, in all its forms, is a window: into the feelings, thoughts, urges, sensations, perceptions, and unmet needs of a person. Behavior is never “the story,” but rather it’s a clue to the bigger story begging to be addressed.
The only way I’d be able to change and show up more grounded and less reactive in the future would be to embrace curiosity about what was happening for me underneath the behavior.
When we use methods of behavior modification, we can—temporarily—change behavior. I won’t deny that. I also won’t deny that it can take time to do the deeper work, which is a privilege we don’t always have. There are some situations where we need to correct a child’s behavior and do it quickly, and others where we simply can’t dedicate our limited resources to doing the additional work—where we’re already stretched too thin between work and family and the many demands of being a parent and a person in the world. But without attending to what’s under the surface, we cannot change the dynamics that motivate a child’s behavior. It’s like putting duct tape on a leak in the ceiling instead of wondering about the source of the leak. When we address the behavior first, we miss the opportunity to help our children build skills, and beyond this, we miss the opportunity to see our kids as people rather than a collection of behaviors.
However, while reinforcing our kid’s people-pleasing tendencies can be “convenient” in childhood, it can lead to major problems—a reluctance to say no, an inability to assert or even locate one’s own needs, a prioritization of other people’s wellness to the detriment of one’s own—later on.
And for non-people-pleasing kids? Well, these methods often intensify challenging behavior, not help it. Because when we are not heard or seen on the inside, we escalate our expressions on the outside, in hopes of being taken seriously and getting our needs met. In short: when we see behavior as “the main event” instead of as a window into an unmet need, we may “successfully” shut down the behavior, but the underlying need remains, and it will pop up again, Whack-a-Mole style. When we don’t attend to the source of the leak, the water flow remains unchanged.
When we sacrifice relationship building in favor of control tactics, our children may age, but in many ways, they developmentally remain toddlers, because they miss out on years of building the emotion regulation, coping skills, intrinsic motivation, and inhibition of desires that are necessary for life success. When we are busy exerting extrinsic control over our children’s external behavior, we sacrifice teaching these critical internal skills.
“So many professionals advised us to use the system of time-outs and punishments and rewards, and it all seemed so logical. And they quoted impressive data, like a ninety percent reduction in difficult behavior. Who wouldn’t want that? But I didn’t see the bigger picture. We don’t want to ‘craft our child’s behavior’ . . . we want to help our son develop into a good person. We want to understand him, to help him with the things that feel bad to him. It never occurred to me that our earlier approach was actually making our problems worse. This is so important for parents to know.”
Parents often ask me: “How can you be against a parenting approach that has data showing it changes kids’ behavior? How can that be bad?” Well, it’s not necessarily bad. But here’s my issue with it: the evidence around behavior change can make us lose sight of what actually matters in favor of what is immediately observable.
Here are some questions to get you started, to ask yourself after any tough moment: What is my most generous interpretation (MGI) of my child’s behavior? What was going on for my child in that moment? What was my child feeling right before that behavior emerged? What urge did my child have a hard time regulating? What is a parallel situation in my life? And if I did something similar, what might I have been struggling with in that moment? What does my child feel I don’t understand about them? If I remember that my child is a good kid having a hard time . . . what are they having a hard time with? What deeper themes are being displayed underneath this behavior?
I define shame as the feeling that “this part of me is not connectable—no one wants to know or be with this part.”
It’s a powerful feeling that tells us we should not want to be seen as we are in the moment. Shame encourages us to avoid contact with others—to hide, to distance ourselves, to move away rather than toward others.
But here’s what’s critical to understand about shame: it is an evolutionarily adaptive feeling. Being alone as a child is synonymous with being in danger, so shame works, within the attachment system, as a signal to a child to hide the part of them that does not successfully gain attachment.
Here’s an intervention that doesn’t help to reduce shame: “Irha, you have to say sorry. It’s a simple word! You’re making the situation worse! How could you care so little about your sister? COME ON!” Here, Irha is put in the “bad kid” role and spirals further into her badness, and further into her frozen shame state. Here’s an intervention that’s aimed at shame detection and reduction: “Hmm . . . it’s hard to find your ‘I’m sorry’ voice. I have times like that too. I’ll use it for you before you find it again.” Then you, the parent, go to your other child and say, “I’m sorry I took your lovie. I know that was upsetting. Is there anything I can do to make it better?”
She explained it to me this way: “It seems that the underlying theme of everything you talk about is connection. Connection first, everything else second. My son says, ‘I hate you!’—I can still connect first to what’s happening inside. My daughter isn’t listening to me—I can connect with her having a hard time listening instead of trying to force her to comply, which of course never works anyway. Even my husband, when he is mad at me about something, I can connect to what he’s saying before defending myself. And with myself! No matter what I’m feeling or thinking, it never becomes bad or overwhelming if I can add my own connection or connection with others to it. ‘Connection first’ has helped me in every area of my family life.”
Shame is a warning sign of aloneness, danger, and badness; connection is a sign of presence, safety, and goodness. Now, to be clear, connection does not mean approval. Approval is usually about a specific behavior; connection is about our relationship with the person underneath the behavior.
This might sound like a silly principle, an obvious one—perhaps my most straightforward idea in this book—and yet, telling the truth is surprisingly tricky to put into practice. Speaking to your kids honestly, without vagaries or avoidance, requires sitting with a lot of your own feelings, even the unpleasant ones, for the benefit of your children. And that’s something that’s hard for most of us.
Parents often fear that telling their kids the truth will be too scary or overwhelming, but we tend to have it all wrong when it comes to what scares children. It’s not information so much as feeling confused and alone in the absence of information that terrifies them.
Unformulated experience is terrifying to a child, because that “something’s not right” feeling free-floats around the body without an anchor of safety. Plus, when kids are left to make sense of a scary change on their own, they usually rely on the methods that give them control: self-blame (“I must have done something to cause this. I’m bad, I’m too much”) and self-doubt (“I must have misunderstood the tension around me. I am not such a good feeler of things. If something really was different, my parents would explain it to me”).
What’s an alternative to leaving a child feeling alone? Clear, direct, honest information shared while connected to you, your child’s loving, trusted adult. This is what helps kids feel safe and build resilience.
When I find myself in a “tell the truth” situation with my own kids, I often start with these words: “________ happened. You were right to notice that.” This is critical. Our children are deep sensors and perceivers of their environment. They simply haven’t amassed enough life experience to differentiate what is dangerous from what is merely annoying from what is safe. In fact, research has found that children notice more details in their environment than adults. We often tell ourselves stories such as “My child is too young to have noticed that,” or “There’s no way he picked up on that,” but . . . no. If you’ve noticed something in your environment, your child has too. Children are, generally, helpless—they are keen observers because noticing changes (i.e., potential threats) is what allows them to seek safety.
I often have to remind myself: “Only say what happened. Name what’s true, and nothing more complicated.”
Want your daughter to stand up for herself when she’s uncomfortable in a hookup or dating scenario? If, when she was a child, her parents validated her perceptions and wired her for self-trust, she’ll be more inclined to say, “No, I’m not comfortable with that,” or “Stop. I don’t like that.”
Next, let’s think about questions—what are we to do when our kids ask questions that makes us feel uncomfortable, that feel too “mature” for their age? Questions like, “Are you going to die one day?” and “Okay, but how does the baby get into the belly? Like actually get in there?”
So try to catch your “My kid isn’t ready for this!” reflex and remind yourself, “Ready or not, the foundation is already there.”
Talking honestly with our children about what we don’t know is an important iteration of the “tell the truth” principle.
Let’s take something bigger. Maybe you tell your child that his grandmother has cancer. He asks, “But is she going to be okay? Is she going to get all better?” Telling the truth about “I don’t know” would sound like this: “What a great question. I hope she gets better, sweetie. And the truth is that . . . we don’t know. We don’t know if she will get better. What I do know is that I will tell you the truth, even if it feels uncomfortable, and that I am here for you with all the feelings you have about this.”
I often say something like: “I want to talk about something that we’ll all have big feelings about.”
Say this slowly and with eye contact. Afterward, take a deep breath—this will ground your body and also give your child an opportunity to “borrow” this regulation from you in a tough moment. Next, use real words, not euphemisms, to describe what’s happening. This means saying, “Grandpa died today. Dying means the body stops working,” rather than “Grandpa isn’t here anymore,” or “Grandpa went to sleep for a long time.” After you’ve delivered a hard truth, pause. Before giving more information, check in with your child. You might ask, “How does it feel to talk about this?” or say, “It’s okay to be sad about this. I feel sad too.” Maybe you just look at your child with a supportive glance, placing your hand on his back.
If your child shares a feeling—with words (“I feel sad”) or an expression (crying, angry look on his face)—respond with acknowledgment, validation, and permission to feel. And if your child asks a question that you know has a tough answer, maybe start your response by saying, “That’s such an important question. I am going to tell you the answer. It might feel hard to hear, but as we talk, I’m right here with you.” In those moments, you might want to collect yourself before answering. “That’s a great question and I want to give you a great answer. I need some time to get back to you—but I absolutely will because answering your questions is so important.” The key here is to go back to your child with a response when you’re ready, even if your child doesn’t bring it up again. If you don’t, your child will be left with more fear, because he’ll be alone with the feelings and knowledge that inspired him to ask the question in the first place. Finally, remember: it’s okay to cry. Label your feelings as your own and remind your child that you’re still ...
Here are some things I don’t want my children to say about me when they’re older: “My mom? She did everything for me,” or “My mom always put me first,” or “My mom never took care of herself, she was too busy caring for us.” I hope they never say any version of, “My mom ran herself into the ground while she parented me.”
What do I want my kids to say instead? How about: “My mom? She knew when she needed time for herself and balanced that with meeting my needs,” or “My mom was an awesome model for self-care. She taught me the importance of taking care of myself, and how to do that while still being connected to someone else.” Or maybe even, “My mom showed me that parenthood doesn’t mean losing yourself. Parenthood means helping your child develop and grow while you yourself are developing and growing at the same time.”
Selfless parenting is parenting by a leader without a self, and that idea is terrifying to a child.
But a simple reframe can transform self-care into something empowering and hopeful: “I have an opportunity. I can heal things within myself at the same time as I parent my kids in a way I feel proud of. I can do both at the same time.”
Remember, we cannot pour energy into our kids if we have no energy to give. We cannot exude patience if we don’t show ourselves patience. We cannot change externally until we have rewired internally. The quality of our relationships with others is only as good as the quality of the relationship we have with ourselves.
Getting Your Needs Met and Tolerating Distress Time for an experiment! I want you to say the following sentence aloud, preferably in front of a mirror, and then observe how your body responds: “I am allowed to have things for myself even if they inconvenience others.” Now pause. Does your body want to accept or reject what you just said? What’s your natural reaction to that statement? Do any memories or images come to mind? The only goal here is to learn about yourself. One reaction isn’t better than another; all data is good data.
Taking a breath and remembering that often the only way we get our needs met is by simultaneously tolerating others’ distress helps prevent us from losing ourselves.
How to Do It Tell yourself, “Someone else is allowed to be upset when I assert myself; this doesn’t make them a bad person and it doesn’t make me unable to uphold my decision.” Visualize yourself on one side of a tennis court and someone else on the other side. Remind yourself, “I am over here . . . I have my need and my decision on my side. He is over THERE, on his own side. His feelings about my decisions . . . those are on HIS side of the court, not mine. I can see them, I can even empathize with them . . . but I didn’t cause them and I don’t need to make them go away.”
Here’s a list of small self-care activities to get you started: Drink one glass of water in the morning Meditate for two minutes Drink your coffee while it’s hot Cook yourself a legitimate breakfast Listen to calming music Read a few pages of a book Have a good cry Take five hot cocoa breaths while seated Rest in child’s pose Color Talk to a friend Brush your hair Journal
And here’s something else I know: You’re going to mess up. You’re going to yell. You’re going to say something and think, “Ugh, why did I say that? I didn’t want to say that!” But that’s okay. You are not defined by your reactivity or your moments of depletion or your latest behavior. You are a parent who is good inside, and you are working on yourself at the same time as you are giving to your kids.
Our kids don’t listen to us, and it feels like we’re in an endless cycle of tantrums with our four-year-old and rudeness with our seven-year-old.
Heston, our oldest, is suddenly saying he’s stupid and has no friends, and whenever we try to talk to him about it he says we don’t understand and slams his bedroom door. Izzy, our four-year-old, is hysterical every morning when we drop her at preschool. It’s so draining and such an awful way to start the day. PLEASE HELP!”
I took a breath. “First of all, I’m so glad you’re here,” I said. “Second of all, I am going to solve all of that. Every single thing.” They laughed. I smiled. I started again. “Okay, that’s not true. We aren’t going to solve any of it, at least not today. Here’s the thing: we can’t change behavior until we build connection, so our first interventions need to focus on that. The real problem here isn’t any of the specific issues you named—it’s not the tantrums or the back talk or the door slam...
As I explained to my clients, when parents struggle with their kids, it almost always boils down to one of two problems: children don’t feel as connected to their parents as they want to, or children have some struggle or unmet need they feel alone with.
Imagine your child has an emotional bank account. The currency in this bank account is connection, and their behavior at any moment reflects the status of their account, how full or depleted it is. I mentioned earlier the idea of this “connection capital”—when we really connect with a child, see their experience, allow for their feelings, and make an effort to understand what’s going on for them, we build our capital. Having a healthy amount of connection capital leads kids to feel confident, capable, safe, and worthy. And these positive feelings on the inside lead to “good” behavior on the outside—behavior like cooperation, flexibility, and regulation. So in order to create positive change, we have to first build connection, which will lead kids to feel better, which will then lead them to behave better. But note, behavior comes last. We cannot start there. We must start with connection.
The following interventions are meant to be used in calmer moments, prime time for improving your relationship with your child, building new skills, and developing pathways for change. When things feel off in my own family, I begin with these strategies, which essentially result in connection capital deposits.
Ok, let’s get practical and talk about how to implement PNP Time in your home: Give it a name to indicate that this time is special. I use the term PNP Time because I happen to love a good acronym and, also, there’s something a bit silly about the term that my kids really like. Feel free to name it something else, like Daddy-Marco Time or Mommy-Daughter time. Limit time to ten to fifteen minutes. No phones, no screens, no siblings, no distractions. Let your child pick the play. This is key. Allow your child to be in the spotlight; your job is only to notice, imitate, reflect, and describe what they’re doing.
are scripts for introducing PNP Time: For younger kids: “Let’s have some PNP Time! I’m going to put my phone in another room so I can really focus on being with you. It’ll be just us, and you can choose what we do!” For older kids: “Hey, sweetie. You know what? I need PNP Time with you—just you and me, with my phone far away—because I know it’s annoying when it makes noise and distracts me. How about later today we get some time just us? It will last for ten to fifteen minutes, and you can pick what we do.” Remember, PNP Time is focused on your child’s world. Try to avoid asking questions; instead, join in your child’s ideas. If this feels unnatural, that’s okay! Most parents are unused to engaging in this way.
Try these approaches: Describe: “You’re building a tower,” or “You’re coloring with a red crayon.” Mimic: If your child is drawing a flower, grab your own piece of paper, sit near her, and draw your own flower. No need for any words. When you mirror, you show your child that you’re paying full attention and they are valuable and interesting to you. Reflective listening: When your child says, “I want to play trucks!” respond with, “You want to play trucks!” If your child says, “The pig wants to come into the barn,” say back, “That pig wants to go into the barn, huh?”
PNP Time makes kids feel important and loved, and once those feelings are in place, improved behavior will eventually follow.
The next time your child’s behavior is making you want to run in the opposite direction, try introducing the Fill-Up Game. Offer the idea that your child’s defiant behavior is the result of not being filled up with Mommy (or Daddy), and so it must be time to get a big dose. Add silliness and laughter.
Script for Introducing the Fill-Up Game Tell your child, “I don’t think you are filled up with Mommy/Daddy right now. I think Mommy is only up to your ankles! Let’s fill you up!” Give your child a long tight squeeze. “How about now? Whaaaat? Only to your knees? Okay, round two . . .” Squeeze your child again; maybe grimace, as if you’re using all your might. “What? Only to your belly? I thought I got higher with that squeeze! Okay, more Mommy coming, round three . . .” Once you or your child feels filled up, give one more squeeze, saying: “Okay, well let me give you some extra, just in case. There are so many changes these days, it’s probably good to have some extra Mommy stored up in there.”
Emotional Vaccination to Prepare for the End of Screen Time Parent: “Before we begin screen time, let’s think about how it’s going to feel when we end. It’s hard to stop things we love, right? For me too.” Child: “Can you just turn the show on now?” Parent: “We will, soon. I’m going to take a deep breath now and get my body ready for when we stop watching screens.” Model this pause. “Also . . . I’m wondering if we can get out some of those end-of-screen-time protests now, to get our bodies ready.” Find a lighthearted, but not mocking, tone as you protest: “Five more minutes! My friends get so much more! I was just about to . . . please please . . . you never let me do anything I want to do!” What are you doing here? You’re infusing connection and silliness into a difficult transition before it happens. This doesn’t mean that at the end of the show, your child will say, “Here’s the iPad, Mom, easy-breezy!”; it does mean that you’re building the skill of managing tough emotions, and there will be a moment soon that your child looks at you and says, “Aw, I wish I could watch another episode!” instead of screaming and throwing a remote control.
Playfulness Parenting can feel really serious. There are so many logistics (“You have school, then I’ll pick you up and take you to the dentist, then drop you at soccer, then homework, dinner, and early to bed, okay?”), and it’s easy to get locked into a relationship with your child that feels exasperating, frustrating, and just plain unenjoyable. In my practice, I find that an element missing in lots of families is playfulness. Silliness. Ridiculousness. FUN.
Script for “Did I Ever Tell You About the Time . . . ?” Identify the essence of your child’s struggle. (Is it hard for her to feel happy for other people’s accomplishments? Hard to stay engaged when math feels hard and frustrating?) Take on the problem as your own: remember a moment, in the recent past or when you were a child, when you struggled with something similar. Talk to your child not in the heat of the moment but when things are calm, starting with, “Did I ever tell you about the time . . . ?,” and share a story about yourself having a similar struggle. Engage your child in this story, ideally one where you didn’t come up with a quick fix but struggled and just kind of got through it. Do not end your story by directly relating it to your child. There’s no need to spell out, “Isn’t that just like when you . . . ?” Allow the story and moment to stand on their own, trusting that it will reach the part of your child that needed connection.
I often think that healthy relationships are defined not by a lack of rupture but by how well we repair.
And yes, there is a difference between repairing and apologizing. Oftentimes, apologies attempt to shut down a conversation (“I’m sorry I yelled. Okay, can we move on?”), but a good repair opens one up. A repair goes further than an apology, because it looks to reestablish a close connection after a moment when someone feels hurt, misunderstood, or alone. The words “I’m sorry” might be part of a repair, but they are rarely the entirety of the experience.
Here’s an example of a repair with all four components: “I keep thinking about earlier today [reflection], when I came into the playroom after you knocked over your sister’s tower. I’m sure you were upset about something to have knocked it down [acknowledgment]. I’m sorry I yelled. I wish I had asked more about what was going on for you instead [what to do differently]. Can I have a redo? Can you tell me what was happening before you knocked it down? It’s important. I’d love to listen and understand [curiosity].”
There’s a second element to the not-listening problem too. My oldest son made this point once: “Parents are always asking kids to stop doing something fun to do something less fun. That’s why kids don’t listen.” I think he’s right.
“ARE YOU EVEN LISTENING TO WHAT I AM SAYING?”—well, the answer is no, kids are not “listening” in these moments. And that’s not a sign of disrespect or disobedience but rather the body entering into an animal defensive freeze state. But we don’t want our kids to be scared of us, and we don’t want them to freeze in the very moments we are trying to get them to work with us (reminder: you’re still a good parent if you do yell, and after yelling, you can repair). When we infuse connection, respect, playfulness, and trust into our asks, exchanges that once felt antagonistic start to be met with cooperation.
Feeling seen is a powerful bonding tool, and feeling close to someone motivates us to want to cooperate with them. When we verbally acknowledge what our child is doing in the moment, it’s as if we’re saying, “I see you: you are a real person with real wants and thoughts and feelings.” We send the message that we are listening to our child in this moment, which allows them to return the favor and listen to us.
“Wow, you’ve been working so hard on that tower. I know it’s going to be tricky to pause and take a bath. If we do a quick bath now, you will have time to build more before bed.”
If you can give your child the agency to make a choice, they’ll be more likely to cooperate. No one likes feeling dictated to, especially children, who already feel controlled so much of the
“We can leave Abby’s house now or you can play one more card game together. I’ll leave it up to you . . . After one more game? Okay. I know you’ll follow through with that choice, so that’s fine with me.”
Humor allows for a change in perspective, which is what we’re looking for when we ask things of our kids. When we infuse playfulness instead of frustration, we join our children in the world they always prefer—one filled with silliness, lightheartedness, and laughter. Frankly, it’s a world we want to be a part of as well.
“Oh no . . . your listening ears are lost! Okay, wait, I think I found them. Oh my goodness, can you believe this . . . I found them in this plant! How did they get there? Let’s get them back on your body before they sprout into a flower!”
the Close Your Eyes Hack. This trick gives our kids the core elements they need in order to want to listen to us—it infuses respect, trust, independence, control, and playfulness all at once. Here’s what it looks like: “I am going to close my eyes”—then place your hands over your eyes—“and all I’m saying is that if there is a child with his shoes on when I open my eyes . . . oh my goodness, if there is a child all Velcroed up . . . I just don’t know what I am going to do! I am going to be so confused! I may even—oh no oh no—have to do a silly jumpy dance and wiggle all around and I may even fall on the floor!” Then pause. Wait.
try using the foundational ideas from this strategy and adapt it for your tween or teen. Try saying, “I see you didn’t clean your room yet . . . hmm, all right, I’m going to get dinner started and I trust you to keep your promise to put your clothes away before you come downstairs.” This operates on the same principle of trust. And if you want to add that element of playfulness? As you walk away, add: “All I’m saying is that if that room ends up getting clean, I just may break out in song!”
One great way to do that is by playing what I call the “I have to listen to you now” game. Introduce this by saying, “I know being a kid is tough. There are so many things that parents ask of you! So let’s play a game. For the next five minutes, you’re the adult and I’m the kid. I have to do what you say, assuming it’s safe.” Explain to your child that the game does not involve food or gifts (your child cannot tell you to go buy them a hundred new Pokémon packs or give them thirty bags of Skittles)—it’s really about the routine of your day. But the details here aren’t important. What’s important is to reverse roles, allow your child to experiment with the position of powerful adult, and express empathy for the difficulties of being a child. While you play the game, exaggerate how hard it is to listen to your “parent”; voice things like, “Ughhhhhh, really? I have to clean up the Magna-Tiles? I don’t waaaaaaant to,” and “Ughhhhh, I wish I didn’t have to take a shower right now!” I find this game useful for myself as well—it reminds me how hard it can be to take orders when you don’t want to do something.
Helping our kids through tantrums relies on our ability to see through the event that set off the “meltdown” and recognize the real, painful feelings underneath. Learning to recognize a tantrum for what it is on the inside rather than reacting to what is happening on the outside is a vital parenting skill.
Parents are often told to “name the feeling” when our children are upset (“You are so mad!” or “You’re feeling sad, I know”). This can be useful when we are trying to connect with our kids in “regular” moments, but in moments of big tantrums, I find that validating the magnitude of the feeling is much more effective.
Maybe your child is struggling to wait her turn for the crayons her sister is using. You might say: “You want those crayons . . . You want them SO big . . . as big as this room! Or no . . . as big as this whole house! What? Oh wow. As big as this whole neighborhood!”
Once you’ve validated the magnitude, pause. Look at your child lovingly. Maybe add, “I’m so glad I know how big it is. It’s so important. I’m here with you.”
Now try this one: “I won’t let you throw water bottles.” These four words—“I won’t let you”—are critical for every parent’s toolbox. “I won’t let you” communicates that a parent is in charge, that a parent will stop a child from continuing to act in a way that is dysregulated and ultimately feels awful. Because we often forget, kids don’t feel good when they are out of control. They don’t enjoy experiencing their body as unable to make good and safe decisions, just as adults don’t enjoy watching ourselves behave in awful ways.
And yet, in these tantrum moments, kids are developmentally incapable of stopping themselves. If they could stop throwing they would; if they could stop hitting they would; if they could stop biting they would. A dysregulated child needs an adult to step in and provide the containment that they cannot provide for themselves.
Stepping in with “I won’t let you” and following up to make the “I won’t let you” happen—this is a...
Let’s say your child had an aggressive tantrum when his brother said he couldn’t join his playdate. Hours, or even a day, later, you might say: “Let me see if I got this right . . . you wanted to play with Dante and Kaito . . . and Dante said no . . . and you said, ‘Please please,’ and Dante said no again . . . that felt so bad, so hard, and then you were kicking and screaming . . . Daddy picked you up and brought you to your room and sat with you . . . and then we waited together and your body calmed down . . .” This is when many parents ask, “And then what? What do I do next? Do I tell them how to handle it differently next time?” Nope! The simple act of adding your presence, coherence, and a narrative will change how the experience is stored in a child’s body; remember, the pathway that ends in regulation (i.e., fewer tantrums!) starts with understanding and connection, and telling the story does exactly this.
In the “more manageable” category: parents need to accept that their kids have a range of feelings about their siblings. Many parents hold on to a common but unrealistic narrative: “Siblings should be best friends!” or “My kids should always be nice to each other!” or “I gave my child the gift of a sibling, they should be so happy!” Am I suggesting that having more than one kid is a bad idea, that siblings are usually enemies, that siblings should be awful to each other? No, not at all. Those ideas are just as extreme as the first set. I’m saying that sibling relationships are complex, and the more we appreciate this complexity, the better we can prepare our kids to tolerate all the feelings that arise, so they’re better able to regulate them. When that happens, their feelings won’t come out as often in behavior, and this is our goal.
Remember: it’s not our feelings that are the problem, it’s the regulation of the feelings. And kids’ ability to regulate feelings depends on our willingness to acknowledge, validate, and permit those feelings (and put up boundaries when the feelings spill into dangerous actions). The more we connect with our kids about how they feel—in this case maybe jealous or angry toward a sibling—the less likely they are to explode in the form of behavior: insults, hitting, mockery, put-downs.
Birth order deserves its own book, but let me say a few things about it here. First kids get accustomed to being alone; they are wired with their parents’ full attention, so having a new sibling completely rocks the foundation of their world.
Second and third (and fourth, etc.) kids have the opposite wiring: their circuitry is shaped by the presence of someone else constantly in their space, constantly able to do things they cannot (yet) do, constantly competing for time and attention. It’s frustrating to be a second kid. You can’t build a block tower without seeing an older sibling do it more easily, you can’t run in the backyard without seeing a sibling run faster, you can’t work on early reading without seeing your older sibling read effortlessly.
When my own kids are in a particularly challenging sibling stage, I remind myself: “They feel untethered and insecure. They each need more connection with me to feel anchored in this family. Okay, let’s schedule some PNP!”
“We Don’t Do Fair, We Do Individual Needs” I see so many families set a goal of being “fair” as a method of attempting to decrease conflict, but in fact, making things fair is one of the biggest propellants of conflict. The more we work for fairness, the more we create opportunities for competition. When we make things fair, we increase a child’s hypervigilance; we essentially say, “Continue to watch your sibling like a hawk. Make sure you keep track of everything your sibling has, because that’s how you can figure out what you need in this family.” And there’s a longer-term reason why we don’t want to aim for “fairness” in our families: we want to help our kids orient inward to figure out their needs, not orient outward. When my kids are adults, I don’t want them to think, “What do my friends have? What are their jobs, their homes, their cars? I need what they have.” Talk about a life of anxiety and emptiness. It leads to a life with no interiority—no sense of who you are on the inside, only a sense of how you stack up to other people on the outside.
The more you allow your kids to feel jealousy, the more you can problem-solve around the moments the feeling comes up; the less you allow jealousy (“Don’t say that about your sister!”), and the fewer skills a child develops for dealing with it when it arises, the more likely it is that jealousy will come out as insults (“Maxie is the worst gymnast here, she sucks!”) or behavior (making loud noises while spectators are supposed to be quiet, running away from you and screaming loudly).
Solving would sound like, “Just let Jessie use it first, she’s two years old, geez!” or “Micah, you get it now and then, Jessie, you get it after.” But slowing down would sound like, “Let me take that fire truck for a second—okay, I have it. Now, I know I need a deep breath.” Take a few deep breaths to allow your children to “borrow” your regulation. “Hmm, two kids, one truck! That is so tricky. I wonder what we can do? I wonder if I have any problem-solvers here . . .” Then pause. Remind yourself, your job is to slow down the situation so your kids can regulate their bodies and have access to their own problem-solving skills; your job isn’t to solve this as quickly as possible. Here, you’re helping your children learn the process that leads to problem-solving; when we fix things for our kids, we just lock them into needing us to problem-solve, and this becomes frustrating to everyone.
The best match for a child’s whining is an adult’s playfulness. When we respond to a whine with silliness or humor, we offer what a child needs the most: connection and hopefulness, both of which are present in lighthearted moments. (Though, it’s important to remember that playfulness is not mockery. The first is intended to connect and add levity, the second is distancing and adds shame.) The next time your child says, “I need you to get me my pajamaaaaaas!” take a deep breath, remind your body you are safe, and then try something like, “Oh no oh no oh no . . . the whines again! How the heck did they”—walk over to the window, look around outside—“get in here again?” Continue with your monologue, and watch your child loosen up. “Okay, I don’t know how they got in, but let’s get some of those out. Throw them onto some other kids!” Walk over to your child and pretend to “take” the whines out of their body, then throw those whines out the window or door or something else. Then return to your child and say something like, “Okay, sorry, what? Oh, you want your pajamas?” You can get them for your child at this point. You aren’t “reinforcing” the whine, you are just adding playfulness and connection.
When your child says, “Dad, I need my boooooook!” . . . instead of “I need you to say that again in a stronger voice,” try “Dad, can you please grab me that book? Thank you so much.” Then “switch” and reply, “Oh sure, sweetie, no problem.” Deliver the book, take a deep breath, skip the lecture, trust your child to hear the difference and incorporate the change.
Place our phones down and say, “I put my phone away because I feel like I’ve been distracted and you’ve been noticing that. I’m here now. I’m here.” Squat down to a child’s level and say, “Something doesn’t feel good to you. I believe you. Let’s figure it out.” Empathize with the general plight of childhood: “Sometimes it feels really hard to be a kid. I know.” Maybe continue, if relevant, “You wish you could make all your own decisions. I get that.” Allow the release: “Let it out, sweetie. It all feels so bad. I’m here with you. It’s okay.” Play the Fill-Up Game: “I think you’re telling me . . . you’re not filled up with Mommy. Can I fill you up?”
When your child says, “I’ve been on a trip to Florida too!” you might say, “Hmm . . . I bet you wish we vacationed in Florida. It sounds so sunny and warm there. I wonder what we’d do if we went?” When your child says, “I didn’t knock down my sister’s tower, it just fell!” you might respond, “You wish that tower was still up . . . ,” or “Sometimes I do things and then wish I hadn’t done them . . . it’s so hard when that happens.” Seeing the lie as a wish allows us to feel on the same team as our child instead of seeing them as the enemy.
Let’s say you get a call from your daughter’s school notifying you that she didn’t do her writing homework for the past week. You get home and ask her about it, and she says over and over, “I did do it! I did! I don’t want to talk about it!” After an initial pause, when you feel you have a tiny opening, you might say: “Oh . . . okay . . . well, all I’m saying is that if a kid in this family did have a few days of not doing homework, I would really try to understand. Because every kid in this family, if they didn’t do homework, would have some reason for this. It makes me think about when I was seven and didn’t do writing homework for a bunch of days. Something about writing felt so tricky and it was so hard for me to work on it. Anyway, if it did happen, I’d sit with you and talk it out. You wouldn’t be in trouble . . .” Then play it cool.
“Hey . . . I want to talk for a few minutes. You’re not in trouble. I’m just thinking about how sometimes it’s hard to tell me the truth. And I’m not blaming you, because I realize there must be things you need from me in order to tell me the truth. There must be things I’m doing that make truth-telling scary for you, or maybe you think you might get in some type of trouble. Anyway, I’m wondering what you need from me, or if there’s something I could do differently. Because I want this to be a house where you can tell me the truth about things even if you think they’re not so great.”
We think that by urging a child to think or feel a more “positive” way, we’re helping them, but children take in a much deeper message—that they’re not supposed to be feeling the way that they are, and that feeling nervous or shy or hesitant is wrong. This wires a child to have anxiety about the anxiety. It’s as if they’re wiring a belief that says, “I shouldn’t be feeling this way!”
A dry run for a doctor’s checkup, using stuffed animals, might look like this: You have a teddy and your daughter has a stuffed unicorn. You, as the teddy, say, “Hi, Unicorn, welcome to the doctor’s office! You and your mom can come back with me to the exam room.” From there, walk through the appointment exactly as it will happen, and maybe even act out some challenging moments (“Okay, Unicorn! I need you to sit on your mom’s lap while I look into your ear and make sure everything is okay in there! Can you stay super still, Unicorn? Great job!”).
Step 1: Talk to your child about his fear, aiming only to collect information and build understanding. Start with something like: “Tell me more about what it’s like to walk into rooms on your own when it’s dark,” or “It seems like going into parts of this house, alone, feels tricky to you.” Ask more, and tell less—no convincing or explaining, just information gathering. Then restate what you’ve learned to see if you “have it right.” You might say, “Okay, let me see if I have this right. When you walk somewhere alone in the house, and it’s dark, it just feels scary in your body. You’re not sure why but you know it feels that way. Is that right?”
Step 2: Validate that your child’s fear “makes sense.” Helping your child understand her fear is key to helping her feel brave enough to confront it. Say something like: “The dark can feel scary because we can’t see. And it can feel scary when we don’t know for sure what’s around us. It makes sense that walking around the house alone when it’s dark feels tricky to you!”
Step 4: Engage your child to problem-solve with you. Offer “leading” ideas, but allow your child to experience the aha moment of brainstorming a coping mechanism. Resist the urge to explain the fear away or solve the problem on your own. Phrases like “I wonder” and “I’m thinking about” help engage your child in problem-solving. It might sound like this: “Hmm . . . I’m wondering if we can go to the basement and start going down the stairs one at a time . . . let me know when the scary feeling starts and when it feels like it’s getting bigger.” As you inquire about the fear in this way, you infuse your parental presence into the moment, and as your child feels less alone in her fear, it won’t hold such a strong grip. Next, maybe say, “I wonder what you could say to yourself as you go down one of the stairs . . .” Or maybe you suggest a solution like, “I’m thinking about practicing going down one stair now, then in a few days maybe another stair, and the next day a few more . . . hmm . .
Step 5: Create a mantra. For kids who struggle with anxiety, mantras can be very helpful in the moment. Whether spoken out loud or recited internally, a mantra focuses their attention on the calming words rather than the source of distress. Examples of mantras include, “It’s okay to be nervous. I can get through this,” “I can feel scared and brave at the same time,” and “I’m safe, my parents are near.” Work with your child to develop a mantra that feels good to them and encourage them to repeat it during scary moments.
Step 6: Share a “slowly coping with a fear” story. Yours might sound like: “This reminds me of when I was about your age, and I was scared of dogs. I still remember how bad those moments felt in my body.” Do not offer a quick fix like, “But then I realized that I was safe and it was okay.” Instead offer a story of slow coping, something like: “I remember talking to my dad about it, and realizing it was okay to feel scared. I remember that my dad and I would read a lot about dogs, then I’d start to walk closer to dogs with him. And then ...
Here’s a deep paradox about learning: the more we embrace not-knowing and mistakes and struggles, the more we set the stage for growth, success, and achievement. This is true for adults and kids alike, and it’s a critical reminder about the importance of normalizing difficulties, embracing mistakes as an opportunity to learn, and building frustration tolerance.
If we want our kids to develop frustration tolerance, we have to develop tolerance for their frustration.
Beyond any strategy or script I offer in this chapter, the most impactful thing we can do with our kids is to show up in a calm, regulated, non-rushed, non-blaming, non-outcome-focused way—both when they are performing difficult tasks and when they are witnessing us perform difficult tasks.
Frame Frustration as a Sign of Learning, Not a Sign of Failure
believe the answer begins with the pioneering work of dietitian, psychotherapist, and author Ellyn Satter, who created what’s known as the “Division of Responsibility” around eating. Here’s a quick summary of Satter’s framework: Parent’s job: decide what food is offered, where it is offered, when it is offered Child’s job: decide whether and how much to eat of what’s offered
It might sound like this: “Hey, I learned something interesting today and wanted to share it with you. When it comes to food, you have a job and I have a job—and our jobs are totally different. It’s my job to decide what we eat, when we eat, and where we eat. And just so you know, I’ll always offer at least one thing that you like so that eating never feels stressful. Your job is to decide whether you eat what I serve and how much. That’s kind of interesting, right? It means you get to choose what goes into your body, but it also means you don’t get to tell me to make something new if you want something I didn’t choose that day. I get to choose what we eat that day, but I don’t get to make you take more bites of things or tell you what you have to finish. What do you think of that?”
Well, every single one of our children will know the word “no” or the phrase “I don’t want to” by the time they enter adolescence, but the confidence to actually hold the boundaries around these words comes from our child’s early experiences with us. It will depend largely on whether they were encouraged to pay attention to their body’s feelings of readiness and comfort, or whether they were encouraged to push these feelings aside in favor of making other people happy.
A child is hesitant to join a birthday party Circuitry for consent: “You’re not so sure about playing with the other kids right now. That’s okay. Take your time.” Circuitry for self-doubt: “You’re being ridiculous, go join your friends.” A child is hurt by a well-meaning joke Circuitry for consent: “I can see that felt bad to you. I believe you. I won’t say it again.” Circuitry for self-doubt: “Oh my goodness, you are so sensitive. Pleeeeeease.”
This is why I recommend all parents strike the following words from their parenting vocabulary (feel free to strike them from all interactions outside of parenting as well!): “dramatic,” “drama queen,” “overly sensitive,” “hysterical,” “disproportionate,” “ridiculous.” These are gaslighting words that tell a child you don’t trust them—which wires them not to trust themself.
When your son says, “I like my shirt on backward,” maybe say: “You’re the only one in your body, so only you could know what you like”; when your daughter tells you, “I don’t like pink at all! I like green,” build up her confidence by replying, “You’re the only one in your body, so only you could know what you like.”
And here’s the other thing: You see that Grandpa is sad because he wants a hug. That’s okay. Other people are allowed to have feelings when we say no. You don’t have to change your mind because someone is upset.”
Confidence is our ability to feel at home with ourselves in the widest range of feelings possible, and it’s built from the belief that it’s okay to be who you are no matter what you’re feeling.
How’d You Think to . . . ? “How’d you think to draw that?” “How’d you think to start your story that way?” “How’d you think to solve that math problem?” “How’d you think to use those materials together?” When we wonder with our kids about the “how” instead of praising the “what,” we help build up their tendency to gaze in and be curious about themselves, and maybe even to marvel at the things they’ve done. After all, nothing feels better than when someone around us expresses interest in how we think about things, how we came up with our ideas, or where we want to go next. When we ask our child
The more our families focus on inside stuff, the more children value inside stuff too—which ultimately translates to valuing who they are over what they do.