Are you letting a negativity bias affect your parenting? How can you get your kids to actually want to be obedient? When is silliness an effective parenting technique?
Becky Kennedy’s Good Inside helps parents effect sustainable behavior changes in their kids while building positive relationships with them. Our overview lays out Kennedy’s core principles, her toolkit for dealing with challenging behavior, and explanations and solutions for common parenting challenges.
Continue reading for an overview of this practical parenting manual.
Overview of Becky Kennedy’s Good Inside
Most parenting advice sees children’s behavior as a problem that needs to be controlled through time-outs, chore charts, and stern conversations. Becky Kennedy’s Good Inside takes a different approach. Becky Kennedy—known simply as “Dr. Becky” by her followers—argues that these strategies jeopardize the positive connection between parents and children and don’t even work in the long term. They might change your child’s behavior in the short term, but they don’t deal with the root causes, so the problematic behaviors will come back.
Kennedy is a clinical psychologist and mother of three who’s amassed a large social media following by teaching young parents how to (and how not to) react to their children’s big emotions and support their children with managing these emotions. After years of seeing children and adults who had been hurt by traditional parenting strategies, she realized that parents needed to focus more on connecting with their children and less on trying to control them. She pivoted her approach in therapy and founded an online community and learning space for parents who are looking for an alternative approach to parenting. Her book contains the strategies she’s been sharing with parents in her community and social media following.
Section 1: Kennedy’s Parenting Principles
Kennedy’s parenting advice stems from one basic principle: you and your child are good people, even if you’re not doing well right now. Let’s look at how this principle informs Kennedy’s approach to parenting and the theoretical basis for her approach.
Kennedy’s Approach to Parenting
Kennedy’s key principle is an unshakeable belief that you and your child are good people at your core—you’re “good inside”—even when you’re struggling. If your child’s behavior is challenging or if you don’t like how you’re responding to her behavior, it doesn’t mean your child or you are bad. It means that you’re struggling and need help.
Understanding that you and your child are both good even when you’re struggling allows you to do the following two things:
1) See challenging behavior as a clue to investigate rather than a problem to control. When you focus on controlling behavior instead of understanding it, you don’t get to the root of the problem. Instead, find out what’s triggering the behavior and work on that underlying cause.
2) Lead your child with confidence, and have them follow. As Kennedy explains, when you believe your child is essentially good, you also believe that with your guidance, she’ll eventually overcome the underlying challenge and the behavior you’re seeing will improve. Children notice your trust and feel safer to try the strategies you offer to solve their problems, improving their behavior as a result.
According to Kennedy, there are two main reasons why applying these principles is hard. First, humans have a negativity bias: We’re evolutionarily wired to pay more attention to negatives than positives so that we can quickly identify and act on problems.
Second, it’s likely that you were raised by parents who didn’t separate your behavior from your core identity. When you did something wrong, you were a bad (or lazy, spoiled, or rude) kid. Being bad meant you were at risk of not being loved. In an effort to get rid of that badness, you pushed down the emotions that triggered the behavior instead of working through them. Now, when you see your child behaving in a challenging way, it triggers your body’s memory of your childhood and you instinctively try to push down their emotions because you fear for their safety. Kennedy believes that breaking this cycle is possible with her approach to parenting.
The Psychological Basis of Kennedy’s Approach
Kennedy’s approach has a theoretical basis in modern psychology.
First, it draws from attachment theory, which explains that babies are driven to seek a strong connection with caregivers who keep them safe and care for them. Children instinctively protect their attachment to their caregivers, adjusting their behavior to the cues they get from their parents. If parents are responsive to their children’s needs and feelings, children learn that they have a secure base from which to go explore the world. On the other hand, if parents shut them down, children develop self-loathing or shame as a result of having feelings that their caregivers respond negatively to. This leads to becoming adults who are constantly trying to please others or who accept poor treatment as normal.
Second, Kennedy’s approach borrows from the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model, which views a person as made up of different parts, each activated by different contexts, and resulting in contradictory feelings and experiences. Having a strong sense of self requires knowing that you’re multifaceted and being able to flow through different feelings and experiences.
IFS is helpful for teaching children that their emotions and feelings are part of them but not their whole selves. By getting to know themselves and understanding the different feelings they can have, they will be able to tolerate each of them better and not let one single way of being or feeling take over their whole self.
Brought together, attachment theory and IFS show that children are made up of different parts and that they’ll unconsciously decide which parts are worthy or not according to how secure they feel expressing them.
Section 2: Kennedy’s Essential Toolkit
To help you infuse those insights from theory into day-to-day parenting, Kennedy provides some essential parenting tools: boundaries, validation, empathy, connection, playfulness, and confidence building. These tools are foundational to Kennedy’s concrete strategies. Here, we’ll describe these tools and explain why they’re important.
Tool #1: Connection
Kennedy’s foundational tool is to take time to connect with your child when you’re both calm (not in the middle of a meltdown). Nurturing your connection with your child is important because when your child is behaving in a way you don’t like, it often stems from your child not feeling connected to you or from your child struggling with a feeling without an adult’s support.
Building connection makes it possible to:
- Change behavior. Kids who feel connected to their caregivers feel good about themselves because they feel loved, safe, and confident. Those positive feelings make it easier for them to engage in the behaviors you want them to show.
- Generate goodwill. This will help your child be willing to comply with your rules and boundaries in the future.
Tool #2: Boundaries
When a child is experiencing stronger emotions than they’re able to control, it results in dysregulated behavior—challenging behavior resulting from a kid losing control of their emotional responses. This is developmentally normal. Children’s brains are more developed in their sensing than their regulating. Although children will eventually learn to close the gap between what they can feel and what they can regulate, they still need their caregivers to step in to keep them and others safe.
The way you keep everyone safe is by enforcing boundaries, which involves taking action when a child crosses a line instead of just asking them to stop.
Asking your child to stop running makes them responsible for regulating themselves when they’re unable. Not only is this not going to make your child stop (because they can’t), but it will make them feel like you’ve also lost control of the situation and that you’re unable to keep them safe from themselves. If they continue running around, you must take the action you announced, enforcing the boundary and keeping your child and everyone around them safe.
Tool #3: Validation and Empathy
Validation and empathy provide a foundation from which to build your child’s emotional self-regulation. Validation means confirming that what your child is feeling is real, which helps them regulate their emotions because they receive confirmation that their experiences are legitimate even if they’re difficult. Empathy means trying to understand your child’s feelings and making space for them to experience and express those feelings. This lets your child know that they’re not alone in their feelings.
Validating and empathizing with your child’s experiences means you can see and hear their emotions and perspectives without trying to convince them to change how they feel or think. But it doesn’t mean you relinquish your authority. Kennedy is adamant that both realities can coexist: your perspective and your child’s. You can enforce boundaries you know are necessary to keep your child safe, and your child can be allowed to feel frustrated by them.
Tool #4: Playfulness
Kennedy encourages the use of play and silliness to help your child feel safe. Being playful and making her laugh lets her know that she’s safe and she can be herself around you.
Tool #5: Confidence-Building
Kennedy disagrees with the common idea that confidence—in kids and adults—is all about feeling positive about yourself. Instead, she argues that confidence is being sure about who you are even when big emotions are taking place, knowing what you feel, and trusting yourself to know what feels good and what doesn’t. The opposite of self-confidence is self-doubt, and it’s the result of having your feelings invalidated so often that you can no longer be sure that what you’re feeling is real. You can build your child’s confidence by helping her learn to tune into and trust herself, her feelings, and her capacity to deal with them.
Bonus Tool: Repair
Parenting is challenging, so even when you know all of these tools, you’ll still make mistakes like yelling instead of projecting calm when your child is dysregulated. But if you make an effort to repair your mistakes with your child afterward, then the memory ingrained in your child’s brain will be one of learning, growth, and connection, not of feeling alone or feeling like a bad kid. Making a habit of repairing not only gives a better ending to an unpleasant story but also teaches your child that when someone makes a mistake, it’s possible and necessary to make amends.
To repair after a moment of dysregulation on your part, follow these steps:
- Regulate your own emotions.
- Reflect on what happened, remembering what your role is as a parent and what your child’s role is. Avoid falling for the idea that your child made you react in a certain way.
- Tell them you’re sorry.
- Share your reflections with them, retelling what happened so they know that it really happened (this keeps them from developing self-doubt) and explaining what you’ll do differently next time.
Section 3: Common Parenting Challenges and What to Do About Them
Now that we’ve discussed how Kennedy’s approach to parenting works and what basic tools you need to apply it, we’ll explore 10 common parenting challenges. Kennedy suggests specific approaches for handling each challenge so that you can foster behavioral change without jeopardizing your connection to your child.
We’ve chosen to describe some of Kennedy’s most representative strategies when dealing with each challenge, but many strategies are applicable in more than one situation. For each challenge, we’ve highlighted strategies that apply Kennedy’s key tools: boundaries, empathy, validation, connection, playfulness, and confidence-building.
Challenge #1: Getting Your Child to Listen
Kennedy argues that if you believe your child doesn’t listen to you, the issue isn’t listening, but cooperating—in other words, your child isn’t complying with your requests. When your kid doesn’t cooperate, it’s likely because they’re feeling disconnected from you or because you’re asking them to do something they don’t want to do. The latter is the nature of parenting, but there are ways to make your requests less confrontational and more engaging.
To make your requests less confrontational, Kennedy recommends using the following tools: 1) validation, 2) connection, and 3) playfulness.
Validation and Connection
Acknowledge that you’re interrupting your child’s activities, or that you’re asking for something they don’t like. Then, Kennedy suggests involving your child in the decision-making.
Kennedy recommends building your connection with your child before asking her to do something. Regularly spend at least 10 minutes one-on-one with your child (each individual child, if you have more than one) with no devices or distractions. Observe her play, describe what she does, or mimic her activities. Don’t ask questions or give her instructions—this is her time!
Kennedy also suggests sprinkling some silliness onto your asks, especially the less enticing ones.
Challenge #2: Dealing With Tantrums
Kennedy explains that tantrums are episodes in which a child is feeling emotions more powerful than what they’re able to process, and they become dysregulated as a result. Tantrums aren’t misbehavior—they’re a moment where your child’s body gets out of their control. They’re important for your child’s development because they shape the foundation of them knowing what they want and being able to ask—and, if necessary, fight—for what they want.
To help your child learn to regulate her emotions without squashing her emerging will and assertiveness, work with the underlying urge. Kennedy suggests using two tools: 1) empathy and validation and 2) connection.
Ensure that you’re calm and have perspective on the situation. Kennedy urges you to remember that your child’s meltdown is developmentally appropriate and not a reflection of your parenting.
Validation and Connection
Validate what your child is feeling and how powerful and important it is. Kennedy explains that putting your kid’s urge into words tells her that you understand what she’s experiencing, even if you can’t allow her to have what she wants. At the same time, tell her that you’re right there with her, and stay present until the tantrum subsides.
Dealing With Aggressive Tantrums
Sometimes, Kennedy says, tantrums become aggressive if the feelings are so intense that the child becomes frightened at her own loss of control. The stress hormone cortisol floods her body and sets off aggressive behavior like kicking or biting. Aggressive tantrums are also developmentally normal, but they need a different approach.
When your child’s tantrum takes an aggressive turn, Kennedy recommends using two tools: 1) boundaries and 2) validation and empathy.
Enforce the necessary boundaries to keep everyone safe. Tell your child that you won’t let her continue the aggressive behavior, and, if necessary, Kennedy explains you might have to use your body to stop her without hurting her. Give her a safe and acceptable outlet for her urges. If the tantrum continues, take your child to a small room and sit there with her. Model calm behavior through deep breathing and a soothing voice. Stay there with your child until the tantrum subsides.
Validation and Empathy
Kennedy suggests that after the tantrum, once everyone is calm, you should talk about what happened with your child to validate her experience and show her how she eventually rode out the tantrum. Narrate to your child what triggered the tantrum, how she felt, what her body did, and what you both did until her body regulated.
Challenge #3: Navigating Sibling Relationships
Sibling relationships can be challenging for children and elicit unwanted behavior, such as fighting or whining. Kennedy argues this is because siblings can feel threatening to a child’s attachment needs since they can see your attention going to someone else. The difference in abilities and in the parental involvement other siblings require can also be frustrating to children.
To help your children manage the emotions that sibling relationships generate, Kennedy suggests using the following tools: 1) empathy, 2) confidence-building, and 3) a combination of validation and boundaries.
Give your children the opportunity to complain about their siblings to you—just not in the presence of the aggrieving sibling. Kennedy says that this will give them an outlet for their emotions without harming the relationship between them. Don’t let the complaining turn into name-calling, as this is dangerous and destructive.
Explain that you’ll give each child what they need, not give them each the same thing. Kennedy argues that this will help avoid comparisons in the short term and, in the long run, it will help your children define their wants and needs for themselves, not in reference to other people.
Validation and Boundaries
When an argument is brewing, Kennedy says you should be an objective narrator. Describe what you’re seeing and how each must be feeling, and pose questions to prompt them to problem solve without you. If a situation turns physically or verbally aggressive, step in decisively: Announce that you won’t let them hurt each other, then separate them. Decide which sibling needs you most urgently and tell the other sibling that you’ll be with them soon and that you know they need you, too. Then help each one regulate their emotions using the strategies for tantrums.
Challenge #4: Coping with Defiance, Whining, and Lying
Parents often see defiance, whining, and lying as signs of lack of respect, but Kennedy argues instead that they’re symptoms of an underlying emotional discomfort. When your child engages in these behaviors, use empathy and connection to validate what they’re feeling, and to foster a relationship in which they don’t need to resort to those behaviors. Kennedy recommends three tools for addressing each behavior: 1) boundaries, 2) validation, and 3) connection.
Kennedy argues that a child who’s being defiant is feeling an urge she can’t express in a healthy way. If your child is being defiant, calmly enforce the boundary and then see if there’s an alternative, acceptable way for her to express the urge.
Kennedy believes children whine when they feel powerless, overwhelmed, or disconnected from you. If your child is whining, express her emotions in a neutral, non-whiny, voice. Then, consider what you can do to tend to her need for power, calmness, or connection.
Kennedy argues that a child who’s lying wishes for something that isn’t possible. It can be a desire for a fantasy to come true, to separate herself from something that might threaten her attachment to her caregivers, or to be independent. If the lie is about something that’s not possible, restate the lie as a wish. If it’s a desire to protect her attachment to you or to be independent, help her feel safe by telling her what you’d do if, hypothetically, you knew the truth about whatever she’s lying about.
Challenge #5: Dealing With Fearful, Anxious, and Crying Kids
Fears, anxiety, and crying—even “fake” crying—are expressions of vulnerability. Kennedy explains that when children perceive a threat, their bodies feel fear or anxiety. When they feel sadness, they cry. When they feel disconnected from their caregivers, they pretend-cry to secure that connection.
Kennedy argues that parents often shut down these expressions of vulnerability because they trigger uncomfortable feelings related to their own vulnerability. You might try to convince your child to stop being sad, anxious, or afraid, or even shame her for feeling that way. But this teaches her that these feelings are wrong and to be avoided, which leaves her unprepared for real life. Instead, support her through those feelings so she develops the tools to work through them in the future.
To help your child learn to work through her vulnerable feelings, Kennedy suggests the following tools: 1) confidence-building, 2) validation and empathy, and 3) playfulness.
Confidence-Building, Validation, and Empathy
Kennedy suggests starting by naming the feelings your child is experiencing and letting her know that it’s okay to feel them, even if it’s uncomfortable. Then, help her brainstorm strategies to deal with a fear or anxiety, and practice the strategies with her when you know a challenging situation is coming up. Share similar feelings you’ve had in the past and how you worked through them. Let her know you’re glad she’s sharing this important information with you.
Take advantage of your child’s favorite stories and characters to start conversations about emotions.
Challenge #6: Encouraging a Hesitant and Shy Child
When kids are shy or hesitant to join in an activity or group, parents often worry that they’re underconfident. But, as we’ve seen, Kennedy believes that confidence is about being sure of what you feel and what does or doesn’t feel good. A kid who takes her time before joining a group or activity is giving herself time to build trust in the group and situation—this shows that she’s confident about who she is and what feels good and safe for her.
If your child has a tendency to be shy or hesitant, Kennedy suggests using the tools of validation and confidence-building:
Validation and Confidence-Building
Kennedy reminds you that hesitancy can be an important life skill as your child grows into a teenager and adult who will face unsafe situations. Refrain from calling your child shy, for example, because children will identify with the labels we assign them. Instead, describe how she’s taking her time to feel comfortable. Tell your child that she’ll know when she’s ready to jump in and that there’s no rush. This demonstrates that you trust her and that she can trust herself, too.
Challenge #7: Handling Frustration and Perfectionism
Children need to develop frustration tolerance because, as Kennedy explains, learning requires making mistakes and being okay with not knowing everything at first. Kids who have a tendency toward perfectionism need extra help with this because their self-worth is deeply tied to their achievements.
To build your child’s frustration tolerance, Kennedy suggests using the tool of confidence-building:
Kennedy says you should encourage a growth mindset. Be patient when your child gets frustrated and takes a while to figure things out, and be okay with getting frustrated when you’re doing something difficult.
Kennedy also suggests that you praise kids for what’s inside them, not the outcome. She suggests that instead of saying “good job,” you remark on how hard they worked or ask questions about the process. This centers their experience instead of the product and teaches them to look inside for validation.
Furthermore, Kennedy suggests that you reframe your role in your child’s learning: Don’t think of yourself as the teacher of the skill but as the coach showing your child how to cope with the struggle of learning.
Challenge #8: Encouraging Bodily Autonomy and Healthy Relationships With Food
According to Kennedy, bodily autonomy enables a child to say “no” when they don’t feel comfortable with something, even if the boundary makes others upset. It’s the result of a child trusting her internal cues and feeling confident in enforcing boundaries because she knows they matter. To foster your child’s developing bodily autonomy, Kennedy recommends using the tools of validation and confidence-building.
Validation and Confidence-Building
Assume that your child’s experience is true. When your child expresses discomfort, hesitation, or some other negative feeling, Kennedy urges you to believe her. Don’t tell her she’s exaggerating or being silly. Remind her that only she can determine what feels good or bad in her body. Describe what she’s feeling to help her learn how to explain it herself later on. When you’re not sure what she’s feeling or what’s triggering her discomfort, Kennedy suggests you simply say there’s something in the situation that feels bad to her.
The Boundaries of Bodily Autonomy at Mealtimes
Bodily autonomy also plays out during mealtime struggles. Kennedy explains that, as a parent, you feel responsible for nourishing your child, and you might see her refusal of Brussels sprouts as your failure to live up to that responsibility. But, your child is learning to exercise control over her body, and she sees your insistence on eating that vegetable as a threat to her bodily independence.
Kennedy suggests that you explain to your child the limits and options she has during mealtimes, according to her role. Your job as a parent is to decide what food is available to your child and when and where she can have it. Your child’s job is to decide whether she’s going to eat it and how much of it she’s going to have.
Challenge #9: Soothing Separation Anxiety & Bedtime Struggles
As we’ve seen, children are evolutionarily wired to attach to their parents because this ensures their survival. Separation anxiety—which manifests as crying, tantrums, and other behaviors that happen when you say goodbye to your child—is a result of this wiring. Kennedy explains that when you separate from her, she’ll need to retain the sense of safety your presence gives her without having you with her. At bedtime, separation anxiety is compounded by the fact that your child needs to feel safe to fall asleep.
To deal with separation anxiety, Kennedy suggests using these three tools: 1) connection, 2) confidence-building, and 3) playfulness.
Progressively increase the distance that feels safe during bedtime. Start by sitting on your child’s bed, gently stroking her hair until she falls asleep. After a few days, move to the foot of the bed, and so on until you’ve gradually moved to the other side of her open door. Kennedy recommends that each time you’re going to move, you let her know about it that morning so she can mentally prepare.
Build a routine. Kennedy explains that knowing what to expect during this time will make it easier for your child to cope, which can help her feel more confident about facing the time away from you. Talk to your child about what the separation will look like and what you’ll say and do. When it’s time to separate, model confidence. If you project nervousness, your child will pick up on it, confirming her suspicions that it’s not safe to be away from you. Kennedy argues that if you project confidence, she’ll still be upset—but she’ll see that you’re sure that it’s okay for her to be away from you, so it must be.
Kennedy suggests that before you separate, you hug your child tight and playfully “check” her to see if her tank’s topped up with enough parental love. Hug her several times until she’s all “topped up” and then give her an extra hug so she has “extra” parental love to tide her over until your next moment together.
Challenge #10: Raising Kids Who Have Intense Emotions and Reactions
Kennedy warns that some kids—those she calls “deeply feeling” kids—might not respond well to her strategies. Some kids feel their emotions more intensely than others, and, as a result, have more intense reactions. This is compounded by the fact that these children also notice the comparative intensity of their feelings and reactions, and they fear that they’re unloveable and that their parents won’t be able to deal with them. This fills them with shame and fear, which only serves to make their reactions harsher and make it harder for parents to find ways to approach them.
Kennedy suggests using the tools of boundaries and playfulness to deal with a child who has very intense emotions and reactions:
Kennedy argues that a child with intense emotions and reactions fears that her outbursts will be too much for others to deal with. By calmly enforcing boundaries, you’re showing her that her reactions aren’t too much for you to deal with and that you’re still able to be her caring leader and keep her safe. What if her reactions are too much for you to deal with? Take her to a safe place where she won’t hurt herself or anyone else, and then let her know that you need to take some calming breaths and that you’ll stay close by and come back soon. Step away, collect yourself, and come back when you’re ready.
Get creative to explore your child’s feelings. Kennedy explains that children with intense emotions easily fall into shame when discussing their feelings because they get overwhelmed by the intensity and by the intrusion of others into their inner world. Instead of trying to get her to talk about her feelings, tell your child that she can close her eyes and even hide while you ask questions. She just needs to show you a thumbs up or down to let you know what her answers are. This will help your child slowly feel more comfortable expressing her feelings.
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Here's what you'll find in our full Good Inside summary:
- A parenting manual to help you build a positive relationship with your child
- Why time-outs, rewards, and serious conversations don't "fix" kids
- Strategies to deal with ten common parenting challenges