Kids Who Can Deal
Date Published: November 13, 2019
Parenting trends come and go—remember “tiger” moms?—but the challenge of raising resilient kids remains as critical as ever. How can we raise children to respond to stress in a healthy way? And how do we support our kids without becoming “snowplow” parents? Aliza Pressman, PhD, a developmental psychologist and co-founding Director of The Mount Sinai Parenting Center, makes the case for “authoritative” parenting, which researchers have linked to the most positive outcomes for kids. Since it takes a village to raise a child, we think you’ll find Dr. Pressman’s insights valuable whether you’re a parent or not. Dr. Pressman is also host of the podcast Raising Good Humans.
You're listening to Road to Resilience. I'm Jon Earle. My guest today is Dr. Aliza Pressman. She's a developmental psychologist and the co-founding director of The Mount Sinai Parenting Center. We sat down to talk about something that seems to be on a lot of people's minds these days. How do we—and by "we" I mean parents, families, and communities—raise kids with grit? Kids who persevere when they're challenged rather than giving up? Or as Dr. Pressman likes to put it: "Kids who can deal." There have been TED talks and bestselling books on the subject, and earlier this year, the college admissions scandal sparked a national conversation about so-called "snowplow" parents, who clear away obstacles for their kids. In our interview, Dr. Pressman cuts through the noise and outlines an approach to raising resilient kids that's backed by research. Whether you're a parent or not, I think you'll be interested by what she has to say.
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 00:49
My name is Dr. Aliza Pressman. I'm a developmental psychologist. I'm an assistant clinical professor in the department of pediatrics at Mount Sinai, and I'm the co-founder of The Mount Sinai Parenting Center.
Tell us a little bit about the work of the Parenting Center. What does the Parenting Center do?
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 01:06
So we leverage healthcare moments.
What is a healthcare moment?
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 01:08
A healthcare moment can be anything from a child in a waiting room about to go into the pediatrician's office, to the well-child visit, to when you give birth and there's that moment where they say, "Does anybody want to go into a new mommy class?" So any moment where the healthcare setting interacts with a patient, we want to grab those and make sure that we are giving weight to the value of how that family can help support the growth and development of the child.
Wonderful. So I want to jump into gear with resilience here. First of all, I need to ask you, is "resilient parenting," is that the correct term? Or should I refer to "raising resilient children"?
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 01:54
I think you want to not think of resilience as a trait, but as having an adaptable response to a stress. And so I just think of it as—probably our biggest umbrella job as a parent is to help our children respond in an adaptable way to stress so that they can function in life and thrive.
So when we're talking about raising resilient kids, or quote, unquote "resilient parenting," we're really talking about raising—
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 02:26
Kids who can deal.
Yeah! Kids who can deal.
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 02:30
And in this case, again, I want to take off the table toxic stressors, because nobody's charged any child, and shouldn't charge any kid, with dealing with toxic stress. That's the kind of stress that's traumatic.
So we're talking about everyday stressors, the things that every kid goes through in the course of growing up.
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 02:50
The tolerable and the positive stress.
What is so challenging about this? This is something I think parents think about a lot.
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 02:57
I think about it all the time! I think that the biggest challenge for parents is that it is so distressing to see your child in distress, that it can freeze us. And it's so confusing to get messages about parenting and how sensitive caregiving, which it is, is so critical to raising a healthy child. Being a sensitive and supportive caregiver, and having unconditional love for your child is the path to resilience. It's knowing that you are loved and seen by your parent. However, I think that sometimes parents hear that and they go, "That means that every time my child has an uncomfortable feeling, I need to let them know that we can fix this because I'm here for them, and I'm going to support them, and I need to make sure that we pause and we talk about that feeling, and I'm so sensitive to them, and we figure out a way for them not to have to experience that anymore." And that's where I think that we get into trouble.
So it sounds like it's the tension between the protecting role—
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 04:04
You know what, that's exactly what it is. It's the tension between protecting your kids—
—and the grower. I don't know how else to put it.
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 04:10
I think that's exactly the way to put it. And it goes back to parenting styles because typically the parenting styles people talk about in this context are permissive, authoritarian, and authoritative. So a permissive parent is incredibly sensitive and supportive, but tends to have a low score on boundaries and expectations. And an authoritarian parent is the reverse, not sensitive or supportive, high expectations and boundaries. It's more of a "because I said so" parent. So an authoritative parent is both highly sensitive to their child's needs and supportive of their child, and also has perfectly high expectations and boundaries. They're just appropriate. So if you know who your child is and you know what their age and stage of development is, you can make appropriate expectations and boundaries fit with being a sensitive and supportive caregiver. And then that's kind of the sweet spot of parenting that supports resilience. And it's tough. "Authoritative" is kind of my North Star, and it's what the research shows. It's highly associated—the authoritative parenting style—with the most positive social, emotional and cognitive outcomes for kids.
So let's talk about specific examples of a typical parenting situation and how the authoritative parent handles it.
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 05:37
Okay. I think that because smartphones are such a—Do people say "smartphones" anymore, or is it a given?
Dr. Pressman, you are not that old! I have to say that because listeners can't see you. You are not that old. So, pulling this, "Am I too old? Does this sound old?" It's not gonna fly.
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 05:58
Well, the iPhone. Whether or not to get your kid an iPhone, or a smartphone, or a phone. So I have a seventh grader, and this is a big conversation with a lot of the parents. And the decision, and everyone asks, "What age should I get my child a phone?" That's a big question. And there's no way to say what age you should get your child a phone because every child is different. So they need the skills to be able to manage the phone. And that's the age when they have the self-regulation and the responsibility and the confidence and the list goes on. The compassion for how other people might feel, should they be using their phone in a particular way, the impulse control to put it away, all those things. Now, an example of the three different kinds of parenting styles for getting a phone. Let's say your kid comes to you and says, "Everybody has a phone. I'm desperate for a phone. I want one." So an authoritarian response might be, "You're not getting a phone until you're "x" age, and I don't want to talk about anymore. No more discussion." "But mom!" "If you say another word about it, you're grounded," or whatever, or something negative. "Why?" "Because I said so." And maybe you get like, "I don't like all these kids on phones," and the dark cycle of what happens when you—
It sounds so grouchy and curmudgeonly.
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 07:29
It does sound grouchy and curmudgeonly. And with all these parenting styles, I'm giving you the extreme version. On any given day, I'm all of these parents, right? It depends on my mood and what my kids are doing. I'm not always giving the sensitive, supportive but boundaried response because then I'd be a robot. But in general you want to, more than half the time, be that parent. We don't have to get it right all the time.
And what's the permissive response?
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 07:59
And the permissive parent would say, "Oh, my God! Everybody has a phone, and you don't have a phone? Let's go get one right now, and tell me all the apps that are on them. And I want you to be able to feel a part of your community and be popular. And I don't want you to miss out on time with your friends. So you tell me what your friends are doing, and of course we're going to do it."
"I don't want you to feel bad."
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 08:20
"I don't want you to feel bad that your friends are leaving you out of text chats, or, you know, parties or discussions that," because now parties are online.
So the authoritarian is: "I have fixed ideas about this, and that's the way it's going to be."
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 08:36
"And you're going to listen."
"And you're going to listen." The permissive is: "I will do anything so that you don't have to feel bad about the situation."
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 08:44
That's right. "And I see that you're struggling and in distress, and I want to help you feel better," which incidentally is not a bad thing, because helping your child feel better can be wonderful. But how you go about that is very important. And so that's where you get the boundaries, which is—you can have empathy and say, "Oh, my God! You're feeling left out. All your friends have phones and you don't have a phone." So there's your sensitive parenting. You just noticed that they're feeling crappy, and you're letting them know that you don't have any judgment about it. That's a bummer. And you're just seeing that they're feeling that way. So you've checked the sensitive box. And then you say, "I didn't imagine giving you a phone yet. Here are my fears about a phone. You're going to spend too much time online. You're going to be obsessed with it. You're going to become addicted. You're going to get your feelings hurt. You're going to hurt someone else. You're going to put something out in the world that's—" Blah, Blah, Blah, you name it. "However, I would like to hear what you think you need a phone for. Tell me what you're thinking. Tell me what you're hoping for. Let's have a conversation about it."
Your child gives you the conversation, says, "Look, I'm responsible at this point. I won't look at my phone when I'm walking down the street. I will honor the boundaries that you give me about the phone. And if I blow it, then take my phone away." So then the authoritative responses, "Let me think about it. Okay, well this is all true." You can think, "Can my child handle this? Okay. They really can. Can I handle it? Do I have time and bandwidth to read what's going on in their phone?" Because that's another part of it. In order to have boundaries and appropriate expectations and sensitivity, you have to be present and available. So let's say you're like, "Okay, I can try this out. But no apps. We're going to start with just the phone, but you're not gonna have social media." Then you're coming in and saying, "I heard you. I'm sensitive to your needs. I'm open to some new ideas that I feel safe with. But I'm not gonna do everything because you're not ready for apps yet. We'll get there. And if you can follow these rules and you're responsible, we'll have another conversation in six months and see how it's going. And we can re-evaluate and maybe expand your freedom."
Or you can also be an authoritative parent and say, "no." So you could say, "I heard you. You had compelling reasons. I want to say, 'yes.' But you have not exhibited impulse control enough yet. I know you're gonna get there, but let's work on this a little bit longer and reconvene in a couple of months."
Yeah, that's interesting. So being authoritative parent doesn't—that alone doesn't dictate how you're gonna respond to any situation. There's still that place of judgment and individual preferences.
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 11:44
And that's where sensitivity comes in.
But it has to do with the reasoning. It has to do with the negotiation. There's almost like a contract.
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 11:50
It is. It's almost like as your children get older—and so a two year old, you're not going to do this as much. But a four year old, you start to. You partner with your kid. You're still the guide. So it's not "best-friend" parenting. Permissive parenting is kind of "best-friend" parenting. But you're the guide. There's no question one of you has had more life experience than the other and is ultimately in charge. But you help your child come up with the solutions to problems. You ask your child what they think a good consequence is. You engage them in the decision-making. You make the final decision, but you teach them how to argue, how to make a point, how to decide if something is worth even having this discussion over. If you are authoritarian, your kid's not coming to you to ask. They're going to tell their friends. "I'm not allowed to have a phone. Can you put Instagram on your phone with my name and you can control it for me?" That parent will never know. So they think their kid's doing great, but their kid has just learned very early, "Don't bother asking my parents if I could go to this party. Let's just figure out a way to sneak there." So when you have younger kids, it's a little bit harder because that tension between sensitive and their big feelings is a little harder to figure out. Like, "When am I being cold and unfeeling because I'm still not giving them what they want?"
But what we do know is that the parenting style that you have when your kids are younger is a predictor of your parenting style when they're in high school. And when I work with parents of younger kids, it's not today that matters in terms of their safety and well-being and your relationship. You're investing in the long game. And so you think it's not related, but how you're responding to them—and when a five year old wants to do something and you just say "no," "yes," and no explanation, or you can't handle their being upset, so after their tantrum you give them what they want, it is not just having an impact on their behavior today, but it's also training you to be the kind of parent that you're going to continue to be. What you practice grows stronger. So if you get really good at being authoritarian, you're going to be gangbuster at it by high school. But that's when it's dangerous, right? Because your kids don't even want to tell you when they're in danger. You're not the call that they're gonna make.
So help me connect these two ideas— so the styles of parenting, and the authoritative parent, and resilience.
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 14:22
Yes. So in order to be resilient—and the reason why I was talking about parenting style is because you have to get comfortable with your child being in distress, in reasonable distress. And the only way to have boundaries and expectations of your child is to accept that they will sometimes be unhappy or displeased or in really a lot of distress and have big feelings that you cannot fix. And in order to be resilient, you need to know, as a person, "This feeling is a wave. It's going to come and then it's going to go, and it's not a bad thing. I just have to get through it." How will you ever learn that if you don't have the opportunity to have that big wave?
Yeah. If your "distress journey" is always interrupted by somebody coming in from outside and solving the problem and making it go away.
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 15:13
And then you never feel those waves. Yeah. And then what happens is if the wave gets bigger and you've been practicing your whole life, you are a great surfer. But if you—I don't surf by the way, but this is my assumption—
We're in New York.
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 15:25
Right. But until it gets to that kind of wave that very few people should be—you can't practice on those waves. Right? They're life-threatening. But the ones that seem really big when you're little and a new surfer, you keep practicing on those, and they're going to get bigger and bigger—you don't even notice when the waves get too much bigger and if anything, you get confident. You're like, "I know how to do this. This is fun, to a point." And so if you don't give those small waves to your child and say to yourself, "Okay, they know how to swim, they won't drown. I need to let them have this experience." You aren't giving them the tools to be resilient. On the flip side, if you don't teach your child how to swim, they should not be on a wave, because you absolutely need to save them, because they're gonna drown. So, it's not just laissez-faire parenting. It's just assessing the situation. "What can my child handle?" And letting them just do a little bit more than that. Does that make sense?
It does. This is hard. And it's hard—I wonder how many parents have the knowledge to gracefully guide their child through this like, or how many are just left to intuition and what their parents did.
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 16:41
Well, I think most people are left to intuition what their parents did. And that's why we started the Parenting Center at all was thinking, like, "Where's the touchpoint of the most parents you could possibly get to? And what are the big fundamental things that parents can do, right?" Some things are, I don't know—your child's temperament is their temperament, but how that expresses itself will be dependent on your parenting. And so that to me, if you look at parenting as an environmental factor in your child's upbringing, which it is—if parenting is an environment, it is the number one environment that we can control, because we are the parent. And to me, as scary as that can sound, it's the most heartening. Because if the biggest influence is the parent, the biggest environmental influence is the parent, and the parent is in charge of themselves, we have a really beautiful way of protecting children from much worse environments.
We're in control of the number one thing.
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 17:40
Yeah. And that's why—and parents buffer the effects of so many awful environmental stressors. And part of that buffering is being sensitive and supportive, but also having those boundaries, and your child knowing that those boundaries are related to being unconditionally loved and they're not related to not wanting what's best for your child, not being there and not being supportive. So it's so powerful to me. And it's also why, as overwhelming as parenting can be, the bar is not that high, right? Like, you just have to get it right more than you don't get it right. On more days than you don't get it right. And you need to unconditionally love your child, which most parents really do.
There's one more example that has been on my mind and that came up several times when I was talking to parents prepare for this interview. So the first person I called was my sister, and her daughter has autism. She's five, and she's just about to get to the age where kids are gonna notice. And my sister and brother-in-law are really worried about bullying. They're worrying about how to help her learn to self-regulate and to resolve conflicts. Do you have any thoughts on navigating when to intervene and how to intervene in conflicts between your children and their peers?
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 19:09
You do for your children what they can't do for themselves, and you guide and support children when they can almost do something. But you don't do it for them. And so if a five year old who's autistic but able to communicate in a conflict and is doing okay, then she would wait and see how her daughter can do. But if she sees that there's a situation where kids are going to misunderstand, she might step in and explain it and help her daughter learn the language of how to explain it, if she has language. And that's true no matter what, which is you don't step in if you see that they've got this. Because if they do have it and you step in, the underlying message is, "You don't have the competence you think you have. And I don't have the confidence that you have the competence that you think you have." But if you don't intervene when they're flailing and they don't know what to do, how will they ever learn how to do it the way that will help them? So that's where the answer lies. Watch and see what they're capable of so then you can step back when you know they're capable, and then you can intervene when you know they're almost capable but they need that scaffolding, and then completely protect them when you know they're going to fail. Right? I don't mean fail as in "have an uncomfortable experience." I mean "drown." I know it's hard because you almost have to assess in your head like, okay, "What are their needs? What can they handle?" A lot of it is, "Well, I blew that. Now I know." You're gonna have to accept that you're gonna make the wrong call sometimes, and that's okay.
And you don't have complete information. Sometimes you're hearing things.
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 20:58
And what's great, though, is that then you're modeling for your kids failure. Because you failed and you get back up on the horse. You don't stop parenting. You go, "Okay, that was not my best moment." But we move on, we repair, we love each other, and we're going to do it in a different way next time. Because that didn't work.
Let's talk about failure. Because that was another thing that came up a lot. How do you teach kids to embrace failure and to see it as inevitable part of life as opposed to being defeated and concluding, "I just can't."
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 21:29
So in order for kids to learn how to fail well, the first thing is that parents have to learn how to fail well. And they need to learn how to fail well in front of their kids.
In their own life.
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 21:43
In their own life. Just so that it's a comfortable thing. It's not—we don't just celebrate our accomplishments. If the tone of your house is, "What was the awesome thing that you did today that made you, you know, move forward in your job or in your relationships or in your life?" The underlying message in the house is, "We're all superstars in this house." So there needs to be an ability to talk about, like, "I didn't get the promotion that I wanted. I'm going to—what are my strategies to try to get it next time?
And how do I think about that?
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 22:17
Right. And how do I explain, what's my explanatory style of why I didn't get the promotion?
It's not that I'm bad or incompetent.
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 22:24
That's exactly right. It's exactly that. There is going to be one person whose explanatory style is global. Like, "I didn't get the promotion because I'm an idiot, because they don't like me. I'll never do well. I'm just a failure." And there's an explanatory style that's like, "They weren't ready for me to get it yet. I haven't shown them that I'm capable. What are the steps that I can do to show them that I'm capable?" Or another explanatory style is, "The other person was better for the job. I don't want that to be true forever, but this particular person on this particular day was, so now what is my next step?" Two of those explanatory styles are optimistic in that there's hope for the future, and one of them is, "I give up." And so you want to make sure that your explanatory style in your home is that more growth-mindset view. And also when your children, when you hear them talking, that you help them explain those situations in a way that leaves space for next time or, you know, it's like, "I'm not good at math, yet!"
"Yet." That's the key word.
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 23:31
Yeah. "But if I practice—"
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 23:34
That's right, practice. And throwing away "practice makes perfect"—"practice makes stronger," or "practice makes a little better," or practice makes—but it's never "practice makes perfect."
It's so interesting for me to talk to someone who's observed people so closely, especially young people.
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 23:54
Young people. I don't observe adults ever. Except in their interaction with kids.
Do you see them and you're like, "Oh, I can look back in time and see what your childhood was like!"
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 24:02
I definitely err on the side of wondering what someone's childhood was like at all times. So whenever—it's also what keeps me, I think, pretty compassionate. If somebody is being utterly awful, I always look at them and think—I see them as a toddler and I just think about what was going on. And it's not always your childhood, but I do—I think we know childhood has a huge impact on your adult well-being. I think that we can confidently say research has pounded that into the ground and there is no question.
Sometimes when I'm listening to you, I'm thinking about how much of adulthood is correcting the experiences and the patterns that were formed in childhood. And I hate looking at adulthood that way. But it feels there's enough truth to it that it sticks.
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 24:58
I like to frame it as—first, coming to terms with your childhood helps you parent and helps you interact in the world. Right? And that's the undoing that you're talking about. But sometimes in undoing, you find the things that you never really thought through and just seemed awful that were parts of why you are exactly who you are. And that is a wonderful thing that you wouldn't want to take away. And so it's not as important to undo as it is to face, to understand who you are and what your childhood was like and what your relationships were like and what the dynamics were so that you can understand who you are today so that you can accept. Because you can't change your childhood. And sometimes you think, "Well, if that hadn't happened, how would I even know that I can do this?" And so that's where resilience comes back in.
And this is exactly what we're talking about, right? It's exactly like, well, the reframe on that is, "All of these parts of me that, like, don't work right, or that seem ill-formed or that seem like they're not adapted to adult life—those are opportunities to be introspective."
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 26:14
I want to ask you about the role of the community. What would a community look like that raised resilient kids?
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 26:21
So in the ideal community, there would be an acknowledgement of the value of the experience of the child and the parent's interactions with the child. So we wouldn't treat preschool teachers like they're at the bottom of the ladder of quality teaching. For example, we are terrible to preschool teachers. The people who interact with our youngest would be considered more important than they are considered, and parents would be considered more important than they're considered. And we would give the tools to everyone to understand what the fundamental components of supporting development are. So self-regulation and perspective-taking and autonomy-support and secure-attachment. And so I think all of those components—I'm not sure, that's such a big question. I probably will think about it later and then take back everything I said.
Is there anything that I haven't asked you that you want to bring up?
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 27:31
The only thing that I would would say I didn't mention—because I think it's such a big part of this—is, again, making sure that we understand that the distress that kids go through for the normal, day-to-day stressors, and the disregulation that occurs with normal disappointment, is an opportunity to help kids build the muscles to respond and regulate again. So self-regulation is a really important part of resilience-building. And I think of all of those experiences and watching those small stressors come, like, where kids can come out of that, as partly having a supportive and loving parent or caregiver who can let them experience it, but also be there for the hug. Because that all people need. You don't get to grow out of that.
I have this image in my head as I was listening to you of the home and the child going out into the world and coming back to the home and the embrace.
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 28:40
That's right. That's the secure base that we talk about when we talk about secure attachment. That the parent is a secure base from which a child can go off and explore. And when they're nine months old, that's very different than when they're 19 years old. But there's still a secure base there. It's just you go further and further away before you look back. Woah! [laughs]
Dr. Pressman, thanks so much for being on the podcast. It's been a pleasure.
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 29:08
Thank you so much for having me. This was so wonderful.
In addition to her work at Mount Sinai, Dr. Pressman is co-founder of the SeedlingsGroup. It's a team of educators and psychologists that helps clients navigate the challenges of parenting. She's also the host of the podcast "Raising Good Humans." It's got celebrity guests and tons of great parenting advice. I highly recommend it. I'll put links to both in the show description. That's all for this episode. If you liked what you heard, shower us with love on Apple Podcasts, where you can leave a review and rate us. We've also got a survey going on our website. It takes literally two to three minutes, and your feedback helps us make the show better. Road to Resilience is a production of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Our team includes Katie Ullman, Nicci Hudson, and me, Jon Earle, our executive producers are Dorie Klissas and Lucia Lee. Nicci and Justin Gun shoot video for us, and Cathy Clarke shoots photographs. Thanks also to Tina Sher, Alison Mallouk, Leslie Kirschenbaum, and everybody else who works so hard behind the scenes to make the show happen. From all of us here, thanks for listening. We'll see you in a couple of weeks.