This question is a simplified version of one I get in various forms. Usually the person reaching out identifies as a gentle parent and they’re struggling because someone else in their life and in their child’s life — whether that’s a co-parent, a grandparent, or another caregiver — is critical of gentle parenting.
Gentle parenting has become a popular term to describe parenting practices that back in my day fell under the attachment parenting label. You may also hear this described as respectful parenting or conscious parenting. And sure there might be subtle differences in the way people apply theses labels, but generally we’re talking about parents who are working hard to be tuned in to and connected to their children. How this looks might be a focus on discussion, respect for a child’s feelings and point of view, and more collaboration, less punishment.
Outsiders tend to dismiss gentle parenting as helicopter parenting, or over parenting. They may call it “spoiling”. Gentle parents are often blamed for their kids’ behavior or struggles. People may say, you’re too easy on them. They’re manipulating you. Gentle parenting might get confused with permissive parenting where there are no rules or guidance.There are definitely rules and guidance in gentle parenting although this may not look the same as in more traditional parenting.
For the gentle parent who has a more challenging kid, it’s even more complicated. Those challenges may be what brought them to gentle parenting. Parent may have realized that this is a child who needs a different approach.
Or the gentle parent may have come to this style of parenting because of their own childhood — either wanting to parent in similar ways to their own gentle parents or because they are critical of the way they were raised and want to do things differently.
I’ll share that most of the people who reach out to me are the latter, people who are trying to parenting differently, and who sometimes find themselves up against their own strong feelings about a situation they went through as a kid and trying to figure out what is right for their own child. So they do worry about over parenting but they worry a lot more about under parenting.
I hope this has set the general stage for our discussion about how this impacts child anxiety.
Now I identified as an attachment parent in my own parenting career and I spent a lot of time on email groups devoted to this kind of parenting. That’s what we had instead of FB groups. We had listervs and in many of these groups there was a kind of litmus test for whether or not you qualified as a true attachment parent, which I will tell you now is ridiculous. Any list that says you’re out and you’re in is ridiculous. In any case, that kind of binary, that kind of either you’re right or you’re wrong thinking, can create a lot of anxiety in parents. But especially in parents who are trying to learn a new way of parenting.
Gentle parenting younger kids is fairly straight forward — no crying it out, no physical discipline, lots of discussion — but it can definitely be tricky to figure out how to gently parent bigger kids. The reason why there are fewer parenting books as kids get older is that their development becomes much more individualized. Toddlers tend to all be more or less in the same ballpark. Teenagers, on the other hand, are all on totally different playing fields.
But even those kids all in the same developmental zone are unique people and you are a unique person. Anyone who tells you there’s one right way to raise all kids doesn’t know what they’re talking about. While there are some clear research like physical discipline has a lot of negative outcomes for kids and for the relationship, there is lots of nuance about other things like time out or sleep choices or schooling.
So I have to tell you my parenting philosophy as an educator and as a counselor, which is that you and your child are meant to build and teach and grow each other. You’re the parent so you’re going to be making the bulk of the decisions, obviously, like where to live and how to spend the money and how to make the money and all those big picture things. But those big picture things are influenced by the child you get.
I remember I had very strong ideas about how to parent for independence that were shaped by my time as a preschool teacher, which I did before I had kids. Then I had my son and a lot of my great ideas didn’t fit him. While I was definitely the decider, my son shaped me to be the parent he needed. Tuning into his needs with a background on general child development, helped me with my decision making. Not that it was always easy. And then his sister came along and she was a totally different person with different needs, and she shaped me again. The tools and techniques that I nailed with my son didn’t always work for her.
I’m telling you this to remind you that ultimately you are the expert on your child. No parenting educator — me or anyone else — knows more about your child than you do. What I know about, and what other educators know about, is children in general. I have expertise in general child development and on child anxiety and general parenting and what I have to say may be useful to you but it’s only useful when it’s filtered through your expertise and experience.
Back to gentle parenting. Many self-identified gentle parents are worried about getting it right. Between the groups and the books and the podcasts like this and the instagram and the TikTok, it can feel like there are a lot of rules you have to keep track of. I’m telling you right now, that any anxiety you have about getting it right is likely getting in your way.
Your relationship with your child is the most essential piece. That doesn’t mean you always have to like each other — sometimes kids don’t like parents, and sometimes parents aren’t liking their kids. That’s ok. If there is central love and respect, you can lean on that as you do the hard work of growing together. In fact, my belief based on years of experience, is that when you aren’t liking each other or when you’re not liking parenting, this is a wonderful indicator for you that things need to change. Instead of fighting that feeling, I think parents and kids are best served when they acknowledge it and recognize it as a tool. Gentle parents tend to feel guilty instead of remember that they did the hard work of gentle parenting so that they can trust the relationship, trust the messages within the relationship — including the ones that say, Hey this isn’t working for us anymore — and change things up.
There is a natural ebb and flow — a weaning dance that begins the minute you first hold your child and goes on even after they move out. Sometimes the ebb is evident through the conflict or unhappiness in the relationship and we need to adjust things to get back into flow. So if you’re struggling, I’d like you to reframe this as, “I’m a good parent with a good kid so this frustration or conflict or stuck feeling is a sign that we’re ready for something new.”
For gentle parents, anxiety treatment can be tough because it means your child is going to be upset and you’re going to be the one either upsetting them or not preventing their upset. Gentle parents tend to be much more vulnerable to the Parenting Pitfalls and they tend to need more support as they learn to get unstuck.
This is not caused by gentle parenting; it’s caused by parents who are still growing in confidence as parents.
We all have insecure times, times when we think, “This poor kid, I have no idea what I’m doing” but the gentle parent tends to be much harder on themselves.
Now the one thing that I HAVE noticed about gentle parents is that we tend to talk too much. We tend to reassure too often — that’s a big parenting pitfall for gentle parents. And we often avoid dealing with anxiety, hoping we can wait until we get buy in from our children and that’s not realistic. Anxious kids don’t usually say, “Hey I need you to push me out of my comfort zone” so we’re going to have to push even when they’ve dug in their heels. There’s a clear way to do this but there’s no getting around that it’s not going to feel great.
And we tend to over explain. I tell gentle parents that most of us parenting via discussion and that’s great but we sometimes need to skip the conversation and focus on action.
When I taught preschool there was one lovely little boy named Daniel. As an aside, Daniel is in his late 30s now, which obviously makes me feel really old. Anyway. Back to Daniel. Daniel often got into 3-year old kinds of trouble, you know, upending routines or whatever. And I’d take him aside and we would have a quiet private time to discuss and process this. We realized I was creating a problem when he did something — spilled his juice on purpose or knocked over someone’s block tower — and the other teacher stepped in and he looked up with his bright and shiny smile and said, “Do I get to talk to Dawn now?” And we realized we were doing a great job of teaching him that the way to get some special time with me was to do something not great for the classroom.
That’s what lots of gentle parents are doing. They are taking their child’s worries so seriously, processing them so much, that they mistakenly elevate those worries. WE often want to “get to the bottom of things.” We want to know the why of things. Why are you scared of butterflies? What’s scaring you at bedtime? Lots of times our kids don’t know and frankly they don’t have to know and neither do we. We can just trust them that they find butterflies and bedtime scary and we can create a plan to help them with this without digging in and shining a big light on it. Sometimes they so don’t know that trying to have a big talk about it will actually CREATE the reason.
Our child runs screaming from butterflies and yes, we explain to them why butterflies are safe. Maybe we do a whole thing about butterflies, ordering monarch catapilars to grow in our houses, heading to the library for butterfly books, and that’s great. A non anxious child will take this and run with it. An anxious child might but they might also get stuck. Again, experiments and books and things are great — those are exposures. Exposures are good for anxiety. But anxious kids can be blackholes where they need more and more and more. An explanation every time. Processing every butterfly sighting. This is different than a child who is genuinely interested. The child with genuine interest will go towards the butterfly opportunities. The anxious child will continue to insist on your help.
Remember that the reason why the parenting pitfalls are so sticky is that they can work for non anxious kids and so we keep using them for our anxious kids not realizing that we’re all stuck. More discussion, more preparation, more hand holding at parks where there are butterflies. That’s when it becomes a pitfall.
What we need to do is explain once, process once, then remain supportive but from a comfortable distance where we have curiosity but are reminding them and pushing them to rely of their own strengths and resources, and not avoiding.
What does this look like?
You do the things with your anxious child — explain, share resources, look at books, etc. The next time at the field when our child runs screaming to us about butterflies. We help calm them — hugs perhaps, but we keep our focus off of them. We display a confidence that all is well. That might mean continuing a conversation with our friend who’s with us, or just remaining friendly neutral. It’s not ignoring them; it’s shifting our attention to something other than the butterflies. We might put the processing back on them.
“Remember that book we got out at the library? What do you think that butterfly is doing?”
We can validate without getting stuck.
“Yup, I remember that fluttery butterflies can make you feel nervous. I also know you can handle this.”
The goal here is not perfection; it’s helping them grow into being able to handle it. It’s the anxiety version of letting go of the bike when they’re learning to ride but sticking close by.
It’s not continuing to hold on. It’s not panicking as they ride (even if we feel a little panicky inside). It’s rolling with it. It’s knowing that if they fall, the’ll be ok even if they’re less sure about that.
To finish up, the thing I want you to know is that by choosing gentle parenting you have created a bank of good parenting. You have made a sound deposit in your child’s well being and in the relationship. You have been trustworthy, respectful, validating. Yo can trust that. You can trust that foundation. You can lean on it. You can create flexibility and movement in the relationship by asking more of them. They will grow through this, even if it feels hard sometimes. And you will grow, too. Both of you will grow in distress tolerance, in being able to stretch to meet the next challenge.