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.
Hey everybody, welcome to another episode of Beyond the Sessions and the Securely Attached podcast. I am here with Dr. Emily Upshur and Dr. Rebecca Hershberg, both psychologists, both moms, both wise, wise women. Today we got, we’re going to answer a question that came in from a listener that is specifically about setting boundaries with kids who are a little bit more on that sensitive side of the spectrum because they need a little bit of a different approach.
So Emma wrote in and said, Hey, Dr. Sarah loving the podcast, wondering if you could do an episode on setting limits with sensitive kids. I believe in respectful parenting. I’ll admit I don’t always do it perfectly, but other than sometimes when I snap, I feel like I’m doing most of the things experts say to do and it’s just not working with my four-year-old daughter. Should I be doing something different with her? Since I think she’s pretty sensitive, it seems like it just makes things worse when I validate her feelings and try to talk her down. Thanks so much for your insights, Emma.
So one of the things that I think is really important that this listener kind of touches on is this idea that, okay, I’ve tried all the things, I’m following the scripts and following the rules. I’m doing things quote, and it does not work for my kid. It just seems to piss them off more or get them more upset. It’s not changing their behavior. Am I doing something wrong? And I think so many parents with kids who are a little bit more on that sensitive end of the spectrum, who get dysregulated more easily, who have a harder time cooling off that these gentle boundaries, these firm but warm boundaries, yes, I do believe they work, but I do think we need, it doesn’t always work in the way we think it’s going to work, and that can make a parent really start to be like, what’s wrong with me? Or what’s wrong with my kid that this doesn’t work? So first I just want to validate you are not crazy. It doesn’t always work. These strategies do not work for every child all the time in every situation. And yeah, I think you do need a different kind of different approach to the same. It’s a different way of entering in the same room. What do you guys think?
Dr. Rebecca (03:08):
I mean, I think the question itself is so important and there’s so much knowledge that comes through even in just phrasing the question because in the question is an acknowledgement that it’s different. And again, I’ve said this in another episode, but I’ll say it again, this idea that it’s continuous and not categorical. So it’s not like for these kids you use these set of tools and for these other kids you use these other set of tools. It’s more just things to keep in mind when you have a more sensitive kid. And I think you already nailed the first one, which is you’re not a bad parent. I mean, I say to parents all the time, there’s nothing like a really hard kid to make a really good parent feel like a really bad parent.
You are not your kid. Your kid is your kid and you are yourself as a parent and just not conflating your worth as a parent with your kids’ feelings frankly. And then the other thing that I think is sort of a number one to remember with kids that tend to be more sensitive is the role of shame and just the extent to which a lot of the reactions that cause parents to really get riled up. Understandably, when you set a limit with your child and your child laughs or when you try to reflect a feeling like, wow, you seem really angry right now, and they’re like, shut up. I’m not angry that what’s beneath a lot of that is shame and shame. That is about just being too much in the spotlight. A lot of times these kids, it’s about you sort of said it when you said it’s another way in, it’s another way in that’s much more circuitous. These are kids that when you look at them directly and you speak directly and you hit on something too hard, which may for you not be too hard, it’s too much for ’em. And it doesn’t mean that you don’t set limits. And I think that’s important to say because it’s really tempting not to
Because it often does make things worse, but it doesn’t mean that as a parent you don’t have to do it, you still need to do it, but sometimes less is more. I think with these kids, a lot of times non-verbal is more helpful, just the way that you change the look on your face or maybe using your attention more strategically, I’m going to stop right now. I need to think more. I’m getting kind of vague and I don’t mean to, but I think again, for me, I think of these kids as if you’re setting a limit the way that you might do with a child who’s less sensitive, you’re almost like shining a spotlight. And there’s kids who really love that spotlight and they tend to be less sensitive and it’s helpful and it’s clarifying and it’s like, I’m in the spotlight. Thank you. These kids, you have to shine the light a little bit more next to them and they kind of get what they need to by being in the shadows a little bit. But again, that’s the metaphor I use and I’ll think now about how to make it more concrete as you guys keep talking.
Dr. Emily (06:12):
I love that, Rebecca, I always say treat them like cats. Don’t look them directly in the eye.
So it’s a little bit of this, I’m still setting a limit. I’m still noticing you, but I’m not giving you so much direct contact that it’s too much light to your point, Rebecca, that it’s on you. I also think maybe this is a little bit similar to what you guys are saying, but I also think of a bell curve with kids that have trouble with this limit setting. And I like to start with, okay, if I recognize the behavior and I validate, oh, you’re having a really hard time now, but we really need to turn off the tv, can’t stop playing the video game, not play outside in the sandbox anymore, then we have a shot at not escalating. If we lead with that validation, we don’t have to approve of the behavior, but we do lead with, it’s really hard for you to do that.
I see that. And also we need to stop and then if it escalates, we move into a different phase. I think it’s changing the expectation of we try to redirect, we move into different types of behavioral interventions. And then I do think if it really gets into the red zone and we have kids that are very flared up emotionally, maybe we can remind them of their coping skills. Maybe we can clarify the expectations, but if not, I think that’s when we just sort of accept that we have to wait until they cool down again, to go back to the recovery phase of, I work with another parenting woman, Dr. Alana Spra, who’s amazing and she calls it a love sandwich. So she says afterwards you have to, in this recovery phase, you’re out of the red, but then you say you had a really hard time listening.
You can still set the limit. You still have to do X, y, and Z behavior. But I see that you’re recovering now and you really did a good job calming down, right? You’re just trying to put the whole thing back together again. But I think maybe what parents need to know is you kind of have to radically accept that once it gets into the red, we kind of have to patiently wait. Maybe that means standing like a statue in the same room. I think some readers are saying, do I stay? Listeners are saying, do we stay in the same room with them? If that works well for your child, stay in the room with them and be quiet and be a statue until they calm down. Some kids want to be left alone, that’s okay too. But there’s no teaching in that moment and I think that’s the time when we want to say we didn’t fail. This is just the arc, the bell curve, the arc of this kid’s emotions and we sort of have to work within that system and not try to crush that system.
Dr. Sarah (09:02):
Dr. Rebecca (09:03):
I also think these are kids that do really well with systems and structures that are set up preemptively so that with predictability so that you potentially have to set fewer limits in the moment. There are kids who can kind of roll with the punches and their kids who can’t and the kids who can’t are often the more sensitive kids. And so again, with the understanding that you can’t do it perfectly every day, but really letting them know what’s coming down the pike in terms of transitions, in terms of expectations before there’s any sense that they might have done something wrong that you’re then going to kind of risk that shame response. I talk with families a lot about, I use the term pre-gaming for a long time in my home and still certainly sometimes you will often hear me say, I’m about to tell you guys something that needs to happen.
Let’s see if we can keep a calm body and a kind voice. And it’ll then they’ll sort of look at me and I’ve let their nervous systems know there’s something coming that might be a little tough. And then I’ll say, someone needs to walk the dog right away. I might have one of ’em falling on the floor and the other one groaning at the top of their lungs. This is like the challenge has been set. Let’s see if we can keep a calm body and a kind voice or if they’re playing together, if they’re playing a game where there’s a winner and a loser, I think of air hockey, just a reminder that one of you is going to win and one of you is going to lose. By definition. Let’s see if everyone can keep a calm body and a kind voice. You’re playing, sorry, reminder, every time you pull a card, you might get a sorry card. That means that you’re going to have to start over. Let’s see if when that happens, we can keep calm bodies and kind voices. It’s just this, we’re constantly working on that skill preemptively.
Dr. Sarah (11:05):
And I love this point you’re making about doing it before we start something because I think a lot of times we give that kind of coaching in the doing phase of something. We’re already playing, sorry. And we’re noticing, oh God, if someone’s going to really get pissed off when they pull that sorry card and then we’re interrupting the doing to give these prompts and coaching and that doesn’t land well with these kids either because they do not being interrupted when they are doing. They need to be able to practice thinking about preparing, getting ready for something before they do. Because once they’re in doing getting in there, this is well before they’re dysregulated, they got pissed off. Sometimes we just are trying to coach. Yes, we don’t want to coach when they’re already dysregulated, but we also don’t really want to coach when they’re doing, even when they’re regulated because they don’t like being interrupted.
So we want to coach before they start, which I think does two things to your point, Rebecca, it helps them know what’s going to happen and make the decision. Do I want to play, sorry. Right now my daughter also, we were just camping and we were playing this camping game and it was like a board game that we bought. We were going on camper trip. Oh cool. And you have to pick cards and kind of take turns slapping the right card to get to fill your little camper board or whatever. And the first time we played it, it was an absolute disaster. Disaster because they both were competing and one was continually losing. And my daughter did not tolerate that well. So I was like, I think we’re done with this game. And then I got a board thrown in my face. Not kidding. And so that was just a real big disaster.
And then we had to deal through that meltdown and deal with all the stuff. And I put, so what I did in that moment is I was like, it’s not safe to throw that. I’m going to put this away. We can’t play this game if you can’t be safe. She proceeded to be furious and melted down. I put the game away though, and I let the meltdown happen in the campground with all these families around. Fortunately it’s like every campsites have meltdowns is camping. But anyway, my point is the next day they wanted to play that game again. And I was like, I could very well see myself saying, no way, you guys can’t do it. But instead I said, okay, well if we play this game, what’s going to happen? We have to hit those cards again. One of you won’t get the card and sometimes you’re going to be really mad about that.
Can we do this? Can we play? And they were of course, yeah, yeah, yeah. We could play. And I was like, okay, well then let’s think a little bit about what will happen when you both hit the thing at the same time. Or when one person hits it first and you don’t get it, can we practice saying, I don’t like that, but I’m happy for you that you got the card. Can we practice it? And they were in a good mood at this point. They were eager to play the game. They were fine. So they were like, yeah, yeah, we can practice saying that. And then I played it with them and we practiced doing that and that was a little bit more successful of a game. And I say that not to say, oh, well if you just do it this way, it’ll be easy.
It could have very well devolved if other variables were at play if they were hungry or cranky or hot or tired or whatever. But it turned out better the second time because we prepped before we started, we role played certain scenarios that might go wrong. I gave them tools and strategies for what to say instead. And then I played with them and modeled it and kind of co-regulate that entire gaming session. And after that, my kids could play that game by themselves for the rest of the camping trip. So your point that preparation, it’s got to happen before they do. And I think that sometimes we forget to do that or we didn’t know that that’s a more effective strategy.
Dr. Rebecca (15:19):
I have a feeling if the listeners are anything like my clients, which they often aren’t, I would imagine someone is thinking to themselves right now, oh my God, that sounds like so much work.
Or how did you think to do that? Those are both completely typical and understandable reactions for the how did you think to do that? It’s as far as I’m concerned, just a muscle that you practice building. It’s like learning a new language. It really is. And it’s just about practicing and it becomes more and more natural. And I’ve had parents that say, it really feels so forced and contrived and not them. And then it gets easier over time. And then as far as that, that sounds like so much work. Absolutely. And it’s actually less work than dealing with the fallout in the card game when it goes south. And so you’re sort of choosing what kind of work do I want to do? Do I want to do one that’s beforehand? And that actually feels better because everyone’s connected or the work of everyone storms off to their room and is miserable and all that. And so most parents will choose the former, but I want to acknowledge that that’s often a reaction if I share a story like that of like, oh my gosh, are you kidding me? That sounds exhausting. Yes. And it gets easier with time and you have to compare. You’re not comparing it to a successful card game without doing that. You’re comparing it to a card game that will inevitably go south and there will be a lot of pieces to pick up
Dr. Sarah (16:52):
And a board in the face.
Dr. Emily (16:55):
And I think that the term I use all the time with parents is that’s your A game parenting, but you can’t always do a game parenting. Sometimes you’re just tired or you’re not on it or it’s the end of the school year or so. I say when you can do a game parenting, that’s it. Or maybe we just have to remember, okay, this is a vacation. There’s no schedules, there’s a lot of loose goosey, not structure. I might have to do a game parenting this week to make it successful. I might not be able to just do the fly by the seat of my pants, my usual vacation in the summer week. I think that’s sort of the term I use. But I also say you can’t beat your A game all the time, right? You can’t. No
Dr. Sarah (17:43):
Way. I’m certainly not. I mean there’s definitely been times where I’ve just been screaming, everyone’s melting down and I didn’t think to do it. And Rebecca, to your point, yes, I have a slight advantage because all day every day I’m practicing this muscle by working with parents in this way. But even in my home life, I don’t get it right all the time at all. And so it’s useful to share the stories where it works to illustrate that a game parenting Emily, but by no means am I a game all the time at all.
Dr. Emily (18:19):
I totally agree.
Dr. Rebecca (18:22):
And I want to just honor that Parents, I mean just back to this idea of these sensitive kids, which is where we started, you can have feelings about the fact that you have to have more of your a game parenting hat on when you go on vacation than your friends might. And I often say it’s a choice. You might decide, you know what, I’m not doing a game parenting, I’m just exhausted and actually I’m going to sit with my friends and I’m going to enjoy a glass of wine and I’m going to let things go south because I just can’t deal right now. But it’s always a choice. And when you have these really sensitive kids or spicy kids or whatever you want to call them, again, there’s power in making that choice preemptively. And also in allowing yourself to feel the feelings, whether it’s grief, whether it’s resentment, whether it’s anger of like, I really wish I could sit with those other parents over there and just chill out while my kids were running around the campsite meeting the other kids.
But if I do that, it’s going to actually end up awful in some way because it always does. And that’s a real bummer. But I’ve learned my lesson or that’s going to happen and I’m going to risk it this time because I just don’t have it in me. But again, to acknowledge your own, not all kids are created equal, and not all parenting is created equal. And so if you are someone who has a spicy kid or a sensitive kid or a difficult kid, it is harder. That’s legit. And there are kids that you will see who can play this frigging camping board game that Sarah so beautifully described, and it’s just like a fun family game. Wouldn’t that be nice if it didn’t involve all this stuff? And then for your kid it does. And it’s okay to feel like, Ugh, that stinks because there are ways in which it does.
Dr. Emily (20:13):
Yeah, I think that’s really valid, Rebecca. I think there is a muscle you can work on, but you’re right, it doesn’t always feel good that you have to work on that muscle. You might just not want to that day. And I think that that’s a really important point. And I also think these kids can be kind of unpredictable. So as much as we do the pre-planning or the pre-teaching or the anticipating things, things are going to come up that you just didn’t know, you just didn’t expect. And I think that’s where maybe some of these other strategies we talked about earlier, recognizing, validating, redirecting and recovering or sort of where you come into play for those, you need many tools in your toolbox, I
Dr. Sarah (20:57):
Guess. You really do. You really do. And you need to know that it’s okay to use different tools at different times and you kind of need to know when to use ’em. So this preemptive planning, preparation, readiness, whatever you want to call it, that has to happen when your kid is regulated and motivated to do something, that’s when you use that tool. It doesn’t work really any other time. If you have a kid who’s already gotten mad and is dysregulated then, and this is I think where it’s really tricky because dysregulation isn’t just all or nothing either. There’s intensity levels of it. And so I often try to describe to parents on a scale of one to 10, 10 being absolute volcanic eruption, one being like, I’m sleeping. I’m so relaxed and so regulated that I’m literally asleep. Three in my sort of scale is like, I’m awake, I’m alert, I’m regulated.
We’re not always at a three. Nobody really. We will be, we’ll come in and out of three, but that’s sort of that sort of sweet spot. Like I’m regulated, I’m alert, I’m attentive, and I can take in new stuff and I can be redirected and I can do all these things. I could actually just be directed because I don’t need to be redirected regulated. And then as you go up that scale, 4, 5, 6, that’s where you start to see a window of growing dysregulation where you still have a lot of room as parents to intervene with probably the bulk of your parenting toolbox. You can correct, you can redirect, you can validate, you can distract, you can playfulness. All that stuff works really well from four to six on the scale. Once you hit six and you start moving up to seven, eight, your window of opportunity to intervene and the amount of different things that will work in that moment are really getting small.
And that’s when I think we have to know our kid and know what helps them when they’re at the 6, 7, 8 range, not the same for every kid, 4, 5, 6, most kids, no matter what kind of kid they are, will respond to support in that range. But for some kids, when they get to seven, eight, you need to know what your kid does. And if you have a kid, like we were saying earlier, when you shine a spotlight on them when they’re at a 6, 7, 8, they will not tolerate that. It will rocket them up to nine 10. And then you’re totally kind of done and you have to do what Emily was referring to earlier, which is accept and let it ride out. You can’t really intervene at all at that point other than just keep them safe and damage control. And so I think that’s a helpful, I mean, I’m very visual in the way I think about things.
So I think literally picturing where’s my child on this scale and knowing I have different tools for different places in their range of dysregulation that works for them because tried and troubleshot and thrown spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. And I kind of have built my toolbox for my kid. But that’s one of the techniques that I tend to teach parents is how to figure out what tools need to go in my toolbox and which tools do I need to use when, because it’s not always intuitive and it’s not the same for every kid
Dr. Rebecca (24:30):
In my book, I think if I’m remembering correctly and I should know. But I talk about it as a train, the train coming and what do you do when you hear the, when there’s no train is where most of the learning is going to happen when you’re just in a happy connected green zone moment and you start to hear a rumbling train coming in the distance and what can you do then? And then the train’s getting closer and by the time the train is kind of right here, you’ve just got to let it pass. But you can still, when you hear it in the distant, I mean it’s the exact same, it’s just a different metaphor and imagery for what you’re saying about this scale.
Dr. Sarah (25:10):
But I think a lot of parents get very frustrated and feel very helpless when they’re trying to use the quote right tool, I’m validating my kid’s feelings, I’m redirecting. These things are things that everyone says to do. The psychologists are saying, do this, right? The people who know what to do are saying Do this and I’m doing it and it’s not working for my kid. And it’s like, can we make sure we’re doing it in a window of regulation or dysregulation where it’s actually going to land? If it’s not, you are going to be doing this correct strategy and not getting the result that you’re hoping to get, and then you think there’s something wrong with me or there’s something wrong with my kid because why wouldn’t you? And so I think it’s hopefully very validating for parents to know it’s not that there’s one right tool, it’s that the timing is actually, and the application of it is actually far more important in determining if it’s going to work or not.
Dr. Emily (26:13):
I also think it’s fair that some kids during sometimes you might always get the peak, you might always get to your eight to nine, 10. That’s part of their cycle. I think radically accepting that and learning how to manage that is really important in that phase of being at the top of that bell curve where you’re like 8, 9, 10, doing more of that active ignoring, active being, being there, but not reinforcing the behavior, physically being a grounding station for your kiddo, but not necessarily interacting with them a lot and waiting for that train to pass and sort of Rebecca’s analogy there. So that might just be what it is. That might just be the limit setting is in your household for a phase of life, and that’s not wrong. You’re not doing it wrong if you have to go through that bell curve or that arc or that phase.
So I think there’s two things. There’s the one which is like, can we refine it so that you can intervene at the right time and in the right heat, the right temperature of the moment? And that’s great. And we can always talk about pre-teaching and sort of intervening at the right time, but I think there are also some kids that have to go through this arc and that you just have to learn as a parent how to do that piece, the best ride that leaves the best. And that’s not a failure. I guess that’s sort of my bigger,
Dr. Sarah (27:50):
Yes, I would even argue that that is using the right tool at the right time. If your kid goes to 8, 9, 10 super fast and it’s not realistic for you to ever be able to effectively intervene before that most of the time, then that’s fine. That’s where your kid goes and you’re intervening at that 8, 9, 10 in an effective way, which is for that little range, just keeping them safe, just allowing this to pass, just allowing it to ride out, letting their nervous system release and eventually reset and just literally keeping them safe while that is happening. And that I think is where a lot of parents mistakenly say, I have failed. If I get to that point. Instead, we need to reframe that and say, when my kid gets to that nine 10 space, the right tool in that moment is simply giving them a safe place to let it ride out. And that is actually success, not failure. That is you doing what your child needs you to do for them in the moment. That is like, that’s the right tool at that moment. And it’s good if you do that. You’ve done a good job.
Dr. Emily (29:11):
It feels bad, but you’ve done good.
Dr. Sarah (29:13):
Oh yeah, it feels terrible
Dr. Emily (29:15):
Bad, but you did good.
Dr. Sarah (29:19):
This is great. I hope that people find this validating because yeah, it’s not, it’s messy. Messy is fine. Mess’, totally fine, inevitable if you ask me.
Dr. Emily (29:30):
Dr. Sarah (29:34):Thank you so much for listening. As you can hear, parenting is not one size fits all. It’s nuanced and it’s complicated. So I really hope that this series where we’re answering your questions really helps you to cut through some of the noise and find out what works best for you and your unique child. If you have a burning parenting question, something you’re struggling to navigate or a topic you really want us to shed light on or share research about, we want to know, go to drsarahbren.com/question to send in anything that you want, Rebecca, Emily, and me to answer in this new series Securely Attached: Beyond the Sessions. That’s drsarahbren.com/question. And check back for a brand new securely attached next Tuesday. And until then, don’t be a stranger.
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