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Episode summary:

In this episode, Susan talks about why it can be hard for children to open up when they’re having a hard time, and how we can address our own concerns to make sure they know it’s safe to come to us when they’re hurting.

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:


Why kids often deny something is wrong

How to make it safe for kids to open up

Tips for managing our distress about our child’s unhappiness

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Episode Transcript

Speaker 1: (00:09)
Hello, and welcome to the Parenting Without Power Struggles. I'm Susan Stiffelman. I'm your host, the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles and Parenting with Presence. And this series is really just about one thing it's about helping you have more joy, more connection, and fewer power struggles with your children, so that it's, you know, kind of what maybe you envisioned the laughter, the deep conversations, the closeness, and all the good stuff that you maybe experienced as a child, or maybe you're trying to create with your own children because you didn't and you long to give that gift to them and to yourself. So really glad that you're here. I'm a family therapist. I have been for many, many decades. I'm a credentialed teacher. And most importantly, the mother of a now 32 year old son. So everything that I'm teaching and talking about is based on my actual lived experience, both in my personal life and in my professional life.

Speaker 1: (01:07)
So we cover everything here. We cover ADHD. We cover co-parenting with a narcissist, screen time, homework and wonderful lineup of guests like Julie Lythcott-Hames and Trudy Goodman Kornfield, and Dan Siegel and Janet Lansbury, Maggie Dent, Kristin Neff, just, there's a big library of material for you if you wanna dive in with me. But before we get started, please make sure that you're taking advantage of everything that I'm doing and offering. You can find out all about it at We've got a whole library of master classes. As I mentioned with some of the people I've talked about, you know, the gifts of ADHD with Dr. Ned Hallowell, the resilient brain with Dr. Dan Siegel, meal times money, chores, siblings, everything is there with great people. So please check it out. And we have a course, our class, a 90 minute class coming up on sleep, which is the first time I've covered this in depth.

Speaker 1: (02:08)
And I'm really excited to be doing it with Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright. They're the authors of the happy sleeper and a new book called generation sleepless. So they really know what they're talking about. We're gonna talk about sleep and helping your children be and become independent sleepers, especially useful for those of you whose kids just can't go to sleep, unless you're lying right next to them, or they wake up the night demanding to crawl into your bed, which you may not always want. So you know, fewer dramas around bedtime, more rest for everybody. That's the goal of that class. So please check it out at today. I wanna talk about a phenomenon I just wrote about it in my newsletter about what happened when we know that our child's upset, they came back from a play playing with a friend next door and they're scowling, or it looks like they've been crying or near tears. And we ask them what's wrong. And they say nothing, right? Many, many parents know about this. They know what it's like to wanna help your kids to ask the innocent question based on what appearances are telling you, which is that something's wrong in your child's world, but they won't open up. You get the slammed door. Maybe they scowl at you. They get, they kind of unleash their anger onto you because you are the safest place to do that.

Speaker 1: (03:38)
And you know, it comes from a place of love. It comes from a place of concern. We wanna be there for our children. We wanna help our children, but you know, sometimes we go about it in a way, or we have gone about it in a way that leads them to feel. It's a bad idea to tell us the truth about what's happening. And I just wanna touch on this a little bit, just to kind of give you some food for thought and maybe raise your awareness. The next time you see your child having a hard time.

Speaker 1: (04:10)
It starts with knowing ourselves and everything in my work is really about that. I know a lot of people have said, well, what do I say when X, Y, or Z happens? Can you just give me the script? And there are scripts that I offer. I have a membership program where we go deep into the stuff, and sometimes I will actually do some coaching and say, these are the words that I might use. However, the most interesting thing to me and the reason I do my membership program and the reason I like to work more deeply with parents than just here are the words, first of all, it doesn't work. There's no one size fits all sentence that you can say when a certain thing happens, because every one of us is unique and our children are unique in the relationship we have with them.

Speaker 1: (04:55)
But also there's a lot that goes on between the lines. So you might say the words that you heard are really great words to say when your child's upset and get a terrible outcome. Right. And why is that? It's because there was so much more that was being conveyed or that's going on in the relationship or that the child has experienced with you in the past. So that's why it's really valuable to me to get underneath and to look at where we are coming from first, because where we're coming from is always conveyed or communicated to the child. We might like to think differently. I just had a conversation in fact, with my son, you know, and, and we just know each other so well. And we were talking about how hard it is to keep something hidden, even if we have good intentions and we don't wanna bring something up because there's an openness, there, there's an an honesty in that relationship.

Speaker 1: (05:52)
And, and so our children do pick up things. They may not be able to language it, but if they, they sense that we are having a hard day or that we are really worried about their popularity and that if they then come home from school and say, nobody played with me that it's gonna activate something inside of us. Like, oh no, my child's being rejected as I was. And so the, whether they could articulate it or not, our children often protect us from the truth of their lives, because they sense that our reaction is going to be a difficult one and may even load up and burden them more with something that they feel obligated now to make okay. In their life. So that we're okay. And, you know, you've often if you followed my work, you know, that I, I strongly believe that children understand intuitively that it is not their job to make us feel better.

Speaker 1: (06:49)
It's a hard one for us to get, because we often say you really hurt my feelings, or I was just trying to help, or why are you so mean to me? Or, you know, we can't help it. And we're human and there's nothing wrong with being honest and letting your children know that you have feelings and that sometimes they stomp on them, but it's not their job. It's not their job to make us feel that we're okay or that we're loved or all those things. And, and you know, this is a path I've had to walk personally. It's, it's deep stuff because we can't help, but bring to our parenting lives. What we experienced as children in our own lives, or what we experienced with our parent, what the, what the conditions were for love. So I know that I'm going off on some tangents that may be a little, you know, beyond what you were hoping to hear.

Speaker 1: (07:36)
So let me come back to some practical ideas. But for those of you interested, please, please look into other things that I do. So the child says, nothing's wrong. Stop bothering me. I'm fine. The first thing that we wanna look at in ourselves is our reaction, because we're going to communicate it. Can you be in a place as hard as this might be of being okay with your child's distress? Not that you're seeking it out, not that you want them to be unhappy, but can you work with yourself to understand that in the larger context of growing up, there are going to be, and have to be times when your children bump up against difficulties, this is how they grow. This is how we grow. So if you could shift your mindset around seeing your child unhappy or worried, or, or rejected as not just a horrible thing that you wanna rush in and give advice about or fix, but as a necessary part of their growing up experience, then when you respond and say, okay, sweetheart, well, I'm here.

Speaker 1: (08:44)
If there's something you wanna bounce off me, or if you need a sounding board, or if I can offer support right away, the child has gotten a message. Not that you're frantic to fix their problem, but that you're able to stay present through it. Beside them helping them make sense of what's going on. And then eventually perhaps come up with a strategy. But what we do and I call it act two parenting is we rush in with the solutions, the fixes, because we're so unhappy about their unhappiness. And it creates this experience for the child that it's not safe to turn to us because a lot of times when a child's upset and they're over sort of picture them, even though this is somewhat simplistic, they're over in their right emotional brain. They're distressed, they're unhappy. They're sad. They're confused. They're hurt. They're angry.

Speaker 1: (09:32)
These are emotional states, right? Their states of dysregulation. And when we try and fix them by appealing to their left logical language based rational brain, with advice, with suggestion, with insights, they can't process it in that moment. That might come later. First, we have to just bring them, help them almost lo loan them, our regulated state, so that they come into a more regulated, calm, rational state, where eventually they might be able to strategize with us or benefit from our words of wisdom, but not in the heat of the moment in the heat of the moment. We want to first check in with ourselves. Oh my gosh, I'm, this is hard. My child's unhappy. The neighbor, you know, they just came home from next door and that little guy next door, maybe he, or she said something awful to my child. My child's so sensitive. And maybe we're feeling it. So you stay present, oh gosh, this is hard. This is hard. I want my child to be happy and loved and liked. And they're so wonderful. And why doesn't everyone say that? So you acknowledge it, you stay present with it. Maybe you put your hand on your heart just, or on your face, just to help regulate yourself. Or you give yourself a little hug.

Speaker 1: (10:48)
And then you say, sweetheart, you know, if there's something that happened next door, if there's something you wanna talk about, or you just wanna cuddle I'm here and that, and you're communicating this feeling of safety. And most of us, if we know that it's safe and we don't have to take care of the other person's emotions or feelings about our distress, they will open up and our kids will test us. So this is a path it's not a one time thing, but you know, what we can sometimes even acknowledge is, you know, sometimes in the past honey, when you've been upset, I've probably rushed in to give you advice. You didn't want yet. Is that true? Yeah. All the time. Well, I'm sorry for that. And I really wanna work on that. And if you'll give me a chance, I'm gonna really do my best to just listen.

Speaker 1: (11:39)
If that's what you need, or just make you a cup, a hot chocolate or tea, and we can sit and, you know, play a game together. If you'd rather do that, not talk about it, but you're, you're creating this whole blanket of safety of you're cushioning the fall for your child. So I hope those are some things that you might find valuable to think about to ponder, to consider the next time your child is pretty obviously upset. And you want to offer your support just to slow things down a little bit, try some of the things I've suggested. So before we wrap up, I'm just gonna invite you to take a moment and think about one or two things that I said that you wanna try in the next week. Maybe you wanna slow down and check in with yourself and see what old feeling is getting stirred up by your child's distress.

Speaker 1: (12:31)
Maybe you wanna just observe yourself and notice that your heart rate is going up or you're getting all worried, or the thoughts in your head are, oh, no, not this. Maybe your heart is hurting. It's just breaking a little bit because you know that your child belongs to have, you know, good friends. And it seems like it's been difficult, whatever it is just to slow down. Maybe you wanna try that in the week ahead. Maybe you wanna just try practicing some of the things, the ideas of things that you could say, you know, it looks like you might be having a hard time, or I wonder if, if there's anything you wanna talk about I'm here or even you may consider trying acknowledging, you know what, in the past, I think I've kind of rushed in with advice before you wanted it. And I wanna say, I'm sorry for that.

Speaker 1: (13:17)
The, if you wanna gimme another chance I'm here. So lots to think about, again, if you're enjoying these podcasts, please go to the podcast page and leave a review or a like, or let, let people know about it through your own little community share. And if you wanna join me for the sleep class, check out Susan and you'll also see some many, many other topics that I've covered in, in depth with just the best, best people that I know to help you raise your children with more joy, more fun, less conflict, less drama, and less stress. So stay in touch, hit the subscribe button. If you wanna be notified of when we released our next episode and do stay in touch, you can get regular doses of parenting support and inspiration at through my newsletter. And let me know what you wanna hear about what you wanna talk about. You can always send an email to Okay. That's it for today. Thanks for showing up. Thanks for being here. Listening, watching, joining, and thanks for, you know, being brave enough to wanna forge your own path based on who you are and the values that you stand for and what you wanna bring to your children in their lives. So remember, no matter how busy life gets, look for those moments of sweetness and joy, take care, stay well. And I'll see you next time.