Responsive Versus Reactive Parenting Styles
A Guide to Supporting You and Your Child When You Are Both Upset
Most parents can think of a handful of moments where they just “lost it” with their kids. These are moments when they were unable to keep their cool and be the bigger person in an overwhelming interaction where their child may have been misbehaving or experiencing a challenging emotion. When parents become activated or triggered by their children, they tend to step away from their preferred ways of parenting – calm, compassionate, curious, and wise. Instead, parents become emotionally flooded by their child’s behaviours or feelings and they react without much thought. Being able to know when you are triggered, attune to your feelings, and respond thoughtfully to your child in an overwhelming situation takes some practice – and it involves shifting your focus away from your child’s behaviour and towards your own internal experiences.
A reaction is typically quick, without much thought, tense and aggressive. We react when the emotional centre of our brain is so activated that we go into fight, flight, freeze, or appease actions.
These reactions are unhelpful to yourself and to your child. They tend to be quick, avoidant, and based off of fear or anger. They give the message to your child that when you are overwhelmed, you make me overwhelmed, and I don’t know how to handle that. Alternatively, we want our children to learn that we can be a container for their emotions. We want to give the message that when you are overwhelmed, I will be there as a wise, calm, strong, and caring parent for you to depend on and learn from. When we deliver the latter message, children actually begin to learn how to manage their big feelings and communicate what’s going on for them more effectively.
Responsive parenting involves self-awareness and an awareness of your child. It involves being able to hold your internal experiences and your child’s experiences at the same time. With responsive parenting, you are being mindful of how you may be triggered by your child’s behaviours, and how your feelings impact your perceptions of your child and how you are inclined to respond to them. Responsive parenting allows you to deal with your upset feelings, and then support your child through theirs. Here are 12 guidelines that can support you when both you and your child are overwhelmed and upset.
- Practice self-awareness. When you are particularly activated in a situation with your child, consider asking yourself the following questions: What emotion am I feeling right now? What am I feeling towards my child right now? What thoughts am I having about my child right now? Am I seeing them as a problem? What thoughts am I having about myself as a parent right now? Am I holding an expectation for myself or for my child that isn’t being met in the ways I hoped for at this moment? Can I be okay with that and work with my child rather than against them?
- Practice self-compassion. Self-compassion involves being empathetic towards yourself, especially during a difficult time. Acknowledge that your child’s behaviours are challenging, and that this is hard. Recognize that you are feeling angry, confused, overwhelmed, disrespected, or uncared for, and that those feelings are really hard to manage. Remind yourself that you are not a bad parent, but that you are going through a difficult moment.
- Remember that it is the relationship between you and your child that will build their capacity to regulate their feelings. When overwhelmed, children need to feel connected with their parents. By joining your child and coming together when they have difficult feelings, you fulfill their need for connection and closeness and you teach them to handle hard feelings in a safe and secure way. Your child will realize that they have an emotional container (you), who is bigger, stronger, wiser, and kinder.
- Give yourself a time out. If you are upset, it will be very hard for you to offer the connection, calmness, and understanding that your child needs. Remember that your child is not responsible for your emotions. If you are feeling angry, overwhelmed, confused, or disrespected in a situation, it is your responsibility to recognize what you are feeling and give yourself the care and soothing you need. If your child is not in immediate danger of hurting themselves or someone else, take a Time Out for yourself. Use this time to remind yourself that no matter how you feel, your child needs you. Remind yourself that you are bigger, wiser, stronger, and kinder than your child, which means that you can offer them patience, understanding, connection, and wisdom. You can also refer to #1 and #2. Return to your child when you are calm enough.
- Remember that your child’s emotional regulation abilities are less developed than an adult’s. When they are emotionally overwhelmed, their decision-making and behaviour control centre of their brain is deactivated. The way that they learn emotional regulation is through you. And they need a caring guide to calm them down enough in order to understand their emotions and come up with alternative ways of expressing themselves. Think of yourself as their external brain as they learn to emotionally regulate themselves.
- Maintain a calm tone of voice that is firm, reassuring, and kind.
- Look “under” your child’s behaviour. Every behaviour and emotion is a mode of communication. Young children don’t typically have the capacity to communicate their experiences verbally, particularly when they are experiencing a big, negative emotion. Ask yourself: What are they trying to communicate but are having a hard time communicating effectively? What emotion or feeling are they experiencing beneath their behaviour?
- Describe what you see and understand. It’s helpful to give children the language to describe and understand their experiences and feelings. It also demonstrates wisdom, empathy, understanding, and validation when you describe what you are seeing and what you are taking away from their behaviours. An example of this would be: “I can see that it’s hard for you that iPad time is over. Are you feeling mad? I understand that you love to play on the iPad and it makes sense that it’s disappointing to you that you have to stop.”
- Talk about your own feelings with respect to what just happened. This helps normalize and model effective communication about hard feelings. It also teaches your child that their behaviours have an impact on others. For example, you might say: “When you threw the book, I felt disrespected and hurt.”
- Stay with your child until they are calm enough.
- Avoid trying to “teach them a lesson” or correct their behaviour immediately. When children are emotionally overwhelmed, they are not in a place to learn or take in new information. Meet your child where they are at. You can let them know that their behaviour is not okay (e.g. if they are hitting, using mean words, etc.), but rather than punish or set a consequence, guide them through the emotional experience first (see #6-10).
- Talk about different ways of handling the problem next time. When both of you are calm enough, you can then offer your child alternative ways of communicating their needs and feelings with you. Next, help your child take responsibility for their part, and demonstrate taking responsibility for your part. Lastly, collaborate together on new options for how both of you can approach and deal with a similar problem in the future.
As parents, you may find it challenging to adopt these approaches in your relationship with your children. It might be helpful to seek out a family therapist to support you as you work on developing your responsive parenting skills. To learn more about how we can support you with parenting concerns, contact Nikki Sedaghat at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Content from this blog post is adapted from The Circle of Security Intervention: Enhancing Attachment in Early Parent-Child Relationships (Powell, Cooper, Hoffman, & Marvin, 2016) and Time-in Parenting: How to Teach Children Emotional Self-Control, Life Skills, and Problem Solving by Lending Yourself and Staying Connected (Weininger, 2002).