A psychologist offers new hope for parents of kids who ‘just won’t listen’

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CNN
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The last thing I need as a parent is another expert making me feel bad.

Thankfully, clinical psychologist Dr. Becky Kennedy proclaims parents are, and have always been, good inside — and so are kids. (She has three.)

In her new book, “Good Inside: A Guide to Becoming the Parent You Want to Be,” the expert known as the millennial “parenting whisperer” lays out a child-rearing approach that draws a distinction between identity and behavior.

In "Good Inside: A Guide to Becoming the Parent You Want to Be," Dr. Becky Kennedy makes a clear distinction between identity and behavior.

So much evidence-based parenting advice is built on behavior-modification principles, she explained. But our goal is not to shape behavior; it’s to raise humans.

Kennedy shared her concrete strategies for parents to create the best of all worlds — strong relationships with the kids and improved cooperation. Her approach not only helps caregivers do better on the outside, it helps them feel better on the inside. Checking all these boxes is almost too many parenting wins to fathom.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

CNN: What do you want people to understand about parenting?

Dr. Becky Kennedy: My core message is that both parents and kids are inherently good inside, meaning they’re always doing the best they can with the resources they have available to them in that moment.

Dr. Becky Kennedy is known as the millennial "parenting whisperer."

Too often, we see behavior as a measure of who our kids are — hitting means my kid is “bad” — rather than a clue to what they might need.

Similarly, when we behave in ways not aligned with our values — like yelling — we might see ourselves as some monster who’s messed up their kid forever. Instead, you’re a good parent having a hard time. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take responsibility for our behavior. This framework actually allows us to take that responsibility.

All my strategies separate identity from behavior. In that gap, we can build lifelong skills that help us bring out the good inside us and our children.

CNN: Does this approach work?

Kennedy: Yes. Not only does the “good inside” approach feel right — it works, short- and long-term.

Relying on time-outs, punishments and sticker charts when your kids are young, dependent and scared of you can set you up for disaster. Once they reach 14 or 15, they say, essentially, “I’m too big for your timeout, and I don’t give a sh*t about your stickers.” That’s really scary.

“Good inside” allows parents to follow their intuition with interventions that help in the short term and build the skills our kids need in adulthood.

CNN: How can parents and caregivers balance rule enforcement with nurturing?

Kennedy: I apply the “two things can be true” approach, which highlights both firm boundaries and warm connection. This model of parenting is as much about self-development for the parent as it is about child development — becoming what I call a “sturdy leader” who can stay regulated and calm even when their child becomes dysregulated requires rewiring ourselves.

If we want our children to have self-confidence instead of shame and self-blame, they need to see us recognize them as good kids having a hard time. It helps to choose the most generous interpretation of your child’s behavior. If your child calls you the worst mom in the world, stop, take a breath and get curious about what need your child is actually trying to express.

CNN: Does this “two things can be true” perspective help in other relationships?

Kennedy: “Two things are true” is an ultimate framework for improving any relationship. Any time a relationship is in a conflict or power struggle or trying to convince the other person of our perspective, we’re seeing ourselves as against one another.

“Two things are true” is the process of valuing your own perspective while recognizing another’s. Recognition doesn’t equal agreement.

Here’s an example. When TV time is over, no matter what, my kid is probably going to protest because stopping is at odds with what they want. A “one thing is true” — what’s true for me — response to my upset kid sounds like: “We talked about this. You’re being really difficult. Now I’m going to take away TV time tomorrow.” A “one thing is true” — what’s true for my kid — response sounds like, “Oh, I mean, I guess your bedtime can be later …”

A “two things are true” perspective allows me to intervene like this: “It’s really hard to stop watching — for me too. One of my parenting jobs is to make decisions I think are good for you, even when you’re upset. Screen time is over. If it’s hard for you to shut off the TV, I will do it for you. You’re allowed to be upset.”

Essentially, what I’m saying is, “My decisions don’t dictate your feelings. And your feelings don’t dictate my decisions.”

CNN: What do you recommend for parents and caregivers worried about others’ judgment for not taking a more authoritarian approach?

Kennedy: I don’t think people judge us nearly as much as we think. Regardless, I try not to let other people’s thoughts take up too much real estate in my brain.

We rarely know what people are thinking, so here’s my strategy: If you’re going to make up other people’s thoughts about you, you may as well make them positive, cheerleading thoughts. When your kid is throwing a fit in the grocery store aisle, how often do strangers say, “You’re a horrible parent, and your kid looks like a horrible kid”?

Instead of them judging my parenting, I imagine people saying, “I’ve been there. All kids have hard times. All parents do also.” That approach makes me feel empowered with communal support.

CNN: What do you tell parents who say, “My kid won’t listen”?

Kennedy: What we really mean by “my kid doesn’t listen,” is “my kid doesn’t comply with my requests.” That’s a sign our relationship with them is running low on connection capital — the reserve of positive feelings we’ve built up between us that we can draw from during struggles.

“Next time you’re in that stuck place with your kid,” I say, “ask yourself, ‘Do I like my kid? Do I feel close to them? Or do I notice that, in the moment, I really don’t like my kid — that I’m kind of looking at them as an enemy?’” No productive strategy has ever come from a “me against my kid” framework.

The first goal is always to shift your perspective to “it’s me and my kid on the same side against our problem.” Everything good comes from this approach.

Next, I ask parents to think of a situation in their adult life when they might respond how their kid is. Imagine if your boss, best friend or partner asked you to do something, you didn’t comply, and they responded to your no with, “You have a listening problem. I’m taking away your iPad for a week.” We do this to our kids all the time.

We have to ask them to do things they don’t want to. But the framework matters.

CNN: What should we do when we, as parents, fall short?

Kennedy: First off, if you can only focus on one aspect of improving your parenting, work on nurturing, supporting and rewiring your own emotional regulation skills.

Remember, we’re not robots but imperfect humans who sometimes yell when we promised ourselves we wouldn’t. We must get good at repair, which means reconnecting after a disconnect.

Our kids are writing the powerful blueprint they take out into the world. If we yell at our kid and then we don’t talk about it, that interaction becomes like the end of a chapter with a kid feeling scared and alone, often blaming themselves.

To gain some sense of agency or control, they wind up taking on the “badness” themselves to keep from thinking the people they’re dependent on could be bad.

Repair work gives us the chance to write a different ending to a chapter in the story of their world. Instead of a conflict ending with threat, fear, aloneness, self-blame and self-doubt, we get to add in compassion and connection by saying, “That probably felt scary. You were right to feel that way. It’s never your fault when I yell. I had a hard day and I’m really working on managing my feelings.” When we do that, we change the way the original memory lives in a kid’s body.

CNN: How can parents update, after the fact, how their child processes an experience?

Kennedy: Scary moments can exist in the body as an unformulated set of sensations. Someone meeting those experiences with connection, presence and understanding helps us feel more at home with ourselves.

Creating coherence out of what was incoherent is like stitching together a quilt for our child. Even if some of the squares are painful, quilting them together creates a warmth. Good parents don’t get it right all the time. Good parents repair.

Jessica DuLong is a Brooklyn, New York-based journalist, book collaborator, writing coach and the author of “Saved at the Seawall: Stories From the September 11 Boat Lift” and “My River Chronicles: Rediscovering the Work That Built America.”

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