Our young kids are adaptable, so it’s always possible for us to change routines, rules, and behavior patterns that we decide are no longer beneficial for us or them. Problem is, our kids are bound to object— loudly, vociferously, perhaps relentlessly—when these changes aren’t their idea (which they seldom are). Our new plan may be met with whining, crying, screaming, even tantrums. And since we’ve played a central role in allowing our family’s habits to take root, it’s natural to feel uncertain or even guilty for introducing new boundaries. As an insightful parent concerned about her children’s excessive TV use writes: “Though I fully believe that changing our strategies and habits will improve our lives and relationships, taking these steps is so hard that I find myself just doing the usual thing and beating myself up about it instead of doing anything different.” Another parent writes that she feels trapped by her toddler’s refusal to play without her presence, but she’s afraid to make changes because she’s uncomfortable with upsetting him: “I feel I’m stumbling and, in the process, feel myself losing the joy of parenting.” Janet offers ideas for helping parents find the perspective and strength they need to make changes for the better.
Transcript of “How to Be Strong Enough to Make the Really Big Changes”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.
Today I have some questions from parents. I love this first one’s subject line because it really describes what this is going to be about: “How to Be Strong Enough to Make the Really Big Changes.” So what can we do as parents to be able to bolster ourselves to make changes with our children that we know that they’re going to object to strongly? This can be anything from certain habits that we’ve gotten into with them that we want to change. Maybe less TV, more independent play, that’s what two of these are about. But it’s really about anything, any kind of change that our family has to make, that our children are not going to be on board with of their own volition. How can we do this? So that’s what I’m going to be talking about and I really hope what I have to say is helpful.
Here’s the first email I’d like to address, and this is the one with the subject line, “How to Be Strong Enough to Make the Really Big Changes”:
I’ve been listening to your podcast on and off for a few years, and I really like a lot of your ideas, although I don’t know how successful I’ve been at implementing them with my kids, now three and five. One noticeable success is just the really basic feelings acknowledgement: You really didn’t like that, huh? Sounds like such a tiny thing, which means that when it stops what looks like is going to be a full-on tantrum dead in its tracks, and my three-year-old just sniffs, nods, and hugs me, it really feels like magic. It’s the bigger things that feel impossible, the stuff where you have to set a boundary and hold onto it through the initial reaction.
There are so many things we do that we know aren’t great in the long term, but they feel like the only way to get through the day in the short term. Where do we find the energy to cope with an actually increased difficulty level for a little while in the interests of making things easier later? For example, TV. I know my kids watch too much TV, but when their dad and I are so tired and the alternative is personally being climbed on, whinged at to actively play, it feels like we’re just not strong enough. Plus, a lot of the time, the only thing that will get the kids to stop messing around and get in the shower or whatever is the threat of not letting them watch TV the next day.
Even though I fully believe that changing our strategies and habits will improve our lives and relationships, taking these steps is so hard that I find myself just doing the usual thing and beating myself up about it, instead of doing something different.
Your podcast/blog backlog is truly impressive, and I feel like I’ve barely made a dent in it, so if you’ve given advice in the past on forcing yourself to make these changes and stick to it, I would really appreciate a link.
So I think a lot of us can relate to this, in terms of these habits—they do make our lives easier, but there’s this gnawing sense of maybe guilt that we have that it’s not really good for our children, and we’re kind of getting stuck in this guilt cycle. I feel guilty that we’ve let you do this, and that we’ve gotten into this thing of threatening no TV if you don’t do this or that. These don’t feel like our best parenting moments. And I’m not judging it, I’m just describing the kind of mind frame that a lot of us have around these things. And now when I try to say no, I am saying it kind of guiltily because I’m kind of beating myself up for letting you do this so much in the first place, and I don’t feel very strong because I feel guilty and bad. Now you’re pushing and you’re pushing and I can’t handle that, and then that makes me feel more guilty. As this parent described, she says, “I find myself just doing the usual thing and beating myself up about it, instead of doing anything different.” And really that’s the hardest part of this. If we could make these decisions and feel good about them, that would be a lot easier on us. But when we’re doing things and beating ourselves up about it, that’s impossible as a parent. It’s impossible to feel good and proceed with confidence and be those confident leaders.
So, a different setup here will really help. If you feel this is an important, right change to make, then the first step can be starting a new day, letting go of that past and making peace with it. We were doing it this way and now we’re going to do it this new way, because this feels right. And we’re going to give ourselves a big pass for whatever we did before this. I mean, this is such a challenging job, being a parent, because the stakes feel so high, it feels so important. It can be hard to see clearly. We all get stuck in patterns that we want to change, whether it’s relational patterns or patterns with the kind of things that we allow or don’t want to allow, or using threats or punishments. Whatever it is, everybody’s had their version of it or is still having it. So we can model for our children and be kind to ourselves by letting ourselves move on with a clear conscience. That’s not just for us, that’s for our children, so that we’re able to be what this parent describes as “strong enough.” And I want to talk a little about what strong means in this situation, too.
But yeah, we’ve got to let go. The past is the past for all of us in this world, especially parents. We deserve to give ourselves permission, and our children deserve for us to give ourselves permission, to end the guilt cycle for whatever we’ve done or haven’t done. If we feel we’ve done wrong by our children, it’s always a good idea to make amends. Bring it up, even if it’s years later, and say, We were giving you this ultimatum that if you didn’t do something, we were going to take away your TV, and we don’t want to work against you like that. We were kind of desperate because we really were tired and we needed your help. But we trust you. We’re all on the same team here, and we can let you know that we need your help and we want to work with you, not against you. I’m not saying to say all that, but that kind of mentality going into this. Even when we’re setting limits with our children, or especially then, we want to do it from a place of, that we believe we are helping them and we are doing the most loving thing.
I want to go over some of these challenges, though, that we’re up against. Our children’s discomfort sets off alarm bells for most of us. Even if we’ve been working on, dwelling on, and practicing a healthier perspective— which is what I try to do here and what I try to do for myself in my personal and professional life—disappointing them, feeling like we cause their upsetting feelings. I mean, it’s hard enough when they’re upset and we don’t feel like we’re the cause of it, it’s hard enough to allow for that to happen. But when we feel like we’re causing it, because we’re saying no or we’re telling them they can’t do this certain thing, that can feel impossible, right? So, understanding the peak of this challenge, it’s a tall order. Not expecting this to be easy.
But what helps us get beyond it? Knowing how healthy it is, for one thing, for our children to express every kind of feeling. It’s not fun for us, it’s not fun for them, but it’s so healthy for them to whine and cry and scream and complain when we’re doing our job, when we’re doing these reasonable, respectful things. Because they’re offloading all kinds of stress when they do that, all the pressures and the feelings of control that they were holding onto that weren’t healthy for them, they’re getting to vent those feelings. So reframing this from the most impossible thing because they’re mad at us to the most loving thing, that we’re giving them this organic opportunity just through our relationship and through honesty and respect and caring about them, we’re allowing them to feel whatever they feel about it. And that means they’re going to feel better on the other side of it.
Her experience with acknowledging isn’t really giving her the practice, because she said it’s working like magic. It’s not really giving her the practice of knowing that even if that acknowledgement didn’t stop her child from feeling something, that her child was going to feel better at the end of that feeling. It’s absolutely not as easy to trust that something that feels like it’s going to go on forever will stop. But that trust is what makes it stop. The same way that that acknowledging it can make it stop faster sometimes—sometimes, not all the time—but what that is is leaning into, Yeah, you get to feel mad about this. You get to feel bad about this. We’re doing that same thing there that we have to do with a longer meltdown. It’s really the same process, but we’re just not going to get as quick a result, so it’s harder.
We want to remind ourselves how healthy it is for our children to have all these kinds of feelings about everything and share them with us. This is not something to feel like it’s a problem, like we did something wrong. Actually, we’re doing something very right there by welcoming our children to feel whatever they feel. These things that they’re getting upset about, these are done in our child’s best interest. And I have come to believe that, on some level, our children know this. Even when they’re yelling and whining at us, they sense that we’re doing those hard things, which are much more loving. It’s much more loving to say no because we care about them than it is to say okay, shrug our shoulders, feel guilty, feel deflated, maybe feel grumpy with our children. That would make sense as part of that, right? Feeling frustrated, not liking them as much. That’s not as loving as saying no and allowing them to yell at us.
So, where the strength comes from is this perspective on their feelings, on our role, which is not to please them in every single moment, but to see the bigger picture. That’s what parents can do that children often can’t. They need us to do that part. So this is totally our job. This is on track, not off track. Nothing to feel wrong or guilty about, because we’re going to turn the page and we’re not going to dwell on what we did in the past. Today is today.
The strength that this parent is looking for is conviction. Conviction in what we decide is best for our child. And we’re seeing ourselves as heroes for making these hard, uncomfortable decisions out of passionate love for our children, because that’s what we are doing. And we’re seeing that those guilt loops, those are a trap that we can avoid with this antidote: conviction. And it’s not conviction in ourselves as some authoritarian leader, that whatever I say goes, it’s really conviction in our children that they are worth this effort. And this is heroic. Again, it’s not about strength in terms of forcefulness. It’s being clear, having that quiet belief that we can do this, that quiet conviction in our love for our kids. That’s where the strength comes from. That’s how to be strong enough. This most challenging part is the conviction. Once we have that, the rest is a lot easier.
It can help to help our children feel a part of the plan, whatever it is, a part of the change. So it’s not just, I’ve decided this and you’re going to do it this way. We’re sharing with you that, in this case, we are worried that there’s so much TV going on. We know it’s getting in the way of you doing other things that would be more therapeutic for you after school, that I know you don’t want to do. So we want to join with them that way, connect with, Yeah, you want to watch TV all the time. It’s easy, right? We can just sit there and watch it, it’s entertaining, it’s fun. And we’re okay with that at these designated times, that maybe you’d work on with your children. But at this age, you could probably decide we’re only going to do it on weekend evenings or something like that. And the rest of the time you can lie around, you can whine, you can tell us how mad you are, how much you want that TV. But this is going to be better for you, and we totally believe that. So bringing them into it is communicating that way, honestly, about what’s going to happen.
And then also, What would you like to do instead of TV that we can put out for you? We’re not going to be available to play with you because we’re getting dinner ready or we’re relaxing. We’d love to watch you. What would you like? Would you like Play-Doh? Would you like to draw? We have a craft box. You can make a fort. Or if you give us ideas, we’ll get that there for you because we know it’s hard when you’re used to watching TV. So, How can we help, how can we make this easier? And maybe they don’t have any ideas and they just want to hold onto the TV thing. Well, we’ve done our best. We’ve tried to bring them in and we’ve communicated to them honestly, we’ve done this all as a team here, we’ve told them about our decision. And from there, that’s where they need the healing of the feelings.
For this parent, she says, “How do we find the energy to cope with an actually increased difficulty level for a little while?” So I talked about that. Making peace with your children’s feelings, letting go of your past, no guilt going forward. Every day is a new day. And the positiveness of them sharing all these feelings, because it’s something they have to pass through to get to the other side. And what’s on the other side of it? The other side of the disappointment and the lethargy and the boredom—the other side is ideas, creativity, initiating activities that will feel good to them at the end of the day, better to them than these hours of TV. And it will build their confidence.
But she says they have another obstacle now because when they set the boundary, there’s a boundary within the boundary. So they’re saying, you’re not going to watch TV. And then she says that they get “climbed on, whinged at to actively play with them.” So, don’t let them start to climb. If they whinge, let them whinge, let them whine. It’s not at you. It’s releasing something for them, it’s positive. But if they start to climb: “You want to climb? Nope.” Put your hands there very firmly, keep them away. “We’re not going to let you climb. I know, you want to play with us, you want us to play with you. We’re not going to do that right now. We love you. We’re not going to do that.” Not a heavy thing, not an angry thing coming out of us, ideally, but that quiet conviction.
So yes, there’ll be boundaries within the boundaries, where essentially the children are really checking out, Do they have the strength to be our leaders? Do they have that conviction that we need to be able to let go of this? Because if they don’t, and it sounds like the way this has been going is the parent kind of collapses back into guilt and she’s not able to be strong when they’re climbing on her, and that leaves her children stuck continuing that. They don’t want to be doing that either, they would much rather be playing and enjoying themselves. But we have to release them through our conviction.
And when it comes to the threats of not letting them watch TV the next day, I would bring that up and say, when it’s time for getting in the shower or whatever, I would say, “Let’s get in the shower. Oh, you don’t want to. Come on, it’s time.” From that place of, We’re a team. We’re here because we care about you and we want to take care of what’s healthy for you. And if it’s something like a shower and they’re not filthy dirty, we might let that one go because that doesn’t have to be a firm boundary for them. They could have the choice and that might help them come to that better. Or, “Would you like a bath or shower?” or, “Should we just wash your face with the washcloth?” Letting them participate in that, so they feel a part of it. We’ll find that when we communicate as a team this way that we don’t need to use threats, and that the threats actually put a little wedge that’s going to make it harder the next time, as this parent realizes. She’s very perceptive about herself and how she wants to do the things that are hard right now to make it easier later.
And that’s exactly what’s going to happen. And maybe it starts with this big boundary around the TV, and that will show her and her partner that they do have the strength, when they rise into those heroic roles. Because they’ll see that their children will go through this and it’ll be very noisy and it will feel impossible in the moment. Then it will pass. And I bet that they find them playing together and doing something that’s really valuable. Or maybe it doesn’t look valuable, but just the fact that they’ve moved on is going to be amazing, and it will happen.
Here’s one more, and I also love this subject line, it’s “The Unlearning”:
I know full well you may not have a chance to read this, let alone respond. Still, I’m called to write to you if only to seek the tiniest bit of hope. My son is an adventurous and playful 16-month-old. He is so, so attached.
When I recently turned to RIE practices, they took such a hold in my being because they resonate so truly. I deeply regret not finding this parenting work sooner, as I feel in so many ways I’ve failed my son in not fostering his independent play. I know this type of play is intrinsic and in the capacity of all children, but I can see how I’ve stunted his ability to enjoy it at this stage. I find so many of his challenges are linked to this: quick to be frustrated, angry, anxious when I’m not in his presence, wanting so badly to be playful and social, but being restless without me being there.
I’ve been working intentionally the last month to be clearer, firmer in my boundaries as a parent, and allow him plenty of opportunities for free play led by his own curiosities. But doing simple daily tasks like cooking and cleaning have become so hard, let alone when I try and sit near him and read a book while he plays. This is true whether we are at home, on play dates, or in a toddler and caregiver activity. I feel I’m stumbling and in the process feel myself losing the joy of parenting. I don’t want that for him or me.
If after all this time I’m seeing only the tiniest shifts and continued deep frustrations (I know this will take much, much longer, but it’s hard each day), what can I be doing differently? How can I continue to get out of my son’s way, trust his abilities, trust my leadership, and help reignite a love for independent time and play?
With so much gratitude for your work.
Okay, so the reason I love this title is that it is unlearning, but I’m not sure if this parent means it the way that I’m thinking about it. I’m thinking about it unlearning for us about our children’s feelings. Which again, is what most of my podcasts seem to be about. “Continued deep frustrations”—I’m assuming she means his are getting to her. She’s losing the joy of parenting. His unhappiness is ruining her happiness. It feels like she’s stuck, like he’s never going to change and she’s uncomfortable. So this is another form of a guilt cycle. She doesn’t say that I feel guilty, but she says, “I deeply regret not finding this parenting work sooner. I feel in so many ways I’ve failed my son in not fostering his independent play.” So that is weighing her down and making it impossible to have conviction and to face his feelings in a confident, welcoming way.
I mean, this happens to us, and it’s similar to what’s happening with the other parent. So yeah, that guilt thing—whatever she did in the past, she did with the best information. None of these parents are anything but very loving and caring, and really these are just minor issues in the scheme of things, very minor. But we just bag on ourselves so hard, don’t we? Because this job is so important to us, we care so much. But that hurts us and hurts our children. So for both of those reasons, not hurting ourselves and not hurting our children, move on. Start a new day. It’s all different today. I can be this person who believes in saving him from a joyless parent. That’s heroic, right?
The way we save him from a joyless parent is welcoming his frustration, holding those boundaries, not expecting him to accept them gracefully, carrying on when we need to do the simple tasks. And if he’s right there on her and she doesn’t have a gated-off kitchen or gated-off area for him near there, then just keep going. Show him that you welcome him: “You don’t want me to do this. You really want me to stay with you and I have to cook your dinner.” Where’s the guilt in that, right? If we think about it objectively, we’re doing our job. We’re doing all of this for him. So it’s heroic to allow this soul who can’t bear to be without his mother’s attention for a moment, he feels. He’s so in love with her, he’s so passionate, that he just can’t let her go. But this isn’t a sad story, it’s a love story. It’s love that he has for his mother and the time with her, and How am I going to let her go? And the love that she has for him, knowing that she has to help him let her go. He can’t be the one to do that. And she does it through believing in his right to feel those depths of feeling. She’s there for him, she’s not abandoning him. She’s just separating in reasonable ways to do the things that she needs to do.
So she says, “doing simple daily tasks like cooking and cleaning have become so hard, let alone when I try and sit near him and read a book while he plays.” Sitting near him and reading a book while he plays, that’s probably a little advanced for where she is in her process. She can get there. But I would work on the things where you can really feel conviction that you’re doing the right thing, not those kind of things like, Oh, it’d be nice to read a book, but can I really have conviction in that? We want to start small. We want to start easier with the things we feel sure about, the boundaries that feel more certain. It’s not safe for him to be in the kitchen under your feet, and you have to do these things. There’s every reason in the world to see this as an important boundary that’s in his best interest, that you can feel secure with and conviction in.
So that’s what I think is going on here, because she says she feels she’s stumbling and she’s losing herself and losing the joy of parenting. Going along, like the other parents with the TV, they’re just not feeling good about it. They’re beating themselves up, which is weakening them. And they deserve better, they deserve to feel strong and confident and like heroes for what they do out of passionate love for their children. The hard things that we do. Children give us this incredible practice at standing up for ourselves, being taller people with confidence.
And then a way, in this case, to help him feel a part of this is to be clear. “This is when I’m going to be with you. This is when I’m going to make dinner or do these chores. I know it’s not what you want. I know you want me to be with you all the time. And you know what? I wish I could, but I can’t. I need time to do other things, too. Take care of you, take care of the house, take care of myself.” That is the best way to bring him into this, just that honesty, that clarity. Because there probably isn’t a way that he can choose how to handle this, at 16 months. He will get to choose what he does, what he plays with, and maybe his choice is to stand there crying the first few times while you’re doing something. And ideally, we can accept that as what he’s doing in his time. He gets to choose that, we can’t choose for him that you’re going to play happily over here while I do this. That’s not part of setting a boundary. Setting a boundary is giving him his full right to disagree with our boundary.
And believe it or not, all of these types of exchanges, when we do them with respect and honesty and we aren’t afraid to say all the things about how mad he is and how much he wants us to still play with him, this brings us closer. Our child feels safer and more trust. They can feel more comfortable in their role as the child, not having to make all these decisions and tell people what to do. It actually increases our connection. I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s true.
And thank you to all these parents for sharing with me and for supporting this podcast. I really appreciate it, and I really hope some of this helps.
Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.
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 my books, No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame, and Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting, you can get them in paperback at Amazon and in ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and apple.com.