September 11, 2023

Alice Part 1 of 3: When Your Kid Says “It’s Unfair”

This is part 1 of the 3 part series with Alice. Alice is a recently divorce parent with two boys ages 9 and 6.

In Part 1 we learn about Dan who struggles with FAIRNESS, often melting down in ways that impact that whole family.  We will discuss the candy wars, the ruined birthday parties, and the issue of fairness. Alice also admits that she is struggling with the fear of being a bad parent and worries about who her son will be as an adult. 

Time Stamps 

6:12 The need to see and heard and understood

6:45 Use the phrase “I notice….” to help your child gain intrapersonal and interpersonal awareness 

9:40 Validation – not all validation is not all equal – its in the eye of the beholder – try to get the primary emotion – I identify when you unintentionally invalidate your child

12:05 We are parenting in the short term and the long term

15:43 Do you expect your child to misbehave? We actually need to expect our child to misbehave

16:41 When parents feel like they are a failure

17:49 and 18:50 Examples of using the skill of coping ahead for the misbehavior:  “Bring it on” 

20:45 Talking about the fear of what your child will be like when they grow up

26;26 The issue of fairness and unfairness

27:35 When kids need predictability and uncertainty

31:28 The difference between equality and equity

33:50 An example of dialectic dilemma

35:20 Sibling rivalry as a process of individuation and differentiation

40:16 Think outside the box – fill the emotional bank

45:05 When parents feel like their children are manipulating them

46:14 The “shoulds” that parents may feel.

Show Note Links 

Leslie-ism: Take a moment to check your own expectations, check your fears and check your shoulds.

Credits: Is My Child a Monster is produced by Alletta Cooper, Dale Rubury, and Leslie Cohen-Rubury. Theme music is by L-Ray Music. Public relations is handled by Tink Media. Graphics and Website Design by Brien O’Reilly. by Eric Rubury. A special thanks to everyone who contributes their wisdom and support to make this possible.


0:03  Alice:  I’m carrying this fear around like I’m a failure, and they’re tripping on it, too, like a landmine. And I don’t think consciously, but since I react to it, I’m sure that they are too.

0:21  Leslie Cohen-Rubury:  This is, Is My Child A Monster?, a parenting therapy podcast where you get to listen in as real parents and caregivers share their trials and tribulations in therapy sessions recorded live. I’m your host, Leslie Cohen-Rubury. And I’m a parent and a therapist with 37 years of experience helping families navigate this question. And no, your child is not a monster. 

Today, let me introduce you to Alice, in her first of three sessions. She’s a recently divorced mother of two boys, Dan, who is nine and Jake, who is six. Dan is like many other children with big feelings. They may be loud, they may have meltdowns, and it feels like they take up a lot of physical and emotional energy in the family. For Alice, this means a lot of mediating and negotiating between her boys, something that doesn’t seem to be working for any of them. We talk about the ruined birthday parties, and the issues of fairness, and what Alice calls the candy wars. 

She also confides to me that she is struggling with the fear that she’s a bad parent. And she’s worried about what kind of person Dan will grow up to be. This is something so many parents worry about, and something we address in this session. Okay, now, as a reminder, all the names and identifying information have been changed. And this show is for informational purposes only, and is not a substitute for therapeutic intervention. So let’s get started. 

Leslie:  Hi, Alice.

2:05  Alice:  Hi, Leslie.

2:06  Leslie:  You’ve got some things, I think, that are on your mind. Where would you like to start?

2:10  Alice:  I’ve actually struggled with this a bit. I’m not sure quite where to start. I have some concerns about my older son. I have some concerns about some of the ways in which he reacts in situations and I see that our family is a little bit becoming so accustomed to his reactions that we’re a little bit held hostage by them. And so some of that shows up as this intense envy. Some of it shows up as just kind of an attention; like he really needs the spotlight. So I’m not sure where to start, where to ask you.

2:50   Leslie:  Okay, so let’s talk about Dan. And I think the best thing is, if you can give me some examples of…you mentioned envy showing up or feeling like you’re being held hostage. Either way, you could start with an example. Because I think if I understand the example, it helps us understand what’s going on and gives us a little window into trying to understand him.

3:13  Alice:  Sure. So the envy one is something that’s just comes to mind. Recently, we had an occasion where there was a party at school for both of my sons. And they each came back with a bundle of treats—much to my delight, not at all [Laughter]—you know, sugary, these sugary bags. So Dan hops in the car and says to Jake, who’s six, “You know, I got a lot of candy today. I don’t know if that’s going to be okay with you.” So Dan is prepped, he’s already setting it up as a competition. And so we get home. And it turns out, they both dump out their little bags. And Jake has way more—he’s in kindergarten, these parents or whoever, the whatever-room-mom allowed these things, just they just loaded him up. And so now we have Dan over there being like, “But I thought I was the top dog here. And now I see that the little one, his younger brother has more. 

And it just sets off this, this set of just whole body reactions. And it feels like he’s having feelings inside of him and they come right out because he’s very loud. The volume is turned way up on this sweet kid. So he’s not trying to manipulate the situation in this example. But sometimes it gets to be that way where he’s like, “But it’s not fair that he has…”  He doesn’t try to manipulate it with us very much because we just have from the beginning, we just don’t get involved. 

And that seems to have been a good strategy as far as it goes. We’re like, “Well, that’s what he got, and that’s what you got.” But it’s so hard for him to accept that. And so we, you know, it’s, it’s like, I have to have a whole—or I don’t know if I have to, this is what I want to ask you about how to have a conversation with him, about those feelings when they’re so intense in him. And he’s just sitting there, it kind of ruins his day for the next few hours. He’s thinking about the fact that his brother got way more than him and how unfair it is. And he gets mad, and he stomps, and he might throw something in demonstration. He’s not petitioning to me to change it, but he really wants my attention on his feelings. So there’s one example—I can pause there.

5:42  Leslie:  Yes, yes, yes. Let’s pause there. And let’s unpack that a little bit, because there’s so much in that one example, that you said you want to understand him. Well, understanding him is really looking…you’ve already got a lot of information. That’s very helpful. You said the volume, his volume, is turned way up. It’s loud. So I think what you mean by that, and please correct me if I’m wrong, is that being loud means intense emotions. Is that what you meant?

6:12  Alice:  I mean it both metaphorically like that. Totally literally also. Physically he will shout, or he will bang something to make, just to make an impact. Like, “I want to be seen and heard.”

6:27  Leslie:  Well, guess what: we all have that need. It’s an incredible need—the need to be seen and heard and understood for who we are. You nailed it. And so he’s making it really known that this is important to him. 

So I’m going to just start right there and say, let’s notice: let’s notice what’s going on. “I noticed your volume just got louder, I noticed your voice just went up, I noticed that you might be yelling, or you just might be excited.” You might even give him a choice to see if he can tune in, because you said he has a full body experience. A full body experience is very important for him later, as he learns to regulate. So in order to regulate that full body experience, we have to first give him some awareness. So I love to use the line, “I notice that you’re talking just got louder.” Real simple, nonchalant. No big deal. I don’t have to get intense myself. I can just say, “Well, I noticed the volume just went up. I noticed it sounds…” 

You’re smiling. What do you want to say? 

7:42  Alice:  Well, I’m so glad we’re talking about this, Leslie. So this is my question. I kind of feel like I’ve absorbed from the myriad parenting help resources out there. The idea of recognizing and holding space for the kid’s emotion, right? And, and, yeah. And they both they reject that, so sadly. They’re like, “You said…”. Often I phrase, I say, “I see. I see that. …” ”I noticed that…” but I’m calm. And I’m saying, “Oh, I see that you’re…” blah, blah, blah.” Or, “I see it sounds like you’re feeling really sad about that.” Or, “Are you feeling envious?” We use that word. And he’s like, basically the equivalent of,”No.” No joke! I feel like  my very calmness is frustrating. And it’s worse to him. How do I handle it?

8:50  Leslie:  So first of all, we’re not parenting in a vacuum. We are parenting our children. So if we are going to be effective, we actually have to see the response we get. So when you tell me that story, I’m like, “Okay, that’s not working very well.” Now, I want to say that, and I want to say it’s really complicated. Because as I was teaching my daughter all the skills, I got back, “That’s stupid, that won’t work.” I heard that over and over again. So there is a fine line between sharing a skill with your child that they’re going to reject, and leaving it at that because that’s a very important thing for us to remember. Sometimes we’re just going to do it. 

But what’s happening in this situation is you are actually trying to notice what’s going on and in a way, through that acknowledgement you are…we would call it validation. Validation is in the eye of the beholder, which means the person receiving the validation can either feel, “Yes, you understand me,” or, “No, that is bothering me. Don’t tell me I’m upset. Don’t tell me…”So what’s happening in this situation, is my guess—and you sound like you’re agreeing with this— is that in that moment when you’re saying, “I noticed this, I noticed you’re upset,” that is not what he wants to hear, in the moment. 

Alice:  Yeah. 

Leslie:  I wonder if you want to play him for a moment. I’d say, “Wow, I notice that you’re upset that it’s an uneven amount.” What’s his reaction?

10:25  Alice:  Oh, he would say, um…let me just like, pause and think here. Get into Dan’ space…So he would say…only expletives are coming to mind, because that’s the energy he has. It’s like, it’s like…He would thrust his fists down. And you’d be like, “Of course I’m…!, you know, whatever. Upset, jealous, whatever. So it’s just this outburst of like, “You idiot!” Not attacking me, but for sure, reacting right back at me. 

11:08  Leslie:  Definitely it is reactive. So that tells me…that’s one way. So let me try a second version. A second version would be, “Wow, this is totally unfair in your world.”

11:20  Alice:  Ooooh, yes.

11:22  Leslie:  You’re agreeing with me; I see your head. 

Alice:  Yeah.

Leslie:  You’re nodding your head. And you’re saying yes. That’s validation, in my book, when I see someone nod their head. And maybe they’ll even cry. Maybe it’ll bring out the emotion of, “It’s always unfair—he’s always getting more, I never get enough.” That’s what I call getting to the primary emotion. And you’ve really validated, you’ve hit the target. And we don’t know, I would do exactly what you did. And I don’t expect to get it right every time. If I don’t get it right, now I can educate him—emotional intelligence. Say, “Wow, what I just said sounded like it was invalidating. That’s not what you want to hear.” 

So here’s the thing: we are parenting both in the short term and the long term. In the short term, yeah, I want to help him regulate, or maybe just experience his emotion. I don’t always want to help him regulate, I want to help him know how to experience emotion. On the other hand…I want to both actually…on the other hand, I also want to help him, in the long term, understand what validation is. I want to be modeling it. And I want him to understand that I’m not always right, as the parent—I don’t even mind. “You’re telling me that didn’t work. That didn’t seem very validating. As a matter of fact your response tells me it was invalidating. Hey, buddy, can I try that again?” 

12:43  Alice:  Oh, that’s great. That feels really good. I mean, that feels really good to me. And I have seen instances where I do that, or I just kind of like, “Let’s back up. I’m going to try that again. I’m really sorry. Now I understand how you took that. And that felt like, blank.. And here’s what I really meant to do, because I really understand…” And he has responded really well to that in the past. 

But what I really liked about what you said was the in-your-world part, because I’m not making any claims about anything objective. I’m also not trying to couch it in feely language. They’re all they’re very…I’m just saying, “Okay, yeah, I see in your world that really just stinks. And that feels like I can just imagine him, that kind of choking up a little, you know, that beautiful diaphragm when it goes from anger and his it kind of chokes up and maybe a sob comes out, and then, “Oh, yeah, now you’re processing it.”

13:49   Leslie:  Yes. And then I want to ask a question, I want to ask him a little assessment question. When he voices all this unfairness and he goes through it, how does he recover? I get that he can be reactive in the moment. How does he recover?

14:07  Alice:  Well, I guess…let me just walk out a little bit of what usually happens and you can tell me when recovering actually happened, because this example has, I guess this is a fruitful example for all the little questions. So either he escalates and so then something gets thrown or a door gets banged. And I ask him, “It’s clear, this is really bothering you. And we can’t be slamming doors in our house. Why don’t you take here, choice A or choice B? Why you go take a few minutes and go upstairs and draw in your room?” We have the list of things he knows that calms him down. But often at that point, he sees that as, “You’re taking these emotions, that I want to be seen right now and you’re trying to put them away.” Or phrase it differently. And I’m like, “You need to go up to your room and just calm down for a few minutes.” So that’s less couched there. So that’s kind of the escalation path.

15:11  Leslie:  So let’s stop right there. And then I want to hear his other paths. But I think this is great, that you’re getting us to go down the path a little more. So in the path where he’s escalating, and you give him the choices of taking a timeout, or using some of those coping strategies to help him calm down, here’s my question: Do you, as a parent, expect your child to misbehave?

15:48  Alice:  In general? 

Leslie:  Yeah. 

Alice:  Yeah.

15:43  Leslie:  So, it’s funny, because I used to have all these parenting classes and sort of as a retort joke, I would say, “What do you hope for your children? What do you expect from them?” “I expect them to be civil. I expect them to use manners. Be polite, be kind, be generous,” et cetera. I never, in all the years of doing parenting classes—and over 20, 25 years or something—I never heard anyone say, “I expect my children to misbehave.” 

16:12  Alice:  Well, I’d love to say my internal answer is, “Yes.” But then I had to pause for a moment and be like, there is a part of me that actually is like, “Well, no, you know, obedience every time.” But the more part of me is that I don’t expect it. But an interesting thing that we could talk about another day is their father, who is very much…would probably not…he would answer that question quite differently. And that’s a challenge.

16:41  Leslie:  So I think the reason why I pointed out the answer that I got is people know their children will misbehave. But they look at their children and say, “Wait a minute, you’re not supposed to be misbehaving. If I’m doing a good job, if I’m a good parent, then you won’t misbehave.”

17:01  Alice:  Oh, my gosh, you just… That’s the is-my-child-a-monster question. Not just that, “Am I raising a monster? i.e. “Is it my fault?”

17:14   Leslie:  “Is it my fault?” And that breaks my heart, it breaks my heart for a child to feel, are they a monster, are they bad? It breaks my heart for a parent to feel that they may be doing this to their child. So the answer is: let’s start with changing our perspective. If we begin where children are, then we begin with the idea that children are going to misbehave.

17:38  Alice:  Okay, let’s do it.

17:40  Leslie:  And what happens when I say that to you? If I say, “Well, your son’s going to come home, they’re going to have different amount of candy, someone’s going to have a meltdown.” And I say, “Okay, are you ready for that? You’re coming home with two kids, they both got candy. Are you ready for a meltdown?” Part of you says, “Yes, but I’ve got to stop it. That’s not right.” And another part of you…what would you do if you just said, “Oh, okay, I’ll be ready. I’m ready for that. Bring it on”? What would happen? 

18:10  Alice:  I love that question. Okay, so scenario—it’s the day where they get the candy. And, yeah, but just to see it as, “Okay, well, we get to have that,” it’s like a learning, it’s like them learning to throw a baseball or whatever, that they’re going mess up a lot. And it also really points to me how important it is that I manage my expectations and energy. Because when it comes up, and I’m not just expecting it, then I’m like, “But I don’t have energy for this.”

18:50  Leslie:  Right. And we are tired as parents, and it does take a lot of energy. And we cannot always manage our expectations, because some things just hit us at the wrong time or whatever. But sometimes, like driving home after a birthday party or a school event, you can probably say, “Oh, I know, I know what this looks like.” And you can say that out loud. “Hey, we’re going to go home. You guys are going to compare candy. Who thinks that you’re going to get upset over something being unfair? Do you think there’s a very good chance that that might happen?” And just sort of say, “Yeah, it might happen. Everybody ready for that? I know. I’ve got to get ready for that.” And you start to prepare yourself and prepare them. Because like you said, it’s like learning to play baseball. There’s nothing wrong. It’s learning to deal with fill-in-the-blank: learning to deal with unfairness, disappointment, and all the rest.

19:48  Alice:  Oh my gosh, the thing I love about what you just said is, if I was so casual about it, it would just make it, “Oh, it’s not a scary thing.” It’s not a scary failure like that we all just fell into the pit of, you know, badness; like, we’re all bad people because a meltdown happened. It’s like, oh, no, that just happened–ooop—you know, our dog chewed on some Legos and she vomits…we don’t get mad at her. It’s just like, “Oh, okay, that’s the thing that happened.” “Okay, so some unfairness came up, and some, well, it just might happen. We’re all here, though. We’re all safe, we’re together, we’re going to connect around it.

I feel the part of the thing that I’m carrying around, as a parent, is my fear. And it’s partly kind of…it’s like a little basket of cultural expectations that I’m carrying around. And it’s the fear of having kids grow up who are kind of fill-in-the-blank, not able to regulate themselves, who aren’t kind or who aren’t able to access their emotions, much less empathize with others—things like this. So, “I’m a failure.” So I’m carrying this fear around. And they’re tripping on it, too, like a landmine. And I don’t think consciously but, since I react to it, I’m sure that they are too. 

21:13  Leslie:  Excellent. So, you’re right. Parenting with fear is both extremely normal, right? Really normal. Their worries are: are our children going to be okay, as adults? Are they going to be able to manage themselves? That is something I felt you feel, and many, many parents feel; so, good. That’s one hand. On the other hand, we want to make sure that our fear is not running the show. And because as you said, we’ll trip over it, you’ll all trip over it. And you put that kind of death grip on, “We’ve got to get this right, we’ve got to do this now! Because if I don’t do this right now, I’m going to screw you up, or you’re going to screw up for the rest of your life.” 

And it’s like, “Eh, no,” because we’re actually supposed to learn from these moments. They’re not screw ups. They are perfect. “It’s a perfect moment—you get to learn about disappointment. Let me know what you learn after today’s disappointment and unfairness.” That’s okay. We want to be able to learn how to not be afraid of emotion mind, experience disappointment, experience unfairness; because now you really are teaching them how to play the game of life, because there’s going to be plenty of disappointment and unfairness, not just over candy. It’s great practice.

[Music: Nature Calls by Olexy]

22:45  Dale Rubury:  Hi, I’m Dale Rubury, a producer and occasional guest on Is My Child A Monster? And we’re looking for parents and caregivers to feature on Season 2. We’d love to hear from all kinds of families with kids between the ages of 4 and 18. There’s no problem too big or too small. So if you’d like to volunteer for some free parenting therapy, and are comfortable sharing your sessions publicly, with all names changed, of course, please visit to apply.

23:18  Alice:  Then, if you zoom back out, there’s the how-we-handle-it-in-the-moment and the kind of acceptance and even expectation that: you know what, a certain amount of this… that’s because they’re novices, they’re literally learners at this stuff. And even their biology means that they’re really like…these are new things, new pathways we’re laying down. And if you zoom out a second, you’re looking at the frequency with which some of these things happen. Then that’s where I get to these larger questions about my older son, Dan. And then what that does to the younger one who’s watching and who is taking whatever lessons he’s taking from the fact that his older brother is just super outspoken about. 

Just to take the envy example, I think that Dan’s worst day of the year, consistently, is Jake’s birthday. Because he just builds it up so much in his mind, and we actually have some pretty healthy dialogue around it. It doesn’t change his feelings, obviously, which is fine. But there are some ways in which he acts that then really impacts how we’re celebrating Jake’s birthday. And that’s not fair. 

So just things like that, where I look at a kind of the more global picture and I say: Are there other things that…or are there other learning things that could emerge here; just about who he is and kind of what he needs, and how we can both right-size how we’re interacting with him. And also, not therefore have it be oversized compared to our much milder, quieter, younger son.

25:16  Leslie:  Okay, so let’s take this example. But start from where you said—the frequency of how long this has been going on and how often that happens. So that’s an important factor. The fact that he has intense emotions, these emotions are big, he feels it, sounds like you have language around emotions, which is fabulous. But that, as you said, doesn’t actually help him deal with these big emotions. So one is we want to understand this is biologically who he is. And so managing our expectations, again, that I can expect in a situation like a birthday or an event or a family trip, there may be big emotions showing up. 

So there are things that we can do that help us acknowledge that biologically, he is a sensitive child with big emotions. So I have a few more questions for you, clarifying questions. One of them is when the kids were growing up, was there a sense—because you’ve talked about unfairness and I think there’s a gene in every human being the unfairness gene; I don’t think they have proved it yet—but did your children, did both of them, or did just Dan have this feeling that everything needed to be equal and fair and the same?

26:40  Alice:  Absolutely, yes. They have the gene. And I would say that, I don’t know the extent to which the gene is expressed in Jake, separate from Dan. Because really, Dan’s, from the very earliest moment to say…it partly stems from him feeling uncomfortable with the uncertainty of, “There’s a whole pizza there, how many slices are for me, and how many slices are for him?” Each of us just taking as we are hungry, and putting them on our plate, it risks running out, it risks his younger brother having more. So it’s just that certainty that he’s always kind of felt like, “Well, it needs to be certain. And the only way I’m going to get away with this is if it’s the same, so it needs to be the same.” 

27:35  Leslie:  That’s a very important fact, when we understand who he is, because we’re actually understanding how his brain works. A brain that thinks just… is born this way. And maybe society reinforced it. That’s very all or nothing, or black and white. If that’s who he is, then predictability is harmony. It’s like when things are in order, “I feel calm, I can relax. “

You’re nodding your head.  

Alice:  Oh, my gosh, yes. 

Leslie:  So I think this is critically important to understand this, because we’re not changing his brain. We’ve got to radically accept that he is who he is, and how do we help him live in a world where there’s a ton of uncertainty? And what do we call uncertainty to a person who wants certainty? 

Alice:  Anxiety?

Leslie:  You got it, you got it. I was just going to say it’s a word that begins with A–it’s anxiety. So these kids who find that predictability brings them comfort and ease and, and makes them feel, you know, their neurological system calms down, their arousal is low, as opposed to high, when there’s predictability. Those kids, when they don’t get predictability, feel the hyper arousal, or the arousal of, “I don’t know what’s going to happen. “I don’t know who’s going to get the last piece. I don’t know…” And that just wreaks havoc in his system.

29:08  Alice:  Yeah, even that emphasis you were just using in your voice. That’s him, but just turn up the volume way higher.

29:17  Leslie: Right, right. But believe me, I could act it out. Because I’ve been there. So that’s important for us to think about. This is who he is. This is what we want to teach him. Your job as a parent is not to fix him. Your job as a parent is to guide him about who he is. So that when he goes out into the world, which he is doing every day, he gets to learn about where is that going to work for him, and where is it not going to work for him. Every quality being, you know, I mean, I make life complicated. My brain has 5,000 answers for very one, I don’t look for the predictability, I look for the uncertainty. So oftentimes I have people around me going, “You’re making the situation a bit chaotic.” I’m like, “No, I’m having fun. This is the best.” So it’s playing, I’m playing. 

And he feels the opposite. He feels that he needs predictability. I want to teach him who he is. Because there are times when my too-many-ideas actually does drive me nuts and everybody else nuts. I want to be able to pick two ideas, pick one idea, go with it, be certain, be predictable, not change my mind 15 times, right? Whereas he wants to…he has that skill. That’s a fabulous skill and ability. And he wants to practice at times, dealing with uncertainty. 

And sometimes I teach how to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations. I teach him. “Oh, wow, there’s small situations about eating pizza, there’s some unpredictability that might make you uncomfortable. Can we be mindful to the slice you’re eating now? Can we be really mindful to the piece that we all have now, before we think about who’s going to get the last piece, how many pieces we get?” And other times when It’s pizza time, say, “Hey, how do you want to divide them up? Do you want to…should we cut these up right now? Should we put everybody’s name on everybody’s label?” So sometimes work towards the child who wants predictability. 

And sometimes say, “Okay, we’re going to practice being unpredictable, right? We’re not going to know who gets the slices, who gets more, because there is a difference between equality and equity. Equality is when we strive; and I’ve had so many parents strive to do everything the same. Equity means we respect each person for who they are. This goes back to where we started, when we said everyone has the need to be seen and understood for who they are. 

So I want your parenting, in the big picture, to remember that Dan is Dan, and Jake is Jake. And so when Dan needs some predictability, we’re going to name that for him. And maybe Jake likes the unpredictability or the spontaneous, and you can say, “Wow, you each have these wonderful qualities.” So I just want you to think about it. It is not your job to help Dan understand fairness in the world, he’s going to figure that out on his own, in his own time, probably as an adult, not as a child. 

So let go of that expectation. 

Alice:  All right, thanks. Whew! Throw that one away. [Laughter]

Leslie:  Throw that away, it’s a lot of pressure. But when you parent, I want you to parent with the respect that you’re going to treat each of them as individuals. And when they argue with you and they say, “That’s not fair,” Say, “Yeah, I know. I want to treat…I wouldn’t treat a piccolo and a harp the same way, or a drum and the violin in the same manner. So I’m going to treat you guys differently. And sometimes that is just not fair.”

33:04  Alice:  So in that situation, then I guess, I feel like in some senses, I am the arbiter of whose needs like, “…so you have the need to have them all divided up, and you want to just go piece by piece.” I’m kind of the arbiter here to say, “Here’s how we are going to do it.” Sometimes, when it’s them with their candy, and they’re making their trades or whatever—that’s their problem. Not my problem. 

33:34  Leslie:  Absolutely. There are about 10 different ways of handling that. There are a lot of problem solving strategies. There’s a lot of solutions where you can step in, you may not step in, you may just name, “Hey, I think Dan, you really like to be able to divide it up; that makes you feel more comfortable.” This is called the dialectic dilemma. “Jake, you want to do it differently. You just want to eat your candy. And it’s okay that it’s unfair. Hey, it may be different today than it will be next week, or the next time.”

So there are lots of solutions to a dialectic dilemma where they both have needs. And their needs are both important. And what you want to convey is the respect that you have for their differences, not the solution. The solution is not the answer, which is what we all go for. We go for the fix. We go to make our kids happy.

34:27  Alice:  That’s right. Like King Solomon on steroids. I’m recognizing all the needs and I’m going to come up with the magical unicorn solution that meets all of them.

34:37  Leslie:  So I’m going to give you permission to give yourself permission, that it’s not your job to meet all their needs. It’s your job to respect their needs, and to help them understand that they are different and you respect that. That’s the message we want to convey. That’s the connection that we can have with our children that helps them deal with the unfairness in the world. 

Alice:  And helps them be seen. 

Leslie:  And helps them be seen; back to that need to be seen. Yes. So Alice, I do have one more clarifying question: Have the children, have the two boys, do they seem to fight for your attention? Is some of the envy, unfairness and things like that, does some of it feel like it’s a fight for attention? And I’m going to say that, because sibling rivalry is a process of individuation and differentiation. And as we said before, there is a need to both be seen as an individual and feel significant, and there’s also a need to belong. And that connection with you as a parent is something they may fight over just like cubs and animals in the animal world. 

So, are some of the big emotions trying to get that attention, that connection to you? 

Alice:  Yes, I would say yeah. 

Leslie:  Okay. And think about it on a birthday, where one person is being celebrated. He may feel that very scary feeling of maybe being disconnected, and, “Where am I?” And so some parents think that maybe the best approach is just the school-of-hard-knocks, and make a child live with it. That might have worked for the 50s, although I don’t think it worked in the 50s any better than it would work now. But I do think children are different now. And preparing the child for those feelings to come up; again, giving him some awareness that, “You’re going to feel a little disconnected when I’m making his cake.”

 And when we’re taking him to do this and doing that, there’s going to be that feeling of disconnected. “What three things can you do to stay connected to me?” Or, “What three things can I do to stay connected to you?” Can you put him in charge of something? But I think it’s more about the bigger picture of connection. And the problem solving of what things can you do that might be important to think about? There might be some ideas and check in with him? “What do you need? What do you think I can do to help you in parenting that might make a difference? In this moment of feeling disconnected, you need to feel important, and your brother needs to feel important. What can we do?” How does that sound?

37:21  Alice:  I mean, that sounds great. I think we’ve done a bit of that for a couple of birthdays, where we talked about it ahead of time. I think as he’s getting older, actually it could be much more effective now. Because before, I feel when we’ve talked about it ahead of time, it calls up the feeling, but he isn’t able to really kind of think constructively about—you know, he’s in emotion mind, as you said. He kind of goes there already. And he’s just like, “Well, that’s going to really stink,” but he isn’t able to say, “Well, you know what I think might help is this, this, or that. So I had to…maybe I would say, “You know, what I think might help is if you get to be the balloon-blower-upper,” or whatever. Or he helps think about gifts, he gets a budget, and he could think about it. And so that has helped a little bit. And it’s still quite… 

Leslie:  …challenging. 

Alice:  Yeah, it’s still quite challenging for him. And in those moments, I guess here’s where, you know, just a little validation on the parenting side, is those moments are surely more pressurized, because they are often attended by other people in our lives. Literally attended. And so maybe there’s a party—we aren’t one for big parties—but maybe there’s a grandparent around or maybe there are other friends; and Dan acts in some in ways that just kind of make him seem like he is…I don’t know…kind of bratty. Definitely kind of more immature and maybe needy or just ways that feel that just don’t feel like…they definitely don’t feel like the healthy him, you know, just being happy. Well, he’s still healthy, but he’s not happy. 

39:24  Leslie:  Thank you!. Good catch! 

Alice:  Yeah, right? [Laughter]

Leslie:  You knew I was going to say that!

39:28  Alice:  Yeah, right. So they don’t feel good to any of us, I think. And so I guess the validation part I’m reaching for is: Do I just continue? Do I just persist and say, “You know what, we’re doing the best we can to manage this.” And I don’t need to worry about, I mean, I already know that I don’t need to worry about what my mother-in-law is thinking in the back of her mind. But I guess I feel like I have a couple of conflicting values there, which is, one, kind of hospitality and the sense that we’re celebrating the birthday boy there today, we’re not all focused on this behavior. And then the other one, of course, just to attend to the fact that this person that I love actually has some needs himself. Anyway, I’ll pause there, see if you have any…

40:16  Leslie:  Great. Sometimes, I think it’s a good idea to think outside the box. I was the really difficult child in my home, in my family of origin. And we had two bedrooms growing up. I shared a bedroom with my younger sister, and my older sister, obviously, which was standard, got the room by herself, right, the older one. And I fought, I was the one fighting with my younger sister. And in a way, that’s fine. We all survived. We’re very close, as a matter of fact, as adults. 

But, I always thought, “Well, I wonder if my mother thought outside the box, if she would put me in my room alone and put the two together?” Well, the funny, the ironic thing is, we moved when I went into high school, and they got a house with three rooms. And my younger and older sister, they moved in together. 

Alice:  They chose to.

Leslie:  They chose to. She had a room. She never lived in her room, she moved in with the older sister, and I was the one in my own room. So I laugh at that, because sometimes it’s not always the answer. But sometimes we want to think outside the box. And the way I’m thinking outside the box here is: What if your son went, with a grandparent, off to do an activity, but came back at the time…maybe the first hour of the birthday party, he leaves. And he goes off and has a good time with his grandmother, comes back, feels connected, feels full. I call it an emotional bank. He did a pleasant activity, he feels full. And he comes back for the last hour of the party, the last half hour of the party, where it’s singing Happy Birthday, it’s the joy, that part of it or something. And he gets to show a side of himself that he doesn’t know he has, or may not always get to experience when he’s having those big feelings. He really does feel for his brother. I bet he does, is my guess, I can’t speak for him. But he doesn’t like himself when he’s ruining, so-called ruining the birthday party. So that’s what I mean a little bit. Sometimes we want to think outside the box. And people would say, “No, he has to be here. And he has to make sure he’s being nice to his brothers.” Well, he’s going to be but he doesn’t have to do it today, at nine years old. He’ll do it when he’s 17 or 25 or 31. Sometimes I’m like, “We don’t have to do everything. We don’t have to teach our children everything they need to learn right now at nine at 10 or 11.” Does that make sense?

42:47  Alice:  Yeah, absolutely. I guess the other thing that it makes me realize is…you know, I said that it doesn’t matter what my mother-in-law thinks. But I do feel like there are more shoulds in my mind than I was even recognizing. Because when you suggested that, well, he could just go out, he could have a special playdate with a friend that starts at that time. He’s not escaping from it. He’s doing something fun, instead of hanging out at six-year-olds’ birthday party; which by the way, would allow Jake to have a moment where he’s not just Dan’s younger brother. It’s actually Jake’s party, just him as the human on the stage. 

But so there was a part of me that said, “Oh, but that’s just catering to his, you know, whatever.” “Just,” I’m using air quotes, “catering to his mishegoss, as my co-parent would say. He would be like, “Why are we feeding into this? Doesn’t he need to learn how to toughen up?” as he would say.

44:04  Leslie:  So again, there’s a, “Yes, we need to help our children have some exposure to the tough times.” But it sounds like life is tough for him. And it sounds like instead of making him feel like the monster, the bad one, “I can’t do anything my brother can do it all well, and I can’t do anything,” why can’t we balance the, “Yes, he’s going to have some tough times to deal with in life. And can we respect that he does have a hard time going with the flow, being, you know, having…he doesn’t have little small, tiny emotions. I don’t want to punish him for that. I want to celebrate him and recognize that that’s who he is and not make him feel badly. 

I don’t want to pathologize that. And I just want to say there’s so many pros and cons both ways. The more pros that I’m hearing right now is, let Jake enjoy his party, let Dan go off and have some fun with a friend, maybe even bring the friend back and because he might act different in front of a friend. 

And it’s not because children are manipulating. Parents always question, “Well, if he can do it in front of his friend, why can’t he do it in front of us?” Well, we all let our hair down in front of the people we’re closest to. So the fact that he might act out a little bit more, act on those emotions, be a little bit more emotion mind, just because he feels safe, not because he’s manipulating the situation. And he has some social skills and some social intelligence that says, “When I’m around other people, I’m going to do everything I can to pull those emotions in.” It’s hard work. 

45:37  Alice:  Yeah, that’s really helpful. I guess also, just to give me kind of faith to stay the course on some of those things, where we just have to take a deep breath and say, the goal here is to keep connection with these beautiful humans, as you said, in the short term, and in the longer term. So, kind of tailoring our celebrations to actually the people that are most important involved… that feels good.

46:14  Leslie:  Yes. And I I love the fact that you’re aware that there are a lot of shoulds that parents live by. Societal, our own personal shoulds, cultural—there are many things that are pressuring us, even when we think we’ve got…you know, they’re not. We have to take another look and say, “Yeah, wait a minute, I would worry about my son going off. So just to recognize that, because I think there was a lot of pressure to be the good parent. We just want to be the best model that we can and say, “Yes, I have that feeling. And I don’t have to give into that feeling.” I think your sons are probably trying to live by the shoulds, as well. And it’s hard for all of us. So your modeling it, is great.

47:00  Alice:  Yeah. Well, thank you, thank you so much for helping me at least see them and perhaps navigate around, but just recognize they’re there.

47:09  Leslie:  Okay, recognize that they’re there and that these are not mistakes. We don’t need perfect children. We want our children to be real, and you’re going to show up just as they show up and deal with the moment as it is, not always as we want it to be.

[music: Acoustic Folk Music Guitar by ArtMusic)

Leslie:  I want to thank Alice for setting a beautiful example of what it looks like to check in with yourself and your parenting. Alice’s willingness to share her parenting challenges is so helpful to our community. Raising a child is super hard. And when we put that additional pressure on ourselves to be perfect, it becomes overwhelming. Alice was not fully aware of how her own anxieties about parenting were impacting her children. Parents try really hard to hide it. 

But I’ve got to tell you, it just doesn’t work. Your expectations, your fears, and your shoulds are absolutely felt by your children in one way or another. Our children who challenge us deserve the respect of being understood. I know I’ve said this a million times and I’ll say it a million more: It is so important to remember that your child’s misbehavior is a form of communication. Going below the surface of what your child says and what they do means understanding their need to be heard, their need to belong, and their need to feel significant. 

We talked about so many strategies to help your children in this episode, I really want to encourage you to check out the show notes for more resources on how to implement them. Join us next week for Alice’s second session, where we talk about finding peaceful moments in your parenting and how that is, in fact, a practical skill that can make a difference when your life feels hectic. 

Subscribe to Is My Child A Monster? wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss an episode. And if you like what you hear, please rate and review on Apple podcasts. You can find a full transcript of this episode, or apply to be a guest on Season 2 by visiting The Is My Child A Monster? team is Alletta Cooper, Dale Rubury, Gabriela Glueck, and me. Special thanks to Eric Rubury. Our theme music is by L-Ray Music. I’m Leslie Cohen-Rubury. Thanks so much for listening. And this week, take a moment to check your own expectations, check your fears and check your shoulds.

Transcribed by edited by Eric Rubury

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