All parents tend to say and do things in the heat of the moment, it’s something we just do: you keep repeating yourself, your kid doesn’t listen, you get upset and yell – then you end up feeling guilty because of your reaction. This is known as reactive parenting, and it refers to reactions that are triggered by anger, frustration and excitement.
Reactive parenting can get you immediate results, but not necessarily the ones that will satisfy you on the long term. Reactions such as yelling can aggravate the behavior you seek to modify, and this parenting style can induce fear and lead to a poor parent-child relationship with your child that extends beyond the childhood years. In other words, reactive parenting is detrimental to both you and your children.
So how can we parent in a way that strengthens the relationships we build with our kids? What parenting style can help us raise happy and confident children without feeling inefficient as parents?
Science says that responsive parenting is one of the most effective parenting styles for both kids and their parents. It can help children develop important skills that they need in childhood and beyond.
Several studies suggest that children with responsive parents have better social, psychological, and educational outcomes. They share a closer bond with their parents and are likely to confide in them.
In one study, researchers found that an absence of maternal responsiveness increased the chances that children would develop disruptive behavior in middle childhood. Research has also shown that even among infants, maternal responsiveness leads to a greater development of social, emotional, communication and cognitive skills.
Several studies suggest that responsive parenting in both infancy and the toddler–preschool period can lead to greater language, social and cognition gains.
Responsive parenting is about being attentive to children’s signals and reacting to their behavior from a place of love instead of a place of anger. It involves gaining a clear understanding of your child to better understand the message behind their behavior so as to help them develop the skills that they need to cope with that behavior.
Here are four easy ways to get started.
Four things that responsive parents do
1) They focus on turning their children’s “weaknesses” into strengths
Certain behavior traits drive us up the wall. It is much more difficult to deal with children who are “know-it-alls”, argumentative or strong-willed. But these are the exact same qualities that will allow them to be happy and successful adults, if they learn to transform negative traits into positive ones.
For instance, a child who argues about everything can become a teen and an adult who is not afraid to express their opinion – but they must be taught to express themselves respectfully and to understand that others too have a right to their views.
2) Responsive parents pause, then react
We almost always regret decisions made in the heat of the moment. Reacting in anger escalates conflict and can make us feel like inefficient parents.
Responsive parenting is about accepting one’s emotions, finding ways to calm down, and choosing how to respond to our children’s behavior from a place of calm.
I will be the first to admit that this is not always easy, but it gets better with practice. Identifying your own personal “calm-down toolbox” will help you take control of difficult parenting situations. This could look like walking away from a conflict situation for a few minutes, taking deep breaths, mentally disengaging from the situation, and so on.
You will always react more effectively to your child’s behavior when you avoid reactive responses.
3) They set reasonable limits
Responsive parents set limits in line with their children’s personalities and capacities. Good limits are not simply about managing behavior, they are also about helping your child develop skills that will serve them in the future.
For instance, setting reasonable limits is not about making a child who “loves to argue” stop arguing. It is about teaching them to debate and to express themselves without hurting others.
Responsive parents clearly explain their decisions and expectations to their children: What do they expect of their children? What behavior will not be tolerated? What are the consequences of misbehavior?
Setting clear limits, boundaries and consequences actually does children a favor and prepares them for the future.
4) They focus on what drives their children’s behavior
Childhood is an age of change. Children are still developing skills such as emotion regulation skills and resilience, and their needs and interests keep changing as they grow.
One of the key characteristics of responsive parents is that they are highly observant. Being attentive to your child’s needs and emotions can help you react to their behavior more appropriately.
For instance, we now know that big emotions such as anger and anxiety influence children’s reactions. Intervening before these emotions get out of hand is therefore an effective strategy that can help you manage their behavior. In other words, responsive parenting is about understanding and reacting to your child’s signals.
Responsive parenting is really about being sensitive to your child’s needs and being willing to change your parenting style to adapt to their changing needs.
For instance, children seek greater autonomy as they grow older and being attentive to your child’s needs can help you determine how to give them greater independence (for instance by allowing them greater decision-making powers) as well as greater responsibilities (for instance by expecting them to participate in household chores).
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