Dr. Sarah (00:02):
Ever wonder what psychologists 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.
Hi there. This week we’re answering a DM from a listener named Kerri who writes, I just found your podcast. I just listened to Episode 78 (which for some context is a really awesome interview that I recorded with Dr. Cindy Hovington from Curious Neuron. So if you haven’t heard that out, definitely check it out after this one.) But she writes, in this interview you mentioned spicy children who live close to the feeling of shame and the need to talk about emotions after the heat of the moment once things have calmed down. I have a five-year-old daughter like this and I am struggling. Can you talk more about these types of kids and go deeper into this? Okay. So a little context from this interview, I was using this term spicy kind of offhand to describe my own kiddo because my daughter gets hot fast and has a hard time cooling down quickly. So there’s a lot that I could talk about in respect to being a parent of a kid who has this sort of sensitive temperament and a slow return to regulation.
I want to just introduce everyone to our guests. If you haven’t already been listening to Beyond the Sessions series. I’m here with fellow psychologists and moms Dr. Emily Upshur and Dr. Rebecca Hershberg. I’m really glad to have your take on this because we work with kids like this. We work with parents who have kids like this. We also have kids like this. So what are your thoughts on just even this idea of a spicy kid or a sensitive kid or challenging kid? What are we talking about when we even use these words?
Dr. Emily (02:37):
I think that’s a great question. I actually like the idea term of spicy because I think it takes a little bit of the stigma away from something that we’re maybe talking about under the surface, which is a highly emotional child, which can be tough for parents. And I think saying a spicy child says, well, they have a little something good about them, it gives the other side of that which is yes, it can be difficult and there can be big feelings and it can be strong. On the other hand, they’re interesting, they’re exciting, they have a spice to them, which I think is the other side of that. So it’s not just the negative reframe on that, but I guess I would say to address some of the other questions, this is emotional and it’s emotional for the child. They have really strong emotions in both directions in either way, and it’s also really evocative for parents because that means you’re right there in it with them more often having to regulate your own emotions, but also either having to weather or co-regulate your child’s emotions.
Dr. Sarah (03:46):
Yeah, it’s not easy.
Dr. Rebecca (03:50):
I’m going to sound all nerdy for a second. I can’t believe this is what the term that just occurred to me, which is continuous versus categorical.
Dr. Sarah (04:00):
I love this! Nerd out.
Dr. Rebecca (04:02):
Throwback to stats, but I think spicy is on a continuum, and I do think in some ways we don’t do our quote non spicy kids a favor by kind of having it be categorical like, oh, I’ve got three kids and one is spicy and two aren’t. I think it’s a continuum and I think people are on a continuum and it’s so much about, I had a spicy day yesterday, I was exhausted and I forgot to eat lunch or something. I mean, it changes with time and context, and I think there’s freedom in that. And so we have to think about it the same way. We don’t label kids as a diagnosis per se, so many of these things are on a continuum. And I think the shame part of this question is relevant in a very concrete and pragmatic way that I’ve had to cope with a lot, frankly, with one of my own kids.
I have two sons, which is the idea that they live close to shame and that comes up when you are, what’s the word I’m looking for? Setting any kind of a limit basically, that if they are engaging in a behavior that is less than ideal and you come in as a parent to set a limit around it, the shame response can be so intense frankly, that it is a deterrent from wanting to set limits with these kids sometimes. And I think that’s just important and interesting to name because it doesn’t do anybody any favors to kind of walk on eggshells with these kids. And in fact, these kids more than most need to know that you are there as a secure boundary setter, a container. However, they make it difficult. I shouldn’t say they make it difficult. It is difficult because their reactions can be so incredibly strong because of that shame that’s right there under the surface. And again, just to validate this listener, it’s hard.
Dr. Emily (06:14):
I love that. I also think the part of shame I think is so important because to me it’s really valuable for us to think about how much they care. The shame that insinuates, that I’m so embarrassed that I don’t know the limit, someone has to tell me it or I don’t like to be corrected because oof, that means I didn’t know in the first place, or I didn’t realize I was out of control in my body and my actions and my behaviors. I think that makes them care a lot. But to Rebecca’s point, it’s the social shame embarrassment cue from us as parents can turn up that reaction in a way that I think is both showing that they care but also difficult to manage, behave really difficult to manage.
Dr. Sarah (07:06):
And Emily, to your point, I think there’s two things. One is when we as parents can recognize that our child is actually becoming more dysregulated, so they’re angry, which makes them dysregulated, so then they do something really icky and then they feel shame, which makes them more dysregulated, or we set a limit and they feel shame and that makes them more dysregulated. So we see this sort of double explosion. It’s very easy for a parent, very understandable for a parent to say, wow, you just did something really crappy and now you are making it even worse. And not recognizing that the child is really not trying to get this out of control, that they just got double whacked basically by an internal explosion. So when we think about what they’re experiencing in terms of their emotional experience versus their behaviors, we can have more empathy.
We feel more empathy towards a child when we say, wow, you are feeling a tremendous amount of shame right now, and it’s making it really hard for you to stay in control versus when we think, wow, you just hit your brother and now you’re freaking out because I said you couldn’t and you’re making it even worse. That’s the difference between what they’re feeling and what they’re doing. That’s one thought I had. The other thought I’m having is the difference between shame and guilt and why it’s really important not in these hot moments, but in other moments to help all of our children, but especially these sensitive ones that do feel shame profoundly to learn the difference between guilt and shame. Because I actually think that, and the way I to sort of sum it up in a nutshell, the way I kind of conceptualized it between shame and guilt is I feel guilt when I think this is bad.
This thing I did is bad. I feel shame when I think I am bad. And so I do think our kids who are more sensitive towards going to that shame interpretation, I’m bad, that’s really destabilizing for them. But if we can help them sort of learn the skill of reading a situation and interpreting something as I did a behavior that behavior’s bad, I hit my brother, that’s bad, that behavior is bad versus I hit my brother, I’m bad. And so that’s a process that has to happen outside the heat of the moment. But I think the more we can educate our kids about the difference and help them have more accurate interpretations of the situation can reduce that sense of shame explosion.
Dr. Rebecca (10:00):
And I think it’s a reminder for us as parents too, because I think we obviously have a lot more control over ourselves in these interactions. It’s a reminder of how at least some of these kids go through life or their day-to-day constantly being told that they’re doing something bad. And so how could you not internalize that? And it’s this reaction of now I’m being yelled at again for hitting my brother. I was yelled at three times for hitting my brother yesterday. I can’t seem to stop. And so it’s a reminder to parents, the very old behavioral technique that I’m sure we were all taught in grad school and we pass on to parents of just that ratio idea of if you are constantly giving your child commands or nos or criticisms or don’t do this to just be hyper aware of times that you can praise or just tell a funny story or a joke, just sort of what’s the ratio in your home of criticisms to non criticisms for this particular kid?
Because you can have those conversations about shame versus guilt, which I think is a really great idea, Sarah, but if outside of that conversation you are actually communicating everything you do is bad, then how could they not make the leap? And that to me, I find comfort in that because that’s in my control. It’s not about when is my kid going to grasp this concept that they’re not bad. It’s that I can help them by, again, specific praise for all the good stuff commenting on the day that I’ve had talking about I feel tired, I got a haircut. Let me tell you this funny thing that happened. Just really making sure that conversation in the home is not just stop, don’t for this kid because that’s going to be this kid’s experience.
Dr. Emily (12:04):
I love that, Rebecca. I also think we often tell parents, notice the positives, not just the negatives. Don’t just give attention towards the negative behaviors. And I think maybe some of the listeners will also, sometimes I’ll create a mastery experience for my child. So sometimes I’ll say in my head, I know they’re really good at setting the table, so I’ll give them that task and praise them for it. Right? Oh, good. Great job doesn’t have to be over the top, doesn’t have to be super, but just sort of like I’m going to make a note to give you an experience of mastery and an experience where you feel and control and when you feel proud of your actions and your ability to do a task so that you can balance out some of those other times when you’re less regulated. I think these kids take in the good just as much as they, that’s the both sides of the spicy thing that I was saying earlier is I think there’s a lot of range of emotion. To your point, Rebecca, like the spectrum, but it’s also on the good side, I find these spicy kids to also feel joy in amazing ways as well. And so I think we can emphasize that balance. Like you’re saying, Rebecca on the other side.
Dr. Sarah (13:29):
I think that is really, really profound, Emily, because it’s so doable. I mean, Rebecca, like what you were saying…
Dr. Rebecca (13:36):
Is also profound. I mean, come on.
Dr. Sarah (13:38):
Very profound. Very profound. One of the things I’m thinking parents are going to think at first glance is I’m criticizing my kid, I should criticize them less to manage that ratio. And then they’re like, but I’m supposed to set limits. I’m supposed to set boundaries. I’m supposed to be the container. And it’s like, so what you guys are both saying is you don’t need to necessarily set less limits or be more permissive or let everything go because you’re not supposed to criticize your kid. It’s about adding in more of these positive moments, connected moments. And then Emily, your point of actually being a little intentional and crafting moments that allow them to practice a sense of mastery. The thing is the other flip side, yes, the kids who are constantly being corrected and critiqued and criticized and contained all the time because they might be quicker to lose their cool and behave impulsively or in a dysregulated not so conscientious way.
They are getting a lot of correction all the time, and that’s going to make them feel perhaps shame or bad about themselves. But what else it also hits is that self-esteem and that confidence. And so Emily, I think to your point is when you are introducing opportunities to amplify your child’s innate like capacity for certain things, one, we hit that point that Rebecca’s saying, which is we get to add in all this positive reinforcement and positive acknowledgement. But the other thing it touches on is it builds confidence, it builds self-esteem. And the more a child has high self-esteem, that counterbalances that dysregulation system because esteem and mastery and confidence is regulating. So I’m loving all of this.
Dr. Rebecca (15:43):
I also think it’s being conscious and intentional about what we’re drawing attention to. So a lot of parents will praise academic success or achievement, and certainly there’s other episodes you’ve done and I think we’ve even done about that and growth mindset and whatnot. But I’m thinking about yesterday actually, and I heard about this. I wasn’t there, but at camp, my son made a friendship bracelet and then one of his counselors accidentally knocked it and it all fell on, all the beads came off and fell on the floor and he stayed calm. And that for a spicy quote kid, that’s a triumph beyond anything. And so being able to say, whoa, to point out times, because again, it’s noticing as you said, Emily, the positives, but it’s the particular positive. If this is a kid who has a really hard time sometimes managing their big feelings and that gets them in trouble, whether it’s at school or with their friends or sports or whatever, look for the times, not just where they’re doing great, which is sure by all means, but look for the times where they actually are successfully managing their big feelings and make a really big deal out of that because they are often able to do it.
It’s just those times get lost because they’re not unsafe and they don’t merit the attention necessarily. And so really making a big deal out of, oh my gosh, all your weeds just fell on the floor. You worked on this really hard and then somebody that wasn’t, you ruined it. And I see you sitting calmly and just chilling about it. What an unbelievable victory.
Dr. Emily (17:30):
Yeah, I love that, Rebecca. I think it’s so much about the narrative and not making determined a determined narrative about your child. My child isn’t good with flexibility. Well, your child was just good with flexibility. If we make this narrative that’s black and white thinking in these very declarative ways, we don’t give them the opportunity to show us the times when they can. And I really love that. And I also think our narrative is so powerful. I think about this because my kids were, I have one kid that loves sleepaway camp and one kid that’s about sleepaway camper, he is now more positive about it, but we build up so much narrative around the one child who’s such a camper and he’s such this thing, and it sort of carries him even when the days he’s not such a camper. I think it even sort of carries him on the days that maybe he’s having a harder time, but that’s not how we talk about that child. We talk about that narrative around that child of mine is he’s a great camper. So I think it’s so powerful, our narratives, it can be positive, but it can also go in that other direction of like, oh, you’re not very flexible. Oh, you lose it all the time. And I think we just have to be mindful of the power of that narrative around each child.
Dr. Sarah (18:48):
I think that’s really true. I think that’s super true. I think too, the stories we tell about our kids are the stories that our kids end up enacting. And so, and not to make more work for parents, but the reality is sometimes it really boils down to some really tight semantics and it can be difficult. I recognize it’s difficult. I mean, certainly can’t in the heat of the moment always say the right words. And I definitely hope that parents listening know you’re not responsible for always saying the right words, but when we do talk about semantics, these are kind of the compass words. And so Emily, what you’re making me think of is this idea of, okay, when my child does something aggressive, dysregulated out of control, instead of describing it in terms of equality about who they are, that’s really mean to hit your brother or don’t be mean or that wasn’t nice to say.
Try to find more sort of neutral words for describing it. It’s not safe to hit your brother or when you’re mad, there are things you can do and there are things that you can’t do because it’s not safe. I think talking about kids’ behaviors in terms of safe, not safe versus good, bad or mean nice is hard to do in the moment because it’s really hard when you’re also kind of hot and navigating a big explosion. But if we can get into the habit of using more neutral terms to describe our kid’s behaviors, that can go a long way and kind of crafting that narrative so that my kid isn’t hearing the story, I’m not nice, or I’m mean the kid is hearing the story like this behavior wasn’t safe. Curious your thoughts on that.
Dr. Rebecca (20:48):
Yeah, no, parents all the time will say, well, he’s naughty all the time, or he’s these words, and I get it and I just don’t at all think it’s a useful framework. And again, I think it can be daunting, but also really empowering as a parent to realize all the different tools that you have at your disposal that are in your control, and that if you change the framework, if you’re just like, I’m really going to focus on shifting my mindset from naughty and good or Santa style or whatever to dysregulated and regulated or safe and not safe, that does a tremendous amount toward helping you stay calm and able to set clear and firm limits in a common kind and loving way, which is the basis for attachment and secure attachment, which is obviously key to this podcast and life. And again, so it’s like, yes, it’s like, okay, the semantics, oh God, and I can’t say this and I can’t say this and I can’t say this. You can view it as this is so hard, this is a drag. Or wait a second, so I don’t have to do anything with my three-year-old. I can focus on the way that my thinking patterns can change. And you’re saying some of this will change, and the answer is yes.
Dr. Emily (22:07):
I also think it’s like you can make mistakes. My kids love to correct. I’ll say You’re never listening, which is that declarative big blanket thing. And I’ll be like, okay, you’re right. That’s not fair. You were listening before and right now you’re not listening very well. So I’ll take a step back and I’ll say that out loud and I’ll verbalize that to them just to show that we can’t be perfect, but we can try to course correct even in the moment, it’s okay to say, oh, I was over. I made a two declarative statement. Sorry, you know what? You’re not listening right now, but you did do a good job listening earlier. So it’s not all lost. And I think that they do appreciate that.
Dr. Sarah (22:51):
Right. Because what you’re modeling there is one, flexibility. Two, the fact that you can mess up and course correct with some ease and willingness. And three, you are showing them like we were talking before, that you see the good. You know what? You’re right. You did do that before, and you’re helping create that narrative that yet you actually can listen. You’re not listening right now, but you can listen. So I know we’ve got something to work with here, and that changes the whole trajectory of that interaction. So I love that verbalizing your own self-correction in the moment to your kids. Like, ugh, it packs so many good things in there. So I mean, we could talk about this forever. This will come up again because it’s such a pervasive and consistent theme in parenting. But to this mom, I really hope this episode feels like it helps you to feel like it is hard and it can really feel like a struggle, but there are definitely things that you can do to shift it even just a little bit so that it doesn’t feel so overwhelming because having a spicy kid is hard. It’s a lot of work, but it can be really rewarding because they have lots of flavor. All right, talk soon.
Dr. Emily (24:13):
Dr. Rebecca (24:14):
Dr. Sarah (24:15):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.
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