Conversations on Healing

Aliza Pressman

Unlocking the Power of Healthy Parenting

Dr. Aliza Pressman
Co-founder, Mount Sinai Parenting Center
Assistant Clinical Professor, Department of Pediatrics
Kravis Children’s Hospital, Icahn School of Medicine

Dr. Aliza Pressman is a developmental psychologist with over 15 years of experience in her field. She is the assistant clinical professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital and specializes in behavioral health in pediatrics. She co-founded The Mount Sinai Parenting Center and hosts the popular podcast “Raising Good Humans”, where she speaks in depth on the journey of parenting and navigating family dynamics. Dr. Pressman received her PhD in developmental psychology from Columbia University and enjoys applying the lessons she has learned personally and professionally to the individuals with whom she has had the privilege to work.

In today’s episode of the Conversations on Healing Podcast, host Shay Beider welcomes Dr. Pressman to discuss her clinical work in parenting. They kick off the conversation by introducing the “5 R’s of Parenting” which are principles to support good parenting. These are: Relationship, Reflection, Regulation, Rules, and Repair. Dr. Pressman emphasizes the importance of building a strong connection with our children and reflecting on our own childhood without projecting past pains onto current relationships. She discusses the spectrum of parenting styles, from authoritarian to permissive, and encourages parents to find a balance between sensitivity and boundary setting that works for them. The pair also discuss the concept of “rupture and repair” between a child and parent along with the false hope of perfecting parenting. Dr. Pressman shares her personal background that motivated her to go into clinical psychology.

  • Show Notes:
    Visit Dr. Aliza Pressman’s website
    Pre-order “5 Principles of Parenting: Your Essential Guide to Raising Good Humans” here
    Read more about Jack Shoncoff
    Check out Donald Winnicott here

Welcome to the Conversations on Healing podcast, where host Shay Beider speaks with renowned healthcare leaders, practitioners, and thought leaders to explore the world of wellness, the incredible powers of self-care, and what it truly means to heal today. Join us on this journey to become more whole healed and connected.

Shay Beider Hello. Hello, and welcome back to the Conversations on Healing podcast. I’m the host Shea Beider, and today I get to introduce my conversation with Dr. Aliza Pressman. Dr. Pressman is a developmental psychologist with over 15 years of experience. She’s the co-founder of the Mount Sinai Parenting Center where she helps families to overcome the difficulties of parenting to create stronger connections. She’s also the host of the Raising Good Humans podcast where she shares the latest research on child development and psychology. Today, our conversation covers a wide range of topics on parenting styles, setting healthy boundaries, and learning how to embrace a strengths-based parenting approach. We discuss her five principles of parenting that have come out of decades of research and how we can use those to guide our decisions in our relationships with our kids. We also talk about the rupture and repair cycle that comes with really any relationship, but is certainly embedded in a parent child bond and the power that making mistakes can have on strengthening those parent-child connections. Dr. Pressman discusses three general parenting styles and how we can each identify our primary parenting style so that we can make adaptations. We also touch on the importance of setting good, healthy boundaries to create both physical and emotional safety. So, I’m excited to share some of these tips and strategies with you. So let’s go ahead and get the conversation started.

So, welcome Aliza. I’m so happy to have you on the Conversations on Healing podcast today. Thanks for joining me. Thank you for having me. I’m really excited to have this conversation. I am delighted to talk about all things parenting because I know this is a field that you’re so deeply invested in and that you care a great deal about and that you are a parent on top of it all, which is good. I think it’s good to coach and talk about parenting as a parent. It’s helpful, adds a dimension of inner knowledge of the workings of it all the behind the scenes realities. So I wanted to get our dialogue going today by first kicking it off a little bit with the five Rs of parenting. So a lot of your work in the field of developmental psychology has these primary principles that are kind of grounding what you do and you’ve sort of taken a lot of research and pulled things together to create these simple five principles that I thought would be a nice way to begin our dialogue. So, go ahead and share those principles if you would.

Dr. Aliza Pressman Absolutely. So these principles are kind of how I’ve distilled down in an easy way to remember the research that really matters in child development. So, that’s relationship, reflection, regulation, rules and repair. So, relationship is self explanatory on the one hand. On the other hand, it’s like what we’re always working on our whole lives. The connection that we have with our children is fundamental to their growth and development. Dr. Jack Shonkoff says this head of the Harvard Developing Child Institute, he says there is no development without relationships, and I really think that it’s foundational and the research tells us that it’s protective. So having a close connection, being attuned to your child can actually help alleviate a lot of the stressors, kind of be a buffering effect on any kind of toxic stress, and it’s really the layer that’s as protective as it can be. And the most heartening thing about it is it’s in our control.

Then reflection really is about identifying what matters to you, what gets you thinking about your own emotional layers from your childhood, how you were parented, what are your ideas of what being a good parent is, of what being a good human is and thinking about determining how to present the values that you hold dear with this sense that you’re not going to impose your past pain on your current relationships so you can be reflective. And then also helping our kids be reflective really leads to, we know that from the science that being reflective is a path forward to self-regulation. So that’s where regulation comes in. And when you have the values that you hold dear, you know that you can exercise the capacity to respond thoughtfully. Taking into account the values that you hold dear and how you want to parent and the relationship that you have through self-regulation. You can exercise those muscles, but regulation is about centering yourself in a way that you can manage your emotions in order to achieve your goals. So it’s particularly goal-oriented and not in the like I want to have a perfect kid goal or I want to be a perfect parent, but in the context of my life and my values and my family, what do I hold dear and how do I make sure that my emotions don’t interrupt that? And so you can reflect on your emotions, but then regulate them. And then rules. Rules are just about setting limits and boundaries. We all need that to thrive, but kids in particular. And so in the context of having a close relationship and being attuned to your child and reflecting on your past and regulating yourself, of course you want to have clear rules that take into account what’s important to you as a parent and your values, and that’s how you set those rules. And you don’t make up rules that are arbitrary and meaningless, but you help your child understand that you are going to keep them safe by having clear rules that are age appropriate and that are developmentally appropriate so that you can help them and guide them in this process of evolving into an adult and a human being that is ready to sort of be out in the world with fewer rules of someone else’s and more of their own. And then of course, repair is that step that I think is the most heartening for parents to get them to realize good enough is what we’re aiming for, not perfect. And that messing up actually really contributes to your child’s positive development because not only are they seeing this healthy pattern of taking accountability when you do make a mistake, but that you also are self compassionate and compassionate towards your children when mistakes happen.

And that’s how you make these repairs, which is just so reassuring. And we know that the strength of relationships actually is built on these small ruptures and repairs so that we can know that no matter what this relationship is strong enough not to break. And that is, I think also all these Rs are in our control. When I work with families, I really don’t want to fixate on things that are out of our control because we cannot feel particularly empowered. But these are all within our control and I think that that is the most hopeful message.

That is hopeful. I’m going to summarize those just for everyone listening so that they can hear those five Rs one more time. So we’ve got relationship regulation, reflection, rules and repair, because I think that’s just such a handy little toolkit to have in your back pocket when you’re thinking about, wait a minute, I need some guidelines again, how to do this parenting thing. I’m feeling a little scared, lost or confused, which I think is so common because there isn’t a single manual for parenting. And so everyone to some degree is looking for a variety of different resources and wisdom traditions that might be helpful. I know in your work where you’re involved in doing a lot of teaching and work with the Parenting Center at Mount Sinai that you prefer to take this strengths-based approach when it comes to parenting. And so I thought maybe you could talk a little bit about what this means to take a strengths-based approach and why you think that’s valuable.

Well, I think it’s valuable because we all benefit from trying to grow the things that we have capacity to grow. And so if we stop looking through a lens of what’s going wrong and we start looking through a lens of what’s going and growing that, we just have a better chance at getting the best out of everyone. And I think because my work in the context of the healthcare system is in a place where it’s predominantly a disease lens, there’s a disease, we have to fix this. And I understand that in the moments where that’s appropriate, but with parent-child relationships, if you come into a room thinking, let me see what’s going wrong, you’re alienating the parent, you’re making the child feel less than it’s pathologizing something that is part of normal development usually, and you lose faith. So when you can come in and there is always something that a parent is getting right, there just is. So finding what they’re getting, what they naturally can do better at, and building that up will also help offset some of the things that are going wrong. And in addition to that, it’s just better preventive care. So, if we already know that there are a host of reasons why a child or family may be at risk, rather than waiting until something happens, pumping up a system with strength-building is going to help minimize some of the later predictions that we have that are maybe more negative.

And I’m wondering if you have any stories of families that you’ve worked with that would illustrate this point, that would share a little bit of insight with people who are listening that they might be able to relate to.

Well, I’m going to give you an example. Just it came up recently and this one is a controversial example, but it’s the reason why I am talking about it. I think this is the kind of thing that’s harder. And, I was working with a parent who’s spanking their child and typically the reaction to that is full stop, that’s harmful to your child. And there’s a host of reasons why it’s damaging and you can’t do it. And you by the end of a conversation with a parent, they feel so shamed and are less likely to have capacity to hear or listen or even consider alternatives. So, I worked with a parent who was intentionally spanking, meaning they were not losing their temper and spanking out of control. They didn’t want to. They were saying, this is my path to discipline, an open-handed controlled spanking that.

So, if their child did something wrong, they knew that in the afternoon they were going to get a spanking. So I looked at that dad and I asked myself, okay, what can I find that’s going right here? This person wants to help their child have behaviors and supports in place such that they can move through the world with guidance and morals and values. This parent is regulated. They are purposefully spanking. So, do I personally believe in spanking? There are very few people in this field that are spanking, but what’s the strength here? They’re regulated now in advance, hours in advance. My way of dealing with this is I’m going to have an open-handed spank for my child to teach them a lesson that gives me a lot to work with. That means they are not so out of control that this is their only option.

So, I’m going to start with saying, I’m so impressed with how regulated you are when things go awry in your household that you’re able to say, this is a behavior that I don’t accept. And so later you’re going to get a spanking. I can work with that by building up. Let’s talk about what we can do with that self-regulation. Let’s talk about what else we can do to help curb the behavior that isn’t going to be too scary for the child, corrode the relationship between parent and child or cause physical harm. That lets the parent relax a little bit into a conversation about other methods because I’m not shaming and I’m saying I’m noticing a strength. You’re regulated. That’s huge. That’s like half the game.

And I think this kind of leads very naturally into different parenting styles and how some, because of the way we were raised are going to take a more authoritative approach. So I’d actually love for you to share some of the most common parenting styles with our listeners so that they understand where we might each have our predispositions and then how we can work with those and
adjust those over time as needed.

So, pulling from the research, the parenting style, there were three parenting styles. And fourth would be neglectful parenting style, which is very unusual. And when it happens, it is particularly harmful. So I want to say that that’s a category where there is intervention that’s really, really necessary. But the three more typical parenting styles are authoritative, authoritarian, and permissive. And regardless of the name, I’ll sort of explain them enough that you might think, oh, that’s me. They’re measured on two dimensions. One is sensitivity and one is what’s called in the research, but you could consider that boundaries limits control, something that feels like a little bit more strict. And so if you think about it, an authoritative parent is pretty balanced on the scale between demanding-ness and sensitivity, whereas permissive parents are highly sensitive. They score super high in sensitivity, but low on demanding-ness and the authoritarian parents are the reverse.

They’re because I said so, but there is no sensitivity. And of course there’s a spectrum. So it’s always going to be a range. And there are sometimes hours or days when you bend more in the direction of demanding-ness and others where you’re more permissive or only sensitive. So what I would say is figure out how you were raised in which style that was predominant, what was the dominating style in your household? And then you can think about, okay, that’s probably going to be my natural state. That’s probably my autopilot state of parenting. Is that something I want? So, let’s say you think, okay, I was in a household where it was a little fear-based, highly demanding, controlling lots of rules, but no sensitivity of care. I really want my child to have a closer relationship with me than that. So, I want to add to the demands sensitivity so that we can have a more balanced relationship.

And my approach can be more balanced and authoritative. That means you’re going to have to work harder to cultivate that sensitivity of care and that attunnement than you are with the boundaries and the limits. Whereas another person might think back, I felt like I was really close with my parents. They did everything I wanted. They gave me everything I wanted, but there was no structure, limits, sense that there were consequences to any of my actions. And so I felt a little lost and I want to figure out a way to be sensitive to my child, but also have appropriate boundaries and limits. So I’m going to work on that. Everybody has the thing that comes more easily to them. I personally am much better at sensitivity of care. I could talk about my children’s feelings and notice them all day, but it’s harder for me to see them struggling and not let go of whatever demand I’ve placed on them that may be very important and appropriate for their growth and development.

So, that’s what I work harder at. So we all could just kind of figure out what’s the thing that I could work harder at? What’s my strength and your strength? Just notice it, acknowledge it and give
yourself credit for it and then pay extra attention to the part of this that’s a little bit harder for you. Now, what I want to do is separate parenting style from personality or temperament because one style is not necessarily better than the other from the perspective of like you do, you be the parent that you want to be, but you should know that children who have parents who are more authoritative tend to have better outcomes than the kids whose parents have these other more extreme versions. So if you think about it, you have to think about what outcomes you’re looking for. For parents who are super, super, super, super strict without paying attention to the sensitivity part, they might find out that in high school their child is lying a lot to them.

They don’t want to get in trouble and above all else, they would rather be in danger than get in trouble with their parent because that’s the setup of the relationship and you don’t want that. So you’re going to tweak this style a bit. But that’s different than a household because different cultures have different flavors and communities and traditions. So I came, for example, I came from a household with lots of immigrants and yellers, and so I didn’t have fear with the loudness and the intensity because it was just kind of what we knew. And it was not meant to be scary, it just was like the tone in the household. And if you come from households like that, particularly I came from family of immigrant Jewish immigrants, that tone was just way louder and yeller- sounding than it might be in another household. But I wasn’t scared. So it wasn’t in the category of authoritarian. And that’s just important to remember because this isn’t about, you have to always be zen and chill, and that’s how you can be a sensitive parent. It’s about being exactly who you are, but paying attention to those things, being attuned does not mean always being super connected and looking and looking like one certain type of parent. I think there’s a lot of room for different personalities.

That’s great. And it might be useful also just to share with our listeners why boundary setting is important as a parent. I know a lot of parents struggle with that and have questions about that. So, from the research and what through your work, why would you say that that matters? Setting good boundaries?

So our primary purpose, our first purpose is to keep kids safe both emotionally and physically. They come into this world completely helpless, and as they get older, of course we can give a little bit more space for them to go out and explore. But if you don’t set boundaries both emotionally and physically, you’re not giving them safety. And it’s very scary to be out in the world with absolutely no idea where your leadership comes from and what you’re supposed to be doing. So boundaries are about many things. There are different kinds of boundaries, but ultimately they’re about safety and we need our kids to feel safe so that their brains can be open for learning and growing.

Very nicely said. I know that a lot of parents feel a pressure to do it right or to get it perfect, but as you’ve already indicated in this conversation, there’s no such thing. There is no perfect parent, no perfect parenting style. There’s no perfection in any of this. And a lot of folks are using that modeling or that language around just being good enough, a good enough parent because a perfect parent isn’t real. So, I want to hear a little how you speak to parents who are feeling like they’re failing, they’re not perfect. How do you address that underlying kind of fear or concern that we’re just not good enough as parents? And what would you say to people who are feeling that fear and concern?

So good enough comes from Donald Winicott. It’s an old reference, but it still really resonates with people because we do, it’s such a natural instinct. You are in charge of the growth and care of another human. You’re going to want to get it right. That makes sense. So what I try to tell people is first of all, part of getting it right is getting it wrong over and over and making repairs and having self-compassion because it is no favor to any child to grow up with a perfect parent because what happens when they go into the world and they find out they’re still not perfect, they hate themselves, they will not be compassionate with themselves. They will think that there’s something less than about them. Now we know there’s no such thing as a perfect human being, but a young person doesn’t necessarily know that until it’s modeled for them.
And if it’s not, then they think it’s just me. It’s just me who’s imperfect because look, my mother or my father, so-and-so was capable of perfection. So part of it is just being able to be vulnerable and acknowledge when we’re not perfect, and that’s where repairs come in. So, I think that that’s my first place of dealing with parents is to validate the fact that you want to be perfect and then to let them know that if you want to be perfect, you have to be imperfect. Perfect parenting is the enemy of perfect parenting, in a way.

That’s a great way to say it. And it might also be good to describe this rupture and repair process because that is well documented in the literature that that’s an important process, but not everyone’s familiar with it. So if you would share a little more about that, that would be great.

Sure. Okay. So I mean, developmental psychology is built on this research of rupture and repair. So it’s so exciting to me, but maybe I do throw it around a little haphazardly because I assume everybody knows what it is. But the idea of rupture and repair is imagine that the rupture part or those tiny little breaks in relationship, little moments when you are not attuned, that can be because you’ve checked out. It can be because you’re distracted by something. It can be because you just lost your temper. There are many different ways to have ruptures. It’s not just screaming at your child. And we have ruptures in all relationships and to learn more about this research, it comes originally from Ed Tronick and he was brilliant. And he is brilliant. He’s still going, and he really emphasizes the power of discord and that those small ruptures, when every time they come in concert with repair, build the muscles that are required to have a strong foundation, which means that in, so if I give you the example of the studies that he started with to learn this information, they sound terrible now, but basically looking at, they took nine month old infants, I believe in the original study, and they had the mothers remove their attention from the baby, just stop looking at them, stop responding to them.

So, you picture a nine month old’s pretty engaged and babbling and making sweet sounds and smiling and laughing and making bits for attention. And the mother has this flat affect and they’re instructed to just not respond, and that is terrifying. So what they found in the studies, and there’s so much more to it that I’m simplifying it, but the repair part of it was so beautiful because all the mother had to do was re-engage to light up again when she saw the baby, to get excited to respond to the bids for attention and the baby recovered and what you want to remember from. And if they didn’t, then that’s a whole other part of this research, which I think is not as fun to get into. But what’s really healing and beautiful is that humans are built for that repair. We want that. We’re longing for that repair.

So, I’m not talking about harming your child and then saying you’re sorry over and over again, but I’m talking about those little ways that we rupture those moments where we’re not paying attention. Those moments where we lost our cool and made a mistake and gave a punishment that we regret, the way we spoke. If we use language where we’re just like, you know what? I don’t like how that felt. Let me make a repair here by saying I made a mistake. I lost my cool, and I gave you the impression that I think you’re not a great kid. You’re a wonderful kid and I love you, and a language that I used was my mistake that I need to work on. Those moments matter repair can also look like it can be so small and nonverbal. It could be something like your child wants you to look at something they think is funny.

They’re watching a TV show that’s really funny and they’re trying to get your attention and you’re kind of not paying attention. And then you realize it. You take a breath and you sit down with your child and watch whatever it is that they’re watching, and you start laughing and you kind of lean your head against their shoulder or touch their arm or whatever it is that you do in your dance with each other, that is repair because they bid for your attention. You were not available, but then you made yourself available and you connected because you’re joint laughing at the thing that they wanted to pay attention to. Seems small, seems minor, but that’s what we do. Ed Tronick actually says this as well, we often talk a lot about the dance, the dyadic dance between parent and child. And he says, that’s kind of a mistake because it gives the impression that we know how to dance beautifully, which Fred and Ginger, but that’s such a dated reference I don’t know what the modern version of Fred and Ginger is, but they were two dance partners from a hundred years ago. And it looks more like sloppy dancing where you’re stepping on each other’s toes, but you’re not breaking the feet, you’re stepping on toes, and then you’re figuring out the better way to do it and moving not in beautiful, in sync, but not hurting each other. And so that’s more what it looks like to be a person in relationships. It’s sloppy, it’s messy, and if we think that it’s beautiful and it’s just read as stare, that’s false. It’s never that. It’s just never that.

Right, right. It’s interesting in thinking about this rupture and repair idea, and as you said, it’s in many different types of relationships, not just parenting. An example stood out in my own mind. I remember as a young child, I was in kindergarten and no, actually it was in first grade. And my first grade teacher did something and then later reflected on it and realized she didn’t like the choice that she had made. And she came back to me, I think it was some days later, it was at least a day or two later, and she apologized to me, and here I was just this first grader in her class, but it stayed with me for life. It was like, oh my goodness, this adult took accountability, apologized for their actions, and I was very moved by it because, and she was a teacher at that time who was in the very end of her career, had been teaching for many years. And so I saw her as someone very skilled, and even as that very skilled teacher, she had the humility to say, I still don’t know everything and I still make mistakes and I want to take accountability for that. And it made such a positive impression. So it’s neat how we can do this in lots of different ways with kids, even if we’re not the parent, maybe we’re the teacher or we’re the aunt or the uncle or another relative, but we can also model those behaviors that maybe aren’t happening in the home that can happen in surrounding relationships. So that’s a good thing too.

I love that story so much and that you remember it just to let everyone know it’s meaningful when an adult in a position of authority is able to have that capacity. It changes the game for everyone. And so it gives you forever. It’s like you’re now wired to understand that you can do that. And that is so game changing and also wonderful that it wasn’t necessarily just a caregiver at home because not all of us have that. But the truth is kids need one adults for whom they can feel safe and secure and connected. They don’t need it to be their parent. It’s ideal if it’s their parent, but kids can thrive as long as they have that one adult.

And I think it’s interesting too, how kids can find even this is something I did in my own life, I found multiple adults throughout the course of my childhood that I could also resource from. So, for example, when I was in third and fourth and fifth grade, I had a mentor who was actually the husband of one of my teachers, but he was doing a lot of tutoring and kind of outside help for kids in the school, and he was just an incredible mentor for me on so many levels.

So it’s also fascinating how you can build, you can compositionally put together a number of adults who are helpful and can provide cool opportunities where you can learn from them in addition to whatever you’re receiving at home from your parents.

I mean a great how cool that you were the kind of kid that could assess the landscape and do that. I mean, that’s just so powerful.

Well, and how lucky I was to have somebody who was willing to be a mentor to young people and help us. So that was great. I do want to talk a little bit about trauma because you’d mentioned to me this idea, which I think is an important one, that trauma is more salient in the absence of love and caregiving. So, there’s a different way that we then internalize or receive that trauma depending upon what’s already foundational in the relationship. So I wanted to give you an opportunity to speak to that. I think that’s also important to understand.

Yeah, I mean I think it’s so important to understand in this world where the landscape is such that we call everything trauma. That’s just a hard experience, but it’s like how it lands, not just, it’s not just about being upset about something. It’s not just about having a hard experience, but it is so important to know that in the context of having a loving caregiver, as you said, trauma doesn’t land the same way. It can’t live the same way. So that’s not to diminish the experience of someone who feels that they have been traumatized because this sort of not being able to come down from a stress state is an indicator of trauma. It’s just that for the most part, if you have a caregiver who can co-regulate with you, who can bring you into a safe place and let you know that you are loved, that your experience was real, that they’re there for you for all of the healing that moves the brain to have such a capacity to tolerate the experience. So I’m not saying that it doesn’t go away, but it allows for us to tolerate the experience. And so when you look at the research on toxic stress, there’s positive stress, tolerable stress and toxic stress. The toxic stressors can move to the category of tolerable simply by the addition of a loving and supportive caregiver. To me, that is one of the more beautiful things that you could possibly imagine about the human existence, that we can make that much of a difference in the context of really hard things because relationships matter that much.

Yeah, that’s beautiful. There’s another way that I want to go into, I know your work is very heavily involved at the Mount Sinai Parenting Center, which combines research and healthcare to create parenting models for various different family dynamics. And you work a lot actually, it seems, with the healthcare providers themselves. And one of the points that you had mentioned to me that I think is a valuable one is this idea of negative self-talk, how parents can get into patterns of negative. And I’d love to hear what you see are some of the strategies to sort of catch ourselves when we’re doing that negative and how we might make some adaptations when we notice we’re caught in those loops.

Yeah, I mean, first let me say, we all talk to ourselves. I don’t know why anybody pretends they don’t. And there’s research that talking to yourself even especially out loud is quite beneficial, but not if you are on a loop of shaming yourself and negative self-talk can be pretty shamey, a colleague of mine, Shauna Shapiro always says, what you practice grows stronger. And it’s such a beautiful way of talking about how we wire our brains. We can rewire. And when you do something over and over again, whether it’s practicing, I’m not an athlete, so I’m trying to think of a thing that you could just kicking a ball into a goal or yelling at yourself, you’re going to get better at it. And so when you berate yourself, it is harmful to you because you’re giving yourself really, you’re building that muscle to be so powerful that it will overpower the positive.

Now, one of the things that we recognize as well is that kids will, I want to say this carefully. I don’t want this to make somebody more worried, but kids are watching. So if you’re negatively and berating yourself constantly, chances are you’re doing it with other people too, because the people that are hard on other people typically are even harder on themselves. So kids are watching, kids are listening, and what you want to do is, I think it’s just helpful, is say to yourself, how do I want my child to be speaking inside their own head? What voice do I want them to use? And if you just say to yourself, when you’re berating yourself, you can shift the language that you use which will over time make it such that your children will be much more likely to use that same language. So if parenting is the thing that motivates you to change the course to stop wiring yourself for negative self-talk, then do it because you don’t want your kids to perpetuate that cycle.

And the negative self-talk can look very much like, I’m such an idiot. I always do it this way. I always screw up. I always get it wrong. But it can also just be like, I’m never going to get this. I’m a terrible parent. It’s so harmful and it seems casual sometimes, like it’s private, it’s your own, why is it anybody’s business, but make it so that you believe it is your child’s business because then you will be more motivated to stop it. Nobody wants to harm their kids. Nobody listening to this wants to harm their kids. Let’s say that if you catch yourself doing that, try to think about it as actually I’m doing an injustice to my kid every time I talk to myself like that. And I bet you can change it just a little, and it’s worth it because that negative self-talk really does get wired in there.

Right, through the work that we do at Integrative Touch, the organization that I’m a part of, we have a lot of parents who have children who are seriously ill, who are struggling also, like you’re
doing hospitalized. And often I look at those parents as an outsider and I see them as a superhero, and yet I hear their negative and I’m thinking, oh my goodness. And someone once said to me, which I thought was also a sweet way of looking at it, if you catch yourself in that negative self-talk to say, would I tell this to my best friend? And if the answer is no, then maybe don’t tell it to yourself either. If you wouldn’t tell it to somebody else that you really care about, then it’s probably not the right way to speak to yourself either. And I think sometimes we are our own worst critics.

I see that with these parents and I’m thinking, oh my gosh, they’re so often so remarkable, and yet all of us self-critical at times. And so yeah, there’s something just very lovely about catching ourselves as if like, wait a minute, would I say that to somebody else that I love, someone else that I really treasure? And if the answer’s no, then shifting it and saying something different. And I also really like, and I’ve read this idea, which is a nice one where it’s like a reframing practice, but you essentially say delete. So if you notice, okay, I said this negative thing to myself, I just caught myself saying it, you go delete, and then you reframe and you say it in a different way now, so you communicate differently to yourself, which I think is such a beautiful practice because it kind of unwinds it right there in the moment, and you get a little redo.

It’s repair, right? You’re doing repair with yourself, and that’s such a beautiful practice. The other thing about it that we should emphasize is these are natural thoughts to have. It’s not like there’s nothing wrong with you having them, it’s just that you want to make practices that don’t make it. So that’s sort of the dominant way of thinking. Also, if you try to push a thought away without acknowledging it, without saying, I hear you, what are you trying to tell me? You might make it grow more. So another thing that people can do is say, I hear that thought and I think it’s telling me that you really care and you really want to get this right, but let’s think of another way of doing it because I do think it’s important to acknowledge what are those thoughts trying to tell us. They’re serving a purpose, but it’s just like let’s not let them harm us.

Yes, yes. And that’s such a nice self-compassion practice too, to understand all of those inner workings of why that’s even there in the first place. And then to have compassion for ourselves when it is there. Because this is the Conversations on Healing podcast. A lot of what I want to have an opportunity to dive into with you is healing, healing as a two-way street in relationships and how this dyad looks in a parent-child relationship. And even at different stages in a parent-child relationship. Because obviously when your kids are adults, it might look very different than when they’re elementary school age or middle school age or high school age. Each of these developmental stages, how we heal and how we do that repair process and what that can look like, can vary. But if you were to think about some of the foundational building blocks of creating a healing interaction in a parent-child relationship, what would come to mind for you?

So, if we look at this from a developmental perspective with babies and toddlers, it’s very much physical. It’s very much about, so I should say the onus is always going to be on the parent. In a parent-child relationship, it’s the only relationship like that. But in the adult relationship world or the peer-to-peer relationship world, it’s on both people. But in the parent-child relationship, the onus is on the parent to initiate healing, to provide tools, and to in a way absorb some of the pain because that’s just part of the gig. And so that’s why what you don’t want to do is force young people to do the same as you are doing as the parent, but you can invite them to. But we always need to remember that this is the relationship where there is an absolute healer supporter system that is never on the child.

And I only say this because sometimes parents force kids to fix their feelings like, you hurt me, you need to make repairs like I did this because you behaved this way. Those kinds of things are not really the responsibility of a child. So instead, it would look like, particularly with the littles, something very physical and most likely would require a few deep breaths physically taking a deep breath in through your nose and out through your mouth so that you can engage your parasympathetic nervous system so you can be in a space of receptivity. And that way you can give that energy to your child or to your infant. And it really is incredibly easy if you can take the breath, if you can’t literally put your hands under cold water, do something that can get you into a space of being ready to be more available and open.

And then physically touching if your child is up for it, physically holding them, experience that boost in their good feelings and connection. And that’s the same with toddlers. And again, unless they’re pushing you away, and then as they get older, you can use more language that helps heal because the language is sort of along the lines of what your teacher said, I reflected on this and here’s where I’m at, and I don’t like how I did that, or I don’t think that was fair to you or That was really hard for both of us, but I’m the adult and I love you and I’m going to help us get through this. And importantly, with even adolescents, the message and I feel, so I feel like this could hit a range of experiences where you could translate this, but as a general matter, telling your child, I love you.

I am sad right now, or I’m angry, or I am whatever I’m feeling, so that they don’t think they’re crazy, acknowledging how you feel, and also I know how to take care of me. I can heal me and I can take care of you all at the same time. It is not on you to take care of me. So if something bad is happening in the household, in the family, if someone is ill, that is really sad for me. I’m not going to deny that, but I know how to take care of this sad me because feelings are not dangerous. Feelings are something I have experienced with my whole life, and you’re going to get experience with them too, and you’re going to realize they’re temporary and they’re hard, but don’t worry about me. You are not charged with taking care of me. And that is incredibly healing for kids, particularly as they get older. They should not feel that they have to be part of healing you, even though of course inevitably they are because they’re just like, what is more healing really than this relationship? But it’s critical that they don’t feel responsible for that because they’re still kids.

I am curious, what inspired you to make your life’s work about parenting? And obviously you’re in the field of psychology, but you chose parenting and providing coaching and help in this area. And so what inspired you to go in that direction?

I think a couple of things inspired me. Plus I’m sure as I’ve reflected over the years, I definitely came from a colorful household. And I think that there is a large part of me that maybe wasn’t as aware of it as I am now, but I am the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, and I was mesmerized by how my grandparents came out of a trauma I cannot imagine, and went and gave birth, had kids immediately, probably was not necessarily the best path, but it was what was anybody to do. They lived. And I think that the effects of that trauma, I mean, my own kids feel it. It’s a part of the water in our household. And I was fascinated both by the beautiful resilience and also by what seemed really questionable and problematic about a whole generation of harmed humans having to go with this alone, being parents and navigating that and living with their own trauma and never being to come out of it.

I think it was really just fascinating and inspiring. But I don’t know that I was consciously aware of that until I was much older and deeply into the field that I’m in because so much goes back to my brain kind of thinking about that. And then of course, as just a human being growing up in the world with just an interest in kids. And my dad was a scientist, my mom was a teacher, and I think I kind of just merged those two things. And then when I was in college, I was doing theater, and just after college I was working with kids doing theater games with them while their moms were working with therapists because they were from abused households. It was actually an organization where the women had experienced domestic violence. And I was really kind of interested in different ways that I don’t know human beings can heal and connect.

So, then I thought I would go to graduate school to learn about drama therapy, but it was a weird time of year. And so I went to NYU to talk to the department chair and he said, you’ve never even done psychology. Why don’t you take the foundations in psychology? And I did. I signed up for abnormal Psych, which would be clinical, and I signed up for counseling and group dynamics, and I signed up for developmental and I signed up for organizational, so the different branches of psychology, and it was like speed dating, and I learned about attachment theory and was like, what? This is magical. And I never looked back. I just went into developmental psychology and I was just like, this is crazy. It’s just such a magical field where over time, just figuring out how we come to be who we are and the ways that we can both promote and prohibit that growth. And I just was mesmerized. And then take it to the next part, I was pregnant while I was writing my dissertation and I was like, oh my God, how do we take this beautiful content that we have in the science of child development and bring it to actually people raising kids? How’s there a disconnect there? Because so much of the science gets lost, or so many parents don’t really do anything or learn anything about this kind of information until there’s something going wrong. And I just thought I needed support. And I was like, where’s anybody getting this support from? And so I think there were just a number of things that happened. And then I started working with residents in the hospital because one of my friends was in charge of resident education, and I was like, what’s the curriculum? And she said, oh, there’s just whatever in behavior and development, just do whatever.

And I learned there was no core curriculum that was just universal across hospitals and residency programs for behavior and development. So all of these little things happened where my brain was just like, what? So parenting is not a part of this, and there’s no way to integrate parenting into well-child visits. The majority of parents will see pediatricians, 95% of them of babies are born in hospitals in the United States. They get up to five years no matter what of well-child visits. So if that’s going to be your only place where you’re going to hear about your child’s growth and development, I need to make sure that those people know about your child’s growth and development and what parents can do to support that and who and how they can support parents all they’re getting. So I think it was all these different things taken together got me into this.

Yeah. And what do you think you’ve learned about healing through parenting your own children? What has that taught you about healing as a parent yourself?

Well, I do think my kids have taught me just all the important things. So I’ve noticed that I am more compassionate to myself and to other parents because my kids are, I’ve watched, I’ve made the mistakes. I’ve watched myself fall on my face with them and make repairs. And it’s heartening to believe the research to live it and see that, oh, it’s healing. It’s just kind of wild to me to see that my children, my relationship with my children really is such a big part of who I am and that it’s a meaningful, real thing that that relationship is powerful. I never want them to feel the pressure about my parenting because of what I do, and I never want them to feel pressure about what kind of kids they are because of what I do. But the healing thing has been, I don’t think they feel that way, and I don’t think I feel that way.Every once in a while I do, but a lot of times I’m like, we’re all doing our best, let’s say more often than not, and there’s something so incredibly healing about living it in real time and knowing that that is the best I can do. I had a colleague who said that doing our best feels like too high of a bar because some days you just can’t. That was also interesting because when I look at my relationship with my kids and what I’m hoping for them to feel about our relationship, I think, oh, there are days when I’m kind of like, I don’t have it in me to do my best, but I’m going to do enough.

So, I should say that maybe it’s not always doing our best, but I think that’s been interesting. And then I got divorced when my children were young three and six, and I was like, oh my God, that’s one of the big things not to do if you’re trying to be a really good parent. This is in my mind, and I was so worried about them and how they would do, but I also was like, I have to be okay to be able to raise them. And so it was a test for me to do what I do and then do something that I thought was really not going to be the best thing for my kids, but I knew that it would ultimately be the best thing for everybody. I think that it was healing to get through that, and it was inspiring and motivating to keep trying to heal and get through that in a way that I hope left them without too much pain.

But there was pain and there still is, and it’s inevitable. I couldn’t remove that. And I think we all know that in the presence of connection and support and love, that that pain can strengthen us to be able to know that we can get through hard things. And I really think, I believe that in my own life, I have to remind myself a lot because of course, it’s just not the ideal. And so it’s interesting when you’re in a field where there are certain things that you just think, gosh, I really don’t want that to be the thing. And then you have to just, we’re people and we just have to kind of believe my own words.

What do you think you would define or describe what healing is?

It was really interesting. My brain keeps going back to resilience, kind of bouncing back in the face of adversity, stress, trauma, difficulty, but it feels like it’s resilience, married to something a little bit more emotionally connected. And so I think healing for me is being able to move forward and hold your reality and history and pain without letting it take over. And that to me is healing. You aren’t pretending it’s not there. You’re not pretending it’s not something that is a part of your lived experience, but rather than just trying to dissociate from it completely or lean into it so much that nothing else exists, you are able to say, this is a part of who I am. I would not be here in this way if this had not existed. And so I’m not, I’m going to honor it, but it will not be everything. And that to me is healing and resilience.

Wonderful. I appreciate that very much. Well, are there any final thoughts on parenting that you’d like to share with our listeners?

Well, I hope that with all of this, there’s also like there is no one right way you get to change. You can decide today that you are a different parent than you had been. You can decide that something doesn’t feel good. So you’re shifting things and we’re growing. We are born when our kids are born as parents. So of course it’s going to be dynamic. And I think that’s kind of the gig. It’s a great opportunity to grow, and so nobody has to get it right. Nobody has to, you just have to be intentional and present more often than not. That’s it. It’s set the bar in a different way than you would for most things, because yes, it’s the most important thing, but that means you’re in it for the long game. You’re always going to be a parent. So to get it right in quotes more often than not to me, is more valuable than thinking of it as a race to some unattainable way of being, and you are the parent that your kid needs. That is just what it’s, so that’s the great news of all of this.

Yeah, there’s something so fascinating about, because we’ve worked over the years with so many children who’ve been so deeply traumatized. I mean, some of the things, as you know that you see in the hospital, what parents have done to their own kids, it’s like it puts to the test or the human capacity of like, wow, who even knew? We can do that to each other, but we can when put under certain hideously stressful dynamics and sets of circumstances and the worst can come out. But when you see that, I’ve also seen firsthand the other side of that, which is that child still loves their parent. There’s something just, we are so biologically hardwired to love our parents. So like you said, you are the parent for your child because there’s a way in which you always will be no matter how terrible you are. So to me, in my own way of thinking, then it just puts in a good way, in a positive way, a real sense of responsibility on each one of us as a parent to say, look, there is no escaping the importance of my role here. You don’t want to and you don’t get to. So I may as well do the best I can to thrive within this because it’s on me. It’s on me. Because I’ve literally seen that even when you’ve done the crazy, most horrible thing imaginable, that child still has a fundamental love for you because of that core attachment is real.

Yeah, I mean, I think about the fact that stories are written, paintings are painted, the world runs on our relationship, whether they were around or not around. So even if you were like, I’m out, I can’t do this, your child’s impression of your presence in their life is forever there. And since we know that parenting is the biggest influence, it’s the biggest environmental influence on child outcomes, and that can be terrifying sounding, or it can be the most heartening science in the world because it means you can actually make a difference in your child’s life, and not because you picked out the right food to give them or the right school or the right outfit or the right things, but just because you have a relationship that is close and connected, you have boundaries and you make repairs, you’re golden. The details, that’s minutiae, that’s
minutia, that makes us feel like we have some more control than we do. But the big picture stuff is all we need to think about and then we really can make a difference. And I love that. I think hopeful and heartening, and not about pressuring parents, but really about empowering parents.

And I think that’s a key takeaway from this conversation is that that strengths-based approach, looking at the strengths, empowering parents, empowering skill development, none of us ever needs to stop learning in terms of how to become a better parent no matter how much education and practice we’ve had.

So true.

So also having that perpetual humility that there’s always more to learn and we just stay in it and keep showing up.

So true. I feel like sometimes people say to me, well, I remember my best friend witnessed my parenting at some point, and she was like, oh, I would’ve never thought that that’s what you’re supposed to do. And I’m like, that is not what you’re supposed to do. I just did it and I regret it already. But the assumption that I always know what to do would suggest that there is this one right way. And it’s just not that way. I’m always learning. I’m always trying to, there’s no end to this. Luckily, I’m fascinated by it, but there’s certainly lots of room to grow here.

Absolutely. And that’s a good takeaway for any of our listeners is that there’s no end to this and there’s lots of room to grow here. So we’ll hold that with us as we continue on and our parenting journeys. And I just want to thank you so much for having this conversation with me today and taking the time to share your wisdom with our listeners.

Thank you so much for having me, and thank you for the work that you’re doing.

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