In this episode: Janet responds to an email from the parent of three kids (12, 9 and 3) who has just recently found Unruffled. She writes: “Your methods and insights have been truly freeing and a paradigm shift in experience for me.” She realizes now that her parenting style has included shaming, inconsistencies, and a negative reaction to her kids’ emotions, and her middle child especially is struggling as a result. She feels guilty and is wondering how to make things right. “How can I help them after all the damage I have done?”
Transcript of “Never Too Late to Become the Parent You Want To Be”
Hi. This is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I’m going to be responding to a parent of three kids, ages 12, 9, and 3, who’s relatively new to respectful parenting. It has really resonated with her, but she feels that her older kids have maybe suffered and are perhaps even damaged by her previous parenting style. She’s wondering if it’s too late to make things right with her older children and what she can do to repair the damage.
Here’s the email that I received:
“Hi, Janet. I just found your podcast. I clean houses for a living, so I’ve been listening to your older podcasts for hours each day. Your methods and insights have been truly freeing and a paradigm shift in experience for me. I shared with my husband, and he is now listening as well. We’ve both been trying to apply what we’re learning. The problem is, we have three kids ages 12, 9, and 3, and I’ve raised them almost opposite of what I’ve learned from you. I was raised with a lot of shaming and, despite my best efforts, I seem to have fallen into that. I realize now I’ve been horribly inconsistent, allowed my child’s moods and feelings to run my own, and even made them feel responsible for my own out-of-control feelings. There’s a gap in ages between my older two and my youngest, and I’ve done a little better with her but still have been struggling.
I know that my middle child, a nine-year-old girl, is really struggling emotionally and has been since the birth of our three-year-old, also a girl. I’ve been afraid of the nine-year-old’s emotions and not sure how to handle her outbursts of sadness. She will sometimes come to me crying saying she doesn’t know why. I don’t know what to do or say to her. I usually just hug her and try to do things to distract or cheer her up.
Truth is, I’m terrified because I was her age when my own lifelong depression and anxiety started. Is it too late to make things right with my older children? How can I help them after all the damage I have done? Do I sit them down and explain what I’ve been learning and apologize to them for the way I have raised them so far? I’m racked with guilt. I know that is a lot to take in. I don’t know if you’re even able to answer emails but I will keep listening and digging into your archives to find insight. I also have started therapy for myself to hopefully be a better mom, wife, and human. Thank you for all you do.”
Wow. I can’t say how much I admire this parent. She is open. She is very humble. She is courageous. I can’t see anything getting in her way from being the kind of parent she wants to be. It is going to be work, though, like it is for all of us, because we all come to this job with a past that has formed us. The fact that this mother says at the end of this note that she started therapy is wonderful news, because being a respectful parent or a positive parent or the kind of parent we want to be that can help our children to truly flourish and reach their potential means understanding ourselves, parenting ourselves (or re-parenting ourselves) at the same time.
That doesn’t mean that we necessarily had some terrible abusive upbringing, although people do, of course, and have to come to parenting with that deficit. But we all, most of us, have been given some messages that get passed down generation to generation about emotions. For most of us, the message was, “It’s okay to have these emotions, but it’s not okay to have those emotions.” The way we got that message was that the uncomfortable, what some people call negative emotions, were rejected, perhaps even harshly. Maybe we were yelled at for having those feelings, distracted, or invalidated. “Oh, you’re fine. You’re okay. You’re going to be all right. You don’t have to feel what you’re feeling.” Those are softer ways that we can give children the message, “It’s not safe for you to go there. Don’t let yourself feel that. You shouldn’t feel that.”
All of these ways that our emotions are approached can deliver the same result, a child stuffing emotions, feeling wrong for their emotions, feeling afraid of their emotions. It’s understandable that when we grow into adults with our own children, we are still going to be uncomfortable with those emotions, and when our children display them, it triggers the emotions that we have suppressed, those similar emotions that we haven’t allowed ourself to feel, and that makes it very uncomfortable for us.
This is a cycle, and it’s very tough to break this cycle. I can’t say enough how challenging this is. I know it’s challenging because it’s still challenging for me, and I’ve been working on this for 20-some years, and for the majority of the families I work with, their issues could be boiled down to this one paradigm shift.
As this parent says in her note, she says, “Your methods and insights have been truly freeing and a paradigm shift in experience for me.” So she understands and she’s made some of this paradigm shift intellectually, but it takes practice and constant reminding ourselves that the message that we’ve gotten about emotions was not healthy, not helpful, not true, that that message needs to actually be turned around 180 degrees. Expressing emotions is the most positive thing a child can do or a person can do. As young children, these emotions are flowing freely. Children are basically in self-therapy all day long, processing out the feelings. They’re very capable at this. Our role is to hold space for that, acknowledge it, validate it, welcome it. Again, that’s the opposite of the way that most of us naturally feel, myself included.
For example, my youngest child is a boy, a high school senior. He’s on a soccer team, his high school soccer team. This season was very important to him. He’s been one of the captains of the team. There were some natural disasters in our community. A bunch of games got canceled and postponed, and to make a long story short, they had six games in nine days, and my son is on the field the entire game. And because they’ve done so well in previous years as a team, they’ve been playing schools that are three times the size that they are in terms of student body.
This period of 9, 10 days was one of exhaustion and a lot of losses. Loss after loss. And my son, who is actually one of the happiest people I know, was down, understandably. He does get down sometimes but, usually, it’s short-lived. But this time, it was consistent for a few days. Tired, sore, discouraged, frustrated, sad that he and his team couldn’t be celebrating wins after all their hard work, even though they knew this was going to be a very tough season and that they probably wouldn’t win. The reality of it was still very discouraging and heartbreaking.
This was very hard for me to witness, and all those feelings came up for me of wanting to say, “Well, you’re outnumbered,” and, “It’s going to be all right,” and la, la, la, la. To allow my son to feel that emotional pain, it was killing me, but I knew that he had a right to and a need to and that it was going to pass and it was going to build resiliency for him. It was ultimately going to be a positive experience in his life.
I only share that to illustrate how challenging this is. I’ve been dedicated to this practice of allowing emotions, wanting children to feel what they feel, I’ve been dedicated to this for years, and it’s still not my instinct and not my wish to have to have that happen.
This parent, who has a 12-year-old, a nine-year-old, and a three-year-old, can make a change at any time. Is this easier when children are younger? Absolutely, much easier for the parent, and I would say much easier for the child as well because what can happen is, again, children can get that message repeatedly that it’s not safe to go to those uncomfortable places emotionally, and so there’s a layer of fear that gets added on to the already-uncomfortable feelings. But they can overcome this. This challenge starts with us perceiving emotions differently, and then allowing our child to get that messaging again and again. It doesn’t even have to be every single time. We’re going to slide back. We’re going to instinctively maybe try to distract or try to make it better or even lose patience with our child. “Just stop!”
But if, more often than not, we can remember to hold that space for the feelings… which doesn’t mean we’re sitting there on our knees with a 12-year-old or a nine-year old waiting for them to stop feeling what they’re feeling. It’s an attitude of “I hear you.” It’s a letting go and letting be while holding our boundaries, if it’s about that, whatever boundary that may have caused the emotion to erupt. Holding our boundaries because we know that the feelings are healthy, that disagreeing with us and the upsets that can lead to are positive.
This paradigm shift affects everything we do as parents. It’s much harder to set boundaries if we’re uncomfortable with our child having a feeling about that. We just want to give in or we want to get mad at them for not agreeing with our boundary or we want to distract.
Let me go back to the details of this parent’s note so I can help her step-by-step to make this shift that she wants to make, which she definitely can make anytime. Again, I admire her bravery and her commitment to her children to want to do something so life-changing for all of them.
She says, “I was raised with a lot of shaming, and despite my best efforts, I seem to have fallen into that.” Why do we shame about the emotions? We shame because we take them personally, maybe, or we get scared. We start zooming ahead to the future and seeing our young child’s lack of emotional control. That it’s a sign that they’re going to be that adult, unable to handle their feelings. Fear and our own discomfort get in the way and can cause us to do things like shaming. It sounds like this parent was shamed, so she hasn’t normalized emotions for herself, and that’s what her therapy will help her to do.
“I realize now I have been horribly inconsistent, allowed my child’s moods and feelings to run my own.” Why do children’s moods and feelings run our own? Because we feel like they are projects or things we need to fix or do something about, comfort and make better. We’ve taken this on as our responsibility, a sign that we’re a bad parent, that we’re not giving our child something we need to give them. Instead of understanding that young children have emotional fluidity. It can be all day long, sometimes, up and down and up and down and up and down. It’s okay. It’s normal. It’s healthy. It’s safe. When we see that way, it doesn’t overrun us because we have that separation between us and our child, just like me with my son.
Yeah, I felt terrible for him, and everything in me wanted to fix that, make him feel better, but I had to see that this is a separate person. He’s got a right to feel whatever he feels. I can’t take that away from him. I can’t stomp on that. And he will survive this. The fact that he shares with me is a huge gift. And that’s another thing… if this parent can see a child being upset with her as a compliment, that we are that safe place, and that is an honor that we ideally want to cherish and protect.
She says, “I’ve even made them feel responsible for my own out-of-control feelings.” Right. She is losing it because of the way she’s perceiving their feelings. It’s triggering her own. Again, she’s giving those feelings so much power. She’s taking them so personally instead of allowing them to belong to that other person.
By the way, with the approach I teach, we encourage beginning this with an infant in the way that we perceive their communication and their crying. Yes, of course, a lot of the time they are signaling that they’re hungry or tired and there’s something that we need to do about that expression, but other times, they just need to share with us.
Sometimes, this is misunderstood. I’ve heard people with other points of view saying things like, “Well, you’re saying that they cry over nothing. We don’t think babies cry over nothing.” No. This is the opposite. This is saying there’s always a reason that they’re crying, and sometimes, the reason is to share something with us, to share that “there’s a lot going on inside me, and it’s overwhelming,” to share that “I feel overwhelmed and overstimulated,” to share even the loss of being born. They lost the home they had. “It was very familiar, and now, I’m in this new place.” It’s different, and it can feel harsh sometimes. There’s finally science now supporting that infants have emotions. It’s not just about physical needs when they cry. They need our support and encouragement to be able to express those emotions. So the earlier we start to see that, again, the easier for us.
But back to this parent. She says, “I know that my middle child, a nine-year-old girl, is really struggling emotionally and has been since the birth of our three-year-old, also a girl.” Yes, even though this girl is nine years old, even if she was 18 years old, she’s going to have an adjustment to the birth of this rival. She may also adore this sibling. There’s still a sense of loss, change, this scary shift in our parents’ attention. It just is. It’s great that this mother notices that and is aware of that.
She says, “I have been afraid of the nine-year-old’s emotions and not sure how to handle her outbursts of sadness.” Right. Being afraid of our children’s emotions is a problem and can affect everything we do, cripple us as parents, really, make it impossible for us to be confident in our role, be that support that our children need. This is something to look at. This is something to work on in therapy: why she is afraid, why it can’t be okay for her daughter to have incredible sadness, sadness that will pass when it’s done being expressed, sadness that is healing and healthy.
She says, “She will sometimes come to me crying saying she doesn’t know why.” Right. It’s so deep, and if she’s been holding on to other emotions for years maybe, it’s even harder to know why, but it’s okay to not to know why we’re upset. There are a lot of times we don’t know why we’re sad. It’s always best to be in the feeling that we’re in, authentic, and if we allow ourselves to be in the feeling, we can learn from it. We can learn what it’s about.
This mother says, “I don’t know what to do or say to her.” I want to encourage this parent to not do or say anything, but be receptive, look at her with understanding eyes, with open eyes, wanting her to share, wanting her to keep being sad with you, wanting that door to stay open until she is done and the door slowly closes, but not trying to close it ourselves with all the love in the world.
“I usually just hug her and try to do things to distract her or cheer her up.” Yes, so this is all coming from I can’t handle you being upset. These feelings came up for me with my son recently, but I allow them, I let them pass because I know these are old tapes that aren’t going to help my child.
Be there to receive a hug if she wants to hug, but I wouldn’t try to do anything. I wouldn’t be active. I would be letting my shoulders drop, breathing, letting it be, holding space, trusting this is the best thing that could be happening right now. Every time my child experiences this, it’s going to be easier for her to go there, because she’ll know: I go to the depths and I come out of it, and I feel much better than I did before I expressed it. This parent will witness that. Maybe she already has in times when she did allow the feelings. But this has to be every time, or more often than not, at least.
Then I would also be aware that everything might feel, for a lack of a better word, worse before it feels better, that there may be more intensity as some of these feelings are coming to the surface and getting to be expressed fully for maybe the first time or one of the few times. I would have your expectations reasonable so that you can stay in trusting mode. It’s going to be intense, very likely.
“Is it too late to make things right with my older children?” No. It is not too late. I love that this parent has written to me. I love that she’s asking these questions. “How can I help them after all the damage I have done?” Work on our own comfort with uncomfortable emotions a moment at a time, a day at a time, making the paradigm shift to seeing differently. That’s how she can help.
“Do I sit them down and explain what I’ve been learning and apologize to them for the way I’ve raised them so far?” I don’t know that you need to do a big apology. I mean, maybe if you’ve yelled at them and scared them or punished them, you might want to apologize for that, but I think for children, it’s going to be more about your commitment to making progress. If apologizing helps this parent or any other parent going through this with relieving themselves of guilt, then definitely do it, because that’s really, really important that we treat ourselves with love first and acceptance of where we are in this journey. That’s the re-parenting that we have to do. That means all the feelings we’re going to have around this change, it’s mostly going to be fear. It’s okay to be afraid, and what an amazing model you’ll be for them to be changing a life-long pattern for their sake.
I would definitely keep your older children in that loop with you so that they can witness you taking on this learning. How inspiring! You’re inspiring me with your note, so I know you’re going to be inspiring them with your honesty and your willingness to change.
I really hope some of that helps.
Also, please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in, and both my books are available on audio, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can get them for free from Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast, or you can go to the books section of my website. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and in ebook at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and apple.com.
Thank you for listening. We can do this.
I share more for parents discovering this approach later in “Never Too Late for Respectful Parenting.“