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.
Dr. Emily (00:50):
Dr. Rebecca (00:50):
Hey, thank you. Always so awesome to be here.
Dr. Sarah (00:52):
So great to see you guys. Okay, let’s dive in because I got a DM from a listener to the podcast and this is what they said. They said, Hi, Dr. Sarah. The biggest issue that’s going on in my house is that my five-year-old just doesn’t listen. We stick blueberries in the freezer and her favorite thing to do is stuff her face with these blueberries all day long. She even climbed up on the counter her herself and got into the freezer. We don’t care so much about that except that she leaves a trail behind her and I have a one-year-old who’s finding them and putting them in his mouth, and that’s obviously a choking hazard. So I know we need to make that a hard line, but when I don’t have a consequence that goes along with it, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.
I say, no, you can’t do that. And then she does it. And then I’m like, well, I don’t know how to address this because I know this is a hard no, but I don’t know how to discipline or stop it in the future. Does that make sense? Any tips you can give me? So I think this is such a great question. What are the consequences when our child doesn’t listen when it’s a matter of safety and yet not going too far to remove all autonomy for your five-year-old that they’re craving and also having developmentally realistic expectations of a five-year-old. So there’s a lot here. Emily, where would you start with this question?
Dr. Emily (02:12):
Yeah, this is a tricky one because it’s really rich and filled with a lot of areas of intervention. I think mean my start would be actually the thing that wrong, true to me the most, and this was when mom said, I don’t really care that she does this right. And I’m like, well, so that makes it really hard to have a consequence or even just a verbalization of don’t do that. If kids are very perceptive, they’re probably like they don’t really care. I’m hearing that mom isn’t fully sold on this. I guess my first instinct is to get a little bit for the mom to get just a little bit clearer on that part and deliver that message with a little bit more intentionality just because the five-year-old isn’t going to understand all of this isn’t safe and all of the rationalization. The other thing would be to make it a safe barrier. You could put a lock on your freezer, you could try to be mindful. Supervision is obviously the first step, but I think starting there is with getting clear on how hard of a line do I want to draw about, this is probably the first place I would go.
Dr. Sarah (03:30):
And even just real quick, one of the things you said made me think a lot of parents, like my five-year-old does understand it’s dangerous. I can teach them that it’s dangerous. Yes, you can. And cognitively, they’re probably at a level where they do understand that blueberries aren’t safe for a one-year-old, and that’s dangerous conceptually, they can grasp that. But what I think is really key when we’re talking about developmentally appropriate expectations is understanding the difference between a five-year-old’s ability to comprehend something and a five-year-old’s ability to inhibit an impulse. Those two things might be in direct conflicts with one another. My five-year-old might intellectually understand that blueberries aren’t safe for his brother or her brother to have access to, but when I want a blueberry and it’s frozen and it’s delicious and I want it right now, and that’s all I’m thinking about because I’m five and I’m going to just do whatever I need to do to get that thing that I want, I get blinders on really narrow vision. And so I think that’s also the tricky part is also understanding our child’s developmental level of like, yeah, yeah, they can understand that it’s not safe and you could spend a lot of time lecturing them about how unsafe it is. It’s probably still not always going to stop the behavior because they don’t have the inhibition skills. So actually think it’s more also about helping build up inhibition skills, pausing.
Dr. Rebecca (04:53):
And parents get stuck on that a lot because they’ll say, not only will they lecture their kid, but they’ll have their kid repeat it back. Your kid is like, it’s not safe because Joey could choke and we might have to go to the hospital and he won’t be able to breathe. And then four minutes later you see them dropping blueberries all over the floor, parents go ballistic. They’re like, I’m raising a budding sociopath. She only her brother might have to go to the hospital is it’s about hating her sibling. And instead, I always do exactly what you just did is explain the disparities between the different areas of the brain and how they develop. And especially with five-year-olds, they can be so precocious in their language, both expressive and receptive, but that has nothing on the prefrontal cortex in terms of judgment and impulse control.
It’s funny, Emily, I heard exactly what you heard, which was the mom’s a little bit wishy washiness and also that led me to feel like, what’s the problem here? The problem is not actually sounds like that she’s going into the freezer and getting the blueberries the problem that she’s accidentally dropping them on the floor because she leaves a trail. And so I would just wonder, and again, I know I’m potentially in the weeds, I still think we can talk about what do you do when a kid doesn’t listen in other scenarios. But this to me is like, well, what is the rule? Can we create a rule that’s much more like when you get the blueberries, you eat them in a bowl at the table and then when you’re done you look under the table and make sure there are no blueberries. I mean, the fact of the matter is if you have a one-year-old in the house who is free reign, which is great, someone’s got to be walking around and just being aware that they’re not little things on the floor because it might be the blueberries, but it might be that she leaves out Allego and it might be, I mean your five-year-old is going to leave things out that your one-year-old can’t have.
I love that you said that. Yeah, so sort of what’s the rule and what’s the procedure and sort of helping her take more responsibility for that. At first I was like, put the blueberries on a higher shelf and now I’m kind of like, no. What if we make them more accessible? What if we take away the alluring aspect if we’re like, sure, knock yourself out. Here’s the blueberries. They’re in a drawer that you can reach and you can have them and you have to eat them at the table. And when you’re done, you need to look to see if any have fallen on the floor. And I will remind you of that as the grownup. And in the back of my head, I will always be also looking for blueberries because the goal is that she start to understand that she’s also responsible for some of these things, but again, in a developmentally appropriate way.
Dr. Sarah (07:26):
And even to just expand on that before I then take us back to the general idea of consequences is another realistic expectation for this parent is if I’m going to create a new plan, a new rule, I also have to have a developmentally appropriate expectation for my child to have some scaffolding to learn that rule. So yes, I’m going to make the blueberries more accessible. Yes, I’ve identified the actual core problem here, which is the blueberries are getting dropped on the floor, not that they’re going to the freezer, but then the solution then is to make the blueberries accessible and teach my child how to eat them safely. I’m going to have to be with my child and teach them and support them for a while before I can expect them to just be able to do that by themselves because it’s a new thing, it’s a new expectation, it’s a new task.
That doesn’t mean you have to do this for months, but for the first two or three or four times that you introduce them to this new plan of eating blueberries in a bowl at the table and then checking, you’re going to have to do it with them and practice and then you can start to pull back gradually. But I think parents sometimes don’t always, again, I think they go to that place of, my kid gets it, they know how to do this, and they do, but we’re actually not working on comprehension. We’re working on inhibition of impulse and following an order like a sequencing. These are executive function
Dr. Emily (09:07):
Habit. That’s what I was going to say. I think it’s like you’re trying to figure out what a developmentally appropriate habit is. And I think that that’s sort of the thing I loved about what you said, Rebecca. It’s like sitting at the table and cleaning up the blueberries afterwards is a very developmentally appropriate goal. To Sarah’s point for a five-year-old, it’s like it’s with pleases and thank yous. You’re going to have to remind your kid to say them a lot before it becomes internalized, but at least then you have a system and I think that’s an appropriate level of responsibility for that age range.
Dr. Sarah (09:45):
And so it’s funny because it’s sort of this parallel thing happening here, which I see a lot. I do this work, this is funny. This story reminds me of one that a parent in my group, I run a parenting group for two to seven year olds. And there was a parent in this group that was having a similar situation where the daughter was, the older daughter was doing these things that were technically, they weren’t supposed to do them, but the real reason that this kid wasn’t supposed to do these things was it was making it unsafe for the baby, not because the parents really had any problem with the behavior the child was engaging in. And so the initial thought on the parent is like, I told ’em they can’t do this. I’ve set this limit. They’re doing it anyway. Now what’s the consequence? Because we’re really focused on if you do an unwanted behavior, my goal as a parent is to extinguish that behavior and one of the best ways to extinguish a behaviors through punishment or even we think of the word punishment nowadays as this really harsh punitive punishment, but really punishment from a behaviorism level just means a removal of a positive stimulus or an addition of a negative stimulus in an effort to reduce a behavior.
A consequence is a punishment if you’re using that definition. Even a natural consequence is a punishment if you’re thinking about that. But I think the problem is we’re asking the wrong question to begin with. And that I think is why when we were asked this question about the blueberries, all of us were completely didn’t answer the question about consequences because we went straight to the question, oh, let’s reframe the question to actually get to the answer that’s going to result in a change in the behavior or change in the problem. But I think this is the problem with a lot of parenting infrastructure. There’s so many systems in our society that tell parents explicitly and implicitly, you are responsible for your child’s good behavior and if they are misbehaving, you are failing unless you give them some sort of consequence that changes that behavior and it better be changed by the next time. Otherwise you’re definitely failing as a parent. And that’s impossible for parents to live up to that expectation.
Dr. Rebecca (12:06):
It’s interesting because Sarah, I also think that the contrasting voice that’s out there a lot right now is there’s never a time for consequences. And so I think parents are feeling conflicted. And I was thinking to myself when you were reading the question, the way that she phrased it was like, I may have read into this. I don’t know if this is how she meant it, but what I heard was like, don’t worry, I’m not giving a consequence. What do I do? And it’s sort of like in this particular scenario, I think we all did exactly what you said, which is we shifted the question, and this is not a time for a consequence. I don’t think a consequence would work because of the stage of brain development, because of the goal of changing the behavior. There are times where consequences are tremendously effective and their decades of research showing that, again, I think parents have been told that that’s just a hundred percent off the table. And so there’s a fear of that at the same time as they might be hearing from perhaps older generations, what’s wrong with you? Your kid keeps misbehaving, give a consequence. So I think parents right now are frankly pretty confused.
Dr. Emily (13:10):
Dr. Rebecca (13:11):
The good news is that I think what we just did without even thinking about it, which is kind of reframing the question, is more often than not going to land in a place that everyone will feel comfortable with and where you’ll actually see positive results. However, I don’t think it takes away that confusion that a lot of parents are feeling.
Dr. Emily (13:26):
And I would gander to say that sitting at the table and looking for your blueberries afterwards is sort of a consequence. It is sort of containing the behavior, but it has a little bit more internal change. I think the thing that we’re always looking for is how do we not stop the behavior right then in the moment? How do we instill a child to look for a better solution themselves and I think, or to have a more internal sense of boundaries and responsibility and basically a participant in society in a helpful way. So I think where we always go as professionals, as moms and as psychologists is I want to stop the behavior, not necessarily right then and there. I want to teach something more important and something longer lasting. And I think that’s sort of where we went with that solution, I think.
Dr. Sarah (14:22):
Yeah, yeah. No, I think that’s so true, and I think Rebecca, to your point, neither of the messages that parents are getting, if we’re assuming the messages are either, why are you not punishing this child for being so bad? Where is your sense of discipline? You permissive parent, and simultaneously, how could you possibly give a consequence to a child? They are equal, they are autonomous, and this is not fair or equitable or it’s going to damage your relationship with your child. Those are so extreme on either ends of the spectrum, and I think we often get that in our society today. There’s a lot of that polarizing black and white binary thinking, and it really misses this beautiful space in the middle where both of these things can exist. You can have consequences and you can have respect for your child’s autonomy. You can see them with a lot of respect and equity in the family system.
But equity is not the same as we’re peers. And I don’t have a role in being this leader, this authoritative, confident parent who is a container who has a job that requires that I am in charge and I can keep you safe and keep you clean and keep you healthy, move you through the schedule of the day, make hard decisions. Those are some of the five jobs. I always kind of remind parents if it’s in one of those domains, you have to hold that boundary sometimes and you have to be confident that you are doing a good thing for your child by doing it. You don’t have to scream at them or shame them in order to fulfill that job though.
Dr. Rebecca (16:24):
And I think, again, I think knowledge of what’s going on for a five-year-old, for a five-year-old and your five-year-old, right? I mean, when we all do, the three of us all do individual consultations or groups or whatever around these issues all the time, and it’s sort of like, well, let’s understand before we go anywhere, as you said, what’s the brain development of a five-year-old? Also, what’s the motivation of a five-year-old? What does a five-year-old want? A five-year-old wants autonomy. A five-year-old wants to test limits, so this five-year-old may be doing this more because there’s a limit. And that’s where what Emily said comes in, which is, okay, so then is this a limit that I really need to toe the line on? Or is this a limit that might be better off? If we don’t set that as the limit and we set something else as the limit, where does the role of my attention come in?
Am I paying constant attention to the one-year-old or if there isn’t a one-year-old I’m on my phone trying to do work until my child gets up on the counter to get the blueberries and then suddenly I’m involved and she’s pulled me in? I mean, there’s so many things to think about, and that’s why one of the very first things I talk about with parents is what can we try to start learning what we call reflective functioning or seeing the world through our child’s eyes, what’s going on for ’em? Because once we do that, we realize they’re not us. They’re seeing this completely differently from a completely different perspective, and then that helps guide how we want to proceed.
Dr. Sarah (17:59):
And that makes me think of another really challenging issue that I think parents face today, which is the constant cookie cutter rules and scripts and things like that. When this happens, you say this, when this happens, you say this. And the problem with that is in a singular scenario, maybe that’s the right thing to say. And so someone’s teaching someone else to say that, but every single situation that you find yourself in as a parent with your child is completely novel. It is completely different because you bring something to that interaction, your child brings something to that interaction. The time of day brings something to that interaction. How well we all slept last night brings something to that interaction. What’s happening around in our lives right now brings something to that interaction. And so when we have these sound bites all the time or these scripts or these rules, and I do think they’re useful, but I think what parents sometimes don’t get support around is like, yeah, people are teaching them the quote, right things to say or quote right things to do, but they’re not really getting support around how do I individualize this to my child and build my skills around reading all the other stuff that I have to factor into the decision in this moment of what’s most important here today, now with my kids.
Dr. Rebecca (19:30):
It’s like a chain analysis from DBT, which is what I mentioned in my book and the introduction of my book, and I’m not one to be like la la my book, but this is, so in keeping with that, I talk about sort of the classic tantrum, and this was pre covid of being in the candy aisle with your child at the supermarket and the child is screaming and yelling for a candy bar, and it’s sort of a typical tantrum, and you walk by and you’re observing, okay? And every person I know who loves to jump to judgment is like, well, I know what I would do, or I know what I would do. And then what if I told you that the kid actually hadn’t slept all night and had a fever? Would that change your response? And then what if I told you the kid is actually their first time leaving the house because there was a new baby born?
And then what if I told you that mom actually has a history of an eating disorder? And so she gets actually pretty anxious in the candy aisle herself. There’s so many, and you could go on and on and on and on in the circles. And again, you can’t as a parent measure that. It’s not like, oh, I need to think about that in a conscious level. But it really is practice. You can build that skill and the skill to my mind, the most important skill is can you pause? And that’s why we talk about that. And I know you talk about that a lot too. Instead of just reacting in the moment, can you pause for just a second to just do a quick scan of what’s happening here? Where’s this coming from again? What’s going on with sleeping? What’s going on with eating? What’s going on with sibling relationships? What’s going with my mood as a parent? And then that guides your plan and not sort of a set script for what do you do when your child’s in the candy aisle screaming for a chocolate bar because you could show me a thousand different kids doing that for a thousand different reasons. And how I would respond would vary.
Dr. Emily (21:20):
Yeah, I love that because I also think when you model that reflective functioning, you’ll be surprised that your kid might model it back to you, right? It’s a reciprocal system, to your point, Rebecca, about the dyad or in the DBT model, it’s a relationship. And I think the more we’re able to, and I think that is the human side of it, we can still treat our children like other humans that have responses, but we’re using that reflective functioning lens at all times, and that just does get imbued in our children. And even just approaching it that way will help this child sort of understand their experience in a more effective way.
Dr. Sarah (22:04):
Yeah, I think that is so helpful, and I hope that people who are listening to this who maybe clicked on this episode, they were like, oh, good. I’m going to get another really useful way to give a consequence. I hope that you’re listening to this and not feeling like, oh, man, I didn’t get the thing I was looking for because I really think it’s so important to give ourselves permission to maybe take a look at what we think we’re supposed to be doing and be willing to completely reframe our orientation and see if there’s something else that actually is my new intention in this moment. If my new intention in this moment is to understand why my child might be behaving in this way and be curious about that behavior and use that information you gain from that reflecting to determine how to support moving towards the actual outcome we’re really trying to get to, which is, hey, in this case, safety for the kids in the house, safety for the baby, a little bit more awareness in the daughter.
That I think is more of a useful line of thinking than they did this thing. Now what am I supposed to do about this thing they did? And so that’s the reframe I think we really want to help people get to. And it doesn’t mean there are never, there’s not a time and space for consequences, and maybe we can do another episode on like, okay, let’s give a scenario where this is an appropriate time to actually create a consequence. And to Emily’s point, perhaps moving to the table is the consequence, but I’m thinking in terms of if you don’t do this, this is what will happen and this is how we will implement the thing that we said we’re going to do. That’s important too. But I think before you go there, just like you said, Rebecca, pause, reflect, be willing to shift the entire orientation of your questioning and see if then perhaps you don’t even need to ask the question, what’s the consequence?
(24:18):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! ✨