Ep. 75 – Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – Bottom Line For Baby
- The conflict that can happen between parents when a new baby arrives
- Kind and clear ‘reply opinions’ to unwanted parenting advice
- How to acknowledge and support the sensitivity-level of our child
We’re barraged with controversial decisions when we have a new baby; breastfeeding, childcare, co-sleeping, sleep training… and often new parents resist discussing opinions with family and friends, even between themselves, fearing unwanted feedback and division.
In this episode, Dr. Tina Payne Bryson offers science based encouragement to new and expectant parents – and its all rooted in what your children need the very most…YOU!
Dr. Tina Payne BrysonDr. Tina Payne Bryson, PhD is the Founder/Executive Director of The Center for Connection, a multidisciplinary relationally based practice, and the Play Strong Institute, a specialist hub for play therapy for children and families.
Dr. Bryson is the co-author (with Dan Siegel) of two New York Times bestsellers: THE WHOLE-BRAIN CHILD and NO-DRAMA DISCIPLINE, as well as the recently released books THE YES BRAIN and THE POWER OF SHOWING UP.
She is a pediatric and adolescent psychotherapist who makes frequent media appearances and keynotes conferences and conducts workshops for parents, educators, and clinicians all over the world.
Tina’s professional life now focuses on taking research and theory from various fields of science, and offering it in a way that’s clear, realistic, humorous, and immediately helpful.
Tina emphasizes that before she’s a psychotherapist, or author, or anything else, she’s a mom. She limits her clinical practice and speaking engagements so that she can spend time with her family. Alongside her husband of 24 years, parenting her three boys is what makes her happiest: “They’re my heart. Their personalities make life so much fun!"
Ep. 75 – Dr. Tina Payne Bryson – Bottom Line For Baby
Rachel Cram – Well, Tina, it’s so great to talk to you again. I could probably have you as our sole guest for a year and still have so much more to ask you. So I’m so glad for this second interview.
Tina Payne Bryson – I always love talking to you. We have a good time.
RC – We have a very good time. I know it’s hard to get into the interview because there’s so much I want to talk to you about personally, too, and knowing we have so much we want to cover let’s jump right in.
You talk with thousands of eager parents through your practice and through your writing. In your experience, what are some of the types of things that preoccupy new parents the most?
TPB – Oh, man, there’s a lot. I think that parents worry about things related to sleeping and eating the most when we’re talking about infants. Another huge topic that comes up is the conflict that can happen between parents when a new baby arrives, right. And John Gottman and his wife, is it Judy Gottman.
RC – Julie?
TPB – Julie. Yes. Julie. John and Julie have written a beautiful book about that, but that’s a huge issue.
RC – Can we actually just talk about that right now then? Because I think that is one of the biggest pressures because not only are you concerned about your child, but Julie and John Gottman I think would agree with this, I think when you have a child, your satisfaction in your marriage surprisingly can suddenly plummet.
TPB – Suddenly and dramatically.
RC – Dramatically. Which is so sad because it’s such a beautiful moment for you as a couple, but not only are you bringing your own perspectives from your own family of origin into your decision making, but you’re also worried about your baby’s sleep and you’re not getting as much sleep and you’re eating differently, and for the woman, all your hormones are changing. You don’t want sex the same way anymore.
TPB – Or to be touched even.
RC – Or to be touched, yeah, What you thought was going to be this beautiful experience that you’ve really looked forward to as a couple. Suddenly it is beautiful, but it’s also
TPB – Confusing and messy.
RC – Okay, so talk about this. Take it away Tina.
TPB – And and it is it’s a mix of all of that. I mean, there are those moments of beauty and deeper different kind of love you feel for your partner. And for me, I have never hated him more either.
RC – Okay. I’m glad you said that.
TPB – So let’s just get real here.
RC – I’m glad you said that. I know.
TPB – So my husband and I, we were very young when we got married. I was 22, he was 25. And I knew I wanted to be a stay at home, which is hilarious, right, that I ended up with this kind of big career because that was never my plan. I wanted to be a stay at home and have a bunch of kids. And so we waited six years before we had babies because we needed to do that economically. My husband was in grad school and I was in grad school. So we waited. And I’m married to this man, now we’ve been married 28 and a half years, I’ve married to this man who is really in touch with his own internal world, who works really hard to be aware, who is a kind and careful communicator. I mean, we had everything set up.
RC – To go so well.
TPB – To go so well. Right. Now here we are completely in love, you know, and before this point, I’m like, “I would die for my husband. He’s my most important person.”
The minute I had this baby, I’m like, “I will push you in front of a train without hesitation to save this baby. Like you have totally got knocked down the rung.”
And we laughed about it. But what happened for us, and I’ve never heard anybody talk about it like this so this might be unique to me, but I don’t think it is. What we were finding is that there were two big things. Two things. One is I, personality-wise, I’m highly conscientious. I have a high error detection system. I like things done a certain way. In other words, I like to be in control of how things are done. And when it came to my baby there was nothing I cared more that things be done right, right? And my husband’s like, “It’s fine. It’s good enough.”
Like, he’s kind of a, you know, whatever. And so there was a lot of conflict around expectations.
RC – Now, from what I know of your husband, he is a very capable person. He’s a professor right?
TPB – Yeah. And he runs our whole business for our clinical practice and is my manager. He’s he’s multi-talented.
RC – So it’s not like he is out of touch with people. Ok.
TPB – No, no, no, no. He’s got better people skills than most people I know. And I think he’d be a better therapist than me. I mean, he’s just a really emotionally intelligent, lovely human. Okay, so so here’s the thing I’ve never heard anybody talk about.
RC – Okay, so you’re hating each other.
TPB -Yeah. What we discovered, and it was him that saw this, there was all this resentment building up because this was a baby that never slept, that cried all the time. High need baby. Difficult to soothe baby. First baby. And I have no sleep. I’m exhausted. My body’s recovering. But even weeks after that, I just felt like he was gone to work and I was home, and I just felt totally isolated and I was feeling tons of resentment.
And one day he said, “You know what I think our problem is? We’re competing with each other for who has it worse.”
And he was right. “You’re saying, ‘I’m not getting any sleep,’ and you’re competing with me. And I’m competing with you like ‘I have no freedom and I can’t get my work done and I’m so tired.’ So we’re competing with each other for who is more tortured, and we need to be on the same team. Like, this is hard. We’re both having a hard time and we need to be there for each other instead of competing. “
And that was a huge turning point for us once he recognized that and named it, and it felt like that was what was happening. It was a huge turning point. So.
RC – Can I just back up to the part where you wanted to throw him in front of the train? That is quite a switch of an emotional state of a marriage. And I can feel for a partner in that in a new way. We, my oldest three kids are biological kids. My second three kids are adopted. And when we adopted our last three kids, it was interesting because our two oldest sons of that set we adopted from Ethiopia. And when we went to pick them up, they immediately attached to my husband. They did not want anything to do with me. And my husband immediately attached to them, and he was with them all the time. They wanted him to do everything for him. They didn’t want me to do things and I felt so left out. Dan, my husband would be like, “Well, I’ll be late to bed, Rachel, I just got to put the boys to bed.”
Or, “I think I should sleep upstairs with the boys because they’re having night terrors and they’ll do better if I sleep with them for the next little while.” Which I thought was good, but I was so left out.
And all of a sudden I realized, “Oh my goodness, this is the way that you felt when I gave birth to the three kids.”
And it was a perspective that I had never seen before. But it is, it’s such a switch, because before we had our first child, I loved my husband so, so much. And then the biological instinct to keep this child alive comes in with such intensity that you do, on paper, you would never say you love your child more, but everything in you is so focused, necessarily, biologically, on that baby, that of course, the other person feels displaced. And it’s painful.
TPB – Yeah. It’s sort of like all your attentional, emotional and physical energy now goes to your baby. And as you’re saying that and talking about the pain of that, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody talk about this either. And I’ve not thought about this until just this moment is, we ought to be talking about grief and thinking about loss and grief for the other partner, for the marriage, for a change of everything. I mean, everything changes dramatically.
RC – What you had has kind of come to pass. It is no longer. That is a grief.
TPB – It will never be the same. So I think that’s an interesting idea to think about through the grief and loss lens. And that’s amazing that you had your adoptive experience where you could kind of tune into what that would have been like for him.
RC – Yeah, it was really amazing. And I felt really sad for what my husband had gone through before, but also so grateful to now stand in those shoes and go. Wow. I get it.
TPB – That’s what that was.
RC – That’s what that was. And it wasn’t that I wanted him to stop being the key person for our boys because that’s what they needed. Yeah, but I wanted him back, too.
TPB – Yeah. Yeah, it is. It’s a loss.
RC – And of course, that leads to understandable tension between parents on top of all the other incoming newness and decision making, which you layout so well in your new book.
TPB – Well, one of my hopes for The Bottom Line For Baby was that it would help reduce conflict and increase communication. The hope was is around the more controversial topics, like sleep training or co-sleeping or, feeding kinds of things, circumcision, whatever the big controversy is, that it would give expectant or new parents an opportunity to get informed about the science and then talk about, “Well, how does that sit with you? What do you feel? What’s your response to that?”
To give parents the confidence to say, “This is the way we’re going,” and to have more conversations about it.
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RC – You have a section at the start of your book titled A Few Words about Science, which I thought was well placed because I know there is so much controversy with science right now in our world.
TPB – Well, and I wrote that pre-pandemic. So that even now people are more skeptical of science. And I think that section is really important. I should go back and read it again because it’s been a while.
RC – It was very prescient. Yeah,
TPB – The idea is that science changes. It should change as we know more. So when people criticize it and say, “Well, now you guys are saying this, you can’t trust science.”
No. The reason you should trust it is because it’s moving once we know more. And the best we can do is rely on the information we know best and then also trust our instincts. Like, there are some things where you’re like, “That doesn’t seem right.” And so listen to your instincts, but get informed and know that science does and should change over time.
RC – Well, as you say in the book, you wanted to look at the science around the bottom line for babies, because science is moving, substantially in some areas on what is best for babies and children and I’ve seen that in my own years of parenting. For example, my oldest child is 30 and my youngest is 11. When my oldest child was born, when you had a newborn, you swaddled them and you laid them on their side, propped up. And then when you nursed them in the night, you’d switch them to the other side. And when we adopted our youngest child, she was an infant when we got her, it was, of course, what it is now. You lay them on their back and you have no bumper pads. 30 years ago, you had bumper pads that would save your baby’s head from getting caught and now you don’t have bumper pads.
So the science does change. And that is one of the things that makes it tricky, because if you’re asking your parents or your grandparents for their advice, or as they’re watching you as a new parent and offering advice, sometimes they can be going, “What, you know, this isn’t this isn’t right.” and that can be confusing and unsettling for everyone.
TPB – It does it changes a lot. When it comes to parents weighing in, you can ignore the neighbor, the lady in the grocery store or whatever you can be like, “Oh, thanks for your input.” or ignore them if you need to. But when it’s your own parents or your in-laws or family members, your sibling, someone that you care about and have a relationship with. When they are critical of your parenting or they have an all these opinions that, you know, are outdated or are not in line with what you and your co-parent have decided, that can be really tricky.
RC – It can be really tricky. So what can we do about that? What would you offer as a response Tina?
TPB – Well a couple of suggestions. One is, sit in curiosity yourself. So if your mom is like, “I don’t understand why you guys are doing this, I think you should do it this way.”
It’s really a beautiful moment to say, “When you had me, what advice did you get from your parents? Did you do anything differently than the advice you were given?”
So you can really enter into a conversation about that and be curious about what that was like? But the other thing is, let’s say you’ve decided you’re not going to breastfeed and you’re getting a lot of criticism from your parent or your in-law about that, a great phrase is to start with connection and say, “Thank you so much for loving our baby and loving us enough to share with us your thoughts on this. Because we know that comes from a place of love and we just love that you love our baby so much you want to weigh in. And this is what we’ve decided to do.”
And you can say, “And I don’t want to explain it further.” or you can say, “I’m happy to tell you what our thinking is around that.” Or you can hand them the book and say, “Read the section on, you know, whatever.”
But I think to start with connection as opposed to a defensiveness, and to come into that conversation with a confidence. We have read. We are informed. This is what we’re doing, and we appreciate your input and we’re doing it our way.
When we do that, when we enter into a conversation with confidence instead of defensiveness, it sets some boundaries. If you feel insecure and defensive, they’re like, well, they don’t even know what they’re doing. But if you come at it with confidence, it gives the message, “I know what I’m doing. So I think it’s helpful over time.
RC – Yeah. It’s interesting. I have a few friends who are a bit older than me that are now starting to have grandchildren and they are on the side now of saying, “Oh, I wonder why they’re not doing it this way.”
And I was talking with a friend the other day and she articulated this, in it’s such an interesting way to me and I thought, “Oh, this makes sense.”
She said, “When I launched my kids, I felt like they went off on their own and they were doing their own lives. And I feel like with them having a baby, this is the first time I can really speak back into their life and feel like, ‘Hey, I can be a help to you again.’ ”
And she was getting that same understandably pushback of, “Mom, we don’t need your input.”
And she’s a super wise woman, so I know she’ll adjust and figure that out. But I watched it from her vantage point now and thought, “Oh, that’s why she’s giving advice, because she wants a connection point to be helpful again.”
TPB – And to be needed.
RC – To be needed and of course, she’s needed as the grandma, but it’s not necessarily to be giving the advice.
TPB – Oh, that’s so good. That’ll be my next phase. My oldest is 22, so I’ve got some time but
RC – Oh my goodness, you’ve got reams of good books in you. How to raise good grandparents.
TPB – I know. Well I think, it’s so important that, you know, and I’ve learned this and made mistakes here in terms of supporting people who are grieving and how when I lost my dad, how people showed up and didn’t show up for me during that time. I think it’s really important that we talk about the way you really show up for someone is by tuning into them and what they might need and to do it on their terms. So instead of saying, “Well, I’m going to come and do this and this and this to help you.”
Instead to say, “What would be most helpful? How can I show up for you in a way that is going to be most helpful?”
And so, we think about it in terms of tuning into them as opposed to what makes us feel good. That’s how you truly show up, you tune into their mind.
RC – Well, my plan is, I’m going to read this book just before I have my first grandchild so I will have all the right answers.
TPB – Well, unless it’s soon, then hopefully there’ll be an updated version with the latest science. Right. That’s the whole thing about this book is, it’s going to need to be updated over time.
RC – I will be watching for that. Okay. I’d love to dip our way through the various sections of your book highlighting some of the topics that I found fascinating. So if you’re good to jump into that, I thought I’d just kind of go alphabetically and jump into the middle of your book. And I’m going to start with pets because this was a really interesting section to me.
So to give the listeners an example of what you do, you start with a short explanation about the topic you’re covering. In this case you you talk about the fact that 63% of households with infants under 12 months have at least one family pet. And then you give competing opinions. So I thought what I do for this one is I’ll read your two competing opinions and then I will give you a chance to find this section in your book if you want to yourself. And then I’d like to ask you a few questions.
Okay. So perspective one, you say, “Even beloved family pets can be unpredictable and pose a danger to your newborn or infant. The sweetest pooch could conceivably step on a baby or scratch them in the face with its paws. Pets may even have infections that can be transmitted to babies. Be very careful if you decide to allow a pet to spend time around your infant consistently.”
So that’s one way of looking at it. And then perspective two, you say, “Having a pet is one of the best things you can do for your baby. It actually makes kids smarter to be around animals, healthier, too. On top of that, the child will be happier in a home with a pet.”
So very different opinions. And then you go into the section that you call, “what does the science say?” You have four dogs, so clearly you’re an animal fan, but you’re writing for babies and families everywhere and so, being the responsible scientist that you are, you’re very careful with what I am sure would be a bias towards having pets. And so what are the pluses and cautions around babies and pets? Can we start with the cautions?
TPB – Yeah, obviously you want to make sure that your baby/child is safe, right? So it’s really important that we supervise and that we know our pet really well. And even when we know our pet well, we do need to be cautious because we never know how our pets are going to respond to our infant. So you don’t assume your pet is perfect and that you use common sense too. Like if you have a Great Dane, don’t just lay your baby on the floor without any protection, you know, use some common sense around those kinds of things.
We really don’t have to be worried when it comes to health issues. Actually exposure to, dog germs, licks, you know, kisses. All of that stuff is actually good for kids. All of that reduces their chances of having allergies and it actually shockingly even lowers the risk of obesity. There are significant health advantages to being around pets.
RC – We actually have a whole episode on this with Dr. Brett Finlay, who wrote. Let Them Eat Dirt. It’s all about microbes and, like you’re saying, how being around microbes from pets has all these health benefits. So, that is really good news for a parent who’s lobbying for a pet.
TPB – That’s exactly right. And, so now we’re doing the positives. The studies have also shown that exposure to cats and dogs contribute to cognitive development, like possibly reading and scanning the animals faces, trying to see, what their intention is. And then there’s all kinds of self-esteem and self-confidence benefits, including developing the ability to read nonverbal communication and having more empathy. So they’re going to grab the cat’s tail and to say, “Oh, that hurts the cat. Let’s, be gentle with cat.” you know, So it gives them some opportunities to put on the brakes, practice some impulse control and build empathy.
Particularly for kids who are neuro-diverse, one of my favorite things about pets is they can be amazingly helpful in giving our kids opportunities to regulate their own emotions.
We tend to find when kids are petting, cats, dogs, even guinea pigs, things that are kind of warm and fuzzy and gentle, that petting them, that being close to them can help regulate emotions. So it’s another strategy they can use for some self-soothing. So they do offer all kinds of benefits. The one caution I would suggest is to not get a puppy when you have a newborn baby, because that’s a lot just for your own sanity and taking on too much stuff.
RC – If you’re somebody who really wants a pet and your partner is not sure, this could be the book for you.
TPB – Yeah, exactly. You’re like, read this section.
RC – Because that one, it really did lean towards the positive aspects of having a pet.
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RC – Okay, for some reason, when I was making notes for our conversation I chose topics from your p (as in pets) section on. I read all the sections. I was really interested. One of the things that fascinated me was no more baby powder. I didn’t know about that. That is one of the topics that might come as a surprise to grandparents – somewhere where science has moved in opinion.
And in the reading section, it’s one line. “Read.”
TPB – Yeah, just do it. I’m not going to spend the time to even write this section. Just read as much as you can.
RC – So, your book carries on from the p section, with pets, baby powder, and several other areas of potentially controversial topics that start with the letter ‘p’, into the ‘s’ section. And in this section, you write about sensitive babies. And here’s the question you posed at the beginning of the section. You say, “Some babies seem especially sensitive regarding stimulation and new experiences, lights, new people, the crush of a crowd, tags on clothes, even the sound of a toilet flushing. Is it better to protect them from what’s making them nervous or expose them to more of it so that they become more resilient and able to handle it in the future?”
Were any of your boys sensitive babies Tina?
TPB – My first boy was yes, and in some ways still is. And this was really tricky. This is one of the areas where I got a lot of pushback from family members because he would just get overwhelmed in a room full of people with a lot of noise. And I was very confident that my job was to regulate him and to help him feel safe in the world. And so I was not going to let him just stay in a room and cry and get passed around. I just wasn’t going to do it.
This is very personal. But our own personality and our own vulnerabilities for dysfunction come in all the time in parenting. And for me, I am a pleaser. And I grew up in a family where my role in order to survive was to not make any waves, to avoid conflict, to be the peacemaker and to be the pleaser and make everybody happy. That was how I survived in my family and I still have those tendencies. So that was really uncomfortable for me. I felt stuck between a baby who needed me to grow up and advocate and say, “I don’t care if it hurts your feelings that I’m not letting you hold my baby, but I need to do what he needs.”
And, some family members who were really judgmental and pushy around, “Why don’t you let us hold, I can handle a crying baby.” you know, that kind of thing.
So it was really tricky. Here’s what the science basically says. And some of this brings in what I know about child development and attachment. And that is every child is different. And so there’s a ton of research out of Harvard that basically shows, if you have a sensitive baby and you’re like, “Too bad, they’re going to have to learn to deal with the world.”
And you just leave them exposed to things that overwhelm them, that’s actually going to be counterproductive. They will then come to know that the world is overwhelming and that may increase anxiety and sensitivity.
If you don’t ever expose them to anything and you overprotected and you over bubble wrap them, then they never learn to expand their window of tolerance. So, in The Yes Brain, Dan Seigel and I talk about And so we want to do a little bit of pushing to the outer edges of the comfort zone, but with enough cushion. And so we really have to read our babies. What we’re wanting is that Goldilocks sweet spot, not too hot, not too cold.
Some babies are like, “Bring it on.” That’s how my second born was. “Even if it’s stressful, I’ve got it.”
And my firstborn was completely the opposite. And so we really need to tune in to the needs of our individual child.
RC – How does a parent know what the “just right spot is” with the stress load for a sensitive child? Because one parent might tend to lean toward the stress getting ‘too hot’ and another might lean toward ‘to cold’ and the ‘just right’ can be difficult to determine. I know you’re speaking very generally here so your not going to be able to give a specific answer to each child, but can you give a parameter?
TPB – Right. Here’s what I would say, is that, it’s okay for our infants and babies and toddlers and teenagers and young adult children to be uncomfortable but, we want to be watching their stress response because if they go into high stress states and we don’t support them, help them relieve that stress, soothe them, then they come to see the world as being overwhelming.
This is why the sleep stuff can be so tricky because, there are these methods and these programs to train babies how to sleep, but it doesn’t account for individual differences. Like I feel like if I had done a ‘cry it out’ sleep approach with my sensitive kid, it would have been extremely traumatic for him. I think it would have been really, really harmful for him.
Had I done a ‘cry it out’ sleep approach with my second born, I don’t think it would have ruffled him much at all. We really have to take individual differences into account.
RC – Yeah, I don’t know how easily you can answer this question, but can a parent’s temperament create a sensitive baby, do you think? You know, interestingly, you’re saying your first baby was sensitive. And I think that isn’t unusual for the first child to be the sensitive one. And it can make you wonder if sometimes the confidence of a parent at that point in time can be part of what affects that. Does our parenting confidence affect our baby’s temperament? That’s my question.
TPB – Yeah. I mean, I think most things are super complex, right. For me, I don’t even know that it was a confidence thing. I’d had a lot of experience with babies and babysitting and caregiving. I think it had more to do with anxiety. And I did not suffer with postpartum anxiety. And I’m not an anxious person, but because I wanted everything to be just right, I’m sure he picked up from me. a hypervigilance, right? And we have to remember that we are meaning makers for our children, particularly in infancy and toddlerhood. So,
RC – Can you just define what you mean by meaning makers? because in your writing with Dan you guys couple meaning-making with neuroception. Do I have that right?
TPB – Yeah, so what happens there is that we give cues all the time, mostly non-verbally, about whether something is safe or dangerous. So our babies who are incredibly sophisticated at birth will look at our face and that gives them their neuroception of whether something is safer, dangerous.
So, for example, I’m out for a walk with my baby. He hears a helicopter overhead. It’s really loud. It startles him. And he immediately looks at my face with eyes wide. And if I go, “Oh my gosh, that’s so loud, let’s get inside,” you know, then I am constructing meaning of that is neuro separation of danger and threat, and that’s scary. And we should avoid.
If he looks at my face and I’m like, “That’s a helicopter.”
And he hears the softness in my voice. The smile on my face. The relaxed muscle tone. And I say, “That’s loud, isn’t it? Do you see the helicopter? The blades are spinning. Chchchchchc”
They look to us. I mean, even chickens do this. There is this really weird study where they stressed out all these chickens and they looked to see which chickens calmed down faster, which ones stayed freaked out? The ones that stayed freaked out the longest were looking at themselves in a mirror and they didn’t know it was themselves. They thought they were looking at another freaked out chicken. And so basically even chickens who are not very smart have this biological instinct to look at the faces of others that give them the meaning about whether something is safe or dangerous.
So we are meaning makers for our babies. I think probably our firstborns pick up a lot of hyper vigilance from us and extra carefulness. You know, There’s this joke that says, “When your first born eats dirt, you call the pediatrician. When your second born eats dirt, you wash their mouth out and give them a healthy snack. And when your third eats dirt, you’re like, “Oh, good, now I don’t have to feed them lunch.”
And I think, you know, my third born is unruffleable. Nothing bothers him. And in fact, this is the sweetest thing. He’s about to be 16. A few months ago we were having dinner with him and he said, I don’t remember how this came up but he said, “From the time I can remember being able to think, I always knew I’d be okay no matter what happened to me.”
And that’s how that kid is. He was born unruffleable.
Like even if something really terrible happens, he’s like, Yeah, that was tough and you know, we can get through things.
Musical Interlude #3
Thanks for listening to family360 and our interview with Dr. Tina Payne Bryson. There’s more to come.
Next episode we’re with Dr. Ken Ginsburg talking about Raising Kids To Let Them Go. The years when we’re the center of our kid’s world are fleeting and few. Somewhere around two, they start to individuate from us with words like, “I do it myself,” and “no”, letting us know they intend to be their own person and find their own path. One of the most important gifts we give our children is encouragement and freedom to grow and develop into their own uniqueness. However, wrapping that gift and knowing how to give the gift, can be confusing and disorienting. Dr. Ginsburg is a professor of pediatrics at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and the co-director of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication. He is also an author and has just released a new book called Congratulations, You’re Having A Teen, which provides wonderful resource for our conversation. Join us!
And now back to our conversation with Tina with more about being a meaning-maker for our kids, including a discussion on how our relationship with our partner or co-parent is key to their happiness.
RC – The whole birth order thing is so fascinating and a whole other topic we could explore in another conversation. I know it’s hard to ‘scientifically’ make proclamations on birth order, but the stereotypes are towards oldest children being more rigid and youngest kids being more relaxed, which is obviously a vast simplification, but …like where do you come in your family? Are you a first born or…?
TPB – I am a firstborn. Yeah. I’m just a, I’m a hyper functioner. I just hyper function. If something goes wrong, you can count on me, I’m going to solve it 16 ways and I’m going to be figuring it out. But, like I’m fairly unruffleable, but that kind of goes against like me wanting to do everything right and being really conscientious too. I care a lot, but I’m cool if it doesn’t go that way. Yeah, you know what I’m saying?
RC Yeah, I do. I’m a firstborn too, so if birth order does affect temperament, and the scientific jury is still out on that…first borns can do remarkably well despite being the lead in our parents learning curve.
But back to what you were saying about meaning-making and neuroception before I took us off track, I loved the example of a helicopter and of course this applies to so many situations,
like if a dog runs up to you, how are you going to respond? You want to be like, “Hello, puppy.” Or if a spider comes around. Or when you take them through transitions, like into the car or bathtub, are you relaxed? Are you feeling like, “This is going to be a good time!”
So those are things to think of, but there’s so much to think about in the early days of parenting and there are lots of opportunities for redos, so we don’t have to get it all right the first time. That takes some of the immediate pressure off.
TPB – It does. And I think this is also why and of course, Dan and I write about this quite a bit in all of our books, but particularly in The Power Of Showing Up, it’s so important that we continue the ongoing work of our own awareness because, if the dogs coming at you and you have unresolved trauma around a dog bite that you had, you’re going to construct meaning of fear.
RC – You’re going to pass it on. Yeah.
TPB – And we bring our own stuff all the time. Like, I’m going to tell you a story I’ve never told publicly before, and it’s really not going to shed light positively on me.
RC – That’s the best kind of story.
TPB – I was a careful kid, a little more anxious, slow to warm up, kind of personality growing up. And my sister was two years younger than me and she was a gas pedal on all the time and I was more breaks, right. And so she learned to ride a bike way before me, even though she was two years younger because I was really afraid I was going to fall. So it took me a long time to learn how to ride a bike.
And so when my oldest was learning how to ride a bike, he was very similar, brakes on, like I don’t want to fall. And he would pout a lot and resist. And one day I said to him, “Look, all your friends can ride their bike. I don’t really know what your problem is, but you just need to get on and do it, because that’s going to be embarrassing for you.”
Oh, my gosh. That was like, so shammy, right? Like, I totally shamed him. Who cares that he was taking his time and doing it slowly? If I thought about it, if I had paused and had any awareness about what I was saying and how I wanted to handle it, I would have handled it totally differently.
That was not about him. It was about me and my stuff coming up. After I said it, I was like, “Oh, that was so shitty. Why did I do that?”
And then I thought back about my bike riding experience and so then I went and repaired with him and I was like, “That was not about you. It doesn’t matter when you learn to ride your bike. It doesn’t matter. That was about me.”
And then I could tell my story. And then that was the moment of connecting and more intimacy.
So it’s okay when we have those ruptures, when we repair them they can even be better for the relationship. And my colleagues, Bill Stixrud and Ned Johnson, who have written a couple of beautiful books, have a book that came out recently called What Do You Say? And they have a whole chapter in there called A Non-Anxious Presence. And I love that phrase so much because we want to bring a non-anxious presence and we want to bring a lot of awareness in this job as parents and as meaning makers.
RC – Hmm. Okay. I want to keep going with you holding all these thoughts that you just shared with us into this third section and then I have a few other questions before we close. You have a section called Spoiling Babies by Too Much Holding, and I’m wondering like many of these topics if this is a topic you’ve found partners can come at with differing opinions and perspectives.
TPB – Totally. Yeah, yeah, you know, it’s really. I actually was surprised I had to write this entry
RC – How come?
TPB – Because I thought it was pretty commonly known now that you really can’t spoil a baby, or a child or a teenager by giving them too much attention, too much affection, too much comfort and love. And particularly when we’re talking about infants, you can’t spoil them by holding them, responding to their needs ever, ever, ever.
RC – The word you use in there is manipulation in this session. And I do think in your low moments or your partner’s low moments, when you want to be giving attention or receiving attention from somebody other than a baby, that’s kind of your nasty word that pops into your head. I think. You’re just getting manipulated by this baby.
TPB – Totally. I remember doing some parenting work with a couple and the mom was like, “My baby totally already is manipulating me.”
And the baby was like five months ago.
RC – Or we’re wrapped around their finger.
TPB – Exactly and I was like, “Well, tell me about that because she actually doesn’t have the neural structures in place to manipulate, which requires you to plot out and plan how to make someone do what you want them to do. So tell me about that.”
She’s like, “Well, if I set her down in her crib, she cries. But if I pick her up, she stops crying. So she’s totally manipulating me to hold her.”
And I’m like, “Well, let’s look at that word manipulation. Could we replace that word with communicating her preference and needs? Right. And she really is amazingly communicating with you about what makes her feel safe and regulated.”
And so here’s the truth, which is shocking and frustrating to me, and that is there are still pediatricians and child development experts who still communicate that to new parents; that if you pick them up too much or if you respond to their needs too quickly, if you don’t let them cry, then they’re going to learn that they’re in charge. And you can spoil them.
RC – But Tina, can I just interrupt for a second there? Because I also think that there is still a very prevalent mindset in culture that you don’t communicate your needs. And the sad thing is, as a baby, you’re wired to do that. It’s instinctive. But there is this pressure still to say, don’t tell people what you need because you don’t want to be manipulating them. So I think there is still that pressure to not pay attention to your needs.
TPB – I think in particular for women, who culturally we’re still really given a lot of messaging about making ourselves small and not having needs. And every family has dysfunction but if the brand of your family’s dysfunction is one person’s needs and revolving around one person. Like, for example, I grew up with a dad who was an alcoholic, and so everybody walked on eggshells around making sure that he got what he needed and that he wasn’t going to yell and that kind of thing. And so growing up that way, we learn to make our needs small and to not have needs. Right. And I think that is very much, that whole idea of children should be seen and not heard. They shouldn’t have needs., It’s still part of our culture, so we’re still trying to undo that.
So yeah, what this entry is about is pick them up, respond to their needs quickly and sensitively. We have a ton of research that shows that that is what’s best for babies and that the way that children learn to self-soothe is by having lots of experiences throughout all of childhood and adolescence. Not just in infancy. Not just the first three months, of having someone help co regulate them and soothe them. The way that we learn to self-soothe is by soothing them.
And I hate the word spoiling but that’s a common vernacular. When we’re talking about spoiling, it’s not from being emotionally responsive. Where spoiling comes in is when we don’t have boundaries and we just give in to every want. This is much more about thinking about needs. So we want to respond to needs and babies in particular, and toddlers really are all about getting their needs met and reducing their stress response in the world. So we should show up without any question. And if it feels right to you and your baby’s calling you and you want to go, do it, pick your baby up.
RC – But what if the co-parent is not on the same page when it comes to that decision? So let’s say one partner says, “Put the baby down for a while and relax,” or “Let’s leave the baby with grandma so we can go out on a much-needed date night alone.”
And the other partner is reluctant to do that. What do you do? How do you prioritize your biological instincts between your partner’s biological instincts?
TPB – That will always be a dance.
RC – Always?
TPB – Always. Well, if you’re individuals who have minds of your own, you will not agree on everything.
RC – And I, like you’re saying ‘always,’ because it doesn’t end.
TPB – It doesn’t end, right? I mean, my husband and I have a difference of opinion about how to handle our college kid’s finances and how much support we’re going to give him post-graduation. We’re still working through all of that.
And what I would say is, if we trust our partner, and I truly believe my husband has my best interests in mind and at heart, even when we’re disagreeing, even when we’re arguing, it’s really important, and I’m so bad at this, to not defend, but to listen with curiosity.
For example, I was so committed to meeting our baby’s needs and cries even in the middle of the night. And there was a point where my kid was 15 months. I was still getting up and nursing in the middle of the night. But I was so tired and so grumpy that I was a really impatient parent the next day with our other boys. And when he was like, “I really think the middle of the night getting up is taking too big of a toll on our family. We need to rethink this.” He was right and I needed to listen to him. And he had some wisdom that I was blind to see because I was so neurotically committed to doing it a particular way.
Here’s what I would say, in general, every parent console I’ve ever done in my office has always come back to this issue at some point. We will probably not be on the same page around a lot of things with our partner. It’s really good for our kids to even know that we are different on certain things. Like my kids knew that if they asked me, they were more likely to get a yes than if they asked my husband.
RC – On certain issues yeah.
TPB – That’s amazing brainpower.
RC – That’s survival.
TPB – Yeah, that’s social skills. That’s how you navigate the world, right? So it’s good for us to be different about different things. When you are not on the same page and you have to make a decision, it’s really important to have a conversation about it and to be curious to say, “Here’s what I’m thinking. Tell me where you’re coming from.”
And here’s a really important question. Usually in my experience, when my husband and I, when one of us was really rigid and not open to changing our minds about something, often me, there’s almost always a fear underneath that that I haven’t yet seen.
So my husband and I had a massive conflict when it came time for our son’s car when he turned 16. We had this whole thing where they had to save and we were going to match their money to help them purchase a car. And I wanted to spend more than what he had saved. And my husband was like, “That’s not how I think we should do it. This is how we set it up. This is how he learns lessons about how much money,” you know.
And he had all these great, rational arguments. But I was like, “No.”
And he was like, “Tell me what’s happening here? You seem like you’re really rigid around this. I’m wondering, are you afraid about something?”
It was a good question and then he was right. I was afraid about my son driving at all. And so I wanted to spend more money to get all the safety, everything, because I was terrified of him driving and getting hurt or hurting other people. So there was really a fear underneath that.
So what’s really important is to lean in with curiosity, to ask questions, to really, truly try to understand where the other person is coming from. But come in with curiosity, come in with listening, and know that it’s okay for parents to be on different pages around most issues.
RC – You started off with saying, “If we trust our partner.” That’s the big thing. Do you trust your partner? Because I think if you discover that you don’t, that’s a really important starting place right there.
You mentioned that in your early days of parenthood, you and your husband realized most of your arguments were around who was doing the most work. Who had it hardest.
TPB – Resentment.
RC – Yeah. Resentment is a killer of trust. And I think sometimes you see the work that you put in as a parent and you’re putting it in where it’s important to you and your partner is putting it in where it’s important to them. But if you don’t respect the work that they’re putting in, as much as you respect the work that you’re putting in, when it comes to trust, you can feel like, I have to control this situation because you don’t value it like I do. Which of course makes you resentful.
TPB – And that goes back again to doing our own work and our own awareness. Because if you have a partner who has unresolved trauma and they are responding in discipline moments in ways that frighten your child, and or hurt your child, you’re probably not going to get on the same page about that, right? And you really aren’t going to trust them and so this is complicated and it’s messy. But when you’re in a co-parenting situation, whether you’re even married to the person or not, you are in it together, whether you trust them or not. So anyway you can build trust to do your own work together, separately, that’s really important.
But along these lines, the two most common patterns I see are; one parent is strict, the other parent is more permissive. What happens then is the stricter parent feels like the other parent is too soft, so they become more strict to compensate. Then the more soft parent thinks the other parent is too strict and harsh and unyielding, so they become softer to compensate for them. And then they become further and further and further apart. What happens then is the child and the issue at hand completely become out of the picture because then they’re just parenting in response to each other and it’s not even anything to do with the child or what’s going on.
The other pattern that plays out is very similar in that one parent is more careful, possibly even fear-based, this is me, more conscientious. Like, “That’s not safe. We shouldn’t do that.”
And then the other parent is like, “You’re too restrictive. You need to let them make more mistakes and let them climb higher,” you know, whatever.
And so then over time, you stop trusting each other as much because then you start compensating. One becomes way more lax and isn’t being as careful and the other becomes more careful and feels like they have to watch more.
So that’s where in these situations we really need to shine the light of what’s happening, and name what’s happening, then we could have better conversation and really get back into working in a better place of trust.
So there’s so much relational stuff that happens in this parenting role. I didn’t mean for this podcast to turn into like marital therapy, but it’s so important, these issues that come up that really you don’t have to deal with before you have a kid. It’s another source of a lot more conflict.
RC – And I think this is part of your bottom line for baby is that really, at the end of the day, what your child needs and wants more than anything else is you and your partner to love each other and care about each other. I remember as a kid being so relieved, my parents eventually divorced and so I was picking up on that tension. But I remember being so relieved when they would hug each other. I have a vivid memory of seeing them in the kitchen with their arms around each other, hugging. And I just remember everything at that moment felt so
TPB – Safe.
RC – Safe, yeah. And having children makes that care for each other a challenge. So I don’t think you’re going to go there either for this conversation. But I think that’s a huge part of caring for your child is caring for your partner.
TPB – It’s huge. Even when babies are asleep, so they are not consciously paying attention to what’s happening, they’ve found studies that if parents are arguing in a way that is aggressive, yelling and that kind of intensity, that even though babies sleeping, their cortisol levels elevate. So that verbal exchange impacts our babies. And I think it’s so important based on what we’re saying to now take the step to give people a little bit of help here in saying when you do have conflict that your children hear or are exposed to, what often happens is parents will fight, have conflict that kids either hear or see and then parents eventually work it through after the kids go to bed because you can’t necessarily deal with it right then. Parents resolve it, but the kids are not part of that. And so then the next day they wake up and they’re still holding the tension of the opposite of that hug that you saw. They’re like, “Is everything okay?”
And especially as they get older and they notice their friends’ parents are divorcing and things like that. So what I would say is that here are some guidelines around conflict and fighting as it relates to kids. One is, if you can have a respectful disagreement where you’re communicating in really positive ways that you’d want to model, that’s okay for your kids to witness that. Very rarely does it feel like that’s a possibility, but that’s good for kids to get that kind of social learning in terms of how to manage conflict well.
RC – And I think it can come with practice. Like it might look really wooden and false the first few times. But I think with practice it can become natural.
TPB – And then you can do some meeting making around it. Like I remember one time my husband and I were disagreeing about something and my husband paused and said, “Mom and I are disagreeing about something and we’re just going to talk it through till we understand each other and we come to a resolution.”
And it was just such a beautiful moment to kind of give them commentary so that they didn’t even feel the stress. They could tell from him that this was okay, we were going to work it through.
And in the middle of it, if it starts getting heated and disrespectful, you do not want to do that in front of your children. You may need to say, we can’t do this right now. We need to put a pin in this and come back because that’s really, really stressful for our kids. And if you are finding that that’s happening a lot, it’s really important you get some help because that is one of the most stressful things for kids.
In fact, Christine Carter in her book Raising Happiness, she talks about how one of the best predictors of kids happiness is how well their parents get along, whether they’re married or not. So we know that a lot of parental conflict and I’m going to take the next step not just between parents, but if there’s a lot of family conflict, it is a huge underminer of our children’s felt sense of safety and happiness. So we really need to be on that and get help if we need to.
RC – Well, it’s great for your kids to see you going to get help.
TPB – Yeah, oh for sure.
RC – We’re always going to need it. So there’s no shame in that, of saying, “You know, mom and dad are going to counseling. We’re going to talk some of these things through because that’s what it takes to learn in life.” Always asking questions.
TPB – We create meaning around that. We say, “We are working hard at this and relationships are hard just like you and I have conflict and we learn to communicate, we want to learn to communicate better with each other and listen to each other better. So we’re getting help.”
In lots of families, no one talks about it. We do not talk about the conflict, you know, and really then kids have to make their own sense around things and they may leap to really wrong conclusions or feel really alone in it. So we really do need to help our children make sense of the world. And the other side of that is what we’ve been talking about is making sense of our own stuff and finding, what triggers us and what leads us to those places of conflict as well.
RC – I’m going to see if this is a good conclusion to our conversation. I’ve heard it said you can make 30 really great decisions in one day. And, that is where I come back to your book, The Bottom Line for Baby, because you outline the myriad of decisions that need to be made for your baby so that decision is not as weighty so that you have the energy and resources to put into the loving and the connecting and the caring that you want more than anything for that baby to grow up in.
TPB – Thank you so much for saying that. My intention was that. There’s so many decisions moment to moment and it’s so taxing emotionally, physically, cognitively. My hope for this book was that bleary eyed parents could quickly get informed and feel confident about a decision.
And I’m hopeful that my son’s future partners, whoever they may be, if they decide to have children, see how I’m trying to be super unattached to anything here, that they will use this as a guide to parent my grandchildren in ways that I feel good about.
It’s just totally me, like, preemptively trying to control the future.
RC – Control away Dr. Tina Payne Bryson. Do it. Thank you so much for this conversation. I will be sending your sons a copy of this book when the time is right.
TPB – Love it. Thank you so much. Thank you all.