How To Be An Emotionally Responsive Parent

As I expressed in my last article, being an emotionally responsive parent is much more challenging than being an emotionally responsive teacher.  Accepting my daughter’s range of emotions within our daily routines comes with its challenges, as does embracing the multiple facets of her personality.  Encouraging Maeve to express her emotions in safe ways, as well as modeling how to treat others kindly and respectfully will produce far-reaching benefits.  As I encourage my daughter’s social-emotional development, I am laying the groundwork for her success with peers, her self-confidence, her intellectual gains and her ability to problem-solve.  The question remains, “How do I move this philosophy from the classroom into the home?” 

Although there is no blueprint for putting these ideas into practice, here are some guidelines to follow in the process of being an emotionally responsive parent:    

Be respectful of your child and of yourself.  Respect is at the heart of the parent-child relationship.  Treating your child with respect and honesty as you interact will help him or her gain a deeper understanding of self, others and the world.  Speak to all children, even infants, as you would like to be spoken to.  Use your authentic voice, as well as the pronouns “I” and “you”.  This is the most natural way of communicating and the most nurturing.  Using first person, rather than saying  “Mommy loves Johnny”, reminds us that we are engaged person-to-person.  Speaking this way from birth teaches children how to communicate in a natural way.  For example, “I’m going to help you get into your car seat right now.  You are having some strong feelings about it.  It’s time to get in.  I’ll help you.”  Also listen to your own emotions.  If you are feeling frustrated or ill at ease, this is sending a message that you should be setting a boundary or limit that you and your child need in the moment.    

Attempt to remain in control of your emotions and reactions.  Remember you are the adult!  Be nonplussed as often as possible.  At times our frustration and anger are palpable.  When we are trying to get dinner on the table and our child has just drawn a mask on her face with marker our first reaction is probably a loud, “Why did you do that?”  It is important to PAUSE.  Take a deep breath and acknowledge your feelings of anger, disbelief or perhaps amusement at the scene.  Then PAUSE again, take another breath, if need be, and act in a gracious and respectful way.  Adopt as even a tone as possible as you say, “Let’s clean up your face.  I’ll get a washcloth for you.  Next time you can ask for face paints.”  It’s important to stay in charge of your emotions and the situation.  If anger gets the best of you then acknowledge it with your child.  “I’m very angry that you drew on your face.  Let’s clean it up.”          

Let your child know that you are in charge and you are keeping them safe, emotionally and physically.  You enter the room and your children are arguing over a block.  You come close to them and listen to find out more about the conflict.  “I see you both want that rectangular block.”  Then your younger child attempts to bite your older child.  “You are angry.  You want that block.  I will not let you bite your brother.”  You come between your two children.  PAUSE.  There is another yellow block.  “Maybe one of you can use the other yellow block.”  Your younger child attempts to hit her older sibling.  “I’m not going to let you hit.  It’s time for you to find something else to do.  Maybe you can build later.”  There are tears and screams, but you continue to help your younger child find something else to do, while acknowledging their strong feelings.  You keep both of your children safe in the process.     

Respect your child for the individual that he or she is, not who you, your parents, or society wants them to be.  Maybe your child is very assertive, but you would prefer she just go with the flow.  Perhaps your older child is quiet and just lets things go but your dad thinks he should stand up for himself.  Perhaps your child is aggressive sometimes, yet is kind and gentle other times.  It’s important to accept your child as they are without labeling or placing judgment on their actions and responses.  In doing so your child will feel secure in his or her identity, develop a positive sense of self and increase their levels of autonomy, independence and competence.  These skills will help your child to be successful in their future endeavors.          

Acknowledge your child’s strong emotions even if they may seem to be a bit reactionary or over the top in the moment.  Sometimes your child will experience a reaction that seems a bit cartoonish.  Take a deep breath, PAUSE and realize that this is your child’s reality.  Narrate what you see happening while labeling your child’s feelings.  “I used one of your gloves from your doctor’s kit to pick up the cats vomit and threw it away.  You’re having such strong feelings because you didn’t want me to put it in the garbage.”  (This  actually happened to me last weekend.) Resist your impulse to rationalize and just sit with your child as they have a big cry.  After a bit of time ask your child if they want company while they are sad or if they want to be by themselves.  Respect what they choose. 

Set boundaries to express emotions in a safe way. Remember adults are in charge.  My go to phrase is, “It is OK to feel sad (angry, frustrated, scared, etc.). I’m not going to let you hit (bite, push, hit, etc.).” It is important for your child to know that it is OK to express a range of emotions, yet there are limits to how they can be expressed. Offer an inanimate object to hit, push, and bite. Suggest stamping feet, punching a pillow, biting a chew toy or growling with ferocity. Remind your child that you will keep him or her safe! 

Remember that in each moment we act with our best intentions. Use each interaction as a place of reflection for the future. Be kind and loving to yourself and your child(ren).  Being an emotionally responsive parent is a work in progress and a beautiful, although sometimes bumpy journey! Z

-Kathleen O’Toole