“…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?
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