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A gentle hand: How to raise healthy, resilient children

Finding a parenting method that fits your personal and family values can be challenging. This is especially true when blending parenting styles from different upbringings (and dealing with all the stressors that parenting throws your way).  

Today, we’re finding that many millennials and gen X-ers were raised with an authoritative parenting style and are looking for a different method for their own kids. Gentle parenting is one option that many are embracing. As a result, it has received lots of social media attention.

What is gentle parenting?

There are a lot of misconceptions around this term, and that's partly why it's become such a buzzword. In order to understand what gentle parenting is, it's really important to understand what gentle parenting is not. 

Gentle parenting is NOT: 

  • Allowing kids to do whatever they want without any consequence

  • Babying kids or not having expectations for them

  • Having no rules or limits about what happens in your house 

Gentle parenting (also known as responsive parenting) is an evidence-based model of parenting that has been proven to be effective in raising healthy, resilient and connected kids. It's based on four tenets: empathy, respect, understanding and boundaries. 

Why is gentle parenting effective?

Gentle parenting acknowledges that we, as parents and kids, are responding to stressful situations from our nervous system, or our automatic responses, and not from a logical place. Rather than working against our nervous system by escalating responses with yelling and added stress, gentle parenting works with our nervous system and its response to stress. 

Our stress response was designed to keep us safe from things that cause life-threatening physical harm. Today, it's often triggered by stressors like having a long to-do list or children misbehaving. For kids, a response is typically the result of having an unmet need. When we become activated and our nervous system responds, gentle parenting focuses on being gentle with ourselves (and our kids), realizing that our responses are part of our biology. 

Gentle parenting strategies involve "bringing in" rather than "pushing away". Yelling, threats or timeouts are all reactions that separate a parent from the child. They only cause more nervous system stress and bigger behaviors. Instead, gentle parenting relies on the foundations of a healthy relationship in de-escalating triggered behavior.

What gentle parenting looks like

As mentioned above, gentle parenting doesn't mean simply allowing your child to do whatever they want. Gentle parenting involves responding to challenging behaviors in ways that illustrate and model empathy, establish mutual respect, show understanding and set firm boundaries. Here a few gentle parenting strategies: 

  • Respond first to the need causing the behavior. Outward misbehavior is the result of a need, whether it's physical (hunger, sleep) or emotional (for connection, for control). Having a need and not being able to manage it effectively is at the crux of misbehavior. Recognize the need at the root of the behavior and work to meet it instead of focusing on a consequence. This is a lot more effective in responding to behavior. It also keeps you and your kid more connected. 

  • Deactivate a child's stress response. If a child is having a meltdown and you're trying to give direction, you may as well be speaking in a different language. While activated, a child cannot do anything with new information. Don’t try to reason with your child or give them direction. Instead, do what you can to become non-threatening. Get down on their level, lower your voice, sit with them and let their brain notice that there is not something scary happening. This will bring their nervous system response down and turn their "thinking brain" back on. 

  • Be mindful of your responses and meet your own needs for emotional regulation. As hard as it is, if you can regulate yourself first and be aware of your own stress response, you can model how you want your child to behave. If you want your kid to take a break when they're really upset, model taking a break when you're feeling upset. (This is much easier said than done — especially for parents of really young kids.) 

  • Set firm boundaries: Say what you're going to do and do it. If your child is yelling at you, set a limit. Say, "I'm not available for being yelled at right now. I need to take a little time." When we set boundaries about what we're going to do, then we can control the situation and we're able to stay calm in the moment. (The calmer you can be, the more effective you will be.) 

In order to be empathetic, respectful, understanding and set boundaries with our kids, we also have to give those things to ourselves.

Research about secure attachment tells us we only have to get things right in relationships one-third of the time. We're going to mess up a third of the time. And then the other third, we spend making a repair. That is the recipe for secure attachment. It’s a lot more doable than feeling like you have to be at 100 percent all of the time.

So, give yourself grace. You're not going to do everything perfectly. You're going to lose it and yell at your kids. But, take that opportunity to make a repair. Tell them how you were feeling and how you wish you would have handled it. It’s okay, and important, to apologize when we mess up! Opportunities like these can help you build more secure connections with your children and help them learn how to respond to stressful situations.

If you're looking for more information on gentle parenting, I've provided some resources below. Each of our primary care offices have behavioral health consultants as part of the care team. They can answer any questions you have about gentle parenting or about your child's behavior in general.

More resources on gentle parenting

  • Beyond Behaviors: Using Brain Science and Compassion to Understand and Solve Children's Behavioral Challenges” by Mona Delahooke — This research on the nervous system and attachment can help us understand how stress responses influence what we see as negative behaviors. 

  • “Brain-Body Parenting: How to Step Managing Behavior and Start Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids” by Mona Delahooke — Based on neurobiological research about how brains and bodies work, this book discusses how to build and deepen your connection with your child and help them build resilience.

  • “Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive” by Daniel J. Siegel — By helping parents understand their own life stories and how they developed relationships, a child psychiatrist and an early childhood expert provide an approach to raising more compassionate, resilient children.

  • Dr. Becky Kennedy on TikTok — For those on TikTok, Dr. Kennedy (known as "Dr. Becky") regularly shares parenting tips and strategies with her followers.