Confessions of a Pushover Parent (And How I Turned This Around)

One of my passions is helping parents to realize the crucial role of boundaries in their children’s lives and to encourage them to become the confident, benevolent leaders kids need. It’s an important subject for me, because I know this journey intimately. I was a classic pushover parent. I ardently believe that if I was able to find the strong leader within me, anyone can.

Having been a people pleaser for as long as I can remember, I was predisposed to pushover parenting. My goal was for you to like me, or at the very least not dislike me. “Sorry” was as reflexive a response for me as “Hi.” I was a master at avoiding confrontation, and like the toddler who believes that no one can see her when she covers her eyes, I naively believed my unresolved issues could disappear on their own. On the occasion that I was caught off-guard and forced into confrontation, I’d be the first to wave a white flag rather than hold my ground and own my place in the world.

And then I had a toddler. Not just any toddler — an assured, assertive, terrific, terrifying power-girl whose maturity and insight could be both awesome and seductive to the extent that it often felt like she was my mother. And when my princess lost her composure, which seemed to happen all too often, she became a ferocious, indignant queen. Heads will roll!

Even as an infant, my little darling intimidated me. Rather than plaintively communicating, Help, I’m hungry, her cries seemed to demand, On the double, you fool! I need it yesterday! I remember once sharing this with family, and I know there were eye-rolls and snickers behind my back, “Yeah, right. Typical oversensitive, overwhelmed new mom!”

But if I ever doubted this perception of my baby at the time, the brilliant, vivacious and accomplished 22-year-old she is today confirms it. I still see the feisty power-baby beneath her quiet elegance and poise. She has contained and channeled it well, but it’s still there.

As I struggled to navigate those toddler years, one thing was clear: I needed to find something within me to stay a step ahead of my mighty girl. But first I needed to adjust my perspective…

It was my mentor Magda Gerber who opened my eyes in her RIE class that I attended. My daughter was around 20 months old at the time. RIE was an hour’s drive without traffic, and to survive the ride home I’d often give her a bottle of milk. That day, my toddler had decided she was ready to leave several minutes before class ended and began howling at the top of her tiny lungs, “Bottle! Bottle!” She obviously wanted me to know she was in agony, quite suddenly dying of thirst, and I was to take immediate action.

But then Magda turned to me and calmly acknowledged, “She’s a very good actress.”

Huh?

It was then that I realized: My daughter’s fierce demands were this toddler’s healthy assertiveness, delivered with a flair for drama (she’s still a very good actress) rather than the intensely desperate pleas they appeared to be. This was the moment of clarity that helped me to stop riding her emotional toddler rollercoaster.

Another helpful perspective shift came a year later through some feedback from an experienced early childhood associate. Thanks to Magda Gerber, I had learned to trust my baby’s competence, and (wowza!) competent she was. She consistently amazed us with all she could do. In those olden days we had a music player known as a “boom box” which our daughter had mastered by the age of two. We kept one in her bedroom until, in the wee hours one night, her dad and I awoke to a pulsating beat. Sure enough, she was partying, which we found rather amusing. But when I shared this story with my trusted associate, her perspective made sense. “Just because she’s able to do it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to give her that power.” I began to recognize where too much power and choice was actually the opposite of freedom for a toddler and could be an uncomfortable burden and distraction. In that particular case, a middle-of-the-night sleep distraction.

These adjustments to my perspective helped me to more clearly define my role, but fulfilling that role in my daughter’s dynamic and forceful presence continued to be a challenge. Here are some thoughts that helped me get over the hump:

Mantras and self-talk

When I needed to set a limit with my daughter or tell her some version of no, but I was afraid of the backlash or worried that I was being mean, I would imagine I was saying to her something like:  Don’t worry, I will keep you safe, which would mean safe from hurting herself or others.

Or, let’s say my daughter was paralyzed with indecisiveness (as toddlers often are) or making unreasonable requests or demands. While letting her know that I would make those choices for her, I might say something to myself like, Don’t worry. I will take these concerns off your plate to free you up.

I often said to myself, and sometimes even out loud, “You are the most special child and deserve the most incredible parents, so I must do what’s hard.” It’s easier to say yes, and I believe that in their hearts our children know that.

This self-talk served to empower me by reminding me of my role and my children’s needs. It helped me stay in a “helpful leader” frame of mind, comfortable and confident. And I learned that a comfortable, confident parent makes for a more comfortable, confident toddler because she senses she has an anchor and guide to see her through her age appropriate storms.

But mastering a confident attitude when dealing with limit-setting, etc. didn’t make it any easier to get blasted by my daughter’s anger or endure her crying and tantrums. When those explosions happened, I’d do all I could not to absorb them by repeating to myself a mantra I created: Let feelings be.  I’d often add the reminder: They don’t belong to me.

(I also relied on the hero imagery I describe in detail in Tantrums and Meltdowns – My Secret for Staying Calm When My Kids Aren’t.)

Visualizing success

It was only recently that I realized during one of my parent-toddler classes that I have a “method” for gaining children’s cooperation, although I’ve been practicing it since my daughter’s toddler years. It’s simple: I envision children following through with whatever it is I’ve asked them to do. Similar to the way an athlete follows through when swinging a golf club, throwing a ball, performing a high jump or anything else, I visualize a child stalling at the doorway of the classroom walking on through while I say matter-of-factly, “It’s time to come in, Audrey.” Or while I ask a one-year-old, “Please put the toy down, I don’t want it on the snack table,” I’ll see the child doing it. This secret has worked almost every time I’ve tried it, and I think that’s because visualizing follow-through ensures I’ll project conviction and belief in the child.

      Letting kids know we care

There was an experience I had with my toddler daughter that sealed the deal for me, erased the last shred of worry I’d had that my boundaries might be perceived as anything other than the most positive expression of my love.

We were blessed to have next door neighbors on both sides of us with daughters a year older than my daughter. For different reasons, each of these families was happy to leave their 3-year-old in my care. So, we had an almost daily playgroup, but I was the only adult in charge.

One of the first “rules” that Magda Gerber recommended for toddlers was requesting they always sit while eating or drinking. I had seen with my daughter how effective this rule had been for encouraging her focus and attention, fostering healthy eating habits and table manners that, to my surprise at that time, even one-year-olds are capable of. I’d noticed how my daughter had appreciated this ritual at home, in her RIE classes, even at the park while sitting on the grass.

My daughter’s two little girlfriends did not have this rule at home, so I feared that they would think I was overly strict, perhaps even mean, and not want to come over anymore. I could not have been more wrong. It soon became clear that while I was feeling strict, they were feeling cared for. They embraced our snack and meal rules. It almost seemed they were hungry for them.

It got easier after that.

 

I share my complete guide to respectful discipline in 

No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame 

 

29 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Thank you Janet.
    I needed this as I. Copw with my intelligent and sometimes intense 3 year old girl. most of the time she is Jolly and articulate and compassionate but then suddenly it all gets to much foe her. RIE helps me help her.

  2. I wonder if people pleasers are more likely to have very assured and assertive firstborns… at least we did! 🙂
    Thank you for sharing, good to read that a fellow people pleaser found her way so well!
    I also become better at setting limits with adults, that’s a wonderful side-effect!

  3. avatar Noelle Thurlow says:

    By the time our firstborn girl was 18 months we were already starting to joke seriously about her being a great CEO some day. Her strength and intelligence constantly amaze. And constantly treat boundaries. Thank you for the much needed inspiration for my day.

  4. This is so beautifully written and explained! Setting boundaries is absolutely empowering to our children because then they know they have someone to lead and guide them. I will definitely be sharing this!

  5. As an easy-going introvert, this article especially spoke to me because my almost 4 year old daughter is outgoing, talkative, willful, and also a very good actress. We are personality opposites and RIE has helped me immensely when it comes to being present with her through her intense emotions. We have hit a roadblock though when it comes to “choices” and I am interested in your perspective. We have been going to an open play playgroup a few mornings per week for the past several months which allows children ages infant through 5. There is no specific structure and children are able to play freely and adults intervene when necessary. Up until a couple weeks ago my daughter loved going as many mornings as we could. Seemingly out of the blue she has changed her mind about it. She is excited to go when we leave our house, but as soon as we pull into the building’s parking lot she screams hysterically and refuses to go inside. I tell her that we will sit in the parking lot as long as she needs and then we will go inside. Sometimes we sit out there for 45 minutes until she is able to calm down. When I ask her about why she is having these feelings she tells me “the other kids don’t like me” or “I only like playing with adults.” I acknowledge her feelings and empathize with her perspective but I am not sure how to move forward. We have had no major changes in our life. She is an only child, which is why giving her opportunities to interact with other children feels so important to me. I don’t want to force her to go to the group if she genuinely dislikes it or feels uncomfortable, but part of me feels like she may be “acting” in this situation because she can sense how important I feel the group is. Her saying “I am afraid the other kids don’t like me” hits a chord in me too. As a child I was extremely shy and had a hard time making friends which I feel was due to having parents who were afraid of my feelings and used physical/verbal punishment often. We have tried so hard to ensure that we parent her respectfully and compassionately and to hear that sentence coming from her is a bit alarming. Any perspective/advice would be greatly appreciated!

    1. I would make a decision based on what you know about your daughter… and what you see as best for her. Then, and this is the important part, it’s up to you to be the one to proceed with confidence and fearlessness around her objections. I would definitely not be waiting around in the car! That gives your daughter the message that her feelings are a big problem (and that she can hold you captive with them), rather than an acceptable expression of whatever it is she’s going through with this group right now. Do you see the difference? Instead, escort her in (if you decide to continue) while confidently acknowledging something like: “You don’t want to go here today! I hear that! This feels really hard to you.”

      Also, be careful about projecting your own childhood experience. Your daughter’s is entirely different and she needs you to believe in her.

  6. “Visualizing success” – what a great way to put it. I do that, too, but wasn’t aware of it until you said it. It’s the secret to confidence and trust. You’ve just made it easier to explain to the parents I teach. Definitely sharing this one! Thank you!

  7. avatar Melanie Murrish says:

    Janet, thank you for writing this. I have this exact attitude of people pleasing and not wanting to upset my “highly sensitive” eight year old…..yes, eight year old and she is still dictating what cup/cutlery she has, co-sleeping with 1000 soft toys and staying up until she is dead on her feet ( although she does this in the sweetest manner; oscar nominated actors have nothing on her). I’m absolutely dumbfounded at myself after reading this! I actually feel duped, but torn between listening to her sensitivities and getting some sort of normality back in our lives. I have a 12 year old too but she is not like this. Any advice as it seems what I’ve read is aimed at toddlers? Thanks.

    1. The guidelines remain the same: set limits confidently and welcome your daughter to vent her feelings about them. Regarding the cutlery and all the stuffed animals in your bed, just say a kind “no” and allow her to cry or howl about that. Intense children have a strong need to be able to vent their feelings, sometimes several times a day! This is normal and healthy for them. Making these adjustments in your approach will help her release her impulse to control you and free her up to be a much happier child. You can do this!

  8. Well… that’s me, I’m a people pleaser – in my case, it comes with a big lack of confidence that i’m trying to work on.
    even with a constant reminder that i’m enough just the way I am, that i am loved just the way i am it’s very hard to be a confident leader and set confident limits when i’m afraid of my daughter’s reactions.
    I see her a lot more than i see myself.

    Your ways of coping make so much sense, thank you for sharing them

    1. My pleasure. I hope this helps you as it has me!

  9. So powerful. Thank you for such inspiring words, Janet!

  10. avatar Movie Mom says:

    Wow, what a great article. I can so relate to your story…my second child, my Daughter is just like yours…strong willed, and mature for her age…always has been. However, despite my attempts, I did not succeed at learning what you learned. My Mom was was a push over parent too, and I was an only child. When I tried to change, my mom stepped in and assured me, it was better to give in. I listened to her. Now my amazing, strong, beautiful Daughter is 14, and she has no compassion for anyone, she is demanding and I am beside myself with regret. We recently moved to Australia, and no I feel even more guilt for putting her through this difficult time, that I am still bending over backwards to make her happy, but she just keeps getting meaner and more disrespectful. Any parents who still have young ones at home, listen to the words of wisdom in this article…don’t end up like me.

    Many of my friends with kids who have moved out, encourage me that when they get to college and I’m no longer there, they will learn the lessons, it will just be harder for them. I am so disappointed that I didn’t have a stronger pull towards standing firm.

    I am starting to gain my power back, but it’s so much harder now that they are bigger than me, but I’m not giving up. I thought I was doing it all right…I thought I was helping them, but I kept them from feeling uncomfortable, and now they don’t know how to live with discomfort and that feeling is everywhere. I hope they can forgive me.

    1. Keep the faith! You can do this! It’s never too late to make changes in your approach

  11. I have such a hard time with my 14mo trying to decide if he is crying because he is uncomfortable or needs something or if he is just bord and wants me to entertain him and I have always given him attention when he is set as well as not letting him cry anything out. And now I fear I may have spoiled him too much and he is super clingy with me and really isn’t happy unless he has my attention. This helped encourage me to start setting up some boundaries! Any advice on that would be so so so appreciated!

    1. Children don’t cry because they are “bored” unless they are accustomed to a lot of passive entertainment. Generally, they cry because they are tired and need a rest, or hungry, or in pain from teething, etc. Entertainmentment isn’t very helpful to children, because it creates passivity and interferes with their innate ability to create their own play. Here are a couple of posts that might be helpful to you:

      http://dev.janetlansbury.com/2013/05/stop-entertaining-your-toddler-in-3-steps-2/

      http://dev.janetlansbury.com/2011/11/how-to-stop-entertaining-your-baby/

      https://dev.janetlansbury.com/2009/09/the-myth-of-baby-boredom/

  12. So many parts of this resonate with me – I am also a people pleaser and I have a very feisty 11 month old boy. I was interested in the last point of your article about sitting to eat. We actually stopped trying to sit our son in his highchair to eat because he just wouldn’t eat. Period. When we let him roam around, eating at his pace,he will eat. We tried for months before changing his approach, and I thought this was a way of respecting his nature.
    Do you have an article or any more information on this?

  13. Hi Janet,
    As a teacher I often struggled with the children wanting to like me/ pushover thing but when I had my daughter have mostly been able to set boundaries. However the one thing I cannot seem to achieve is boundaries around food because I’ve read so much I’m not sure what’s right. My almost 4 yr old won’t eat ANY fruit and only 1 or 2 vegetables. Do I make it a ‘rule’ that she can only have a ‘pudding’ or ‘treat’ once she’s had a piece of fruit or do I relax about it and ‘make all food equal’ so to speak as many people say- don’t make any food more appealing than others. Although she has already come to her own conclusion that ice cream and biscuits are more appealing than fruit!
    It stresses me out and I need one consistent tactic. What’s your advice? Thanks, rosie

    1. Hi Rosie! I would wean her off of the sugar and empty calories by not offering them as daily options.

  14. Janet,
    This is such a good teaching for me. Thank you for sharing. My question is about setting boundaries during transitional times. I think I had read somewhere that it’s very important to continue to set boundaries during these times, but I also want to be extra loving. We have a one week old baby and my 20 month son has wanted his dad to hold him to fall asleep every night at bedtime and he’s been waking in the night needing this too. My husband has held him because we thought he might be scared of us leaving again after having been gone at the hospital for 2 days and then all of a sudden a new baby is in the house and Mommy isn’t allowed to lift him anymore but can lift the baby. It’s hard and sad on my heart. Holding him for 2 hours at bedtime and in the middle of the night until he’s out cold is not really something we can continue. Do we do it for awhile and hope it stops on its own? Do we let him cry? We’ve tried staying there with him while he’s in his crib and not holding him but he is screaming and begging which leaves me crying my eyes out. I just want to handle this transition with the new baby as gently and lovingly as possible. I would love your input!

  15. I am a people pleaser and this article reflects my reality. My 15 month old has always been a calm, observant, and happy baby…But now a couple of times a day she has her moments where she is very decisive on what she wants or doesn’t want to do… This manifests in a tantrum and full blown crying (or rather crocodile tears). I acknowledge her feelings but it seems like she just doesn’t hear it at all. I end up either trying to distract her by doing something to make her laugh, or continue to do what needs to be done and in a way ignoring her, or giving in…I hate to see her upset and stressed out and sometimes aggressive. Her assertiveness makes me question my own reaction…I’ll be saving this article to refer back to it… Practice makes perfect hopefully

    1. Remember that it’s the healthiest thing for your baby to be able to express her feelings of stress, etc., to you. She needs you to not “hate” this or distract her from it, but rather, hold the space so she can share whatever she needs to share.

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