The Difference Between Anxious Parenting and Responsive Parenting

There are two extremes I’ve noticed when it comes to they way parents respond to their children’s tears and emotions, and I’m sure all of us have been guilty of at least one extreme or the other, at one time or another. I know I have.

 These two extremes are anxious parenting and detached parenting.

 Anxious Parenting

 I try to parent in a way that I feel is very responsive and engaged, but many people might interpret this as anxious parenting. (If I’m being honest, I’m sure there have been plenty of times since I became a mother when anxiousness or fear have driven my reactions! Anxiety is no stranger to me, and although I’ve learned a lot about dealing with it, I’m certainly not perfect at it.) We probably all know someone who could be considered an anxious parent, or a “helicopter parent.” These parents might lean more toward permissive parenting, offering lots of support but not requiring much from their children. These parents love their children tremendously, and they do their very best, just like anyone else. But is it good for children when their parents consistently react with anxiety?

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I have learned that children take their cues from us, the trusted adults in their lives. So if we continually respond to things as if they’re an emergency, our children will be conditioned to react the same way, which can lead to anxiety in the child as well. We probably all react this way from time to time, and we don’t need to worry that this will ruin our children – it’s when we react this way on a consistent basis that this will become our children’s natural reaction as well. Children learn what they live.

 Additionally, when we fail to give our children opportunities to figure things out and solve problems, due to our own anxiety and need to be in control, we convey to them a lack of trust and confidence, and deprive them of growth and learning.

 Detached Parenting

 On the other end of the spectrum are the parents who appear more “laid back” about their children’s distress, those who have an easier time ignoring their babies’ cries. They might be less prone to showing empathy to their children, and might even think that showing emotion is a sign of weakness. They might expect a lot from their children (which conveys confidence in their children, and is a good thing), but with little to no support (which is not a good thing). High demand with low support is called authoritarian parenting. (See this article about finding the sweet spot between high expectations and support.) Not all are demanding though – some of these parents are more uninvolved than authoritarian. It’s the low support that suggests detachment.

Being laid back is actually a wonderful thing in the sense of not being fearful or worried or anxious. I think all of us have the ability to get to this point. But I have to wonder if these particular parents’ “laid back” attitude toward their children’s emotions is actually more a sign of emotional detachment or desensitization to instincts.

 What Causes Us to Respond With Either Anxiousness or Detachment?

 In addition to anxiousness in parents leading to anxiousness in children, there are of course environmental, genetic, and other factors that can cause anxiety. Research also indicates that anxious or detached parenting can be a result of not having a secure attachment with at least one parent – of having our own cries ignored, not receiving empathy ourselves, and not learning to process our own emotions. In other words, if our own parents were emotionally detached, we are more likely to be anxious or detached as parents as well.

detached parent

When people are brought up this way, with emotionally unavailable parents, usually one of two things happens. Some eventually learn to stuff their emotions and become detached emotionally (because this is less painful). They may use humor as a defense, and they usually have great difficulty forming deep, intimate, healthy relationships with others (see here). Others become more needy and insecure, so desperate for love and acceptance and affection that they, too, tend to attract the wrong kind of relationships. They also respond with anger to those more vulnerable emotions, as a defense against them (see here). Unfortunately, neither of these are healthy, and unless we do some healing, both can really hinder our ability to have a healthy sense of self-worth, as well as empathy and charity for others. But the good news is that there is always hope for those of us who grew up without secure attachments to at least one parent (see here).

I have seen a little bit of evidence of the latter example in myself (particularly before I met my husband, but even as a mom at times when feeling anger in response to my children’s strong emotions). But fortunately, it really is possible to heal from our past and to gain understanding and forgiveness. I understand that my parents and their parents and their parents (and so forth) all did their very best, and that many of them were wounded themselves. I also know that the Savior can heal all wounds. I am far from perfect, but I have hope in Him.

As parents we innately have instincts (given to us by God) to respond to our babies’ cries, but if we stuff our emotions (since we never learned how to process them in a healthy way) and ignore those instincts, we become less sensitive to them (see here). Again, if we respond this way occasionally, our children are probably not going to become emotionally detached or anxious. It’s the consistency of either extreme that can hinder them.

 It’s interesting to me that it’s not just anxious parenting that can create anxious children – rather, having their emotional needs ignored (in cases of detached parenting) can lead to anxiety (or depression, or other mental and emotional challenges) in children as well. So is everyone bound to create anxious children? Well, certainly not. What’s the answer then?

 Before I get to that, I want to point out that these responses (anxiousness and detachment) are the extremes, the two ends of a spectrum. Which means that most of us are probably somewhere in between these two extremes. So what’s the sweet spot between the two, the ideal middle ground?

It’s responsiveness.

 As I said, I’m sure some people (especially those who are closer to the ‘detached’ end of the spectrum) think I’m an anxious parent because I try to respond fairly quickly to my babies’ cries and empathize with my children’s feelings when they’re hurt or upset (rather than just telling them they’re fine). Am I making my children anxious by responding this way? Not if I’m truly being responsive instead of responding with anxiousness. What’s the difference?

 The Difference Between Anxiousness and Responsiveness

 The reactions of an anxious parent are more about the parent’s own discomfort than the child’s feelings and needs. They tend to overreact to their child’s struggles because they can’t handle their own discomfort surrounding them.

 A responsive parent, on the other hand, does their best to calm their own fears when there is no emergency (whether those fears are presenting as anger or anxiety), to communicate to their child through their demeanor and tone of voice that there is no emergency, and to respond with empathy (how is my child feeling? What does she need? How would I want someone to treat me if I were in her shoes?). Responsive parents have trust in their child’s abilities and potential, and they offer encouragement and support. High expectation and high support.

Mother Comforting Son

 Empathy and responsiveness are important for a child’s development because they build trust and secure attachments with us, and teach the child to process and manage their emotions (which helps with their behavior and the way they treat others) (see here).

 Determine the Source of Your Reaction

 I think a key in responding to our children appropriately is to assess our own emotional reactions and determine where those emotions are coming from. Are we listening to our intuition? To the Spirit, which encourages love and empathy? Or is our reaction coming from fear? One good way to judge if our emotions are coming from the Spirit or from fear is found in Moroni chapter 7. Verse 16 says, “. . . I show unto you the way to judge; for every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God.” Another is found in 2 Timothy 1:7. “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” Is our reaction something that persuades us to think of and believe in Christ? Does it lead us to do good to others, to treat them the way the Savior would? Do we have a sound (calm, clear) mind? When we can answer these questions for ourselves, we will be better able to choose how we will respond.

 Following our instincts (or the Spirit) might still look like anxiousness to someone else. But if we feel peace and love, if we feel compelled to act in a Christlike manner, then it’s not anxiousness. I’m sure each of us knows what it feels like to experience a “gut feeling,” what it feels like to just know something is wrong (maybe with a child’s health, or like my example of leaving my babies alone to cry) or conversely, when something just feels right (such as holding and comforting my crying child, or even nursing or rocking them to sleep). And whether or not anyone else understands our reasons, I think most of us recognize the importance of trusting our gut feelings, our instincts or intuition. But if we want to be in tune with our intuition, we have to practice acknowledging and processing our emotions, and trusting our instincts. Also – and this is important – even when we instinctively know that something is wrong, we don’t have to feel or convey fear – faith and love can cast out that fear. See this post and this fantastic talk by Dieter F. Uchtdorf.

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 What if it’s not our gut telling us something is wrong, but rather our sympathetic nervous system? If our immediate reaction to something is “emergency!” (aka a fight or flight response) but then we soon realize that no one is in immediate danger of harm or death, we can choose to calm our minds and bodies, and respond with empathy instead of anxiety.

 What if you have an actual anxiety disorder? Some people need extra help learning to calm their minds when they’re anxious, and that’s okay. I hesitated posting this because I didn’t want to give parents with anxiety disorders more to worry about – the fear and worry of “screwing up your child” (making them anxious) will only make things worse. So what can you do?

 First, take a deep breath and give yourself a huge helping of compassion. You are more than enough, and everything will be okay. Second, pray. The Lord knows what you need and He can, and wants to, help. Third, one other excellent tool I have found is meditation. By definition, anxiety makes clearing your mind and focusing your thoughts more difficult. But starting small, with even three minutes of meditation every day, can make a difference. You might find guided meditation most effective, or perhaps mindfulness meditation. Find what works best for you. Meditation is valuable for everyone, and can make a big difference in parenting, so even if you don’t struggle with anxiety, give meditation a try! Fourth, counseling can be extremely helpful for many individuals and families. And lastly, regardless of any tools or resources you may or may not use, any and all healing comes through our Savior, Jesus Christ. Turn to Him. Learn of Him and listen to His words. Seek Him. Trust in Him.

 We don’t ever have to allow fear or anxiety to determine our decisions or the way we respond to things or people. (Easier said than done? For some of us, absolutely. But “with God, nothing shall be impossible” [Luke 1:37].) We can all learn to listen to our feelings, process them, and then choose the best response we can – and help our children learn to do the same.

Jesus Wept

jesus-mary-martha-1617344-wallpaperRecently I was venting to my mom on the phone. I was feeling overwhelmed. Frustrated. Alone. I realized that she couldn’t fix my problem, but I just needed to vent.

My mom must have been feeling frustrated or tired or irritated as well, because after a moment of my ranting she said, “Well you know what? That’s life!”

She wasn’t wrong, of course. But that didn’t mean I felt inclined to thank her for the dose of reality—for essentially telling me to just deal with it. Instead my natural reaction was to move into fight or flight, and I nearly hung up on her. What I really needed at that moment was not a life lesson; what I needed was to feel heard and validated and understood. What I needed was empathy.

Now, I’m not writing this to incriminate my mom in any way (she’s actually usually really great at empathizing). Rather, this experience got me thinking about how often we do this to the children in our lives, and how they must feel when we do. For most of us, empathy is not our automatic response.

For example, not long ago my three-year-old dropped her plate of food and it spilled all over the floor. She lost it. She was so upset. My husband and I automatically began an attempt to console her, saying things like, “Calm down—it’s okay!”, “We can get you more food!” and “You’re fine.”

That phrase—“You’re fine.” We say it all the time. Why do we say it, when they clearly are not “fine” inside?

I think, for most of us, it’s because our child’s big emotions make us uncomfortable and we feel an urgent need to stop the upset. This is partly a hard-wired response that ensures we will meet our children’s needs. But I believe it is also the result of being taught our whole lives that big, negative emotions are unacceptable. Our parents worried, and now we worry, that if we indulge children’s sadness and tears then they will become whiney and emotionally fragile. We feel the need to “toughen them up.” Because this is how we were raised, most of us never learned how to process negative emotions appropriately, and instead try to repress them. Unfortunately, repressed emotions don’t just go away—rather they pop up uncontrolled at times (such as when our child has a meltdown) and threaten again to overwhelm us (which we still find uncomfortable). And so what do we do? We get triggered (we move into fight or flight) and we try again to stuff these emotions. We do whatever we can to get our child to calm down and be “good” (i.e. happy and cooperative). Sometimes we even get so triggered in these moments that we yell at our child (anger is a defense against more vulnerable emotions).

The interesting thing about all this? If we, as human beings, are encouraged and allowed to notice and feel our negative emotions, without acting on them in the moment, they evaporate. This happens because our emotions are trying to send us a message, and when we acknowledge the emotions, they can then stop alerting us because the message has been received. What’s more, if someone we love and trust witnesses us feeling our emotions and “holds space” for us, our connection with them deepens. We are then much more likely to accept any guidance they may give us. (Source)

I remembered all of this mid-sentence while consoling my daughter. So I stopped. I got down and hugged her and said, “You are so upset that your food fell on the floor. That was yours and you wanted to eat it, didn’t you?” Through her tears she said, “Yeah.” A few minutes later she was calm and had a new plate of food and all was well. Not only was she given an opportunity to feel the emotions that were swamping her so that they could dissipate and she could move on, but she also felt my understanding and knew that I was on her team.

Consider the Biblical account of Lazarus’ death in the book of John. Jesus was away when his friend died. Upon returning to Bethany, Jesus found that Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, were understandably grief-stricken with the loss of their brother. They had great faith that, had Christ been there, their brother would not have died. Imagine the overwhelming disappointment and sadness they must have felt knowing what could have been, but tragically was not, their reality. Jesus, however, knew that Lazarus would momentarily live again. How easy would it have been for him to downplay the loss Mary and Martha had experienced, knowing the joy that soon would follow. He testified to Martha of resurrection, but he never made light of what these sisters were going through. Instead, he not only allowed them their grief, but because of the love he had for his friends, “Jesus wept” with them (see John 11:35). He felt their pain, their grief, their loss. He validated their feelings and honored their experience. Then, and only then, he raised their beloved brother from the dead.

Similarly, our view is often broader than that of our children. Something that seems so inconsequential to us feels to them like their world is ending. We can tell them they’re fine, or to deal with it because “that’s life.” We can even try to convince them to see the bigger picture and to cheer them up prematurely. But if we do, what might we—or they—lose in the process?

Want more help with Emotion Coaching? Check out this article. I also love this mama’s experience.