Responsive Parenting                

                       recognizing, understanding and then accurately responding                               to the cues and behaviors your child is expressing.

What it is and what gets in the way


Having and raising a child brings many changes to your life. We all want to be good parents and raise children who are confident, make the most of their abilities, show empathy toward others, and are able to understand and regulate their emotions. The most important thing you can do as a parent to make this happen is to be responsive to your child.


Responsive care involves your ability to think about and understand what your child is experiencing in everyday moments. For example, when something is upsetting your child and you respond in a way that helps soothe their distress, it results in your child developing a sense of security that he or she will feel safe and supported. Once your child feels this support, they will then have the confidence to return to exploration and learning.  When that happens, it's also important to acknowledge your child when they have discovered something new or exciting. The more that you can do this, the more your child will be able to understand and regulate their emotions which will benefit them greatly as they mature. 

This is important at all ages, and of course the type of behavior presented by the child, and the challenge that this presents to you as a parent, changes as the child develops. Keep in mind that children have their own thoughts and feelings that may differ from yours. Of course that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t exercise good judgment on how best to respond. And importantly, being able to do this is dependent on your ability to understand yourself and how your early life experiences impacts you in these day to day interactions with your child.


When done fairly consistently, responsiveness helps your child form a solid picture or model in their mind that the most important person in their world, you, will be reliably supportive and nurturing. These models build up over time and mostly operate outside of conscious awareness.


What if I’m not able to give responsive care to my child?


How you view your child is influenced by your conscious and unconscious thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes. These views in turn directly affect the way you respond to your child's behaviors. When so much of your child’s time and energy is being taken up seeking comfort and security when they’re distressed because you're not tuned in with them, or when their explorations are not supported, their ability to trust and rely on you gets distorted, and their willingness to learn and explore gets dampened. Care that is consistently unresponsive will lead to the buildup of models that causes your child to view themselves negatively and he or she may eventually have trouble forming close, trusting relationships with others. This can also interfere with their ability to cope with problems and can potentially lead to difficulty managing their emotions. This, depending on how often it happens, may turn into a lifelong problem, and your child may struggle with shame and low self-worth through life.

But aren’t some children just more difficult?

Factors such as the temperament of your child and their genetic background do play a role in their development. These factors can make your job easier or more difficult, depending on the mix of child and parent temperaments. This, however, is something that can be handled if you are sensitive to your as well as your child’s particular makeup, and can then make the necessary adjustments.


What's stopping me from being responsive?


There will be always be times when you won't be tuned-in or very responsive to your child for a variety of reasons. Allowing yourself to be distracted by life's everyday demands is probably the biggest factor. Also, a certain amount of this is actually helpful in that it helps the child develop a tolerance for frustration. However, when this is something that happens on a regular basis, problems can occur and it may be helpful to examine what is happening that is getting in the way of being tuned in to your child. 


Keep in mind, no parent is perfect! When you realize you may have missed or misinterpreted what your child is expressing, it is very important to let your child know that. That allows you to repair the relationship and move on in a positive manner.


Parents may struggle with a variety of mental health challenges. Feeling depressed or very anxious on a regular basis can seriously impact your ability to effectively respond to your child. Also, you may have beliefs about what works best for raising children that are not accurate. This has also been shown to inhibit a parent's ability to sensitively respond to their children.


Problems may also arise if you are unable to see your child clearly because of traumatic experiences from your own childhood. Everyone has had the experience as a child of their own parents being critical or unresponsive in situations that were upsetting. This, depending on how often it occurred, can make it very difficult to respond to your child's' distress in a helpful manner.  The more you are able to recognize these feelings when they come up in your day to day interactions with your children, the more you can manage them and respond in a helpful way to your child’s distress. Understanding the triggers to these emotions is critical.


This idea is expressed very well in the following passage:

In every nursery there are ghosts. They are the visitors from the unremembered past of the parents, the uninvited guests at the christening. Under favorable circumstances, these unfriendly and unbidden spirits are banished from the nursery and return to their subterranean dwelling place. Even among families where the love bonds are stable and strong, the intruders from the parental past may break through the magic circle in an unguarded moment, and a parent and his child may find themselves reenacting a moment or a scene from another time with another set of characters. In still other families there may be more troublesome events in the nursery caused by intruders from the past. There are, it appears, a number of transient ghosts who take up residence in the nursery on a selective basis. Ghosts who have established their residence privileges for three or more generations may not, in fact, be identified as representatives of the parental past.


from Ghosts in the nursery: a psychoanalytic approach to the problems of impaired infant–mother relationships

Selma Fraiberg, Edna Adelson, Vivian Shapiro


What can I do?

You are encouraged to review the resources that are listed for responsive parenting and the various challenges that may be getting in the way of a satisfying relationship with your child. You might also check out the programs designed to help parents with these challenges.