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.


Welcome to Beyond the Sessions here on the Securely Attached podcast. I am your host, Dr. Sarah Bren, and joining me again today is my partner from our group practice Upshur Bren Psychology Group, Dr. Emily Upshur. Thanks so much for being here, Em.

Dr. Emily (00:59):

Hi. I always love to be here.

Dr. Sarah (01:01):

Awesome. I’m so glad you’re here. We don’t see enough of each other, obviously, obviously. Okay. So em, let me read you the email that we’re going to be addressing today. So this woman says, hi, Dr. Sarah, I love your podcast and I’m in the middle of your first year course. I had a question and thought it might be a good podcast question. How do you recommend handling being in the same room with a six to 12 month old and they’re crying to be picked up by the parent, but another adult who’s totally safe is holding them. We want to pick him up but also want to build that resiliency. Should we move closer and talk to him without picking him up? Thank you. Okay, so I think this is a great question because I feel like, I don’t know Emily if you feel this way, but I feel like there’s so much parenting advice about the importance of building distress tolerance to foster resilience, which I’m like all for, but that there’s also a lot of information about bodily autonomy and teaching consent from a really young age.


And I feel like I could see not knowing totally what this person had in mind when they were asking this question. From which lens are they coming at? I could see this question almost be speaking to both sides of that scenario. Is it like if they don’t want to be held by this person, how do we understand that in the context of consent and embody autonomy on the other hand, looking at this situation from the lens of distress tolerance, building resilience, intervening at the lightest stage and being attuned to that stretching of their distress tolerance without ignoring it. There’s a bit of a different lens, same scenario, different lens, different answer. So I could see where parents could get confused like, oh, maybe these two things are at odd with each other, but maybe we could break that down a little bit. What are your thoughts, Em?

Dr. Emily (03:00):

Yeah, I mean I think that outlines it really well. I do think there’s an overlap. However, I think one of the things that we always talk about is not doing all or nothing thinking. So I think that really helps with this scenario. If you’re in this, and I also wanted to just touch upon it was really poignant of this person to note the age of the child, six to 12 months is when stranger danger comes out that you have object permanence.

Dr. Sarah (03:30):

Object permanence.

Dr. Emily (03:31):

And so you know that it’s someone else holding you. Right? Very. And in the beginning of that phase, it can be more distressing, right? Than obviously later on in the developmental.

Dr. Sarah (03:41):

Really quick, I don’t mean to interrupt you, but can you explain for people who might not be familiar with this concept, what object permanence is and why that does trigger a little bit more like stranger anxiety in that age range, which is people, we do start to see that sort of separation anxiety kick up a bit in that and there’s actually sort of a neurological reason for that, like a cognitive development that it’s contributing to that that’s healthy, it’s sign that it’s working, we’re getting where we’re supposed to go, right?

Dr. Emily (04:13):

Exactly. I mean think, the way I think of it is it’s not as if your baby didn’t know it was you mom holding them before, but it’s not as poignant for them that you are no longer there. Right? The object permanence sort of classic example is having a baby, having sit on the floor, be on the floor, sit on a lap and cover a ball with a blanket. Does the baby realize that the ball is under the blanket or does the baby not realize the ball is under the blanket and the object permits is the baby pulls the blanket away and is like, there’s my ball. Why did you hide it underneath that blanket? And I think that that just makes sort of insight more, right? That allows the baby to have a better ability to say like, oh, I know that you’re my mom and you’re right there next to me and hey, I’m supposed to be with you. I prefer to be with you, or I’m hungry and I want to be with you. Whatever it is that allows the baby to sort of differentiate between people with a little bit more distinction. And that’s, I don’t know if you have stuff to add to that, but that’s sort of how I think about it.

Dr. Sarah (05:21):

Yes, and I think your example of the ball is sort of a great way to kind concretize this. To me, what I think about object permanence is do you know I’m here when I’m not here? Right? Can you hold me in your mind in some sort of way so that when I’m not in front of you, you can’t see me, I exist. And so once a child kind of reaches that cognitive developmental stage where they can hold some sort of very and six to 12 months, it’s very simplistic. It’s very, very, very simple. But this idea that before you reach that basic initial stage of object permanence, when I’m not around me, the mom, when I’m gone, my baby can’t see me. They don’t, I kind of just disappear from their conscious awareness. But once they hit that kind of basic threshold of object permanence, they know that I’m gone when I’m not with them.


And so when they get passed off to another caregiver and I say goodbye to them at the nanny’s place or at daycare, or I walk out the door to go to work when they’re being held by their nanny or babysitter or whomever, they’re a lot more aware of the fact that I’m not with them and they can show that distress. And so they know that the caregiver holding them not only isn’t mom, but they also know that mom is not here. And that activates their attachment system, which is a threat response. Basically it says, I want my mom, I miss my mom, you’re not my mom and I’m expressing myself.

Dr. Emily (06:58):

Or the same thing that you’re not my mom, that you’re not my mom in this example, we’re in the same room and you’re not my mom. What’s happening? And it causes, but I think something important to add to that is, and something we talk a lot about is communicating. You’re not my mom and I don’t prefer this can look like crying in a baby, so that’s a communication, but it isn’t necessarily, I’m panicked. This isn’t okay. I’m really scared. There’s a range and sometimes it might be, but I think that there’s a range in that, and I think for this listener’s question, I think it’s important to sort of hone in on that and calm our own anxiety systems, our own vasovagal systems, our own nervous systems to hearing our baby in distress in order to really hear what that message is. Is that message, I don’t like this, or is that message five alarm fire, this is really freaking me out and then responding in kind, if that makes sense.

Dr. Sarah (08:04):

Yes. I think that’s a critical point, and I think the reason why we reading into your mind, I like to do, I think the reason why we started with saying like, Hey, hold on. At six to 12 months there’s a cognitive development that’s happening that may actually increase a child’s distress around these kinds of situations. And then knowing that helps us filter out some of this distress instead of it activating our own threat response like, oh my God, my kid is in distress. Why is something wrong? Am I not being a good parent if I’m not responding to that versus, oh wait, my kid is in distress or communicating distress, but it actually makes a lot of sense that they are, and it’s not necessarily a sign that something’s wrong, it’s normative, it’s developmentally on track. It makes sense for a child to sometimes express distress and protest and even intense distress if their perception is that this is, I can’t handle this.


But going back to this idea of how do we build that resilience, which I’m so glad this mom is thinking about, and I’m hoping that if she’s here listening to the podcast, taking The Authentic Parent course asking these questions, we’re on the right track here. We’re looking at raising a child from this lens of how do I support resilience? So amazing that you’re even asking this question, and I do think if you’re interested in building out resilience in your child, what that kind of translates to is how do we support them in feeling a feeling and in witnessing our response to their feeling, reflecting that experience back to them in a way that says, this feeling is real. You are upset. It makes sense to me, and my ability to just stay calm in the face of that upset is going to communicate to you that that feeling is safe, your feelings are real and they’re safe.


Now, that doesn’t mean that every time you are upset being held by a stranger, you automatically mean want to tell your kid that’s safe. But we’re also saying, if I feel that this adult who’s holding them is a safe person to be holding them, and they’re telling me, the baby is telling me I don’t like this in the only language that they have to do that, which is crying, my response to that is a communication too. If I go, oh my God, don’t cry, I got you. And I grab them and I swoop them up and I pick them up and I shush, shush, shush. It’s okay if I’m up here high, high intensity in my response, and what am I reflecting back to them about their emotional experience in that exchange? Ooh, I really get flooded by that. I have to swoop in and rescue you what you’re feeling.


And obviously we may not actually intend for this to be the message we’re sending, but it could inadvertently be internalized somewhere in this child’s unconscious awareness that like, whoa, when I feel this kind of intense feeling, mom also freaks out, rescues me must be unsafe. I must have been right. That was a threatening situation. Or, oh, I really can’t handle that feeling. That feeling isn’t safe. And I don’t think any parent is trying to make their child interpret that, but we have to be mindful of how do we reflect their emotional experiences back to them? Is it from a place of, whoa, we got to shut that off, or, oh, you’re upset you are not liking this. Let me understand better. Let me lean in. Let me communicate some safety to your amygdala here.

Dr. Emily (12:04):

Yeah, I mean I think that that’s exactly the two pieces I think are really important, which is self-regulating and then titrating your responsiveness. Maybe you start with not being super high on the responsiveness scale and you start with talking to the baby or you start with moving closer to the baby. I think there’s a way to intervene that to your point, that high responsive, let me grab you. You can’t handle it. I also think something super important that’s a little bit of a different layer than what you’re talking about is we all have different tolerances for that depending on what’s going on in our lives. So your ability to tolerate your baby being fussy is or being in, and I love that this listener said like a safe adult, we know this baby’s safe. That doesn’t mean if I had a bad day at work and I’m coming home, I might just want to take my baby and hold my baby, right?


Totally. It’s harder for me to tolerate me as the parent hearing my baby in distress, and there might be other times when I’m feeling really filled up and really supported and really on a game that I can tolerate stretching that out a little too. And that’s also another important variable in just being mindful reading yourself and knowing like, okay, this is reviewing some of the things we just said. This is normal. This is developmentally appropriate. My baby’s with a safe person. I don’t have concerns here. Maybe I can stretch and build a little resilience by not snapping them up right away. I personally can handle that right now. And I think those are some of the important things to keep in mind as you’re thinking through this scenario. And those are all important variables to making a choice on how you respond.

Dr. Sarah (13:50):

Yes, and because you’re weighing multiple variables, which I love your point, you may have a wide range of responses depending on how those variables get weighted in any given moment, and they’re all okay. It’s like, what’s the aggregate? Another thing I think that we say over and over on this podcast is parenting happens in the aggregate. One, panicked, swooping up of your baby is not going to do anything in terms of instilling them a fear of the world or lack of resiliency, and if that’s your chronic go-to strategy, what’s getting displaced by that? Similarly, we only need to, we talk about with the attunement and misattunement, if we miss attune, it’s not the end of the world. There’s been lots of studies on how much a parent accurately attunes to their child and how that impacts predicting their attachment styles, and there have been studies that have shown that a parent can attune to their child, almost 50%, 54% of accurate attunement still predicted a secure attachment style. So it’s like, okay, so if you were going to extrapolate that 54% of the time, you sort of titrate your response and stretch a little. The other 46% of the time, you’re like, ah!

Dr. Emily (15:27):

Or 54% of a discreet interaction. Even in those interactions, if you’re throwing a little spaghetti on the wall, you’re trying to talk to the baby without picking the baby up, you’re able to hit it on the nail on the head. It doesn’t have to be perfect even in those discreet interactions in the aggregate.

Dr. Sarah (15:48):

And so really quick just to bring this back to this idea of the other side of that lens that we were saying you could interpret this question from is, and the more I read this question, the more I don’t actually think the mom is talking about consent and bodily autonomy. She’s really looking at this more of a lens of how do I stretch that resilience? How do I allow my child to have a safe experience of struggling a little bit with an emotion in a way that allows them to sort of learn, oh, I can survive this emotion. It’s pretty safe. It comes and it goes, and I’m okay. The other piece being body consent, body autonomy. If a child doesn’t want this makes me think more of those situations where we’re talking about a child doesn’t want to be picked up by

Dr. Emily (16:43):

 Or hugged or…

Dr. Sarah (16:44):

Yeah. Doesn’t want to say hi, doesn’t want to give him a high five, doesn’t want to sit in their lap, doesn’t want to give ’em a hug, doesn’t want to get picked up. Presumably if this child’s already being held by the safe adult and the mom comes in and the baby says, I’d much rather have you mom come here to me and mom’s trying to say, how do I support you in stretching this discomfort a little bit? That’s very different than saying the grownup, this other safe adult coming in and saying, let me pick you up, and the baby’s like, I don’t really want to be picked up right now. How do we promote consent since we are just sort of playing around with looking at it from that lens?

Dr. Emily (17:22):

I think it’s a great question, and obviously we promote body consent and sort of personal autonomy, but I also think it begets a bit of the question of where developmentally does that work, right? Because the baby doesn’t have full autonomy. I mean, frankly, neither does a toddler, but the baby really doesn’t, and in my view, I think it’s not that we don’t make mistakes, but I, it’s our read as the parent to try to determine and just like this listener said, this is a safe adult, and I think that’s a little bit bigger umbrella wise about that personal autonomy, but a baby doesn’t unfortunately get to have total personal autonomy. Again, are we going to make them super distressed? No, we don’t want them to be crying hysterically for 20 minutes as we stand next to them and another safe adult is holding them. That’s stretching it too much, but it’s a little bit out of, it almost doesn’t fit with the developmental age of this child to talk about it in that way, in my opinion.

Dr. Sarah (18:29):

Yeah, no, that makes a lot of sense. I agree with you actually, because the way that I think about consent with really little children, do I ask for your consent and wait to receive a yes, right, because they can’t give me one, nor do they really understand what I’m asking. That concept of asking for and waiting to receive consent is not developmentally appropriate for a six to 12 month old and frankly probably for even much older than that two, three even.


But the things that, it’s almost kind of like when I talk about debriefing something with a kid or collaborative problem solving with a kid after something has been tricky with really little kids, I might say, here’s the problem. How can we do this differently the next time? I don’t actually expect them to give me an answer. I’m going to say, I wonder if we could do this the next time, so I’m going to offer them model for them something so that, because developmentally, I don’t expect them to be able to generate that, whereas with an older child, I might wait and let them offer a solution. In this situation, if I were going to transpose this to physical autonomy and consent with a baby, I might say, I’m going to pick you up now, not in the situation where I’m trying to decide who should be holding my kid when they’re in distress, but if I’m just in the room, I walk into the room, my kid’s got a dirty diaper, I could smell it and we’re like, okay, we’re got to change that diaper.


I might sort of, instead of just swooping them up and taking them to the changing table to change their diaper, I might say, Hey, you need to change your diaper a little bit. I’m going to pick you up now. Pause just a beat. Let them hear what I’m saying. Again, they don’t understand the words necessarily, especially infants, but they understand the tone, and if we get into this habit of letting a child know before you’re going to pick them up, what you’re going to do, and then you do it slowly, gently with their, again, it’s not consent, but it’s their participation, right? They’ve been included in the conversation and now I’m bringing them over to the changing table and I’m going to say, all right, I’m going to take off your diaper. Now, I’m not asking for permission. I can’t give it to me. I’m just walking them through it.


They’re a participant because what I feel like that does, it’s a sign of respect of their autonomy, of their bodily separateness from me, and not that I can just swoop it and do whatever I like to their body, even though I’m helping them and I’m totally doing my job as a parent, totally doing my job just by picking them up and changing their diaper. I don’t need to ask, their consent won’t receive it, but it’s like a mindset shift. It’s like, how do I relate to another human being in a way that is collaborative, acknowledging of their beingness, their personhood, and saying, I’m going to do something that involves you and I’m just going to let you know it’s going to happen and I’m going to communicate to you about that process along the way.

Dr. Emily (21:36):

I think what you’re saying is the consent and the participation really comes from the parent and the attunement in those moments, and I think to bring it full circle, just back to this person’s question saying, alright, I’m going to hand you to the babysitter right now and we’re going to have a conversation, but I have to cook something or I have to do something, so I’m going to give you to the babysitter right now is another way of reflecting what you’re saying, which is I, as the adult, I swoop up both of us into this kind of big umbrella bubble and say, okay, we are a unit here and I’m trying to be respectful, be attuned and sort of let you know and have you participate in what the next step is.

Dr. Sarah (22:20):

Yes. And if my kid gets distressed about that, that doesn’t necessarily mean I then immediately cancel the plans to go cook the dinner to say, you’re upset. It’s so hard to see me go. I’ll go and I will be back. And then you come back and reunite and you do the thing. But we justs don’t avoid the distress because it’s hard, I think, where we build the resilience.

Dr. Emily (22:48):


Dr. Sarah (22:49):

Awesome. Well, I hope this was helpful and we’ll wait await all of your next questions, so stay tuned.

Dr. Emily (22:59):


Dr. Sarah (23:02):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! ✨

179. BTS: How do I support my child through distress without rescuing them immediately?