Kathryn Bleiberg, Ph.D.
Kathryn Bleiberg, Ph.D. teaches and consults in the Payne Whitney Women’s Program – focusing on mental health difficulties that arise during and after pregnancy, as well as coping with the transition to parenthood. The Women’s Clinic provides diagnostic evaluations, treatment consultations, and medication management for mental health issues that are unique to women; such as pregnancy loss, infertility, and postpartum mood disorder.
She also provides a seminar called “The Birth of a Parent: Navigating the Transition to Parenthood” where she covers mindful parenting, managing the transition into parenthood, and postpartum mood disorders.
Melanie Cole, MS (Host): There's no handbook for your child’s health, but we do have a podcast featuring world class clinical and research physicians covering everything from your child’s allergies to zinc levels. This is Kids Health Cast by Weill Cornell Medicine. Our topic today is how to be a mindful parent. My guest is Dr. Kathryn Bleiberg. She’s an associate professor of psychology and clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine, and associate attending psychologist at New York Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center. Dr. Bleiberg, this is such an interesting topic. As a parent, it is fascinating to me to hear about how we can be more mindful and connected to our children and to ourselves. Please start by telling us how to balance our expectations that parents have of their child before that baby is born and that reality that hits you in the face once the baby is born.
Kathryn Bleiberg Ph.D. (Guest): I think with parents I think what's really important to be mindful of—not to overuse that word—is that it’s normal to have fantasies and expectations conscious or unconscious or both even before your child is born. So if you can identify those expectations even if they're not met it’s important to know that it’s okay to be disappointed and to sort of mourn the loss of the fantasy of what you thought your child was going to be. So first and foremost, it’s okay to be disappointed if that makes sense. It’s a normal feeling. In addition you may find that your child is not what you expected or does things you didn’t expect in positive ways. So perhaps you had hoped your child would be an incredible athlete, but then it turns out that they are amazing musicians or have interests that you have, share interests with you that you never appreciated your child might share.
Host: That’s a great point.
Dr. Bleiberg: So the bottom line is that having expectations is normal. It’s normal for some to be met, and it’s also totally normal for them not to be met but to allow yourself to be disappointed if they're not. It’s not possible for your child to meet all of your expectations.
Host: Wow. What a great point. Certainly true because we do have these visions in our head of what our children are going to be. Then they develop their own personalities and their own desires and wants. It doesn’t always jive up with ours. So that was great advice. What do you do once the baby’s born if you feel like you're not bonding with your child the way you should be? We hear that sometimes from new mothers and we’ve heard about postpartum depression. But then even as they get to be toddlers and they're difficult and you don’t want to hug them when they're misbehaving, what do we do about that?
Dr. Bleiberg: Well, first of all I think bonding—I'm going to put that on a continuum because if someone has severe postpartum depression or even postpartum psychosis, their capacity for bonding can truly be compromised. One of the questions is are you actually not bonding or are there times where you don’t enjoy being with your child all the time? So this is very different. I often have patients who I will see who are very critical of themselves and their relationship with their children, but it turns out they may not like watching Elmo. But you know what? It’s normal for an adult not like watching Elmo. So you may not enjoy everything about parenting, but it doesn’t mean you're not bonding. I recommend that patients think about ways that they do connect with their child. So often times you'll have a parent who’s great about getting down on the floor and with rough and tumble play and playing with their child. There might be a parent who just really enjoys reading and doing more quiet time activities. That’s normal. You're not going to enjoy doing everything.
So, again, I'm going back to this concept of expectations. It’s important to look at what your expectations are of yourself as a parent and readjust accordingly. For example, you can't expect to enjoy every single moment with your child. It’s more realistic to consider that you're going to enjoy some and you're actually going to dislike others. Another example that often comes up in my practice is patients often feel ashamed of feeling bored, especially in the beginning when they're just sort of feeding and changing diapers and feeding and changing diapers, there are parts that are boring. Until your child can talk, you can't have much conversation. So, again, that’s totally normal. People are going to have negative feelings about parenting and towards their children.
In general, it’s really hard to be angry. It can feel very uncomfortable to be angry at someone you love, particularly your baby or your toddler who really is not going to give back in the way other peers or fellow adults are going to. So if you have baby or toddler who vomits all the time, they're not going to say, “Thank you Mommy for cleaning up my vomit. You get a bonus this year.” It is hard to do the job of parenting without that kind of reward.
Host: Well, you're certainly right about the boredom part. That can certainly be overset by the way highs, right. I mean there's highs and there’s lows with parenting. Dr. Bleiberg, as kids try to push our buttons how can we, as parents, maintain clarity, emotional balance. How do we respond instead of reacting when things do get heated with that little child who’s vomiting all the time or the teenager who just loves us one minute and hates us the next for our own emotional balance. What do you want us to know?
Dr. Bleiberg: Well, I think you just touched on one of the most important points about parenting is that you are going to have—Parents have, in a normal parenting experience, a wide variety of feelings from extremely positive to extremely negative. That’s the normal experience of parenting. So the first is to manage your expectation that you're going to sometimes have uncomfortable feelings, negative feelings. You may also have positive feelings. So that’s the first thing, to expect that you're going to have this wide variety of feelings. Those negative feelings are not going to hurt you and will likely not persist.
In general, I recommend that people consider how they manage conflict with their peers, with other adults. So in a good conflict resolution, you're going to consider the other person’s point of view that may be different from your own. With children, it’s helpful to consider what their point of view might be that’s going to be different from yours. In addition, children don’t have the same capacity for language to articulate what they're feeling, or sometimes they're just quite blunt. I'm mad. I want that. So it’s important to acknowledge their point of views that might be different from ours. That can really help you, as a parent, calm down because you're trying to connect with your child emotionally. It’s also okay if you find yourself getting overheated for you to take a time out. So if you take responsibility for your feeling like you're not going to react well or in a way that’s not going to be productive. It’s okay to say, “I need to take a break.” Or “Mom needs to take a break. I don’t want to say something I don’t mean. Give me a couple of minutes.” That actually is also great modeling for both a teenager and a child. It’s okay to take a few seconds to calm down before you say something you’ll regret. Does that make sense?
Host: It does. That is absolutely great advice. I'm going to try that tonight. Maybe it will even work with my husband. So excellent advice. Now, doctor, as you're giving us these strategies to help us navigate those feelings throughout parenthood, how can we stop and really listen to our children when there’s so much noise? There's electronics and there’s busy things and after school activities and cooking meals and lunches and homework. There's all of these things. As you are in psychology, tell us, as parents, how can we cut through some of that noise, put it aside so that we can be in the moment and be mindful as it were?
Dr. Bleiberg: When children are very little—say babies, toddlers—there sense of time is very much in the moment. They don’t really have a sense of tomorrow or next week or even tonight in the way that we do as we get older. So ideally parents will appreciate that about their babies. It helps them slow down to be more in the moment. I guess I recommend that people carry that through. So to appreciate just even the ability to be in the moment, what that feels like. Given all of the electronics and social media and phones, etcetera, etcetera. I recommend that parents take even 10/15 minutes to put all of that aside. All electronics out of the way, out of the room to spend 10 minutes even looking at their children, their spouses in the eye so that they're connecting, and you can have sort of technology free time to make sure you're having one on one conversations. This is a whole subject that people are writing about and focusing about entirely because it’s been so even destructive, and it makes things so much more complicated. Slowing down in the same way that you do when you do with your babies, with your children, I recommend doing as your children get older. It does have to be more—You have to make a more concerted effort, just do it more deliberately as children get older.
With teenagers, often times they're not going to be available or they're going to not need you in a predictable way in the way babies do. So babies are often on a feeding or a sleep schedule whereas adolescents and teenagers have a less predictable schedule. So one of the challenges as parents is to be available when your adolescent or teen is available, wants to speak to you. If you can, put things aside to focus in those moments.
Host: Well, I think that that is one of the most important messages from today’s episode is that we do have to put some of that noise aside. Wrap it up for us, Dr. Bleiberg, with your best advice and some tips that you can offer parents that can help us ensure that our relationship with your child is not necessarily and positive one but is a workable one that is positive for all of us and that we can all work together as a family.
Dr. Bleiberg: Being a mindful parent really means being a thoughtful parent. Assuming that being a parent is a job, a job for which you have no training, a job for which you have responsibilities that change continuously as your child changes. The idea is to take a step back as you would in any job and say am I doing a good job? Is there anything I'm having trouble with? Is there anything I could do better or differently? So that’s one thing. The other issue is, which I've said repeatedly throughout that I can't emphasize enough, is that it’s important to make sure that your expectations of your child, yourself, of parenting are realistic. When you ask yourself that, one of the questions is if they're not realistic, how can your expectations be readjusted? That they are more realistic and you're not disappointed and things can go better. Finally, I can't emphasize enough that it’s normal to experience a wide variety of feelings about parenting, about your children, and that’s totally normal. If you do have negative feelings, it doesn’t mean you're a bad parent. It doesn’t mean you were not meant to be a parent. It’s totally normal.
Host: Great advice. What a great segment. Something that all parents can use and think about every single day as we’re raising our children. Thank you so much, Dr. Kathryn Bleiberg, and to our listeners. This concludes today’s episode of Kids Health Cast. Please remember to subscribe, rate, and review this podcast and all the other Weill Cornell Medicine podcasts. For more health tips and updates on the latest medical advancements and breakthroughs, please follow us on your social channels. I'm Melanie Cole.
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