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.
Hey everybody. Oh, I’m super happy today. I’ve got Rebecca and Emily back in the studio. So today we’re going to be answering a listener question. This was really interesting because I feel like there’s so many different ways to take what we’re going to talk about and apply it to different types of situations.
So I feel like it’s a good question to answer, but this writer says, hi, Dr. Bren. I’ve been loving your Beyond the Sessions episodes, and I was hoping to ask a question A couple of weeks ago, I lived my parenthood worst nightmare. My daughter, three and a half years old, snuck out of the house alone and walked all the way down the block before I realized she was gone. I was cooking and entertaining the baby, and I thought she’d gone upstairs to play with her grandma like she always does. But instead, she left running down the sidewalk. A kind neighbor spotted her and started walking her back home. What kind of conversations should I be having with my daughter about leaving the house alone slash stranger danger? I was at a complete loss when we tried to debrief. Do I tell her there are bad people out there? Do I threaten to take a toy away if she does it again? The cherry on top of everything was when I said, you can’t just run down the road without an adult. She responded with, oh, don’t worry, mommy. I was walking down the sidewalk, not the street, l o l. I was both proud and mortified. What do you guys think about this?
Dr. Rebecca (02:03):
I think we’ve all been there in so many ways. These things that we swear will never happen happen regularly when you have kids, and the first thing that occurs to me, honestly when I hear the question is I want to give this mom a hug and just say, it’s okay. It’s okay. Nothing happened, and there’s so many near misses. It’s like watching your toddler fall an inch away from the glass corner of the coffee table at a friend’s. It’s like, could it have been a total horrific disaster? Yes, but chances are it’s not, and those near misses happen in parenting all the time. So my first instinct is just to offer kind of solidarity and reassurance.
Dr. Sarah (02:48):
Yeah, I hear you. I thought of this too. I was like, oh, there’s so many places to go here. But yeah, the first one that I wanted was to sort of say before you go to that place of this is my worst nightmare, or I feel mortified about this, or I feel so overwhelmed with how I’m supposed to handle this grave serious thing now, is to sort of just take a beat and say, okay, this happened and we’re all going to get through it. And there’s lots of inroads actually, I think for having really useful conversations now with this child about what are safer boundaries? Why do we have them? I mean, at three and a half there’s definitely room for some critical thinking and problem solving that we could ask to do with this child to sort of say, Hey, what about this seems like it could have been dangerous, and how can we make sure that doesn’t happen again? And an opportunity for kind of expanding their awareness of how to be safe in their environment without shame. I mean, she says, should I be threatening to take away a toy? My thought to that is what’s, what would be the function of that?
It’s done. So focusing more on learning something different for the future feels like it’d have more utility to me. I’m curious what you guys think.
Dr. Emily (04:24):
Yeah, I mean, I think what’s interesting about this, and this reminds me of things that happened with even my older children, which is we don’t know what they don’t know. We don’t know that the three and a half year old didn’t know that she couldn’t walk out the door and walk down the street. I couldn’t tell from the question, but it wasn’t necessarily that she was even trying to push the boundaries. It’s almost as if she doesn’t know that there was a boundary there. So I think this is, again, to your point, Sarah, an opportunity to say like, oh, right, I should talk to my kids about leaving the house or should they be alone out in the world, or those types of things, which are obviously intuitive to us as parents, but the kids don’t know what they don’t know when we don’t know what they don’t know.
So this I think is almost an opportunity to your point, to sort of talk about those things. Definitely not in a shaming way because it doesn’t sound like from the tone of this question that there was intention in that type of direction of being very contrarian or trying to do something sneaky. And even if there was, again, same premise, you can still regroup and go back to like, Hey, let’s go over some of these ground rules. We haven’t even talked about this yet. You didn’t even know that. I didn’t want you to do that. Let’s talk about that now.
Dr. Rebecca (05:44):
I forget if I’ve told this story on this podcast before, so apologies, but my favorite example ever of kids we don’t know What kids don’t know is when it was during Covid. And so we were talking so much about social distancing and washing our hands, and it was before we really knew exactly how it was transmitted and wearing masks outside and all the rest. And I went for a bike ride with my kids up the block, and at the time, four-year-old got off of his bike and immediately started licking the sidewalk. And I thought to myself, it hadn’t occurred to me to say that also by the way, you can’t lick the sidewalk because who in a million years would’ve anticipated that?
So it wasn’t like, wear a mask, social distance, wash your hands and don’t lick the pavement. Again, it’s like we just don’t think, don’t the way that kids think and for us it’s so obvious that you shouldn’t as a three and a half year old leave. And so we don’t think about it, and that’s where my mind goes is that actually I agree with everything you both have said, and there needs to be a lock on the front door that it’s not a three and a half no matter how much you explain unless you really put the fear, this tremendous fear in her, which we don’t want to do for all kinds of reasons, she may not understand just how dangerous it can be to leave the house, and that’s okay. So long as the grownups who do know put safety measures in place, we put plug blocks in the electrical outlets rather than explaining to kids the dangers of getting electrocuted and hoping that they have that knowledge deep inside them. There’s a conversation to be had about boundaries and ground rules and all of that because undoubtedly, even if you have a lock on the door, at some point you might forget to lock it. So absolutely all of that has to happen and let’s put a lock on the door and if we remember most of the time, let’s leave it locked.
Dr. Emily (07:43):
Yeah, I love that. I think sometimes it’s a simple solution. Sometimes it’s not this big problem that needs to be uncovered. It’s as simple as put a chime on the door, put a lock on the door, have a conversation about, let me know if you’re going to leave the house.
Dr. Rebecca (08:02):
A chime is a good idea too. I was just thinking we have a screen door at a storm door and on a nice day we wouldn’t necessarily want to close and lock the storm door, but we do have a chat when the alarm is not set, but you can still tell when someone is leaving the house, and that’s helpful.
Dr. Sarah (08:20):
But also makes me think I almost want to want to put an asterisk by that I am in complete agreement. Yeah, it sounds like a child safe doorknob or a lock out of her reach would be a great thing to consider here. And also, I am not necessarily a big proponent of childproofing the heck out of your house and wrapping everything in bubble wrap either. I think it’s more like, again, to your point, we don’t know what they don’t know. They will show us what they don’t know. They will show us where there’s some gaps in their sense of what’s safe and what’s dangerous, and then we can respond to that and fill it. We shouldn’t be expected as parents to anticipate every possible danger. Our child, that’s not a healthy way to move through parenthood. I don’t believe of constantly hyper vigilantly trying to anticipate every possible danger that breeds a lot of anxiety. But once you’ve experienced a situation where your child, oh, hey, I didn’t think about the fact that they might not know they can’t walk out the front door without a grownup. Now I might think I’m going to put a lock on that, but I don’t want any parents who didn’t anticipate that or whatever it is.
Dr. Emily (09:40):
I totally agree. I mean, I think one of the things though that I think to your point is also knowing your child, I have three kids. One, I could say, Hey buddy, let me know when you’re going to leave the house. Even at three and a half one I could say that, and it would mean nothing too impulsive of a child. My middle son would be like, oh, I totally forgot you said that as I was halfway down the block. Right? So I think that there’s also a bit of, I know they’re young at three and a half, but they still have a lot of personality and I think parents are great experts on their kids. What kind of kid do you have and what is their level of impulsivity and the ability to slow down in the moment as well? I think another aspect of that, because I totally agree, having childproofing your house is maybe not ideal, but for some kids maybe that has to be how they learn the boundary. For other kids, it could be a conversation.
Dr. Rebecca (10:38):
And I can just anticipate, I can think which of my clients would listen to this and say like, sure, but what if the one time she runs out of the house, there’s a car coming by and she gets hit by a car, and just to recognize that what if thinking is always there and it’s always about the risks and benefits, so you could again instill the fear of God in your kid that cars go really fast and if you leave the house, you could get run over by a car and don’t you ever, because it is actually true, that could happen, and yet the risk of coming down that hard and in that kind of anxious way is really instilling potential anxiety and vigilance about the world in your child, and I don’t know if I’m being clear here, but kind of walking that line in between where you’re helping your kids be aware that the choices they’re making are not the ones we want them to make, but we don’t have to necessarily come down on everything as how dangerous it could be and what a horrible thing could have happened because then that has social emotional consequences.
Dr. Emily (11:52):
I actually think that, and Sarah and I know I feel like we’ve talked about this a zillion times, but there’s going to be more good that happens than bad, right? Though a lot of these things are aberrant and it’s a little bit sort of keeping that in mind. Obviously when if a child got hit by a car, that’d be horrible, but children crossed the street a zillion times, so is it probable or is it likely? And I think that sort of weighing those things is really important. When you were saying that, I kept thinking, I tell my daughter all the time, she’s seven when she walks to her friend’s house who’s just a few houses down, it’s okay to walk to your friend’s house, but the driveways are always the thing that gets me people back out of their driveways really fast. But instead of saying, you’re going to get hit by a car, I say, why don’t you just look, stop it at the end of every beginning of every driveway and take a look before you go across. I think there’s also a way to say it without it being scary.
Dr. Sarah (12:50):
I think that is such an important point. I think there is definitely a way to have a conversation about safety and not have it be scary. I think that there is a way to say to this child, for example, Hey, let’s talk a little bit about the reasons why it’s not safe for you to go outside the house by yourself without a grownup. What if a car didn’t see you? Or what if someone who wasn’t safe stopped you and asked you to come with them, which then kind of opens a new thread. This mom had also asked about, how do I talk to my daughter about stranger danger? And I was like, stranger danger, which we should probably touch on a little bit too, is complicated because for the same reasons we’re saying we do not want to scare our children about planting the seed that all people who just because all strangers could be bad, so we should assume they all could be or will be because we don’t know.
That’s not a message we want to send to people. And also on a tangent, most people who want to do harm to children in a very sad and unfortunate truth are people who the child knows or who make themselves known to the child first, I should say most people don’t just spring up out of the bushes and nab a child. Most people who they groom children, which if should you’re interested in learning more about child safety and preventing child abuse. We should link the episode that I did with Feather Berkower on this because it’s a very good episode and she’s incredible when it comes to talking about child abuse prevention. So you can find the link to that in the show notes, but bringing it back full circle to what we were talking about, there are ways to talk about dangerous things, whether it’s leaving the house, whether it’s talking to a stranger, whether it’s crossing the street that’s informative and collaborative and gives them appropriate and reasonable understanding of risk without it being fear-mongering and making them anxious.
Dr. Emily (15:01):
Yeah, I love that, Sarah. I think ultimately our goal is to teach our child to read the situation. It isn’t for them to be afraid of every situation. It’s for them to say, oh, that person made me feel a little funny. What does that mean? Or, I’m a little bit lost in this big environment like, oh, and I haven’t found a friend here yet. I think there’s a way that we really want to teach kids rather like street smarts a little bit, right? That’s the word for it is what I say, and I’d rather teach that than have them not do anything and keep them in that glass box kind of thing.
Dr. Rebecca (15:42):
Absolutely. I agree.
Dr. Sarah (15:45):
Yeah, no, I think that that’s such a good point. It makes me think too of the difference between being aware, to your point, like street smarts, street smarts, what makes someone street smart? Is it having a realistic understanding of what risks are existing? Yes. It’s also having a sense of accurate awareness of your internal cues and your environmental cues and being able to read them well and make inferences make accurate and effective inferences that help you kind of jump to the right conclusions. More often than not, it’s not a science, it’s there a lot of self-trust in having street smarts.
Dr. Rebecca (16:30):
Well, it’s what risks are there and also what potential safety and comforts are there, right? So it’s okay, there’s someone that I hear walking behind me, but I think there’s a library on the next block. I’m going to go into the library because I’ve learned that that’s a really safe building. It’s knowing it’s an accurate assessment without over focus. Do you hear my dog barking? I hope not. My dog very much agrees with this point.
Dr. Emily (17:03):
I love the example I always give for, this is kind of silly and complete a little bit unrelated, but it’s about the five second rule. I’m always like, you can use the five second rule in my kitchen because it gets cleaned pretty regularly, but I’m not going to use the five second rule in a Porto Potty. There are reasons why we have these judgments and giving kids that example is a light way of helping them tease out the environment, the attunement, what’s going on in that kind of way.
Dr. Sarah (17:34):
Building an ability to have nuance and understand nuance and be a critical thinker and that I have this black and white thinking, I think these are, and it’s like, okay, yeah, there was this scary moment where you realized your three and a half year old was a block away from your house and you had no idea that she was gone. Sure. Scary. I understand that completely and also what an opportunity now to work on critical thinking skills and nuance and gray and all that good stuff that so sometimes scary things or challenging moments in parenting can be these kind of awesome windows to talk about stuff that maybe we probably wouldn’t have had this conversation had this thing not happened or wouldn’t have thought to have it this way and also for kids, if I was just going to sit down out of the blue and say, Hey, let’s talk about why it’s not safe to go walking down the street, versus being able to kind of concretize it in an experience. When you walked out the door, did you see anybody? Did you see cars? So you’re helping now this child has a framework, an experiential framework for storing this information in a way that is meaning to them versus us randomly lecturing our kids about some abstract idea that they’re half listening to anyway and they’re like, bye mom.
Dr. Emily (18:58):
Yeah, I love that. I love that it’s anchored in an experience. I think you’re right. We don’t want bad things to happen, but you’re right. Kids will learn something or remember something rather when it’s anchored, it’s like apprenticeship. You learn it while you’re doing it. You don’t learn it by just reading a textbook, some of these things, and so I think that’s really true to anchor it in their real life world
Dr. Sarah (19:18):
Right, which is why too, I think it’s important to remember, and obviously I know that this will be very difficult in the moment for a lot of situations. If something happens and scares you and you become sort of panicked and dysregulated and that’s the moment when you are trying to imbue some sort of learning for your child, it’s usually going to come out pretty intense and that’s probably not the best time to teach your child not to go out the front door. I would definitely like this mom, she says, she talks about doing a debrief, which I’m a huge fan of, this idea of a debrief, which is done afterwards later when everything’s cool and common reconnected again, again, not the minute you find your kid a block down the street or the neighbor brings them back to you because you need to cut time to cool off, collect your thoughts, figure out what you want to help them understand and then be able to present it to them in a way that they can receive it. If you are screaming at your kid like, oh my God, you can never do this again, my kids, which I understand a parent having that reaction because you are scared, you’re not going to get the same value from that conversation based on what we’re trying to talk about here, what we want to try to help a child get to won’t be gotten to in the heat of the moment, got away for that one.
Dr. Rebecca (20:37):
And I think that if you do do that, which as you said is a really natural thing to do, then it’s important to name that as part of the debrief to say, and I know I was yelling my arms when you came back, I didn’t know where you were and when I didn’t know where you were, I started thinking about bad things and then I calmed down and I realized that actually you ran into lovely Mrs. Jones and you can sort of narrate that. The other thing I just wanted to mention, which is I feel like always a little bit my role, but I just think it’s important is all of this is actually only relevant if you live in a safe place. And there are many kids sadly who don’t, and then it may be appropriate to say, don’t you ever, ever do that. As we just talked about, street smarts are about having judgment and awareness of the level of risk, and if the level of risk where you live is high, then that’s okay and important to transmit to your kids, and I just wanted to answer that.
Dr. Emily (21:41):
Or even this situation, to your point, Rebecca, even if you’re on vacation at a place that you’re not that familiar with or you’re visiting family somewhere or you’re near the water, there’s all these reasons why I think that that’s also really true to know the environment and know a sense of what the risks are.
Dr. Sarah (22:01):
Yeah, no, that’s a really good point too, and I think that’s a really valid thing to acknowledge that not everybody has the privilege of having a safe environment that hey, we can talk about probability versus possibility. If the probability is very high, that’s something bad could happen, then you need to, one, you need to be able to talk about that with your kid in a realistic way that doesn’t scare them though. You can talk about scary things that are really scary and truly scary in a way that doesn’t leave your child feeling scared or at least the kind of scared that they don’t have a way to make sense of it.
How regulated we are when we are communicating dangerous, scary information to our kids or even just very sad or upsetting information, whatever it is, our regulation is going to be really critical in helping them be able to take that information and integrate it in a way that helps them feel like, okay, this is serious, this is important. I can still understand that there’s high risk and feel a sense of safety despite that. Does it mean that they will never feel scared? That’s not my point. Your kids can feel fear. It’s normal emotion, it’s an appropriate emotion a lot of times, but to feel afraid in a moment or in a context that’s scary is very different from feeling scared all the time and having this internalized fear or sense that things are always scary. That’s a really kind of subtle but important difference, I guess.
Dr. Rebecca (23:50):
It’s a nervous system difference. It’s being able to be cognitively aware that things are very scary with your nervous system not being activated versus having that awareness with the accompanying activation of the nervous system.
Dr. Sarah (24:10):
And it’s the parent’s nervous system regulation that’s going to be the determinant, not completely, but it’s going to influence how regulated their nervous system is when they’re getting this information. That’s why if you want to share scary information with your kid, you need to be regulated so that their nervous system can stay regulated and just receive the information versus we’re all up here, we’re all scared, we’re all in this dysregulated, anxious, fearful threat response place, and we’re communicating the information up here. Then what happens is it’s just nervous system to nervous system at that point. The information isn’t actually really coming in a meaningful and useful way and getting integrated in a way that can then be recalled in a useful utility, in a useful way that the child can then call upon later. It’s stored in a different threat response place.
Dr. Rebecca (25:07):
Yeah, I mean that’s why Covid, one of the many reasons why covid was so complicated is because all of our nervous systems were so activated and scared in the beginning, at least how the goal of staying regulated while communicating to our kids what was going on, and I think we’re still seeing repercussions of that, and I don’t want to get off on that tangent, but I think it’s a really good illustration of what you’re saying.
Dr. Sarah (25:31):
Yeah, totally. Well, I’m so grateful for this mom for writing in this question, and I hope that people can sort of take this question and apply it to lots of different scenarios, why I think it has so much utility, not, yes, we’re answering a question about what do we do in my child and walked out of the front door and I didn’t realize, but I think we’re really talking about what do I do when my child does something that is genuinely a bit dangerous and how do I deal with that? And so I feel like we really kind of covered understanding the context for the behavior, trying to understand the child’s motivation or goal or state of mind so that you can have more, can dissect that and deduct what the course of action that fits is best. And then also managing our own anxiety, making the environment as safe as we can and using it as an opportunity to talk with our kids about risk and danger and safety in a way that helps them become critical thinkers and more aware versus going to that place of high alert, constant fear. Thanks guys.
Dr. Emily (26:42):
Dr. Sarah (26:45):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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