“Focus on the Donut, Not the Hole”

May 22, 2021

One of the most important things we can do for our kids to cherish the relationship that we have with them. In this episode, I talk about a Rule of Thumb from the Child-Parent Relationship Training, “Focus on the Donut, Not the Hole.” We look at the importance of putting our attention on the good that exists already, spending the time necessary to build the connection, and why the relationship leads to the results that you want.
listen on apple podcasts
listen on google podcasts

Podcast Transcript

Hi, I’m Dr. Brenna Hicks, The Kid Counselor. This is the Play Therapy Parenting Podcast where I give you insight, awareness, and enlightenment about your parenting and your relationship with your kids. If you have been following the podcast for any amount of time, you know that I periodically cover the “Rules of Thumb” in the Child Parent Relationship Training curriculum, that is a part of our In Home Play Therapy program. Today I would like to handle one of those rules of thumb with you: Focus on the donut, not the hole.

And I’m really excited about this particular rule of thumb; I call it a nugget of wisdom. Because when we are in the midst of parenting, and when we have struggles and difficulties, it is easy to focus on what’s wrong in the relationship. It’s easy to focus on what’s missing, what we feel is lacking, what we believe to be problematic, maybe even what we would fix if we could in the relationship. And when we do those things, although it’s easy to get there and to be in that place, we lose sight of our children. When we focus on what is there, rather what is not there, we don’t get to see who they truly are in those moments. So it’s really important to consider focusing on what is there rather than what isn’t.

So in this episode of the podcast, I would like to unpack three pieces of this that I think are relevant. The first being traditional parenting literature gets it wrong, and I will explain why and how it’s wrong, and what you can do instead. And secondly, I’d like to talk through the myth of the quick fix. We as a culture, and we as adults, tend to want things to get fixed right away and especially in our parenting that doesn’t work. And then finally I’d like to talk through the healthy relationship at the center of our parenting and that adaptive behavior comes out of that healthy relationship. So we will look through all three of those.
The path to calm, confident, and in control parenting starts now. So in talking through the idea of ‘Focus on the doughnut, not the hole,’ I know there are a lot of donut aficionados out there. And so before I begin, I actually had to educate myself a little bit about donut making because I am not a baker and I’ve never made a doughnut myself. So what I have observed if you’re in the mall or walking through areas where there are food and stores and things like that – Auntie Anne’s Pretzels is the only thing that I’ve ever seen, where I can actually witness something like that being made. And so they take the dough and it’s cut into strips and then they roll it into almost like a long tubular snake looking thing. And then they will actually tie the dough into a knot and then they make it. So I guess stemming from that, I’m not sure, I believed that you form a donut by making a tubular thing of dough and fusing the ends together and you get your circle. But interestingly enough, when bakers make donuts, it is a ball of dough and they take a metal cylinder and they shove it through the center and they take the center of the doughnut out. So the big ball of dough actually has the center piece removed.

And that is how you get donut holes, or munchkins if you’re a Dunkin Donuts person. I know there are donut hole people out there, so I understand there’s a special place for donut holes. But in the ‘focus on the donut, not the hole’ analogy, the donut is what is there. The hole is what’s missing. The hole is what’s been taken out. The whole is what’s gone. And in a parenting perspective, we often end up focusing on the hole instead of the donut. And I can imagine if you’re eating a donut – when I was little, Boston cremes were my favorite, my son’s is strawberry sprinkles. So when you’re consuming this donut, you’re thinking, “Oh my gosh, this is so good, this is gooey, it’s warm, it’s amazing!” I don’t think you’re sitting there thinking, “Gosh, I really wish that the center of that doughnut had not been removed. That’s really tragic that they took that out. I would have eaten that if it was still there.”

You’re focusing on what’s there because it’s good. I think that it’s easy for us to get lost and the idea of ‘I wish this were there, this feels missing, this feels incomplete, this feels broken.’ And in the meantime, we are not noticing the great, amazing, good things that are there already. Our kids are incredible beings, they are good, they are kind, they are constantly growing, constantly learning, constantly developing. And we have the ability and the privilege to be a part of their journey. And so to me, the premise of focusing on the donut – what is there, what is good, what you appreciate – It puts us in the right mindset to set us up to be aware that the relationship is at the heart of everything, which I’m going to get to in a moment. So, traditional literature gets it wrong because we end up thinking that there’s this trick that we need, or this tip that we have to use, or let’s focus on the problem. So what I hear in parenting literature a lot is “One minute to stop tantrums.” Or “Use this one simple tip to get your child to stop smart mouthing you.” Or “If you use this one fancy phrase, it’s going to stop your child from disobeying” and everything about all of that. Traditional literature is focused on the problem and how to fix the problem. But unfortunately, that isn’t the correct premise for understanding that you want to focus on the good, and what you want to celebrate, and what you’re happy about, and what is worth investing in. We don’t want to focus on what’s not there and what’s wrong. We want to focus on what is and what’s good. So traditional parenting literature gets it wrong and the “Focus on the donut, not the hole” is a really helpful reminder to keep the focus and the attention on what is there. And I’ll talk about how that influences the relationship in just a moment.

The second point is that we have this myth of a quick fix. There’s this idea of a magic bullet, or this special pill, or this immediate type of answer to this problem. And one of the phrases that I use with my parents in my private practice and in my center a lot, I will often question them about how long it took for them to get to that point. For example, someone comes in and says, “Oh my gosh, my child’s ready to get kicked out of school. I don’t know what to do anymore.” Or “The tantrum have escalated so high. I don’t even know how to handle them anymore. We can’t even go anywhere. I’m so embarrassed.” And one of the first things that I question is, I wonder how long it’s taken to get to this point. And it’s never two days, six weeks. There’s always a very long stretch. ‘Oh gosh, it probably started six months ago.’ Or sometimes in bigger cases it’s, ‘Oh, since they were born, it’s been this way.’ But the idea of there being a long development of a concern and it happens over time, there’s a slow creep. There’s a fade to where we get to this point. All of a sudden, to think that we can miraculously fix it with this one simple trick or, just this one fancy thing that we can do. If you know that it didn’t happen overnight, you have to also recognize it’s not going to fix itself overnight either. And so, therefore, the idea is if you know it’s going to take time, if you know that there’s going to be investment, and intention and purpose and work to get back to a healthy balance, you might as well invest in the process. In other words, let’s not focus on all of the things that are wrong and all the things that you wish would go away, it’s going to take time anyway. So as we spend that time and as we work toward the healing and the health that we want, we can also invest in what is. Which is our time together, and our investment in the engagement, and the relationship and those types of things. So myth of quick fix in the parenting not going to work because there is no such thing, parenting is a journey, childhood is a journey. We’re all on it together. And when it takes a long time to get to a place, it often takes a long time to get to a new place. So the concept of spending the time, investing the energy, working through it together is very powerful. Instead of getting caught up on this idea that we have to fix it immediately.

And finally when thinking about the healthy relationship leading us toward adaptive behavior – adaptive behavior is an interesting concept, because it tends to be a little bit jargony. We use it in our field, but it’s not necessarily something that parents will say often. Adaptive behavior, in simplest terms, is just that a child is able to adapt to whatever the circumstance. Whatever the situation, whatever is going on, the child can adapt their emotions and their behavior accordingly. So when you have maladaptive behavior, that means the child is not adapting appropriately. So we will typically couple the words maladaptive behavior with dysregulation. And that’s another fancy word that just means a child is not capable of regulating. In other words, they are getting very emotional, they’re getting very out of control. They’re not able to stay in control of their emotions. They’re struggling in a situation. So we will often see dysregulation and maladaptive behavior go together. So what’s incredible about this concept of focusing on the donut, not the hole is that when you focus on the good that’s already there; the relationship, the emotion, the connection, the bond, the trust, the respect. When you focus on all of those things, you naturally end up seeing changes in the child’s behavior. Because when you have a relationship that communicates you are unconditionally loved and you are unconditionally accepted, no matter the behavior, no matter the hiccup, no matter the mistake, no matter the failure, no matter the dysregulation, you are unconditionally loved and unconditionally accepted. It builds the child’s sense of who they are. It builds their self esteem. As they feel better about themselves, they start to behave in more self enhancing ways. So the more a child feels loved, and feels heard and feels valued and feels accepted, they begin to believe those things about themselves. Once they believe those things about themselves, they start to act in ways that are more self enhancing, which of course leads to adaptive behavior. In other words, ‘I know that I might not have chosen to not be able to go play with my friends when I wanted to, but instead of having a tantrum, instead of getting completely out of control, power struggling, arguing, fighting, I’m able to adapt. I know that it’s okay. I know that I’m going to be okay because I have someone who unconditionally loves and accepts and respects me.’

So the relationship is at the core of everything. I talk about this all the time and the belief of play therapy as a whole. That one of the foundational concepts and principles is that kids already know what they need to work on. That is at the heart of what we do as play therapists is that we give the child the opportunity to work on the things that they know they need to address. I actually did a podcast about this in 2019, and if you haven’t had a chance to listen, you can search it. It’s actually called “Kids already know what they need to work on.” And the belief is that kids are struggling. They know that they’re struggling and they don’t want to be there. If given the opportunity, they will get themselves out of that struggle. But the best way for that to happen is for them to feel unconditionally loved and accepted and that frees them to become the best version of themselves that they can be. We as adults, and human beings, constantly are hopefully working towards being better versions of ourselves. That’s self actualization, a fancy word for becoming the best version of yourself that you can be. So if that’s one of our goals, that humans should just constantly be bettering ourselves, making ourselves better people, kids are on the same journey. So if we create an environment and a relationship that says you are unconditionally loved and accepted, they of course want to become the person that we believe them capable of being. I believe that you’re good, I believe that you’re strong, I believe you’re brave, I believe you’re capable. I believe that you can regulate, I believe that you can self control. It’s self fulfilling prophecy. You believe it and they rise to the occasion because they do know what they need to work on and they don’t want to stay in that stuck, broken place. They will move toward the good things that they believe themselves capable of. But that starts with the relationship. This is not something that’s quick, this is not something that’s easy, but it is very simple.

And one of the adages that I share with families that I work with a lot is merely noticing a child is a powerful motivator of behavior and change. So think about that for a moment. If you merely notice your child, which arguably means you’re investing time in the relationship; you’re not distracted, you’re not overwhelmed, you’re not doing something else. If you notice your child in a meaningful way, that is enough to motivate them toward change and positive growth. So as you can see very clearly, that relates back to a healthy relationship. And out of the healthy relationship comes the adaptive behavior. So you really have two choices. You can choose to focus on what you want to be different, what you want to fix, what you want to change and stay there, which has a very negative bent. Or you can choose to focus on what is there already. The greatness that your child is capable of, the goodness that your child is capable of. The bond that you have. The rapport that you have, the communication that you share, the experiences that you have together. And in either scenario, the end goal is to have a reduction in problematic behavior, but one has a negative spin and one has a positive spin, And ‘Focus on the donut, not the hole’ is a really helpful reminder of focusing on the positive to get you to the positive gain that you’re looking for. So to recap: three takeaways, you have traditional parenting literature does not get it right. So keep in mind that you don’t want to think about everything being a task list or a check box that says, “Oh, when this happens, you do this. That’s not a complete, effective system of parenting. Second take away: There is no quick fix. I think we all know that, but sometimes we are trying to find it. So invest the time, invest the energy in the relationship. Because takeaway number three: at the heart of adaptive behavior is a healthy relationship with your kids.

So I’m curious if you feel that you really are challenged by this. If you feel that ‘You know what? I would like to make sure that my relationship is healthy, I would like to do this a little differently. I don’t want to keep focusing on what’s wrong or what’s missing or what I wish were different. I really want to focus on the relationship.’ I have a challenge for you. Think of ways this week, maybe even today, to enhance the relationship. What would that look like? What could you do today or sometime this weekend, sometime in this next week, what could you do that will set aside intentional, purposeful time to pour into the relationship that you have with your child? Does that look like going on a bike ride with them? Does it look like going to one of their practices or games in the sport that they play? Does it look like sitting down and reading a book with them, working on a jigsaw puzzle at the table together, going outside and going fishing? I don’t know what that looks like for you and your children and what you like to do. But we are constantly given opportunities to connect in a meaningful way and it’s about taking those opportunities to invest in the relationship.

Our children are constantly giving us opportunities. It’s a matter of whether or not we purposefully take those opportunities to connect and invest with them. So keep in mind that investment in the relationship gets you to the outcome that you want when you focus on what’s already there. So what does that look like this week? Does that mean not watching tv in the evenings? Does that mean putting down your phone, making sure that there are no other distractions? Making sure that you’re physically present, but you’re also mentally and emotionally present, because oftentimes we can be in the same room with our kids and be miles away because we’re not really there. So it’s not just being in their space. It’s about emotionally and mentally being present to those moments of connection and relationship building that will forever change the trajectory of your relationship with them and your family life as a whole.

So I hope that you are encouraged by that. I love this rule of thumb. I think it is so helpful, because it’s easy to get bogged down in how we wish things were different, but the reality is when we focus on what’s already there, that sets us up for success and that’s what we want as parents: to be successful. In the next episode, I’m actually going to talk about another rule of thumb from the Child Parent Relationship Therapy training and that comes straight out of the In Home Play Therapy program – that’s the curriculum that we use. The next episode will be ‘What’s most important may not be what you do, but what you do after what you did.’ I know it’s a mouthful. We’ll unpack it together. ‘What’s most important may not be what you do, but what you do after what you did.’ The premise is sometimes we get stuff wrong, sometimes we make mistakes, but it’s how we handle those mistakes that make all the difference. So we will tackle that together next time. Thanks so much. Talk to you soon. Bye.

Cochran, N., Nordling, W., & Cochran, J. (2010). Child-Centered Play Therapy (1st ed.). Wiley.
VanFleet, R., Sywulak, A. E., & Sniscak, C. C. (2010). Child-centered play therapy. Guilford Press.
Landreth, G. L. (2002). Play therapy: The art of the relationship (2nd ed.). Brunner-Routledge.
Bratton, S. C., Landreth, G. L., Kellam, T., & Blackard, S. R. (2006). Child parent relationship therapy (CPRT) treatment manual: A 10-session filial therapy model for training parents. Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.
Benedict, Helen. Themes in Play Therapy. Used with permission to Heartland Play Therapy Institute.

Subscribe to The Kid Counselor Family email to get a FREE “Birth Order” Workshop

Birth Order: How it Affects Your Child’s Personality

Subscribe to the email newsletter today and get INSTANT ACCESS to a video-recorded workshop I conducted on this topic.

You’ll learn:

  • The hidden influences of birth order on personality traits
  • How birth order impacts your child’s relationships and success
  • Practical strategies for leveraging birth order dynamics in parenting

Subscribe now and take the first step towards understanding and nurturing your child’s unique personality!

Get Brenna’s Latest Book

Device Detox: A Parent’s Guide To Reducing Usage, Preventing Tantrums, And Raising Happier Kids.

Device Detox Book

“Dr. Brenna Hicks does an excellent job of sketching the problem, but the book shines brightest when Dr. Hicks offers a suite of practical, evidence-based strategies for coping with screen overuse in children. A valuable book that deserves to be read by parents everywhere.”


New York Times bestselling author of IRRESISTIBLE and DRUNK TANK PINK