Children can drive us nuts, no matter how deeply we love them. In moments of irritability, parents often react impulsively and risk leaving long-lasting negative impacts on kids.
As parents, we must adopt disciplined parenting approaches that support our children’s positive physical, mental, cognitive, and social development. One such approach is responsive parenting, which involves responding warmly to children’s needs and signals.
This article will explain the basics of responsive parenting (spoiler alert: it takes a lot of hard work to master this form of parenting). Beyond a textbook definition, I’ll share a few tips that will help consistently practice responsive parenting.
Let’s get started!
What Is Responsive Parenting?
In a nutshell, responsive parenting is a form of attachment parenting where parents are highly sensitive to the needs of children. Responsive parents consistently and promptly use accepting behaviors to respond to their children’s signals, interests, feelings, and needs.
This type of attachment parenting can make children feel very supported and usually produces positive child outcomes.
What Does Responsive Parenting Involve?
Responsive parenting requires parents to be more attuned to the signals from their children. This means paying close attention to a child’s behavior to understand what makes them happy, angry, calm, and engaged.
As you probably guessed, attuning to your child’s signals can be complicated since their needs and signals can vary depending on the situation. However, responsive parenting generally involves following these steps:
- Observe the signal: In addition to listening to your child’s words, pay close attention to their body language.
- Interpret the signal: Interpret the signals in the context of the situation. For example, is your child wearing a long face because they are unwell or angry?
- Take action: Meet the needs of your child in a timely fashion. But most importantly, act consistently.
Benefits/Importance of Responsive Parenting
Why should you go through the hassles of responsive parenting when you can simply shout out orders and punish disobedience? If an authoritarian parenting style is too “extreme” for you, permissive parenting also involves high responsiveness and low demandingness, so why bother with responsive parenting?
Here’s the thing.
The goal of raising kids is to create the best outcome, and what better way to do this than to understand our children’s needs so that we can respond appropriately with respectful parenting.
Responsive parenting offers several benefits; some of these are:
- Children will feel heard: When children feel as if their needs are not being met by their primary caregiver, they can engage in attention-seeking behaviors like raising their voices. Practicing responsive parenting eliminates or reduces the need for attention-seeking behaviors that can get on the parents’ nerves.
- The family enjoys a calmer home: Ignoring a child’s needs can lead to chaos and generally negative outcomes in the home. This can lead to a buildup of frustration, which tends to bring about reactive behaviors both in kids and parents. On the other hand, when you establish responsiveness, the home environment will be more peaceful, calmer, and happier, and you can improve your parent child relationship.
- Kids feel loved: Children might start to doubt themselves if parents don’t respond to their needs in a timely fashion or completely ignore their signals. Workload and increasing schedules can make parents appear unloving or unconcerned. Unfortunately, kids don’t understand this in most cases. However, kids will feel special and extremely loved if you make them see that they are your priority, regardless of your tight schedule.
- Improves problem-solving skills in children: Consistently helping kids complete age-appropriate tasks can improve their problem-solving skills. This is particularly the case if you model problem-solving as a responsive parent for them to see.
- Boosts parents’ self-esteem: Responsive parenting helps parents handle issues effectively and quickly. This can give your self-esteem a boost, as you’ll likely feel on top of things at home, at least most of the time.
Making the Shift from a Reactive State to a Responsive State
Knowing what responsive parenting is doesn’t necessarily make it easier to practice. Parents require an incredible dose of patience, humility, and a balanced perspective to consistently apply this form of parenting.
But nearly all parents will readily agree that it is not always possible to remember to act from a responsive state, no matter how knowledgeable we are in the subject.
If you are anything like many parents, you are usually parenting from a reactive state – handling issues in an auto-respond mode – especially when your kids are rowdy, throwing tantrums, and just being plain annoying.
Yelling, barking orders, and doling out punishment with the mindset of “fixing things” are some of the go-to reactions for many parents. But that approach doesn’t usually produce good child outcomes. If anything, this type of parenting can lead to low self-esteem, anti-social behaviors, lower cognitive ability, emotional and mental challenges, and other negative outcomes for children.
Raising mentally and emotionally stable kids requires doing your best to shift from a predominantly reactionary state to a more responsive state. But make no mistake; making this shift is no walk in the park!
It will take a lot of deliberate work – hard work – to stop yourself from behaving like your parents (and even parroting the ugly things they said to you), even though you’ve told yourself countless times never to practice that form of parenting with your kids.
If you find yourself parenting from a reactionary place, perhaps these few tips can help gradually ease into a more sensitive or responsive state.
- Take a pause: Before “fixing” anything, pause and breathe. Ask yourself if the approach you are about to implement has yielded positive outcomes in the past. Do you need to change tact? What do you need to do differently to produce better results?
- Practice active listening: Rather than rushing into talking or lecturing, it is important to first empathize with your child. Just hear what they are saying without saying anything or judging them. Nod, maintain eye contact and show that you are there for them, no matter what. Avoid rolling your eyes, frowning at your child, or doing what’s inappropriate for the situation. And by all means, don’t get distracted by your own emotions.
- Acknowledge your child: Whatever you do, don’t dismiss or belittle your child’s concerns. Instead, make them know that you see why they feel the way they do. Acknowledging their frustration doesn’t necessarily mean that you agree with their opinion or support their behavior. It also doesn’t mean you are trying to fix them. Acknowledging your child simply shows that you are sensitive to their feelings and you are validating their experience.
Reconnect with your child: Kids can ramble on and on when emotions run high. This is normal. However, be quick to recognize your kid’s attempt to connect with you when they are calm. They may want to hug you or make jokes. Use the opportunity to reassure them of your unconditional love.
As mentioned earlier, remembering all of these can be tough. Yet, we must continue to try our best until we master the art of parenting from a responsive state rather than a reactive state.
Tips to Start Responsive Parenting
The truth is that there is no one-size-fits-all principle when it comes to responsive parenting. This form of parenting means adjusting to each child’s unique needs in ways that support their different stages of development.
However, the following general tips can help you respond more sensitively to your kids’ emotional and physical needs, regardless of their temperament and age.
1. Learn Your Child’s Unique Love Language and “Speak It” Unconditionally
One of the key components of responsive parenting is showing unconditional love. Ensure that your child knows that you love them, regardless of circumstances. Showing unconditional love increases the chance of getting your child to understand the rationale behind expectations and dos and don’ts.
Showing your kids unconditional love is great, but you must first find out their unique love language if you want your affection to have the most impact on your child.
We are wired to appreciate affection through different means, including words, touch, time, acts, and gifts. If your child interprets time to mean love and affection, then, by all means, give them enough time. If touch is their preferred love language, learn to speak it always and unconditionally.
2. Affirm Your Child’s Good Behaviors
One of the most effective ways to make kids behave well is to praise them for good behavior. Don’t fail to affirm your child’s good behaviors, no matter how little the good act is.
Consistently doing this will nurture integrity and character in your child, increasing the likelihood of raising a virtuous individual.
3. Use Inductive Discipline Rather Than Punishment
While punitive discipline can force kids into obedience, it isn’t the most effective way to teach them to make sound decisions. Obedience doesn’t necessarily mean compliance with rules.
Responsive parenting uses inductive discipline to help children understand the reasons for parents’ decisions, requests, and expectations.
For example, when disciplining your child for bad behavior, shift the primary focus away from the misbehavior. Instead, explain why the behavior is unhelpful and how it can affect them and others. When children understand why something is inappropriate, they are less likely to do it.
4. Be Firm But Not Rigid
It is okay to set high standards, but don’t be rigid, as that would mean putting your ego above emotional intelligence. Be flexible and open-minded about expectations. While your child looks up to you as an authority figure, it is okay to discuss your doubts. This doesn’t show weakness; rather, it shows your authenticity and your high level of emotional intelligence.
Of course, there will be times when you need to stand your ground and make kids adhere to non-negotiable rules. But your child will easily see your point in such cases since they know you won’t quibble over non-essentials.