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Episode summary:

In this episode, Susan answers a parent’s question about a child’s difficulty with disappointment. She emphasizes the importance of  grounding oneself before setting limits to support children and shares tips to better help children cope with frustrating experiences.

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: 


Understand your emotional reactions before addressing your child's behavior.

Stay calm, set clear limits, and allow space for disappointment.

Foster resilience in children by promoting emotional regulation skills.

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Episode Transcript

Speaker 1: (00:08)
Hello, and welcome back to the Parenting Without Power Struggles Podcast. I'm Susan Stiffelman, your host. I'm the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles and Parenting with Presence. And in this podcast, I get to share some of the things with you that I've learned over my 40 plus years as a teacher, a marriage and family therapist, a parent educator, and a mom. So it's really everything is about helping you have a better relationship with your kids. And we cover it all here with guests like Dr. Mona Delahooke, Martha Beck, Ned Hallowell, Maggie Dent, Janet Lansbury, Kristin Neff, Lisa Damour, lots of wonderful and wise speakers. So before we get started, please take advantage of everything that we have to offer. You can go to and sign up for my free newsletter with lots of inspiration and tips, and you'll also hear about upcoming classes. There's currently a library of over 35 deep dive masterclasses on everything from homework and chores to helping anxious children thrive and raising sensitive kids.

Speaker 1: (01:11)
So check it all out at In today's episode, I'm gonna address a question that came in from one of our listeners, Victoria, and you could submit a question if you'd like at Victoria writes, dear Susan, thank you so much for this podcast. I have a seven-year-old son who's a sweet and caring little guy most of the time, but when he is a little bit tired or outta sorts, he can't seem to manage any disappointment in calmer moments. I've talked with him about all of this, and he feels bad when he has a meltdown or says hurtful things, but it doesn't impact what happens when he is run out of steam. Is there anything I can do to help him cope better when he's frustrated? We've had some really good conversations about why he can't always have what he wants, like staying at the park extra long or getting ice cream when I need to get home to make dinner.

Speaker 1: (02:03)
But that all seems to go out the window when he is not in a good place, and I don't know what else I can say in those moments. Such a great question and so relatable. I have some suggestions for you, Victoria, but first I wanna say something about my approach. It's a little bit different. It can be really tempting to go the route that many coaches or clinicians would go, which is to talk about what's behind this child's behavior, or to focus on what Victoria should do or say when her little guy start to have a, a fit about not getting what he wants. And I agree, I'm a really big fan of looking at the root, at the underlying elements that push a child to behave in a particular way, and then figuring out what specifically to say or do this is, you know, what I focus on a lot in my classes and in my memberships, but I also think we miss the mark when we skip what I think is a really important first step in a lot of parenting challenges. And

Speaker 2: (02:59)
That is that unless and until we look at ourselves at what's getting triggered or stirred up or why we tend to not be as effective, we tend to try harder at doing the things that aren't working. , who was it that said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result? So I'm just gonna take a few minutes to to speak first to what I think is essential when we are inviting parents or encouraging parents to approach a situation in a new and different way, something that maybe haven't tried before. And let's start by Victoria. I would invite you to notice how you are in the moment when you can feel that your seven year old son is starting to ramp up. He's starting to show signs that things are not gonna go well. Maybe you're at the park and he wants to stay longer, and you're not gonna be surprised by that.

Speaker 2: (03:57)
And maybe the way you let him know is kind of infused with a little bit of panic or anxiety or frustration or fatigue. All normal, by the way, these are all normal emotions or feelings that you might have at the end of the day when you wanna get home and you're, you're bracing yourself for what might be a problem with your son. The place that I like to work with parents, that's a little bit different, but it really can make such a huge shift in what happens is in ourselves for so oftentimes those feelings of frustration or resentment, oh my gosh, I've spent all this time, I've already spent extra time at the park, and now I have to face this, you know, battle again to get him to get off the slide or the swing and get in the car. So it can be frustration, it can be resentment, it can be a feeling of not being appreciated.

Speaker 2: (04:57)
You know that. And that is a very common feeling. Children don't typically have the awareness of the kind of gifts and gestures and sacrifices and effort we make on their behalf, nor should they, they're children. It's part of what comes with being a child. It's something that develops over time as empathy and understanding grow with the maturity of our children. But we might feel resentment, we might feel nervous. Maybe there's a fear that our child will have a really big meltdown. She doesn't say this in her question, but it's very possible that her seven year old has a large reaction, maybe loud, maybe he runs away, maybe he throws sand at her. So we may feel self-conscious about what people are gonna be thinking about our child or about us, or maybe some, you know, insecurity is activated in us. Like, why is my child like this?

Speaker 2: (05:49)
I see so many other calm and peaceful children leaving the park. And so our emotions may include a feeling of insecurity about our ability to parent, or maybe it's being fed by a, a parent of our, our one of our parents or in-laws who sort of makes comments from time to time suggesting that we don't exactly know what we're doing all the time. So all of these things inform the version of us that shows up in that moment when we're getting ready to say, let's say the little guy's name is Johnny, Johnny, sweetheart, it's time to, to head home. And we've already picked up the cues that he's a little tired or he is, you know, kind of overloaded, or he is not, you know, operating with all of his great capacity. And the version of us that is engaging with him is the version that is more likely to move this toward an argument, a power struggle, a negotiation, a bribe, a threat, and all those kinds of things that reflect us being what I call the lawyer or the dictator rather than that calm, clear, confident, compassionate captain of the ship. So my first bit of advice to Victoria would be to just take maybe 20 seconds and just land in your body. Notice where you are in time and space. Feel your feet on the ground, or if you're sitting on the bench, feel your bottom against the ben, the bench or your back. Maybe take two or three breaths where you just tune into the tingling in your hands or the sensations in your feet. How do they feel in your shoes? Are they warm? Are they cool?

Speaker 2: (07:37)
Maybe you put your hand on your chest and you follow the breath. And as your chest rises and falls to anchor you more to the present moment and get you out of your head where all of those potentially upsetting fears, anxieties, impressions, beliefs, can activate a less than competent or confident version of you. The point here is that when we are really grounded, when we are fully inhabiting that place inside of us that we all have, it may be hard to find, but that place inside of us that is sturdy, that does know what our child needs and is, is willing to kind of go there, that is clear and decisive, that version that will show up in that moment with our child, will make it easier for our child to relax and move toward disappointment. And this is vital for children who frequently get frustrated, who, whose frustration gets magnified in and becomes a full down, full on blowout meltdown or tantrum.

Speaker 2: (08:54)
These children are struggling to manage the largeness of their emotions. That's what happens when we're frustrated. That's not good or bad, it's just we all have a capacity and it's greater or or less lesser at various times depending on how tired we are, how stimulated we are, how supported we feel, all kinds of elements and variables. So my my suggestion is to really ground yourself first in your body. Step away from the thought stream, particularly the thoughts that are activating or escalating your anxiety or your frustration or disappointment or fear or nervousness or insecurity. And just stand in that presence of your own skin, feeling the ground, feeling the air, the temperature of the air, feeling your breath and dropping into a place of wellbeing, which is always available, often hard, hard to find, but always available to us. And then from that place, and this is a practice and it takes time and it's something that we work on forever. How do we stay more centered and grounded through the difficult aspects of life? But from that place of calm and presence? Sweetheart, it's time now to go, and I'm guessing this is not what you wanted to hear. It looks like you're having such a good time, and I'm guessing you wish you could stay a lot longer and it may not even seem fair that we're leaving and it's time to go.

Speaker 2: (10:36)
That version of you conveys not just words, which are only a small part of our communication, but the tone, the perhaps warmth in your face or in the kindness in your eyes as you're speaking the regulated heartbeat and rhythm of your breathing that kids will pick up on subliminally. All of these cues of of you being in a regulated state make it easier for a child to hear that they cannot have what they want. Same is true if they wanna stop for ice cream and you need to get home, sweetheart, I, it makes so much sense to me that you would wanna get ice cream and we're not even gonna be that far from the ice cream place. And I, I, I get that it may seem really unfair and today we're not gonna stop. I also counsel parents not to say, I'm sorry, but we're not gonna stop because if you were sorry you would stop , right?

Speaker 2: (11:35)
So for some, some kids they sort of think, well, don't say you're sorry. Just go get the ice cream. So you can stand in setting a limit without apologizing. You can recognize it as actually in service of your child's ability to develop more flexibility, more adaptability, more resilience, and better able to cope with disappointment and frustration and loss and all those things that we cannot prevent our children from experiencing, but we can empower them to cope with better. So Victoria had mentioned that she'd had some wonderful sweet conversations with her little boy about, you know, what happens when he can't have what he wants? And he expressed some remorse. The conversations are really not the answer. They can be helpful and they're certainly going to move the process slowly toward his maturation and his ability to better be aware of what's going on. But in the heat of the moment, what our kids most need is us in a regulated, calm, grounded state, clearly letting them know what's gonna happen with kindness and compassion, not dumping a lot of justifications or explanations on them, and making space for them to feel their sadness, their disappointment without judgment, without lectures and all those things that we're often instinctively gonna do well, you know, if you hadn't been taking so long at school, we would've gotten there earlier.

Speaker 2: (13:03)
We just stay away from all of that. And again, the focus here in this episode is on reminding parents that we can stay grounded in ourselves in a way that creates a, a calmer atmosphere for our children when things are gonna get a little turbulent in their emotional lives. I hope that that is helpful to you, Victoria. I love that you asked the question and although I'm not giving you a script for what to say, my focus today was on the precursor on preparing the soil, really preparing you to be in a place to help and support your child when they are frustrated and disappointed, which I think is often missing in a lot of parenting approaches. So I hope that that was helpful. I invite all of you to practice this, give it a try, and realize that our kids really do want us to be that calm captain of the ship.

Speaker 2: (13:59)
Even if, even if it means that we're saying that they can't have her do something, if we're in a place of, of loving presence, they can cope and they will cope. And this is how they develop their ability to cope with more and more difficult things. So I hope you enjoy that. And if you are enjoying these episodes, it would be wonderful if you would take a minute to leave a review, leave a rating, tell a friend, share the link, all those good things that help us get the word out. Thank you so much for being here, for being part of our community. Stay in touch at And remember, no matter how busy life gets, look for those moments of sweetness and joy. Stay well, take care and I'll see you next time.