What Is The Gentle Parenting Approach?
As a marriage counselor and parenting coach, I work with couples around the gentle parenting approach. Gentle parenting is an approach that is centered on mutual empathy and understanding. While some parenting techniques follow certain guidelines and rules, gentle parenting is more of a “way of being” that promotes feelings of security and inspires positive growth for both the child and the parent!
Gentle Parenting: Where do you start?
In order to use gentle parenting effectively, it is important that parents first explore their own anxieties and insecurities. There is no such thing as a perfect parent. We all bring with us experiences that could get in the way of us gently approaching our children.
Maybe you had a parent who yelled at you when you were young, so when your child yells at you, it creates feelings of anxiety? Or maybe you had an absent parent, and your fear of not being enough for your child is crippling because you know how hard that can be?
The truth is since no parent is perfect, we all bring baggage to the table. But the more aware of this baggage we are, the better able we are to deal with it and be fully present with our children!
Why Does Gentle Parenting Work?
Gentle parenting is thought to be successful because it “meets children where they’re at” developmentally versus expecting them to master skills that even some adults can’t get right! When we can meet a child where they’re at, we acknowledge that their behaviors are what is expected based on their brain development. This means that we need to address those behaviors in a way that makes the most sense to the child.
Rather than pathologizing “bad behavior,” it acknowledges that children behave in ways that just make sense given their needs at that moment. With this approach, parents ask themselves, “what is my child trying to communicate to me at this moment?” For example, a child who is screaming in a busy grocery store may be feeling overwhelmed by the chaotic environment, is hungry or tired, or might be needing reassurance from his/her parents that they are safe.
Although some would look at this behavior as simply unacceptable, gentle parenting suggests that there is always a logical reason why children act the way they do. When we can find out “why,” we can support them better through that unwanted behavior, which ultimately builds mutual trust and respect!
Gentle Parenting Challenges
Although gentle parenting is helpful for many families, parents may encounter some challenges with this approach: First, some parents might be so focused on meeting their child where they’re at, that it can be tempting to become overly permissive and allow all behaviors to play out without setting appropriate boundaries.
Secondly, gentle parenting requires significant self-control as a parent, which could be too difficult for some parents with unresolved experiences or past trauma, or those who have a hard time regulating their own stress.
In this case, it may be helpful to speak with someone, like an online therapist or coach, who can help you through those barriers so that you can be more present and attentive to your child. As a parenting coach and family therapist, I have found it helpful to work with many parents on their own reactions to their children to determine where that reaction comes from while implementing gentle parenting.
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Gentle Parenting and Discipline
Some people believe gentle parenting to be too “soft” and absent of discipline. However this is not the case! In fact, gentle parenting views discipline as a necessary tool to teach children not only how to behave, but how to have good relationships with others. After all, the word “discipline” means “to teach.”
Discipline in gentle parenting first involves reassuring the child that you love them by meeting the child’s needs and then offering clear and consistent boundaries in order to promote safety and security. There is no traditional positive or negative reinforcement in gentle parenting, but rather the focus is on connecting. Because the more connected we feel to our parents, the more we trust that their boundaries are good for us.
I once heard someone say, “the most important thing for your child to hear after ‘I love you’ is ‘I won’t let you’.” Gentle Parenting is just that: A balance of firmness and kindness.
To tackle a tantrum, gentle parenting suggests:
- Getting down to their level (literally by physically getting eye-to-eye) and reassuring them that they are allowed to feel emotions!
- Provide empathy by actively listening to what is making them feel so upset (even if it seems ridiculous to you), and then…
- Naming how they are feeling so that they can better communicate that feeling in the future. The goal is not to prevent or redirect all negative emotions. The goal is to help teach your child how to communicate and deal with negative emotions when they happen.
Gentle Parenting a Strong-Willed Child
How do you practice gentle parenting with a strong-willed child? Patience and empathy are key! Think about it this way: if someone is repeating the same darn thing to you, they must REALLY need you to understand what they’re saying. The same is true for children who are strong-willed. They may think they know what is best so they fight you to convince you that their way is better.
Ultimately, they need to understand that as an adult and parent, you actually know better! Once you demonstrate that you’re willing to hear them and respect them, that their feelings matter, and you’re there to support them, they will feel valued. This is actually the process for teaching empathy to kids, too. But supporting them doesn’t have to mean you’ll do everything they ask… I think we can all agree that most of the time candy for dinner isn’t actually the best idea!
Just remember, consistency is key! Keep redirecting your strong willed child towards boundaries AND reassuring them that they can trust you as their parent because you care about them. The next time your child doesn’t want to go to bed, try saying, “I love you so much and I see that you are having fun. I know you want to stay up, but I won’t let you stay up past your bedtime because your body needs sleep”.
What Do You Do When Your Family and Friends Disagree with Your Gentle Parenting Style?
In my work with parents, I am asked questions like “what if my parents or friends disagree with my parenting style?” or “What if they don’t believe gentle parenting works?” and even, “How can I build necessary boundaries without hurting my relationships?”
No matter what parenting style you choose, there’s likely to be people who disagree with you. This doesn’t mean you have to conform to their parenting style or cut them out of your life. True to gentle parenting, kindness and firmness can be helpful tools in navigating these conversations.
Just like children, grown-ups are more likely to respect your point of view when they feel their opinions are heard. So, try starting with asking them why they choose to parent differently. Be curious and kind just as you would with your own child, and then offer your own perspective. It may also be helpful to point to some resources, scientific studies, or specific examples of how gentle parenting has helped your family.
If you are still met with opposition, that’s okay! Disagreeing on parenting styles is not worth losing people you care about. The important thing is that you’ve found a way of parenting that works for you. At this point, find your inner “gentle parent” and communicate “I love you, and I won’t let you.” You can tell that person how much you care about them and their relationship, but you won’t let them treat you poorly or let a disagreement affect your relationship with them.
Many families have found gentle parenting to be solace in a world of parenting do’s and don’ts. The families I’ve worked with have discovered that this style of parenting not only helped their children learn new positive behaviors, but they’ve also found their parent-child relationship became stronger! My hope for you is that you might find gentle parenting to be just as meaningful.
Meet Georgi: a warm, compassionate, Arkansas-based couples counselor, individual therapist, and family therapist who creates a safe and supportive space for you to find meaning in your struggles, realize your self-worth, and cultivate healthy connections with the most important people in your life.
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