Be the Grown-up Your Child Needs

“…we have a duty and obligation to fully inhabit the grown-up role to the best of our ability. This might require being present with our uneasiness or discomfort about our children’s anger toward us. But we shouldn’t avoid those unpleasant feelings by abdicating the bigger need they have – for us to lovingly Captain the ship, steering them through storms as well as calm waters.”                                         – Susan Stiffelman, MFT, Parenting With Presence

One of the unhealthiest messages we unintentionally give our children seems to have been passed down to us through the generations: Unhappy feelings aren’t safe to experience or okay to express. This message may have originated in primitive times when a loud display of emotion could potentially attract predators, but rather than ensuring our survival in modern times, this message hinders psychological health and the development of emotional resilience.

The key to true happiness is the knowledge that the “downs” of life are a safe place to be, and that they always pass eventually. We can only learn this process by experiencing it. Repeatedly.

On a practical, day-to-day level, discomfort with our children’s emotional outbursts is problematic because it makes establishing effective behavior limits virtually impossible. Respectful limit-setting requires us to agree to disagree with our children, which means accepting the full throttle of their disappointment or anger — their “side.”  When we’ve been conditioned from birth to stifle or numb these feelings in ourselves, it can take great effort and courage to break the cycle with our children.

Haven shared her journey…

Hi Janet –

I’ve finally been able to string together all of your words of wisdom and turn my 22 month old daughter’s testing into my own parenting testimony!

My daughter has been a blessing and an enigma to me since she arrived, and I really struggled to understand what I needed to be doing to be her strong, confident leader. I wrote you when she was 10 months old and couldn’t seem to engage in independent play. She wouldn’t stop clinging and climbing on me. My thought at the time was that maybe she just didn’t like independent play because she was social. You kindly explained to me that she was asking for limits.

I wrote to you again when she went through a stage of grabbing, scratching, and hitting my face. Once again you suggested to me that she was asking for limits.

Finally, I wrote on the RIE parents support page of my struggles to set limits with eating. My daughter would engage in all-day power struggles with constant requests to eat that would throw our days into a tailspin. Again, you reminded me to continue setting limits and let her feelings be.

Well, 22 months in and I can finally say that I just now get it. All this, despite hearing your words, I hadn’t been setting limits. I just wasn’t comfortable letting her have those feelings. I struggled because whenever she really got going (and she’s very expressive), I would hear the voices of my parents, things like, “I’ll give you something to cry about,” or “Stop acting ugly,” and even, “Your crying doesn’t move me.” All of these were popular refrains from my mom’s parenting book, and they were standing in the way of me letting my own daughter express herself fully.

In almost perfect reverse order, I’ve been able to get a handle on all of the behavior that was challenging for me. First, the constant requests for food have ended. I now let her know that eating time has passed, provide her with the time for our next meal, and I stand firm. Voilà! No more minute-by- minute demands for food.

The hitting and biting have also ceased entirely. I stopped taking it personally. I didn’t go into theatrics about how much that hurt mommy or get into my own feelings of anger (this was hard, but the belief that it wasn’t personal carried me through). Instead of seeing her as a smirking assailant, I literally visualized her with the most innocent smile and big eyes saying, “Please heeeeeelp me, Mommy.”

The climbing and scaling me while I attempted to observe her during playtime had been the biggest problem for me. It had been going on for months, and I still couldn’t get a handle on it. I became very good at just ignoring and accommodating her. She would be playing with something while climbing in the chair with me and then suddenly push her knee into my back, and I would get upset. Or she might start exploring my face, asking me to say the names of different parts, and then grab my ears or dig her little feet into my thighs. Basically, she was doing everything but playing independently.

Then it struck me that for as long as I’m allowing her to do this, I will be the MOST interesting play object in the room. Balls and blocks don’t have anything on me! It’s just like you’ve always warned about participation vs. observation and the importance of acknowledging — while being careful not to engage and take over. All of the scaling and climbing and responding to her point- and-ask requests of “what’s that?” during this time were major distractions. They were me engaging and taking over.

I have finally set the limits. They are firm, and they are gentle, and her emotional response has been HUGE. I realize that it may take time for her to adjust, and I’ve talked to her about how it’s going to be different now. She does not like this interruption to her pattern of play, but I’m thankful it’s finally happening.

Lastly, I just want to say that you never know where that moment of clarity or ah-ha is going to come from. For me, my lesson to learn was about letting feelings be, and that moment came when I heard a song on the radio as if my daughter were speaking the lyrics to me (‘Can You Stand The Rain’). I had all of your wisdom and the articles and stories of other parents, and that kept me encouraged and hopeful, but that song is what made it all click. It cut through all the noise in my head that was preventing me from doing what needed to be done. I’m saying that to let you know that I appreciate what you and RIE have provided – which is the truth about children that allows us to open our eyes (and in my case, ears) to find inspiration around us to do things differently. I’m feeling quite confident these days.

Thank you, thank you!


On a perfect day, I know that I can count on you
When that’s not possible
Tell me can you weather the storm?
‘Cause I need somebody who will stand by me
Through the good times and bad times
She will always, always be right there

Sunny days everybody loves them
Tell me baby can you stand the rain?
Storms will come this we know for sure
Can you stand the rain?

Love unconditional
I’m not asking just of you
And girl to make it
Last I’ll do whatever needs to be done

But I need somebody who will stand by me
When it’s tough she won’t run
She will always, be right there for me

Sunny days everybody loves them
Tell me can you stand the rain?
Storms will come
I know I know all the days won’t be perfect
But tell me can you stand the rain?

Can you stand the rain?


(Thank you so much, Haven, for allowing me to share your story and gorgeous photo!)

I share a complete guide to respectful limit setting and leadership in

No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame


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

  1. i would love to know more specifically what Haven did to set limits, re: playing independently, I have been struggling with my son smothering me and would appreciate some practical tips (verbiage, etc). Thanks for sharing this story!

      1. I really appreciate all that she has shared so far, but oh! How would I love if Haven could tell us those practical tips, so please do encourage her to respond =P.

        Finding out about RIE has been a blessing in our family but we still struggle in some areas.
        Our 8 month old baby plays independently if I am nearby, but as soon as I leave he follows me. And if I close the gate he will just wait right there for me to come back, while crying, big time crying. And we wont settle down by himself, I have waited… :S

        And I cant let him follow me everywhere, he’ll cling and climb unsafely on my legs if I am trying to do something else, it’s just very uncomfortable…

        Those practical tips would be greatly appreciated!

        And thanks, Janet, for sharing all your wisdom. it really gives me hope that I will have that ah-ha moment someday =)!

        1. Hi Nancy,

          I know your struggle really well. I may not be the best person to speak on the topic of independent play with an 8 month old since it took me so long to find my footing. My daughter gave me big cries too!

          The thing about independent play that I understand now that I didn’t fully grasp early on is that it’s time spent together but not in direct interaction like diaper changing and feeding, but in my case it still required my absolute presence. I know it can be so hard to find time in the day to get things done but releasing yourself and your son of the expectation that he play while you’re away is a great first step (another gem that Janet shared with me long ago) If possible just stay with him during the playtime and let him experience you observing him. If he’s not a climber and he’s content to play then you’re already lightyears ahead of me and you don’t need to be concerned about setting a limit there.

          When you need to leave I would announce that to him and tell him how long you’ll be gone. I believe the key here is to start with small intervals like 5 or 10 minutes and then return at that time. When you get back and he is expressing his frustrations thats the part where you let the feelings be while remaining present with him. Saying something like “You didn’t like that I left while you were playing. I’m here for you now” worked well for me.

          Finally, I would say that beyond a script of words to use I just trust this process more now that I’m ok with the full expression of emotion. The way you feel about your son crying is the only thing you have control over and if you see that expression as healthy then you’re well on your way to being able to find some middle ground where he gets some independent play and you get some time to take care of your needs.

          1. Haven,
            Thank you so so much for taking the time to reply! I really appreciate it.

            I will try to be more patient, get rid of my expectations of him playing alone right now, and just let him set the pace. I will keep on leaving for very brief periods of time as you suggest (with proper announcement) and keep on observing.

            Thank you for giving me hope that I’m not completely on the wrong track and for helping me see, once again, that I need to work on my patience 🙂

    1. Hi Cristina,

      When my daughter lifts her arms up to request I pick her up during playtime, I usually pick her up and say something like “you’re welcome to sit in my lap until you feel comfortable playing, but if you start climbing in my lap I’ll need to place you back on the floor” and with that if she starts squirming/climbing in my lap I will say “it seems like you’re ready to play now so I’ll set you on the floor” This is the point where I get the BIG emotions but I’m ok with that now 🙂

      1. Great advice, Haven. Another option might be saying something like, “You want to climb on me and that isn’t comfortable, so I will stop you. You are welcome to sit on my lap.” Maybe adding, “If you want to practice pulling up, you can use that table” (or whatever).

  2. Great post. Your posts really resonate with me, but despite reading them for a while, I had my own little AHA moment last week. We’ve had ongoing with battles morning and night with hair brushing and putting on creams for her eczema.
    I drew a pictorial chart of the routine, and hey presto, it is all much easier. She still doesn’t like it but she knows it’s going to happen.
    The AHA moment: it’s me that needs to be clear about what I expect. Until I’m clear ( and firm) about what I expect she has little chance of following.
    Now I need to apply to mealtimes…

    1. Yes! The clarity must begin with us, so that we project our conviction. Excellent realization, Alison.

  3. You always seem to publish at just the right time. My 23-month-old son has been really pushing the limits at bedtime. We’ve been driving ourselves crazy with bedtime stories, an hour of rocking, shushing, patting. Last night, I put him in his bed and told him to stay. He climbed out; I put him back in, and said, “It’s time to go to sleep.” We did that a few dozen times. He screamed and cried. He begged for Dada. He begged for stories. He begged for the rocker. I told him, “I know you want all those things, but you must lie down and go to sleep.”

    In 10 minutes, it was over. He laid down and went to sleep. And I swear he looked relieved! Sometimes it’s hard to remember that one of our jobs as parents is to free them from the tyranny of their desires. They have lots of wants, and very little self-control. They can’t ask us to help them cut through all those competing thoughts and focus on the one thing they need– but they would if they could.

    1. Yes! You’ve nailed this, Sadie: “Sometimes it’s hard to remember that one of our jobs as parents is to free them from the tyranny of their desires.”

      This IS our role… what love really means.

    2. This hit home for me. Thanku!

  4. Brettania says:

    The part about “Then it struck me that for as long as I’m allowing her to do this, I will be the MOST interesting play object in the room.” was helpful for me. I think I am really good about observing rather than ever leading play. But my 4yo will try very hard to involve me in his play- for example, each time he drives a toy car across the floor he will ask me “Is it going fast?” or “Did you get in, are you driving the car?” even though all I am doing is sitting there watching him. I am thinking that sometimes I end up being less of an observer then I want to be/planned to be and that I end up being a distraction to him playing independently when I allow this. As always, each of your articles is so helpful! Thank you.

  5. Sadie, that’s such a great insight that “one of our jobs as parents is to free them from the tyranny of their desires.” One of the main reasons I often have trouble setting limits with my three-year-old son is that I feel I may be depriving him of further learning or fun when I need to end an activity or say no to a desire like playing in the sandbox for a few more minutes. I think that maybe he is just at the cusp of some learning moment and I am interrupting this critical moment, but that can be an endless cycle! I remember a story you told a while back, Janet, of a mother who struggled to put her child in the car seat while her child kicked and screamed. After the mother persisted and did get her in the seat and they were driving, her daughter said, ” That is what I wanted you to do.” The story gave me chills. A few weeks after this, my son and I were out for a walk in the neighborhood. He was really enjoying walking and looking at rocks. As it started to get dark, I let him know we would have to get going in a few minutes. He resisted my several attempts to walk back home. As the real darkness approached, my concern for our safety allowed me to become more assertive. I told him I would need to scoop him up if he would not come on his own. He cried and kicked the whole way home. About five minutes after we got home, he looked at me and said “I love you” which he had never said before so directly. Chills again! Such confirmation that we need to be confident leaders and that our children need and appreciate it.

  6. Dazed in Galway says:

    This is so beautiful!

  7. We have twin boys who are almost 5 years-old. When we lovingly, calmly, firmly set a limit that they don’t care for they have started to respond by calling my husband and I “STUPID MOM/DAD!” over and over again – as well as usually hitting us several times. We have NEVER, EVER role modeled these actions in our home. We have no idea where they would learn to respond like this. Perhaps they are learning them at school… We have always fully supported them having their big feelings and have NEVER tried to squash them ever – and have talked with them many times about how they can feel their feelings without hurting themselves or others. Please help! We feel at a complete and utter loss. To be blatantly honest, it is starting to feel like an abusive relationship. We love our kiddos so much and have consciously educated ourselves about being respectful, loving parents. This behavior is baffling us! Thank you for your time. It is greatly appreciated!

    1. How do you respond when they call you “stupid” and hit you? It sounds like they are asking for confident leaders… and not feeling like they have that with you.

      1. Hmmmm…interesting possibility. We have tried MANY different responses, with little success. We always try to show empathy for how sad/mad/disappointed/etc they are about whatever limit it is we are setting. We NEVER give in when they express upset feelings about a limit we’ve set. We’ve NEVER sent them to their room or given them a time-out or verbally berated them. Here are some different ways we’ve responded:
        -Explaining that it is OK to feel mad but that it is never OK to hurt others with their words or bodies, and then tried to give them other ways they can show how upset they are.
        -We’ve explained that those mean words and actions hurt mama/dada. I’ve recently had a few good cries in front of them because of how they’ve treated me (not proud of these reactions).
        -If their strong reactions trigger something in us and we know we are about to lose it, we will ask for a break so we can calm down.
        -We’ve also firmly stated that we won’t let them hurt us and walked away, but they follow and keep hitting.

        With their hurtful words, we don’t really have a way to stop that. We feel powerless in this realm.

        We strongly believe in CONNECTION before CORRECTION and work so hard at this, but it doesn’t seem to be working for us…

        We’d LOVE to know how to be the confident leaders our children yearn for.

        THANK YOU!

  8. Trish, I just wanted to express support and say “this too shall pass.” Last month, I was standing at a buffet with my three-year-old son getting lunch. Out of the blue, he kicked my leg hard. He had never done that before and I was shocked and devastated. It not only hurt but it made me feel upset. A piece of advice from Janet that has often helped me is to not take their outbursts or negative behaviors personally. There is something about a kick though that feels so disrespectful and I unfortunately took it personally and didn’t have a good immediate reaction. I had a big reaction-pointing my finger angrily and saying “that really hurt. Don’t kick me again!” Well, he liked that reaction! And so.. another kick. We got back to the table and finished quickly. Once in the car, I anxiously googled “kicking” and “Janet Lansbury.” I needed help fast!
    Just the fact that Janet had a post on this eased my mind. She recommended not having a big reaction. It was fine to clearly state not to kick because it hurts but to have a very bland reaction and move on. It is important not to go into detail about how much the child’s actions hurt the parent.
    The peace of mind I was beginning to feel also gave me the chance to see why the kick may have happened. I rewound the day and could clearly see the reason. I sort of deserved it- not really, but from a child’s point of view. The whole morning I had been distracted as well as exhausted from allergy medication. At the end of probably a very frustrating, boring, and discouraging morning for him, I took him to a restaurant that I felt like but he had no interest in.

    With my mild reactions, the kicks subsided. There were still a few and I finally used the words Janet often suggests- “I won’t let you…” Before this, I hadn’t used this phrase because I wasn’t comfortable with those words. But I tried it and since we were sitting on the floor, I could hold his legs while I said it. I felt his whole body relax when I said the words.. He asked me, “Will you let me kick?”‘And I calmly responded, “No, I won’t.” And that really was the end of it! I know it’s much harder to stop words but maybe using a clear but very ho hum, bland reaction will help. However, I wonder how the “I won’t let you…” response applies to a child’s words.
    Sorry for two very long posts from me here!

    1. Thank you, Kate! I sooooooooooo appreciate you taking the time to share your experience – immeasurably helpful! I plan to try that. 🙂

  9. It’s time spent together, but not in direct interaction…

    Lightbulb moment! Thanks Haven and Janet! Now I get it.

  10. This is so wonderful to read. I also had an “aha” song. Strangely, it was a Cyndi Lauper song :), Time after Time. There are so many times when my lovely daughter has communicated with me exactly what she needed in that moment and I wasn’t present, I was mentally too far ahead. I just picture her saying “mommy, go slow…” It’s actually become one of our lullabies.

    Sometimes you picture me – I’m walking too far ahead.
    You’re calling to me, but I can’t hear what you have said –
    Then you say ” [mommy] go slow” -I fall behind. The second hand unwinds.

  11. I, too, am really struggling with my 4.5 year old – lately, if he doesn’t get what he wants, he will scream and cry and hit me and call me names (“you’re the stupidest mama in the whole universe!”) and throw things, just be generally destructive. I’ve tried saying, “it’s okay to be mad/sad/whatever, but please find other words to tell me how you feel” and “I won’t let you hit”, etc. I have also reacted badly and totally lost my cool on multiple occasions, I am a work in progress, for sure. 🙁 We have a new baby coming in a couple of weeks and I am assuming that has a lot to do with his behavior for the last month or so and he also has been sick and diagnosed with asthma, so he was on oral steroids recently and is on medication every day which I believe affects his mood..I’m just not sure what to do. It’s like Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde! One moment he’s telling me he loves me and he’s an angel and the next he’s really mean, also hitting his younger brother, who is two.

    I know Janet will say I’m not being confident and calm. How do I remain calm and confident in the face of this madness? I need help.

  12. Elizabeth says:

    Hi, I’m kind of new to all this i have been reading a few posts over a couple of months and been blown away by what you are saying. It has helped me a lot to see where my children are coming from. However I am unsure on how to deal with my current situation at the moment and wondered if anyone could offer me some advice please?

    I have an 8 month old boy and a 2 year old girl. My boy is very vocal he cries and moans a lot! he is trying to walk and doesn’t like sitting down so much but I haven’t got all the time in the world to walk him about and he’s not keen on the Walker. He does like a lot of attention from me. Sometimes he really gets to me and my husband as he doesn’t stop moaning no matter what we seem to do with him and we sometimes we get angry and shout out of frustration (which I am ashamed to say). I just keep thinking it is a phase and it will pass. But now my 2 year old girl who is so sweet, cries all the time about anything and everything! If I say ‘please stop climbing up the chair that is dangerous’ she will cry, sometimes it is pretend cry that if ignored will turn into a real cry and other times she just stops and moves on. She has the tiniest mark on her wrist and she shows it to me a few times a day and says ‘aw look an bardie’, I’m getting lost for words on what to say to her about it. Do I say oh its fine don’t worry or do I say aw I can see that you have a bardie give it some time and it will go? I think she sees my son getting attention by crying and is doing the same but what do I do to show her and my son that they don’t need to cry to get my attention?

    1. I think once they get the attention they are really seeking they will not feel the need to cry so much. I think what its hard to get about what this post is about is that it IS ok to cry. We worry so much that we will create the type of adult that is some kind of diva, but i believe that those kinds of adults come about because their true needs were not really met, they were just placated with things when they cried. I would try to find some time in the day to let your daughter know that you understand things are a little stressed in the house right now, what with her brother finding walking frustrating, and mum and dad finding his frustration frustrating also! empathize with that feeling, and maybe she wont feel the need to get your attention at other times when she doesnt really want it for what shes crying about, but just to say “hey, im here too! whats going on with you guys?”. I WOULD empathize without a great deal of drama about the little things like a scratch on her hand “you’re still thinking about that scratch aren’t you? Did it hurt when you did it?” and then try to hear her REAL cry, which might be “spend some time with me!” and address that. If you cant right then, say “would you like to do something together? I’d like to too, but i have to do dinner right now. When i’ve finished making dinner i will come and be with you”. When your son is crying about not being walked about, i would hear that as frustration, not something to “fix”. It will be hard for him because so far he has had you guys “fixing” his frustration, but in that he is also learning that he cant fix his own problems. The rie advice is to acknowledge the frustration, empathize, but dont fix it. It takes some practice to not get anxious when we hear them crying, but if you read more of jannets blogs and podcasts about this type of thing you will get a clear idea of why its ok for him to cry when he is frustrated and why its ok for you to not try and stop that crying by saving him all the time. I hope this helps, it has taken a long time for these methods to really sink in for me too, we cant rush our own learning any more than that of our kids 🙂

  13. Janet,
    Does mean that we should never play with our kids?!! I have a 5 year old son, 4 and 1 year old daughters. The older kids realize Mommy can’t play when i’m laying their sister down for a nap, doing chores around the house etc (they help preparing meals more often then not) Usually they play together outside and know the limits( our yard, only backyard where I can see them out the window) I refuse to believe that what all these articles are saying is that I am doing something wrong by sitting and playing a board game with my son yesterday. I do have a question about it though; we sat down to play and he said, ” I don’t want sissy to play, last time she messed it up” I explained to him that she just doesn’t know how to play yet and we should help her learn because he doesn’t like being left out of activities. Most of the time I observe but if they come up to me obviously I interact with them.

    1. I am wondering how you came to the conclusion that I advised: “never play with our kids.” Of course, it’s wonderful to play a board game together.

      I’m also unclear as to your question… What is it that you are asking?

  14. this just made me cry!! thank you so much for sharing, haven! <3

  15. Cassandra says:

    This article was so helpful. I’m a little confused about one thing though..Lately my 11 month old has been pointing A LOT and then looking at me for a response. Is this her asking for limit setting? How do i respond without being absent? Also, lately she’s been trying to play, “come and get me” during meal time. We eat at a little table and when she leaves we put the food away. But she still has her bib on and will run away wanting me to come get her. I normally don’t react and just ask her to come back but sometimes it can take quite a while – like 15 min – i almost feel like it’s too long and i should have stopped it sooner? Would love your advice!!

  16. Thank you so much for this post and sharing your experience, Haven. Much of this really speaks to me. I have a question similar to this for Janet. When my almost 11 month son is engaging in independent play he stops every few minutes and comes to me wanting to nurse (sometimes literally for 5 seconds) when I know he isn’t hungry. This can go on for an hour unless we move around the house and can be exhausting! I feed on demand so I always let him nurse, but I feel this is an emotional thing for him. I have never denied him the opportunity to nurse when he asks for it, but I wonder what I can be doing differently and what he is really asking for. Thanks so much for your time.

    1. Thank you, Jami! I think your son is letting you know that he needs a boundary around nursing, so that he can stop using you as a drinking fountain every few minutes. He needs clarity. “You want to nurse again. We’ll be doing that after lunch” (or whatever you decide). Be calm and confident and accepting of his objections to the plan.

  17. Hi Janet
    Love reading these articles and taking in little bits of wisdom and knowledge each time.
    I’m a single mum, and have amazing support from a dear friend, who is also my sons in home carer. She opened my eyes and mind to the RIE principles.
    My son is almost 3, and I like to think I accept and allow him to express himself and his emotions freely. I acknowledge and accept. However the last couple of weeks have been a struggle for me.
    My son has been testing every boundary, and really checking that the limits are there. I stand strong on these boundaries, and 90 % of the time do it cooly and calmly.
    Of late he is going into real rages when things aren’t quite going the way he wants, he will slam his body into our glass front door, he’ll tip over bar stools, and he’ll hit and scratch me. I have been staying close to keep him safe, and at times have had to physically hold him to stop him from hurting himself or me. I confirm this by saying “I’m going to hold you to keep us both safe”, which generally leads to more kicking, screaming, scratching.
    These episodes can last for quite a while, and lately I’ve asked my friend to come help, he sees her and snaps out of it. I believe this would be the case if anyone else came that he knows well, it’s a fresh face of a person that hasn’t been the one reminding him of the boundaries.

    I really want to be there and be accepting his feelings but wonder if there is something i am doing to trigger or continue the outburst?

    He will often say during these emotional moments “don’t touch my body” or “I want my space” or other words along those lines, . I want to respect what he is saying, however I am holding him to keep him safe from hurting himself or me, or damaging objects.. is there a phrase I can say to him that tells him this simply, I’ve learnt that the less words said, the quicker the calm down, as he processes all those massive feelings.

    Appreciate your time and any thought you have.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

More From Janet

Books & Recommendations