Parenting through Challenging Moments

by Susan Stiffelman


How to stay in connection with your child even in challenging moments

Human beings are wired to resist being bossed around…and that’s actually a good thing! Imagine what might happen if children were subject to the influence of just anyone. Thankfully, Mother Nature has wired our little ones to stay vulnerable and open only to those with whom they have a close and secure attachment.

Now that is all well and good in theory, but when you are in the midst of a challenging moment and just want your five year old to put his shoes, or your 14 year old to hit the off switch on the computer, their defiance can seem like anything but intelligent wiring on the part of Mama Nature.

Rather than figuring out how to “win” power struggles with our kids, we need to calmly help them sail through life’s rough waters as what I call the Captain of the ship in their lives. To manage that, we need to stay present through the storm.

In my work I have seen that when children feel seen, liked, and enjoyed by us, they feel safer with us. This means they are more receptive to our guidance and support, especially when tempers threaten to flare.

On the flip side, if most of our interactions with our kids are unfriendly, then if we come AT them with advice they haven’t asked for or guidance they aren’t yet open to hearing, they will be resistant. In those moments, our frustration rises and we try even harder to coerce the into doing as we ask.

We might try to convince a child to be more cooperative by approaching her in what I call Lawyer mode, coming AT her with logic and negotiations in an attempt to get her  her to do what we want.

We may also try to overpower our difficult child by coming AT her in what I refer to as Dictator mode. Just as a dictator has no authentic power—he rules by fear and intimidation—when we are operating from Dictator mode, we feel desperate and out of control, using threats and punishments in an attempt to control our child into submission.

It is only when we come alongside our kids as the calm Captain of the ship, that their natural instinct to receive our support is awakened. Coming alongside a child involves staying connected to her—even in the midst of tension or resistance—so that she knows that even though the ship has hit some rough waters, she can rely on you to stay the course.

I teach something called Act I parenting which is a very easy approach to handling challenging moments with our children. One aspect is acknowledging what the child was wanting in a compassionate and loving way—without necessarily giving in, or tagging on advice or explanations.

You were really hoping you’d be able to stay longer at the park… It doesn’t seem fair that we’re leaving when James just got here… It seems like sometimes Mom puts an end to your fun too soon…

In other words, you acknowledge her truth with kindness, staying in connection as that Captain who doesn’t need your child to like you or even to be happy, recognizing that loving parenting doesn’t always mean fixing our children’s upsets.

Initially, this approach can feel awkward; most of us were not raised by parents who validated our feelings or concerns. Rather, when we came to a challenging time in our own childhood, most of our parents either went into Lawyer mode—trying to rationally explain why we couldn’t or shouldn’t want what we wanted—or Dictator mode, shouting us down and slamming the door shut for any emotional expression of sadness or frustration.

This is where parenting can become such a magnificent arena for our own healing. As we move toward coming alongside our children when times get tough—staying present and connected without arguing them out of their feelings or punishing them for being upset— we move into deeper healing.

What a gift, then, is given to both our children and us when we hit those parenting rough spots! If we can make peace with the fact that although we will try to help our kids feel happy, we understand that they may sometimes land in territory where they are unhappy and frustrated. Rather than scrambling to talk them out of their troubles, we allow them to feel what they feel, remaining available as a loving soundboard, or offering a warm embrace as they come to terms with their loss.

And if they are so angry that they can’t bear to be near us, we allow that to be okay, too. How liberating it is to not make our children’s behavior determine whether we are good parents, or worthy people!

Childhood is filled with difficult moments. It is only by stumbling through them—with our care and support— that our children discover that they are indeed capable and resilient.

When we do the work that keeps us from operating as a Lawyer or Dictator, we learn to come alongside our kids when they hit a rough patch. We acknowledge their sadness or disappointment without fixing it. We stay connected without shaming or blaming. We don’t make them responsible for our well-being. And lo and behold, after the tears, they come out the other side more resourceful and confident than they were before the upset!

No parent looks forward to challenging moments. But how wonderful that when they do arise, they can become opportunities for growth—our childrens’, and our own.

For more information on Susan Stiffelman please go to

Susan’s most recent book Parenting with Presence can be found here: