Episode summary:

Parenting expert and family therapist Susan Stiffelman talks about the three ways we can relate to our children: as the calm Captain of the ship, the negotiating Lawyer, or the overpowering Dictator.

Susan Stiffelman is a licensed Marriage, Family and Child Therapist, an educational therapist and a highly lauded speaker. She is the author Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected and Parenting With Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids (an Eckhart Tolle Edition).Susan offers online events for parents around the world on topics like Raising Tweens and Teens, Parenting in the Digital Age, and Raising Siblings and also hosts a monthly support group with Wendy Behary on Co-Parenting with a Narcissist.​​​​​​​ www.susanstiffelman.com

Things you’ll learn from this episode:

  •  What it means to be the Captain of the ship in your child’s life
  •  How children benefit when we’re lovingly in charge
  •  How we slip into Lawyer or Dictator mode as we parent

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Read the entire episode!
Transcript here:


Speaker 1: (00:15)
Hello and welcome to the parenting without power struggles. Podcasts. I’m Susan stifelman. I’m the author of parenting without power struggles and parenting with presence. And I have worked with thousands of parents and children as a teacher and a family therapist for over 40 years, which is really hard to believe. Um, but that’s how it is. I’ve gotten a lot of experience. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve grown a lot through all the work I’ve done and the amazing people I’ve been so fortunate to work with. And I want to share some of what I’ve learned with all of you. Whether your kids are really little like toddlers or they’re heading off to college, this podcast is going to help you have more fun and fewer power circles. So let me start by telling you a little bit about the foundation of my work. It’s really about helping you be something I call the calm captain of the ship in your kids’ lives, which means that you can handle the tough moments without losing your cool. You can enjoy the sweet times when the Caesar call the air is sweet. And also you can just always be deepening a strong and loving attachment with your children. So in this first episode, what I want to do is lay out some of the basics of my work. I’m going to explain,

Speaker 2: (01:35)

Speaker 1: (01:43)
in this first episode I’m going to lay out some of the basics of my work. So I’m going to explain this idea that I’ve used for a long time called the being the captain of the ship and your children’s lives. I’m going to invite you to think about the things that support you. In doing that. I’m going to share some ideas for staying that calm, connected captain of the ship, and then I’m going to invite you to start looking at some of the, some of the things that move you into being what I call the lawyer or the dictator. That’s where you’re arguing, you’re lecturing, you’re justifying, you’re bribing, you’re threatening your kids. Does that sound interesting? Okay, so let’s get started. And to do this, I have a little visual, which of course, because you’re not seeing me, you can’t see, but I’m going to invite you to imagine this or follow along with me.

Speaker 1: (02:31)
And you can also go to Susan’s stifelman.com under the about Susan Tab, you’ll see, um, this written up so that if you’re a visual person, you’ll be able to see what I’m talking about. So I’d like you to put your two hands if you can, not, if you’re driving that, if you’re able to or picture me doing it because I’m doing this even though you can’t see me, my two hands are in front of me in Phis, and I’m going to put my right hand above the left hand. The right hand is going to represent the parent so that to you when you’re in parent mode and when you’re, what I call the captain of the ship. Now, just because the right hand is above the left hand, which is representing the child, it doesn’t mean you’re better than your child or that you’re more worthy of respect or anything like that.

Speaker 1: (03:18)
It just means that when the right pair of hand is above the left child hand, you’re in right relationship, your, your being what I call the, the loving, confident captain of the ship for your kids. So imagine that your honorship, you’re actually on a ship and you actually have a captain and the captain is, you know, captaining the ship through wherever you’re going and you’re actually at dinner with the captain. He’s he or she is at your table. You’re having a great conversation, lively, fun, lots of laughs and jokes. And then everyone hears through this intercom system, whoop, whoop, whoop, whoop. Some kind of alarm. Something’s happening. What do you want to see your captain do?

Speaker 3: (04:07)

Speaker 1: (04:09)
the captain pulls out his hair, she freaks out. He can’t, he says, I can’t believe something’s wrong and leaps over the side of the ship. Of course you don’t want that. Or B, you want to see the captain take charge. You want to see the captain, you go over here. Let’s get the crew here, lifeboats here. And that captain is going to be functioning if all goes well. Um, with authority, with confidence, with calm. So the captain is prepared for rough seas. The captains can handle it if there’s a leak or there’s some problem. Similarly, this is what our children want, even though they might act like they want to be in charge, they really relax when we are the grownup in the room. And I can tell you this because I’ve been a therapist for many decades. I’ve had hundreds and hundreds of kids in my office.

Speaker 1: (05:02)
And Trust me when I say that, even the teenagers will say, you know, my parents are wishy washy. I wish they would be more in charge. I wish they would, you know, know that I’m going to push back and not be afraid. So of course we’re going to be more of a captain for our younger children and eventually we want to support our kids as they get older to becoming their own captains of their own ship. We move more into an advisory role as our children grow up. But for all, you know, for practical purposes, this model sort of lays a foundation. Everything. I teach my member program, my classes, my, everything that we do is built on this idea of helping you be this calm captain of the ship no matter what, whether the seas are calm or they’re stormy and rough. So right hand is above the left and now I want you to imagine that your child, and I’m always wiggling my left child hand when I say this, I act like the tea, the hand is speaking, but the child says I’m, hey mom, I really want to go to the mall with my other nine year old friends and see a scary movie.

Speaker 1: (06:07)
But it’ll be totally fine. And you know, we know not to talk to strangers Blahblahblah okay. And you know that that’s just not a good idea. So in captain mode you say, oh sweetie, it sounds like it would have been a lot of fun. Unfortunately that I’m not comfortable with that. Now your child of course says or probably says, why not? And now if you were watching me, you would see that my right hand has now moved to the position beside the left hand. So both hands are side by side now. And you’re saying because it’s not safe because I don’t like the idea of you guys wandering around the mall because that movies too scary because whatever your reasoning, and the child of course is saying, you treat me like a baby, you don’t trust me. And on and on it goes and you say, of course I trust you, but I trust myself and you’re only nine or 11 or whatever and you’re not old enough and the child’s has in oh daisy and Marco’s moms or letting them go, God, you’re the worst.

Speaker 1: (07:15)
And then it can deteriorate even further. But hold on. When your hands are side by side, I call this the two lawyers, right? Nobody’s in charge here. You’re arguing, you’re debating, you’re convincing your pleading, you’re negotiating. This is where power circles started happening because the child wants what he or she wants and you want what you think is best, but you’re not expressing it from that captain place. You’re, you’re, it’s a lateral. And so there’s a lot of pushing and pushing back, but it’s not, doesn’t stop there guys, the child move your left hand above the right hand now and now the child is saying you’re the meanest mom in the world or you, you know, I wish I lived with Marco and maybe you get triggered by that. Maybe you feel insecure right now as a parent or you’re on shaky ground and other places in your life where you feel overwhelmed, you feel unappreciated or, and you react like we all do.

Speaker 1: (08:18)
And you go into what I call dictator mode and when you’re the dictator, because remember, dictators don’t have any real power or authority. So they just ruled by fear and intimidation. They wipe out bank accounts, they put people in jail, they threaten or they bribe because they want to feel some semblance of control even when they know they don’t have any. So when you’re down below the child, right hand is below the left hand, you’re going to say things like, you know what? Fine, go live with Marco or you know, go to your room, no dinner for you or you don’t appreciate anything. You’re grounded for eight years, right? Because inside you feel desperate, you feel panic, you feel afraid, you feel hurt, you feel uh, you know, unappreciated, unacknowledged. So these are the three ways that we can approach our kids. And we all go into all three of them.

Speaker 1: (09:14)
There’s the captain of the ship, right hand above left loving, calm. This is does not mean you’re like, because I said, so that’s not what the captain does. The captain is connected and compassionate. Um, but that’s the captain mode. When your hands are side by side, nobody’s in charge. We call that the two lawyers. You’re arguing, you’re explaining, you’re negotiating and you’re having power struggles. And then there is the dictator mode. And when you’re a dictator mode, you are bribing, threatening, begging, pleading, withdrawing your love. Lots of things that show that you’re really out of control. So the, the, this idea can be so helpful and has proven to be so helpful for thousands and thousands of parents who I’ve worked with around the world because it’s simple and sure it’s not nuanced and there’s lots of shades of gray and all of this. But for the most part, when we can parent from that place of, of real connection, of acceptance, of understanding, of kind of that sturdiness, our children relax.

Speaker 1: (10:25)
They want to turn to us instead of their peers. When they’re struggling with things, they, they know that there’s somebody who’s kind of looking out for them, who can safely get them through the tough, tough moments of their life. So what you’re going to hear in this podcast is lots about that, but you’re going to hear it in a lot of different ways. Um, if you subscribe to the podcast, you’ll be notified every time we release a new episode. And of course, please tell a friend because we’ve got so many cool things happening. I’m going to bring on amazing people to share insights with me, with, with you about parenting, every aspect of parenting. I’m going to invite parents to come on and get a little bit of coaching with me so that you’ll get to hear what it sounds like as I’m working with parents who face the same kinds of issues you do.

Speaker 1: (11:12)
Like the 10 year old who has a meltdown over homework or the three year old who has to have the pink sippy cup or the teenager who’s slamming door is because you don’t understand her. So, um, I have really traveled a very long and wide road working with parents from every part of the world and I’m going to bring what I’ve learned to you in this podcast. So thank you so much for listening. Thank you for being part of this. And before we wrap up, I’m just going to give you one little idea that you might want to implement. And it’s built on an important notion, which is that any change that we want to implement in our lives begins with awareness. The thing is the, the best kind of awareness is nonjudgmental awareness. It’s a compassionate, caring, understanding, awareness. So if I say to you, I’d love for you to start noticing or I’d suggest that you start noticing, just noticing when you’re in captain mode in the next period of time with your children, when you’ve dropped into lawyer mode, you’re arguing, you’re justifying, you’re explaining, you’re negotiating, and when you move into dictator mode, shouting, screaming, yelling, threatening, bribing, we all move into all of those modes.

Speaker 1: (12:28)
Okay, so it’s okay and what won’t be helpful, we’ll be to judge yourself. If you say, oh my gosh, I’m in lawyer mode again or I live in dictator. I can’t believe it. I’m the worst parent. Please, please do not take these ideas in that direction. Every single one of us was raised by someone or someones and we naturally internalized how they approached us both in the good times and in the not so good times. It’s just the basic inner, deep, deep primal template. Now, some of us have made a lot of effort to break with some of the patterns we inherited from our own growing up, from how our own parents raised us. And that’s the work that I’m involved in with parents all over the world, helping them choose the things they want to hold onto from their own childhood and how they were raised and break with patterns that aren’t serving them or their children.

Speaker 1: (13:25)
So just start noticing, am I in captain mode? Am I in dictator mode? Am I in lawyer mode? Oh, lawyer again. Right. And, but do it without judging yourself because that’s not helpful. And it’s certainly not what my work is about. My work is not about telling anybody what they’ve done wrong or making anybody feel bad about what they’re doing. On the contrary, I recognize it is really hard to raise children. We’re still ourselves, you know, we become parents, but that doesn’t mean we’ve changed species or that we suddenly become a saint with infinite patience and understanding. No, we still want to be alone, left alone. We still want to, you know, eat what we want to eat. We still don’t, we want to sleep through the night. We want to have people appreciate the things we do. So it’s natural that we have reactions and we get triggered.

Speaker 1: (14:15)
And, and that is such a great opportunity for us personally to grow. I know nothing has grown me like raising my son and, um, you know, it’s sort of too, I have to give him a shout out ra because he’s had an amazing podcast called millennials don’t suck for Gosh, two or three years. And he’s been encouraging me to create a podcast for a long time. And, and thankfully he, he encouraged me to the point when I was really willing and, and took that on. And, um, I’m super excited. I hope you can tell you can’t see me, but I’m smiling and I’m, you know, just in a little minor state of thrill and joy because I’m, I’m imagining and I have a feeling that this could be a wonderful way for us to reach parents around the world. So again, you can visit my site, Susan stifelman.com/podcast if you want to submit a question or make a comment. Um, of course you can snoop around the website. There’s lots there, but I hope you’ll subscribe to this podcast and let your friends know.

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