12 - 48 Months

Dr. Becky on the importance of empathy

“A mantra is extremely helpful in staying calm because mantras allow us to take really messy, stressful, emotional situations and focus on one repeatable phrase. It gives us something to center on.”

Dr. Becky Kennedy @drbeckyatgoodinside

Do you find yourself constantly having to nudge your toddler to stay on schedule and tick all the boxes? Let’s get a move on, we’ll be late! No seriously, it’s bedtime! Little wonder that we parents lose sight of our playful side in all the hustling. Today’s guest on the podcast has a remarkable knack for incorporating playfulness in the trickiest of situations. Even the dreaded tantrum feels slightly less scary with her guidance.

Dr. Becky Kennedy has earned the title of this generation’s Dr. Spock for her ability to dispense no-nonsense advice as a clinical psychologist, Instagram influencer, and now through her podcast: Good Inside. Let’s not overlook perhaps her greatest credential: She is a mother of three!

Key Takeaways:

[2:20] What do we do when our kids go in the opposite direction when we call them?

[5:36] Dr. Becky shares why being goofy humanizes parents in the eyes of a child.

[7:20] What’s the best way to handle a tantrum?

[11:28] Dr. Becky’s tips to help parents stay calm, even in the eye of the storm.

[16:24] Feelings don’t scare kids, but being alone with their feelings may.

[19:31] Dr. Becky speaks about how to model emotional regulation through play.

[22:25] Guidance on patching things over after a meltdown.

Mentioned in this episode:

Visit GoodInside.com

Listen to Peaceful Parenting: Dealing with Tantrums an interview with Dr. Laura Markham


Replacing pressure with playfulness

Jessica: Dr. Becky, I love your podcast. Good inside. On a recent episode, you helped two moms with a strong-willed daughter negotiate bath time, and I remember the moms sharing that their little girl wanted nothing to do with the bath, and one of the moms was saying, This is a non-negotiable. What do we do when our kids go in the opposite direction when we call them to a bath or bed or getting out the door? How do we handle these things? 

Dr. Becky: So I think actually, we have to first pause and a little bit, zoom out of the moment, because I think in the moment we put so much pressure on ourselves. I’ve been in those moments too with my kids. And it feels like, I have to get my kid in the bath. No, no one understands it has to happen. But if we zoom out most of the time in those moments, if our kid doesn’t get in the bath, or if our kid skips bath entirely, my guess is we’re going to get through it, but we get kind of so bogged down in the I have to, I have to, I have to. We often need to replace pressure with playfulness, I feel like it’s nice to almost hold those two things as opposites. And I know in my life, the more someone comes at me with intense pressure, it’s really a form of control, the more I resist. And the more anxious someone is about needing to get something done, the more likely we are going to apply pressure, even though again, that’s going to lead to more backlash than anything helpful. So what do we do in that moment? 

First, zoom out, just tell yourself, I’m safe, there’s no emergency right now, I’m going to figure this out. I think let’s give ourselves that capability and remind ourselves there probably is more flexibility in this moment than our body feels because it feels so intense and so rushed. Second, I think… I’ve been thinking about this a lot with my own kids, replace pressure with playfulness. Replace pressure with playfulness. Okay, so what would pressure be like? Come on it’s bath time, we have to go to the bath, come on put your shoes on right now. Get those socks on. We need to go. All forms of pressure.

Jessica: That was me last night.

Dr. Becky: Yeah, that was me this morning too.

Jessica: Me and my two kids in the bath last night.

Dr. Becky: Exactly, and in order to give out playfulness, we have to give ourselves some version of that, so I don’t know. Put a smile on your face. Think of something funny. Right. Remind yourself, Oh, parenthood is crazy, and we’re going to figure this out, and then try to share something a little lighter with your kids. I find sometimes, when my kids aren’t listening to me, and I have some urgency, even saying to them, you really don’t want to do the thing I’m asking you to do, right? Or is this so annoying being a kid? Does it feel like being a kid is just having an adult tell you what to do all the time? Is that so annoying? I remember being seven and it was so annoying for me, I remember being three and that was the worst part of being three. And I’m connecting in a playful way.

Then the other thing I would just add there is if there’s chronically a kind of a listening issue, there’s not much in the moment that’s going to really change it. If you have a chronic issue with any relationship in your life, you don’t wait for the heat of the moment to say, Oh, how can I make this issue better? No, we have to intervene outside the moment, and usually when kids are really resisting cooperating, they really have a desire, a need to feel more seen and connected to across the board, and to probably have more agency, so we’re going to give my kid more control. Can I spend more one-on-one time with my child? Can I get on the floor and play with my child for five minutes a day, those are the things that actually increase cooperation more than any trick we might use in the moment of making a request.

Kids feel safe with “play”

Jessica: Okay, back to the trick though, you had a great trick. And I want to relive that trick, it involved walking backwards. Can you tell me that story? 

Dr. Becky: Yes. So I think this goes back to playfulness. Kids feel safe with Play, that’s where they explore, that’s where they learn, and whenever we laugh with someone, it’s a sign that we feel connected to them, and so let’s really use that. .

Let’s say it’s taking a bath or it’s putting on your socks, I’ll often say something like this. Okay, I don’t know about you, but I’m going to walk backward on my way to the bathroom, or I’m going to walk backward on the way to our shoe and sock area, and I really hope I don’t knock into a wall, I really hope I don’t trip on myself, I really hope I don’t, and then I will do what I said I hope wouldn’t happen. So what’s going on here? Kids find this funny.

Frankly, it is kind of funny. There’s some physical humor and satire, kids love kind of watching parents be a little out of control because in their eyes we’re so perfect at so many things, so for me to say, I hope I don’t trip and fall, and then to trip and fall. It really humanizes parents and it makes kids feel really safe, and then the next thing we know, a kid is laughing, when there’s the laughter, there’s an opening for connection, and with connection there’s an opening for cooperation, and probably before you know it, your kid is also walking backward or your kid is laughing with you as you kind of fall down and crawl to the bath area, and you’re not even talking about going to the bath, you’re just connecting on the way to the bath.

How to handle a toddler tantrum

Jessica: Okay, that is such great advice. So let’s say that none of these playful antics or even trying to do the clear boundaries, and from the beginning did the job. So now our child might be in full meltdown mode or really resisting. What’s the best way to handle a tantrum-ing toddler

Dr. Becky: I think there’s two different versions, and I would say it’s important to have kind of skills for each. So there’s the tantrum where there’s danger, meaning there’s hitting, there’s kicking, my child’s about to throw a baseball across my kitchen, something where I have to actually stop a behavior from continuing, because not only is it dangerous, but my child is going to get further dysregulated if they do this behavior because they’re going to essentially feel like, why is there nobody in my life stopping me, where is the person in charge? And that’s really scary to a kid. So there’s that version of a tantrum. So we’re trying to get a bath, my child resists, there’s a meltdown, and now my child starts to hit me or kick me. A different version is my child melts down on the floor kind of crying and definitely emotionally dysregulated, but there’s no behavior I have to put a boundary on. So I can walk through both. So first things first, parents have to learn and practice these words in front of a mirror. I won’t let you. If I could tell parents kind of top phrases for their parenting vocabulary, that would definitely be there. Too often we tell a kid, please stop, or we don’t…

Or, I don’t like it when you… I don’t like it when you hit, please stop hitting. We don’t hit in this family. Those are actually very dysregulating phrases for a kid to hear because a kid is doing something because they’re out of control, and then they’re being asked to stop a behavior that’s a sign of their being out of control, which leads them to feel more out of control because it feels like there’s nobody who’s a leader to help them. I won’t let you does the opposite. I won’t let you hit. And yes, that might mean grabbing your kid’s wrist as they try to connect, I’m doing that not to be aggressive or hurtful, I’m doing that actually as an act of love to my kid, because in doing that, I’m saying, I know you’re doing the best you can with what’s available, I know you’re out of control right now, you don’t have the skills you need, I will be the boundary for you that you can’t be for yourself, so you watch how your feelings won’t get you into a more and more dangerous place. That is so important. If we put up that boundary, then usually we get to the second type of tantrum where there’s no longer the physical danger, there’s this kind of emotional outpouring.

What would we do then? I think we have two jobs in that moment, keep our kids safe and keep our body calm. Keep our kids safe. Right, make sure there’s no more hitting or throwing. Okay, my kid’s just crying, let’s say, I say my kid’s safe, keep my body calm, those are really our only jobs. Our job is not to stop the tantrum, tantrums have a life of their own, they stop when they are meant to stop. And being present for your child when you’re regulated and they’re dysregulated is the biggest gift of all, because in that moment, they literally absorb the fact that you can stay regulated during this difficult moment they’re having, that forms the baseline to be able to build their own regulation skills.

Tips to help you remain calm

Jessica: I love that. So, do you have any tips for how to keep yourself calm? I mean having this mindset…

Dr. Becky: Do you have to ask me that? That’s the hard stuff. No, I do, I do.

Jessica: Having this mindset is so powerful, so we can use our logical brains to make that commitment that we’re going to really work to remain calm. Anything that you do when you’re in those moments? 

Dr. Becky: So many things, and I like that you use the word logic because it’s true. Logic and our cognition really helps us understand something, and especially when we’re calm, we can activate that logic. Oh, that’s a helpful framework. But logic and cognition really don’t help us in the heat of an emotional moment, they’re offline for us too. So I think the first step is actually reflecting on our own baseline in terms of how we respond to dysregulation, because guess what, when you see your kid tantrum-ing, the circuit that gets activated in your body comes from what you learned early on in your childhood about how possible it was for people to be calm when kids are not calm. Meaning how your parents reacted to your emotional meltdowns, your dysregulated moments is encoded in your body, and so that doesn’t mean you’re bound to respond to your kids the way your parents responded to you. No, no, no, no, no, we’re I think a community of cycle-breakers here, it does mean we have to appreciate our baseline and it helps us have some, I think respect for ourselves and say, Oh no wonder it’s hard for me to stay calm, maybe I don’t even remember the specifics, but I know my parents well enough, even if they were, I’m sure trying their best that there was no place for meltdowns, there was no understanding of the feelings under the behavior, so I’m making such a big intergenerational change, no wonder it feels so hard to stay calm.

I am breaking cycles as I try to regulate myself. So that’s definitely step one, reflecting on what we’re coming in with, reflecting on our own circuits and appreciating the role that that’s played. Second, I find a mantra just to be extremely, extremely helpful in staying calm because mantras in general, what they allow us to do is take really messy, stressful, emotional situations and really focus on one repeatable phrase, it kind of gives us something to center on. So I can share a couple. Number one, my kid is not giving me a hard time, they’re having a hard time. That, a lot of people find to be so helpful in staying calm, because when we tell ourselves that my kid is not giving me a hard time, they’re having a hard time, we’re less reactive and we’re more empathic, which helps us stay calm. I also like to tell myself, during a tantrum, there’s nothing wrong with my child. There’s nothing wrong with me. I can cope with this. When we have a hard time staying calm during our kids’ tantrums, we think we have a hard time staying calm because our kid is tantrum-ing, it’s not true.

We have a hard time staying calm because of the feelings and thoughts and self-beliefs that get evoked inside our body when we’re witnessing that tantrum, and usually the self-belief that gets evoked that’s really hard to stay calm during is, something’s wrong with me for having a kid who’s acting like this, or there’s something wrong with my child and they’re always going to be like this. So the mantra, there’s nothing wrong with me, there’s nothing wrong with my child, I can cope with this, really speaks to those I think deep fears we have and can really help us stay grounded. The next thing I’ll say is, I think too often as parents, we don’t practice the skills we need in tantrums. We want to stay calm during a tantrum and we wait for the next tantrum to hope that skill exists. It usually doesn’t work like that, we have to build skills when we don’t need them in order to access those skills when we do need them. So deep breathing, pausing and checking in with your body, visualizing your child having a tantrum when they’re not even in the house, and practicing that mantra, practicing a deep breath. I’m going to show up with a much higher likelihood of staying calm during my child’s tantrum, if I promise myself I will visualize a tantrum and actually evoke a visceral image and kind of have an experience and then say a mantra.

And take a deep breath. Well, I’m giving my body kind of time to practice the skills. Kind of like taking free throws in the gym before you want to take one at the last second of an important game. And so I think as parents, we need to think about almost those three things how can I reflect on my past? Where am I? And what kind of was I wired with, yeah, what could I do in the moment? But then also, what can I do proactively to build the skills I want to access in the toughest moments with my kids? 

Being alone with their feelings may be scary

Jessica: I am taking that advice home, that is such good advice. You’ve also said that feelings don’t scare kids but being alone with their feelings scares kids. Can you elaborate on this? 

Dr. Becky: Yeah. So let’s think about a situation where a parent might feel compelled to give a time out. My… I don’t know, my two and a half year-old just hit me or hit his baby brother, something like that. First things first, dysregulated behavior comes from dysregulated feelings, and the reason kids over time have less dysregulated behavior is because they’ve learned skills to manage the dysregulated feelings. That’s how change happens. So I think that’s the first thing to establish, because the urge to give a time out often misses that important kind of arc, right.

My kid didn’t hit because they’re a bad kid or because they were in a regulated place and thought, should I hit someone? Yes, I think that’s a good decision. That’s definitely not what happened. My kid was doing the best they could, and their feelings overwhelmed them and it kind of flew out of their body. That’s the first thing. So then the idea of a time out, as I send my kid alone to their room. My child was overwhelmed with feelings, maybe jealousy, maybe frustration, maybe I had said no to my child for having a snack before dinner and that felt so bad and brought up all the frustrated feelings and they started flailing and hitting me. Now my child’s alone in their room. My child not only doesn’t have the opportunity to build skills or kind of have a co-regulation moment with me, which is how kids actually form the foundation to build emotion regulation skills. Now, these unmanageable feelings that manifested as unmanageable behavior, my child has as a completely alone experience separated from anyone kind of loving and trusted, so they’re totally alone.

Not only will those feelings feel worse to that child, the dysregulation only gets more intense because now the feeling… Let’s say it was of jealousy toward a brother, and that’s why I hit or it was the feeling of wanting and not having when my mom said no to a snack, that feeling is now more intense because I’m alone with it.

It’s just important for parents to take a deep breath, check in on two levels. Does that feel right? Does that feel right to me to do that, is that the way I would want to be treated if I yelled at my husband and then he said, We don’t talk to people that way, go to your room and you can come out in two minutes. What would that be like for me and would that teach me anything besides teaching me that I don’t know, he’s not someone who I feel very close to or sees the kind of good inside me when I struggle? And on the other hand, just even check in with the kind of practical cognitive side of you and say, if my child was missing a skill and that’s why they behave the way they behaved, how do I think that that time out teaches that skill. What would be that process? 

Tools for building empathy 

Jessica: That makes so much sense. So we started with the tools around being playful. Another tool that I’m hearing you use is role play. What are other tools that we haven’t mentioned, we’ve got playfulness, role play, anything else in your tool box that you use frequently? 

Dr. Becky: Yeah. I think for young kids, I love stuffed animal play or pretend play, right. And actually, we can teach so many emotion regulation skills through play, and I’ll model exactly how. But first, I just want to explain why… Well, teaching the skill directly to a young kid, it’s very emotionally intense, kids can feel less than. Right. Imagine, I don’t know, for you, your boss sitting you down and basically saying, You’re not doing this thing well, let me teach you. It just… It’s easy to shut down. Play is a world that’s kind of close enough to a kid’s world, but also just far enough away, that kids feel safe enough to explore in new ways, and that’s how we learn by exploring. So let’s say your kid loves trucks and your kid has a lot of meltdowns when they want something and you say no. So playing with trucks with my child and I might kind of start a narrative and play like this. Oh, dump truck really, really want ice cream before dinner, dump truck really doesn’t want to put on her seat belt, doesn’t want to.

Oh, and then I’d have another truck. Right, maybe it’s mommy dump truck or it’s mommy bulldozer or whatever it is, or daddy. And say, you have to put it on. I know you don’t want to, but you have to put the seat belt on to be safe. And then I would seriously, as the little dump truck start crying, no, no. And then I might kind of pause and just have my child be witnessing this, maybe whisper to my two-year-old, what could dump truck do? He’s so upset. And even if we don’t “teach a skill”, even though I think we could model how dump truck could take a deep breath or maybe dump truck’s mom in the play again, kind of sings a silly song to make the seat belt moment more fun, even if I don’t do that, just the fact that I put this into play normalizes the experience for my child and actually gives them another opportunity to process it and work through it. Same thing with hitting. Oh, dump truck really, really wants the blocks that Backhoe is playing with. I really want some, and energy in his hands to hit it. Oh, what else could dump truck do? What else could dump truck do? And I might haul roll dump truck away and maybe model then with my own body, putting the hands on my body and saying, oh, walk away. Oh, walk away. Something simple.

Now, I’m not in that moment going to turn to my child, you cannot ruin the moment and say, See what I just did, why don’t you try that tomorrow? No, just trust that play teaches kids through experience. One more tool that I think we don’t do enough of that really builds regulation is talking about hard moments after they happened. So if you’re like me, you kind of survive a tantrum and you think, Oh, thank goodness that’s over. But when we don’t return to it, at least some of the time and talk about it with our kids, we miss an opportunity to turn… And these are going to be some fancy terms, but I promise I’ll break it down. To turn unformulated experience into a more coherent narrative. What do I mean unformulated experience? That’s experience that happens that’s emotionally overwhelming and kind of feels chaotic. If you picture a tantrum, it’s emotional experience that’s overwhelming and feels chaotic. What’s a coherent narrative? It’s the ability to tell a story. It has more organization. A little bit more linearity. So here’s what that might look like. It’s 6:00 PM, I’m with my three-year-old and my three-year-old had a massive tantrum because we walked by a toy store and I said we couldn’t get a toy that day. We survived it. Now it’s hours later.

I say, Hey, you know what I’m thinking about. Earlier today, you really wanted to go into the toy store, you wanted that so big, you wanted a big, big, big that want was as big as our whole house and mommy said, Not today, and that felt so hard. Not normal hard. That hard was also as big as our house, so hard and you cried and mommy picked you up from the sidewalk and we got home and then we calmed our bodies together. I am going to step out of that role play because I think it’s easy as a parent to think, Why would I bring that up again? And what does that do? You didn’t teach anything. Well, what I’m doing there is I’m going back to an experience that felt overwhelming and chaotic and out of control inside my child’s body, and I’m layering on all the elements that help regulation, connection, calmness, kind of coherence. And what that means is I’m actually building the blocks, the building blocks to help my child be more regulated next time.

So actually Jessica it’s interesting, in the course of this conversation, we’ve talked about this whole arc, right? What can I do in advance to help my child build regulation? I can role play, I can put things into kind of toy or pretend play. What can I do in the moment to keep my kid safe and keep my body calm? Maybe use a mantra, there’s nothing wrong with my child. There’s nothing wrong with me, I can cope with this. And then what can I do after these meltdowns? Well, I can tell the story, I can build this coherent narrative. And we actually need all those elements, we need elements in the heat of the moment to just get through it, and we have to think about the things we do before and after, because that’s actually where we get the most bang for our buck, building regulation for our kids.

Jessica: I love that…

Dr. Becky: That came together really nicely. I didn’t know we’d kind of get to all that, look at that.

Jessica: Yes. You know what I love is I remember reading that it connects both sides of a child’s brain, so their logical, their emotional side of the brain when you recount a story. So they’ve had such an emotional experience, but then you can layer in this logical side because they’re reflecting on it, they’re hearing it, the story being told again, and they’re calmer, and so they can really build that bridge between emotion and logic, which can help them regulate. So this has been so fantastic. I love how you brought in play throughout this. Thank you for helping us to remember our playful side as parents. So thank you, Dr. Kennedy, you’ve been fantastic.

Dr. Becky: Thank you so much for having me, Jessica.

More of Dr. Becky’s parenting advice and strategies can be found on Instagram @drbeckyatgoodinside and her website: GoodInside.com. Find more resources on how to handle tantrums in past episodes of My New Life, including Peaceful Parenting: Dealing with Tantrums, an interview with Dr. Laura Markham. For more tips, visit the Lovevery blog.


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Posted in: 12 - 48 Months, 18 - 48 Months+, Social Emotional, Empathy, Child Development, Behavior, Parenting

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