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.
Hello, I’m so excited I got Dr. Emily Upshur, Dr. Rebecca Hershberg here. Welcome back to Securely Attached. We’re going to get into the Beyond the Session segment and answer a listener question. Today is a question that I was dmd by a mom named Sarah, awesome name, and she said, hi, Dr. Bren. I just found your podcast and have loved every episode thus far. I just finished episode seven discussing differing parenting styles between you and your partner. I’m home part-time with my daughter, and I’m the primary caregiver for her day and night, which has given me lots of practice on figuring out her likes and dislikes. My question is, how long do you allow your partner to problem solve and figure it out on their own before intervening? My daughter will become more upset if my husband tries to go in to her in the middle of the night to soothe her. Side note, we went through colic with her, so her losing it is really triggering to me, and I know I can calm her quickly. So it’s challenging for me not to step in. Also, my husband has very low patience for her screaming and gets frustrated easily again, very triggering for me. Thank you. Okay, so I relate to this. I’m curious what your thoughts are. Emily, why don’t you hit it off with your thoughts?
Dr. Emily (02:04):
Yeah, I mean, look, this is the classic. It’s really tough. You’re two different people who are coming into this parenting thing and your communication skills and all those things are on full alert. I think what I always say is people, as much as you can work and discuss, and as moms often and dad’s too, but the person in the parenting relationship who’s reading a lot and listening to a lot and researching a lot, you feel like you’re this wealth of information and you’re bubbling over to share that with your partner. And sometimes it doesn’t land right, or it doesn’t land as much as you want it to land. So I think my response is really, I think as the other partner in that, is really raising our tolerance little to that discomfort, like building tolerance, knowing that in the light of not an emergency, not a tragic, not a scary, dangerous situation, we really have to work on our tolerance of raising that tolerance for frustration or for the sound of your baby crying or in order to self-regulate better through those moments. We can’t always control the other person.
Dr. Sarah (03:27):
And in this case, when I’m thinking control the other person, I’m thinking both the husband in the situation, but also the daughter, right? You can’t control the fact that your daughter is not calming down and it’s triggering for you to hear her distress. Like this woman was saying, she’s been primed the mom because of her experience with her daughter having colic that when my daughter loses it, I know this is triggering. To me, that’s a personal history vulnerability. That’s something that this mom has kind of hurt, whether it’s conscious or it’s just nervous system based. This mom is having a really, really intense stress response to her daughter’s crying in part because it’s normal to have a stress response to your child’s distress, but also because there’s some residual stress from the colic that’s getting kind of brought into now, which I think is worth noting.
Not that we can get rid of all of these old things we bring with us to new stressors, but just noticing and naming it and having that awareness, oh, my reaction to her losing, it’s compounded right now in this moment because I have this memory of never being able to get her to stop crying when she was born. It’s compounded by the fact that my husband is getting frustrated and I know that he gets triggered by this too, and then I get triggered by there’s so many layers of like, oh gosh, here we go. I can feel the anxiety mounting in this woman, and I get that so much.
Dr. Rebecca (05:07):
Yeah, I mean, that’s what I was going to say is that unfortunately to me, the answer to this question is not the answer to the question she’s posing, right? There’s not a whole lot you can do. You married someone and he’s the dad, and of course in a calm moment on a date night, you could say, Hey, I’ve learned the coolest thing about our daughter and her patterns and the things that in a really non-confrontational way, I think parents can have those conversations, but when they’re phrased as I’m the expert in our kid and you’re just a guy who kind of comes in and tries to help and you keep messing it up, which is not obviously language any of us want to use intentionally, but it’s somehow sometimes how the other person hears it that just never goes well. And so I would encourage, and this is a little bit fluffy, but sometimes it’s a tool I use myself, and so I sometimes speak with clients about it.
I sometimes ask myself, what would it look like if I acknowledge to myself that I actually don’t know what’s best right now? What if I’m actually not the expert? I think sometimes our defense mechanisms are that we paint ourselves as the expert. It’s like I know exactly what to do right now, and if only he wasn’t such an idiot, he’d know too. It’s like, what would it look like if actually maybe my daughter needs what he’s giving right now? Maybe in the big picture, this is just this idea of relinquishing control a little bit, because that can be really hard when you are the caregiving parent, and yet it’s I think a really valuable exercise at letting go of your own stuff that is sometimes helpful in these situations.
Dr. Emily (06:47):
I love that, and I sometimes a little fluffy too in these suggestions will actually say, can you, as the other person who’s feeling stressed out or triggered, can you actually separate yourself? Maybe you allow yourself to be not home for a bedtime routine. That’s tough, not permanently, but as you allow your partner to do this on their own and potentially it’s more loud or there’s a little bit more strife there, can you really make yourself scarce in a way? Because watching can be really hard being the person who’s looking at it all go down and not wanting to interfere, but also feeling like it’s quote unquote being done wrong is also not an, it’s like watching a pot of water boil. You don’t want to sit there and watch it. So I think even creating some distractions, some separations maybe to walk your dog, whatever it is, to sort of give your vasovagal system a little bit of space and time to calm down is another little trick I use.
Dr. Sarah (07:58):
And one of the things that my mind goes to is the fact like, okay, I know I can calm her down quickly, and so it’s challenging for me not to step in. Perhaps we also look at that as a parent, like, yes, I can calm her down quickly, but is that actually critical right now? Is that a story we are telling ourselves that the being upset is in and of itself a problem that has to be solved quickly? What is the benefit to perhaps rethinking that belief as a family? Right, because when we have this intense urge to immediately rescue our children from distress, what we’re communicating to them is whatever it is that I’m rescuing you from is not safe. You can’t handle it. And in some situations that might be true. If my kid’s about to stick a fork in an outlet, I’m going to get there real fast, and I’m probably not going to go slowly and gently and whatever equivocate, but if my daughter is distressed because she’s protesting something she doesn’t like, it’s not the thing she’s familiar with.
She wants mom because she knows that routine and she doesn’t want to add in this moment because he’s not doing it the way that she likes her. She’s just communicating protest. If we immediately want to turn that off, or in this case, obviously she’s not saying immediately, she’s saying, how long can I go? When is the point where I’m saying, okay, hit the most bandwidth? And I’ll answer that piece too. But generally, if we immediately rescue, we’re kind of saying to this daughter, you are distressed, you’re protest, you not preferring this, you feeling frustrated, you having a hard time tolerating what’s happening in the moment, that’s dangerous. I have to save you from that experience, and that’s kind of counterproductive in the long run. Now, if you’re saying at what point, I know when the threshold has been reached where we’re not talking about protest, we’re not talking about distress tolerance, she needs my help.
You got to know your kid and you got to know your partner and you got to trust the little bit that they can handle it, even if it’s super messy. But it’s also like I’m picturing this happening at three o’clock in the morning, and I also just want to throw a little lifeline to parents being like, if you just need to go in and rescue because you want to go to bed and you want to be able to have a morning, that’s okay too. You can practice this skill in the daytime in other moments as well. I don’t know. I feel like that’s important to say. You don’t have to always let it go and tolerate it if you are just like, you know what? We all need sleep and this is going to be easier and faster and I’m just going to do it. Obviously, if that’s chronically the always go to move, look at that. But if you’re tired and you need to go back to sleep, I also think it’s okay. On the other hand to say, tonight is not the night that I want to stretch this distress tolerance muscle.
Dr. Emily (11:00):
And I think something that you said earlier really rung true to me, which is, and Rebecca mentioned this a little bit ago as well, which is how do we know that this isn’t right for the kid? How do we know that this boundary that dad has a higher threshold might be a healthy thing for the kid that your child to see that there’s a little bit, this always happens with dads being more daring or letting their kids explore more physically. That’s sort of what it reminds me of, which is sometimes that’s a good thing to learn those boundaries and to see how they’re stretched in different ways. I might not let my kid climb on the wall and that might be a good choice for me, but maybe it’s good for my kid to learn to explore their body and do something a little bit more dangerous within the safety of their father being there. So I think it goes back to is it necessarily bad for the child or maybe it’s just showing them that there’s different parenting styles, they can be adaptable, they can handle it with different people. And that’s the other message as we raise our tolerance to that discomfort from this mother’s side is the other side is like maybe there’s a silver lining or an unexpected benefit of that.
Dr. Rebecca (12:22):
Yeah, I was going to say that word rescuing in this context, it becomes that you’re not just potentially rescuing your child from distress, but that you’re rescuing the child from the other parent. And I’ve found that those messages get communicated pretty easily and quickly to kids and those roles of like, well, there’s the parent who knows how to calm the kid down and who’s the expert, and then there’s the kind of bumbling guy or angry guy that the kid needs rescuing from. They can be kind of self-perpetuating, and I think it’s really useful to do everything you guys have said honestly, which I’m in agreement with everything in order to not go down that path. Because I think some of the negative, and again, there are times absolutely, Sarah, to your point like, oh my gosh, I have a huge work presentation tomorrow. We are not messing around.
I’m going in. I’m taking the baby. We are calming her down and putting her to bed. Goodnight. There are times absolutely none of this is like a one-off. You can mess this up once and be doomed. It’s never that way. But I do think there’s a real negative path that can come from starting down that pattern of a parent being a rescuer of a child from the other parent. If that’s a legit situation, and Lord knows we’ve all seen that too, then do whatever you need to do to keep your child safe, right? Absolutely. But if it’s more of a, we have different styles, he gets frustrated more easily, that sort of a conversation, then I think the value of everything that you guys just said of letting a child be exposed to that for the benefit of the child, but also the marriage and the family I think is really important.
Dr. Emily (14:16):
I love that you said that too. It reminded me of what you said earlier, Rebecca, which is like, this is the parent of your child, so this child, you and this child are going to have to get used to this dynamic to some extent. Like I said before, people change a little, but they don’t usually change a ton. They’re not going to be a whole new person, and I think this child will have this parent for the rest of their lives. So adapting and learning for you and that child to how to work within that relationship, that dynamic is an important aspect of that. And even in babies, even in small segments of building tolerance to that, or not one partner, but not being as quick to calm a child as another, that might be something that we all have to get used to that.
Dr. Rebecca (15:07):
And that changes over time. You might get tremendously triggered by the same child being four and starting to talk back and you’re the parent that gets triggered and totally loses it, and your husband is the parent that can stay calm through that, and then you wouldn’t want it to be the other way around. These are not static dynamics per se.
Dr. Sarah (15:29):
So important. That’s such a good point. I also think as much as we’re like, okay, we want to be mindful of what we’re communicating to the daughter, to the child as far as you need to be rescued from this distress, there’s also a parallel process happening with the husband. If I have to rescue you from parenting the daughter when it’s hard, what am I communicating to this partner? What am I communicating to them? You can’t handle this. You are not capable and I have to rescue you and you need to be dependent on me. And it perpetuates also some of this insecurity or lack of confidence or difficulty tolerating a hard moment with the kid on the part of the other parent that’s being rescued too. Because if a parent’s constantly rescuing in these moments, there’s multiple people that they’re rescuing each other from, and that the messaging can kind of go also to the parent that you really can’t handle this.
You really need me to step in and rescue. And then that obviously, in addition to it impairing the other parents’ ability to develop that confidence to figure out their own problem solving strategies with the kid, develop their own dynamic with the child. It also increases the load on the parent who always rescues because now they have so much more to do and they don’t have as much of a partner because the partner is not believing they’re capable or there’s fallout. There’s larger fallout to constantly rescuing your partner because, and you have to do it all, which can build resentment.
Dr. Emily (17:05):
Right, and what I always say is even if it’s messy doesn’t mean it’s wrong, or even if it’s there’s distress, doesn’t mean the other parent shouldn’t go out to dinner with their friends. Right? It’s okay for both things, those things to be happening at the same time.
Dr. Sarah (17:21):
Yeah, that dialectic. Love it. Well, I hope we answered this question by not answering this question, which is completely our every time people are going to stop sending in questions to us, but honestly, I think I do. That’s why I like podcasts because there’s nuance, I mean into the, it depends with a lot more detail than an Instagram soundbite. So thank you guys so much for your amazing insights. I hope that this listener found this helpful, and I hope that everyone else listening who might be able to relate to this found it helpful too. Have a great day.
Dr. Rebecca (18:05):
Thank you, Sarah. Always a pleasure.
Dr. Emily (18:06):
Dr. Sarah (18:09):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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