Dr. Sarah (00:02):

Do you ever feel like you are a broken record repeating yourself over and over and over again wishing your child would just cooperate and things didn’t devolve into a battle all the time. A few months ago, I hosted a masterclass to help parents overcome power struggles, and since then I have received so many follow-up questions and requests from parents wanting more. So I am bringing it back along with an interactive live Q&A to help you tailor these strategies to your unique child and your unique situation.

In this masterclass, you’re going to learn why the strategies that you’re using to either avoid or win a power struggle just aren’t working and why they likely never will. You’ll learn the real problem that leads to power struggles in the first place and how to break out of this trap, my exact framework for mapping out your child’s challenging behaviors and how to create a personalized toolbox for your own child and the specific power struggles that you guys find yourself in over and over again. There are going to be two chances to attend so that busy parents can find a time that works best for them. Join me either on Tuesday, January 30th at 3:00 PM Eastern time, or Thursday, February 1st at 1:00 PM Eastern Time or come to both. The masterclass will be the same, but the q and a will be chock full of new tips and real world applications each time. So to enroll and register, go to drsarahbren.com/powerstruggles to grab your free seat. In my masterclass, it’s called From Battles to Bonding: Overcoming Power Struggles. That’s drsarahbren.com/powerstruggles. I cannot wait to see you there.


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..


Welcome to Beyond the Sessions here on Securely Attached podcast. I am your host, Dr. Sarah Bren, and joining me as always is Dr. Emily Upshur and Dr. Rebecca Hershberg. Hello, hello. Hey, let’s get right into it today. So mom writes in and she says, I just got a call from my four-year-old’s teacher asking me to come in and meet with her because my daughter’s having outbursts in school yelling and having tantrums. I’m so overwhelmed and at a loss for what to do. Anything you can suggest before I go in to meet with the school. So this could be so challenging and anxiety provoking for parents hearing from the school or a care provider that there’s a behavioral issue with our kids. It can lead to lots of feelings that I personally can relate to, but there’s definitely there are things that we can do working with the school and with our kids, and so I feel like I want to start by helping this mom realize even if this feels really massive, this is something that you can traverses. It’s doable, it’s survivable. So let’s get into some strategies. Rebecca, do you want to kick this off?

Dr. Rebecca (03:41):

Sure. I mean what I noticed about this mom was her amazing insight into just how overwhelmed she is. I mean, I think we’ve all gotten that call. I mean not just heard about from our clients, them getting the call, but we’ve gotten the call. We all have kids and I don’t think there’s many kids that, I dunno, that a parent doesn’t need to be called at some point and it brings up, as you just said, Sarah, so much and the ability to get off the phone or to stop reading the email, whatever it is, and just tune into yourself and realize how dysregulated you are. Having nothing to do with what the objective situation may or may not be, but the idea you kick into sort of, first of all, from a mama bear safety perspective, oh my gosh, is there something going on with my kid?


I’m worried about my kid. I either did or didn’t know. They were going through a hard time and oh my gosh, have I messed up in some way? Which leads very directly to shame. Oh my gosh, I should have been ahead of this. It’s one thing for my child’s school to call if they bang their head during recess. I can’t anticipate that, but I should have anticipated this and just to self-regulate ground yourself is the number one thing. Both right after you get that call, but also when you start spinning about it in your head later and certainly right before you actually enter the school for the meeting or get on the zoom call for the meeting, feel your feet on the ground, take three deep breaths, whatever you do to cope, drink some water. Really to me, this mom, just being aware of her internal state is like half the challenge and then it’s addressing not to even think about the concrete strategies we’re going to think about in terms of how we might address that this is happening with our kid until we’re in a calmer place, whether again with self-talk, meditation, whatever, that to me is number one thing that jumps out about this question and I could go on, but someone else is free to pick it up from here for now.

Dr. Emily (05:53):

I really empathize with this mom. I think there’s, everybody knows that feeling of when you get a call from the school and they try to always say everything’s okay, but sometimes you still get that feeling of like, Ugh, everything’s okay, but your child is having a really hard time. Had a tantrum hit somebody, hit their head. I think Rebecca’s point is so really important, which is slow it down, regulate yourself, sort of get yourself grounded so that you can kind of put it into perspective. I think what you said in the beginning, which is most parents don’t escape parenthood from getting a call in some way from school that’s about something that’s less than desirable about your child, and I think being able to not feel so alone in that, not feel that shame and not feel like you messed up is really not automatically go to those places is really the first step before we start to troubleshoot what’s going on.

Dr. Sarah (06:53):

And just the flip side of that coin, and this is a point I rarely make because I feel like I’m so much more concerned with parents beating themselves up and feeling shame, but I also recognize that when we beat ourselves up or feel shame, we sometimes defend against that by being a little bit more aggressive. And so I just want to name it, it happens and it’s totally understandable if it does, but it can be a time where we also want to pause and check on our own defensiveness with the school because I think the mama bear, if someone calls me and says, my kid’s doing something that’s challenging in school or not appropriate or is disruptive in some way, I definitely know that place of wanting to be like, no, they’re probably not. You’re not doing a good enough job of maintaining the classroom or going straight to kind of a defensive position because we do want to see, it’s hard to get this feedback and we can get defensive and we can get a little externalizing of the blame, and I think ultimately what you guys are saying is we don’t really need to think of this as a blame question who’s at fault?


Which our brains want to create an explanation and someone who’s responsible, and it can be that we over assign that to ourselves unnecessarily that we over assign it to someone else or that what I think we would all agree might be a better strategy is to sort of say perhaps this isn’t really about that at all and being more a curious, taking a more curious open stance of let’s see what’s going on. Let’s try to figure out all of the antecedents, all of the nuance, all of the context, and then try to come up with a solution, which is sort of how I would approach the actual call with the school or the talk with the teacher is like, okay, how do we collect some data about what’s happening and not just in the moment because I think that sometimes can be the focus, but we talked a lot on this podcast about actually going back, rewinding the tape to the beginning, really watching for what could be less obviously triggering the behavior and sometimes it’s many compounding things before you actually see the behavior show up.


I also feel like I can imagine scenarios where you get a call from a school and they’re like, they’re having outbursts, they’re yelling, they’re having tantrums, they’re being disruptive, whatever, and we need to stop this behavior from happening in the classroom. We have to figure out a plan to make that behavior stop, and oftentimes that conversation is not, we want to try to understand what might be building up inside this child’s experience that we’re then seeing the behavior poke through and I don’t know, I think sometimes that’s really far more important of a question to be asking.

Dr. Emily (10:07):

I think it’s also more important to Sarah, your point. What I keep thinking as you’re saying that is when we approach that meeting and even the sort of solution with the teacher to stop the behavior, we really miss the real treatment, which is figuring out what’s going on, which is a longer, if we can really unpack that and figure out what’s going on with this child and explore that, then we can probably have a longer lasting effect of the interventions that we come up with as opposed to this needs to stop right now, and that’s what we all feel we’re like, just don’t do that anymore, but that doesn’t really get to the underlying cause of what’s going on, and if we can really unpack that and be vulnerable enough and exposed enough and less defensive enough sort of to be able to really see that and look at that, then I think we talk a lot on this podcast that tends to have a more sturdy, long-lasting approach than sort of stop the behavior in the moment, right then.

Dr. Rebecca (11:14):

I was going to say two things. One was just that what you were describing, Sarah, is the ever present and always important iceberg analogy of what are you seeing on the surface versus what’s everything going on underneath? But what occurred to me when you were talking about rewinding the tape is something that I do with all the families that I work with and I try to do myself, which is that in the beginning of let’s say a new school year, a new preschool year, a new daycare, can you partner with the teachers in a preemptive proactive way so that when something like this happens, you’re more prepared to feel ideally authentically, like this person’s on your team and you’re on their team. No one’s tattling on anybody, no one’s blaming. This is something you’ve set up from the beginning of whether it’s by thanking that, I always write an email to my kids’ teacher in the beginning of the year introducing myself saying, I’m sure they had a great summer.


The beginning of school is so hard. Here’s two things about my kid that they might not get from the forms, and I look forward to hearing. I mean, just so that it doesn’t set off all those alarm bells necessarily that they’re against you or you need to be against them because ideally, the best conversations and interventions and handling and behavior are going to come from parties who are all on the same team like you, your child and your teacher or the teacher or the principal or whoever should all ideally be wanting to help your kid, and if you can lay the groundwork for that before there’s an issue, I think it takes a little bit of time and energy on the front end with huge potential benefits on the backend.

Dr. Sarah (12:57):

And I also think it allows the teachers to then bring things up earlier perhaps so that there’s a way, if you open up the lines of communication, this is such a brilliant point and probably not something most people think to do, especially if you have a kid who’s a little bit more at risk of having behavioral challenges at school because you don’t want to prime the teacher to see those problems. You don’t want to show up the first day of school and be like, oh, hey, by the way, my kid’s going to have some issues in your class. Great to meet you. You don’t want to do that. But then there’s this other piece of that, which is if we can open the conversation again, being mindful, I recognize that fear of not wanting to paint a story about your child that’s not necessary to paint, but also just to say hi and introduce yourself, have this sort of personal communication thread already existing. If you have a teacher who feels comfortable talking to you about challenges your kid is having as they’re emerging or as they’re starting to really kind of be clear, showing up enough that there’s reason to talk to you about it, but not them feeling like there’s no inroad necessarily, so they’re going to wait until it’s like a, oh, I can’t not tell you now. It’s like you miss potentially time to intervene on an earlier less acute moment.

Dr. Emily (14:28):

Yeah, I think that’s a really good point, and I think that dance is tricky. I really do think the dance of not negatively forecasting, maybe your kid’s going to have a different year and you sort of want to be able to see with a fresh set of eyes, and so much of what we talk about is the way we think about it and talk about our kids is plays out in them a little, right, and so I think I struggle with that too, right, because you both want to have your teachers to have knowledge of the things that you’re aware of or we don’t know. Maybe this is a surprise to both this parent and this teacher in this particular event, but I think that it’s always a little bit of a balance. I think once you’re there and you’re in it though, to Rebecca’s point, you can always then be a collaborator.


It’s never too late to then say, okay, I hear you and let’s try to be detectives and figure this out and let’s keep in touch. Not like, oh, this is so painful and awkward and uncomfortable for me. I never want to talk about it again and I’m going to tell my child to never do that again. Right? It’s more like, all right, can we unfold this over time? Let’s check in a week. Let’s try a few things. Let’s see, let, let’s do a little bit of trial and error and let’s stay in touch. And I think that even if you didn’t do that at the beginning of the year, you haven’t planted those seeds. It’s never too late to have that collaborative problem solving type of approach and check in so that you can hopefully monitor what’s happening and continue to see growth.

Dr. Rebecca (16:09):

I think one thing, it’s so interesting because when I said just a couple minutes ago, my suggestion about doing that, I wasn’t even thinking that it would be about the kid’s behavior. It’s like, here’s two things to know about my kid. One, he’s obsessed with the Yankees and just have in your back pocket some stat or something. And two, he tends to do really well with humor. I mean whatever. But even if you’re thinking about the most typically developing kid who’s had a wonderful year, there is literally to my mind, and I want to address that this may be coming from a place of privilege. I don’t know. We can kind of explore if that’s an angle here, but to my mind, there’s no downside ever of sending a friendly note in the beginning of the year thanking your teacher for all their hard work that they’ve done with prep for decorating the classroom or whatever, just acknowledging how much hard work that is and telling them a couple things about your kid that may or may not be useful, whether it has anything to do with problematic behavior or not. Then the approachable parent, you’re the parent who has gone out of their, gone out of every way to thank them so that they’re never going to say like, oh, I don’t want to email that parent.


You’re greasing the wheels for a positive relationship, not in a manipulative way, just in a, I want to be that person that you are going to feel comfortable approaching as one of you said perhaps earlier than you might in a collaborative way. Even just to say that don’t know, my kids had a fantastic summer. Beginning of school can be tricky and never know what’s coming. I’m always more than happy to collaborate as I know we’re on the same team and want the best for my kids.

Dr. Sarah (17:55):

Like an invitation to always feel like you can talk to me about stuff. Great. I think that’s so good, but even for the parents who are past that point, this mom obviously, I’m going to go ahead and assume in writing this email that she didn’t prep the teacher for invitation to always reach out to her fine. Totally cool. Most people don’t, and now she’s getting this call. Sounds like it took her off guard, which means she probably perhaps didn’t anticipate this or was afraid this might happen. Although there are certainly parents I think who have received that same call that were like, oh, I was waiting for that one. I was wondering when that shoe was going to drop. And then there are parents who are like, wait, what? I don’t know how to make sense of this. Or parents who are getting that call being like, thank you so much for validating that you are experiencing this too, because I am too and I am at a loss.


I think there’s so many different ways this school contact could occur and which just goes to show how often this happens and how common this can be, but once you get that call, once you’re sort of faced with this need to have a conversation with the school, what do you think would be a good couple steps or strategies there? So we’re going to approach it non defensively. We’re going to approach it from an open, curious detective kind of way. We’re going to definitely want to talk about antecedents and maybe even less visible antecedents that I think is worth kind of talking about. I think if your kid is having a lot of melty downy behavior in school, to me that says they’re hitting an overload. Something is agitating them chronically on some level. Again, I’m assuming teachers are not usually calling about a one-off. Sometimes they do, but we need to sit down and have a conversation as a team kind of thing is usually for a problem that has become a pattern.


And so if a problem is showing up as a pattern in school to me that says a child is getting maxed out and we have to figure out why, and it’s oftentimes not one thing that they’re reacting to. It’s usually a building up of things like that visual metaphor of a cup. This is a podcast, it’s hard to show you, but think about a cup, a glass and a pitcher of water and every interaction your child has with the world that is in any way stimulating, frustrating, overwhelming, challenging, whatever name it. It’s like you pour a little bit of water in that you pour a little bit of water in that cup, you pour a little bit of water in that cup eventually if you’ve got a small little cup because you’re a small little person with a small little body, it’s not going to take all that much to overflow. But what overflows the cup isn’t the problem in and of itself. It’s all of the other bits of water that have been poured in all day long. So it’s hard to unpack what those things are, but that I think is actually the goal.

Dr. Rebecca (21:35):

And I mean there’s a couple things that come to mind as you’re talking. I agree with everything. One is I always just want to think in terms of school or home in a situation like this, has anything changed? If this is an issue because there’s the chance, as you said, that this is all of the water that’s built up since September, but that may be because something really big changed in November and suddenly each of those things of water became more powerful. So has there been any big change at home? Has a parent lost a job? Has a grandparent gotten sick? Have you moved? Is there a new sibling? And similarly, has anything changed in the classroom? Things that a teacher may not anticipate being a big deal, but changing tables change in the routine. Just wanting to look at all those things and just seeing if we can start to correlate with the understanding.


It may not be causal, but correlate any big changes with a change in behavior. The second thing that occurs to me, and I believe we’ve talked about on this past, on this podcast, because it’s a framework I use a lot, which is Ross Green’s unmet needs and lagging skills. So when a child is demonstrating a behavior that is undesirable in some way or puzzling in some way or not, whatever the word you want to use, can you see it through a lens of is there a lagging skill? Is this a skill deficit, not a performance deficit, right? They’re not doing it on purpose. Is there something they don’t know how to do? Maybe it’s sit still, maybe it’s handle a change in routine. Maybe it’s tolerate their bestie, becoming friends with someone else. Is there a skill deficit or is there an unmet need? Let’s say there’s a new sibling at home and they haven’t spent a lot of time with their parents.


They have an unmet need for affection or attention, and somehow that’s coming out at school. Really, I have found just those two phrases, unmet needs and lagging skills to be such useful for school meetings or anything else, but just such useful lenses to try to filter behaviors and other such things through. And so again, talking to this mom, going to this meeting, can she start to have an idea of what some of those might be? But even just to say that to teachers, there’s a way that we think of behaviors in our home. We look at unmet needs and lagging skills. Can we kind of think about that for my kid for a second? And they’re not mutually exclusive, needless to say.

Dr. Emily (24:07):

Well, what I love about that, Rebecca, because partly, I mean I love using Ross Greene’s models for a lot of this stuff, but I think it also allows you to then what these unmet needs or lagging skills allows you to sort of walk out of the meeting hopefully with a couple of things to try, if you’ve identified these things, these areas, a skill or a need, can we try some of those? Can we insert them? Can we shift something? Can we change something? And maybe it’s just one or two things, but I love walking out of a parent meeting with a school with some kind of plan of what the next step is. And I think that can really help with that framework of what can we tweak, what can we shift? Maybe we just label it.

Dr. Rebecca (24:56):

But it’s also such, I have found it to be so non blaming one of, and I have somewhere, and I should look for a list of possible unmet needs. It might be that a child has an unmet need for control. There’s a new sibling at home and they feel like everything’s out of control. So they have an unmet need for control. And instead of saying, this kid is spoiled or demanding or rigid or just needs to be the boss of everything to say there’s an unmet need for control. What can we give this child to control? Can this child be in charge of helping get out the band-aids when someone, how can we channel this unmet need in a more productive way is to me, again, it’s concrete the way you just said Emily, but it’s also just such an easy and natural way to just take away any blame or judgment and think in terms of proactive steps with the understanding that all people have all of these needs. We just try to get them met in different ways sometimes without even realizing it. And sometimes behavior is our kids’ ways of demonstrating this need isn’t met for me. Can you help me?

Dr. Sarah (26:08):

And what is that model to our kids in the best possible way of one, we see your behaviors as a communication, not a provocation and not a problem that reflects you, but more, oh, you’re asking for something, you’re having a hard time getting it out in a way that’s helpful. Let’s help you. And it’s so much more looking at it as a place footholds for us to step in and support and scaffold rather than changing the child’s behavior, changing the child’s attitude, changing, making the child do something different. Obviously the outcome, the desired outcome is going to reflect the child in showing up in a different way. But if we’re thinking about it as like, okay, lagging skills, unmet needs, it’s actually the environment that’s going to be taking the action, not the child. And the outcome would be the child shows up differently, which puts the onus on the grownups, which I think is where it belongs in these situations.


And very often, I don’t know, a lot of times I could see it falling on the child, right? Let’s get him a chart or her a chart, like a sticker chart, and every time they change their behavior, they get this sort of sticker. And I’m not super antis sticker stuff, but I think that it’s the go-to strategy and it so puts it on the child to be in charge of their behaviors at all times when we’re really trying. We’re really uncovering as we peel the layers here, is it’s really actually the environment that has to be modified first, the expectations, the scaffolding, the planning ahead, the helping them preview things, the helping them find their place, the helping them find a sense of control in a pro-social and effective way so that they’re not grasping for it when it’s not an effective or safe or appropriate way. But yeah, I think it’s going to be that plan should be adult focused. What are the interventions that the environment is going to provide? How are we going to respond when X happens? How are we going to anticipate something happening and do something different even before it occurs?

Dr. Emily (28:43):

Yeah, I think that’s really helpful. Absolutely.

Dr. Sarah (28:47):

Yeah. And also I feel like a plan should be short and simple, especially in this first stages of addressing the problem. I think I would want to see maybe one thing that a classroom is going to try to do and one thing that a parent is going to do, you might have a list of many things, but we’re going to sort of walk away from this meeting being like, okay, let’s identify one thing we’re going to change. Because also, if you change 10 things, you don’t know what’s working and what’s not working, you want to kind of be systematic about this and change one thing at a time so that what was the thing that had the biggest impact? Because you are guessing, especially the 4-year-old, you’re going to be doing a lot of guessing initially, and that’s okay. That’s part of this process. This is a little bit of a black box.


We kind of have to guess and throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks sometimes too, and that’s frustrating. That could take longer. But I do think this was a process that requires patience from the parents and the school and modeling that understanding that this could take a little bit of time and that you are going to show up with the patients to try something, see how it goes, reassess. That’s where that open and communication piece comes in. Hey, let’s try this and let’s talk next week and see how it goes. You’re modeling for the school sort of this attitude of this is a process, it’s an iterative process. It might take a little bit of time. I’m so confident we will figure it out. I’m going to show up in this way. Sounds like you’ve got a plan to show up in this way. We’ll do one thing at a time and we’ll keep coming back together until we figure it out. But that is so disarming of an agenda to make the behavior change. It’s like if everyone feels like we’re doing something in the service of shifting the behaviors in the long run, the urgency gets, that sort of itch gets scratched, so it can decrease the sense of urgency, but it doesn’t mean that in two weeks this should be fixed. So that’s I think also kind of just a way to talk, a tone to take.

Dr. Rebecca (31:02):

Yeah, I think that’s important. There was also something you said earlier about how usually schools only reach out if something is a pattern, and I think that’s true, but sometimes a pattern for a school is like three days in a row and I’m getting super in the weeds. But I think it’s important. I would just, especially in this season, I would think about, is your kid sick? Is your kid getting over a virus or perhaps has a virus coming on, maybe a check with a pediatrician? I always go to sleep. I mean, I don’t always go to sleep. What I mean is I always go to looking at sleep. Did my child get a really late bedtime on Sunday night and it’s caught up with them and Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday were tough at school. I think everything that we’re talking about still holds, but there’s times that schools understandably and appropriately reach out to families when kids are seemingly acting in a different way than they’re used to. But to the extent that that can be within a shorter timeframe, not to neglect looking at those issues that can really affect behavior in the short term, like something medical going on or something sleep related.

Dr. Emily (32:13):

I agree. I think some teachers in some schools are like, this is not like your kid, so I’m flagging it because let me do it early because it just doesn’t seem like your kid. So I think that that’s a little bit, that’s also definitely a possibility. I think it also leads to not, one thing I really would want to say to this parent is, this is a moment in time. Maybe this will be a pattern, but also maybe you’ll have a meeting with the school. You’ll have a good conversation and figure some things out, and maybe you won’t have another call from the school. We don’t have to catastrophize it into something that’s like, oh, I can’t do this. I can’t be, this can’t be happening. It’s also possible that they’re being proactive if you approach it with openness and proactivity that you can really have a discreet interaction here and obviously always be attuned and aware, but it doesn’t necessarily beget problems. Long-term problems.

Dr. Sarah (33:22):

I feel like this is also helpful in terms of thinking about coming at this from a very collaborative and open and non defensive place, but also because we were, just to bring it full circle to what Rebecca you were saying at the beginning of the episode is this mom has so much insight into her own overwhelm, and I think that’s such a strength. And to pull on that internal awareness and that self-compassion and also that confidence that, okay, this is hard. It is overwhelming, it’s stressful and sad and frustrating and all the things, and we can do this. We can come up with a plan. We can take it step by step. I can advocate for my kid and collaborate with the school. Those are not mutually exclusive and just sort of take it one step at a time. So I love this. I’m glad that this mom wrote us because I hope we answered her question. Absolutely.

Dr. Emily (34:18):


Dr. Sarah (34:20):


(34:22):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! ✨

171. BTS: When school calls: How to address behavioral concerns from my child’s teacher?