January 23, 2024

Emilee & David Part 1 of 3: When Your Kid Says “I Don’t know”

This is part 1 of the 3 part series with Emilee and David.  Emilee and David have a six year old son who repeatedly says “I don’t know” when they try to help their son understand his big emotions. 

Many parents like Emilee and David want to teach their children how to regulate their emotions and how to understand their emotions.  But what happens when what you are doing is not working and actually producing the very opposite results than what you were hoping for.  

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.

Resources: 

Leslie-ism: The slower you go, the faster you get there.

TIME STAMPS:

  • 13:10 How children physically express their emotions, and what to do
  • 13:55  Name and notice those body sensations and physical actions
  • 16:07 Alexithymia: when a child doesn’t have the skills to name what they are experiencing
  • 18:30 Masking: a survival tactic for social situations
  • 22:20 Change from asking questions like “how do you feel?” to making statements about the situation
  • 26:45 & 34:07 Social Signaling: what is your child communicating to others
  • 28:41 Go below the surface: anger with mean words and an intense physical response is above the surface and disappointment is below the surface
  • 30:50 Take the pressure off of the child to express their emotions
  • 32:27 Beware of praise and instead, give feedback
  • 35:40 Create a bridge from the behavior to describing the emotion: children may need help finding the words
  • 40:50 What to do if your child is masking
  • 44:43 Difference between when a child WON’T express emotion versus when they CAN’T

TRANSCRIPT OF SHOW:

[Music: The Wilds Beyond by L-Ray Music]

0:02  Emilee:  Everything—from anger from fear from everything—is translated into him kicking. It says if he doesn’t have the recipe of how to express how he feels.

0:20  Leslie Cohen-Rubury:  Welcome to Season 2 of, 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. I’m a parent and a therapist with 38 years of experience helping families navigate this question. And no, your child is not a monster. 

I am so excited to be back for Season 2. If you’re a returning listener, thank you so much for tuning in. And if you’re new here, welcome. I hope you find some comfort and support in hearing other families’ stories. It is such an honor to work with the parents who have volunteered in this coming season. I’m very excited to bring you new families, new challenges, and new strategies to try at home. 

We’re starting the season with an international family. Emilee and David’s six-year-old son, Jack, answers any version of how do you feel with I don’t know. That’s not uncommon and is understandably frustrating and confusing. They came to me for support on how to navigate Jack’s big emotions. They both feel like they didn’t have the kind of families that helped them understand their own emotions, and they want to be more intentional. Emilee and David are not alone in their effort to parent in ways that are different from how they were raised. They had a clear goal for this session: that with my help, we would figure out how to get Jack to answer the question, how do you feel, but things went a little differently. And I think you’ll be surprised at what we discovered. And just for some context, David is American, Emilee is French; and they’re raising Jack in France. 

Okay, now as a reminder, all the names and identifying information have been changed. This show is for informational purposes only, and is not a substitute for therapeutic intervention. So let’s begin.

0:00  Leslie:  Hi, Emily. Hi, David, how are you today?

2:50  David:  We’re going well, great.

2:51  Leslie:  All right. So, you initially called with some concerns about your son, Jack. Do you want to tell us a little bit about Jack, a little bit about your concerns? And then we’ll go from there.

3:06  David:  Yeah. So Jack is six, getting close to seven now. And we’ve had some concerns with, I guess what I would say in general is sort of emotional IQ. He’s a bright kid, academically doing very well. But he’s just has some big emotions. And anger has been his go-to emotion, I think is something that we’ve said a lot of times. It just seems like he gets really angry really fast, at small things. And this has gotten somewhat better over the last few months. But we went through a pretty difficult time a few months ago, and really, for the several years before that—there were very long periods several months at a time—where it just felt like everything was a battle. And he was getting really angry really fast. I think another thing that I had mentioned is, he’s not a very affectionate kid. That, again, is changing as he gets older. He’s, I think, becoming more affectionate, but less affectionate than a lot of kids we see. And we just kind of wondered a little bit about that, and what that might mean.

4:14  Leslie:  You know what? Let me let me stop you there. And let me just get you to define for me: what do you mean by he gets really angry? I want to know what anger looks like, because anger to some people could be like they’re closing themselves up, making it a very silent kind of anger and withdrawn; and other kids are explosive. So why don’t you give us a picture of what the anger looks like. And I want to know: what does his affection look like? And what did it not look like? So would you define those two things for me?

4:48  David:  Yeah, you want to…?

4:50  Emilee:  Sure. So when he gets angry, he does have this inward looking, where he gets really mad. But he also starts kicking, or he starts being violent. And he’s just, you know, he’ll just start saying things that hurt. He knows he hurts. So he will just say, like, “You’re the worst mom ever,” or, “I can never do what I want,” or “I can never get what I want.” So this is his go-to emotion. 

5:30  Leslie:  That sounds tough. So it sounds like he both holds it in, and then it comes out in a big way. And he can say some pretty mean things, what feels like very mean things. Does he direct it at both of you? Does he do it to his teachers, to family members…

5:49 Emilee:  Only us

5:51 Leslie: Only you, okay?  That’s really important. So what does he do when he gets angry in the outside world?

5:59  David:  From all reports, his teacher used the word perfect, that he’s a delight to have in the class and that he’s serious about his work and kind to the other kids and we get really, really glowing reports from school and from sleepovers and so on. And when he comes home…and again, we’ve seen some real progress here lately. But knowing that things can go up and down, we still want to try to understand what might be going on, or just about him in general and his personality. And how to help him kind of grow and learn about himself.

Leslie: Beautiful.

David:  I also think that the physical hitting and kicking stuff has decreased quite a bit and has probably shifted more, I think, towards like, he’ll just kind of go bury his face in the corner of the couch, kind of just be upset for a while. Do you feel a shift…?

Emilee:  I agree.

6:58  Leslie:  Okay, so you said a few things that I’m going to come back to. One is that it’s shifting. That he is perfect—I actually think that’s a really interesting chosen word by the teacher, because that makes me nervous. He might like looking perfect. We have a lot of adults in the world that like being perfect, and we know how challenging that is, since there’s no such thing as perfect, so you’re always striving. So I’m going to come back to that. I’m going to come back to the fact that he’s now trying to hold it in and maybe just calm himself down by going into the corner of the couch—I want to come back to that. Describe affection. What was it like before and what is it like now?

7:43  David:  So I mean, I think I can probably count on one hand, certainly on two hands, the number of times, at least until a couple of months ago, that he’d spontaneously just give a hug to me. And I think it’s kind of the same thing with you, right?

Emilee:  Yes. 

David:  And that’s just very different than we see other kids doing. He’s never seemed like being hugged or getting affection from me or his mom is uncomfortable for him—it hasn’t been like a touch sensitivity or something like that. But just that it’s just not something that comes to his mind to express. He sort of tolerates a hug from us, and good naturedly, mostly, but like, not interested.

8:34 Emilee:  Yeah, when you go to school to pick him up, you see other kids who see their parents and they just get a big hug from their children. And he will just come and give us his bag. That’s it.

8:49 Leslie:  Okay. Does it feel, when you’re just dealing with Jack, like he’s all business? You know, there are some kids who think chit chat is—and young adults and adults—who think chit chat and small talk is a waste of time. And there’s some people who think, “What’s the point of giving you a hug? You know I love you, it feels superfluous.” But I don’t know…

9:12  David:  That doesn’t feel quite right to me. Because I think he likes to be silly, and play and just be kind of goofy. He makes jokes a lot. So I wouldn’t think of him as being, sort of, to the point, business-like.

9:31  Leslie:  Great. So that, as a parent, when your child doesn’t come running up to you and give you that hug, that’s not easy, right? That’s sort of like, “Oh, I wish I had that.” So that’s interesting, especially Emilee, that you pointed out that you see the other parents doing it. And you cannot help but say, “My child is not doing that.” But it sounds like that’s slightly changing. And that if you ask to give him a hug, he’s okay with that sometimes. Is that true?

10:02  Emilee:  Lately since September, it’s changed. When we took him to school, now he comes back to give me a kiss before he goes to school, which never happened before. 

10:15  David:  It does feel like it’s shifting, for sure. And then maybe another thing to know is that he really likes to roughhouse a lot. So, if he feels like, you know, tickling, and…roughhousing is his love language, which it is not for me. [Laughter] So that’s a little bit of a mismatch that we kind of work on all the time. But so yeah, that seems relevant to this conversation. 

10:41  Leslie:  And you just said roughhousing and tickling is not your language. So did you—if I can ask you—did you struggle or notice any difference for yourself with affection? Was that difficult for you growing up? Is that easy for you? Is that something you have never really thought about?

11:07  David:  I mean, my family has always been pretty huggy. Uh huh. So I don’t remember it being an issue one way or the other.

11:16  Leslie:  But the tickling and the roughhousing is not your cup of tea. 

11:20  David:  Yeah, I didn’t grow up with siblings, so I just never really had a lot of that around. And so it’s never really been my thing.

11:28  Leslie:  Okay. And Emilee…?

11:32  Emilee:  For me, the tickling and the roughhousing, I have a brother, so that was part of our growing up. But in terms of affection, in France you don’t really hug, you give kisses. So, for me, I didn’t grow up with with a family that was really affectionate in the sense of kissing or, and even when they do it, I would just feel a little bit uneasy about it. With Jack, I just want to make sure he’s able to express his feelings and just that we have a normal…I don’t know how to say it…

12:16  David:  Yeah, just that he’s comfortable being able to express that full range of emotion and engage in life in that way. That’s such an important part of being being a human but at the same time respecting that everybody’s different, too. We just felt we want to be able to support him, to be able to use that full range of human emotional expression to the extent that he wants to.

12:39  Emilee:  Yeah, he doesn’t know how to express his feelings. So everything from anger, from fear, from everything, is translated into him kicking. And so it says he doesn’t have the recipe of how to express how he feels.

12:58  Leslie:  Okay, beautiful, beautiful. So you both would love to have him be literate in his emotions…you’re nodding your head, that’s great. And he’s six years old, and he is expressing himself. So let’s first see it as not that he’s not expressing himself, he is expressing himself with his body. He kicks, and think about it:  that is the natural progression, the developmental stages that children go through, that they are first physical. I don’t really love the fact that we lose our connection to our body, it’s really important. I don’t want to shame it out of him, or try to get rid of his body expression, because his body lets him know…body lets all of us know how we’re doing, right? If I’m getting nervous, I want to recognize that pit in my stomach, or that lump in my throat. So if he’s feeling urges to hit and urges to kick, we’re going to teach that to him starting early; so that he has actually more language to describe an emotion, because the emotion has a physical, internal biological response—heart rate, we might feel sweating, we might feel dryness, we might feel tension. 

So we could start now. He’s expressing himself physically. We can just say, “Okay, you had an urge to kick, you kicked, your face is grimaced, your brow is… so we’re going to start to use the language that we actually want him to develop. And I want to have the expectation that this takes time and he’s six years old. Are you guys patient?

[Laughter]

Emilee:  I think we’ve been.

David:  Hanging in there.

14:47  Leslie:  Hang in there—it’s not easy. 

14:49  David:  On the topic of trying to help him learn to express and identify, have the language to define or identify emotions and express them. I do feel like we have tried really hard to say, “Oh, you’re having this feeling? How do you feel? What’s the feeling in your body?” Or trying to get him to talk about it. And I mean, even today, I think he just can’t or isn’t interested in it. To some degree maybe some of both of those things. But he really struggles to just put names to the emotions. We’ve really tried to welcome all emotions, all emotions are welcome. “You feel this way. And that’s totally okay. But you need to express it maybe in a different way than kicking us or shouting at us.” That kind of language, but just the progress, maybe maybe the progress is slow. And we need to accept that it’s slow. But it’s taken a long time. And it feels like we might be a little behind on that.

15:45  Leslie:  Okay, so yes, you can look at another child who is very verbal and very expressive around these things. Yes, we’re going to see differences. So first, let’s acknowledge that. Do I think he’s slow? I don’t know if that’s a helpful question. I think the question is, let’s identify where he’s at. And let’s help him. 

But you did make a very good distinction. Is it that he can’t? Or is it that he won’t? There’s something called alexithymia. Alexithymia is when you actually don’t have the skills to name what you are experiencing. It can be taught…but isn’t that interesting? So it’s not a kid who won’t, it’s a kid who actually doesn’t have the skills at this time. I don’t know if he does or not. But let’s make an assumption he actually doesn’t have the skill at this time to put words to what’s going on inside. So you’re asking the question, you are modeling in the process. So that’s very good. You’re saying, “Oh, I can see you’re feeling angry. What’s going on in your body?” But we might actually give him a little bit more of a bridge of: let’s give him the language. “I noticed your hands are clenched. Do you feel your hands clenched? Can you see that? Can you tell me your hands are clenched?” So, actually slowing down that process into steps so that he says “Yes, my hands are clenched. Yes, I noticed I really want to hit,” or “I I noticed that I just hit Mommy’s leg or kicked Mommy’s leg,” so that we actually slow down enough.

And you might not do it in the moment because, in the moment, there’s a lot of emotion going on, you come back to it, and you say, “Alright, let’s name three things that you noticed when you were angry.” So that’s one thing. How does that sound before I keep going?

17:51  Emilee:  I think that sounds pretty good. Especially because he’s been saying sometimes, “It’s not me, it’s not my fault.” Because we get mad at him if he starts kicking. “It’s just not me, it’s just not my fault. I can’t control it.” So he’s noticed there’s something going on. But he can’t name it, and he can’t control it. 

18:19  Leslie:  Okay. And those are real thoughts. He really believes that. I don’t think he’s doing anything on purpose. Although you might say, wait a minute, he must be able to control it because he goes to school, and he’s a perfect little kid. So you must be controlling it. So the idea is that at school, he may be masking. Or he may be getting more mature. My guess, based on the way he’s trying to hold it in at home…he’s trying, his attempt is to hold it in, he thinks that’s controlling it. And at school, there is something clinically called masking. Masking is: a child covers up that behavior, because it’s sort of survival. They know what is needed in that situation. He knows that getting angry like that at school is not good. It’s not a good idea. So you might say, “Then I’m so confused.” Are you confused that he can do it in school, but he can’t do it at home?

19:26  Emilee:  He’s a kid who loves rules. At school, there’s very clear rules. And he respects the authority of the teacher. He respects the rules. And it’s like this at camp. It’s like this is in sports. And he’s very particular about respecting those rules. And it’s just with us. It can take five minutes, like, I pick him up from an activity where I’ve just heard he’s been great. Jack is so, you know, he participates, he has ideas. And then within two minutes, he starts getting angry, because I said no to something. 

20:09  Leslie:  Absolutely. And even if you didn’t say no to something, what happens when he leaves school, he leaves an activity, he leaves someone else’s house? What happens, and if you can’t think of what…[Laughter]…you just laughed. It’s also what happens to us as adults, when we finish our workday, and we come home. Tell me what happens.

20:30  David:  When he comes home from school. The thing is, he kind of lets it out. 

Leslie:  Right.

David:  And we’ve identified that and we realized that it’s a good thing that he feels safe here…

Leslie:  Bingo.

David:  … to let it out. And we know that’s important. But while you were talking in terms of just trying to bridge a little bit further, to maybe help him. Because it does feel like a lot of times he’s saying…we were asking him, “What was going on for you then?” And in the moment, of course, it’s hard for anybody; but later when we come back to things and say, “How are you feeling?” And he’s, “I don’t know,” maybe with a little bit of despair in his voice; like he’s, he’s frustrated by it, too. So that really speaks to me that maybe there’s some additional learning, we’re not going far enough and breaking it down. 

21:16  Leslie:  I love that. And let’s believe him when he says, “I don’t know.” I mean, you’re asking him a question and he goes blank. And I’m going to suggest that we change the line of questioning, because if he goes blank, now he feels less than. “I can’t, I can’t please Mommy and Daddy, I don’t know. I must not be smart enough. There must be something wrong with me. They keep asking me this question. And I just don’t know what it…I don’t know how to answer them. So there must be something wrong with me.” So let’s change the question. What’s the

21:50  David:  What’s the question? I mean, we can ask him more directly about his physical experience of emotion, right? How he’s feeling, like you mentioned—- the clenched hands or how he’s feeling in his tummy or those kinds of things. Sometimes I’ve tried asking, “What would help right now? You guys

22:07  Leslie:  I like that.

22:10  David:  After hearing it on your podcast, actually, [Laughter] at some point in the past, I might have picked that up from your episode a while back. But, what else?

22:21  Leslie:  Here’s a hint. If the question is a problem, can we get rid of the question? Like, let’s not ask questions. I say, asking a question is like pointing a flashlight in someone’s eye. I can’t see if you’re pointing it in the eye. So instead, I point the flashlight in the room, so we can all see what’s going on. With children, it’s either making a statement and letting them agree or disagree with the statement. That’s a very good way of saying, “Yes, that’s what I was feeling,” or talking about it as if it’s someone else. 

So if you said…maybe you’re out in public, and you see someone angry. You could say, “Wow, can you tell me two things that you think is going on inside of that child’s head?” Or, “Can you tell me two things that that child may be feeling right now?” For some reason, that’s so much easier. There’s a language in his head to describe what he sees, than to describe what he feels. The disconnect is inside of him, not in the ability to identify something going on on the outside. So he could practice on the outside. He can use that learning and that reinforcement to say, “Okay, do you remember the little girl that was hitting her mom? You said she felt this—let’s see if you feel that. He will learn a lot. My guess is…I’d be curious about his learning style. But like most children, they learn through imitation. So if he sees someone else, “Oh, look, she’s angry. That’s what she’s feeling. Maybe that’s how I learn what I’m feeling.” Okay, so this all takes time. Make sense? 

24:18  David:  Yeah. That sounds helpful. And since we’ve seen some progress, it feels like it’s easier to be patient. When you feel like there’s already some trajectory to make it easier. It’s easier right now than it was a few months ago, for sure. 

24:32  Leslie:  Okay. And now, I’m going to play devil’s advocate. You said it’s getting easier. Is it getting easier, because he’s learning to mask at home? Which is not something I’m happy about. Or is it getting easier, because he’s having less intense emotions, his emotions feel a little smaller, manageable?

24:51  David:  That’s a really fantastic question.

24:55  Emilee:  I do think recently, it’s come back a little bit. After camp, I picked him up, and we went to get a waffle. And he wanted something and I said no. And automatically, he crossed his hands, and stormed out of the shop, saying, “You never want to buy what I want.” But it doesn’t last as long as it used to. But, it is still there. 

25:25  Leslie:  Yes. I mean, him having intense emotions is probably the way he was born. Do either of you have strong emotions?  And they don’t have to be outward, but…

[Laughter]

25:37  David:  Yeah…that’s a hard question to answer. I think most people would see me as being a very calm person. And I think you, too. I certainly get angry about things sometimes. But…

25:50  Emilee:  I think I’m good at masking. [Laughter]

25:54  David:  I can see that too. Yeah…

25:55  Leslie:  Yeah. So sometimes we mask, sometimes we don’t feel the emotions as intensely as other people. I was the temper tantrum child, I was the child hitting, I threw, my sister has scars on her back from things I’ve thrown at her. It’s terrible. I have scars from chasing my sisters. It’s not easy to have intense emotions, and I do manage them. But I still actually have such intense emotions that when I see the sunset, or something pretty, you could hear me three states away with an exclamation of how gorgeous something is. It doesn’t upset me, but it sure does affect the people around me. 

So having intense emotions looks different in different people, right? Let me go back to the anger that he has at home, whether he’s kicking, or whether he’s curled up on the couch trying to calm himself down. I want to introduce the idea of social signaling. What is that emotion trying to say to us? What is it trying to communicate to him? What is it trying to communicate to others, because that’s a function of all emotion. It’s communicating. It’s communicating that I-didn’t-get-the-waffle-I-wanted. And his anger is appropriate because anger helps us get us what we want. If we’re really angry, justice, we want anger to help us get that justice. We want to use it effectively. We want him to use it effectively. So what is the communication when he’s kicking you? Because for children, they don’t know how else to communicate.

27:37  David:  I mean, I do think a lot of his anger, the way he expresses it—and again, sometimes it’s kicking, sometimes it’s just as Emilee described, crossing his arms and sort of, almost curling up, still standing and sort of stomping away—it does feel slightly performative. Not that he’s not having the emotion, but that he’s having the emotion when he really wants us to know he’s having the emotion—like, it is a signal. And it’s usually around some kind of disappointment. I guess it seems the real trigger for him is his disappointment, at least with us.

28:16  Emilee:  If I get him distracted for a minute, he will start laughing. And then he remembers he’s mad. So he will go back into crossing his arms and just be like, “Remember, I’m mad.”

28:28  Leslie:  Okay. Performing sounds a little bit, maybe like manipulating. I don’t love that word. You’re shaking your head. You didn’t mean it that way.

28:37  David:  I really did not. He’s definitely having the emotion. But he’s also really trying to communicate with it. 

28:43  Leslie:  And if he goes back to it—even with a distraction, he moves away. And then he goes back to folding his arms—he’s trying to tell you, he’s really upset. How often do you talk about the anger, the violence, the mean words, or whatever? I mean, I believe that there should be limits there. But I’m curious if you stay above the surface at what you see—which is the kicking, the yelling, the crossing arms or whatever—and how often do you go below the surface to what he might be trying to communicate? Which is, “I’m really disappointed and I don’t know what to do with it.” Remember I said before we can make statements? So statements, validating statements, would be something like, “You’re really disappointed. And you want to let me know how upset you are.”

29:37   David:  I feel like I’ve said almost exactly those words to him, several times, many times.

Leslie:  What’s his reaction? 

David:  I feel like he doesn’t really react to that. And then probably what would follow after that, in a typical interaction, would be a question about, “How is this feeling inside right now, or whatever, which maybe we can try to do that differently now?”

29:58  Leslie:  Yes. So, you’re both really excited about teaching your son emotional language and all that. When did you learn it? 

30:09  David:  For me, I think as an adult, to be honest, I think…

Emilee:  Yeah, I guess, me too…

30:16  Leslie:  That may have been cultural, it may be the era, like, our parents didn’t weren’t taught to name our emotions. It could be what we know about emotional development now. I mean, there’s a lot of reasons why we didn’t do it but I didn’t learn it. Even in my field, I didn’t learn literacy around emotional regulation, our emotions, understand them, till I was an adult. And even after I was a therapist, it was only years later, where there’s been a lot of focus on identifying, naming, giving the language to understanding emotion. 

So number one, he’s not late to the party…

David:  Good to hear. [Laughter]

Leslie:  I feel that your desire, which is a beautiful intention, beautiful desire to help raise your child in a way that you weren’t raised and give them that emotion: I think that’s beautiful. I feel like if I was your child, I feel a little pressure. I feel a little pressure that, “I need to get this now.” And if we—all you and I, all three of us—are doing okay, we’re okay human beings, and we didn’t learn it till we were fully adults, then let’s give him a little time. Because I do think I’m going to take a wild guess I do think some of that alexithymia is going on that he doesn’t have the language to identify the feelings inside. So we want to give him time for that. He’s six years old. So six year olds, some may be able to verbalize but not all of them, even if they can, they don’t understand it. And third, if we focus on it so much, we might actually turn them off to it. So you get it, you get what I’m saying? Repeat back what I’m trying to…what’s my take-home message here?

31:58  Emilee:  To be patient. [Laughter]

32:00  David:   And to make sure that he doesn’t feel pressured to know that there’s something wrong with him because he doesn’t have the words around this or have the ability to direct it always in a constructive way. When we do see progress, when something clearly disappoints them, and he expresses it, which we always try to welcome…and then he kind of recovers, he kind of just moves on with his day, like most of us do…we do try to praise that. To recognize, “Hey, that was something that you were really disappointed about. And you handled it really well.” So we try to emphasize that, which I think is still good, or is that too much focus? 

32:40  Leslie:  Yes, it may be a little too focused on it. But I definitely would do that. And you use the word, you “praised” him. You actually didn’t. You gave him feedback. Feedback is different from praise; praise is, “I’m so proud that you recovered. I’m so glad that you’re feeling better now.” It’s telling him how you feel. And it’s judgment. But you didn’t do that—you gave him feedback, which was, “You recovered from being upset and being disappointed, and now you’re playing…” whatever. You just described his transition. That’s what I heard you say. But that’s a good distinction.

33:21  David:  And I think I probably go more towards praise, in the actual moment. But I understand the distinction you’re making and can definitely try to…more feedback rather than…

33:33  Leslie:  Great, because the judgment is only like: Now we’re making our children perform for us. “Oh, I want to make Daddy happy. I’m going to be a good boy, then I have to do this.” As opposed to, “Wow, I went from being upset and disappointed to being able to go play soccer with my friends outside.” That’s information rather than responsibility that he has to make you happy or something like that. Praise can be dangerous. Parents don’t understand that. Feedback is very helpful, very important. But there is a difference. I’m glad you brought that up.

[music: Old Oak by Olexy]

Leslie:  So I want to go back to the idea of when he kicks you and all that, in the social signaling. And he’s, as we discussed, he’s trying to tell you that he’s in a lot of pain. If I was in a lot of pain, what would you do in that moment?

34:42  David:  Ask how we can help. 

34:45  Leslie:  Yeah. Sometimes I say, “Can I give you a hug? Would you like me to just sit here in silence?” So I want to get away from questions because I don’t want to get him practicing, “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.” So trying to avoid the question is…I might give a more little simple, “Would a hug help you right now?” Or just to acknowledge, “Wow, I can see that you are telling me you’re in a lot of pain, you’re really upset. Thanks for telling me that you’re really upset with me.” That is one way for him to handle, “I hate you, you don’t let me do anything”— that kind of anger. “You’re letting me know that you’re very, very disappointed. Thanks for letting me know.” Because he’s letting you know it now with angry words and all that. He won’t do that as a 24 year old, he’s not going to do that. I do believe he’s going to change. So I’m going to have faith that he’s going to change as time goes on. But I am going to see it the way I want it to move in the direction I want it to move, which is, “You’re trying to tell me you’re very, very disappointed. You want me to know that it’s like a number 10. On a scale of 1 to 10 are you at a 10?” That’s another thing you can do to help him: give him a rating scale. “On a scale of 1 to 10, you just said, “I hate you Mommy”— does that mean you’re at a 9? Does that mean you’re at a 10? Or 5? Where are you right now?” So giving him that language to actually see that anger can feel different. And he can learn to rate it differently.

36:21  David:  I think he would respond well to that. I think he would engage with that.

36:25   Leslie:  Good, beautiful. Don’t overuse any one of these skills, but sprinkle them in like you would spices. So that’s great. So, you have the rating one. You can make a statement of just, “I can see that you’re letting me know that you’re really upset.” So it’s just a statement. And then he probably will mimic you and say, “Yes, I’m really upset.” “Great, you know how you feel.” You see what I’m doing? Instead of saying, “How do you feel,” then he goes, “I don’t know, I don’t know. I don’t know,” I’m saying, “Wow, you’re telling me you’re very, very, very angry, and you’re mad at me and you’re disappointed and you don’t know what to do.” And then he goes, “Yes. And I don’t know what to do.” “Great, you now know how you feel.”

Emilee:  That’s great. 

David:  Yeah. 

Leslie:  Okay, so it’s just it’s doing what you’re doing. You guys are doing a fantastic job. There’s a lot of great skills. The one big one we’re taking away is a little pressure of asking too many questions. Your intention was beautiful. The consequences of the behavior’s not working for you because we’re not getting him to express himself. You don’t have one of those six-year-old little kids who just talks, talks, talks, talks about their emotions—that’s fine. That doesn’t mean anything. That doesn’t mean that verbal child is any more emotionally regulated than the child who’s not verbal about it. 

Do you have any questions for me about what we’re talking about? I’m going to think if there was one more thing I wanted to say, but go ahead. Do you have any questions?

37:50  David:  This possibility that he’s learning to mask at home is…I keep thinking about that. And I want to think about that. 

Emilee: It’s concerning. 

David:  Yeah. So I don’t know what’s…how do we identify that that’s what’s happening, rather than just that he’s becoming more emotionally regulated?

38:08  Leslie:  So, I would let him have his moment. So if he goes into the couch, and he is sort of masking, I would let him at his moment. I don’t want to say, “Now you’re doing that wrong, too.” I would let him have his moment. And I might say, “I think you took a lot of emotion to that corner with you. I wonder if I can make three statements and you tell me which one fits how you’re feeling. It doesn’t bother me. I’m super disappointed. And I don’t want to explode.” You know, and one more statement. 

So you make up three statements that you can guess. Is he really just holding in and he wants to explode? Is he over it and it’s not bothering him anymore? Or is he just trying to be a good boy and not get upset? And even when I do that, I say it, but I don’t expect him to really be able to figure out what’s going on. It’s not a test. That’s a good way to think about it. We’re not testing him. We’re just giving him opportunity—opportunity to share, opportunity to learn. Not a test of, “You need to do this. You need to figure this out.”

39:32  Emilee:  I have a quick question; because he’s when he’s got big emotions like this, sometimes getting him interested or diverted something completely different gets him out of the state. But then, so it works for me. You have a very different approach, Dave. And it’s like, sometimes Dave wants to talk about feelings about how he’s feeling and I just want to distract him. And we clash on this.

40:07  Leslie:  Oh, my goodness…

40:08  Emilee:  I just don’t know what, what the right answer is.

40:12  Leslie:  Oh, there’s no right answer. [Laughter] But we sure want to explore that. I really want to explore that. I would love to wrap up today, save that for our next session. Because I think the idea that you have different approaches, there is not a right and wrong. You can think about it between now and our next session—if you tend to distract him, when does that work? When does it not work? Truly, there are distraction techniques that we teach for emotional regulation. So it does work. But we want to ask: when does it work? And why do you stick to one system, and Dave, you stick to another system, and why does it feel like that clashes? 

So we have a lot to talk about next time. [Laughter] But before we wrap up for today, that last question you asked was really nice, which is: what do we do if he’s masking? So I would ask yourself, I would have a good heart-to-heart with myself, David, if I were you, or both of you. You did say earlier that you want to teach him that all emotions are welcome here. Okay, I actually have a pillow. It’s funny you said that, because I have a pillow that someone made for me because I say that all time: all emotions welcome here. So I believe you believe it. Again, I believe you have that intention that all emotions welcome here. Ask yourself the heart-to-heart is, am I giving him a mixed message? Am I…

Emilee:  Yes. [Laughter]

41:46  David:  I don’t have to dig very deep to know I’ve thought about that a lot. But the intention is there. Some of these motions are unpleasant to be around, and therefore not genuinely well-acknowledged. 

[Laughter]

41:59  Leslie:  Okay, now we need to start another session. Thank you for your honesty. Thank you for your vulnerability. Because when we say, “Yeah, I really mean it. I want all emotions while going here. But to be very honest, I don’t care if you know how old I am. I don’t like these negative emotions, they make me feel uncomfortable. I don’t know what to do with them.” And I’m speaking for you. But I can imagine that that’s maybe how you feel. They’re uncomfortable. You don’t exactly know what to do with them. And it’s scary to think that your child is going to grow up and maybe act like this with other people. And that’s like, oh my goodness, so upsetting as a parent. Yeah.

42:36  David:  Yeah, you’re right.   

42:38  Leslie:  So, I’m giving you a little homework, you guys. One is to try the things we just talked about. Lots of ideas. Two, take a look for both of you. You both came from experiences—you touched on it—that you didn’t grow up, whether it was family of origin, culture, or origin of where you’re born and raised. Or maybe the time you were born and raised, people didn’t talk about emotion. So it could be any one of those things. But allow yourself to take some time to ask yourself, where’s this pressure coming from? We do want our child to have this emotional language. And that’s where you actually started. But how do we slow down the process? And how do I deal with the discomfort? 

So question number two, that you’re going to think about is looking at yourself and saying, “How do I deal with my discomfort of negative emotions, of challenging emotions, of uncomfortable situations?” And you don’t have to have the answers because when we come back, we’ll talk about that. And we’ll talk about that third question you just brought up, which is the clash of your different parenting styles. So you can think about that. So you have a little homework to think about: how do you want to approach it so you can accomplish what you would like? Which is, there’s a good intention there, but without creating a bigger problem in the process?

44:04  David:  Great. Yeah, I think we can do that. 

44:07  Leslie:  Okay. I take the pressure off, whatever you come back with is fine. You don’t have to have the answer. You don’t have to have a brilliant answer—come back with a terrible answer. And we can go from there. So just allow yourself to think about it. Try the things we talked about. And I thank you, and I look forward to seeing you.

44:25  Emilee:  Okay, sounds good. Thank you so much.

[Music: Live in the Moment by Lesfm]

44:38   Leslie: Our own childhood experiences shape us as parents, and they have a direct impact on how we raise our children. Many parents have the commitment to do it differently. And yet wanting that so badly for your child may have the unintended consequence of putting undue pressure on them. 

We talked about many alternative strategies to achieve the same goal. And if you want to try any of them at home, I suggest you check out our show notes for more information. There’s something I touched on in this episode that I really want to emphasize here. There’s a big difference between a child who won’t and a child who can’t. And this difference really confuses just about every parent I work with. I totally get why parents feel like their child won’t do it. Because the truth is, their child may be doing whatever it is in other settings, such as school or at somebody else’s house. Be careful of that assumption, because it’s often that the child can’t do it, not won’t do it. And it may show up in your child differently than it does in Jack. But chances are it’s showing up. 

[Music: The Wilds Beyond by L-Ray Music]

I want to thank Emilee and David for showing up to this session to gain greater understanding of their child’s behavior. Their willingness to be open and share their parenting challenges is so helpful to our community. 

Join us next week for David and Emilee’s second session, where we continue to explore this topic as well as their different parenting styles, and what they can learn from each other. The thing that’s driving you nuts in your partner’s parenting style may actually be what you need more of. 

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, tell a friend. You can find a full transcript of this episode or subscribe to my newsletter at ismychildamonster.com. The Is My Child A Monster? team is Alletta Cooper, AJ Moultrié, Camila Salazar and me. Special thanks to Eric Rubury and Mia Warren. Our theme music is by L-Ray Music. I’m Leslie Cohen-Rubury. Thanks so much for listening. And this week, keep in mind: the slower you go, the faster you get there.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai edited by Eric Rubury

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