Dr. Sarah (00:00):

Does your child feel their emotions deeply get overwhelmed around lots of people or noise, have trouble with transitions or changes to the routine and seemingly go from zero to 60 in an instant? That might mean that they have a sensitive nervous system. Kids with sensitive nervous systems require parenting strategies that deviate from the generic one-size-fits-all scripts, tips and hacks that you’re finding all over social media today for these kids. Customizing your approach and tailoring it to suit the needs of their unique brain and body and temperament can be a game changer, and that is exactly what I help parents do in my coaching program. Parenting By Design. In this program, you will learn exactly what to do before, during, and after your child acts out. You’ll learn strategies for effectively parenting in these tricky situations and learn how to feel flexible and nimble by being attuned to your child’s nervous system at any given moment in time, rather than having to hold a million scripts in your head, not necessarily knowing which one is going to work in a given moment.


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Ever wonder what psychologist 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. Hey Emily. How you doing? Hi. Hi. So excited everyone’s joining us again today for another Beyond the Sessions episode here on the securely attached podcast. So for anyone who’s new, this is a segment of the securely attached podcast where we answer listener questions. And the question today is one that I feel like can be legit very challenging, and so I’m excited about this one, but this mom wrote in and said, hi, Dr. Bren, I have a new baby and my three-year-old is having a difficult time. I’m not sure if that’s because of his new brother or just part of being three, but all the scripts that used to work on him just aren’t helping anymore. We try to only say no when it’s a safety issue, but whenever we say stop or even use positive language around it, it just accelerates the behavior. And it’s like he goes into overdrive and it’s really scary and it’s dangerous. I’m trying to redirect at everything I know to do, but it’s just increasing the behavior. So I just really don’t know what to do to keep him safe. Do you have any ideas? So yeah, that could feel super scary. I really sympathize with this mom, so take it off. What’s your initial reaction to this?

Dr. Emily (03:42):

Yeah, I mean, I agree with this. I think this age in particular because they’re really three years old, is a place where they really can’t make choice. You can’t sort of let them tow that line a little bit and be there on the outskirts. You really have to swoop in and provide both physical, that physical container for them. I guess think, obviously I think this mom is very attuned. She’s aware that there’s a new baby in the house. All the things that we would traditionally want to be on your radar, it sounds like she’s on point. I think from a practical standpoint, I’d say maybe zoom out a little bit and see what’s really important. If there are chances that you can look, if going to the supermarket with this three-year-old at this point does not feel safe or they’re darting off or something like that, maybe you have to just take those out of the equation at this moment and really think about how you can minimize those.


It’s like he’s playing with the concept a little, right? It’s like he’s like, no, oh, and you said no and I have lots of feelings, so I’m going to explore that right now. And I think you want to give him opportunities to do that, but in more contained places. So if you say, no, don’t jump on the couch. If you’re saying, Hey, let me redirect you from jumping on the couch and you jump more on the couch at home, I can put the baby down, I can go to my child, I can remove them. I can sit with them for a while. I might even have to sit with them on my lap, but I can’t do that in the grocery store, especially if I have a new baby and I’m carrying them. And so I think a really good strategy is to see where you can get the supports that you have to cut down on some of the, I can’t handle this, this, this really feels unsafe kind of behaviors.


And then at home, I think you have to do a little, I do think you can toe the line a little bit more there. I think if it’s super unsafe, of course you have to stop it right away. But I do think you can positively reinforce good choices. If they’re jumping on the couch and you’re sort of not paying a ton of attention, it’s not super unsafe and you’re not paying a ton of attention and they stop and you say, what a good choice that you got off the couch by yourself and then you move on, you don’t make a big deal out of it, you sort of march forward. Those are these mini interventions that I actually think are the most effective because you’re calling attention to a desired behavior as opposed to an undesired behavior.

Dr. Sarah (06:17):

And I think as a parent who’s got a lot going on, when you’re postpartum with a new baby and you have a toddler, I remember my kids are 19 months apart. So I was like, ugh.

Dr. Emily (06:32):

Yeah, you’re in it.

Dr. Sarah (06:34):

I’m like the bandwidth of I’m going to gently get you off the couch and sit you on my lap and wait through the whole meltdown that might occur. It’s like, ugh. But I think to your point, it’s so much easier and we forget this, we forget about it because in the good moments, good moments when the child’s doing a lot of the desirable behaviors, it’s flying under our radar because we are kind of busy tuned into our new baby or the surviving postpartum. And if it’s not an emergency, it’s not going to ring our bell. And so we’re not looking as often I think at the positive moments, but they’re there. And so it’s like that’s kind of low hanging fruit to, I think your point is like, yes, we do need a strategy for handling safety issues in the moment or the big meltdowns that might come after we’ve set and held a limit. But also it’s a lot easier I think to start being more mindful of noticing the good and using that positive reinforcement in those moments to help supplement some of the discipline we have to do in the icky moments. So that’s I think a good reminder.

Dr. Emily (07:58):

I also think, as you were saying that it made me think as much as we can do pre-planning and not have to quote discipline, I think the better. So I am thinking like, alright, you have to bring your three-year-old to nursery school, and you have this newborn in the car, you’re doing all this juggling. So you’re thinking, okay, I’m going to take the baby out, put them in the stroll, then I’m going to go around, I’m going to get the kid. I’m going to hold this three-year-old by their hand in the parking lot. I think the more you can run through possible stressful, potentially unsafe scenarios so that you feel, and I totally appreciate your point, you’re sort of on low tank probably with all of this, but the more I think you can kind of troubleshoot some of those things before, Hey, you’re going to be such a safe parking lot walker today. I can’t wait for you to show me that. And you go and you get them and they’re safe, and I’m going to hold your hand and this is what’s going to happen and you’re going to be my helper because I’m going to also have the baby. And you’re sort of laying the foundation for you and for them and sort of engendering a better, engendering that better behavior even if it hasn’t happened yet.

Dr. Sarah (09:14):

And I think that’s better. I love the way you pose that to the child in this hypothetical conversation. In terms of what this mom is saying too, that I think is a really, really valid point and I see happen all the time is when we say stop, it accelerates the behavior when we call the child out, when we discipline, it’s accelerating the behavior. And this is sort of a tangent, but it’s connected. I think the one very common reason for that is because when we discipline a child for doing something unsafe and they feel ashamed or guilty or embarrassed, a lot of kids, especially very, very sensitive kids, but most kids that’s really hard to feel ashamed or guilty or embarrassed. And they can sometimes defend against that uncomfortable feeling by getting really dysregulated, right? One, it could them, but two, they could actually engage in intentional aggressive behavior because it’s easier to feel angry and aggressive than ashamed and embarrassed.


And then this other just coming back. So there’s that whole why that might be happening. And we could talk more about that too. But going back to this idea that you’re talking about Emily, where if you help prep a kid for a potentially challenging situation, that is potentially challenging because you have made the effort to kind of track patterns and okay, getting out of the car on the way to daycare always is a tricky thing because a runner or whatever, they don’t like their hand being held or whatever. So instead of saying, you need to do this, you must hold my hand, it’s not safe, it’s dangerous. We’re having all these problems looking at it from a negative valence and almost disciplining them in advance to sort of be presenting it in a positive way and not positive parenting, gentle parenting positive, but positive in the sense of I’m going to speak to the part of my kid that’s going to feel good about this, that’s going to see their value.


I’m going to reflect my child, their value in this situation, their role. I’m going to elicit in the way I speak to them, the part of them that’s on board for this plan. So what I mean by that is saying instead of saying, speaking to the part of them that’s been doing something wrong, speaking to the part of them that is interested in being your parking lot helper that is interested in collaborating and having a responsibility and feeling important, having a job, and that is a better part of to talk to in this situation in advance, be like, okay, what job do you want to be in charge of? Or do you want to carry this? Do you want to carry this? Do you want to be in charge of remembering whatever it is? I don’t know. You can be creative with your kid, but kind of speaking to their better part, their better self, their higher level self a little bit in engaging them on what is actually a safety plan, but we’re going to present it as a, you’re being tasked with something important right now. You are valuable.

Dr. Emily (12:28):

And what I always say to parents is like we get caught up in all telling the kids all the things they can’t do. And I think even just flipping the script and articulating what they can do or what you want them to do is very helpful. I know you can use your walking feet. I can’t wait for you to see it. I know you can use your quiet voice. I’ve seen you just use your quiet voice instead of saying, stop being so loud. Stop all those things. Tell kids what they can do, give them commands that are directions as opposed to having them guess at that. We can be very, very clear with our language. And just shifting that, talking about lift for this parent, it’s not a lift, but it’s a smaller cognitive lift to sort of say, how can I rephrase that in a way, to your point, speaking to the person that they want to be that we are hoping that they touch base with, but also just very literally the task we want them to do and making that very clear.

Dr. Sarah (13:36):

Yeah, I sometimes say a kid needs a target. If we want them to hit the target, we need to say, this was happening with my daughter in her preschool class. She wasn’t wanting to come to circle time. And then when all the kids would go to circle time, she was sort of feeling icky and would be a little disruptive. The teacher was like, well, then don’t come. It’s fine. And I was like, Ooh, you know what? Actually I get that. And I don’t think you need to be a hard liner preschool teacher being like, everyone must be at circle time. But I also think she’s better supported when she has a target, something to orient herself to a goal or a task. So I was like, if you want her to come to circle time, it might be helpful. Instead of saying, you don’t have to come if you don’t want to.


And then her choosing not to come and then being kind of disruptive. She doesn’t know what to do when everyone else is at circle time and she’s feeling guilty or ashamed or embarrassed or different from the group, and then it’s making her not feel good, and we’re seeing this icky behavior before circle time. Can you give her a task that orients her to the circle time? So you say, Hey, we’re about to start circle time. Can you help me set up the books that we’re going to? Can you go help me put the books out for circle time or can you help me put out the spots that we’re going to sit on? Give her a task that orients her to the space you’re speaking to the part of her that that wants to be seen as agent full and included and valued. That’s the part more likely to show up to circle time if we do it this way versus the part of her that is a real part of her that is, I don’t know what I’m doing, but it doesn’t feel good and I need to now kind of mess with circle time because the part of her that’s showing up to that circle time is a part of her that’s dealing with a feeling of shame or embarrassment or guilt or something icky.


So I think kids sometimes do better when they have a target to sort of direct their attention towards, direct that energy towards, and that might be something to even play with too in other types of situations where you’re seeing kids in this case with this mom, this three-year-old, they’re saying, no, it’s a safety issue. The behavior is getting into overdrive. It’s like to your point earlier, can you zoom out? Can you try to figure out what is it that they’re trying to do or having a hard time doing that’s becoming a safety issue? Is it holding my hand in the parking lot? Is it not throwing a toy when you’re done using it or not sticking your finger in the electrical, whatever it is, can we find something else that we want them to be doing instead and orient them to that before we enter into that sort of tricky space? So before we’re going into the playroom, Hey, I want you to help me put all these toys and bins and put them in their place, give them a task.

Dr. Emily (16:58):

I mean, the other way I approach that. So I think that’s a great prophylactic kind of strategy too. Another way I approach it in the moment you’re in the weeds a little is what I call sophisticated. Give them an out. So I think that’s a little bit what you’re touching upon with the shame and the icky feeling that a child might have when they know they’re breaking the rules or they’re toying with that, or they see that you’re upset or that you don’t want them to do something. Giving them an out is a really kind and effective parenting strategy. And it can be a little false. You can say, oh, I know you didn’t mean to stick your finger in that thing, that dangerous plug. Like, oh, I know you didn’t mean to do that. Come over here and let me help you figure out. You’re just sort of giving them away. And the example with your daughter sort of made it ring true to me like, oh, I see you were just going to get something so you might be ready to come back to circle time now. Right? Like an invitation to…

Dr. Sarah (18:02):

To rejoin.

Dr. Emily (18:03):

To save face though a little, right? You have to remember, even these little kids, I think when this parent talking about in a discipline standpoint makes it really hard, that sort of means you have to confront the wrong, and I think in a lot of ways it’s about can we give them an out from that right now? Can we skip over the, sorry, and I shouldn’t all that sort of, they really, as we’ve talked about in this podcast many times, cognitively and neurono do at this moment anyway, but can we give them a little out? So can we essentially help them deescalate? And that is sort of in my parenting work, I say give them an out. Can we just give them an out? Can we help them save face? What would you say to help them save face? And they know that you’re doing that, but you’re helping them get out of that place.

Dr. Sarah (18:57):

Yes. Yeah, I think that’s great. And I do that. That comes up a lot with lying in my family, at least my kids lie. And instead of being like, I’m going to take this opportunity to teach you that lying is wrong and honesty is better, which is a value that I definitely hold and want to instill in my kids, for sure, I’m going to teach that to them in other places in our lives. But when my kids, I think you’re teaching

Dr. Emily (19:19):

It in that moment too though.

Dr. Sarah (19:21):

Yes, but more indirectly. More indirectly. Because what I will say, if one of my kids does something and then they’re like, I didn’t do it, I’ll be like, Ugh, you really wish you didn’t do it, or That’s interesting. I guess I thought you did and maybe you didn’t. Okay, moving on. But I’m just giving them that out. I’m like, huh. I don’t necessarily confront the lie in that moment. I’m just kind of naming the story that they’re telling and then the fact that, oh, I saw that a different way. Interesting. Moving on because it’s like that out. It gives them an opportunity to be not ashamed, but they also get to see it takes them out of being in it in the lie to sort of being like, oh, mom is seeing this lie and she’s also naming it and she’s moving on. Just that thought process alone, that conscious thought process that they would have as a result of that is a way to pull them out of that icky place where the lie is coming from, which is shame or fear that they’re going to get in trouble or fear that if you’re going to go in a more deeper unconscious level fear that you’re going to see me as a bad person.

Dr. Emily (20:36):

I think that’s it. I think it’s fear of being seen as a bad kid, fear of that your parents sees, Ooh, this icky part of you, and you don’t want that. You don’t have that really, and you’re just playing. Lying is a form of playing, and I think you don’t want to take it so literally, but that is a worry that crosses their mind. And I do think unconsciously often, but I do think that that’s an important thing to address.

Dr. Sarah (21:03):

So I guess to sort of like, let’s just recap. One of the things that we’re going to do, we’re going to zoom out, right? We’re going to zoom out in the moment and be like, why do we think this might be happening? And we’re going to help ourselves create a bit of a game plan ahead of potentially sticky moments. We may or may not help our child have a game plan ahead of those sticky moments too. We’re going to make sure that we’re noticing the positive stuff in the good moments more and reinforcing those. And also we’re going to be, when we do have to redirect, we’re going to be redirecting in terms of what they can do versus what they shouldn’t be doing. And then we’re going to be thinking also in terms of how do I get my child to save face a little bit to invite them to have a more desired behavior because I see their better self in this moment.


How do I give them that kind of permission to mess up without being seen as bad, while also, of course holding safety. Obviously that container is going to be there. And like you said, something else in the beginning that I think is also worth recapping is sometimes it’s not just what we do in the moment, but how do we change the environment perhaps to be safer because we’re just at a developmental stage or we have a particular limitation on our bandwidth that in certain environments, we just can’t really expect them to be able to function safely in that environment. So we kind of have to just tighten the container a little bit for a while and not forever, but just at least until our bandwidth expands or their development furthers.

Dr. Emily (22:45):

Yeah. Love it.

Dr. Sarah (22:48):

Well, I hope that we answered this woman’s question because I totally, as you can see with even my own answers to it, is like I relate to this and I think it’s really common. I think that when kids do something that is not safe or bad, and we have even an totally appropriate reaction to it, it can elicit shame. And shame can be gasoline on their fire, which just makes it harder. And it’s not that we’re doing something wrong because they feel shame. It’s just an organic byproduct of doing something you’re not supposed to do and learning perhaps not to do it again in the future. But for a lot of kids, shame can be very dysregulating, which can really make everything escalate in that moment. So we do want to be mindful of helping them to try to use interventions that are adjacent to rather than directly touching that shame. All right. Well, thanks so much, Emily. I’m so glad that you came in for this talk.

Dr. Emily (23:50):

Good one. I like this topic. This is a good one.

Dr. Sarah (23:54):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.

175. BTS: When I tell my child to stop, they just dig their heels in more—what can I do?