Dr. Sarah (00:02):

Ever wonder what psychologist moms talk about when we get together, whether we’re consulting one another about a challenging case or one of our own kids, or just leaning on each other when parenting feels hard. Because trust me, even when we do this for a living, it’s still hard. Joining me each week in these special Thursday shows are two of my closest friends, both moms, both psychologists, they’re the people I call when I need a sounding board. These are our unfiltered answers to your parenting questions. We’re letting you in on the conversations The three of us usually have behind closed doors. This is Securely Attached: Beyond the Sessions.


Hello again. Thanks so much for joining us today. This week’s question comes from a listener named Sandra, and she writes, Hi, Dr. Bren. I am a single mother to a three-year-old and I share custody with my ex, my ex, and I definitely don’t see eye to eye on the best way to parent our daughter. I listened to your episode on codependency and heard you talk about repair, which got me thinking, is it possible to repair for someone else? Are there conversations I can have with my daughter on behalf of my ex that will help to strengthen her attachment? Now, before we dive in, to answer this listener’s question, if you’re interested in learning more about the principles of fostering secure attachment, you can go to drsarahbren.com/secure to download my free guide that suggests four simple things that you can do with your child to strengthen that bond. That’s drsarahbren.com/secure, and it’s a great place to start. Okay, so can we repair for somebody else? Emily, what do you think?

Dr. Emily Upshur (01:45):

It’s so interesting. It leads me to think about resilience and how we think about resilience. And really the way we think about it is having just one healthy attachment is the source of a good resilient attachment. You really only need one healthy attachment figure. So I guess my response is that’s not the goal. The goal is not to repair for other people. The goal is to really have a secure attachment and a secure relationship with your child. So I think that’s where I would start. I think that off the top of my head, that’s where I would go with that. I do think this is a three-year-old, but as your child gets, if the child gets a little bit older, I do think there is room for responding to, oh, I think mom, your daddy, the partner is mad at me. If the child says something like that, I think it is okay as the parent to say, I don’t think it’s okay. It’s not really your job to worry about that. I think it is okay to address misconceptions, but again, I think the foundation is having a healthy relationship primarily with your own attachment with that child,

Dr. Sarah (03:02):

Which I think is an important place to remind people who are perhaps not as familiar with the theory of attachment that I think one big misconception about attachment is that it’s this global fixed thing. I am a securely attached person or I am an insecurely attached person. And the reality is, is that’s not really actually what attachment is referencing. Attachment is referencing really, it’s not even attachments, it’s the quality of the attachment in every relationship that we have gets its own kind of demarcation, like qualify, am I securely like Emily, you and I are colleagues, we’re coworkers, we’re friends, we have a relationship. I think we’re pretty securely attached to one another inside of our relationship. We trust each other. We feel seen by one another. We feel safe by safe with each other, and we think reliably. We’ve got my back even if we miss a tune every once in a while, but I might have an insecure attachment with a partner or a parent, and that doesn’t mean that I can’t have a secure attachment with you.


So when we talk about attachment, we’re talking about really actually each relationship that we have and different relationships are going to be more, just easier to feel safe in than others, perhaps in part depending on the other person, right? Because it’s a two-way relationship. But I think with luck, little kids, and we talk about attachment all the time, is my kid securely attached? I think what we’re really trying to say is, does my kid feel secure in their relationship with me and in general with others? Because when you have that secure attachment with that primary attachment figure, that’s what writes the blueprint. That’s what kind of gets internalized by that child as the blueprint that they then use out in the world to kind of predict how other people in the world are going to respond to them and meet their needs. So if I’m securely attached to my parent, there’s a high likelihood that I will sort of assume that other people will be also safe and I’ll show up in the world from that space of security. And that’s where we’re really talking about. That’s the attachment pattern that we tend to see more globally. It’s not fixed, but I think what gets lost is that each individual person still has an attachment to each individual parent or other person in their life. And the quality of that attachment is what we’re talking about. So if I have an insecure attachment with my dad, I can have a secure attachment with my mom. And what you were saying, Emily, is that one secure attachment is enough to predict that sort of secure blueprint.

Dr. Emily (05:41):

And I also think it can be a protective factor. I think that one secure attachment can sort of create more of a buffer with maybe a less secure attached relationship because that child feels confident, grounded, and securely attached in that other relationship.

Dr. Sarah (06:03):


Dr. Rebecca Hershberg (06:04):

Yeah, I mean that’s what we know. That’s a huge function of a securely attached relationship is as a buffer against stressors, whether that stressor is in the form of an insecure attachment or something else. But I also just want to honor in this question whether or not we have time to go into it or not, how uncomfortable it can be as a parent to watch your partner, whether that’s an ex-partner or a current partner parent in a way that you either just don’t like or that you may know because of your own parenting journey and listening to podcasts and whatnot may not be optimal for your child. And the question perhaps underlying is, is there anything I can do about that? And I think what we’re saying is your time and your energy are better spent on focusing on your own relationship with your child.


But again, of course we understand that this is hard, and of course, depending on what that issue is that you see in your partner dictates whether to get involved. If your partner is doing something, again, your ex partner or your partner that’s unsafe, that’s obviously an area we would all agree to get involved in. And so again, some of these lines can be blurry. I also think, Emily, to what you said a few minutes ago about how you can help reflect misconceptions or correct misconceptions as kids get older. I think the other thing that I often talk to clients about, and I have a lot of clients who are divorcing or divorced, is encouraging a child to speak with that parent to avoid what we call triangulation, which is, oh, I’m going to speak with you about your other parent, which can be very tempting, especially in the context of marital conflict or divorce. But instead, if your child says, daddy yelled at me, he hurt my feelings. You might say something like, wow, I wonder if it might make sense to go talk to daddy about that and tell daddy how you felt. Again, not something you’re going to suggest if you feel deep down that daddy is perhaps not a safe person, but something that in the context of even partners who are no longer together encourages your child to have their relationship with each of their parents in an independent way

Dr. Sarah (08:27):

And perhaps having a sidebar with your ex saying, Hey, our child came to me and said this. I just need you to know they’re having that perception of you in that moment, just putting that on your radar that they felt hurt. Because again, if the parent is for whatever reason, unaware of the impact of their behaviors on the child’s experience, hoping that they might be open to hearing from you, I mean, you got to obviously present it in a way they can that will open their ears rather than put up their walls. The delivery of that information is, you know, got to be thoughtful about how are they going to best be able to receive that information. And obviously different when you end a relationship with someone. There’s lots of, there can be varying degrees of animosity or so obviously, like you said, Rebecca, there’s a lot of gray here because if it’s a relationship where it’s over and you can’t really talk to the other person for reasons related to the way you now relate to one another, this gets extra hard. Yeah,

Dr. Emily (09:45):

I would also say preaching to the choir, to you guys obviously, but to your point, Sarah, there’s such a gradation of what that amicability or contention would be. But I do think, and I can tell you I do this for my own family, I do think it’s helpful to, if both parters are open to bring in somebody to sort of help moderate a family therapist or a parenting person, because I think it can really give, if it doesn’t come from you as the parent who thinks that something is not going with the other parent or the other parent could do something differently, I think it’s nice to have an objective person that can really reflect and maybe say something in a way that does touch that person that either a partner that you’re currently with that you don’t, maybe how they’re parenting or an along the way. I think all of us benefit from having an objective point of view that might help move the narrative forward in a more productive way.

Dr. Sarah (10:47):

Yeah, I mean, in our practice we see so many couples for this sort of thing, whether they’re Rebecca, you were saying, whether they’re divorcing and separating, trying to figure out how to navigate that or they’re together and they’re parenting values and strategies are just so divergent that they’re coming into so much conflict. We do a lot of couples work around that in the context of supporting the child specifically. But I think helping, to your point, Emily, I think if there’s a contentious point around parenting between a couple, it’s a lot easier for both of them to hear what I have to say about it than to hear what one another has to say about it, because there’s just so much noise in that conversation when they have it at this point. So it’s kind of likes helpful to bring in a neutral party.

Dr. Rebecca (11:41):

I agree.

Dr. Sarah (11:42):

Okay. So there’s also this very specific line in her questions, are there conversations that I can have with my daughter on behalf of my ex that will help strengthen her attachment? And I think that’s a really understandable question, and I kind of think, Emily, to your original point when we first started out is I think that may be the wrong question to be asking. I think perhaps a better question, and again, I say this knowing you don’t know until you say it and we kind of reframe it for you, but really perhaps the question you could be asking is, are there conversations I can have with my daughter about my relationship, about our relationship that can strengthen our attachment to be that buffer and build that reflective functioning of ability to really, I think what this mom is saying is, I really want for my child to be able to see the things that are coming at me from my dad, and I want my child to be able to say, I think that’s dad stuff.


I don’t think that’s my stuff right now. If we think about, we could either go straight to that and try to teach our child how to say that when dad does this or when whoever does this, or we could build that skill kind of on a more global basic level of when people do things to us. For example, my kids will come home from school or camp and be like, oh, this person wouldn’t play my game at play playtime. They didn’t want to listen to my ideas. They only wanted to play their game. And instead of jumping into, oh, that was pretty mean of them, gosh, I can’t believe they did that. They should really share, and that’s not very nice, which would be a totally internal response I might have in that moment. But I would say instead perhaps something like, oh, that probably didn’t feel good.


I wonder if they were just really, really having a hard time thinking, moving away from their idea. That can be hard sometimes. So I’m validating my child’s experience and I’m also helping them build that perspective taking of like, oh, I wonder what was going on for that kid when they were doing that thing. Again, not thinking about who the kid is and how good or bad they are or how mean or nice they are, but thinking about what was the thought process or the experience or the motivation for that child, what was feeling hard for them in that moment? And that’s kind of all I’ll do. I’m not going to perseverate on the issue a bunch, but kind of that modeling of like, oh yeah, you have a feeling and they had a feeling or you had a desire or a wish and they had a different one. So that’s a skill of building reflective functioning in our children that then could, if we start to look for opportunities to do that more globally in our relationship with our child and in our parenting of our child, that is going to build a skillset that they can then use in their relationship with this other parent perhaps to be able to also be able to say, I wonder if that’s their stuff and not my stuff, which is a really good skill to have and would presumably address a piece of this.

Dr. Emily (14:45):

I think what you’re saying in a nutshell is can you be the parent, the safe place that your child comes to too when they have a difficulty? Your goal is to be a person that your daughter could come to, this person’s daughter could come to and say, Ugh, I don’t like this interaction in not so many words that I had with dad, and that you’re a safe place that you’re not going to say shut down that conversation or try to have even a really teachable moment. You don’t have to do those. I think the point is that you’re the safe object that your child can come to and process things with,

Dr. Sarah (15:24):

And you’re not going to be like, oh my God, I’m calling him right now. That’s not how he’s supposed to do things. He knows better than that would be not being about being with your daughter in that moment. It would about being about addressing your anger at your partner in that moment or your ex in that moment. So I think specifically, it’s like when you say you want to be that safe place for your child to come and talk to when they have hard things, that kind of also means staying with their feelings and not moving into yours, which is hard, but

Dr. Rebecca (15:55):

Well, it is hard, but I think this parent might say just based on the question like, oh, my child hasn’t voiced any feelings. I’m just no noticing these things. And so it’s right. How do we tolerate that? How do we build the skill in your child, just like you said, Sarah, with a great example of your child coming home from camp, and can you understand that when you’re building that skill in your child, in your head, one of the way the reasons you’re doing it is so that your child is better equipped to handle her interactions with her father or future friends or future romantic partners or whatever. But it means tolerating that you are not saying the words that you want to say and that you need to be patient and know you’re playing a long game and be really, really difficult and just we feel you.

Dr. Sarah (16:43):

Yeah, it’s super hard and it is a long game, but maybe that’s comforting to know and to remember, I don’t have to fix this right this moment. I can lay these little bricks that will eventually turn into a really robust coping mechanism, support system, internal sense of ego strength and all that stuff. That’s really good. Thanks guys.

Dr. Emily (17:05):


Dr. Rebecca (17:06):

Thank you.

Dr. Sarah (17:08):

Thank you so much for listening. As you can hear, parenting is not one size fits all. It’s nuanced and it’s complicated. So I really hope that this series where we’re answering your questions really helps you to cut through some of the noise and find out what works best for you and your unique child. If you have a burning parenting question, something you’re struggling to navigate or a topic you really want us to shed light on or share research about, we want to know, go to drsarahbren.com/question to send in anything that you want, Rebecca, Emily, and me to answer in this new series Securely Attached: Beyond the Sessions. That’s drsarahbren.com/question. And check back for a brand new securely attached next Tuesday. And until then, don’t be a stranger.

✨We want to hear from you! Go to https://drsarahbren.com/question to send us a question or a topic you want to hear us answer on Securely Attached – Beyond the Sessions! ✨

121. BTS: Is there something I can do to strengthen my child’s relationship with my ex?