Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm, and Connected

Susan Stiffelman seems to be a wonderful therapist with a talent for generating specific, feasible strategies for caregivers in need of guidance; her book, however, adds little to the parenting advice genre.

In order to create joyful, resilient kids, Stiffelman urges parents to take a “Captain of the Ship” role which derives unwavering authority from a foundation of empathy-based parenting. Her approach essentially combines “Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child” – the empathy bible – and “Parenting with Love & Logic” – the definitive source for “consultant parenting” whereby a parent distances herself emotionally from her kids’ problems in order to remain a steady and firm source of support. Unfortunately for Stiffelman, the gorgeous melding of yin and yang accomplished by merging these two methods (i.e., feel with them enough to understand and respect their ups and downs but don’t rise and fall with their emotions) is better achieved by reading those two books.

That said, Stiffelman has an interesting take on a few of Gottman’s and Cline/Fay’s best points – and a softer, more maternal tone – that might be a better fit for some readers:

  • “Focus on loosening your need for your child to behave properly so that you can feel you’re a good parent, [and e]xplore the meaning you’re assigning to your child’s problematic behavior.” After all, ”it’s always our thoughts about the events of our lives – rather than the events themselves – that cause us to get upset.” (In other words, try not to generalize from your kid dillydallying after you ask her to put on her shoes to the conclusion that she’s a passive-resistant little shit who has no respect for you and has begun a lifelong struggle with authority that will only end when you can force her to put on her fucking sneakers.)
  • “Give direction from connection.” Begin an interaction with “Act I” which is essentially listening and prompting disclosure with nonjudgmental, noninvasive questions like (“‘What is it like to be you?’ and ‘Tell me more?’”), and then, only if your kid “invites you to the party” proceed to “Act II,” offering assistance. Sometimes Act II must be delayed for quite some time. “[D]uring the storm of your child’s misbehavior, avoid lecturing, explaining, or advising. This is not a teachable moment.” (File this last bit in the easier-said-than-done folder.)
  • When your child flips out, respond to the “neck down” feelings prompting the outburst, not the “neck up” words the child chooses to express those feelings.

She also offers a few pearls of parenting wisdom that I haven’t encountered in written form:

  • “I am not a big fan of forcing children to apologize . . . [because] children who chronically violate others and are coerced into offering up an apology simply become good at apologizing; they don’t generally modify their behavior very much.” (Hear, hear!)
  • Create attachment by following the six stages of relationships: “proximity, sameness, belonging/loyalty, significance, love, and being known.” (In other words, start – or begin to repair a relationship – by just being near the kid, then point out interests you share, etc.)
  • “[I]nstead of [trying to figure] out how to fix a problematic situation, . . . think back to the point at which you could have prevented it from happening and resolve to take action at that juncture in future interactions with your child.” (My husband and I figured out this little gem – that falls under the general rubric of “let go of the guilt when you go wrong and focus your energy prospectively” – for sidestepping the crushing feeling of powerlessness that accompanied our daughter’s first year.)
  • When attempting to convince an older child to do something like attend an unappealing family event, say something along the lines of “it’s your choice, but going is just the right thing to do.”
  • View your kid’s behavior surrounding minor disappointment (like getting to the end of a bag of chips) to the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) and enable her to experience each stage. (This downright mind-blowing trick has given me the ability to step outside the current emotional dynamic and watch my daughter’s fit unfold with a sort of lovingly detached interest.)
  • In order to help kids with indecision, anxiety, and depression introduce “ABC thinking” (where A is “the actual event, as it would be impartially reported,” B is “the belief we construct about the event, or our interpretation of it,” and C is “the consequence of our believing what we believed in ‘B,’” essentially urging them to consider alternate B’s in order to mitigate yucky C’s); tell them to “ask the future you” for advice (to help gain perspective); and remind them that “[t]he fact that a thought shows up doesn’t mean you need to make it a sandwich!”

In sum, I would love to grab a cup of tea with Susan Stiffelman (despite balking at her description of timeouts as a “violation of connectedness [that] damages the parent-child relationship”) and would recommend her as a therapist for a struggling parent or child in a heartbeat; her book just isn’t one of my top picks for parenting advice.

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