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. As parents we want to raise children who are confident and make the most of their abilities, can 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. This involves thinking about and trying to understand what your child might be experiencing in everyday moments. If your thoughts are accurate (and this is something that usually gets better over time), then you can respond to your child in a helpful manner. For example, when something is upsetting your child and you're able to recognize what it is, you can then respond in a way that helps soothe their distress. This will result in your child developing a sense that he or she will feel safe and supported. Once your child feels this support, they'll have the confidence to return to exploration and learning. And, when that happens, it's also helpful for their development to acknowledge your child when they have discovered something new or exciting.


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. And of course you should always try to exercise good judgment on how best to respond. However, if done fairly consistently, responsiveness will help 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.

(See articles in Parenting Resources)


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. Your view of 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. If your child is consistently not able to find 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.


It’s important to keep in mind that 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.


One of the challenges to being a responsive parent is holding inaccurate beliefs about what works best for raising children. For better or for worse, your parents were your teachers on how to raise children. And of course their parents were their teachers. For example, did they typically respond to those experiences you found distressing or traumatic with sensitive support or with neglect or criticism. The interactions you experienced with your parents can have a direct impact on how you typically respond to your children.  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. Highly charged emotional situations with your children can trigger responses that are harmful to forming a trusting relationship. Understanding the triggers to these emotions is critical.


Also, the experience of ongoing depression and/or anxiety can be a serious challenge to being a responsive parent. This can be further complicated if alcohol or substance abuse is being used as self-medication for these problems 


The temperament of your child and their genetic background certainly also 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.

(See articles in Challenges Resources)

Here are some programs designed to help parents with these challenges.