Responsive vs Reactive Parenting: It Makes All the Difference

“I’M HUNGRY!” shouts 3-year-old, Jolie, every night after her dads, Kyle and Wayne, put her to bed. Their concern that she is not getting enough nutrition, given how little she eats most nights at dinner, wins out. They reluctantly give in, even though they know Jolie “driving the car” is not a good dynamic.

This is reactive parenting—when we get triggered and act on our emotions without thinking through what our child’s behavior is telling us and what response is going to teach them positive ways to cope with whatever need they are trying to meet or challenge they are facing. More often than not, reactivity leads to an escalation of the problem and more stress and frustration for both parent and child. It is one of, if not the, greatest obstacles, to parents’ ability to be the parent they want to be--in control and able to set and enforce appropriate limits while remaining loving and positively connected to their child.

But it is really hard not to be reactive. Parenting is by nature a highly emotional endeavor that stems from our deep love for our children and the accompanying worry for their well-being. The toddler years can be especially challenging given that young children are driven by their emotions and behave in irrational, maddening and often confusing ways that most parents have no roadmap for navigating.

So, what is the antidote to reactivity? Being responsive, which means taking into consideration what we know about our child, what their behavior is communicating, and what they need to cope. This requires mindfulness — the ability to calm our minds and bodies when we get triggered by a challenging behavior so we can think about our feelings and reactions and then choose a response that we believe (and hope!) will help our children learn positive ways for getting their needs met.

What does “responsive” parenting look like in real life? Taking a step back, Kyle and Wayne are able to see that what looks and feels like manipulation is actually just Jolie being clever and strategic. Indeed, Jolie would announce to her dads each morning that when they put her to bed that night that she was going to be very hungry!

At three, she is all about power and control. Dads say it’s bedtime, but not if she can get them to come back and re-engage with her. She is not “misbehaving,” she is clever and strategic. She has sussed out the situation and enacted a plan to reach her goal, admittedly a skill they want Jolie to cultivate, knowing it will serve her well as she grows. It is their job to teach her what strategies are going to be effective.

Accordingly, they make a new plan: they explain very clearly to Jolie that after lights out there is no more interaction or food — it is just time to sleep to build her body and brain.  If she calls out after the final goodnight kiss they won’t be coming back in. At the same time, they tell her that they will be instituting a small snack (a choice between a cheese stick or apple slices, for example) at book-reading time, which they called “last chance food.” This option was critical to Kyle and Wayne feeling able to implement the new plan; that if they offered her something right before bed they would be less anxious and less likely to give in to Jolie’s demand after lights out.

How did it work? The first night, as expected, Jolie tested them. She refused the snack at book time, claiming she wasn’t hungry, and then proceeded to scream that she was starving five minutes after lights out and kept it up for almost 30 minutes. Kyle and Wayne stood firm but were extremely stressed and uncomfortable. They had to keep reminding themselves that just because Jolie wants something doesn’t mean she needs it, and that clear limits implemented calmly and without anger are in fact quite loving.

Despite Jolie’s crying and seeming desperation, they are not hurting her. In fact, they are helping her build resilience as she learns to adapt to very reasonable limits and  experiences that she can cope with not always getting what she wants. This is an attribute they know will serve Jolie well in the future. On the second night she still refused the snack but protested for only 20 minutes. And on the third night, she ate the snack and went right to sleep. A parenting win! 

Responsive parenting enables you to set effective limits with love, without anger or punishment. It prevents those ugly and painful knock-down-drag-out battles that leave everyone feeling miserable and which are much more detrimental to kids (and parents!) than the discomfort children experience while they are learning to adapt to appropriate rules and boundaries. Responsive parenting takes time and patience but has huge payoffs in the long-term. It’s a marathon, not a race.

Know Your Triggers: Managing Your Emotions and Reactions is one of your most important parenting tools

Know Your Triggers: Managing Your Emotions and Reactions is one of your most important parenting tools

Cherie, a very social and athletic mom who highly values team sports, feels very anxious that her 4-year-old, Martin, is hesitant about playing soccer with the other kids on the playground. He watches on the sidelines. Cherie keeps pushing him to join in, but this leads to greater resistance. So she tries bribery, which results in Martin inching his way toward the soccer field and running around the kids but not playing with them, looking anxious and sad. 

Caring for young children (really, children of any age) is an intensely emotional experience. We love our kids so deeply and want the best for them, so when faced with an incident or behavior that we worry is detrimental to the their well-being, it triggers a reaction which often leads to negative outcomes.  In the case of Martin, forcing leads to a decrease, not increase, in his desire join the play, and erodes his trust in Cherie to be sensitive to and respect his needs. Further, bribery communicates that the goal or desired behavior is so important to the parent that she is willing offer a reward for it—making it about meeting the parent’s not the child’s needs; and when the child can’t meet the need, there is a risk that he feels like a disappointment to his parent—a big burden for a little child. (Bribery can also lead the nasty little phenomenon of your child expecting a reward for everything—cleaning up toys, brushing his teeth.)

So know your triggers. Anticipate what kinds of situations get you revved up and reactive. Using what you know about your child, think about what the behavior might mean (shouting “go away” to a family friend who has come to visit because he is uncomfortable with anything new and unexpected) and what he needs from you to cope (acknowledgment that he needs time to get to know someone and inviting the friend sit with them as they read a favorite book). That is responsive versus reactive parenting. One powerful strategy to avoid a reactive response (think: yelling, threatening, bribing, shaming) is to take your own time-out when your child is provoking a situation you need to respond to, for example, demanding ice cream right before dinner. Calmly, you state: “Hmm…this is a problem: you want ice cream but that is not a choice right now. I am going to take a mommy moment to think about how I am going to help us solve this problem.” This gives you a chance to calm down and think through the best way to respond, and throws a monkey wrench into what often becomes a heated back-and-forth. (It also sometimes has the very fortunate effect of the child stopping short in his tracks—so shocked at your calm response!) Taking this time-out can keep you from being reactive, gives you time to think, and provides a very powerful model for exercising self-control.  It is also a great tool for co-parents as a way to avoid undermining each other (one parent says no while the other caves) and to allow time to come up with a united plan: you announce that the adults are going to have a pow-wow and will be back in a minute to let your child know what his choices are: “We know you love ice-cream and want some now, but that is a sweet for after dinner. Now your choices are apple slices or carrots.”

This approach enables you to be responsive, not reactive, and is as important for you as your child, as it prevents you from behaving in ways you feel bad about and regret. It also helps your child learn to make good choices.  When Cherie got out of reactive mode and into mindful, responsive mode, she changed course. She brought a soccer ball to the playground and kicked it around with Martin, without any coaxing of him to join the other kids.  She also planned some opportunities to meet one or two other kids at the park on weekends to help Martin feel more comfortable with group play.  At the same time, she followed Martin’s lead on the playground, showing she values whatever most interests him—which is often the sandbox over running and climbing—not imposing her own expectations on him. Both Mom and Martin felt a great sense of relief and their time together was much more joyful.