In this episode: Janet is joined by Susan Stiffelman in a lively conversation about setting limits, tantrums, what your children want versus what they need, emotional resilience, having compassion for yourself, and the positive effects your confident leadership has on children as they become teens and young adults.
Susan is a best-selling parenting author (Parenting with Presence, Parenting without Power Struggles), a marriage, family and child counselor, educational therapist, parent educator, and professional speaker. Janet will join Susan to teach an online Master Class on June 28th. Details and sign-up are HERE at SusanStiffelman.com.
Transcript of “From Toddler to Teen – How Our Confident Leadership Fosters Resilience”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I’m thrilled to welcome a colleague and friend, longtime friend Susan Stiffelman. Susan is a therapist, a teacher, a lecturer, and an author. She offers online training courses, and she has two bestselling books, Parenting with Presence, and Parenting Without Power Struggles. For over 30 years, Susan has worked with families to create harmony and a deeper connection between parents and children. Much like my own infant toddler philosophy, Susan’s belief is that children need to know that they can depend on their parents to guide them through the ups and downs of their lives.
Janet Lansbury: I’m often asked how parents can continue this respectful parenting approach with children beyond the preschool years that I focus on. Susan is one of the first people that I always recommend. Her resources are wonderful. Her books are fantastic, and she does these incredible summits where you get to hear from all these different experts. She’s a leader in this field, so I couldn’t be happier than to welcome you, Susan.
Susan Stiffelman: Yes, and I couldn’t be happier to be here with you, Janet. What a joy to be able to be face to face, and not have this all happening cyberly.
Janet Lansbury: Exactly. This is a gift.
Susan Stiffelman: I love your work, and I love how there’s such a natural, and easy, and perfect fit between your sensibilities, and mine, and how we can take our kids from prenatal all the way up through young adult, with consciousness, and love, and connection.
Janet Lansbury: Yes, that’s what we’re trying to do, and we’re really trying to help, I think. I always focus on, especially when there are, I don’t know, criticisms out there, and all different controversies, and things. I try to recenter myself as to why we’re even doing this, which is to help make parents’ lives easier, make things work better for them, help them to raise children that are delightful, and that they’re proud and happy to be with. That often requires being what you call, “calmly in charge.”
Susan Stiffelman: Yes.
Janet Lansbury: I know that there are parents out there that actually are uncomfortable with this idea of us being in charge as parents. What would you say to those people?
Susan Stiffelman: First of all, I would ask you to make a distinction between being in control and being in charge. In my work, I call it the captain of the ship, and as you know, I use my hands to kind of represent this model that somehow I came up with many, many years ago that summarizes it, so I’m going to do it now. Follow along in your mind’s eye, everyone.
Janet Lansbury: Also, I think I could put up a screenshot from Susan Stiffelman’s website. You have photographs of these hands that you’re going to be talking about, and I think I can do a screenshot and put them in the transcript so people can see.
Susan Stiffelman: Oh, nice. So basically, if you imagine that your right hand represents you as the parent, and your left hand as the child, when you’re et calm captain of the ship who’s in charge, meaning that you’re the one who has taken on the responsibility of safely ferrying your children across the calm or stormy seas of life, then the right hand would be represented as above the child’s hand. Again, not because you’re better, not because you’re more worthy of respect, but just because you’re the grownup in the room. When you’re the captain of the ship, and your children are stressed, or distressed, or want something, or are unhappy, it’s okay with you. You can live through that. You don’t need them to like you, or to be cheery and smiling all the time. You, in fact, recognize that for a child to grow up to become a resilient adult, they actually have to live through, discover that they can live through disappointment and upset.
When you’re the captain of the ship, right hand above the left, when you’re in what I call lawyer mode, the two hands are side by side. This is where you’re arguing, and negotiating, and this is where the power struggles, and the lectures, and the explanations and rationalizations, and your child says, “Well, I really want to have pizza for breakfast,” and you say, “Well, you can’t possibly have pizza for breakfast. It’s not good for you.” Then your child says, “What do you mean? It’s got dairy products, and that’s like milk, and it’s got vegetables. It’s got an onion or two on there.” That must make it healthy, and you say, “No, but it’s got all kinds of add … Whatever, and now no one’s in charge, and they’re arguing, and debating.
Then it can get even worse, which is represented by the right hand below the child’s, and this is where the child says, “Well, I’m not eating anything then, if I can’t have pizza. I hate you.” You respond by saying, “Go to your room, or you don’t appreciate anything I do for you, or you don’t know how lucky you are.”
In that state, when your hand is below the child, you feel out of control. So this is where this control issue comes up. Being out of control is what prompts us to bribe, to threaten, to punish, to on the inside feel out of control, or panicked, or desperate, disrespected, unappreciated. All those feelings are what prompt us to issue these threats and these bribes.
When I talk about being calmly in charge, I’m really talking about owning that place that the child is so deeply comforted by. When a child knows that no matter what I go through, if I’m out of sorts, if I’m sad, if I’m having a meltdown, if I hate my baby brother today, my parent is big enough and sturdy enough to get me through it, so that’s the summary. Long winded, but …
Janet Lansbury: To accept that your child isn’t going to always agree, and that you even welcome them to say no, and you’re still holding onto that benevolent power.
Susan Stiffelman: Yes. It’s a great, great term for it, Janet. It doesn’t mean that you might not say, “You know what? Pizza’s actually not a bad idea for breakfast,” but what I ask parents to do is not cave in, or give in because you’ve been intimated but your child or worn down. That doesn’t mean you won’t ever give in because you’re wore down, because we all do. Fine. Play another game on the video. Whatever. I don’t think that you can ever be consistent. I think this idea that we dangle in front of parents, consistency is really important, is very unrealistic in the real world. We get tired. We get overwhelmed. We get an email from work. You can change your mind, but what I don’t want to see happen, and I work with parents to help avoid, is sort of being bullied or intimidated by our children because we’re afraid of their explosive reaction, or their disappointment, or their unhappiness, or maybe we’re going through something difficult, a divorce, or a loss, and so we keep saying, “Yes,” when actually it’s not in service of the child’s greater need, which is to feel that they’re in a safe container, that you can manage and maintain limits and boundaries, even when there’s chaos going on in a child’s life.
Kids tell me in my office as a therapist, they’ll confess to me that it’s unnerving. They don’t use that word, but they don’t like it when their parents are really wishy washy. They like having that sort of solidity that the parent says, “I know you really wanted pizza. I get it. It’s so delicious.” Compared to oatmeal, there’s not even a comparison, and this is what we have. To sort of be prepared for ugh, I hate this, and be okay with that. That’s a human reaction to a disappointment. You don’t have to fix it, talk them out of it, or do something, go, “How dare you. You’re so lucky to have that oatmeal.” No. They just had a feeling about it, which you and I, I know, have been talking a lot about in anticipation of something I guess we’ll talk about later.
Janet Lansbury: Let’s just talk about it now, since you brought it up. Susan I are doing a master class (here’s the link) about coping with our children’s emotions, and this is going to run the gamut from whining, crying, yelling at us, maybe shouting words at us, physically expressing their feelings. What do we do as parents? How can we learn to handle this in a way that, number one, doesn’t beat us up, and wear us down, and in a way where we can still be this leader that Susan’s talking about? And how do we also help our child in this situation to experience this process of healing that children do quite naturally, especially in the earlier years, and to see their feelings, and the expression of them as not the problem but, actually, the cure a lot of the time.
We’re going to be doing this master class June 28th, 12:00 to 1:15, Pacific Time, and we hope that we’ll all consider joining us. We’re going to be hearing questions from participants, and we’ll be responding to those, and we’ll be giving the whole overview, hopefully everything you ever wanted to know about handling your children’s emotional life.
Susan Stiffelman: One of the things I love about your podcasts, and all the work that you’re doing in your writings, is this understanding that we share, which I didn’t grow up. I don’t know about you, but I think we’re really trailblazers. I think many, and those of you listening, I think that you’re creating a path that’s so important to the healing and health of our planet, of our world, of our children as they grow, because most of us are trained to kind of look the other way when big feelings or emotions showed up. Our parents instinctively or naturally tried to talk us out of them, and what we both teach is to be present with maybe the discomfort, because at first it’s really foreign to not try and offer a solution to a child who’s melting down because she can’t have a second ice cream cone. We’re sort of pre-programmed, and that’s a lot of my work in classes, are about un-programming. It’s just sort of peeling off what we’ve absorbed through how we were raised, and what we saw growing up.
A child who wants another ice cream, if we can start to become comfortable with their discomfort, knowing it’s a storm that will pass, and I love that you teach that, too, and I think that’s what we want to keep expanding in our work, respectively. So I would invite parents listening to just look at the next time your child sort of objects, or voices an upset, to start noticing what is getting stirred up for you. One of the things you may notice is, this isn’t okay. My parent would have shut this down, or talked me out of it, or lectured me, or scolded me, or sent me to my room, right?
Janet Lansbury: Or it touches off something in ourselves that’s repressed as well, that we weren’t able to express. All of a sudden, we’re feeling enraged, and it’s because we never got to express that as children.
Susan Stiffelman: I’ve seen that with clients a lot, almost a disproportionate outrage when our child says, “I don’t want to do that,” because we weren’t allowed.
Janet Lansbury: I really love what you said about children telling you in therapy that they really didn’t like the wishy washy parent, and they really wanted a confident leader. I think the big challenge in that is children will not give us that feedback in the moment, ever, right? No, no. They’re not going to say, “Thank you” for letting me be angry that you said no to me.
In our class, I’m going to share a couple of examples where that actually did come through, which is quite amazing, where children, even very young children, were able to express the gratitude. Generally as parents we’re not going to get that, and so we have to remember, we have to … Maybe there was one time that we did, or maybe we can remember a story that we heard from someone else, and keep reminding ourselves of that. No, this is actually a golden moment. This is quality time I’m having with my child.
Having this interaction, it’s not a sign of failure. And another thing that I think is so important about that is, we’re going to get worn down at the end of the day if we’re feeling responsible for every time our child reacts, especially in times of stress, or the toddler years when there’s so much development going on. Adolescence, when there’s so much development going on, and they’re going to have a lot of UGH back at us in some way. Maybe it looks more sad and held in, which is also hard to see, but there’s going to be a lot of emotional flux, and we can’t ride those waves. We won’t make it through the toddler years. We have to find a way to not emotionally distance ourselves, but see it in a way that’s positive, see it in a way that doesn’t make us feel we are responsible for changing it, that it’s perfect as it is.
Susan Stiffelman: Yeah. If we can take the longer view, and understand that, I often say, “We’re not just raising children. We’re raising adults.” I know when my son was finally in college, I would get these comments from him, or phone calls, thanking me for ways that I had parented him, where he was referring to the times I’d said no, or times that I had trusted that he could endure having to do chores, or having to … Where he would have pitched a fit during his teenage years, and how that empowered him.
I sometimes say, “Imagine what it is you’re actually saying to your child when you fix something that they don’t like.” So the child says, “Well, I have to have a second ice cream cone. I can’t live without it.” They’re flailing their arms. They’re on the floor. You’re so tired, and then you’ve got this story going on in your head of what people are saying about you, or about your child, who are watching this, and we get a lot of sweat because of that, a lot of pressure and stress.
Imagine the sort of meta message. If you give the ice cream, and I’m not saying you can’t ever do it, but in that moment, if that’s always what you do, you’re sort of saying, “I don’t have faith in your capacity to cope with disappointment.”
Janet Lansbury: Exactly.
Susan Stiffelman: That message is internalized, and then you grow a child who has a boyfriend who breaks up with her, and she can’t cope with that disappointment, or he doesn’t get the job that he wanted, and he can’t cope with that disappointment. You build a resilient adult by entrusting them, being a loving, calm presence while they’re having a disappointment, without fixing it, so that they internally come to understand, oh, I can live through tough things.
Janet Lansbury: Uncomfortable emotions, yeah, not just disappointment. Every frustration, and anger, and sadness. And loss, and all of those things. This is how we set children up for a healthy adulthood. I’ve seen in my own children the difference between them and me, and it’s huge.
Susan Stiffelman: Me, too.
Janet Lansbury: I also got thanked in regard to screen time. I was so strict about it, it was difficult. Other parents didn’t seem to have the same values around that, so I was the bad guy a lot of times, and to have my daughter thank me for that was just amazing. She could see how much easier it was for her to learn in college, and to study, and she knew that her brain worked really well. She could tell, but we can’t count on that gratitude, and what should we do if … You talked a couple of times about when we do give in, and give the ice cream. What should we tell ourselves? How should we view that? How should we handle that, besides beating ourselves up, which we definitely shouldn’t do?
Susan Stiffelman: Yeah. Please don’t. Not allowed in my world. Nobody gets to say, “I blew it, or I messed up.” I don’t let people say those things. There’s a couple things. If you know you’re really tired, and you don’t have anything left to say no to the ice cream, and your child is still at the phase where there’s asking, “I see, Mommy. That was so good. Please, can I have another one?” Make it your idea. Just co-opt the idea, and say, “You know what? I was about to offer you another ice cream. That’s so funny. You’re like a mind-reader, because you’ve now … ” You still are captaining the ship, right? You’re just steering into a second ice cream cone. So it isn’t a result of them having broken glass in the ice cream shop that they discovered, oh, that’s what I have to do to get ice cream. Ideally, you want to catch it earlier. “Oh, you wanted another story. I was about to suggest you have another bedtime story.”
Otherwise, if everything has fallen apart, just please put your hand on your heart, ladies and gentlemen, and be really exceptionally kind to yourself, and say, My child just broke something in the ice cream shop, and I am now giving her ice cream, and I know everything about that is not a great idea, and I am going to be kind to myself, and just write it off. One event here and there is not going to make and break anything.
Janet Lansbury: Sometimes I think it also helps, starting off with that very kind, loving attitude towards ourselves, a very forgiving, we’re human, and I want to be a human model for my child. I don’t want to be some perfect anything. So from that place, I think it’s really awesome if we can actually reflect a little. “Huh. How did I get to this?” Rewinding, and taking a look, so that we can learn from it, so that we can say, “You know, I should’ve said no to going in the ice cream store,” because often times, when children really do want to express the feeling, and they’re unconsciously pushing the limit for that reason, they will keep pushing, and pushing, and pushing.
Then you’ll find yourself going crazy because you’re trying to give … You give the ice cream, you did this, you get that, and now they want something else, and it seems so unfair. That’s because your child really just wanted you to say no in the beginning, but again, we can get caught up in our own feelings, and our own stuff, and none of us are perfect, and it’s going to happen.
Susan Stiffelman: And you can also, not that same day probably, but a day or two later when everything’s, everyone’s happy, and connected, and calm, you could do a debrief with your child, of course, depending on the age, and say, “You know, the other day, you really pitched a fit, didn’t you, about that ice cream?”
You and I are very much on the same page about looking for the root. I’d love to know, was it just that the ice cream tasted good? Sometimes, and particularly because I also work with much older children, we’ll find out that it had to do with what happened at school that day, and that nothing was going her way, and the ice cream was just a stand in for, I want to have some agency over something in my life, and so far it seemed like ice cream’s the only possible option.
Sometimes the debrief, and I love what you said about just sort of gently rewinding, and maybe give yourself a few hours, or a day or two to look at, how did I end up in that situation, but to do that in a way that’s totally nonjudgmental.
I know that’s your approach, too. That’s more out of curiosity and openheartedness, rather than, where did I go wrong, just so that we can learn, because man, I’ve written two parenting books, I’ve been a therapist for 30 something years, and I lost my way many, many times. Let’s just put it that way, and I know intellectually all the things, but I’m still a human being, and I still came from my own child, and so we don’t aspire to be anything close to perfect. There’s not even anything to aspire to called perfect. It’s just, we want to be, as you said, human, and show our kids. If you’ve lost your cool with your kids, and I have a lot of work around this, you can go and apologize, and model for them what it looks like to take responsibility for those times when you did sort of fall apart.
Janet Lansbury: There’s really no more powerful modeling than that, those humble apologies, especially if we want our children to be able to go there in life.
It seems that generally, your message, which is also the message I try to get across, is that you want to be the leader, but you want to be working with your child, rather than on the opposite child of the courtroom, or wherever. I think the opposite side is also where we accidentally go when we do the bribes, and the punishments.
Susan Stiffelman: You’re really their ally, that you could say it’s compassionate leadership. You’re on the same team, that your child, even in those moments where you don’t give them the thing they wanted, or at least the thing they think they wanted, that it’s done in a way with so much love, and compassion, and kindness, because it’s not triggering you that they want more pizza. Of course they want more pizza. Pizza’s really yummy. It’s much tastier than oatmeal. We’re aiming for a kindness in those moments, so that the child really has a sense that you’re allies. You’re rooting for them to grow, and be happy, and find their way, even in those moments when you may have to say, “Sweetheart, you know, not today. It’s not gonna happen today.”
Janet Lansbury: Yeah. One thing I used to tell myself in those hard moments is you need to be the best parent for this child, and being the best parent is saying no to some things. From that attitude, I might even say a little of that to my child. “Look, I’ve got to take care of you. This isn’t healthy, and I love you.” Briefly, not trying to convince, or expect that I could talk you into not being unhappy about this, but coming from that place of, this is love. What love really is.
Susan Stiffelman: Yes. This is what love looks like.
Janet Lansbury: It’s not just the snuggles, and the cuddles, and the kisses. In a way, this is a higher form of love because it’s much more difficult, and I think children know that.
Susan Stiffelman: I have such a great kid, and I think I just was lucky in a lot of ways, but I also think that that willingness to trust his ability to not always like me, or be happy with things, did empower him to be a very well-adjusted and happy adult. However I stumbled along in those times when I managed to pull it off, that I could be loving in the way that sort of set boundaries, I do think that has been in service for him to … Eventually, discipline is ultimately just about self-discipline. How do you grow self-discipline inside yourself? It’s by having someone on the outside start to help you become familiar, and comfortable, and at ease with not always having things exactly the way you think you want them.
Janet Lansbury: Absolutely. Will you talk to me again?
Susan Stiffelman: Of course. Oh, my gosh. Super, duper fun. Yeah. In the meantime, please check out our class on June 28th (HERE). We’ll have the link here with the podcast, and it’ll also be on susanstiffelman.com as an upcoming event. That’s going to be an amazing event. I hope people invite their friends. It’s very affordable, and when I do these master classes, I’ve done it with Dan Siegel. I’ve done one on raising sexually healthy kids with Amy Lang, and now you, I’m just really committed to top, top quality people, and information, and guidance, and support, so that we can support parents to making those wonderful shifts and transformations.
Janet Lansbury: Thank you, Susan, for being so sweet about that. I can’t wait to share our stories, to hear your stories, and to hear how we can help in any way. In the meantime, we can do this.
Susan Stiffelman: Yes. We can do this.
Janet Lansbury: Thanks so much for listening.