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For the generation of current parents raising toddlers to tweens, authoritarian parenting (e.g. if you live under my roof, you will do as I say) is an outdated model.
As for permissive parenting (e.g. run freely with no questions asked), this parenting approach tends to be less common with the safety concerns that have risen in recent years.
With authoritarian and permissive parenting being largely out of the mix, you might be wondering which parenting approach most of us are using these days. In an ideal world, one of the healthiest ways to raise a child is through authoritative parenting (e.g. I am kind while maintaining boundaries when needed). Unfortunately, this parenting approach is used less than one would hope for.
Over my many years as an educator, I have found reactive parenting (e.g. acting out our own emotions in response to our child’s behavior) increasingly used within the home. To be clear, no parent wakes up one day and suddenly declares that they want to embrace reactive parenting. No one wants to yell, bribe, or threaten their way through the child-raising years. And yet, so many parents find themselves in this place (which feels downright lousy, right?!).
If you are new to this term of reactive parenting, let me share a working definition, how you may be using this approach more than you know, and a few tools to get you out of the cycle and your family back on track.
Reactive parenting is when you have an emotional reaction to your child’s behavior. This reaction comes from your own internal feelings and can manifest as anger, irritation, and frustration. As an educator, I have also seen reactive parenting manifest as bribes and over-rewarding.
In my own life, a moment that stands out as a reactive parenting experience was when my daughter was three. This has not been the only time that I have negatively reacted to one of my children, but this example stays with me for two reasons: 1. The icky feeling I was left with after my big yell and, 2. The tools I learned from that experience, which helped me move from reactive parenting to authoritative parenting (the same tools that will help you too!).
Reactive parenting in action.
My daughter was three years old and suddenly refused to walk down the stairs by herself. Instead, she stubbornly stood on the landing, waiting for me to hold her hand.
Given that she was three, that meant that she wanted to go upstairs and downstairs approximately 500 times a day (ha!). And although I loved holding her adorable little hand, I also had my five-year-old son to care for, meals to make, toys to straighten up, laundry to fold, work to do, and somewhere in all of that, also practice some sort of self-care to maintain what little sanity I was so desperately holding onto in those early child-raising years.
In one of those awful-mama moments, I had finally had enough and yelled at my daughter to “walk down the steps!”
This was a reactive parenting moment (sigh). But, this was also a teachable moment!
The tool I needed to stop reactive parenting:
After I apologized to my three-year-old for my overreaction, I got to work on trying to get her to walk down the stairs. I knew yelling didn’t work, so I tried a chart with stickers. The bribe was unsuccessful. Then, I tried offering instant gratification with toys, sweets, or a television show if she walked down the stairs alone. Again, no luck!
My daughter’s response to the song and dance I was trying to create was completely aligned with what we see in children who have a reactive parent. First, she was scared when I yelled and retreated. Then, my anxiety around her mastering this stair goal created more anxiety for her around going down the steps alone. Her anxiety made her beg more for my help. All of these responses are highly typical in a home where the parent is reactive.
Fortunately, for me (and now for you as you read this), I found some tools that solved the stair problem. And, the solution had nothing to do with what I thought the problem was, but rather, everything to do with me changing my ways and learning better strategies for when my child’s behavior upsets me.
Tool #1: Self-regulation.
I define self-regulation as the ability to calm yourself down and not react to your child with a yell, threat, or bribe to get them to act the way you think they need to act in the moment.
For us adults, self-regulation is the most important parenting tool we have, because if we have not regulated ourselves, then we have no chance of helping our children learn the tools they need to grow from their mistakes and navigate tough behavioral moments. The idea of self-regulation is simple, but maintaining a regulated state is hard when our children are not listening, fighting, or things feel like a hot mess.
In my upcoming parenting book, I have an entire chapter devoted to self-regulation tools. It really is the most important tool to a peaceful home.
Let’s practice one of those tools now:
Daily writing reflections.
Much of our ability to self-regulate will be a reflection of our internal state. Daily journaling and writing exercises can help us maintain a more grounded place of peace. I invite you to explore what feels best for you in this process. One approach would be to free-write daily in a journal (whatever comes to mind) and then finish up with one of the journaling prompts below.
Another suggestion would be to do one prompt each day, or you could answer all the prompts below each day.
This exercise might feel like a “have to” in the beginning, but over time, it will transform into a “get to.”
Your well-being and your relationship with your children are in your hands. I hope you will embrace all the goodness that comes from these tools!
Prompt #1: Write three things you appreciate about your child/children today.
Prompt #2: What is one thing you did well today?
Prompt #3: What was one act of kindness you practiced today (either toward yourself or someone else)?
Prompt #4: What is going well in your life?
Prompt #5: What is one thing today that made you smile?
In the end, once I was calm and practicing my self-regulation tools (like the one above), my daughter and I were able to role play her going down the stairs.
I am happy to report she hasn’t insisted that I hold her hand since (but I often do anyway, just for fun!)
Self-regulation tools for your child:
In my work as a parenting educator, I always support both the child and parent by providing tools for all of you.
Now that you are practicing self-regulation as a parent, let’s look at how your child can learn this important tool as well.
Tool #1: All kids feel angry sometimes (just like grown-ups).
When a child feels angry, they can start to notice where they feel the mad inside their body.
For some kids, it feels hot in their hands and they want to hit. Other kids feel their heart pounding and they want to yell. Other kids want to run away and hide. You can help your child bring awareness to their anger by taking moments when they are calm to think of a time they felt angry recently. Ask your child to:
>> Close your eyes or stare softly at the ground. Think of a time when you were really angry about something.
>> What were you angry about?
>> What did you do when you were angry?
>> Did you feel the anger anywhere in your body?
This awareness of their feelings will help with future self-regulation.
Tool #2: Halloween Frankenstein breaths
In the spirit of Halloween, this is a playful way to use the breath (which is a foundational tool in self-regulation).
Ask your child to put their arms out straight like Frankenstein. Then, clench their hands for a count of 1, 2, 3 while taking in a breath and release the grip for a count of 1, 2, 3.
Do this together and have fun making Frankenstein sounds and movements while you slowly inhale and exhale.
You got this!
For those of you (parents) who are finding yourself in reaction, remember that there are so many tools that can help and support you. I teach this because I know what it is like to have a frantic home at times. I remember yelling at my kids and regretting every word that came out of my mouth, and I have days that I struggle just like you.
We are in this together—one day (or quite honestly, one minute) at a time.
I always end my work with parents by sharing three quotes that speak to my heart. I love quotes because they are little reminders that get me back on track when I am feeling overwhelmed.
Here are three quotes I have picked for you:
“The feeling that any task is a nuisance will soon disappear if it is done in mindfulness.” ~ Thích Nhất Hạnh
“I believe that the most inexpensive and perhaps the best medicine in the world is words. Kind words…positive words…words that help people who feel ashamed of an invisible illness to overcome their shame and feel free.” ~ Lady Gaga
“If life gives you lemons, don’t settle for simply making lemonade—make a glorious scene at a lemonade stand.” ~ Elizabeth Gilbert