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?

overprotective

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.

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The Role Emotions Play in Behavior and Correction

Note: My brother, Josh (one of the Mormon guys at twomormonguys.com {the other is my cousin, Dallan}), helped me with this post. He and I have had many conversations on this subject, and I’m so grateful for his participation on this!

My husband and I were watching a sitcom the other day, and in this episode the female character was feeling like her husband wasn’t trying in their marriage anymore and like he was taking their relationship for granted. Instead of talking to him about it she let her feelings become bottled up inside until finally she snapped, accusing him of being lazy and not caring, and causing a big fight. It was clear to me, since I was just an observer, that she could have said something like, “Remember when you used to surprise me with flowers randomly? I loved that, and I miss it. It would really mean a lot to me if you still did things like that.” and the outcome likely would have been much different.

dissonance

 

By yelling at him, she was hoping to be heard and to set her husband straight. But when humans are attacked, our natural reaction is to either fight back (jump on the defensive), run from the fight (avoid the problem and stuff our feelings), or simply freeze and shut down. In moments like these, the reasoning part of our brain is not “on” and so the lesson we’re supposed to be learning isn’t getting through. When we’re being attacked, yelled at or criticized, our autonomic nervous system thinks we are in danger and triggers the fight or fight response. This happens automatically and completely out of our conscious control. We feel worse than we did before, and we can’t do better by feeling worse. You see, we do the things we do because of what we think and feel in that moment, particularly about ourselves. Thoughts lead to feelings, which lead to actions. When we feel better, we do better.

Think about how emotionally generous you are when you feel great! When we’re full of love and the Spirit, kindness and patience and generosity just flow from us naturally.

beauty

Children are no different. When they feel badly, they’re more likely to behave badly. And when they feel wonderful, they act wonderful. But we often hold them to a higher standard than we do ourselves in this regard. It’s easy to justify our actions when we’re frustrated or upset (maybe we don’t let the “jerk” driver over when we tries to change lanes in front of us, because he was rude first so “he deserves it.”), but we tend to expect our kids to always be on their best behavior.

We tend to think that our children have to earn our affection and attention, that they must act a certain way first in order to get the attention they so desperately need. But if they could act appropriately without our help, then they wouldn’t be crying out for our attention in undesirable ways to begin with. Children need connection with us to keep their “love tanks” full and to keep themselves regulated. They need help processing the yucky emotions that are driving the bad behavior. They’re much more likely to act the way we want them to when they feel connected to us and when they’re in a positive emotional state.

We also tend to think, “but I’m the adult and they’re the child and it’s my job to discipline and teach them a lesson when they misbehave.” And it’s true, we do have a responsibility to teach! But the thing about teaching and learning is that it can only happen when everyone is calm and in a positive emotional state. As I said before, the rational part (the learning center) of our brain shuts down when we’re in a state of fight or flight. Yelling, criticizing, belittling, shaming, spanking, isolation/withdrawal (time out), etc. all put children in a state of fight or flight and turn off their reasoning centers, making it literally impossible for them to even understand what we are saying. All of these strategies make children feel worse, and again, they can’t do better by feeling worse. They can’t reason or learn while in “fight or flight,” but nor will they even be motivated to do good when they feel shamed. All shame does is make us feel defeated and worthless and hopeless. It is essential that we improve the emotional state first before we can truly improve behavior.

kindwordslovingactions

Now, recognizing that we only act badly when we feel badly does not in any way excuse bad behavior. We are each responsible for our actions regardless of how we feel. This is why we allow all feelings but limit behavior. This is also why we use empathy and emotion coaching. Everyone is swamped by big emotions at times, so it’s crucial to learn how to shift from “fight or flight” back to a state of rest where we can reason, without repressing emotions, so that we don’t continually make bad choices in the heat of the moment that we will later regret. The more we help our children make that shift, the better able they will be to make it on their own eventually. It is only after making that shift that effective teaching, learning, and communicating can take place. Change the emotional state, change the behavior. How do we help our children change their emotional state? Find a way to touch their heart. If they are yelling, respond with a whisper (see Proverbs 15:1). Truly listen to them. Empathize. Show affection. Play with them. Do something that makes them feel connected to you and engaged with. Tell stories. Use the Word of God, or music. Invite the spirit. (See this post for effective Spirit-led discipline.)

children's hearts

 

This doesn’t mean that we are enabling bad behavior at all, or being permissive parents. We can recognize sin, and teach children to behave righteously, without doing things that make the child feel devalued, discouraged, or disabled. True discipline (which means ‘to teach’) will always involve calm and clear minds, positive emotional states, and the Spirit, who helps us to “know the truth of all things” (Moroni 10:5).

And now, as the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just—yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them—therefore Alma thought it was expedient that they should try the virtue of the word of God. (Alma 31:5)

Why did the word of God have such a powerful effect on the Nephites? Because preaching the word allowed the Spirit to touch their hearts, which changed their emotional state to one of love and a desire to do the Lord’s will.

studyofgospelimprovesbehavior

I firmly believe that children naturally want to please us and do the right thing. Their hearts are pure. Mosiah 3:19 says that we must “[become] as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit…” This is children’s true nature. But because young children are immature beings and their brains aren’t fully developed, they get easily overwhelmed by big emotions, and when they feel badly they don’t always act appropriately. Not only this, but when we use control and fear to manipulate them, they then feel the need to fight for their rights and their needs to be met. When we view them as bad (or difficult or selfish or untrustworthy, etc.) we usually see a self-fulfilling prophecy. Helping them with their feelings (and their behavior), connecting with them, and making sure they feel significant and worthwhile and wanted, helps restore them to their natural state–which is a state of goodness. I feel strongly that our society’s view of children needs to change. We must believe that children are good. Labeling them as naughty when they misbehave is not helpful. When our children behave badly, they are not bad–they are hurting. Or maybe they’re simply exploring cause and effect and testing boundaries and limits, because that’s how they learn. Either way, bad behavior does not mean they are bad. Their worth has not changed. They don’t need to redeem themselves in order to deserve our love and kindness and attention. Our Savior has already redeemed every living soul from sin. Our Savior has shown us how to hate the sin but love the sinner unconditionally.

One of my favorite stories from the New Testament is the story of the woman taken in adultery (see John 8:3-11). Jesus would have been justified by the law to have this woman stoned to death for her crime. But not only did He spare her life, He transformed the entire situation and probably left this daughter of God feeling humbled and hopeful and worthy of forgiveness. I imagine she was overcome with love and gratitude. The perfect love she must have felt from the Savior would certainly have been a much greater motivator to “go and sin no more” than was the shame and scorn of the scribes and Pharisees. The Savior surely understood the worth of each person, as well as the significance of us knowing our worth. He understood the importance of changing hearts, not just behavior.

This way of parenting (touching and guiding hearts) works beautifully, but it isn’t easy. Honestly, the hardest part about parenting this way isn’t our children’s emotions, or even their behavior–it’s taking control of our own emotions (and subsequently, our behavior). We must practice shifting our own emotional state before we will be able to help our children shift theirs. This also requires time and dedicated effort. It might be faster and easier to use fear-based tactics or to just send our kids to timeout, but if we truly want our children to learn how to control their behavior and choose to do the right thing of their own volition, it will require effort on our part to control ourselves and trust the process. And what more important work could we be doing?