with Psychologist Dr. Becky Kennedy
WHAT YOU’LL LEARN
- How Our Childhood Shapes the Way We React to Our Kids
- The Power of Noticing Our Reactions
- How Greeting Our Reactions Creates Space to Change Them
- How Reparenting Can Change the Way We Show Up As Parents
- The Importance of Separating Behaviours from Emotions
- Why Offering Connection Doesn’t Reinforce Unwanted Behaviour
We’ve all experienced those parenting moments where our children just get under our skin. All the scripts and best practices go out the window, and we find ourselves struggling to parent the way we want to.
What most of us don’t realize is that our own childhood plays a role, both in how we show up as parents and in how our children learn to behave. But reparenting and diving into our memories and experiences can help us shift our reactions, regulate ourselves, and help our children navigate their emotions and behaviours.
Today, I’m joined by clinical psychologist Dr. Becky Kennedy to discuss reparenting and how to address triggering behaviour.
I Wasn’t Prepared to Regulate Myself
When I decided to have children, I thought a lot about the mom I wanted to be. I knew that my children would have meltdowns and tantrums sometimes. I knew they wouldn’t always listen. I knew that I would have to help them manage their behaviour.
But I wasn’t prepared for how much their behaviour would trigger me, or how much time I would need to spend regulating myself.
All of my children are very different, and they each require different approaches and techniques. But they all challenge me and frustrate me sometimes—more than I would have ever imagined before I became a mom.
Over time, I have learned how to tune into my own emotions and reactions, which has helped me show up for each of them in the way that they need (although it’s still a challenge)!
I was excited to chat with Dr. Becky about how to regulate ourselves and respond differently to our children’s triggering behaviour.
How Our Childhood Shapes the Way We React to Our Kids
Dr. Becky believes that parenting is a journey of self-discovery—it can teach us about our own childhood, our own reactions, and our own tendencies. And, if we let it, it can help us learn and grow.
Often we find ourselves getting triggered and reacting to our children in a way we don’t intend to, because we want to control their behaviour. But if we want to address triggering behaviour, we first need to figure out why we’re triggered in the first place.
Dr. Becky said that those triggers often have their roots in our own childhood. In our early years, we are essentially building circuits for how the world works. When something happens in our environment, it gets stored next to other events, and over time our brain links those events together.
For example, if when we were young our parents flew off the handle when they got frustrated, our brains learned that frustration and flying off the handle are linked. Over time, that pattern can become engrained. So, what happens when we become moms and find ourselves frustrated? Our body reacts the way it knows—by flying off the handle.
If, on the other hand, our parents validated our feelings while holding a boundary, that’s what our brain is wired to do.
That’s why Dr. Becky says that so much of parenting involves becoming an expert in our own childhood. It comes up so much more than we ever realize.
Most of us don’t have strong memories of early childhood. But Dr. Becky pointed out that we can gather clues and learn what happened based on how our bodies react. We can discover what was and wasn’t dealt with well in our own family.
When we look at our reactions with those eyes, trying to learn about ourselves and uncovering our childhood and our brain circuits, then we can have compassion for ourselves instead of thinking we’re failing when we respond or react to our child’s behaviour in a certain way.
I have experienced firsthand what Dr. Becky talked about. One day I had family coming over, and about half an hour before they arrived, I suddenly became hypervigilant to the mess in the house. I felt an urge to start cleaning the baseboards—something I typically don’t care about or notice.
I had to stop and wonder, “Why is this happening? What was passed down to me in my childhood about a clean house that’s causing me to react this way?”
If we pay attention, our bodies give us clues about things we need to pay attention to.
The Power of Noticing Our Reactions
Dr. Becky said that noticing our reactions is the first step to regulation. We often underestimate the power of noticing, but it’s a big part of mindfulness.
Without noticing, our circuits drive us and we don’t have the space to step back and wonder why. If I hadn’t noticed my own unusual urge to clean, I might have just cleaned the baseboards without pausing to reflect on what was going on.
But when we start to notice, it takes us out of the moment. It starts to change those circuits in our body just by putting some space around our actions.
Dr. Becky said that we can put this into practice to start regaining some control over our reactions. For example, when we walk into a room and see a mess of paint everywhere, our initial reaction might be to say, “Ugh, clean up this mess!”
But if we can just notice our body starting to react and wait, even just for five seconds, before our reaction, we can get curious about ourselves. We can step back and think, “Hmm…I wonder if my parents let me play with messy paint? Maybe my body is telling me they didn’t.”
Keeping the mindfulness part of our brain online and taking notice of what our body is doing gives us the space to slow down our reactions and make conscious decisions based on our values.
How Greeting Our Reactions Creates Space to Change Them
Dr. Becky also said that we can think of noticing our reactions and urges as forming a relationship with them. We are relational beings—that’s why our children need attachment. They can’t regulate without support.
It’s the same way with our reactions. As soon as we take notice of them, we form a relationship with them. They aren’t alone anymore, and we can help them come out in a different way. Dr. Becky recommended greeting our behaviours when they pop up. For example, if you notice yourself starting to feel anxious, just take a moment to say, “Hi, anxiety. I feel you. I see you.”
Those urges want to be acknowledged. When we greet them with acceptance instead of judgment, we create that space for curiosity…Why do I feel out of control? Why am I reacting so strongly to this? Why is this behaviour a trigger for me?
We can give ourselves compassion, understand our reactions, and set reasonable, healthy boundaries for ourselves. From there, we can discover what from our own upbringing set the stage for those reactions.
Dr. Becky pointed out that when we feel like the scripts and best practices go out the window, it isn’t because we forgot—it’s because we don’t have access to them in that moment, and that’s because we didn’t have access to them in childhood.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t change—we can rewire our circuits. One way to do that is through reparenting.
How Reparenting Can Change the Way We Show Up As Parents
Dr. Becky broke down the concept of reparenting. When we are children, we learn the rules for engagement. We learn whether it is safe to feel a certain way. If our parents did not separate behaviours from feelings, we often learned to shut down our emotions.
When we see our own parents’ negative reactions to our feelings, our body learns to protect itself by preempting those feelings and stopping them in their tracks.
For example, if when you were a child you said, “ugh, broccoli again?” at the table, and your mother responded by saying, “Oh you ungrateful little girl,” your body wants to protect itself from that reaction. It stops you from saying, “ugh, broccoli.” You learned that expressing appreciation for the broccoli is a good thing, while rejecting it is bad. It’s an evolutionary trait to help you adapt.
But then, when you become a mom and you have a child who says, “Ugh, I hate broccoli,” that part of your body leads out and says, “You ungrateful little boy!”
We don’t even realize that our body has adapted in this way. But that’s why it’s so important to look at our internal relationships. We can’t change the external ones until we work on the internal ones. Dr. Becky said logic always comes second to regulation.
In order to change the internal relationships, we need to reparent—to repair with the little kid inside who is afraid to say, “I don’t like broccoli.”
If you can imagine yourself as a child and imagine a caregiver who responds with compassion instead of anger, we can repair and start to mend that internal relationship. Picture the caregiver saying, “well you know what you like, and you know that you don’t like broccoli, and that’s okay.” Once we work on our own regulation, we can begin to shift the way we respond to our children.
Dr. Becky pointed out that often our children’s most triggering behaviours show us the part of ourselves that was mostly shut down in childhood.
She said that we can try to shift the pattern to being inspired by our children and learning something from them. For example, if your child rejects food and that is a trigger for you, you were likely shut down from expressing your preferences.
But you can commit to trying one day a week to strengthen that skill, using your child as inspiration. Maybe you respectfully point out that the barista made your order wrong instead of just accepting it.
We can use our children’s behaviour as a way to learn and grow.
The Importance of Separating Behaviours from Emotions
Dr. Becky also believes in separating the behaviour from the feeling underneath it. She said that under any difficult behaviour is an unregulated feeling.
This is something I have had to learn with my own children. My middle son recently got very upset because his brother took the green bowl of oatmeal, which is his favourite colour. He responded by dumping the oatmeal out.
There was part of me that wanted to react with anger and punish him. But that would have completely overlooked the emotion behind the behaviour. Instead, I told him that I understood that he was frustrated, and that it was okay to feel that way, but that there were plenty of other ways to express frustration than dumping oatmeal.
We worked through it, and he decided to wait until his brother was done to have the green bowl. Because I separated out that behaviour from the emotion, I was able to help him understand his feelings better.
Dr. Becky said that there are certain behaviours that need to be limited, but that feelings never need to be limited. When we respond to the feelings, we help our children create time and space around their feelings. That’s when they learn how to regulate.
If instead we harshly punish the behaviour, we end up pushing the feeling and behaviour together in our kids’ minds. They often end up struggling to differentiate. As Dr. Becky said, nobody ever says, “Oh I wasn’t allowed to dump oatmeal out as a kid—I was always sent to my room. But boy did I know it was okay to feel angry.”
Instead, we end up thinking that both the feeling and behaviour are bad, and we never learn to regulate anger. After all, we can’t regulate a feeling we think we aren’t supposed to have.
Dr. Becky also pointed out that talking about feelings in advance helps prepare them to regulate. Asking them to reflect on times they felt frustrated and to talk about them outside of the moment can prepare them for next time and help them understand that their feelings are always okay.
This is also why Dr. Becky doesn’t recommend “consequences.” There might be a boundary that needs to be held in the moment—by saying “I won’t let you dump oatmeal out.” But we don’t need to create a consequence or a punishment. It doesn’t help them regulate. We have to teach them regulation skills if we want them to change their behaviour.
Why Offering Connection Doesn’t Reinforce Unwanted Behaviour
Parents are often hesitant to talk about feelings with children or offer connection in times of unwanted behaviour because they are afraid of reinforcing it.
But Dr. Becky said that sometimes thinking about feelings and behaviour as if we were talking to our partner helps. If we lashed out at our partner because we had a bad day and they responded with empathy and kindness, would it reinforce our behaviour? Or would it make them feel like they saw the goodness in us?
Offering connection doesn’t reinforce behaviour—it just offers support.
Dr. Becky pointed out that this approach is far stronger than consequences, reward charts, or time-outs. Talking through emotions, working on regulation, and building skills that will last a lifetime helps our children navigate their feelings and form positive circuits in their bodies.
Staying regulated while dealing with triggering behaviours can be hard. If you’re struggling with dysregulation, check out All The Rage: Raising kids with less yelling and more connection for the tools you need to stay calm in triggering moments.
Dr. Becky Kennedy is a clinical psychologist specializing in anxiety, resilience, and parenting. A graduate of Duke University and Columbia University, she maintains a private practice in midtown Manhattan, runs parenting groups and workshops, lectures on various mental health issues, and consults for organizations.
Dr. Becky specializes in thinking deeply about what’s happening for kids and translating these ideas into simple, actionable strategies.
- Dr. Becky’s Courses on building emotion regulation, managing tantrums, parenting tweens and teens, and managing the transition to a new baby.