Dr. Sarah (00:02):
Ever wonder what psychologists moms talk about when we get together, whether we’re consulting one another about a challenging case or one of our own kids, or just leaning on each other when parenting feels hard, because trust me, even when we do this for a living, it’s still hard. Joining me each week in these special Thursday shows are two of my closest friends, both moms, both psychologists, they’re the people I call when I need a sounding board. These are our unfiltered answers to your parenting questions. We’re letting you in on the conversations the three of us usually have behind closed doors. This is Securely Attached: Beyond the Sessions.
Hi, Dr. Emily, Dr. Rebecca. Hello, all my lovely listeners. Welcome back. It’s Securely Attached: Beyond the Sessions. So today we’re going to answer a question that was sent in by a mom who said the following. I have a 10 month old daughter, and I might be thinking too far ahead, but I want to help my daughter build emotional resilience as early on as possible. I see too many adults who struggle and feel defeated at every little disappointment in life. My daughter is mixed race and of color, so she will inevitably experience disadvantages in her life regardless of what her dad and I try to set her up for. I am extremely resilient, sometimes too resilient working on it. While her dad is not as much, he overcomes his hurdles, but he does it in a way where he shuts off everyone and everything else and just focuses on him, which is not healthy for our growing family. How can I start teaching her the importance of absorbing or expressing healthfully, her sadness and her pain and turning it into hope and ambition? Okay, so there’s a lot to this question, Emily, I want to start kind of with your thoughts on it.
Dr. Emily (01:52):
Yeah, it’s sort of hard to know where to jump in. I love that she’s covering a lot of different places here, but I think my gut is that it’s fundamentally still all answered in one question or one response, which is through healthy relationships. So through a healthy attachment to her mom or her dad, just because he can’t regulate his own emotions doesn’t mean he’s not good at regulating or co-regulating emotions with her, with his child. So I think holding space and allowing your child to tolerate difficult feelings is one of the biggest fundamental pillars to building resilience, really allowing your child to have that full range of emotions and whether you have to co-regulate with them or whether you’re just sort of present there with them while that’s happening, I think really creates a secure sense of self, which then in turn creates resilience.
Dr. Sarah (02:58):
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I really think that the relationship piece is like it always comes back to that, but I think parents put so much pressure on all of the relationships to be really healthy all the time. And I don’t know that that’s so realistic and no matter what, no matter how healthy people are, that there can be such a range of how we are showing up with different parents, showing up with kids. And the more we focus on our child’s relationship with a parent, that’s not us, the more we’re focusing on something we can’t control versus really dialing into the ways that we are thinking about our relationship with our kid. We have so much more control there.
Dr. Emily (03:42):
I think what she’s talking about or what she’s sort of expressing is modeling, right? Does my child build resilience through my modeling of resilience in her father’s modeling of not resilience, or is it possible that my child, which is certainly a factor, modeling is really impactful and representation matters and all those things. But there’s also sort of a more internal process modeling being, watching externally, seeing and mimicking behaviors in some ways. But then there’s also an internal process of building your own emotional barriers, your own emotional tolerance to difficulties, which can really happen through being accepted when you have those feelings being accepted by your parent, be accepted by your peers and knowing that it’s not dangerous, that it’s okay to have those feelings because the people around you say it’s okay. Really. I think it sounds oversimplified, but I think that’s really the fundamental for me of what builds some of that resilience is really internalizing that it’s okay to have a range of emotions. Big feelings are okay, they’re not dangerous, they’re safe, and I can ride those waves of them with a safe and loving environment.
Dr. Rebecca (05:11):
I agree with all of that. I often quote Donald Winnicott, who’s the psychiatrist and pediatrician who came up with good enough parenting and all the research behind that. There’s a quote that I’m going to get wrong, but I learned it in my training and I always come back to it, which is something about how it’s the goal of a parent to fail their child gradually and minutely one day at a time.
Dr. Emily (05:41):
I love that.
Dr. Rebecca (05:41):
And I always think about that because when you have a newborn or when you have an infant, you want to meet their every need. They need you to meet their every need. And again, I hear a little bit of a hint in this question of do I have to pick up the baby every time? That kind of a thing. I don’t want to spoil my baby. Baby needs to get used to disappointment. And parents understandably have the question of when and how. And so we know that we don’t want to start that perspective, in my opinion, in the first year. In the first year, your goal is to meet your child’s every need. And it’s a little bit counterintuitive because not every need if you have to pee right and your child is melting down because you have to pee. But just in terms of the deliberate intentional kind of is counterintuitive because parents will say to me of really young kids, but then my kid’s going to learn that they don’t know how to handle disappointment.
They’re not going to be resilient, that someone’s always there to save the day. The fact is, and this goes back to secure attachment, you do kind of want them to learn early on to have their lens be that they can trust that their needs will get met by people generally because that way they go into the world and just like this parent said, expressing themselves healthily, as you said, Emily not fearing their feelings. So it comes down to a little bit developmentally what do you do with a 10 month old specifically? And I think it’s looking at, in my opinion, it’s too young to really start doing anything other than Emily, as you said, sort of co-regulating and letting them know that you are not panicked by their big feelings. I don’t think it’s the age at which you are deliberately not meeting their needs so that they feel disappointment and frustration that happens naturally as she’s not getting picked up every second. You do have other things to do. And so I think recognizing that the developmental task of feeling frustration and disappointment will happen naturally through the toddler years, through the preschool years, and at 10 months being aware of this puts you ahead of the game.
Dr. Emily (08:07):
I love that. Yeah, that’s so great. And I love Wincott, so I love that you just, of course you love Wincott.
Dr. Rebecca (08:14):
The other thing is I have to nitpick the tiniest bit just because I can relate so much when she says she’s a little too resilient in the parenthetical, my opinion, and maybe I’m misreading what she’s saying is sometimes I don’t ask for help. Sometimes I don’t let myself feel my feelings. Sometimes I keep going when I shouldn’t. To me, that’s a misnomer. That’s not resilience. And so I wonder as parents who potentially have that tendency noticing like, no, I’m not going to use the word resilience for that. Resilience is about my kid learning that what they feel is valuable and important. It’s not about, they absolutely have to tolerate frustration and disappointment, but they can name and feel frustration and disappointment as opposed to just overriding it and working through it and not dealing with it, which is I think the lesson that a lot of us and potentially the person who wrote that question received.
Dr. Emily (09:13):
That was really helpful. Rebecca too, I think I had the same reaction, but I do think a lot of, and I don’t know, I know she says she’s mixed, and I don’t know of what that means for the mother’s own background, but I think a lot of people think of resilience as survival. I survived, and maybe not that I thrived, but that I survived and I’m okay and I’m here to tell the tale. Right? And I think to your point, that’s really great. We need those survivors, but can we take it a step further and say, can you integrate less than perfection? Can you integrate a little less grit and a little bit more vulnerability? The equation has to match what’s right for you. But I do think your point is well taken that being super resilient isn’t necessarily the goal. Being really integrated and having a full range of experiences, I think is more of the goal.
And I am going to geek out because Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development is also what I think about when I think about these things, which is what he describes is there’s things you can do on your own. There’s things you can do with assistance of others, and there’s things you can’t do at all. You need total help. And this is a 10 month old baby. And so I think keeping that in mind that you can always sort of toggle and allow the child to go back and forth between those zones, things they can do all by themselves. You don’t need to swoop in. They can crawl or sit up or do those things by themselves, things they need a little assistance with. Yeah, of course you’re going to swoop in a little bit, but you’re trying to sort of balance those that in and out of that zone, I think all the time.
Dr. Rebecca (11:01):
Yeah, great point. The metaphor that I always use with parents talking about resilience and survival and sort of exactly what you just said is let’s pretend that your child is a runner. And if your child is being chased by robbers, then you want them to, if they sprain their ankle, keep running. You’re being chased by dangerous people. Run, run, run, no matter what happens because their survival is at stake. If your child is a runner training for marathon and they sprain their ankle, you’re going to say it’s a pretty poor choice to keep running on that ankle. It’s actually the smarter choice given the range of experiences open to them to say like, oh my gosh, I actually really just hurt myself. I’m going to go to the side and get some ice and see what happens. And so context matters in terms of what we define as resilience.
Dr. Sarah (11:54):
That is such a powerful example. I also think you guys are talking about developmental, where you’re at developmentally, right? Developmental needs, developmental drives, developmental tasks, and how that’s such an important point. This question could be written by a mom of a four year old and we would have a different answer, and if this question could be written by a parent of a 10 year old and then we would’ve yet another different answer. So I think the point that you were making that how old this child is, is going to be a huge determinant in what we define as like how do you teach that, how you teach something, anything in this case, resilience or emotional range of how safe do all these different emotions feel like emotion, regulation skills, what does that look like for a 10 old? Frankly, there’s not a whole lot of emotion regulation skills that we would expect.
You can plant some seeds, certainly, I think there’s a lot of seeds you could plant well before 10 months old. I think from birth, there’s a lot of seeds you can plant, but a lot of times that looks like Emily, like yours describing understanding what their zone of proximal development and is in allowing them to struggle just outside of it a little bit. So I was just having a session with a mom of a three month old that she’s just postpartum. We’ve been talking about her anxiety as a new mom and how her daughters cries, really get her activated to understandably, and she’s really aware of how much she wants to really turn off that feeling for her daughter and that feeling for herself. So she’s really, really, really quick to rescue her daughter. And we were talking a lot just now about how, what’s the range of her daughter’s communication, because at three months old and even at 10 months old, crying is a large range of talking.
That is how she’s communicating for all kinds of things. It could be, help save me. I’m in danger and I need you to rescue me. I’m not okay cry. It could also be that toy is not moving the way I want it to, and I’m annoyed by that and I’m going to cry, or that light’s too bright, I’m going to cry. And so it’s, as a parent kind of figuring out how the different degrees of distress are communicated by your child, and at 10 months old, it might look different than a three month old and it might look different than a 10 year old, but there’s ranges. And so being more attuned at that variation, being able to say, this is on a scale of one to 10, this is a four, maybe it’s going up to a five. Can I let this child be in that space?
Not alone, not ignore them, not say, buck up, you’re on your own, but say, Ooh, you’re upset. You didn’t like that quiet pause. Wait, be there. Instead of immediately being like, oh, let me fix that for you. Let me get that toy to do the thing you wanted to let me open that for you. Or like, oh, that’s zipper so frustrating. Let me fix it. So it’s like how much can we tolerate holding space for their struggle and sometimes their distress at a level that’s still safe for them? And that’s I think a big part of, it’s not explicit teaching. It’s not like you’re lecturing your child about this stuff. You’re embedding these, you’re planting these little seeds that then become nurtured over time. It’s a lot of showing that things are safe in our response.
Dr. Rebecca (15:47):
Yeah, I agree with that. I also, I think about, there was someone you had on this podcast, Sarah recently, and you pulled the quote, it was on the Instagram post, but it was something about how our goal is to empathize with what our kids are feeling, not for why they’re feeling it. So again, I noticed a little tinge of judgment in this question, which we all fall into, but I don’t want her to get upset at life’s Every little disappointment for her child. Having you have to pee at the wrong time isn’t a little disappointment. It’s a big disappointment. She’s only been on this planet for 10 months, and so she hasn’t learned what that feels like enough times for it not to feel big. And so again, it’s this constant checking in with ourselves about development and not judging. Maybe for you, you would judge if an adult absolutely fell apart that their peas were touching their potatoes. You might wonder about their coping skills for a 10 month old. That’s a big thing, not because they don’t even know other, what do they have to compare it to? And again, all they have is the feeling that they don’t like something and they don’t have the words or language to tell you what it is, and so that starts to feel kind of scary for them, and that’s not necessarily a sign of lack of resilience. That’s a sign of being 10 months old, and I think she’s, look, that last sentence made me laugh.
Dr. Emily (17:14):
I know I was going to touch upon that.
Dr. Rebecca (17:16):
How can I start teaching her the importance of absorbing and expressing healthily, her sadness and pain and turning it into hope and ambition. I wanted to be like, well, I don’t know, but if you figure it out, can you call my therapist? That’s a lifelong, I mean…
Dr. Emily (17:33):
Well, I also think is that really the goal? I guess that’s sort of what my response was.
Dr. Rebecca (17:38):
Dr. Emily (17:38):
Is the goal to, I think you’re saying two different things, right? Can you absorb and healthily express things, A and B, can you figure out and have pain and all integrated emotions? And B, how can you also separately have hope and ambition? I don’t know that turning pain into ambition and hope are part of the same sort of Venn diagram. I know.
Dr. Sarah (18:06):
I even think almost their contrary, if you try to turn sadness or pain into ambition, if that’s your intention, I think you’ll actually have more suffering If you allow yourself to have sadness and allow yourself to feel pain and give yourself permission to one, build the ability to notice it and label it accurately and then give yourself permission to feel it and cope with it. Chances are you will also be able to have space to pursue ambition and to feel hopefulness, right? One doesn’t turn into the other and trying to turn it into the other actually may inhibit the access in your life to have the other, because you’re conflating two things that aren’t related. It’s like, I want to turn this water into wine. It’s not going to happen, but if I can let this water be water and I can go pour myself a glass of wine from a bottle of wine and enjoy both for what they are, then I think that’s a little bit more realistic.
Dr. Emily (19:15):
I also wonder if this is a very grownup interpretation of resilience, right? It’s like I went through really hard things and I am still able to have hope and ambition and happiness, so it’s almost like a reflection in that way.
Dr. Rebecca (19:32):
No, but I’m going to interrupt. I actually think I’ve never met this woman. It’s very possible. I don’t know what she means, but there’s a narrative that people draw between, let’s say I experienced horrific anti girl sentiment in my math class in third grade, and so I became even more interested in learning math and look at me now I’m a mathematician or racism or whatever. I took this thing that could have really set me back, and instead, that to me is more of the mainstream narrative. That’s a better analogy. No offense, Sarah, than water and wine.
Dr. Sarah (20:15):
Good, yes, please. As I was saying, I was like, what am I saying?
Dr. Rebecca (20:22):
But I think the timeline is important, so I do agree with what you were saying, Sarah. I think you do have to, as a third grader, whatever it is, understand that it is really hard to be made fun of, let’s say, or told you can’t do something, you’re excluded, and then over time, maybe that does drive your ambition and drive your hope, but it’s not an immediate thing, and I think your point still holds that you need a loving adult who can reflect back to you, your experience to help you feel more confident in your experience, so that then there is the space for it to become hope and ambition.
Dr. Emily (20:58):
I mean, I think you’re right, Rebecca. I think exactly what you’re right that people turn that pain and suffering and say Then I think in reality though, that probably doesn’t happen very much, right? It is all anecdotal, but I do think you’re right. I think when that girl who’s struggling with math or didn’t have a hard time with math comes home and says, I suck at math. Math is horrible. I’m the worst mathematician, and her parent says, that’s a really hard feeling. Math can be really hard sometimes I get that. You know what? We can help solution maybe after that, but leads with that sucks. I know math can be really hard versus you better work harder. You got to work harder, you got to overcome that. You got to study. We’ll get you a tutor. Maybe those things will happen, but I think maybe leading with that validation in my view, is a healthier sense of resilience. Being able to accept, yeah, math is hard for me, doesn’t mean I can’t do it. My parents think it’s okay that it’s hard. They’re here to support me, is very different, is probably the more helpful, resilient outcome of that kid who struggled with math, right?
Dr. Rebecca (22:08):
Feelings are real. My feelings are real and my feelings are important. I mean, I always give the example, and I didn’t make it up though, I can’t credit who did because I don’t remember it was some supervisor of mine at some point, but you want a teenager who’s at a party where things start going south, whether it’s with substances, whether it’s with inappropriate sexual activity, whatever it is, you want a teenager who can kind of tune into themselves and say, this doesn’t feel good to me. That’s real and important, and so I think I’m going to get out of here, or I think I’m going to stand up for this other kid, or I’m going to call my parents, or I’m going to do, as opposed to, this is starting to feel a little off to me, but I think I can just ride it out. I’m probably being dramatic. I can suck this up and deal with it. Again, it’s framing resilience as an ability to trust yourself, to tune into your own experiences and trust yourself and at early ages that comes from a parent who can engage in reflective functioning, which means mirroring back what you are feeling as real and important.
Dr. Sarah (23:15):
Yes. I think that that is exactly right. I think we have point A and we’re thinking it leads to point B, but I think in fact there’s a moderating or mediating variable that to Emily’s point, like yes, there are people who turn adverse events into resilience and drive to do something great, but is that the cause? Is it the adversity or is there a mediating variable in between that we’re not seeing something invisible maybe to the observer, which is the support of the parent, the support of that secure base that reflects their experience back to them with accuracy, like we were saying, Rebecca, and is increasing that child’s ability to have reflective functioning, and that actually may be the thing that then leads to what we then see as success and ambition and…
Dr. Rebecca (24:09):
That is the thing. I mean, that’s been shown to be the number one predictor of resilience is having a grownup, having a secure attack. I mean, it gets back to the whole reason that your podcast exists.
Dr. Sarah (24:20):
Yeah. And so I think this is important for any parents who have questions like this is like, I want my kid to be at this outcome. It’s fantastic. That’s an appropriate and great thing to want for your child, but how you get there might not be as direct as you imagine. This, I think is the confusing part sometimes about parenting and why hopefully you are listening to this podcast because you care enough to figure out the more complex things that it’s not just, oh, it’s obvious. I know exactly what to do. This mom is writing this question because she’s curious about figuring it out, which is amazing, and so I hope that this not straightforward answer helps.
Dr. Rebecca (24:59):
Well, but it’s straight. I bet if people listened to every one of our Beyond the sessions and even probably every one of your interviews, it always comes back to that, so if you find yourself overwhelmed with a really complicated question and how do I talk to my kid about this, or how do I develop this in my kid? You can get overwhelmed. We’ve gone in different tangents, but it always comes back to secure attachment and tuning in and being there for your kid, and so it’s almost like it reminds me back in the eighties, it’s the economy stupid. It’s like, it’s the relationship stupid. It’s just over and over again. Can that be our secure base as parents? Just I need to go back to how do I bring relationship into this? How do I bring connectedness into this.
Dr. Emily (25:48):
And I think that’s also, Rebecca, to your point, I think why it gets so complicated is because sometimes that’s really hard. It sounds so simple that we’re just like, all right, bring it back. But to this person’s question, she and her partner have a hard coming back, might have a hard time coming back to that or a hard time in different ways. Coming back to that, so how can we help? I think there’s lots of episodes on this. How can we help regulate ourselves, tune in with ourselves, ground ourselves so that we can show up, not with our baggage, not with our trauma, not with any of our own dysregulation, but how can we sort of weeded that out and just be right there in that moment with our child to help get through those sort of trickier times?
Dr. Sarah (26:35):
Yeah. Well, thank you. Absolutely. I love your opinions on all this. I’m sure this is going to be really helpful to a lot of people. Thank you so much for listening.
(26:44):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! ✨