Respectful Care is Less Tiring and Stressful

In this episode: Janet responds to a pregnant mom in her first trimester trying to parent her active young son while suffering from nausea, headaches, and exhaustion. She writes that she often feels unmercifully tired, and she struggles “to offer the calm, respectful care I ought to provide.” She’s hoping Janet has suggestions how to parent with patience and respect even when she’s feeling exhausted.
Transcript of “Respectful Care Takes Less Energy”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury, welcome to Unruffled. Today I have a question here from a parent who wonders how she can be a respectful parent when she’s not feeling well, she’s exhausted, and doesn’t have the energy. And as you can hear in my voice I’m a little under the weather as well, but I’m looking forward to addressing this parents question cause I think it’s a really good one.

Okay, just to talk about my voice for a second, I am grateful to be able to talk at all for the past couple days I have not even been able to be understood speaking or make the words come out very well so please bear with me, but the show must go on.

Here’s the question I received:

“Dear Janet, thank you for your book No Bad Kids, the wealth of examples and stories was very helpful. I still have one question though, what do I do when I’m exhausted, have a splitting headache and struggle to offer the calm, respectful care I ought to provide? I’m in my first trimester of my second pregnancy and often feel nauseous and unmercifully tired. What’s normally manageable (for example, preparing food while he’s actively trying to explore every corner of the kitchen), becomes stressful because I’m slower and having a harder time multi-tasking. Inevitably he’ll start doing something inappropriate like climbing his learning tower and turning on the facet, spraying water all over.

When feeling well I can head over there and suggest he wash a plastic dish or direct his focus to an okay activity. When tired, I don’t catch it as quickly then the kitchen is wet, his clothes are wet, and I need to deal with that before I can resume preparing his food. A few setbacks of this nature and I’m frazzled. Any tips on how to parent when I’m not feeling up to it?”

Okay, so yes, I can totally understand why a few of these setbacks and she’s frazzled. This sounds very frazzling to me even if I wasn’t feeling subpar. I’ve certainly been there, feeling nauseated and having a toddler or a couple of children. It’s tough. But the reason I chose this question is because it illustrates a very common misconception about respectful parenting.

Respectful care actually takes less energy, not more. What it takes more of is mindfulness, preparation, consideration of our child’s perspective, working on creating habits that nurture both parent and child in a relationship, understanding that our young child, even as an infant, is a separate whole person, not someone we need to be constantly completing and entertaining, and making better.

Respectful care is about our understanding that when we have discomforts like this parent has or we’re feeling tense, that our children will actually act out our insides. They will express to us what we’re feeling.

We’re changing our babies diaper, let’s say, or helping them get dressed… during that experience it seems so unfair when we are in a rush our baby will be putting the brakes on, our baby will not be cooperating as they usually do, because they are reflecting back our feelings.

So let’s talk about how respectful care could be set up differently and look differently in this parents situation. She gives the example of preparing food when he’s actively trying to explore every corner of the kitchen. He goes up on his learning tower and sprays water. First of all, I do not recommend giving children free range in the kitchen. Ideally, we will be able to block off the kitchen and/or have a safe enclosed area where our child can be within earshot or maybe we can see them, where they’re safe, where they can’t turn on water and spray it all over, or do other dangerous things and where we can have a few moments of peace to be able to focus on another really important aspect of caring for our children, which is preparing their food.

For that reason, a learning tower would not be a recommendation of mine. I can understand maybe using that when the parent is able to monitor the child, isn’t needing to do something else in the kitchen, and can allow that child to be up higher and explore some of the kitchen things. What I think is even better though, if you want your child to participate in preparing a meal, is bringing some things down to the child’s level where the child is completely safe and their feet are on the ground, they’re able to balance very easily, and focus on those activities. And we’ll be focusing with them, because kitchens are not a safe place.

What I wouldn’t do is try to multitask, especially when I’m under the weather. The respectful care approach that I teach is not about multitasking at all, actually. It’s about being present in this moment, and then being present in that moment, doing that activity. Modeling that for our children, because that’s how children learn best. We are not born multitaskers. I know most of us are as adults, but with children multitasking doesn’t work very well. And it’s quite a burden to put that on ourselves, that we need to multitask.

A safe place, what I call a “yes” space, what Magda Gerber used to call a 100% safe place where even if we got locked out of our house our child would be safe. They might not be happy, they might not be content there, but they would be safe. That was her definition of a safe place. And I call it a “yes” space, because these are places where we don’t have to say, no, no, no to our child, which frees our child to be able to play and be curious explorers as they are meant to be. And for us to not have what this parent calls the setbacks and the frazzledness that come with having to stop our child and redirect, and say no, no, no. A “yes” space is a gift to parent and child. And if we can’t make that happen, at least a way to block our child from the kitchen.

And I don’t want to be doom and gloom at all for this parent, it’s exciting she’s going to have another baby, but this will get more and more important in the months to come that she has a safe place for her older child to be. Setting ourselves up so we don’t have to be the frazzled parent. Setting ourselves up for success.

Not that we should feel guilty about being a frazzled parent at all but, again, since our child is going to reflect back our feelings, it’s going to make it harder for us. If we’re frazzled, now our child is going to be doing things like this little boy’s doing, turning on facets, spraying water. He knows very well, because children do, that this isn’t what his mother wants him to do, but he’s caught up in impulsivity. He knows he shouldn’t be doing these things, but he doesn’t know what is making him do them… his feelings, the feelings that he’s reflecting back to his mother. So this can be a cycle that our child can’t shift, but we can.

Now this kind of separation of being with our child fully when we’re with our child and then sometimes apart from our child for a few minutes… It’s much easier to establish this early on in our relationship with our child. Meaning, when they’re an infant. When our infant is content, we say, “I’m going to go in the kitchen for a bit and I will be back.” We show our child and our child learns that we come back and that they can be fine without us for a few minutes. And if our infant isn’t fine, we’re obviously going to come back and address that.

With a toddler and an older child they have a developmental need to disagree with us, so it’s not as clearcut as when an infant is saying, “Help,” or, “I need you.”  Or, “Where are you? I need you to come back.” A toddler will use these situations to release all kinds of important feelings.

So toddlers on up will protest these separations, especially at certain times of day, and especially if this is a new situation for them. Again, that’s why it’s easier to start early with these dynamics of time together focused on you. And now I have to do my job. I have a safe place for you and these are the times of the day that it happens. That routine will help a lot. Knowing that after maybe this mother’s had some time with her boy in the late afternoon or early evening, now she’s going to cook dinner and this is a time she can’t pay attention to him.

It’s okay for him to be mad at her about that. It’s okay for him to be frustrated and want her, want her, the whole time. And if he’s expressing those feelings, I would normalize it for myself, see it as positive, see it as his right to not be happy with every decision that I make. That’s what parenting is, making decisions from an adult perspective on what’s best for our family in each of those moments. So, acknowledging, “Oh you want to be with me and I need to be in the kitchen. That’s not safe for you right now because I need to be cooking. This is time for you to be in your safe space.”

And I wouldn’t try to coax him or entertain him. That’s another thing that this mother mentions is that when he’s spraying the water all over, now she would have to suggest that he wash a plastic dish, or she would have to direct his focus to an okay activity.

No, that can’t be our job. That, again, is wasted energy on our part. It’s not a place to put our energy. Because putting our energy there tells our child that we’re not comfortable with him not knowing what to do. We feel that we have to entertain him and keep him focused. All of that needs to be his job coming from within, that he directs his focus, once we’ve established that safe place for him. And that we believe in him as a person able to occupy himself or just be in himself, in his feelings, and that we see that as safe and positive, not something that we have to switch him out of and fix.

So I would simply say the truth. “I need to do this and I’m going to have you here for now where you’re safe, I’ll be back in a couple of minutes.”

And if this is a new dynamic, I would do it for brief periods at first. And be all in on it. Be all in on: okay now I’ve been with you, I’m going to go do this. Make the separation clean.

When he’s having feelings: “Oh, shoot you don’t want me to ___.  I hear that!” But I see it as healthy.

So whatever I say is coming out of my own comfort and letting go with his right to have his feelings. It’s not coming from trying to fix, calm him down, make it better, make it work for him.

Again, when she has two children she will see that it won’t work to try to keep both children content every moment. It doesn’t work with one child really and it definitely doesn’t work with more than one child. And it’s not good for those children that need to feel all the flow of their emotions throughout the day and not be lifted up by us or us attempting to. It usually doesn’t even work, so there’s another reason we get exhausted. We’re trying to keep these plates spinning in the air and gravity’s just taking them down, because they actually need to express those broken feelings, to use that analogy. It’s not a broken child. It’s a child who’s letting go and releasing something healthy.

So whatever I would say to acknowledge would be out of my own comfort with my child having his feelings. And then I would turn to my work. And if I could hear him or maybe see him I would say every few minutes, if he was carrying on, I would say, “I hear you, you still don’t want me to be doing this, that’s really hard.” Understanding that these feelings are weighted with, again, my own tension. And probably, in this situation, his own fear around expecting a baby which he’s probably already heard people talk about or there are little winks… Children pick up on these things and they sense that there’s a shift. It could be frightening, it can feel like this rug is getting slowly pulled out from under them. So that may be feeding into his emotions as well.

And making dinner time is a difficult time of day for all of us. It’s a lull in energy. It’s a time when most of us feel at our worst. So all of that would be playing into him having a reaction.

Again, it’s the healthiest thing for him to vent, and it definitely can’t be her job to try to avoid that or quell those feelings. That is one of the least productive uses of our energy, trying to lift something when all the gravity is pulling it down. That’s going to frazzle the best of us.

So, the things that she’s been doing when she says she’s feeling well: heading over there and trying to stop him, and redirect him, and give him other activities, a plastic dish or direct his focus. She says, “When tired I don’t catch it as quickly.” But right there I would say stop doing that job. Stop putting yourself in that position where you’ve got to multitask. Free yourself to be in a relationship with a person that is often going to be in disagreement with your choices and express that vociferously, as children do. They’re so healthy in the way that they express things. They don’t hold the feelings in. They put everything out there.

So what I’m advising to this parent is a total reframing and a clarification that respectful parenting is not about … We used to have a movie called “The Stepford Wives,” I don’t know if any of you have heard of that, but being this calm, “everything’s fine,” when it’s not, person. That is an impossible expectation for ourselves that is not healthy for our child either. Respecting means that we are two three-dimensional people and we each have our own emotional life and needs. It is our job to address our child’s needs, but not every want that they have, because underneath some of those wants that might seem like needs we’re supposed to address, are true needs just to feel uncomfortable, just to release some of this tension that’s built up inside of me. That’s the need behind a lot of this behavior.

So I hope some of that helps. Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.


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

  1. I was very interested in seeing your POV on this topic since I’m in a similar place (1st trimester with an almost-2yr old); however, I haven’t had the problems (yet?) that the mom is having. I think you’re right in reminding the mom that respectful parenting shouldn’t be more work – it shouldn’t be helicoptering all the time and redirecting constantly. It’s a mutual understanding and respectful relationship. But, it’s still parenting and teaching our little ones about the world they live in.

    I’m happy that I can allow my son to play in the corner of our family room on his own sometimes while I’m cooking dinner, but I’m equally happy to have him help me in the kitchen, too. That said, I don’t think that the kitchen should be off-limits. I do think that the dangers of the kitchen need to be identified and we as parents are responsible for keeping our children safe in the potentially unsafe situations of the kitchen. Perhaps my family is different since we spend a lot of time in our kitchen and it’s more of a gathering space, but I feel like children learn a lot from observing and imitating. When I chop onions, I’ll let my son have a butter knife and the onion peels to pretend to cut. He even has a small cutting board that he likes to use. When I mix batter, I’ll let him use the spoon, too. He loves stirring! When we cook on the range, we allow him to watch from the safety of our arms or from a stool and feel the warmth in the air to understand the meaning of hot/warm (but obviously not touching anything). I let him help me measure and scoop and all of that “fun” stuff. And I also let him help me clean up. He’s been exposed to these routines so frequently that even when he spills his milk cup, he will voluntarily run to grab the towel and sop it up, or he will ask to use the dust buster to help us vacuum the crumbs from under the table.

    I’d want to remind the mom that every child is different. Perhaps her son should not be allowed into the kitchen. Or perhaps she should try to give him an opportunity to “help” her so he can also learn other valuable lessons.

  2. Thank you Janet for another great podcast, you always get me thinking and inspired to apply your suggestions to my own situation. In this case do you have any advice for someone who doesn’t have room for a whole “yes” space? We live in a TINY apartment in London and whilst we have definite “yes” sections of our living area, we don’t have the space/configuration to give an entire room or whole blocked off section – especially for our nearly 4 year old who can open doors, gates etc for himself anyway. It’s easy to contain our 8 month old in a small “yes” environment as she is not moving yet but our 4 year old can get everywhere – any suggestions for him? Thank you

    1. Thank you, Rebecca! 4 years old is beyond the age of a yes space, although children who’ve had one will usually continue to focus their play there. In a small apartment, my focus would be to completely child proof the main living area or child’s room (if he or she has one) and close off the kitchen if possible. Can you share what issues you are having with your 4-year-old?

      1. Thank you for your reply. The issues with our 4 year old are mostly to do with him feeling dysregulated since the arrival of his baby sister, understandably! He can’t control his impulses towards her – especially at the end of the day – so they’re not safe to be left alone together when I’m focusing on something else. If I put my baby down in a “yes” space my 4 year old can get to her so I often end up juggling one or the other of them whilst cooking which is not ideal!

        1. I am having a difficult time determining the fine line between my 3 month old venting her feelings and truly needing me. She often goes from obviously just venting her feelings to red-faced screaming, which I know what to do in these situations. Other times, she will just cry at the stage just before turning red and I am not sure what to do, I usually pick her up. I want her to develop trust, but I do not want to affect her confidence or for this to become a habit. I am struggling with what is the best course of action at this age. Thank you for any light you can shed on this.

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