How to change your child's behavior, according to parenting expert Becky Kennedy : Life Kit It all starts with the assumption that your kids have good intentions and want to do the right thing, says Becky Kennedy, a psychologist and host of the Good Inside parenting podcast.

How to change your kid's behavior, according to the host of a hit parenting podcast

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ELISE HU, HOST:

Hey, y'all. I'm Elise Hu with a very LIFE KIT conversation. So we want to do right by our kids. We want to help them develop and grow into resilient, confident adults. But that can be easier said than done. It can feel pretty hard. Clinical psychologist Becky Kennedy - or Dr. Becky to her fans - knows a thing or two about this. Like many of us, she heard all the parenting guidance that includes consequences and timeouts, where kids are sent away when they're distressed. And when she herself was giving that kind of advice to her patients in private practice, she realized that the notion of disconnecting with kids when they struggled felt really off to her.

BECKY KENNEDY: I actually don't think timeouts are effective for anyone, right? I think leading with connection isn't soft, OK? It's simply effective.

HU: Connection - connecting with your kids first, nurturing that connection and repairing connection when needed. That's the core to Becky Kennedy's philosophy.

All right. Let's start with what this idea of good inside means to you.

KENNEDY: So good inside to me is in some ways, like, a very simple idea. And it's really the idea that people are inherently good inside. And while I think a lot of us can say, oh, OK, that makes sense, or I believe that's true, where I think it's really, really powerful is when we consider the difference between identity, who someone is, and behavior, what someone does. It frequently allows us to have a gap between what we know, let's say, about my 3-year-old son - looks like he's good inside - and his behavior. Wow, he just hit his sister. That is not at all good behavior. And when we are basing our mindset in the idea that my kid is good inside, then I can really activate curiosity. Why is my kid hitting his sister, OK? Versus, when I don't operate from that foundation, it's just really easy to put frustration and anger and judgment in the driver's seat. And then we look at our kid and really go into, what is wrong with my kid? Do I have a cold-hearted kid? Do I have kids who are never going to get along?

HU: Oh, gosh.

KENNEDY: Does my kid even have empathy?

HU: Yes.

KENNEDY: Is something wrong with me? And we all know...

HU: Guilty. Yes.

KENNEDY: ...The spiral, just - right, me too. Guilty. Guilty this morning, OK? And so, really, the idea of good inside - it's a strategy because as soon as we think about that mindset, we can see the identity of our kid as separate from a descriptor of a behavior, which I agree is far from ideal.

HU: That is a huge foundational idea and an important framing. And in covering and helping treat a wide range of parenting troubles, everything from food pickiness to sibling rivalry to lying or even aggressive tantrums, there's another foundational idea that you really focus on. And it seems to stem from this one overarching idea about having connection or establishing connection first. Can you unpack that for us?

KENNEDY: Yes. So let's even stay with the hitting example. OK. So my kid just hit, let's say, his older sister. OK. So that just happened in my house, which, yes, does happen in my house.

HU: Just happened at mine 12 hours ago.

KENNEDY: Great. We're in that trench together. So I think a connection-first experience comes from whoa, clearly not OK to hit. And also, I have a good kid. He's struggling. I would connect to him, which involves a boundary, right? So I might say, I'm not going to let you hit your sister. And then I'd actually step in. And then I might look at my daughter and say, ouch, I know that hurt. That wasn't OK. But I'm also going to look at my son and say, you're having a hard time. I'm here. We're going to figure it out together. I am connecting to the kid having a hard time. You know, I think in that situation, we're so prone to looking at a kid who is hit as the kid who needs protection. Now, certainly, my daughter needs protection. That's why I'm stepping in, and I'm embodying my authority. But we, I think, too often don't realize our kid who acted out - they need protection from further identifying in the bad kid role. And so connection first allows us to still connect to a child who's struggling.

HU: What do you say to folks who hear that and think, my kid just, you know, acted out in a series of unacceptable ways, and I'm going to just try and connect with them? You know, they're not going to be immediately sanctioned or punished somehow? That does sound soft.

KENNEDY: I know. If that person was in my office, the first thing I'd say is, like, I know, right?

(LAUGHTER)

KENNEDY: I get it. Like, me too. But what I would then say to the parent is, look. In this office or here on this podcast, like, we have to choose. Am I more interested in being right or being effective? Sure, you're right. It's wrong. Nobody likes that. Send your kid to your room. OK, cool. Do you want to be effective? Do you want to actually help your kid build a skill so that they can show up and make a different decision next time? Because if you're on that train, I promise you I'm a good conductor, and we're going to end up getting to a better place. But it sounds like that's something really different from what you've done, so it's going to feel really unfamiliar.

HU: Throughout your book, you write of various tools like these in our parenting toolbox that we can use. Telling the truth is a huge one. Another is this shame detection. What is shame detection? How do you define it, and how do we use it?

KENNEDY: Yeah, shame is one of the most powerful emotions, I think maybe the most powerful. And what's key to know is shame starts out as adaptive in childhood because shame really is a feeling that comes up when we believe a part of us is not connectable or attachable. Essentially, our body learns, this part is bad. Nobody wants to be around you. And you're a kid, so you're helpless. And so then shame literally is a freeze state. It's a freeze animal defense state. And so in a freeze state, we don't listen to anyone. We can't incorporate help. We look blank. And so actually, right now, everyone listening thinks about some of the most frustrating experiences with our kids. I think it's when we have these moments with them, which we interpret as disrespect, but they're probably in a state of shame because they're frozen. It looks like they're not hearing what we're saying. It looks like they're not taking in our advice, right?

And to reframe those moments as, oh, my goodness, if I have my shame detector up, I think I'm finding shame. And when we know that and then we have strategies of how to deal with shame, our interventions are completely different. When you notice shame in your child, your main goal is surviving the moment. Like, there's nothing effective you're going to say because if they're frozen in that way and they're so overstimulated and therefore overwhelmed and frightened, the only thing that matters is our presence. And the more we do, the worse it gets.

So, like, I'm here. I got you. We're going to get through this. Sometimes, it's saying nothing. It's often saying nothing and just taking a deep breath. And that really changes our intervention because, usually, what we do in those moments when we interpret it differently is we continue - right? - or we even chastise, which only increases the shame and the belief inside of, see - this part of me is so bad and so unlovable.

HU: What if we have gotten disconnected with our kids? After moments of disconnection, you write that repair is often more important than the rupture because ruptures happen.

KENNEDY: Yes.

HU: So can you break down, what are the components of a quality relationship repair?

KENNEDY: Yeah, for sure. You know, I think a way to think about it is, like, if you're like me, it's like, OK, I just yelled at my kid. What next, right? And I think the first step in a repair that is something we're never taught - and let me be clear, this is also the first step in repairing with a partner or with a colleague or with a mother-in-law. The first step is repairing with yourself because as you - as long as you're in, oh, I'm the worst parent, oh, I'm the worst wife or, oh, I messed up my kid forever mode, you are overwhelmed. It's a freeze state. Well, how could I go to someone and offer a connection if I'm frozen?

HU: Right.

KENNEDY: And so that first step of repairing myself, I always say, it's not letting yourself off the hook. If you want to let yourself off the hook in life, blame and shame yourself because it will literally make it impossible for you to change. If you want to leave yourself on the hook, self-compassion and self-repair is a critical first step. And that's actually saying to yourself some version of, I'm a good parent who is having a hard time. I didn't mess up my kids.

So that is step one. And only after that can you go to your kids. And then, you know, I'll give a script because it's always just concretely helpful. But the key elements to a repair are some version of saying you're sorry, sharing your reflections with your kid about what happened and then really saying what you wish you had done differently or kind of what you want to do differently in the future. So something like, hey, I yelled at you earlier. Or maybe it's, hey, last week something happened, and maybe you're not even remembering it, but I'm remembering it, and I wanted to bring it up again. I yelled at you, big time. And you know the truth? I was having a lot going on. Whatever it was at work. Or I was having big feelings that came out in a yelling voice. And just like we talk about you learning to manage feelings, well, guess what? I'm still learning that, too. Those were my feelings. I was going through something. It came out in a yelling voice. It's never your fault when I yell. I love you.

HU: I love that. So much of what you teach is that to raise resilient kids, we have to do that work on ourselves - right? - that we as parents have to feel good inside, which is the underpinning idea - right? - for how we should see each other. How do our own pasts and the baggage from how we were raised show up so prominently in our parenting? And why is it so important to recognize this connection?

KENNEDY: Oh, I know. It's, like - it's so annoying, isn't it? Like, it's...

HU: I feel it constantly. But I'd love for you to draw the link.

KENNEDY: It's so annoying.

HU: Yeah, yeah.

KENNEDY: Yes, right? And I think part of it is like, I do think there's this unconscious wish that our kids will heal us. And the truth is our kids trigger us. When we're triggered, what's happening is we're really looking to shut down in someone else what we had to learn to shut down in ourselves. So here's an example. Let's take whining. Whining is, like, a really common trigger, right? There are parents who hear whining and find it annoying but don't react in ways that they're not proud of, right?

HU: Yeah.

KENNEDY: And that's the goal. It just becomes annoying but not triggering. And so why is whining so triggering? How does my past inform that moment? And so if you're an adult who, when you reflect on your childhood, even if you don't remember specifics, if you would say, oh, I definitely grew up in one of those, pull yourself up by your bootstraps family. I definitely grew up in one of those, oh, you're crying about this? I'll give you something to cry about type of family.

HU: Yeah.

KENNEDY: Then helplessness and vulnerability and powerlessness had no place. Now, fast forward however many years, and my kid is whining. My body kind of scans itself, and it's like, what do I know about helplessness and powerlessness and vulnerability? And then we - that part of us that learned to shut it down in ourself jumps out. And so when we think about it that way, number one, we can have appreciation for our triggers. Number two, we can start to think about, oh, well, it's not really about my kid not whining. It's about me rewiring myself around those core kind of characteristics so that I don't embrace my kids whining. No one does that - but so I show up as sturdy and grounded, not reactive.

HU: Yeah. Yeah. One of the big insights for me after reading your book is about confidence and what having a confident kid means. It's a little counterintuitive. So can you share that with us?

KENNEDY: Well, I think we've been fed this narrative that, like, confidence is feeling good about ourselves. And I just simply don't think that's what confidence is. I think confidence is self-trust, and there's no time that confidence is as important, actually, as when we're not feeling great about ourselves. Like, learning to trust yourself in moments of, like, this feels off to me. Or I'm not getting what I need now. Or I am confused. And I think one of my most profound realizations around confidence came from a series of sessions in my private practice years ago that were literally back to back. The first session was parents coming to talk to me about parenting issues with their kid, who they described as very hesitant and shy. And the specific situation that they described so we could jump in was something like, my kid was the only kid who didn't join the party. Like, they knew every kid there. They've been to the location. Like, I wish I had a more confident kid.

HU: Yeah, yeah.

KENNEDY: Right. So OK. So then the second situation was parents of a teenager, where this kid got in a ton of trouble at school, got suspended because he was part of a group that was doing some really inappropriate peer things, wasn't like the ringleader, but, like, didn't say anything, didn't step in - right...

HU: Yeah.

KENNEDY: ...Got in a lot of trouble. And this - the parents literally said to me, word-for-word, something - it was something like, you know, I wish my kid just didn't, like, go along with the crowd. Like, can't they know what's right and wrong? Like, can't they stand up? I wish I had a kid who was more confident. And I remember, like, laughing, being like, whoa, whoa. So when our kids are young, we define confidence as doing what all the other kids are doing.

KENNEDY: Yeah.

KENNEDY: And when our kids are older, we define confidence as being able to resist what other kids are doing and doing your own thing. Like, I think we're, like, not being that fair to our kids, right? And so it really made me think we can reframe confidence. And the way then that reframe helps us build confidence is confidence is about trusting the information in your body and learning to be curious about it. And that's a really different starting point than the idea of feeling good about yourself.

HU: I love that. OK. Before we let you go, Dr. Becky, for those who are listening and maybe learning these approaches for the first time, those of us who might have older kids now and have used other methods rather than building connection first, what then? Is it too late? Have I messed up my kids?

KENNEDY: It's never too late. If you're still listening, like, just - this is the most important thing to take. It is not too late. And there's a couple of things I want to say about that. So you, right now, picture getting a call from your parent if one of them is still alive, OK? Or if they're not, you find a letter that you had never opened, and the call says something like this. Hey, Elise, look. I don't even know exactly how to say this, but I've been reflecting on how I brought you up, and there were so many things that, like, I wish I could've done differently, and I don't know exactly where to go from here, but it matters to me. And I want us to do better together.

Like, and everyone just right now, like, register what that feels like because I don't know any adult who's like, oh, that's funny. I feel nothing. Any adult I know would be like, wow. Like, that doesn't erase things that happened. I'm not ready to start at, you know, point number one, but, like, that makes a difference.

HU: Sure does.

KENNEDY: And here's what I know about you with certainty. Your kids are younger than you are. I just know that's mathematically true, OK? And so if that would be meaningful to you - to me, that is the body's evidence. It is never too late.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KENNEDY: Parenting is the single most important and hardest job in the world, OK? And we get zero training for it. And if there's one real impact that I truly want to have, it would not be a script or a strategy. It would be the much bigger idea...

HU: Yeah.

KENNEDY: ...That parents deserve resources and support and that parents - in some ways, we need to invest in that, too. Not because you're a bad parent - because that's a sign of everything you're doing right. So if this is new, that says so much about you that you're a person who's brave enough and reflective enough to consider a new idea. And I'd watch for the tendency to take those new ideas and turn them inward with self-blame. And I'd encourage you to join me. I'm turning them outward to the world with a little bit of anger of, like, yeah, what is this bull**** narrative I've been fed? And where can I go to get resources and support that I deserve for this incredibly important and difficult job I take on every day?

HU: Well, listeners, one place you can go is Becky Kennedy's new book, "Good Inside." Becky, thank you so much.

KENNEDY: Thank you so much, Elise.

HU: For more LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We have one all about strategies for busy parents to reclaim some of their time. You can find that at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter. And now one of my favorite parts, a random tip from one of our listeners.

ANTHONY: My name is Anthony (ph), and my life hack is if you've got an old phone lying around the house, you can put all your social media on that thing. You can put it in a drawer in the kitchen. Wherever you want your social media to be, you can keep that phone there.

HU: If you've got a good tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us a voice memo at lifekit@npr.org. This episode of LIFE KIT was produced by Sylvie Douglis. Our visuals editor is Beck Harlan. Our digital editor is Malaka Gharib. Meghan Keane is the supervising editor. Beth Donovan is the executive producer. Our production team also includes Marielle Segarra, Andee Tagle, Audrey Nguyen, Clare Marie Schneider, Michelle Aslam and Summer Thomad. Julia Carney is our podcast coordinator. Engineering support comes from Stu Rushfield, Tre Watson and Patrick Murray. I'm Elise Hu. Thanks for listening.

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