May 7, 2024

Leigh & Pierre Part 2 of 3: When Your Kid Likes to be in Control

This episode is part two of a three part series with Leigh and Pierre who have two daughters, Jean, almost 5 years old and Nina, 2 years old. 

This episode explores two very common parenting patterns: we want our children to fit in, and we don’t want our children to suffer in ways we may have suffered. And yet, trying to force those things causes a different kind of suffering. Leigh and Pierre also seek to gain understanding of what they describe as Jean’s “controlling behavior”.  Leslie supports Leigh and Pierre to understand the controlling behavior from the perspective of identifying its causes and function. These behaviors may be relatable for many families especially as it relates to anxiety.

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.

Time Stamps

  • 3:15  When parents replace the pressure to be like a “normal kid” with giving themselves permission to “not worry” or to accept who their child is
  • 3:55  Wanting the best for your child and what that means
  • 5:45 What it means when your child is a people pleaser 
  • 9:35 Children who are “observers”are actively learning an
  • 11:10 Assessing what is a child’s behavior of shutting down communicating
  • I may not be ready
  • I maybe be overstimulated
  • There may be too much going on
  • I don’t know what is expected of me
  • I don’t like what is expected of me
  • 13:50 The fear of what will happen to my child as an adult
  • 15:15 Defining exposure work to teach children that they are capable of handling uncomfortable situations
  • 17:10 Assessing why some children will NOT try something new or shutdown
  • Afraid of being watched
  • Perfectionism – I have to do it well or I don’t want to do it at all
  • Not feeling safe 
  • Feeling like she is not in control 
  • 20:05 How to give a child a sense of personal control
  • 25:35 When making travel plans – Use paper and pencil to make it concrete
  • List what things will be fun and easy
  • List what things will be challenging and hard
  • Remember to add a space for unknowns and surprises that may happen
  • 31:31 What skills you can use if your child is in emotion mind – See the TIPP skills in show notes
  • Cold compress, cold air
  • Intense exercise
  • Parents talking quietly so your child has to listen
  • Parents talking about something that will catch your child’s attention


Leslie-ism: Try to let go of who you think your child should be, so they can grow into their best self.


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

0:03  Leigh:  Within limits, she has a lot of freedom to make choices about things. A lot of our struggles kind of revolve around her starting to feel like she doesn’t have control.

0:22  Leslie Cohen-Rubury:  I’m 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 a parent and a therapist with 38 years of experience helping families navigate this question. And no, your child is not a monster. 

Today is Leigh’s and Pierre’s second session. They have two daughters, a two-year-old, Nina, and almost-five-year-old Jean. In their first session, Pierre and Leigh got a bit of clarity around Jean not speaking in public, why it’s happening and what they can do that’s helpful and effective. This week, we widen the focus to include other areas of her behavior that are also confusing to her parents, like her need for control. As is often the case, these behaviors begin to make sense, when we understand that anxiety is the common denominator. 

One thing I love to do is reframe words and how we understand them. So when we say a child is controlling, it has a very negative connotation. But controlling behavior is no different than any other behavior. It has causes, and it has a function. In this episode, we explore both the cause and the function of Jean’s controlling behavior, and what parts of that are inherited from Mom and Dad. 

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 begin. 

Leslie:  Hi, Leigh, Hi, Pierre,

2:17   Leigh and Pierre:  Hello.

2:19  Leslie:  How’re you guys doing today?

2:20  Leigh:  We’re doing pretty good. 

2:24  Leslie:  Okay. So you’re back after that first session, where we were talking about selective mutism with Jean. And I’m just curious what you took away from that session, what you might have noticed, what worked, what didn’t work. So I’m going to let you just start giving me some feedback.

2:41  Leigh:  I think, for me, what came up a little bit while we were talking last time was, we had just sort of come to the realization that this was what was going on, and that we could sort of change the way we were interacting with Jean. And we had already started to implement a lot of that. And at the same time, even though I was kind of going through the steps and doing the thing, I was feeling still uncomfortable. I felt, in myself, I still wanted her to be able to do these things without me having to find other ways around it. 

And so I think this last conversation really brought up…I felt a little bit more ease, when we’re out and about now, and people are trying to connect to her, they’re trying to talk to her. And I feel like I can just let her be how she is and have this underlying pressure, that I want her to be a certain way or just to be able to interact, you know, “normally,” like other kids. It’s just given me a little bit more permission to just feel more relaxed.

3:53  Leslie:  Oh, I’m so glad to hear that. And I wonder, because you did mention that there was an anxiety that you are feeling parenting, and that tension between…really, all it is, is wanting the best for your child. But it’s shifting what you consider to be the best. So wanting her to be the best means, “I want her to look like everyone else,” versus, “I want her to be her best self,” which is truly only what she can be. 

Leigh:  Yeah. 

Leslie:  Oh, I love your big eyes. You’re making big eyes and you’re agreeing. It looks like you’re agreeing with that. So that brings a bit of relief for you. 

4:34  Leigh:  Yeah, definitely. I think the last few months, in starting pre-K and she went through this screening process where they sort of tried to see where she was at. And it really brought to light a lot of things that I’ve been feeling over the last year that we’ve talked about on the side. But it’s very clear to us that she’s isn’t exactly like a lot of other kids her age. She marches to her own drum. And she’s really amazing in the way that she is in the world. And she’s very confident in who she is, and how she wants to be.

5:14  Pierre:  A lot about who she is as much as what she wants. 

Leigh:  Yeah. [Laughter]

Pierre:  We had family over for Thanksgiving, and the grandparents were sometimes trying to do something with her or trying to get her to do something. And if she wanted to do it, she would. And if she didn’t want to, there was just no way. And she didn’t care what they expected of her. She was just like, “No, I’m not going to do that.” And that’s it. That’s how it’s going to be. It’s nice to see too, because it’s nice to see that she’s not trying to meet anyone’s expectation.

5:51  Leslie:  Being a people pleaser is not always what we want for our children. Saying yes, saying yes, going along, doing what you’re…that’s very much about being obedient. But it may not give us a sense that the child has self respect and can think and be responsible for their thoughts, their feelings, their actions. 

So you’re seeing that developing. There is another side to that., so maybe we’ll get into that in a little bit after the feedback. The other side of it is sometimes you need her to do something she doesn’t want to do. Leigh, you’re nodding your head. So we’ll get back to that in a minute. 

Pierre, is there anything else you want to add, in terms of feedback from the last session? 

6:35  Pierre:  It’s been, I guess, more for us, in a way, more…it’s changed our behavior. She hasn’t really changed that much. We just stopped worrying about it, I guess. 

6:48   Leslie:  That’s beautiful. So it’s not a throw-up-your-hands-in-defeat; like, “Okay, she is who she is, we can’t do anything about it.” And I hope that’s not where you go. It’s not what I’m hearing. But it is more of, “Let’s accept who she is and stop creating this anxiety and angst inside of ourselves.” So you got it. 

The trick is, I’m here to help you guys show up as her parents in a way that helps her. So then today, I asked you, what are your questions, or what have you noticed in terms of circumstances that we can go back to? Which would include the times when you do need this child—who you are accepting, and she gets to be who she is—when you need her to do something? So, do you have any examples?

7:35  Pierre:  I mean, the one that comes to mind right away to me is the soccer practice that we have been to for, I guess, eight weeks. And she didn’t want to participate most of the time. She was happy to get ready for it. And the last session, we went there, it was just me and her and her sister. And I was like, “You know what, I’m not going to do anything. I’m just going to see what she does.” And I think she laid in the grass for an hour, pretty much. And she wanted to see some of the friends she had play—try to go to see them play, even though it was not her team. She didn’t want to go with her team. She wanted to follow along with the other kids. And then at the end, she got a medal and a certificate. And she told me, “Why did I get that? I didn’t do anything.”

8:27   Leslie:  Ooo. Very smart.

8:31  Pierre:  So, I was, like, “Well, you showed up. And this is what it is.” We tried several things. We tried to push her. We tried a pretend play mode, pretending that she was like a little doggy that would run off after the ball because she loves to do that. We tried to do nothing, she would do nothing. Tried to leave her on our own, to kind of get away from her and go do something else. Same thing. For the most part, she would just watch. And that’s it.

9:03  Leslie:  Okay, so I want to sort of…yes, your strategies have…you tried to push, you tried to do nothing, you tried to move away, you gave a lot of options. I love that. We’ll come back to what else you can do. But before we do anything, I like to go below the surface to see if we understand: What is her behavior communicating to us So, any ideas Leigh?

9:27  Leigh:  I think what I’ve noticed in her is, especially when there’s a lot of people around, she really wants to observe everyone and watch what’s happening. And it seems like it can be overwhelming for her but I’m not sure if that’s what it is. It’s just she wants to take in what everyone else is doing. And in this case, she also maybe felt there was an expectation to play. It was like an organized game of soccer that she could see what’s happening. But it was like this strong expectation of her to go and do the thing with everyone. And I think oftentimes when she’s put in that situation, she just shuts down. Whenever there’s an expectation put on her, it can sort of shut everything down. 

10:27  Leslie:  Good. Good job. Because they don’t sound that far off from her shutting down with her language. So we have a child that has already demonstrated selective mutism where she’s not going to talk in certain places. That shutting down, as we discovered in the last session, she’s still observing what’s going on, she was very much…you said she’d come home from school, and she would talk about everything going on. 

So she is observing. I want to say that that’s a very strong learning skill. It could be a social skill. It is also how we learn information. So she’s got that. We see that in her—that’s a beautiful thing. The idea that she starts to shut down as a way of saying, “I may not be ready, I may be overstimulated, there may be too much going on, I don’t know what is expected me, I don’t like what is expected of me.” Do you see all these options? All of a sudden, there’s a lot of options that are all different ways that she may be reacting to a situation, which is her shutting down mode. 

So, when we talked last session, we were talking about her shutting down, not speaking in a situation, this time you’re talking about not playing in a situation. What is she going to do at seventeen, twenty seven, and thirty five, and on and on and on,? This is going to go with her in life. It’s not that she won’t change and she can definitely learn some skills to handle it. But ultimately, the bottom line is, she likes to observe, she shuts down until she feels safe and comfortable. And there are some things that might make her feel uncomfortable. 

12:09  Pierre:  I mean, I completely relate as a kid, you would have put me into the soccer thing, I would have done the same. And as a kid, I tried a lot of different sports, like team sports. I didn’t want to do any of them. So I relate to that. But I also wish I could help her get over the hump somehow.

12:31  Leslie:  Okay, do you think you missed out, yourself?

12:34  Pierre:  Maybe a little bit. I don’t feel like it was a true choice. It was more like internal blocks. I didn’t do it not because I didn’t genuinely like; it’s more like I was impeached from inside.

Leslie:  Blocked. 

Pierre:  Prevented from something internal, which I had no idea what it was or anything.

13:00  Leslie:  Yeah. She might feel stuck the way you did, she might feel like there’s a block, she might not feel like there’s a choice—very similar to what you experienced. And there are skills that we can start teaching her. It’s wonderful that she’s young, she’s not even five years old, and you can start giving her some skill so that she might be able to make a choice. But how will you feel if she makes the same choice, to not do those team sports?

13:28   Pierre:  I mean, I will respect it, obviously. I mean, I had the luck to be respected even though I was given the opportunity to try things but never pushed to a point that was horrible. You know, it’s like you try, you don’t like it, okay, let’s try something. And let’s try something else until you find something you like.

13:49  Leslie:  So what I deal with, with a lot of parents, so I’m curious how you feel. A lot of parents worry about, well, they’re worried about their child; but they’re really fearful is, “What will happen to my child as an adult?” So from your own experience—and you’re nodding your head Leigh—from your own experience, Pierre, do you think that that had such an impact on your life in a negative way that you didn’t play team sports? Did it stop you? Did you learn the skills to be in social environments with other people? Could you play a team sport now if you wanted? How do you think that impacted you, so we can look ahead for Jean.

14:27  Pierre:  I mean, I can because I’ve let go of the sense of being scared. So I’ve done it. I don’t necessarily love it. But I’ve spent like three the past 15 years of my life forcing myself into things to get over a lot of the blocks I have inside me. So it’s been hard, but beneficial.

14:49  Leslie:  Beautiful. And I’m going to say, guess what: in the past 15 years, you are ready to do that work. I don’t know when everyone’s ready to do that work. Sometimes it’s when someone’s 70 years old, sometimes we can get children to do that work. But we do need to understand that everyone’s on their own journey. And if it happened to you in the past 15 years, where you’re doing what’s called exposure work, you’re exposing yourself to being scared, to being vulnerable. And you’re saying, “Okay, I might not be comfortable, but I can do it.”

As parents, you get to think about doing little things like that for Jean. We’re going to make her a mini you, how to do little exposures all the time, in a way that teaches her, “Hey, what’s…” One of the things we do in exposure work is, we just check in with the person about their, it’s called SUD rating—Subjective Units of Distress. You’re just going to ask her a number one to ten, “How uncomfortable are you?” And that number, she will see, may change, may not change. 

The goal of exposure is not to feel better. Isn’t that interesting? The goal of exposure is to be able to say, “I’m capable of handling it.” We want to teach her, through exposure and for yourself, that you are capable of handling that uncomfortable feeling, whether it’s a seven or a nine, or whatever that number is. Sometimes it gets better. Sometimes you go do something, it’s like, “Wow, I’m not uncomfortable anymore. I’m having a great time.” But sometimes you’re still uncomfortable. It’s still an effective exposure. If she can say, what did you learn? “Well, I learned that I had fun or I learned that soccer is not really my thing,” or “I learned that my friends are on the other team and I want to be on their team.” I mean, who knows? 

16:42  Leigh:  Yeah, I think there is this question of soccer or something else? Do we just skip the soccer? Do we sign her up again next year and see how it goes again? Or do we do just, “Eh, soccer is not her thing. We tried it. We’ll try something else.” With exposure, is it like: Can we keep throwing in the same things every three months or six months? Like, let’s just try it again? Let’s just see how it goes this time? Or is it new things?

17:14  Leslie:  That’s a great question. So, in terms of the exposure to something new, we first want to fine tune: What is she afraid of? And this is where I need your help, you need to assess. Is she afraid of being watched?

Pierre:  Maybe.

17:33  Leigh:  I think intuitively, I would say yes. 

17:37  Leslie:  So, she might not like something where she is being watched. Let’s just take that as one possibility. Is there a perfectionism? “I have to know what I’m doing. I have to do it well, if I’m going to do it at all.” She doesn’t want to start out as a beginning soccer player who misses the ball, who falls down. She wants to know how to play soccer before she even has a chance to learn.

17:59  Pierre:  I’m not too sure. I don’t think so. Because she’s learning a lot of things where she’s not good at and she will keep practicing over and over.

18:10  Leigh:  She’ll throw herself headfirst into something new.

18:15  Pierre:  Like the biking thing. She’s tried a lot even though she was not…it was hard at the beginning.

18:20  Leslie:  Excellent. Okay, so your different responses let us know that it probably isn’t the perfectionism, because you do see her jumping in and trying and trying and trying. You want to give her that information, “Hey, you do persevere when you’re learning something new. You stick with it, you’ve got a lot of that stick-to-it-iveness.” You give her that feedback. So soccer is: there’s always parents around, there’s coaches around, there’s a lot of being watched. And that one you both intuitively responded: “Yes, I think it could be something like that.” What are some other reasons why…the idea of not speaking up: Does she feel safe? In what ways may she be feeling scared? And sometimes I’d ask her directly, “If you were feeling scared when you play soccer, what are you afraid of?”

19:12  Pierre:  Could there be something related to control? Like, those activities we mentioned before—swimming, biking, you’re in control of what you’re doing. It’s your own little environment. When you’re in a team, you’re part of a bigger ensemble. And you can only do so much. You play a role, but you’re not everything. She likes control. That’s for sure.

19:39  Leslie:  Okay, now I really feel the intuitiveness of that answer. You already said she likes to decide what she wants to do. A team sport is just that it’s a team activity, where you don’t get to make all the decisions. So let’s say it’s those two things. One is that you’re being watched. And the other one is there’s a lack of control. In terms of controlling, you could talk about soccer as, “When you’re out on the field, what are the things you’re in charge of?” So you actually speak her language. “You’re in charge of your feet, your equipment, where you’re hitting the ball, how you’re playing with the team. You’ve got a lot of control over what you do and what you don’t do.” I bet her response might be yes, and she might get excited. So that means you’re speaking her language. And that might actually help translate this thing that’s scary that, “I don’t have control over…” to, “I actually can have control.” So as you get to know your daughter, and what her sensitivities are, the the language she speaks, we can speak that language. “So you like to feel in control. You don’t like people watching you. And just where do you get to be in control, like riding and swimming, where you’re in charge. Where can you also be in charge on the team sport??

21:05  Leigh:  I think that can be helpful in a lot of different ways in our life, just speaking to that. A lot of our struggles do kind of revolve around her starting to feel like she doesn’t have control. And we gave her a lot of freedom, within limits. She has a lot of freedom to make choices about things, to some extent. And sometimes it comes back to bite us in the butt.

21:37  Leslie:  I do want to reinforce what, Leigh, you just said, which is the idea of it being a throughline in her life of wanting control is similar to the throughline that she might shut down when things feel overwhelming, or she feels not safe. So here we have already, we’re accumulating two major throughlines that’ll be with her, which is fine. You might be asking her to take a bath or something like that. You might say, “Yes, you’re taking a bath.” You might give her the outside limit of what needs to happen. But inside of that limit, you can give her little controls, “Do you want to take a bath with your sister, or do you want to take a bath alone?” Those little things, every quality we have, works for some of the time and doesn’t work other times. So being in control is a fabulous skill. I’m very controlling, I love to be in control. So being in control is great. And then learning how to let go of control is also really important.


Leslie:  All right, Pierre, tell us what you were going to bring up.

22:52  Pierre:  So, for the Christmas break, we are going back to where I come from. And we are going to travel, because we’re going to see different people. And we’re talking about how we will handle it with the kids, because there’s going to be a lot of change, a lot of places, where they’re going to sleep that are going to be different. And so we’re wondering how we can figure out ways to make it easier for them. Maybe one way would be to tell her she will be in charge of setting up the bed or something—give her something that she has to do every time, that she’s responsible.That could be an interesting experiment. See if that helps.

23:34  Leslie:  I love it, I love it—it would ground her. So if every time she goes to a new place, you can say, “I’m going to put you in charge of putting the stuffies on the bed,” or something like that. And that’s a brilliant idea. It gives her something to look forward to. It’s all about what she gets to focus on. It’s a mindfulness practice. I love it. That’s really great. 

And I actually use something like that, when a child is not doing something you want. Let’s say they come in and they don’t put their shoes in their cubby, or whatever—it’s something little like that. And it’s a problem with where they put their shoes or drop them in the kitchen. Then sometimes, in the area that they’re having difficulty, we put them in charge. “Okay, you’re in charge this week, you’re going to be the shoe captain, and make sure everyone’s shoes are in their cubbies.” And all of a sudden, of course, nobody else’s are a problem. But she being in charge will have to put her own shoes away. 

Alright, so traveling around—any other questions about that? Because it sounds exhausting. She is at the age where you could sit down with her and say, “Hey, there’s going to be some really fun and easy things about traveling for the holidays. And there are going to be some tough things about the holidays.” What if you actually make a list, get paper and pencil out and discuss that with her?”

Pierre: That, we can try.

24:53  Leigh:  Yeah, we’ve been talking about it for weeks now. She’s getting prepared for it and I think that would be a concrete way of saying, “Well, what are going to be the really fun things we’re going to do, and what are maybe the things that are going to be hard or challenging?” That could be helpful for me, too. [Laughter]  I was just telling Pierre this morning that I was having anxiety about all the travel and moving parts and just saying that I want to kind of a plan going in, to feel grounded. And I think that’s a great idea with Jean, too—give her some responsibility every time we go to a new place,

25:33  Leslie:  Children as well as adults, but children especially really respond to the concrete. And we all fall into the trap of talk, talk, talk, talk. And talk sometimes really goes in one ear and out the other. But when we make it concrete, there’s a way that it sticks a little better. And as you were talking, I thought about one more thing to add. So, if you were to make a column, what might be fun, what might be challenging, I also want a column of what are the unknowns and surprises. 

Leigh:  Great idea. 

Leslie:  Because we always want to remember that we can’t plan—now this is for a controlling person—we can’t plan everything. And there are going to be surprises and unknowns. So you can have that list before you go. And then you can amend that list. And at the end of every day, say what was fun, what was challenging, what was the surprise today, or what wasn’t unknown? And it becomes both something you’re preparing for, which is great. “If there’s some challenges, what are we going to do when we’re sitting on trains, or we have to take a long plane,” or whatever it is. And also for the unknowns, we can make them less scary by acknowledging them. 

26:47  Leigh:  That sounds like a good exercise for me.

26:51  Leslie:  I think so too. Excellent.

26:54  Leigh:  I thought about it as you know make it once but bring it with us. And checking in would also be really nice, because we’ll be there for three weeks, which is a long time. So that would be really great to be able to check in while we’re there. And as we move houses to check in

27:13  Leslie:  In both of these examples, we are actually feeling very connected to similar things that show up for you as parents. And so in the not wanting to be on a team sport was something, Pierre, you recognized. And when you’re traveling, and there’s a lot of unknowns or challenges that brought up, I might call it anxiety for you, Leigh. Does it feel like anxieties? 

27:38  Leigh:  Yeah, I definitely have anxiety with all the moving parts. And I also get very controlling. In those situations, when there’s a lot of unknowns and moving parts, I want to kind of control my environment.

Pierre:  You try to hold on to what you can. 

Leigh:  Yeah, I try to hold on to what I can.

27:57  Leslie:  Right. So as you raise your children, you can model the insights that you have, “Wow, I noticed that with all the moving pieces, I’m trying to control other people, I’m trying to control what we do. I’m going to take a breath and just say it’s okay.” It’s so you can model certain skills.

28:17  Pierre:  I have a more general question. So with Jean, she can get into those moments of she’s persisting in behavior that we do not agree with, like hitting her sister or misbehaving at the table, to an extent that is unacceptable. And we’re kind of at a loss on how to handle this. So we’ve been removing her away from that situation, putting her in her bedroom, but sometimes that creates even more an emotional response. And that’s just…doesn’t seem to be any other way. Because if we keep her in wherever she’s doing the behavior, it’s not going well. Then when we remove her, it feels like she’s getting into a worse emotional state. But that’s the only way to kind of end what’s happening. 

29:12  Leigh:  We try ignoring it, and just sort of letting it die down. Both because our emotions are very intense. It always feels like it just drags on forever. And usually one of us ends up saying, “Okay, we need to take her into another room.”

29:26  Pierre:  She can be crying for a while. 

29:29  Leigh:  They haven’t been happening that much recently. But when they do happen, they’re quite intense and physically, because she’s bigger now, too. When we try to take her into another room or we’re like, “We’re going to go have quiet time in your room.” Especially with me, I don’t know with you, but with me, it quickly escalates and becomes like a much more intense emotion. And she’ll start to fight me and then if I tried to leave, then it turns into, “Don’t leave, don’t leave, don’t leave.” 

30:03  Pierre:  It’s like we’re playing the timeout thing. But it doesn’t feel right. But we don’t find another way. 

30:12  Leslie:  And I get parents have been told to use the timeout, it’s trying to…you’re putting a limit to her behavior. Yes, I get it. But at the same time you’re seeing with your own eyes, it’s really not working. So I do believe that there are other options. I think you’ve probably tried a few. At five years old, you can still use distraction. But let’s just go with the idea that she is behaving in a way repeatedly over and over again, that’s not working. 

Sometimes because she likes control, the first thing that came to my mind is, I might give her a choice, “You can stay here at the table with us, if your hands are quiet. Or if you want to keep hitting the table, you can move into the playroom, and you can hit the pillow, you can hit the drums.” You could redirect it, but actually give her a choice of, “If you want to stay here, you have quiet hands. And if you want to use those hands and bang something, then you are welcome—and I’ll even go with you—we’ll go over into another room and bang.”

31:22  Leigh:  I think we do okay, in those situations when she’s having a behavior that we kind of need to…I think we do that. It’s when she’s already in a place where she’s emotionally distraught. Like, she’s already in this place where she’s already starting to spiral out and we can’t really bring her back down. And it’s in those moments where she’s past the point of being able to say, “Jean, can you do this or that.” 

31:49  Pierre:  Like, she’s not in the right, normal mind. She’s in this crazy emotional storm that’s out of control.

31:55  Leslie:  She’s in an emotion mind, where logic will not help. And it may be because she’s tired, she’s hungry, she’s exhausted. There’s those underlying vulnerabilities that are probably feeding into it. So, we’re not trying to fix it, because we just have to get through it. And to shorten it, I would see if giving her a cold compress over her eyes, or a wet washcloth or a squeezy ball. “At that moment, you’re really upset. Here’s the cold compress. Here’s a cold drink. Let’s walk outside into the cold air if it’s really, really cold. Does that help?”

32:36  Pierre:  I don’t remember being very effective, but…

32:41  Leigh:  She usually in those situations is very sensitive to touch from us. We can’t really go near her, I would say.

32:52  Leslie:  What if you hand her a cold washcloth and say, “Do you want me to put this on your face,” even though we know she doesn’t want you to touch her? Or, “Do you want to put it on your face, yourself,” giving her that choice? We’ll say, “No, I’ll do it.” And then out of anger, she’ll put it on her face, it’ll calm her down. Either it’s going to play itself out, or you’re going to give her some physical thing. You might just start doing, “Okay, looks like we need to do jumping jacks, looks like we need to jump up and down and stamp our feet like we’re marching in a band.” Get her physical. So she gets out of her head. 

Or get her into another part of her brain, which is her prefrontal cortex where she’s thinking. So, sing a song, count. Say, “I’m going to count from 25 to 35,” if that’s a hard thing for her to do. So you get her thinking about, “How many green things in the room?” And you teach her—when she’s calm—these strategies and you make a list. So you say, “You know, last night, it’s so hard—you got you’re probably tired. And I don’t think you know you’re hitting or you’re crying or you’re stamping…you’re doing this behavior for 15 minutes. I don’t imagine that that’s fun for you. I’m going to make a list with you…” again, that concrete list and actually try these things when she’s not upset. And she can rate them like, “Oh, I really liked the cold washcloth,.” Or, “I like when you tickle my arm up and down.” Or, “I like jumping jacks, but I don’t like marching.” Or, “I like squeezing a ball but I don’t like doing something else.” 

So I would make that list with her. I would try it with her when she’s not upset. And don’t expect miracles, but try it over and over again when she is that upset, to find one of those things.

34:46  Leigh:  I think the cold thing, like a cold washcloth or a cold compress, might be something that could work for her; because we’ve tried… like, she will scream at me if I try singing to her when she’s in that stage. She does not want to hear voices, she does not want to be touched. But I think something tactile, something that she can hold, that’s just for her, might actually be really effective. Yeah, doing it before she has a meltdown. If she knows that that’s her thing that she can have, then that might be a great way for her to, just like…” [Exhales]

35:23  Leslie:  And if you know that talking to her doesn’t work or touching her doesn’t work, this would be a great idea. The other thing that I sometimes do—and it has worked miraculously—is I get the parents talking to each other about something really interesting. So it’s a real diversion. I mean, you guys put the focus on you, and start talking about something fascinating. Whether it’s about work, whether it’s about some activity, whether it’s about someone she knows. Something your mother just did, “My mother just planned a trip to…” whatever. 

So get something interesting, that’s going to kick her brain into, “Oh, I want to hear what they were talking about.” Because she sounds like she’s an observer. She doesn’t want to miss a thing. And talk quietly. Because if you’re quiet, she’s got to be quiet in order to hear your conversation.

36:23  Pierre:  That’s a good one. 

36:24  Leigh:  Yeah, that’s a good idea. That might work. 

36:27  Leslie:  And it works for a five-year-old, it works for  a fifteen-year-old. I’ve done this with all ages. And believe me, if you did it to me, and I was really, really upset, I’d want to be nosy and hear what you’re talking about. [Laughter] So there’s a lot of ideas there. Give it all a try. And maybe we’ll come back and talk about how it’s going. 

36:48  Pierre:  Yeah, we’ll see how the Christmas break is going to go. [Laughter] That’s going to be emotionally packed. So I’ll have to deal with all of those. 

36:57  Leslie:  Just in general, adults, when they go away by themselves, can feel like a vacation. For children, it’s a lot more stimulating, it takes a lot more out of them. I think you already know that. They might love the things that you’re doing. And it’s exhausting. I mean, it’s exhausting for everyone. But have a good time. And there will be exciting, fun times. There will be challenges. And there will be unknowns, as we spoke about. So good luck with that all. 


Leigh:  Thank you, Leslie.

Pierre:  Thank you.


Leslie Cohen-Rubury:  In this episode, we heard how badly Leigh wants her daughter to be like other kids. And Pierre, who was just like Jean growing up, wants to save his daughter from the pain that he experienced. These are two very, very common parenting patterns, one where we want our children to fit in, and the other we don’t want our children to suffer in ways we may have suffered. 

And yet, trying to force these things causes a different kind of suffering. Leigh and Pierre experienced relief when they shifted their perspective. This insight benefited everyone. It’s not just taking the pressure off your child. It’s also about taking the pressure off yourself as a parent. When we see our children for who they are—that’s where the beauty of parenting really begins. And through a process of validation and acknowledgement, your child can grow into their best self. 

I just want to revisit something we talked about in the episode: anxiety and control. Control is often a response to anxiety of the unknown and uncertainty. It’s a clever way to deal with the discomfort, but not an easy thing for parents to manage. I want to say it loud and clear: Our goal with anxiety is to teach children to tolerate the discomfort, not avoid it.

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

Join us next week for my last session with Leigh and Pierre, where we hear how their travels went, and spend a lot of time working on practical skills to manage anxiety. 

Subscribe to Is My Child A Monster? wherever you get your podcast 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 sign up for my newsletter at 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: What is the loud and clear message you may be sending to your child?

Transcribed by edited by Eric Rubury

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