Archive of ‘Relationships’ category

We Parent How We Were Parented

Something that I’m consistently made aware of as a child and adolescent therapist and working with their parents is that we parent how we were parented. I firmly believe that there is no such thing as a “bad” kid, OR a “bad” parent.

Being a parent is the hardest job in the world. As a parent you are the leader of the household, and you carry a LOT of responsibility. Your children look to you to provide shelter, nutrition, safety, and love.

While being a parent and having the massive responsibility that comes along with it, you are also inevitably triggered by your child’s behavior. For example, when your child has a meltdown and begins to throw items around the house, you are triggered. When your child is having big emotions and they begin to hit, bite, scratch, kick, etc., you are triggered. When your child tells you that you are a “lousy parent”, you are triggered. When your child asks you where a loved one is who is no longer a part of your lives, you are triggered. When your child pushes their sibling around and refuses to share, you are triggered.

How do you handle those situations? The most likely answer is that you yell and punish the child. Why? Because you are trying your best to teach them what is appropriate and what is not. Also, because you are triggered and losing patience (understandably so). And finally, because this is probably how your parents parented you.

When we feel triggered, we act on high emotions rather than trying to understand the child’s behavior and what they need in that moment. What is natural to us is to parent our children the way that our parents parented us. This is what we know. However, sometimes there are things that can be adjusted.

Avoiding Shame

Something that I see a lot, not only in my practice but also with the general public, is that parents tend to use shame as a way of disciplining their children. What does this look like? This can be phrases such as, “how could you let this happen?!”, “you know better”, “why is this so hard for you?!”, “you are so difficult”. It can look like the parent yelling at the child and wagging a finger in their face, or the parent walking away from the child without any conversation about repair.

Shame is the most distressing emotion we can feel as humans. Shame tells us that we’re not good enough. Shaming a child into appropriate behavior will cause the child to feel unheard, unimportant, and that their feelings don’t matter. This leads to a bigger disconnect between you and your child, which then causes more difficult behavior.

What can help YOU have more patience and understanding towards your child during high stress moments is trying to separate the behavior from the child. If the child is behaving inappropriately, they are trying to COMMUNICATE their needs. Children don’t always know how to ask or tell us what they need, so instead they communicate through their behavior. It is our job as caregivers to TEACH them how to communicate appropriately. Kids are always learning. Their brains are under construction all the time. So, if we try to separate the behavior from the child, we can find more patience within ourselves to be able to teach them right from wrong.

Attention vs Connection

When a child acts out, people often say, “oh, they’re just doing that for attention”. The word attention has a negative connotation with it. When we think of attention, we think that it is for selfish reasons. However, the child is not misbehaving for attention; they are misbehaving for connection. When your child has a meltdown, they aren’t doing this for attention or to make you mad. They are doing it because they need connection, and they have a need that they are trying to get met.

How to Connect

So, you may be wondering how can you not yell, punish, shame, and lose your patience…

First, I encourage you to take a deep breath. Take care of yourself so you can be there for your child. Pause for a moment and think about you can effectively communicate with your child.

Second, listen to your child. Get down on their level, use a soft tone of voice, and make eye contact.

Third, reflect to them their feelings. This looks like saying, “I can see that you’re feeling really mad right now”, or “You’re feeling sad”, “that upset you”. Simply reflect what emotion they are feeling. It’s OK if you say the wrong emotion, the child will correct you.

Fourth, validate the child’s feeling and experience. This looks like saying, “I understand”, “I hear you”, “I see you”, “If that happened to me, I’d be mad too”. This helps the child feel understood by you.

Fifth, set the limit. This looks like saying, “AND it’s not ok to yell at me like that”, “AND it’s not okay to hit others”, “AND it’s not ok to steal your sister’s toys”. Using the word “and” helps to connect the limit to the feeling. When we use the word “but”, we invalidate the other person’s emotions and experience, and we want to do the opposite.

Sixth, offer an alternative. This looks like saying, “Next time you need me, tap me on the shoulder like this” and show them, “You can hit this pillow instead” and show them, “What else can you play with until your sister is done playing with that toy?” and pick out a toy if needed. It is important not to inhibit their attempt to express themselves. Find an alternative that you are okay with.

Seventh, sit with them. This isn’t always possible. But, if you can sit with them, continue to talk to them and breathe deeply you will help your child regulate their emotions. If you are calm, your child will become calm as well. This is also known as co-regulation.

Additional phrases that you can use here are…

“It looks like your feelings are in control of your body.”

“I’m here for you.”

“How can I help you?”

“Mom is going to finish dinner, I will be in the kitchen if you need me.”

“I love you.”

“I want to help you. Can you show me how I can help?”

“It’s ok to have big feelings”

“You are having a hard day. I have hard days too.”

Lastly, I want to acknowledge that managing difficult behavior with your child is not easy. I know that during times of high stress it isn’t always possible to stay calm. That’s ok! Parents are humans who make mistakes just like kids. If you are a parent reading this, I encourage you to give yourself grace and be patient with yourself! The best thing you can do after you lose your temper is to apologize to your child and accept responsibility for whatever mistake was made. You are NOT a bad parent! You are doing the best that you can.

Below is an infographic that help outline the steps in managing difficult behavior. Feel free to save, print, and share!

managing your child's difficult behavior


Axline, V. M. (1981). Play Therapy: The Groundbreaking Book That Has Become a Vital Tool in the Growth and Development of Children. Penguin Random House.

Landreth, G. L. (2002). Play Therapy: The Art of the Relationship. Brunner-Routledge.

Parent-Child Play

A father and daughter play with legos together.

The American Academy of Pediatrics identifies play as essential for child development and child wellbeing. Children work through challenges, develop new skills, and communicate all through play. 

As my daughter has grown, she has found new ways of play to work through her newest challenges. In studying child development, I learned that children develop object permanence—knowing that something exists even when they are not actively noticing it—by the age of 8 months. As my daughter entered this phase of development, she began to take interest in games like peek-a-boo. In playing peek-a-boo, she was able to explore her new way of seeing the world and work through her feelings around separating from her parents (we disappear and then we come back again). 

The AAP finds that unstructured play promotes healthy brain development, allows children to conquer their fears and practice new skills, promotes healthy and active bodies, and it’s fun!

Joining Your Child in Play

Parents who join their children in play give themselves an opportunity to see the world through their children’s eyes, increasing a parent’s understanding of what their child is going through. By setting aside time to join their children in unstructured play, parents also communicate to their children that they are accepted, understood, and loved. This can serve to deepen the parent-child bond and to foster more effective parent-child communication. 

5 Tips for Parents During Unstructured Play Time

These guidelines have been adapted in part from Brittney George, LPC, NCC, PMH-C’s Rules for Parents During Play Time:

  1. Let your child lead: So much of children’s lives are controlled by the adults around them. Let this be a time where they can be in charge. Do your best to follow their lead without judgment. This will communicate to your child that their feelings matter and that you trust in their abilities, and it will give your child space to learn self-direction and self-control.
  2. Dedicate the time to your child: Make sure you are able to be fully present to your child during play. This means turning off your phone or leaving it in another room. And if you’re feeling dysregulated—at a heightened emotional state—take a minute to center yourself or identify that it’s not the best time for play. My colleague Ellen Meystadt, LPC-A offers some wonderful advice here
  3. Get on your child’s level: Being on the same physical level as your child can help your child to feel safe and connected. That means if your child is playing on the floor, you are too.
  4. Keep it unstructured: In recent decades, children’s lives have become more and more scheduled, leaving less time for free play. Do your best to keep this time open and free: no agenda, no plan, no schedule.
  5. Have fun: If you’re like me, parenting for you has been a source of both much stress and much joy; your free time is limited, and your to-do list is long. Let play time be an opportunity for you to let go, destress, and enjoy being with your child. 

Play at Any Age

As children get older, their approach to play will change. Parents can continue to find ways to connect with their child. Here are a few ideas:

  • Find games and activities that allow for free expression, creativity, and flexibility. (Personally, I love Writey Drawey and Exquisite Corpse.)
  • Be curious and co-participate in your child’s creative world, whether that’s their newest Roblox or Minecraft creation, TikTok, Dungeon & Dragons game, or fashion invention.
  • Find time to just be with your child. Meet them where they are at and allow them to use the time how they wish, even if that means watching TV or a quiet walk.
  • Give yourself and your child an excuse to be childish and silly–whatever that might be.

References & Resources

Special Parent-Child Play Times. by Bratton, S., & Landreth, G. New York: Routledge. 2020. 

The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds, Kenneth R. Ginsburg, MD, MSEd; and the Committee on Communications; and the Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, Pediatrics (2007) 119 (1):182–191. 

Rules for Parents During Play Time: A Case for Filial Therapy, Brittney George, LPC, NCC, PMH-C, Therapy Den, Sep 24, 2019.

Ways to Helps Your Child Navigate Friendships  

A common question I receive when working with parents is how to offer support when witnessing their child having friendship dilemmas. Friendships are a significant developmental milestone for your child, and it can be tricky to know what to say or how to provide help without causing a rupture in your relationship with them. Here are three ways to help you connect with your child and support them through this challenging phase. 

1. Listen

Friendships are a personal territory often associated with self-consciousness or insecurity, but when children gain the courage to come to you for support, the most helpful thing you can do is listen. Stop whatever you are doing and give them your undivided attention. Thoughtfully listening to your child is key in making them feel not only heard verbally, but also seen in a way that affirms themselves and their experience.

2. Refrain From Giving Advice (At First) 

When your child comes to you and is asking about how to handle a friendship situation, the immediate response may be to fix, solve, or rescue. Resist the temptation to do so. Often times when children go to you for help, what they really want is to be heard. Giving advice can emphasize problem solving rather than focusing on what your child is experiencing. However, sometimes your child may only desire advice. In that case, use bullet point # 3 to try to gauge if there may be any reasons for them not wanting to explore the situation deeply. Some reasons could be avoiding feelings around the friendship or desiring you to intervene and fix the situation. If none of those apply to your child and their situation, then advice giving could be helpful. 

3. Reflecting and Asking Curiosity Questions 

Two things that can help your child navigate friendships are reflecting and asking curiosity questions. Reflecting not only shows that you are listening to what is being said, but it also allows your child to hear how you may be experiencing their thoughts and feelings. Asking your child open ended questions can foster connection and prompts them to explore their situation more deeply. Below are some examples of how you could use reflection and curiosity questions.

Examples of Reflecting: 

  • You seem to be struggling (e.g. angry, frustrated, annoyed) with this situation. 
  • I hear that this friendship is making you question some things. 
  • You sound really concerned (e.g. hurt by, worried, upset with, excited) about your friend. 
  • I appreciate you coming to me and telling me about this. 

Examples of Curiosity Questions:

  • What is this making you feel? 
  • How can I help? 
  • What happened? 
  • Would you like for me to give advice or listen?

These three methods can help you approach this important phase in your child’s life with kindness and empathy, both of which are critical to building a greater connection with them.  If you have any questions for me or would like more information on helping your child through challenging experiences, please reach out to set up a session. 

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