Choosing to Respond

Choosing to Respond

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Viktor E. Frankl

Parents often feel ineffective at managing their children’s behaviors and, as a result, become increasingly agitated when trying to set limits or implement consequences. Becoming emotionally escalated during these interactions actually makes the parent less effective and exacerbates the parent’s sense of helplessness.

When an individual is making decisions from an emotionally reactive position, Dr. Marsha Linehan, describes them as being “Emotion Minded”. When someone is emotion minded their ability to accurately assess and interpret their immediate environment is impaired. When they are angry, sad, or anxious their ability to make rational decisions is limited because their thoughts are typically distorted to support their emotional state. They tend to over respond to information that supports their emotional beliefs and disregard or minimize information which contradicts their beliefs. When

they make decisions based upon these inaccurate, emotionally reactive thoughts, they are responding reactively, which makes them less effective and more impulsive.

When a parent is in emotion mind they are reacting to their child, rather than responding to them. This emotion minded state prevents parents from responding to their children in an intentional and effective manner that both communicates their respect for their child and their ability to implement consequences.

To be more responsive and less reactive parents need to be mindful of their emotional state and the impact it is having upon their parenting decisions. The following recommendations are presented to assist you in becoming a more responsive and less reactive parent.

  • While setting limits with your child be mindful of your emotional state. Be attentive to your physical experience. Are you tightening your jaw? Are you breathing quickly? Are your hands clenched? Are you walking towards your child more quickly than you need to?
  • Once you become aware that you are emotionally escalated give yourself permission to stop. To take a breath and then to re-engage with your child. Few parenting decisions require a response that cannot be delayed by five to ten seconds. Take a moment to remind yourself that you have the space and ability to respond rather than react.
  • Remain on your child’s level while speaking to them and maintain eye contact. Standing over them can unintentionally intimidating them and prevents you from being emotionally connected to them. Is your child angry? Is your child scared? Is your child sad? Being emotionally attune to them will help you to remain engaged and less reactive. Focus on their emotional state and take that into account in your decision making.
  • Use respectful and nonjudgmental language with your child. Focus on describing behaviors you would like to see rather than judging behaviors you have seen.  For example rather than saying “You never pick up your things – you are such a slob,” you can say “I would appreciate it if you picked up your things when you are finished using them.”
  • Keep your voice calm and use a respectful tone. Raising your voice both escalates your emotional state and increases your child’s emotional reactivity.
  • When you are taking the space to respond rather than react – take a moment to smile. Even in an infuriating moment you love your child. Often you are escalated because you are trying desperately to help that infuriating child of yours. Use that space to smile and remember the deep love you have for this very human, and thus imperfect, child.
  • Take a break. At times recognizing that you are too emotionally escalated to continue engaging effectively is the most effective decision you can make. Stepping away from a conflict can be a wise decision and communicates your commitment to engaging in a more effective manner.
  • During your break focus on soothing yourself and decreasing your distress. Once your have become less emotionally reactive return to your child.
  • If you were disrespectful or unkind while in emotion mind acknowledge your actions and apologize. Communicating to your child that they should be treated with love and respect is a critical message for all children. Skipping the apology or not acknowledging your actions communicates to your child that it is acceptable for them to be treated poorly when you are unable to modulate your emotions. However, apologizing and acknowledging your actions models for them how to make respectful repairs within a relationship.

For further information on how to respond rather than react I recommend Parenting a Child Who Has Intense Emotions: Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills to Help Your Child Regulate Emotional Outbursts and Aggressive Behaviors by Pat Harvey and Jeanine Penzo.

Holly A. Hart, PsyD                                                                                                                                                                                   Clinical Psychologist