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Episode summary:

Susan responds to a parent’s question about how to become the Captain of the ship if you grew up with permissive parents who gave you whatever you wanted, sharing important insights into making the shift to setting loving limits with kids.

About Susan Stiffelman

Working with children has been Susan's life-long passion. In high school, Susan had an after-school job as a teacher at a day care center. When she went to college, she became a credentialed teacher, and was later licensed as a Marriage, Family and Child therapist. She has been an avid learner throughout her career, sharing insights and strategies in her two books: Parenting Without Power Struggles and Parenting With Presence (an Eckhart Tolle Edition). In recent years, Susan has shifted from private clinical work to online events for parents around the world on topics like Raising Resilient Kids, Helping Anxious Children Thrive, and Raising Screenwise Kids. Susan's greatest joy is working directly with parents in her monthly Parenting Without Power Struggles membership group, and in her Co-Parenting with a Narcissist support group with Wendy Behary. Susan is thrilled to be doing work that she loves, and hope she can help you and your kids along your parenting  journey!

Things you'll learn from this episode: 


Looking at the beliefs that create parental insecurity around setting limits

Widening the perspective on how today’s parenting approach will affect the adults our children will become

How to respond when a child desperately wants something, without giving in

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Episode Transcript

Speaker 1: (00:14)
Hello and welcome to the Parenting Without Power of Struggles podcast. In today's episode, I'm gonna answer a question or address a question from Catherine who wants to be the captain of the ship. She wants to inhabit that role of being confidently and calmly in charge, but she didn't grow up experiencing that. So she is asking for support and guidance on how to set a new path for herself as she raises her child. This podcast is all about helping you have more fun, more joy, more connection, and fewer power struggles as you're raising your kids. I'm Susan Stiffelman, your host, the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles and Parenting With Presence. I get to share some of the things I've learned in my 40 plus years as a family therapist and educator, a parent, parent coach, and a mom. And we cover everything here with guests like Dr. Ned Hallowell, Dr. Mona Delahooke, Byron Katie, Julie Lithcott Haims, Jon Kabat Zinn, Janet Lansbury, Maggie Dent, Lawrence Cohen, and many other wonderful speakers. So you can check out the whole library of episodes wherever you listen to podcasts or at You can also submit a question of your own before we get started on today's conversation, make sure you're taking advantage of everything that we offer at There are over 35 deep dive masterclasses on everything from chores and homework to raising sensitive kids and anxious kids. You can also get my free newsletter where you're gonna get periodic tips and inspiration, essays, ideas, strategies, and all the information as well on upcoming classes.

So in today's episode as promised, I'm gonna address a question. It came in from Catherine. She writes, hi Susan. I come from a permissive family where my parents did everything for me and usually let me get my own way.

Speaker 1: (02:05)
I know this isn't how I wanna raise my child, but I find myself doing everything possible to keep my daughter from getting frustrated or upset. I know you talk about being the captain of the ship, but I think most of the time she's the captain and I'm the crew doing whatever she wants me to do to avoid her frustration or her anger. How can I start setting boundaries when I feel so anxious about seeing her unhappy? How does someone become the captain of the ship when they didn't grow up seeing their own parents showing how it's done?

Speaker 2: (02:36)

Speaker 1: (02:37)
Thank you so much for this question. I am sure that lots and lots of parents can relate because actually not too many of us did grow up having a model of what it looks and feels like to have a parent who is owning that role. They're the grownup in the room, but they're not using threats and bribes and punishments and timeouts and those sorts of things to control their kids and come across as being kind of the one in control. Because being the captain of the ship honestly, is not about being in control. It's about being in charge lovingly, confidently, calmly in charge. And if you didn't experience it growing up, then it's not really in your cells and bones, and you are gonna be feeling kind of awkward and maybe insecure about how you approach each situation with your child. But the good news is, I know that it can be done.

Speaker 1: (03:31)
I've worked with thousands of parents over these many, many decades, and I've seen parents who completely let their kids run the show or whose only strategy was to take things away or scream and yell and threaten, punish. I've seen it happen that we can make these small incremental shifts toward stepping into that role that is so reassuring for a child. I mean, this is the thing that I wanna get to first, because when something is hard for us, or particularly in this scenario where you, you're anxious about upsetting your daughter, you don't wanna see her unhappy, we have to kind of get to the or origin of this anxiety and this thinking that promotes the anxiety. So the thought might be that an unhappy child or a frustrated child is a reflection of you not doing your job of, of somehow a failure on your part.

Speaker 1: (04:27)
And so you'll scramble to avoid seeing the child be, you know, angry or worried or unhappy or, or, or just disappointed because there's a belief in there fueling that anxiety. And the belief has to do with, again, what does this mean about me as a parent? What does it mean about my child? What am I doing wrong? I don't see lots of other children who seem so unhappy. And another belief might be that it is your job to be the serpent of your child. That this is sort of the dynamic, this is the arrangement, this is the role or the job description. And until you sort of notice and become thoughtfully aware without judging yourself, whatever comes up is okay. Until you though know what is the belief, what are the thoughts that fuel the anxiety, then anything I suggest is just gonna be sort of a bandaid.

Speaker 1: (05:24)
It's just gonna be a set of behaviors that you're trying and trying to adopt, but it's not gonna stick because that root belief, that root idea that our children are supposed to be happy for instance, or that an unhappy child is a reflection of our inadequacy as a parent, those root beliefs are going to sabotage the efforts that we might make to stand in a place where we are setting loving and healthy boundaries for our kids. So it always starts, at least in the work that I do, with starting to look at what the kind of mental or psychological construct, what the story is that we're believing and telling ourselves. Once we can get clear about what that is, we can start to maybe poke some holes in it, maybe create some curiosity around whether the belief that we're holding that fuels how we show up with our kids, whether it's even true or correct, accurate.

Speaker 1: (06:23)
So I'd like to invite you, once you've identified what the belief is that fuels this effort to be your child's servant or to make sure they always get their way, once you've identified the belief or the story or the idea to take a couple of steps back from it, be friendly toward it. Don't be judgmental or mean to yourself. Just notice, oh, this is what I'm believing. I'm believing that a good parent has a child who is generally very happy, and that might then require me to give into the things that they want or avoid their tears. So once you've identified what the belief is, now we have something to work with, and this is what I do in my membership. This is what I do in my parenting without Power circle intensive course. So I'm giving you just sort of the cliff notes, but I do wanna give you something to work with here.

Speaker 1: (07:15)
We know that the goal of raising children, most of us would agree, at least, is to raise a confident, adaptable, resilient grownup. And this is where we can often be so shortsighted as we're raising our kids day in and day out, we think that it's about getting them to do their homework or brush their teeth and avoid a cavity or you know, eat good, healthy, organic balanced foods so that their bodies are are strong. We might think that this is sort of the stuff and substance of raising children, but from my perspective and certainly my perspective now as the parent of an adult, it's really just as much about who our child will become sooner than you can imagine. Very quickly, these little guys are, you know, heading out into the big wide world. So when we hold onto that perspective, then we have to think, well, what are the skills, abilities, resources that will serve my child so that they have confidence as they navigate this complicated world so that they forge healthy relationships that are reciprocal and, and and respectful?

Speaker 1: (08:29)
What are the kinds of, of skills and resources that we want to cultivate in them today, in service of who they're going to very soon become? When we look at it that way, then it's hard to deny the fact that a grownup who is capable of enduring the loss of a job or who can cope when a boyfriend girlfriend breaks up with them without turning to substances or obsessive computer or digital use distractions to numb themselves from painful feelings. When we picture our child going through the very inevitable ups and downs of life, then we realize, well, how, how does a child who's 32 cope when let's say they don't get a job or they lose a job that they really enjoyed, or they lose a a relationship that was really important to them? How do they cope? And we reverse engineer, so to speak, how they got to a place where we can see them coping well, we can see them handling that disappointment, maybe talking about their, their sadness or their hurt feelings with a, a trusted group of friends or friend or therapist.

Speaker 1: (09:46)
We maybe see them practicing some mindfulness or exercising or taking good care of themselves while they're, while they're dealing with this disappointment or this difficult situation, maybe they have a situation in a partnership that isn't going that well. And we see them using the skills of honest and open authentic communication to untangle misunderstandings or missteps. So when you see your, your young child now as that adult doing those things in the face of life's difficulties, it can be much easier to then today when they say, will you get me a glass of water? Mommy, you know, sweetheart, I'm, I love that you notice that you're thirsty. That tells me that you're really listening to your body and I'm so happy that you are a strong girl who's able to get water when you need it. If you need a reminder about where the kitchen is, if you wanna be funny about it, if you need a reminder about where we keep the glasses or where the water is stored, I'm here to help.

Speaker 1: (10:47)
And your child might say, well, you're right there, can't you get it? And you can just lovingly smile and say, I love you and I trust you to take care of the things that you know your body needs. If you're in the toy store and your child desperately, desperately wants this incredible Lego set and it's so cool, and you would love to see them unwrapping that thing and see the joy in their face, and they say, please, please, can you buy it for me? And maybe you're also afraid of the meltdown that might happen. Then you take a breath, maybe you put your hand on your heart to steady yourself and you say, sweetheart, it, it does, it looks incredible. I could just picture you building that thing and frankly, I'd love to build it with you. Shall we add it to your wishlist? This is a list you might keep for a child's birthday or special holidays, and the child says, but I really want it now. And you say, oh my gosh, I can so see that. Ugh, it's so hard. It's so hard when something you have your heart set on is out of reach.

Speaker 1: (11:51)
These are just small examples. And in today's episode, rather than focusing on a whole list of possible situations, I really wanted to get to the heart of it because once you get to the heart of what fuels that insecurity around being the captain of the ship, particularly as Catherine said, you, if you didn't grow up having a model for what that looks and sounds like, then from there, the whole thing can shift. So if you can picture your child doing really well in life as an adult, and you rewind the video to see how they learned to cope, how they got to the point when they could handle frustration and disappointment not having what they want, it will make it so much easier in the heat of the moment to say, honey, I can see how desperately you want this thing. It's not so easy to tell you that it's not an option today, but I'm doing, you know, I love you and my job as a parent is to do what I I know and feel is best for you.

Speaker 1: (12:56)
And today, that is not going to be an option. And if the child, of course, which kids will do keeps begging, but why I want it so badly, you, you continue to validate, you continue to offer your loving support. I don't recommend giving reasons over and over again because typically they're not gonna satisfy a child's desire for something they're often code for. But I really want it say, why can't I have brownies for dinner? Well, sweetie, you know, I know how good brownies are and we have a, a, a nice, healthy, balanced meal plan that will give you all the nutrients that your body needs. And I'm guessing that's not what you wanted to hear, but why can't I have the brownies? You know what, hun? Whatever reason I give you really isn't gonna make, make you feel any better. So I think what you're really saying is you wish you could have the brownies, and I am sticking to my decision, and I can imagine you might be really upset about that.

Speaker 1: (13:51)
And I'm here if you wanna tell me more about what's going on, how hard that is. So there's a lot of ways that we can respond. Again, I've got my, my Parenting Without Power Struggles membership, which meets twice a month. So this is really what we do there as I coach parents to start to get comfortable using this kind of response as opposed to the typical reaction. It is a process. Please be kind to yourselves as you take those baby steps toward trying to approach your your child differently. Catherine, don't expect to change overnight and certainly don't expect your child to say, gosh, mom, I'm so glad you're stepping into that role of, of the captain of the ship makes me feel so much more secure and steady and supported. Kids aren't gonna say that 'cause they do want what they want and they're very passionate about it.

Speaker 1: (14:39)
And I have faith in you, Catherine, I, I know that you like so many parents can make that change slowly but surely. And if I can support you, please visit There's lots and lots of information there about how I can help you along your way. Meanwhile, lots to think about everyone and please, please be kind to yourself and acknowledge whatever small successes you experience in your day as you move toward being that loving, present, responsive, compassionate, connected captain of the ship. That's it for today. If you're enjoying these episodes, I would be so grateful if you would write a review that's just like Christmas around here, . If you would just share how it was for you, what you learned, or just that you appreciate having the support and you can also leave a rating that helps, you can tell a friend. All of those things help us reach more parents. In the meantime, remember, no matter how busy life gets, look for those moments of sweetness and joy. Stay well, take care and we'll see you next time.