Do you feel like you are constantly ping-ponging between two extremes—throwing around your authority and overpowering your child or feeling like they’re running the show?
Jen Lumanlan, the creator of Your Parenting Mojo and the author of the new book, Parenting Beyond Power: How to Use Connection and Collaboration to Transform Your Family—and the World, is helping parents learn how to embark on a journey towards harmonious family life and a better world!
Say goodbye to time-outs, countdowns, and punishments that perpetuate power imbalances. Instead, embrace empathetic listening, understanding your child’s needs, and collaborative problem-solving. The result? Parents no longer feel like martyrs and children’s behavioral problems often start to decrease.
If you’re ready to transform your family life while shaping a brighter future for your children, then this episode is a must-listen!
There’s this sort of phrase that floats around in respectful parenting circles of all behavior is communication, which I think is great and is absolutely true, and it’s also missing a piece, right? All behavior is communication of what? Why is my child doing this thing? And so the thing that they are trying to communicate is what is their unmet need? And when we can understand their unmet need, we can find a way to meet both our needs and their needs.
Dr. Sarah (00:00:32):
I’ve been listening to Your Parenting Mojo podcast for years. If you are a frequent listener, you’ve probably heard me mention it before, and that is why when I heard that Jen Lumanlan was coming out with a new book, I definitely had to invite her to come on Securely attached to discuss her research-based parenting approach. In her book, Parenting Beyond Power, Jen explores how we can replace punitive discipline methods with empathetic listening, understanding emotions, and problem solving with our children. By doing so, we not only create a more harmonious family life in the short term, but also contribute to a better future for all of us. Join us as we dive deep into the transformative ideas presented in Jen’s book and learn how they can help us raise children who advocate for themselves and who treat others with profound respect. It is a conversation you won’t want to miss. So here we go.
Power struggles and parenting can be a real challenge, but they don’t have to be a constant source of friction and frustration. Join me Tuesday, September 19th at 1:00 PM Eastern for my free 60 minute masterclass, From Battles to Bonding: Overcoming Power Struggles to learn precisely why the strategies you’re using to either avoid or win a power struggle just aren’t working and why they may never work. The real problem that leads to power struggles in the first place. And how to break out of this trap, my exact framework for mapping out your child’s challenging behaviors and how to create a personalized toolbox for your unique child and the specific power struggles that you find yourself in over and over again. So if you are looking for strategies to increase your child’s cooperation, decrease the number of times you hear the word no, and finally feel like you’re nailing this whole parenting thing even when it’s messy. Go to drsarahbren.com/powerstruggles to grab your free seat for this live masterclass on September 19th. That’s drsarahbren.com/powerstruggles. I’ll see you there.
Hi, I’m Dr. Sarah Bren, a clinical psychologist and mom of two. In this podcast, I’ve taken all of my clinical experience, current research on brain science and child psychology and the insights I’ve gained on my own parenting journey and distilled everything down into easy to understand and actionable parenting insights so you can tune out the noise and tune into your own authentic parenting voice with confidence and calm. This is Securely Attached.
Hi everyone. I am really, really excited about today’s guest because she has been in my ears since before my son was born. I started listening to her podcast when I was pregnant with my first, he’s almost six, so I’m thrilled. Jen Lumanlan, thank you so much for being on the podcast.
You’re so welcome. Thanks for having me. And you said my name right the first time without prompting.
Dr. Sarah (00:03:43):
Well, I’ve been listening to it. I’ve been listening to you!
Usually it takes several tries for folks to get it first time.
Dr. Sarah (00:03:50):
That’s amazing. Yeah. Well, so the reason why I’ve been listening to is you have a phenomenal podcast called Your Parenting Mojo. You have a book coming out called Parenting Beyond Power, amazing book. And I’m just really, really excited to talk to you about your perspective on just parenting the work that you do, how you got into it, power dynamics and relationships because we know that that’s such an Achilles heel and parent child relationships is that power dynamic. So first maybe just for people who aren’t aware of the work that you do as well as I am, can you just introduce yourself and talk briefly just about how you got into this work, because it’s an interesting path.
Yeah, and I apologize to your listeners who may notice that I sound as though I have a cold. They do have a cold. I don’t always quite sound quite as gravelly as this. So yeah, I started the podcast, it’s got to be over seven years ago now, and basically started it because I had my daughter, she’s a little over nine, and I realized I had no idea how to be a parent. I spent weeks and weeks iterating my birth plan, figuring, oh, the rest of it, what happens for the next 18 years? I’ll figure that out when it gets here. And so she was born, and I have no idea what I’m doing. I realize my parenting role models were not necessarily ones that I want to carry through into a lot of aspects of my relationship with her. And so I’d always looked to scientific research to help me understand things. And I thought, oh, well, here’s an area where research can help me. And so I was getting these emails from websites that shall remain unnamed, but they’re really big, and they would send out emails with subject lines like 5 Ways to Tell if your Child has a Developmental Delay. And I was like, that’s just clickbait.
And if they ever did look at a study, they would look at one study and they’d say, okay, this study says that growth mindset is super important and so here are 15 ways. Give your child a growth mindset without ever looking to understand whether that study confirmed or refuted the previous 30 years of research on this topic. And so I thought, okay, well how can I know that I’m not missing anything? And so I’ve since learned that what autistic people do when they’re interested in something is they go and get a degree in it. But I didn’t know I was autistic at the time. So I went and got a master’s in psychology focused on child development and then another one in education. And I was like, well, why would I learn all this stuff just for me? I’m guessing there are other people out there who want to learn this too. And so I started the podcast as a way of sharing what I was learning with other people. And yeah, we’ve got over 3 million downloads at this point. And so yeah, we’ve been going for a while. And I’d always looked really critically at things like sample sizes. And if your research is being done at a campus outside of an urban center at noon on a Tuesday and you’ve got eight participants, then you’re going to get a certain demographic.
And then you extrapolate your results as if they’re applicable to everybody in the world when that’s not necessarily the case. And so I’d always looked at those kinds of things, but increasingly I was really on a journey to understand my white privilege, which I had no idea about before. I was listening to How To Get Away With Parenting Podcast, which isn’t being published anymore, but the host is now a friend of mine in Oakland. She’s a black podcaster, and she said in her podcast, a black parent of a black child can’t go into a grocery store with their own food because someone might think they’d stolen it and the parent of a black boy, a toddler, might be afraid that their toddler would have a meltdown in a public place because there’s nothing less safe to white people than an out of control black boy. And I knew what racism was, I knew what structural racism was. I had white privilege and I had absolutely no idea. And so that was really kind of what sparked the process of writing the book really. And it had lots of twists and turns along the way, but that was really what sparked it.
Dr. Sarah (00:08:15):
But that’s a really profound realization, and I confront that a lot too as a white parent, but also a white psychologist talking about parenthood and child development and recognizing that the research that most of what I’m talking about is based off of, while I believe it’s empirically sound, it’s been done with specific populations and not always representative of not just the global culture, but even American culture. And it’s interesting, I actually feel more confident about what we know about attachment research because it has been done globally, whereas a lot of the other stuff that we are talking about in research when we’re talking about different clinical models like CBT and DBT and other types of clinical treatments, those are less studied in a wider range of population. But this other piece that’s so significant to me is that part of when I’m talking about what it’s like to be a parent and talking about the challenges and giving parents strategies, there are things that I talk about that other cultural that factors play into that could scare a parent to doing these things. And we don’t talk about that enough.
Yeah, yeah. I mean, firstly on your point about the way things are studied, it’s kind of funny. I don’t look at my reviews very often, but every once in a while I’ll look at my iTunes reviews and they’ll see reviews saying There’s a clear liberal feminist bias here. I want the unbiased research. I don’t want the bias that this podcaster is putting on the research. And to me, that’s a really fundamental misunderstanding of the research because there is so much bias baked into the research from the way the researcher asked the question in the first place to the sample that they picked to how many people that they are doing the research on to the methods they use in their statistical analysis to the way that they write up the paper. There is bias baked into the process every single step of the way, but because we all grew up in school learning that science is objective, then we sort of have this fake vision that science is telling us exactly the way things are, as if there was no person in between interpreting it for us.
So I think that’s really important to understand. And then on the idea of different ideas being available, being appropriate to different people, I mean, I think that’s on us to learn more about. And frankly, it’s a failure on the part of white people everywhere. When I’ve heard from an indigenous person, an indigenous parent, that she is worried if her child shows up at school looking tired because someone might report her family to Child Protective Services. So my daughter went through a phase of wanting, she used to say, I want to feel the fluffy, which meant she wanted to feel fuzzy clothes against her skin and she wouldn’t want to get changed out of her pajamas in the morning for that reason. And so of course the obvious solution to me is to send her to preschool in her pajamas and no fear whatsoever. It never crossed my mind at that point that anyone would think I was parenting in inappropriately in any way.
And there are plenty of parents for whom that would be a really dangerous thing to do. And because a white parent teacher may misunderstand what’s happening, what I was trying to do, and we’re going to talk a lot about needs, I think was to understand my child’s needs and also meet my needs. My need is to get out the door with some sense of ease and harmony in the morning. I don’t care what she’s wearing and that a black parent can’t do the same thing because they’re afraid of what a white parent or white teacher might do In response is a failure on my part, on part the part of white people everywhere. And that’s a big part of why I wrote this book so that we can hopefully start to create a world where everyone belongs and not just have it be so focused around white people in whiteness.
Dr. Sarah (00:12:30):
And I love that, and I think the book is also really accessible because I think that some people could, the people who might be writing those reviews on your podcast that say like, oh, this is so liberal or so feminist or, so I don’t think that the messaging in the book is really one-sided or highly agenda driven. I don’t think it feels partisan. It feels very much like, okay, how do we look at the power dynamic in a parent-child relationship from all these different lenses and objectively kind of gather the data, which is kind of why I love the way you do the work you do
Sort of objectively.
I mean, I’ll say that I didn’t write it with a political idea and that I’m going to convince you of a certain mindset, but I think particularly since I’ve finished the book, I’ve uncovered more work. And I’m thinking particularly of Jonathan Haidt. His work The Righteous Mind and George Lakoff‘s work Moral Politics where they talk about the connection between political ideas and parenting and the fact that liberals, liberal parents particularly seem to care about care for others and treating others fairly. And those ideas are sort of tied up in what it means to be a liberal person and a liberal parent. And so of course that translates into how you want to treat your children. There are a lot of other parents in the world for whom those are not the top priority, and frankly who think that white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism are the natural way of the world and how things should be.
And that represents power from God, somebody on high, and that’s translated down through the President, through the father and the family. So I’m not trying to convince anyone of a particular way, but it’s more that if you have values related to respect for others, for care, for fairness in the world, that you really want the world to be a place where everyone can show up in their full humanity, then one of the reasons that you may be experiencing some tension is because conservatives have been very successful at controlling the agenda in our country. And that translates the ways that we parent, because a controlling parenting method is sort of how most of us were raised. It’s certainly how I was raised, it’s how most of the parents I worked with were raised. And so when we hold different values, but yet we had this modeling of this really kind of top-down patriarchal power structure, it’s like there’s this huge tension in us if I know this is important, but I don’t know how to do anything but this. How can I reconcile these two things? So that’s how I see the politics showing up in the book.
Dr. Sarah (00:15:25):
No, I think that makes so much sense. And I think going back to this idea to go to the needs of the child and the needs of the parent, we are always, I think as parents, no matter what your political agenda is within the family system, I think we’re always dealing with what we sometimes refer to in psychology as a ghosts in the nursery, like intergenerational presence of all the parenting that came before us. So when I’m parenting my child, it’s not just me parenting my child, it’s my parents, how they parented me and how that comes through and my parents parents, how they parented them and how that comes through. So it’s much, much bigger than the today’s issues. And I think whenever we’re looking at power struggles or getting our needs met or balancing that with getting our kids’ needs met or teaching them our values, being able to understand how all these previous generations are standing in the room with us helps a lot. So can you talk a little bit about if you’re looking at a power struggle in a parent child relationship or just a power dynamic in a parent child relationship, how do we view that in terms of empowering parents to hold both, I hold my power, I hold my child’s power. How do we get out of the power struggle?
And I think that that’s really where seeing the needs helps. And that’s really the crux of parenting beyond power is learning how to see the needs underneath difficult behavior. Because when our child is doing something that is driving us up the wall, it seems like the thing to do is to get them to stop doing that thing and to instead do the thing that we want them to do. And so there’s this sort of phrase that floats around in respectful parenting circles of all behavior is communication, which I think is great and is absolutely true, and it’s also missing a piece. All behavior is communication of why is my child doing this thing?
Dr. Sarah (00:17:40):
What are they communicating?
Exactly, yes. And so the thing that they are trying to communicate is what is their unmet need? And when we can understand their unmet need, we can find a way to meet both of their needs, our needs and their needs. And so I guess I’m thinking back to an example of a parent that I coached in a public workshop a couple of years ago, and I think she had maybe three children. And getting out the door in the mornings a big struggle. The older one in particular is resisting, and I think the oldest one is probably six or seven and should be able to get dressed by themselves and should be able to brush their teeth by themselves. And why won’t they just do it? And so it seems like the thing to fix is how do I get my kid to get dressed? How do I get my kid to brush their teeth?
And so we start digging into this a little bit, and going back to your example of all of the people who are standing next to you in the nursery, I asked the parent, what was it like for you getting out in the morning? And there was this silence and the tears start to fall. And this parent I think had had a mother who was working nonstop, a father who was an alcoholic who was not around, and she I think had four younger siblings and it was her job to get everybody ready in the morning. And so when she has this six-year-old, this huge tension in her, because on one hand it’s like, yeah, you’re six and I want you to have these feelings and to be authentically you, and I can see you’re struggling right now. And on the other hand, but I would’ve been punished for this, right?
Somebody would’ve beat me for this. It was my job to make all this happen, and why can’t you just make it happen too? So there was this huge struggle going on inside this parent, which is why it was so hard to figure out what to do. And so of course what we came up with is can we work to heal ourselves? Can we start to understand why this is so hard for us to hold space for ourselves to understand? Yeah, I wanted to be a kid too, and I didn’t get the chance to do that. So can I start to heal myself so that I can show up for my child in a way that I want to show up for them firstly and in a way that I wish somebody had been able to show up for me, which may well look like sometimes helping a six year old who is perfectly capable of getting dressed to get dressed because that six year old has a need for connection in the mornings.
And if we can see that need for connection and get past the societal expectation of you should be able to do this by now, why can’t you do this by now? My life would be easier if you could do this by now. Then what we can see is that need for connection. If we meet that need for connection, chances are our child is willingly going to get dressed, and then the whole rest of our morning runs more smoothly, and then we meet our needs for calm and ease and peace and harmony in the morning, and then we can get out the door in the way that we want to get out the door as well.
Dr. Sarah (00:20:38):
Yes. No, that makes a ton of sense. It’s super aligned with the way I view a lot of this stuff. It’s interesting, like there’s so many paths to get here, and I think a lot of it doesn’t matter what orientation you take to get here. It’s about saying, okay, when we look at power, which inevitably makes us look at behavior that’s going to get us stuck in a loop of trading power for behaviors and trading power for behaviors and asserting power to get a behavior. But what you’re suggesting is there’s a paradigm shift, there’s a different thing to focus on altogether has nothing to do with behaviors, but when we get there, when we meet that emotional need, the behaviors follow, which is like, oh.
And this has impact in our family and in the wider world. And this is sort of the second half of the story as to why I wrote the book. So I start learning about my own white privilege. I start digging into patriarchy, into capitalism on the podcast, all these really big topics. And at the same time, I’m running a membership community and the parents are asking me, how do I get my kid to brush their teeth? How do I get my kid to get dressed? How do I get my kid to stay in bed? And it was like I’m on these two parallel paths of huge ideas on the podcast and the daily struggles. And it took me so long to figure out these are not parallel paths. These are connected, these are intimately connected, and we can have so many conversations with our children about how they should treat other people, about how we want ’em to treat other people.
But if you’ve ever sworn around your child that if you tell them not to swear and then you swear around them, they are probably going to end up swearing. They tend to learn more by watching us, by interacting with us than they do from what we say to them. So if we’re telling them be nice to everybody, and then we are turning around and forcing them to brush their teeth and forcing them to change their behavior to do what we want them to do, then the lesson they take is that a bigger, more powerful person can use their power over another person to get them to do what they want to do. And I mean, frankly, I see white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, they’re all about power. They’re all about, I have more power than you do, and I’m going to use that power and my needs are more important than yours, and my needs deserve to get met and yours.
And so what we’re doing is we’re making family life dramatically easier today because when my child’s need is met, they stop resisting me. They stop digging their heels in and pushing back at everything I say, because when your needs met, it feels amazing. It feels great. You want to collaborate with somebody who’s helping to meet your needs. And then also we’re giving them so much practice in how to be in relationships with somebody where I can see that you have a need and I can see that I have a need and I have a lot of practice in figuring out how we can both meet our needs. And that’s how I see these big social challenges breaking down from the inside as we start to raise children who have practiced at doing that in the world.
Dr. Sarah (00:24:00):
Yeah, and I’m also thinking, I work with a lot of parents and I know there are people listening to this that are like, but my kid has to brush their teeth. If they, God, I got to make brush their teeth, and if I don’t make them, they’ll never do it. Their teeth would just rot. Or if I never took away video games, they would never stop and their brain would rot. I mean, I have an idea of how you’re going to answer this question, but how do we move away from this power differential without being permissive.
Right. Yes. Yeah, that’s so important because one of the key ideas in the book, and I think that this is often left out in respectful parenting discussions, is that the parent have needs, I work with so many parents who the first time they learned this from me, they’re like, what I have needs? Because they once resisted their parents as well. We can see that resistance as an expression of an unmet need. And so when we resisted our parents, they were like, you better stop doing that. You better forget that you had those needs. Put them in a box, pretend they don’t exist and do the things that I am telling you to do. That’s how we became people pleasers a lot, particularly feminine oriented folks, right? Feminine socialized folks became people pleasers for that reason. And so what I’m saying is we are not going to be permissive parents.
Absolutely not. And what sort of saves us from being permissive parents is that recognition that I have a need and that deserves to be met just as much as my child’s need does. So how does that show up in some practical examples? Right. Well, I mean, I would start by asking why doesn’t your child want to brush their teeth? And mostly when I work with parents, they kind of look at me and they’re like, oh, I don’t know. Parents will say, yeah, I’ve tried all the things. I’ve tried all the toothbrushes and all the toothpaste and all the whatever. But if you don’t know why your child is resisting brushing their teeth, then you’re basically throwing spaghetti at the wall trying to see if something will stick because you don’t, you don’t understand what their need is. You’re coming up with endless strategies to try to meet a need that you don’t understand, which is very, very difficult.
Whereas when you can understand what their need is, then you can propose strategies that help to meet their need. So example of how I’ve seen that play out recently, I work with a parent of a toddler who’s not even verbal yet, not even able to articulate what their need is. And the parent was finally able to understand, I mean, she was essentially kind of holding him down to brush his teeth would start out with the hand behind his head and the toothbrush going in the front. And then when he resisted and resisted, she would basically hold him down. And I’m thinking about somebody putting something in my mouth. You can probably have some empathy for your child if you let your child brush your teeth one time or even let another adult brush your teeth one time and just see what it’s like to have somebody else pushing something around in your mouth and not having any control over that process.
And now imagine doing that with a hand behind your head so you can’t move. And so that child, once the parent took the hand away, which the parent assumed that they needed, otherwise the child would run away, the child is actually willing to stand and have their teeth brushed. They just wanted to have some sense of autonomy over the process, some sense of, I am, I get to choose to be here and how this thing happens and that it’s not that you’re imposing this on me, getting dressed in the morning. My daughter would hate being cold in the morning. She would refuse to get dressed, she didn’t want to get cold. And so a strategy that helped to meet her need is getting dressed in front of the heater. But if your child’s need is for connection, getting dressed in front of the heater is irrelevant. They don’t care. So understanding your child’s need is so critical. And then most often I find that parents are trying to meet needs for harmony, for ease, for peace, for collaboration. And so when you can meet your child’s needs, then your needs get met just by extension. You don’t even have to do anything extra. It just happens along at the same time.
Dr. Sarah (00:28:21):
Yeah, that’s always nice when they’re double duty like that. I was having the hardest time getting my son to get dressed in the morning and get downstairs and kind of checking in and sort of figuring out why was it that he was so resistant and why was I finding myself getting increasingly more frustrated by repeating the same directive over and over and over again. It clicked that that playfulness was what was missing. And now we play games, different games, but mostly just like, can I sing a song faster than you can get dressed kind of games?
And he loves it. And it’s not because I’m tricking, he’s six, he’s almost six, he, he’s not being like, it’s not the, okay, I’m going to time you ready go. That doesn’t work on him anymore because he’s not two, but he’s six. He knows that he’s cooperating by doing this. There is an awareness in him that he is cooperating. It’s not me tricking him into cooperating, but making it fun is helping him feel like he has my attention in the mornings and it’s pleasant and positive. And for a little while there it wasn’t so much I was getting so frustrated telling him to get dressed and he wasn’t listening. And so yeah, it’s, in doing the song, it does cost me more effort for that. I dunno, three minutes that it takes for us to get ready together in the morning. But I know a lot of times parents, when I suggest things that are a little bit more emotionally and physically labor intensive at the start, they’re like, that’s so much work.
They just need to be doing it by themselves. And I get that I would love for my son to just do it by himself and I know he can, but I also recognize that me putting the three minutes into it in the morning pays dividends in me not having a fight with him, which costs me 15, 20 minutes on the, and so sometimes the cost benefit analysis or the labor that you have to put into it, thinking about it, yeah, it is more work for me, which maybe doesn’t meet my need in that moment, but it meets my bigger higher order need having, like you said, the harmony and the ease in the morning.
Yeah, it really does. And I think we can also help to take a macro level perspective here. And so what you’re doing, you’re essentially, you’ve uncovered that he has needs for kind of joy and play in the morning and for connection with you. And when you meet those needs, he’s willing to collaborate with you and that meets your needs for peace and calm and ease in the morning. And so previously he was using what we could, I mean, in some ways it’s a skillful strategy. In some ways it’s an unskillful strategy of not doing what you were asking him to do because then you would ask him again. And sometimes we see children doing things like that because they don’t want our negative attention, but he was getting some kind of connection with you every time you repeated yourself. And he would prefer that it wouldn’t be the negative kind, but he’ll take that over no attention, which is what he would get if he was doing it by himself.
And so I think it’s really important to see these sort of unskillful strategies. And very often we see that when one kid is hitting another kid, right? It’s like, why won’t you just stop hitting their sibling? And what we often see is, well, what happens when they hit their sibling? You’re on them immediately. They have your attention and they’d rather have your positive attention, but they’ll take your negative attention over no attention. So can we see that as a need for connection and meet that need for connection even though it’s being requested in sort of an unskillful way? And I’ve referred to this example so many times, I’ve actually had a friend say, I should get t-shirts made, and I’ll tell you what the T-shirt’s going to say at the end, but I got really attached to the idea that I didn’t want to unload the dishwasher in our house anymore.
I was sick of doing it. It was a three minute task that I could do while my oatmeal was heating up. It was not that big of a deal, but I was tired of doing it every single day. And one day I picked a fight with my husband about it. He swans out of the bedroom at nine 30 in the morning and he makes his 20 minute coffee routine and sits down with his toast and his Instagram. And I’m like, you do not appreciate me. You are not saying that I’ve been up for three hours and I’ve unloaded the dishwasher and fed our daughter and done two hours of work. This is not okay. And so I picked this unskillful strategy of picking a fight with him because I had an unmet need for connection and collaboration. I want to know that we’re on the same team and there are so many ways that we could meet that need in me of being on the same team.
And one of those ways is that he could unload the dishwasher first thing in the morning. And so that the t-shirt my friends are saying should say it’s not about the dishwasher because it’s really not. And so when we look at our children’s difficult behavior, we can sort of think to ourselves, it’s not about the dishwasher, it’s not about whatever it seems to be about in this moment, what need is my child trying to meet by doing this thing that’s driving me up the wall, and can I help them to meet that need? Because when I can, chances are there will be less resistance, there will be much more ease and harmony for me.
Dr. Sarah (00:34:10):
Yes, I love that so, so much. I love the way that you put that. And I think too, I am wondering if you could share some ideas for parents on concretely, what are some strategies for identifying the various needs our kids have that aren’t about the dishwasher or aren’t about the ush, or aren’t about getting dressed in the morning, but are really about other things? What are those strategies for identifying that accurately for our kid in the moment.
And especially when our child is not verbal? So I actually have a quiz on my website to help parents with this. So if you go to yourparentingmojo.com/quiz, there is a series of 10 questions and it walks you through and they’re super easy to answer just about your child’s behavior and it returns a result of what is probably one of your child’s top needs. And so for some kids it might be something like sensory input. So for some kids, if their label on their shirt is scratching them or if the seam on their socks is touching their foot in the wrong way, then everything else falls apart. And once that is set correctly, then everything else goes much better. So if we know that about our child, we can address those sensory needs and then we will probably find that everything else gets much easier.
And I would say that if it seems as though you have tried, then sensory needs are a really good place to look if you haven’t looked already. Some other really common needs that I see coming up over and over again are for connection. And so a lot of parents will say, but I spend so much time together and we play together all the time, but I work all the time and I have four kids, how can I possibly have connection with each one? And so the key is not that you need massive amounts of connection, but that connection be done in a way that really resonates for that child. And just to kind of illustrate that, I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a relationship, and this often shows up in sort of cisgender heterosexual partnerships where the female person is having a bad day and wants to tell their partner about their bad day. And the partner, the male partner immediately jumps in and says, well, you should do this. This is how you can fix it. And the female partner says, but I don’t want you to fix this. I just want you to listen.
And so we all want to be supported in a certain way and we have a tendency to support others in the way that we want to be supported. And if we can see what is our child’s way that they want to be supported instead of supporting them in the way that we want to support them, maybe their love language is touch or is play or whatever it is. Maybe theirs is play and ours is touch and we’re all lovey, lovey, lovey all over them, and they’re like, but I just want you to play Lego with me. So if we can meet them where they are, they’re going to be able to receive that connection in a way that they can’t when we are doing it from our perspective of what this connection should look like. So it’s sensory, so connection. A third big one is autonomy.
I want to be able to make decisions that are really important to me. And this brings an example to mind of a parent of, I think a six year old who was in Mandarin lessons who was resisting those Mandarin lessons refusing to go. And the parent through our conversation realized that she had really been kind of controlling a lot of the aspects of this child’s life. And so she backed off from as much of that as she could and said, okay, you get to decide what you have for breakfast. You get to decide what you have for lunch. You get to decide lots and lots of things throughout the day. We don’t always see a one-to-one correlation, but very often when our child’s need is for autonomy and we allow them the opportunity to make more decisions, they stop resisting the other stuff. And all of a sudden this child’s saying, okay, it’s time for Mandarin. Are we ready? And off they go.
Dr. Sarah (00:38:13):
It makes me think of the needs cupcake that you mentioned in the book. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Yeah, that was sort of a late entry that slipped in at the end, and I was looking for a visual way of representing the fact that we’re all trying to meet a fairly small set of needs over and over again. And you may have noticed a pattern already when we’re talking about a lot of our child’s behavior. Very often we’re looking for ease for collaboration, for harmony, for peace in our home. And so if that’s my need over and over again, I don’t need to look at a list of 50 needs every time things are falling apart and say, which of these needs is it? I can kind of know that something in those top three to five is going to be that cherry on top of the cupcake. The needs that I’m trying to meet over and over and over again might be peace, collaboration, harmony.
And then in the next layer, which started out English, it was icing, but icings really thin. So we changed it to American frosting, which is much, much thicker. And so that’s your next three to five needs that you’re trying to meet over and over again. And if you’re in a difficult situation, you look at your cherry, it’s like, no, it doesn’t seem to be those needs. You look at your frosting, I’m not sure it’s those needs. Then you can look at the cupcake underneath and see, okay, is it possible that it’s one of these other needs? But going through the cherry and the frosting first allows you to consider a much smaller set and say, yes, my need for ease is not being met right now and I want to get that met. How can I imagine ways to meet my need for ease and also help you child to meet your need for joy or play or movement or whatever it is you are trying to do?
Dr. Sarah (00:39:52):
Yes, that’s so helpful. I think that also just kind of concretizes it and it honors both. It’s not just our child’s needs, it’s ours.
Dr. Sarah (00:40:01):
Which is so important. And I feel like it gets left out a lot in these conversations around how do I get my child to cooperate? And then we say, okay, well we have to meet their needs. Well end of conversation, but we have to meet our kids’ needs while meeting our own needs and while helping our child understand I also have needs, and that collaborative problem solving that comes out of both of us having needs and being able to talk about that together. It’s so valuable for a child. It’s so huge.
Yeah, it really is. And I think this links back to an idea that you alluded to earlier on, which is that probably 90% of our time, we can find ways to meet both of our needs in our relationship. There will be times when we can’t, we just can’t find a way. Maybe it’s because when I grew up, I would’ve been punished for doing this thing and I just cannot get my head around the idea of allowing my child to do this. So we have other tools, we have boundaries. I can say, I have a need right now and I wish I can see your need, or maybe I can’t see your need, but I cannot see how I can help you to meet your need and also meet my need. And so I’m going to set a boundary, and particularly for folks socialized as female, that’s really hard to do because we learned if you set a boundary, that means I don’t love you anymore.
So don’t ever set boundaries. Don’t ever say, I am not willing to do X for you because that communicates that I don’t love you when actually it just communicates I have a need and I’m going to try to meet that need right now. And I wish that I could help you meet your need too. And it’s so important for our children to learn how to set boundaries because I mean, what happens when the first time their friend says, if you don’t steal that candy from the store, I’m not going to be your friend anymore. What do we want ’em to do? Do we want ’em to be a people pleaser who rolls over and says, yeah, you’re saying I should do it. I’m going to go and do it. Or do we want ’em to be able to check in with themselves and say, that doesn’t feel right to me, that doesn’t meet my need for honesty, for authenticity, for integrity, and so I’m not going to do it and I’m going to set a boundary. And that doesn’t mean I don’t love you anymore, friend, but I’m not going to do that.
Dr. Sarah (00:42:15):
That’s why it’s so important.
Dr. Sarah (00:42:15):
You don’t have to decide between the two.
Yeah, no, you don’t.
Dr. Sarah (00:42:19):
Yeah. And that kind of makes me think of this other thing that I wanted to talk to you about, which is intrinsic motivation, this sort of internal compass that we’re trying so hard. I think if you pull a hundred parents and ask, why do you discipline the way you do? Why do you teach the things you teach? Why do you set these particular boundaries? And I think a lot of them will say, because I want my child to have these values. I want my child to know right from wrong. I want my child to be able to be a productive member of society. All those things, fantastic things. I’m in favor of them all, but they come from what I believe is going to have to come from an internal compass, not because someone said I have to do this. And unfortunately, a lot of the strategies that we use to parent and that are focused on behavior, and to your point, probably actually focused on a more deeper level on power, don’t necessarily teach that critical thinking, that attunement with our internal compass, they teach obedience. How do we get out of that? What do we need to do to reframe how we teach those values and how we teach that connection to our internal compass?
So I think there are a couple of different approaches depending on the issue. So I have a learning membership for folks who are interested in supporting their children’s intrinsic love of learning, and we have a module on critical thinking. And so I dove pretty deeply into it there and kind of came up with this sort of paradox. We want our children to develop critical thinking skills, but there are some values we hold that we want them to just hold our values. And so issues related to race, that’s where that comes up for me. I want you to think critically about issues related to race. And also I want you to have my values on this.
If you come out thinking, okay, I’m going to join the KKK, then that’s kind of not going to be okay with me. So we are in a bit of a paradox. And the way that I choose to navigate that is to say, yes, you get to think critically about this, but I am not going to be shy about sharing what is my perspective on this. So you are never going to be in any doubt about what is okay with me here. And you still get a chance to evaluate that yourself, but you will very clearly know where I stand. And that’s on the issues, issues related to race that are very, very, very important to me. And that also comes up in conversations in about books that we’re reading. We don’t censor any books, but we point these things out when it’s the dark-skinned character who’s always the evil character.
We point that out when we’re reading books where the father is telling the child what to do and not giving the child any alternative. We point out the patriarchal power structures. So that’s how I navigate it related to big social issues. But then there are a whole lot of other issues that are just kind of more about general values. I want my child to learn respect and the value of hard work and those kinds of things. And in some ways, I think back to my own childhood where there were a lot of things I didn’t love to do. I didn’t tidying up when I was a kid. I didn’t like hiking when I was a kid. I remember vividly being told by my stepmother when we went on a long hike in Wales, we were trying to get to the top of Ben Nevis, which is the tallest mountain in England and Wales. And we ended up turning around because my father was afraid of heights. And my sister and I complained and my stepmother said, you complained all the way up and now you’re complaining. We were turning around. So I didn’t like hiking, and now I love to hike.
It’s one of the things that I love to do most and that I did with my daughter when she was a baby. I don’t think we can necessarily catastrophize in the way that a lot of parents that I work with do and say, well, if they don’t learn this now, if they don’t get this skill now, it will never happen. They will never learn how to do this. If we can see this is just what’s happening right now. And if we think back to when we were children, what was it that we most wanted from our parents? And let’s make this not a rhetorical question. So Sarah, if you think back to your relationship with your parents, your caregivers, what was the thing you wanted for them more than anything else in the world?
Dr. Sarah (00:47:10):
I think their respect.
What did that mean? Because normally in a patriarchal power structure, that means I am the parent and you will respect me, right? Yeah. What did that mean to you?
Dr. Sarah (00:47:22):
I think I wanted them to see, and I will say I didn’t grow up in a highly patriarchal structure or authoritarian structure at all. And there was a lot of my parents, I think one of the things I’m most grateful for is that my parents really were like, they didn’t want to squash whatever spice I had. I was a spicy kid. And they were like, yeah, I have this story. My mom tells this all the time, but in kindergarten, my kindergarten teacher called her and was like, Sarah won’t put her car. Sarah won’t put her coat on to go to Carline. And we’re holding up the whole class. And I grew up in Minnesota, so it was cold, it was very cold. My mom was basically like, okay, so she will probably put her coat on when she gets outside cold. So just go out without the coat. She’ll figure it out. My mom wasn’t going to to sort of reprimand me and as a kindergarten or make it about, well, Sarah’s needs to kind of obey. It was kind of like, well, she’ll get there. Just do what you need to do. So she would push back on those things. And that was the early nineties. That wasn’t very common back then. And so I actually got real lucky in that respect. But I think for me, where I think I like to answer your question when I think about I wanted my parents’ respect, I wanted them to be interested in what I was. I wanted them to be curious about my mind, to spend time talking about stuff that I was interested in.
And so if I can translate that into a need, your need was to be seen and heard and known and understood for who you really were.
And I mean, frankly, that’s what all of us want. I would’ve been shocked if you had said something that led to another need because yes, we have other needs, but at its core, we all want to be seen and heard and known and understood by the people who were closest to us. That’s kind of what it means to be human. And if we have that, which it sounds as though based on what you’re describing in that interaction, your mom was willing to go there, your mom was willing to say, I see what society is asking Sarah to do, and we’re not necessarily going to unquestionably accept that. And so your mom is really heading in that direction for you. It sounds as though maybe there was a piece of it that you wished that she had seen and known and understood that wasn’t fully fulfilled, but that she went a long way in that direction. And I think that when that is in place, when we have that security of knowing I am okay as a person, and I know that I’m okay because I see it reflected back to me from my caregiver, that my caregiver gives me this consistent message, you are okay. You are lovable just as you are. Then all of the rest of it falls into place.
Dr. Sarah (00:50:40):
Yeah, and I think it’s so funny. I think that dynamic existed with my parents really easily. They got that, I think it was with other adults where that was not so easy because most adults in the nineties did not follow that model. And I didn’t do the things that they always wanted me to do because I also had parents that were like, you don’t have to do. And I think that’s a huge reason that I am as confident and willing to take risks in the way that I am today. I don’t think I’d be that way if it weren’t for that. So it’s very powerful to have parents who will allow you to piss off other adults counterintuitive to this idea that from what your point in your book is the patriarchy or capitalism or white supremacy is that’s threatening. And most parents internalize that threat. It’s legitimately scary to allow my child to go out into the world and piss off other adults by asserting their power. And that’s in a white family.
Kidding? It was a brown child doing that. That would not have been as safe for me to do that. But still, I think parents internalize the threat. And I understand that it does feel scary to, when I talk to parents about, okay, your kids on the playground, they just hit another kid and you are going to go and co-regulate with them. I get a lot of anxiety and understandable, but then all these parents would be really mad at me because I didn’t discipline my kid and this other kid got hurt. I’m like, yeah, they might be, but you don’t just tune them out right Now. That’s very difficult. I mean, it’s a big ask for parents because they do have to both do the thing they’re trying to do in parenting consciously and effortfully, but also hold space for the discomfort of all that internalized fear that this is really threatening. This is really dangerous. It’s a lot.
It is. And it tends to be more when you start. And I think of it kind of like when I first started to say the word vulva when my daughter’s, I don’t know, a year old or so, and I did an episode on using anatomically correct body parts. And I started to say vulva. And I would say in a really vulva, have you watched a vulva? And I would go bright red when I would say it to her, she’s in the bar, what is going on here? And then the more I said it, the easier it got. And there was a long time where my husband just would not say it. And by the time she was probably three, he’s shouting from one end of the house to the other, did you wash your vulva?
So I sort of liken it to that, right? It’s really hard when you first start doing it and it gets easier the more you do it. And I’m sort of hearing the implicit question from parents who are thinking, but how will they ever learn? How will they learn that it’s not okay? And my response to that is, firstly, your child knows that it’s not okay. There’s not an absence of information here. Your child has probably already been told 300 times it’s not okay to hit. Telling them one more time, it’s not okay to hit is not going to solve any problem here. They hit for a reason and we don’t currently understand what that reason is. Maybe they do have unmet sensory needs and they’re getting jostled as they’re leaving the classroom on the way out to the playground. And that just is so overwhelming for them that they can’t help themselves from lashing out.
And if we can see that need and we can say, okay, what if you stood over here away from the other children while we’re going out so that your body is safe and protected, and then we can all go outside and there won’t be any hitting, and there was no need to teach. The lesson of hitting is wrong. So that’s the first part of it. And the second part I think is sort of this analogy that came up in the interview that I did with Dr. Chris Niebauer on his book, No Self, No Problem, which was just transformational for me in terms of seeing that. I mean, at the end of the day, all of this stuff we’re doing is really kind of just like a game. None of it really matters in the grand scheme of the world. And so the analogy he uses is sort of being watching your kids’ football game.
And you can see that it’s just a bunch of kids running around on a grassy field kicking a ball from one end to the other. And it doesn’t matter if it goes in the goal or not, and that doesn’t stop you from being invested enough to cheer for your kid, but you can also have this sense of, yeah, they may win, they may lose. It’s going to be okay either way. And so if you can approach these situations from that perspective of it’s going to be okay and helping your children to understand that as well as your parents were maybe doing is sort of teaching you that life is a game and you get to decide how play along. And there may be some situations where you don’t necessarily respect this person’s authority, but you recognize it’s just going to be easier to go along with what they’re asking.
And you choose to do it even though you don’t fully agree with what they’re asking you to do. And maybe there are other times you’re like, no, that is not okay. And you get to make that choice. And so I think that when we approach life in that way, it brings a real degree of equanimity, which means you don’t get pulled around by your feelings as much. Not everything seems like an emergency that has to be fixed right now. It’s just, okay, yeah, this is hard right now. I can get through this. Everything will be okay.
Dr. Sarah (00:56:51):
Yes. I think about this a lot when I talk about parenting and discipline because I think parents have this intense pressure that’s coming from that real pressure that’s coming from the outside as well as real pressure that’s coming from this internalized pressure inside of us that we’ve built up over the generations, but that we’re supposed to parent in the moment or we’re supposed to parent immediately, otherwise we’ve failed. It’s our responsibility to parent immediately. And I spend a lot of time actually working with parents to understand that and dismantle that belief a little bit because it creates so much urgency and anxiety in the moment.
And where does it come from? Why do you have this belief? It’s your responsibility to parent immediately, and what does that even mean? I think parenting, if I were going to replace the discipline piece, I would think about replacing it with create safety. We have to create safety in the moment immediately. If our kid hits, we have to make sure everyone’s safe. We got to keep them from hitting anybody else. That’s our job. That’s parenting immediately. You don’t have to teach immediately because teaching works better when you do it when their prefrontal cortex is online, which only happens when their nervous system is in a state of sympathetic arousal or just feeling safe and calm and non threat, but they hit so they aren’t. So we have to then move them from the threat mode to safety mode. Once they’re in safety mode, then we can teach some things. But I think a lot of times parents are using the right tools, but they’re just using at the wrong time.
And that’s a key idea that I pick up in the book is that if you’re trying to understand what your child’s needs are in the moment, it can be kind of hard, that when, for example, your child is hitting their sibling, that’s a difficult point at which to try and figure out what their needs are. Especially if you are parenting with all the other things in their nursery, and maybe you had a difficult relationship with your siblings that you’re casting your mind back to and thinking, well, if I don’t fix this right now, then my oldest is going to beat up on his brother forever, just like my older brother beat up on me. And so I have to stop this right now. And so if we can instead of course, go into the room, I mean, ideally we would’ve seen this coming. Yeah. I mean, so often it’s possible to see this coming when we hear the tone in our child’s voice shift or we know that little brother’s been rattling the cage has been asking for things that the older sibling is finding difficult all through the morning, we know that something’s coming.
And when we can step into that situation before the meltdown actually arrives, we’re going to be in a much better place. And then once we step into it, what do we do? It seems as though we have to discipline in the moment. You stop doing that. You had it yesterday, give it back to so-and-so. If instead we can step in and say something like, oh my goodness, it seems like we’re all having a really hard time right now, assuming I’m dysregulated as well. And then yes, we’re picking up any small sibling who appears to be in any sort of danger. And then maybe we’re just standing there not saying anything. If we can, maybe we can sit down and not say anything and take some deep breaths and just be together and co-regulate together. And then as we become more able, what was it that you were trying to do? Oh, you were trying to build the tallest tower ever need for competence. What were you trying to do? Oh, you wanted to help, you need for connection or whatever was going on. Let’s see. Is there a way that we can imagine that we can meet both of our needs? And so that comes from that place of being regulated and we can allow the space for that to develop. It doesn’t have to happen in those difficult moments.
Dr. Sarah (01:01:09):
Yes. I love that so much. If people are wanting to learn more about your work, get this book or hear about your podcast or your amazing courses and all of the stuff that you have for parents, how can they connect with you? How can they find you?
Yeah, so the book I think will be available by the time this episode goes out. And so you can find all the information on it at yourparentingmojo.com/book. I’m doing a West coast tour in the end of 2023, hopefully maybe extending to the East Coast in 2024. And I’m doing a whole bunch of workshops with parents, with teachers at preschools, at schools, at schools, in church organizations, a whole bunch of different places to help them really bring the ideas from the book to life. We also have bonuses available, how-to videos, that kind of thing when you order. And so all of that’s available at yourparentingmojo.com/book. And then, yeah, the other thing is if you’re listening to this and you’re kind of on board with the idea, I know that needs are important and I don’t know what my child’s need is, yourparentingmojo.com/quiz get you to probably one of the needs they’re trying to meet over and over and over again. And when you can understand that need and meet that need more often, everything else gets so much easier.
Dr. Sarah (01:02:31):
That’s such a great resource. And also for anyone who is not already listening to Your Parenting Mojo podcast, definitely, definitely should because it’s so good. Thank you. And thank you. Thank you for coming on. This was fantastic. I loved talking with you.
Thanks so much for having me. That was really fun.
Dr. Sarah (01:02:53):If you are feeling frustrated, overwhelmed at your wits end, or finding yourself constantly engaged in a power struggle roundabout with your child, you do not want to miss my free masterclass, From Battles to Bonding: Overcoming Power Struggles. By understanding precisely how to reverse engineer a power struggle and how to use the right tools at the right time, you can foster a happier, more cooperative relationship with your child while strengthening your parent-child bond. So go to drsarahbren.com/powerstruggles to grab your free seat for my live masterclass on Tuesday, September 19th at 1:00 PM Eastern. That’s drsarahbren.com/powerstruggles. Thanks so much for being here. And don’t be a stranger.
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