Our Fears as Parents – Real and Imagined (with Dr. Tina Payne Bryson)

Becoming a parent changes us. The intense love we feel for our children makes us vulnerable to elements of their lives we don’t control. Protective instincts are activated in us that we might never have known we had. From the time our babies are born, we’re faced with a multitude of decisions about what we allow them to experience. Naturally, we want to empower our kids to feel capable and resilient, self-confident rather than doubtful, not anxious or fearful. But how do we know when we should let go and trust vs. say no and shield them? Are we saying no because it’s too risky for our child, or because it makes us anxious? How can we manage and understand our fears? Janet’s guest Dr. Tina Payne Bryson (co-author of The Whole-Brain Child speaks to all of these questions with her usual brilliance and eloquence.

Transcript of “Our Fears as Parents – Real and Imagined (with Dr. Tina Payne Bryson)”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

Today it’s my great pleasure to host psychotherapist and brain researcher Dr. Tina Payne Bryson. Tina has written a whole series of bestselling books with psychiatrist and educator Dr. Dan Siegel. I’m sure you’ll recognize some of these titles: The Whole-Brain Child, No-Drama Discipline, The Power of Showing Up, and The Yes Brain. All classics. Tina and Dan’s perspective has informed and inspired a whole generation of parents, and it appears more generations to come, as parent coaches these days frequently reflect Tina’s and Dan’s work in their advice. Unfortunately, not always crediting them as their sources and as the true groundbreakers, which is a disturbing trend I’m hoping will shift soon. But that’s another story.

Today, Tina and I will be discussing how to navigate our fears as parents. I’m excited for her to share some of her thoughts and wisdom with us.

Hi, Tina. Welcome back to the podcast.

Dr. Tina Payne Bryson: Thank you so much for having me. You’re one of my favorites, so I’m always so honored to come and chat with you. It’s like, I don’t even know if anyone’s going to listen, I’m just here to talk to you. I’m so excited!

Janet Lansbury: Aww, well I hope some people listen because I don’t want them to waste this opportunity to listen to you. There’s about a million different things that I would love to hear from you on and talk to you about. Your work has been life-changing for a lot of people, including me, so it’s really hard to narrow it down. But I heard you, actually it was on your Instagram, I saw a reel that you did where you described so amazingly —I’ve never heard it sort of broken down this way— you described a thought process that we can use as parents for something that almost every parent I know has, and that’s fear. Fear about our children taking steps towards independence in different ways. Fear about them taking risks.

I guess a few months ago there was an article in The Atlantic by Erika Christakis about sleepovers and how this is something that a lot of parents are avoiding these days and the reasons why, but also the reasons why there were benefits to allowing children to do this. So that’s kind of where you started off, and I think that’s probably one of the more complicated risks for parents to consider for a lot of reasons. But you offered this wonderful thought process to figure out what are the benefits, what are the drawbacks? So how do we navigate all these kinds of risks?

Dr. Tina Payne Bryson: I think the first thing to think about is why do we feel fear as parents? There are studies that show that when we become parents, our brain changes in many ways. And one of the ways that it changes is that it makes us more hyper-alert to danger. It makes us more sort of scanning the environment to watch for any potential threats. And so biologically we can become more sort of savvy or sensitive to fears. And this is really a good thing. This allows us to be protective of our young, to help them survive and do all of these things. So fear itself is an emotion and emotions are important. Emotions tell us things like, Pay attention to this. Something is relevant here or something is worth paying attention to.

But fears often can be irrational. I mean, any kind of emotion can be irrational. And so they definitely should have a voice. Our emotions, and particularly our fears, should have a voice. We don’t want to vilify them. They’re important. However, they should not be the decision-maker.

So when we think about our children taking risks and we feel fear about those risks, and obviously that changes so much over our child’s development. When they’re really little, you worry about bumps and bruises or choking or water safety, those kinds of things. And as they get older, we have fears about their social relationships and we worry about sexual abuse. As they get older, we worry about them driving or being in other people’s cars and we worry about alcohol. And I’ll tell you, my oldest is now 23 and he’s an adult, and I have another adult who’s 20, and still a 16-year-old. And the fears don’t stop, you know, even when they’re adults.

So I think what’s really important for us to think about is we want autonomy to be the end result, we want to raise our children to be able to leave us and to be able to navigate the world. But yet our fears often make us, as parents, fight against supporting our child’s autonomy. And it’s not that we do it intentionally. It’s like, Oh, I don’t know, I think that seems too risky. Or, I don’t know, I’m too anxious about that. Or, That just seems like a bad idea. And so we often stop them from taking steps towards autonomy. And sometimes that’s the right call, but other times it’s really our fear that’s in the driver’s seat. So that’s sort of the background around the role that fear is playing.

Now, how do we navigate it? Well, one other thing to keep in mind is that when we feel fearful, we’re worried about a risk our child is taking or that they’re being in a position where there’s something that’s outside of our control. It’s a really uncomfortable feeling as a parent to know that we can’t control a hundred percent of our child’s safety all the time, and that’s true for the rest of our lives, even when they’re parents themselves. But when we become fearful about something, it makes us, I think the word is myopic, I don’t know. But it really makes us focus in on that fear. And what happens is that we often lose sight of context, or in this case other things that we should be paying attention to. So our fears or our emotions make us really hyper-focus sometimes.

When we take away opportunities for our kids to take risks or to problem-solve or to experiment with failure or having to be uncomfortable in a situation, when we become so hyper-focused on preventing a risk or something dangerous or tricky or uncomfortable from happening, we lose sight of something else that’s a risk. And that is that they are not getting the opportunity to move toward autonomy and confidence. You know, I always say the resilience formula is a challenge plus support equals resilience. A challenge without any support leads to fragility. But that’s only for big-time challenges and adversities. What I would say is that the way we become resilient is by practicing dealing with difficult things.

For example, I remember the first time I sent my son off to sleepaway camp and I was terrified. I was worried about so many things. I mean, I was worried about everything from ticks to sexual abuse to homesickness to bullying. I mean, I was worried about everything. And I remember that moment and walking him through the airport and knowing that he was feeling uncomfortable, he was leaving us for a long period of time, like two weeks, the longest he’d ever been away from us. And then I remember going, You know what? I don’t know why I’m acting like my child being uncomfortable is a bad thing. Because I know that a little bit of feeling of anxiety, or What if I get homesick?, or What if something happens and I don’t have my parents there?, that sitting in that discomfort —knowing that there are people around him to take care of him and he’s in a safe-enough environment— that that discomfort is actually one of the best things for him.

Janet Lansbury: Right. And then how did you know, like in that instance, what gave you the confidence that he was even ready for that challenge in the first place?

Dr. Tina Payne Bryson: Yeah, I mean obviously every kid is different. So we need to really know our kids, tune into them. And I won’t get into all the fancy terminology and child development, but I think that the idea’s sort of the Goldilocks. You want experiences to be a challenge where it’s not so much that it’s going to be traumatic or overwhelm them where they go, Oh, that was such a huge step. That was so terrible, I’m not taking any chances. Right? Because that’s counterproductive. But if something’s easy, then they may not gain as much from it. So we really want the just-right challenge, where we trust that our kid is going to be able to navigate through it.

And for some kids they can go headfirst into something they’ve never done and they do great. Other kids, like my firstborn, he really needed scaffolding. When he was really little and he didn’t want to walk up to a group of kids at soccer practice, he did better getting there first and then greeting kids as they came. But over time, as he had practice sitting in uncomfortable situations, he had the ability to know, Oh, I can handle this. Right?

Janet Lansbury: Right. But I just want to point out, so what you didn’t do, you didn’t walk in with him and say, Oh, here’s all the kids, and Everybody, can you say hi to him? And you didn’t scaffold that way, that would’ve been too much, right?

Dr. Tina Payne Bryson: That’s right. And I think that the thing too is— let’s say it this way, the brain is an association machine. So when we have repeated experiences, or reps, that are positive, we want to do more of it. If it’s negative, we often want to stay away from it, we avoid it. And so what happens is we want to give our kids these experiences, say going to soccer practice, where it’s positive enough. So he felt really tentative walking into a group of kids. So I’m like, Okay, well let’s take a couple steps closer. Or we got there early enough that he wasn’t just having to walk into a whole crowd. And this is when he’s like five, he’s really little. And then he’s like, Oh, I kind of like these kids, or This is fun and I want to go back. And then he’s like, I could handle walking up to bigger and bigger groups. So we want to think about these repeated experiences we give our kids, knowing that the reps that they’re getting are really wiring their brains.

Janet Lansbury: Yeah, for sure. Just going back to the question I asked you about, how did you know he was ready? So I don’t know if this is naive on my part or I’ve just been lucky with my three kids. My oldest is 30 by the way, and then I have a 26-year-old and a 21-year-old. Because I had sort of trusted them all along to make choices, even as infants, I trusted if they expressed a desire to go to sleepaway camp —and they did, and my oldest one did way younger than I really thought she would— that was a sign to me that she’s ready, she wanted to do it. I didn’t have to talk her into it or try to make it sound fun for her or make it happen. She wanted to go. And I was able to listen to that and it was a sign to me that she was ready.

And I think your son being on that team, I’m sure he wanted to do it. That’s the biggest hurdle, that your child is sensing that they are ready. And then from there, you were able to have the presence of mind to realize you could get him there early and that would ease the social part of it and everything else. But yeah, I trust that it comes from them.

You know, when I was listening to your talk about navigating the fears, I was thinking, okay, dialing it all the way back, the population I work with often is babies. I do parent-infant classes and people bring their children and we just watch them play. And the floor is wood and the babies are moving and they’re rolling. And oftentimes, and I remember this myself as a parent, it’s scary when your baby’s rolling and they’re going to bonk their head on the wood floor. It’s hard for parents to let that happen. But what happens is, you know, you were talking about the autonomy and the autonomy comes from what they’re learning, right? So yeah, they do bump their head a little bit, but then you see the next time they do it, or maybe they decide to bump it one more time a little bit more softly. But then you see the next time, and we can point this out to parents in the classes, they’re lifting their head a little and they’ve already learned how to navigate that.

Dr. Tina Payne Bryson: Yeah.

Janet Lansbury: But if we never gave them the opportunity, they wouldn’t learn that. And then the first time they went down, maybe older, now they’re on their knees, they’d hit their head much harder because they didn’t have that opportunity to learn those things. We didn’t let them have that opportunity because we were too scared.

Dr. Tina Payne Bryson: And we know that children learn best —we have decades of research— by doing it themselves. Of course they learn from what’s modeled and what they observe. They’re incredibly perceptive, even our babies and toddlers are incredibly perceptive. But what’s so fascinating when you really tune in and do the kind of amazing work that you do and you watch it and you can really observe at a place of curiosity, and you see those micro-moments of learning unfolding in front of you. It’s not just the lifting of the head in your example that they’re learning, but there’s also so much implicit messaging that goes on in how we parent.

And one of the ways I talk about that is that we’re meaning-makers for our children. So let’s say the baby rolls over and bonks their head and the parent gasps, Aaah!, and runs over and is like, Are you okay? And brings all kinds of big anxiety emotions to that. The child has learned in that moment, Oh, that must have been terrible. That caused a huge reaction in my parent that is frightening. And so we create meaning around that. Whereas otherwise, if we say, Oh, you bumped your head, you know, you hit it there, and we are not overreacting and maybe we help them make sense of that moment. Or we don’t even narrate at all.

Janet Lansbury: If they’re fine, yeah, if they’re fine, we don’t have to. If they have a reaction, then yeah, I would for sure say something. Yeah.

Dr. Tina Payne Bryson: Yes. They really are genius, even in their early, early months, in how perceptive they are about their own bodies and about what’s happening in the world around them. That idea of allowing them to take risks is what allows them to learn.

You know, I’m thinking about, there’s this amazing book called Wildhood, it’s about adolescent animals in the wild, by Natterson and I think it’s Barnett. But they talk about how there’s shark-infested waters in northern California that all the animals know not to go in there, except some of the teenage seals and otters go into these shark-infested waters. And what happens is the ones that survive are actually far safer than the ones who never ventured into that, because now they’re more predator-savvy. So what that tells me is, as our kids have bumps and make mistakes and have moments of failure, and as they have trial and error, it makes them safer and allows them to be more savvy about everything in the world.

And so I think this takes us back to what we know is so important about what we are bringing in our own state, our own nervous systems, to these moments, right? We’re watching, Is my child ready? And sometimes kids have their own fears driving it and they’re not saying, I’m ready to go, or I want to go. And we really sometimes have to tune into, What is the right thing for my child in this moment? We want to be child-led as much as possible, but if you have a child who’s anxious and who may not want to take risks. In The Yes Brain, Dan Siegel and I talk about pushing and cushion, that sometimes we have to encourage our children to take a step toward or to try something or something like that. And then other times they need a little bit more nurture, although we want to be nurturing in all of it, but they might need a little bit more comfort or a connection in order to do those things.

Our own internal states are so influential in these moments. So here’s one of the things, Janet, that I try to hold onto as I’m trying to decide, Is my child ready for this? Or, Is this a risk that is worth taking, is this safe enough? Is this okay for me to have them do this? And the question I often have to ask myself, and it takes a lot of self-reflection, is to say, Am I wanting to say no to this risk for my child’s best interest, like truly for their safety? Or am I saying no to this risk or this decision because it makes me feel less anxious?

And if I’m honest with myself, oftentimes I’m saying no or I’m blocking a movement toward autonomy or letting them fail or take a risk or do things by trial and error instead of stepping in and just doing it “right” because I don’t want to sit in the discomfort of my own anxieties or fears. So sometimes we have to sit in discomfort for our child’s best interest. And what’s often in their best interest is to allow them to make mistakes, to try things on their own without our interference.

Janet Lansbury: Right, because our discomfort that we have to sit in often is the discomfort of their frustration, or their upset that they didn’t get the result they wanted. You know, that’s another discomfort that’s really, really hard for most of us when our child is expressing it.

Dr. Tina Payne Bryson: Yeah. I mean, I think about when I was a kid and we would ride our bikes around the neighborhood for hours and we didn’t have cell phones. My mom didn’t know where I was. I mean, I was supposed to stay in the neighborhood and probably most of the time I did. But by the time I had my driver’s license and could leave, she had practiced herself sitting in the discomfort of not having eyes on me every second and not knowing exactly where I was and trusting that I could handle what came up. And I think a lot of times as parents, we don’t have a lot of good practice sitting in the discomfort of allowing our children to move toward autonomy. And a lot of that is because we’re uncomfortable with our children’s discomfort. But we all have to get comfortable with the whole range of human emotions, which includes discomfort.

So, is this really for my child’s best interest or is this really more about me not feeling uncomfortable or my child not feeling uncomfortable? I think that’s such an important thing because, back to what I was saying a minute ago and I don’t think I actually fully made the point, is that there’s this implicit messaging behind everything we do as parents. So if I’m like, Hey honey, it’s chilly outside, grab a coat. And he’s like, No, I’m fine. I remember having this battle with my kid when he was like six, my oldest, and I’d be like, No, it really is cold. You’re going to really need a jacket. And he’d be like, Mom, I’m fine. And it took me a few times to finally realize, you know what, first of all, we live in Southern California. If he’s chilly, he’s not going to be harmed, right? He’s not going to have frostbite. And what I was saying in insisting that he take a coat was, first of all, because I get chilly and kids run a lot warmer and I wasn’t really honoring what his system needed. But I also didn’t want him to feel cold. And that would’ve been totally fine. And then that would’ve taught him the lesson far better than me constantly being on him.

But here’s what was really happening. He was getting the message from me that, I don’t trust that you know what you need. I don’t trust that you can handle when things aren’t perfectly bubble-wrapped for you. So I was sending all of these implicit messages, that he couldn’t trust his body, that he couldn’t trust that he could handle whatever challenge came from him not taking the jacket. Now obviously I’m being dramatic around this, but I think the babies are learning much more than, Oh, I’m going to turn my head a little bit so I don’t bump it. They’re also learning that, My grown-up trusts that I can handle my body.

Janet Lansbury: I can figure things out, I can learn myself, I’m able, I’m competent, I can problem solve.Dr. Tina Payne Bryson: Yeah. And I actually think it’s a huge contributor, that very point that you just made, it’s a huge contributor, in my opinion as a licensed mental health person, to some of the really very frightening statistics we’re seeing right now about anxiety in kids. And I think part of that is parents treating our children like they are fragile and basically bubble-wrapping them so much that they don’t develop a sense of competency or confidence that they can solve problems, that they can navigate whatever comes their way.

You know, the pandemic was very difficult for everyone, and part of that was because of the unpredictability of the way life was. And unpredictability our brain reads as potential threat. So we really love predictability. Which is one of the reasons I love your podcast title, Unruffled. Because to me that’s such a goal, to be that grounded, connected. You can have big emotions, you can fall apart, and I’ve got you. And it’s not going to ruffle me because I feel confident that you can navigate this challenging situation or these big feelings and I’m here to help you and be there with you and be present with you while you figure it out.

Janet Lansbury: Some people mistake it as, we just act that way. But the whole point is that it’s not pretending, it’s not acting. It’s that trust that we build step-by-step, from the baby rolling over to letting the baby crawl away from us in a safe play area without following them. Being the secure base, literally, and allowing them to come back and forth as the free explorer. Letting them go down the slide. We can spot them as they’re climbing up and we can spot them as they’re coming down. But all those little risks that we take and each time now we’re trusting our child a little bit more. That’s the model that has helped me, that I am trying to teach other parents or help other parents with. These little steps are important because they build on each other and they color the way that you see your child.

You start to perceive your child as capable, they start to feel capable. And then it’s a little bit easier to be unruffled. And also know that they’re going to… You’re such an expert in what happens with the brain when we’re dysregulated and all that— and definitely knowing that that’s a big reason. When children are not at their best, it’s because they can’t be. They’re literally doing the best that they can. So knowing that, too, helps us be unruffled. But anyway, it’s not something to wear, it’s something to feel from the inside out.

Dr. Tina Payne Bryson: It’s a way of being, really. You know, I mentioned my son going away to sleepaway camp. He was nine at the time when he did that. We did our due diligence, we checked out the camp, we listened to our fears, we mitigated risks, we prepared him. You know, those are the things I say in the video, Pay attention to your fear, listen to it, but don’t let it decide. Do your due diligence. Check out, make sure it’s a safe-enough environment. If it’s a play date, you might want to ask about the family’s rules around things or whatever you feel worried about. And then we want to empower our children so that they can know that they can solve problems and protect themselves in lots of ways.

And I just have to share that the first couple of letters that came from my son when he left were like —and he’s like this athletic kid who’s very private, not really gushy with emotions— but his letters were like Emily Bronte had written them, you know. It was like, I’ve never been more homesick in my life. I’m so sad. And he would, like, he circled a tear on his letter. He’s like, This is my tears, I’m falling asleep. It just destroyed me, right? I didn’t feel unruffled. But he came home after the two weeks and I said, Oh sweetie, your letters, you sounded like you were having such a hard time. And he said, Mom, that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I really missed you guys. And then he just got this little smile on his face, this little, like, smirk. And I said, What? And he said, And I did it. And there was a confidence that came from him overcoming that and walking through that. And I’m feeling emotional even as I’m saying it, because it allowed me to see him in a different light. It’s like you were saying, that builds that trust and that movement toward autonomy.

Janet Lansbury: Oh, sorry. I just want to say, wow. The fact that he was able to express those vulnerable feelings to you, that’s what allowed him to move through them and manage being there. And if he wasn’t able to express to you, at least sitting in his own feelings at night, maybe, when he was alone, I’m so homesick. You know, I encouraged my children when they went to college, Let yourself cry. Of course this is hard. Of course you’re homesick. And the fact that your son did that is such a sign of how you raised him to feel safe, even though he wasn’t that type of guy, quote unquote, he felt safe to be that side of himself. I mean, that’s a risk too. But that balance was I’m sure what allowed him to thrive in the camp.

Dr. Tina Payne Bryson: And it’s a reminder to us, our children internalize the relationship we have with them. Even though he couldn’t see us, he had something felt inside of him of, I know that they’re there and I’m going to see them. This is some of the thing around separation anxiety is that, as development unfolds, they begin to internalize and remember that we’re still there and all of that.

You used the term “secure base” earlier and then what you said just a minute ago is more of a reflection of that. That comes from the attachment literature, I know you know. But the idea of a secure base, I think that secure base is misinterpreted as constantly providing your child with security. But what the attachment literature shows us, and this is 70-plus years of cross-cultural research, it shows us that a secure base where our child knows they can come to us and that we are going to be there for them is also a launching pad.

So when our kids are really little, they may crawl away from us and then look back and make sure we’re still sitting there. Or they may come over and put a hand on our leg and kind of have a little touchpoint, and then they go out and explore a little further and then a little further. And as they get older and more confident and all of that, they know that we are there. And so it’s not supposed to be smothering or holding them close to us to give them security. That’s actually intrusive. Because true security in a relationship between a parent and a child is definitely a launching pad that allows them to feel safe enough that they can go out and explore the world. And so we should not be getting in their way, right?

We want to be communicating to them, with our unruffledness, that, I trust that you can handle this. And when we’re talking about our kids being taken care of by other caregivers or in other families’ homes, that we want to give the sense of, I trust that other people will take care of you, too. It’s not all on us. And when we don’t do that and we get in the way of their autonomy or we freak out about risks or we don’t allow them to problem-solve, what we’re implicitly communicating is, People can’t be trusted. The world is a dangerous place. You know? And so we’re giving so many messages underneath our actions and the words that we say.

Janet Lansbury: Right, that are disempowering and actually get in the way of what we want to teach them, which is that they are safe, they are secure, that they can believe in themselves. One of the most fascinating things to me about parenting is how we’re teaching all the time and often not what we’re trying to teach.

Dr. Tina Payne Bryson: Yes. And you know what? That’s good too, right? Again, it’s back to the idea that sometimes the struggles are our best lessons. And as parents, we’re going to mess up at times. But we know that once we make the repair with our children, it’s actually better for the relationship that we’ve walked through the messiness of those moments.

When I’m trying to make a decision about whether or not I’m going to let my kid do something or I’m going to give them the space to wrestle with something or problem-solve or take a risk in some way. So what I walked through in that Instagram video, one is listen to your feelings, but don’t let them decide. Do your due diligence, make sure that you’ve checked out the actual dangers. And then prepare your child, and then feel confident that they are problem-solvers. So I guess another piece I would add that I didn’t say in the Instagram video is to trust your child and trust your child’s development.

But then even when I walk through those steps, sometimes I stay afraid. And so here’s one other thing that really helps me. Often the stuff that I worry about is like, my kid keeps messing up in this way, or they keep having this problem, or they keep having this behavior. And I feel like I’ve already taught them this, why does this keep happening? Will they never learn? And is there something wrong with them? If I will pause and reflect, and let’s say it’s my child is having difficulty being gentle with other kids or something like that, younger kids. That they’re being aggressive on play dates or things like that. If I will say, Okay, let me think back to three months ago or four months ago. And I think back to a good chunk of time, not a day ago, not a week ago, not a month ago, but maybe a few months ago. And I ask myself the question, Is my child having less of this struggle or this challenge or this behavior than they were a few months ago? And usually when I do that I go, Oh, okay, we’re moving in the right direction. I can trust development.

But that’s not an always. I have to say, you know, I think one of the biggest challenges for the work that we do —and I know that you have got to experience this, we might have even talked about this before— development is not linear. For example, when kids are in the four- to six-year-old range, particularly around age five, it’s really common for them to have another burst of separation anxiety. And it seems like a regression, it seems like, oh no, they were having separation anxiety, then they weren’t for a while, now they are again. And we start really worrying. Are they being bullied at school? Are they sick? We start worrying about all these things. But it’s actually not a regression, it’s a progression, because development’s not linear.

It’s not symmetrical either. Meaning they might have a big burst of cognitive development without the emotional development that goes with it quite yet, right? That piece may be lagging in terms of their development and maturity. So what happens for kids in the four- to six-year-old window is they have this amazing cognitive burst where they are now able to imagine scarier things. They have scarier monsters that they can imagine, or they might even be able to start comprehending things like, Well what happens if something happens to my mom or dad? or whatever. So they can start imagining, because of their cognitive burst, more difficult things, but they don’t yet have the emotional development to handle that kind of information or to navigate it well or to be regulated around it. So I think it’s really important to say we should trust development and we hope our kids are moving in the right direction. And usually that’s the case, but sometimes it looks different. So we sometimes have to have an even wider view because development is full of surprises and it’s not always what we expect.

Janet Lansbury: Right, and it makes sense that every step towards more knowledge and more autonomy is also scary, you know, for a child on some level. When a baby is learning how to crawl, then all of a sudden they’re waking up in the night again. Or learning how to walk suddenly, you know, they go through that classic separation anxiety period, Wow, I can get away. I am able to do all these things. I am a separate person. Yikes. That means that I might lose this other person and they might be separate from me. It’s that maturation that creates the fear and it’s par for the course. We don’t have to be afraid of that, but understand it and be sensitive to it of course. But not be ruled by it, like, Okay, I’m going to strap you to me every second because it’s hard for you to be away from me. Maybe I’ll just be away from you shorter periods or I’ll, you know, whatever it is. So yeah, I mean it does make sense. I think that the more they develop, the more there’s a part of them that wants to run back. I mean, I feel that myself as an adult.

Dr. Tina Payne Bryson: I mean, that’s an attachment need. It really is. When something is a big emotion, whether that’s positive or negative or something’s challenging or something ruffles us or we’re stuck on something, I need my attachment figures. You know, I want to go back to the secure base with my husband or my mom or my best friend or whatever. And that’s an attachment need. In the book The Power of Showing Up, Dan Siegel and I talk about the four S’s, helping kids feel safe and seen. Where they feel understood, soothed, like I’m here to comfort you. I’m going to show up for you. And then over time, when they feel enough safe, seen, and soothed, they develop a security in knowing that even at their worst we’re going to, and I’m going to use your terminology now, we’re going to be unruffled, we’re going to really be there. And that they can count on our presence.

And knowing too that when we’re ruffled or when we become the storm instead of the eye of the storm, those are again opportunities to go and reconnect. I really wanted to teach my boys that they’re responsible for their own behavior no matter what anybody else did, which meant that my apologies couldn’t blame them. And I noticed that I was doing that. I would get really mad and I would yell and then I would say, If you guys had listened and stopped fighting with each other, this wouldn’t have happened. And then I was like, Oh my gosh, I’m just totally blaming my behavior on them. And not only is that manipulative and damaging, but it’s also not what I want to model. So then I had to really be careful and pause before I would apologize. To say something like, I got really angry. I didn’t handle that very well and I didn’t handle that the way I wanted to. Will you forgive me? And I could even state the fact like, You guys were fighting. I felt really angry and I didn’t handle it well.

And even that moment is kind of a moment of sort of messy emotion, right? They have the experience of, Wow, that doesn’t feel really good right now. My mom’s angry or she’s reactive and that doesn’t feel great. Because over and over and over I’ve made repair, they also sit in the security of knowing, Oh, she’s going to come make it right with me. So it actually creates resilience. So anytime we allow them to do things on their own, walk through struggle in an appropriate way, what’s age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate, those are beneficial moments. But I know our instincts are like, Oh, I don’t want you to be uncomfortable.

Janet Lansbury: Right.

Dr. Tina Payne Bryson: My husband is so much better at stepping back and allowing, allowing them to find their way. And I really have to work against my nature to decide every day to choose to not be what is, honestly, intrusive, to step into their story. I’m part of their story, I’m foundational to the story that they’re building. But it’s their story. It’s hard. I mean, I really have to be intentional all the time.

Janet Lansbury: And finding that healthy separation between us where we’re not taking on responsibilities for feelings of theirs that don’t belong to us and then not asking them to do that on the other end. I was thinking, I recommend everybody follows, if you’re not already following, Tina Payne Bryson on Instagram, you absolutely should and watch this video and all of her videos. She does this wonderful, what is it, Monday Mistakes?

Dr. Tina Payne Bryson: Yes. Mistake Monday.

Janet Lansbury: Mistake Monday. She’s just a wealth of wisdom. I wanted to say though that in regard to the one about the sleepovers and fears, and we didn’t really talk about sleepovers in this podcast. You can listen to what she has to say there. And you got a lot of pushback, which I was expecting because people have had bad experiences or they’ve heard of horrific things happening on sleepovers and it’s just not worth it to them. And I just want to say, as devil’s advocate in a way, that the important thing is the awareness that you talk about: Is this my fear of my own discomfort? Or is this really a fear of the actual risks? Is this just too uncomfortable for me?

And I think sometimes, to be devil’s advocate, we might make the choice, You know what? This is about me and forget it, I’m too afraid, I’m not going to do this. I think that’s an okay choice to make as long as we know that it’s about us so that we can consider, Well maybe this other risk, this one I’m going to allow because I know that I had to do that other one for me and I’m going to allow this one to be my child’s, you know, my child’s education, to build their confidence. I think it’s just the knowing. It’s not that we won’t always give into our fear, but it’s what you said, which is the understanding, the awareness. I feel like a lot of the times as parents, that’s everything, that we’re aware.

Dr. Tina Payne Bryson: Totally agree with you. I mean, I couldn’t agree more. You know, sometimes we may look and go, You know what, I can’t tell if this is in my child’s best interest or not, but my instinct is telling me this isn’t a good idea. We should absolutely listen to that. Sometimes we’re going to decide it’s too big of a risk or it’s not safe enough or I don’t have enough information to know if it’s safe and I’m going to err on the side of caution.

Janet Lansbury: Right. Or, I don’t have the bandwidth to handle being this afraid right now for my child. I mean, that’s valid.

Dr. Tina Payne Bryson: Yeah. And to say, I’m too anxious. And we matter too. Every decision we make is not in a vacuum. If I make the decision to let my kid go, because I’m like, Oh, this is my fear, but I’m so afraid that I’m not sleeping all night and then I’m an angry, reactive parent for the next two days to all my other kids. We have to think about all these things. I think we absolutely can make decisions for ourselves, and you’re exactly right.

I think the key is to do it with intention. We’re making a decision as opposed to just letting our fears decide. And we can let our fears be the call, even, at times. But we have to be intentional. We have to really choose. And I think it’s so hard when so much of the time it feels like we’re just surviving because life is so full and we have such big mental loads. And I want to give all of us permission to not give an answer right away. And I often tell parents that in the discipline moments too, I want to give you permission to say to your child if they’re old enough, I want to think about how I want to handle this. Take a pause and to really go let yourself sit in it.

Janet Lansbury: That’s great modeling. But what about changing your mind? I mean, we kind of did that with our daughter going to parties in high school. The first one, we said no because we knew there was going to be alcohol there, we were afraid. But then as I thought about it, I realized, Okay, so this is high school, like we’re going to keep her home? I mean, what’s the option here? Is that really going to work? And we realized we had to educate her as much as we could and trust her. And it was tough.

Dr. Tina Payne Bryson: I love that you talked about changing your mind because you know, the sort of less-informed, kind of old ways of doing things was like, If you lay down the law, you can’t change your mind or they’re going to know you’re not in control. Well I have a problem with that whole sentence. Because if you’re going to use threat and power and control to control your child, you’re eventually going to lose.

There’s a huge difference between giving in and changing your mind. Lots of times my children have had great arguments and things that I hadn’t thought about. Well, did you know that the parents are going to be in the house and we’re just going to be in the backyard? Okay, well I didn’t know parents were going to be there, right? That’s more information, I can change my mind. And I’ve often said to my kids, You know what? I’m changing my mind. I’ve thought about it some more and I think this is something that you can handle.

I often would say to my boys too, I know you know what I’m about to ask you, so why don’t you do the mental legwork for me? Because they’d say, Can I go here? And I’d say, Well, who’s taking you and what time does it start? And so I stopped doing that and I started saying, I bet you can imagine all the information I’m going to need in order to make a decision. So why don’t you go do that thinking and then come back?

Or if I started to lecture about something they didn’t do the way that they were supposed to, instead of me lecturing, if I could say, I bet you know everything I’m about to say to you. So why don’t we reverse roles? Why don’t you tell me what you think I would say? And what was amazing about that is they almost always would say everything I was going to say anyway. And I felt a sense of peace inside because I was like, They’ve really been listening, they’ve really been internalizing. And as they say it, they’re internalizing it even more. And it gave me confidence that they really can handle a lot more than I think they can. You know? And they really do have wise minds. And they’re going to make mistakes and the mistakes can be valuable.

And so again, it’s back to that idea of trusting. Trusting ourselves to sit in discomfort as needed. Trusting our child to navigate the world even as it has its challenges. Trusting that other people will show up for our kids too. Trusting development. I guess in a way it’s kind of an optimism about development and about who our children are becoming. I often think about times where I was worried about something with one of my kids and when I think back about it now I’m like, that was a lot of misspent emotional energy. I really believe we can trust development. Regardless, even if we have kids who are neurodivergent. I really believe development is amazing. And if kids are given opportunities to learn and grow, try things and problem-solve, that their brain does so much amazing work and they become amazing people.

Janet Lansbury: I love that. I love that story about your son. That’s wonderful.

Well, thank you so much Tina, and once again, so much encouragement, so much wisdom. You’re very comforting to listen to. I want to agree that unruffled is flexible. It’s not rigid, it’s a model that’s very flexible. We can be free to be ourselves in this relationship, figuring it out with our child.

Dr. Tina Payne Bryson: Yeah. White-knuckling something isn’t really being unruffled, no. I think an underlying current to everything we talked about is ongoing reflection as a parent. The way we become unruffled or move toward unruffledness is to tune into ourselves, to reflect, to make sense of the times we’re not practicing to be the parent we want to be. To say, What was that about for me? And how can I be the parent I want to be in the next moment? I think it’s such an important part of that flexibility and that freedom to really enjoy our relationships with our kids, trusting them, trusting ourselves, and continuing to reflect and grow.

Janet Lansbury: 100%. Thank you so much, Tina.

Dr. Tina Payne Bryson: Thanks for having me.

Janet Lansbury: Thanks for all that you do for parents.

Dr. Tina Payne Bryson: You too, Janet. Thank you so much.

Learn more about the resources Dr. Tina Payne Bryson offers at TinaPayneBryson.com and on her Instagram page: TinaPayneBryson 

Please check out some of my 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 of my books are available in paperback at Amazon, No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame, and Elevating Child Care: A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can get them an ebook at Amazon, Apple, Google Play, or barnesandnoble.com and in audio at audible.com. And you can even get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast.

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 loved this episode!!!

    I think one of things that gets missed is when the baby bumps their head on the floor is that though many parents respond unruffled in the oh you poor baby you bumped your head kind of way many others respond in the oh you’re fine shake it off no big deal kind of way and both are not as helpful as being the calm confident leader.

  2. Tammy Hear says:

    I enjoyed this article and found it insightful but found it alarming how it ignored the biggest real threat to our children which is climate change. This is where our anxiety should actually lie. We are on track for almost 3 degrees of global warming by the end of the century. This means food shortages, water shortages, lack of medicine, billions of people on the move to the global north and ultimately climate collapse which will translate as our children’s civilisation collapsing.
    History will look back on us focusing on whether parents felt sleepovers and parties were a risk to our children and they will feel nothing short of dismay. Our children will just be angry and probably hateful towards us, that we weren’t able to identify and address the actual dangers they faced and take action when we could . In the main, parents do very little to address our children’s climate collapse and that’s why we will always be seen as a generation of failed parents.

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