Reflective Responding: A Parenting Approach
Most people think parenting skills are inherent and that the day we become parents we just instinctively know what to do. I believe it is not something people are born knowing how to do, parenting is a learned skill. It is something we can study, practice, and become experts at over time. We prepare for everything else in our lives: tests, job interviews, presentations, weddings… And yet, for some reason, parenting is not something we typically read up on. Luckily, over the last 50 years or so, parenting has been extensively researched and studied. Here I am going to share my favorite parenting tip, one that is extremely powerful in building positive self-esteem, minimizing tantrums, as well as also increasing a growth mindset.
Scenario 1: You and your child are at your school’s new student party. You’ve dressed her in her cutest outfit, you are feeling excited for her to meet all her new friends, and you start walking towards the large group of people. You notice your kiddo starts walking slower, looks down, and is seemingly shrinking into herself. She suddenly stops and won’t take another step closer to the large gathering. Your first instinct might be to say something like, “Hey! Look how much fun everyone is having. You don’t want to miss out, do you?”
Scenario 2: It’s about 6 pm and bedtime is approaching. Your son has just started a new TV show and you know that it will be a fight because he will have to turn it off in the middle of the episode. You are dreading it. But you start the conversation strong and give a 5-minute warning to bedtime. For good measure, you also give a 1-minute warning. And then the time comes, you take a deep breath, and brace yourself. You say, “It’s time to turn off the TV and go to bed.” You are met with an immediate cry and a loud, “I DON’T WANT TO TURN OFF THE TV AND I AM NEVER GOING TO BED.” Your instinct might be to respond with something like, “If you don’t go to your room, you won’t be watching TV tomorrow!”
Both of these scenarios end with very common and well-intentioned parenting approaches. However, they are missing a key ingredient. Are you ready? Here is your big parenting tip! It's super easy, too!
When you are met with a situation such as this, your response should be: “You are (feeling word).”
So, let’s start with scenario 1. Instead of trying to coax your kiddo to join the party, reflect the true meaning behind their behavior resulting from their feelings. “You are nervous.” And then pause. Give your kiddo some time to think and respond. (Teachers call this think time.) Sometimes, that moment of reflection is just enough to help your child understand and cope with the emotion they are currently experiencing and that’s all they may need to feel brave and join the party.
The same thing goes for scenario 2. After your child beings to launch into a tantrum, respond with, “You are angry.” Sometimes this is just enough to help your child calm down and go to bed. Sometimes it can even eliminate the tantrum because your child simply needs to know that you get it. You know that they are mad and why. Sometimes, feeling understood is all they need. Validation of their feelings is incredibly important.
So why does reflective responding work? A few reasons. When you respond with reflection first, you are sending the message that you care, you hear them, you understand, and you are present. You are letting your kiddo know that it’s okay to be angry or feel whatever they may be feeling. You are also using this as a teaching moment to help your child identify his or her emotions which is a super important skill. Once a person can identify what they are feeling, then and only then, can they cope and manage that feeling. So, using reflective responses when dealing with your child’s big feelings is the first step in learning lifelong coping skills.
Now you might be asking, “Okay great, but what if it doesn’t work?” Well, that is a fair question. This is not always a 100% guaranteed successful tactic. Sometimes it works, and other times it simply doesn’t. But I always advise parents to use reflective feeling at every opportunity because regardless of it stopping a tantrum or not, you're still teaching your child an important skill. Then, follow it with the go-to parenting approaches that you are already using. Or click here to check out my blog post on using ACT – a discipline method to give parents back control, bring peace back to your house, and rebuilding a positive relationship with your kiddo.
Axline, V. M. (1989). Play therapy. Churchill Livingstone.
Bratton, S. (2006). Child Parent Relationship Therapy (cprt) Treatment Manual: A 10-Session Filial therapy model for training parents. Routledge.