Your Child Needs You to Be Responsive, Not Reactive: Here’s How

Your Child Needs You to Be Responsive, Not Reactive Here’s How

What do you do when your child is not doing what’s expected? Do you react to your behavior? or respond?
Here’s why your child needs you to be responsive, not reactive and how can you do that.

Dev is trying to read books to his three-year-old, Zoara. Zoara is running around the room and not settling down to participate. She keeps demanding that mommy (Nurit) come back to read to her. Dev spends 20 minutes trying to get Zoara to change her behavior, then reaches his threshold and storms out of the room in frustration. Zoara starts to scream that she didn’t get her books and begs for Nurit who goes to Zoara, settles her down, reads to her, and puts her to bed. This has become a pattern: Zoara demanding mommy do bedtime every night and rejecting Dev.

Dev and Nurit know that this dynamic is unhealthy for everyone, but they feel stuck. Dev is so upset in the moment that it’s hard for him not to be reactive. For Nurit’s part, she has a hard time not going to Zoara when she’s screaming for her.

In my work collaborating with families to solve their most vexing child rearing challenges, I have identified a number of consistent parental mindsets that result in moms and dads getting triggered and reacting in ways that are ineffective and often increase the intensity and frequency of meltdowns, power struggles, and other challenging behaviors.

One of the most prevalent of these faulty mindsets is: “I can and need to control my child. I have the power to change his behavior.” 

But the fact is that you cannot actually make your children do anything: eat, sleep, use the potty, be kind, not yell or have a tantrum. Children, like all humans, are the only ones who control their words and actions. This is one of the most humbling aspects of parenting that no one warns you about. It is so fiercely counter to how we see ourselves and our role. We are supposed to be able to make our children behave.

The problem is that when you focus your efforts on trying to make your child change his behavior, you actually put him in the driver’s seat. When you are in the position of trying to convince your child to cooperate with a direction or agree to a limit, you are actually ceding control of the situation to him.

Think about it,  all of the typical tactics we use to try to get children to get with the program—logic (you’ll be tired in the morning if you don’t go to sleep right now), rewards/bribes (you’ll get an extra hour of screen time), or threats (you will lose screen time)—put the outcome in their hands.

What happens if your child isn’t swayed by your logic; if he doesn’t accept the bribe or reward or he doesn’t fear the threat? Your child remains in control of how the scenario unfolds and gets resolved, a dynamic that is infuriating to most parents and results in reactivity.

So you want to keep reminding yourself in these maddening moments to focus on what you do control—the situation—and not what you don’t control: your child.

Read How to Help Highly Sensitive Kids Manage Intense Emotions: 3 Tips

But it turns out that because you’re human, this is easier said than done. Even with this insight, if you are like most of the parents I work with, you get so triggered in the moment by your child’s defiance, sassiness or obfuscation that it is hard to think clearly and go through this reflective process. (I know this feeling all too well as I am a big reactor by nature and had a very hard time practicing what I preach.)

Your children don’t belong to you.
Your Child Needs You to Be Responsive, Not Reactive: Here’s How

To help parents be more responsive vs. reactive at times when your child is not doing what’s expected, I have come up with a simple strategy to throw a monkey wrench into a downward spiral with your child: taking a mommy/daddy moment.

Here are the three key steps:

1. Matter-of-factly name the problem at hand:

“It’s time to get into the car seat but you are having a hard time following that direction.”

Read 9 Guiding Principles For More Positive Parenting

2. Tell your child you are going to take a mommy/daddy moment

To buy you time to think about how to solve the problem.

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Claire Lerner

CLAIRE LERNER is a licensed clinical social worker and child development specialist. She served as the Director of Parenting Resources at ZERO TO THREE for more than eighteen years. Claire has been a practicing clinician for over thirty years, partnering with parents to decode their children’s behavior and solve their most vexing childrearing challenges. also provides training to local preschools and pediatric residents. Claire is the author of hundreds of parenting resources, including books, blogs, podcasts, and videos. She writes a column for PBS Kids, and her work has been published by several parenting publications. She has also served as a content expert for numerous national daily newspapers. Claire's new book--Why Is My Child In Charge? A Roadmap to Prevent Power Struggles, Increase Cooperation, and Find More Joy in Parenting Young Kids will be released in September of this year.View Author posts