gentle parenting

Gentle Parenting for Anxious Children

Parenting is a journey that comes with its unique set of challenges, especially for those who have decided to embrace the gentle parenting approach. Gentle parenting is about guiding children with kindness, empathy, and respect, rather than punitive measures. This becomes particularly poignant when we, as parents with our own hard backgrounds, are faced with the task of raising anxious children. It’s a path that requires patience, understanding, and a recognition of our own experiences and how they shape our responses to our children’s needs.

Understanding Projection in Parenting

One of the intricate aspects of parenting is the tendency to project our own childhood experiences onto our children. Many of us turn to gentle parenting because it offers a stark contrast to the way we were raised. We want to do better, to be the empathetic and responsive caregivers we craved for ourselves. When we see our children struggling with anxiety, our hearts naturally swell with empathy. Yet, this well-meaning impulse can sometimes cloud our judgment.

Projection can lead us to over-identify with our child’s experiences of anxiety. In doing so, we may inadvertently hinder their ability to develop resilience. It is crucial to remember that while empathy is a beautiful gift, it must be balanced with the recognition that our children are individuals separate from ourselves. They have their own paths to navigate, and sometimes, what they need most from us is the space to learn and grow through their own experiences.

Embracing Exposure with Love and Support

It may seem counterintuitive, but part of helping an anxious child is to encourage them towards exposure to the things they fear. This can be one of the toughest aspects for a gentle parent to reconcile with their nurturing instincts. Exposure can feel like we are pushing our children into discomfort, which can trigger memories of our emotional neglect. It can be distressing when our child questions our love and support in the face of their anxiety, asking, “Don’t you love me?” or “Why aren’t you helping?”

However, it’s important to recognize that this exposure is not the same as abandonment. As gentle parents, we’ve laid a foundation of support and empathy that we, ourselves, may not have had. Our children have a resource in us that we may not have had in our own parents. They are not alone in their journey. As they face their anxieties, they do so with a parent who is emotionally present and equipped to support them through the process, creating a fundamentally different experience than the one we may have known.

Recognizing Individuality in the Parent-Child Relationship

Embracing the fact that your child is not you, and you are not your child, is a powerful step in gentle parenting. This recognition allows us to see our children as the unique individuals they are, with their own strengths and vulnerabilities. It allows us to parent from a place of understanding and support, without the constraints of our own past experiences.

Remember, you are breaking the cycle. Your child has the benefit of a parent who is doing things differently. Through your presence, empathy, and responsiveness, you are providing your child with the resources to face their challenges in ways you might not have been able to. This is the essence of gentle parenting—offering our children the tools and emotional support they need to grow into resilient, well-adjusted individuals.

As we navigate the complexities of parenting anxious children, we must hold onto the knowledge that our journey is distinct from theirs. We guide, we support, but we also let them find their own way, knowing that they are fortified by the love and empathy we shower upon them. Gentle parenting isn’t about shielding our children from every discomfort; it’s about preparing them to face the world with courage and the knowledge that they are never alone.

In closing, gentle parents, take heart. Your hard background has equipped you with an enormous capacity for empathy and growth. Your decision to parent gently is a testament to your strength and commitment to doing better for your child. Trust in the foundation you have built, and watch as your child uses the tools you have given them to navigate their anxieties. Together, you are on a path of healing and growth, one step at a time.

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Understanding the Roots of Child Anxiety: It’s Not Just About Parenting

Welcome to today’s discussion on a topic that I find crucial and yet often misunderstood – child anxiety and the role of parents in it. As someone who has been immersed both in clinical work and providing support through child anxiety parent education, I’ve encountered numerous instances that leave me shaking my head in frustration. The narrative of blaming parents for their children’s anxiety is not just prevalent; it’s damaging. Let’s delve into this topic with empathy, understanding, and education, to dispel some myths and shed light on the real issues at hand.

The Blame Game: Why Professionals Shouldn’t Point Fingers at Parents

One of the most distressing experiences for parents seeking help for their anxious child is being met with blame. Imagine mustering the courage to ask for support, only to be told that the problem lies with you – that you are the cause of your child’s struggles because “you’re doing it wrong.” It’s a narrative I’ve encountered all too often, and it’s one that needs to change.

When professionals hastily judge parents without fully engaging with the child, they overlook a crucial fact: parents reaching out are already taking a positive step. These are the individuals we should be supporting, not chastising. Moreover, the simplistic notion that a child’s challenges can be pinned solely on parental actions ignores the complexities of human behavior and development. Two children raised in the same environment can have vastly different outcomes because the equation of human emotion and psychology is not a one-size-fits-all scenario.

Focusing on Strengths: The Constructive Approach to Parental Support

In my work with families, my approach is to identify and build upon what parents are doing right. Believe me, no matter the situation, there are always strengths to be found. It is from this foundation of positivity that we can create effective strategies to support both the child and the family as a whole.

Supporting a child with anxiety is not just about addressing what’s “wrong” or “lacking” in the parental approach. It’s about recognizing the unique strengths and skills of each family member and leveraging these to foster a nurturing environment. By focusing on what parents and children are doing right and how we can enhance those behaviors, we create a more robust support system that benefits everyone involved.

Child Anxiety: A Family Pattern That Can Be Rewoven

Child anxiety does not exist in a vacuum; it is often a reflection of family dynamics. Yes, parents play a role, as do the children. However, by understanding that each family member contributes to the pattern, we can begin to make meaningful changes that benefit everyone.

It’s important to start with the parents who have already shown their willingness to seek help. These parents are not the problem; they are part of the solution. By working collaboratively with them, we can make significant strides in reducing child anxiety and improving the family’s overall wellbeing.

In conclusion, if you’re a parent struggling with your child’s anxiety, know that you’re not alone, and it’s not about assigning blame. It’s about finding solutions and building on the love and strengths that already exist within your family. For those who are ready to embrace a supportive and constructive approach to addressing child anxiety, I’m here to help. Let’s have a conversation and begin the journey towards healing and growth together.

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Understanding and Supporting Anxious, Irritable Kids

As parents, educators, and caretakers, we often encounter children who display anxiety and irritability. It’s natural to want to soothe their worries and calm their tempers. Yet, when we dive deeper into these challenges, we realize that the key is not to focus solely on the emotions themselves but rather on how the child is functioning despite these emotions.

Looking Beyond the Surface

At first glance, it’s easy to get caught up in the desire to see our children as beacons of positivity. The reality, however, can be quite different. Anxious and irritable children may not immediately transform into paragons of peace and contentment. It’s important to recognize that while their demeanor might not change overnight, their ability to cope with and perform necessary tasks can still be cultivated.

This is where our focus should lie: not on the external behavior that can come with anxiety, such as whining, foot-dragging, or arguing, but on their overall functioning. How are they managing their responsibilities? Are they attending school, completing assignments, and engaging in social activities? These are the measures of functioning we should be attentive to.

Embracing a Calm and Patient Approach

It’s a challenging journey, often testing the limits of our patience. But by tapping into our reservoirs of calm, we can provide a stable base from which our children can learn to manage their anxiety. Arguing with an anxious child often leads nowhere—except perhaps further into the cycle of avoidance and anxiety.

Instead, we can acknowledge their feelings—frustration, anger, sadness, worry—and still gently encourage progress towards the tasks at hand. This approach does not dismiss their emotions but rather validates them, while also emphasizing the importance of moving forward and functioning within their environment.

Progress Over Perfection

When encouraging a child to face something that scares them, it’s essential to concentrate on the progress they make rather than the peripheral behaviors that accompany their anxiety. If a child is worried about attending a birthday party, for instance, the goal becomes their attendance and participation, not the absence of complaints or nervous behavior before the event.

By focusing on the functioning—the act of showing up and participating—we set a realistic and attainable goal. It’s not about having a child who’s free from anxiety; it’s about having a child who can function with it. That’s the victory we’re aiming for.

In conclusion, it’s important to remember that as much as we wish to ease our children’s anxieties, we should also empower them to function through their worries. If you have questions or would like to discuss strategies for supporting anxious and irritable children, please feel free to reach out. Together, we can focus on building their resilience and their ability to navigate life’s challenges, one step at a time.

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Understanding and Alleviating Anxiety in Children and Teens: Gentle Parenting Strategies

Gentle parenting, with its superpower of communication, offers an empathetic, supportive, and effective way to help our young ones navigate their fears and anxieties. Today, we’re going to explore three specific techniques that embody this compassionate philosophy.

The Power of Conversation: A Double-Edged Sword

Let’s start with the core strength of gentle parenting – talking. It’s a powerful tool that enables us to connect with our children, understand their world, and help them process their emotions. However, when it comes to anxiety, we can sometimes inadvertently heighten their fears by focusing too much on the subject.

Imagine you’re in a situation that triggers your anxiety. Constantly discussing your fears can reinforce those emotions, keeping you fixated on them instead of allowing you to move forward. The same happens with our children. While it’s essential to acknowledge their feelings, we must avoid over-processing.

The key is balance. We should provide a space for our kids to express their fears without making their anxiety the center of attention all the time. By doing so, we allow them to understand that while their fears are valid, they don’t have to dominate their experiences.

Encouragement Over Fixation: Fostering Resilience

Now, let’s talk about how we can better support our children as they face their anxieties. Instead of fixating on the fear, let’s shift our focus to empowerment and resilience. Tell your child, “I know you’re afraid, but I also know you can handle it. I’ll be there with you every step of the way.”

This statement does two things: it acknowledges the fear, so your child feels heard, and it instills confidence, reminding them of their inner strength. It’s a subtle but powerful change in approach that can make a significant difference in how they manage anxiety.

By affirming their capability to overcome challenges, we’re not dismissing their feelings. Instead, we’re guiding them towards a mindset where they see themselves as capable and resilient, which is crucial in developing long-term coping skills.

Building Coping Skills: A Guided, Yet Subtle Approach

Finally, let’s consider how we can help our children build their coping skills without making them overly conscious of their anxiety. It’s essential to teach them techniques like deep breathing, visualization, or grounding exercises, but we must introduce these tools in a way that feels natural and non-intrusive.

For instance, practice deep breathing exercises together during calm moments, not just when they’re anxious. This way, it becomes a part of their routine, and they’re more likely to remember to use it when they need it – without you having to remind them in the midst of their anxiety.

Incorporate these techniques into daily life as much as possible. The goal is for these skills to become second nature to them, so when they do face a situation that causes anxiety, they have a toolkit of strategies already in place, ready to use without it feeling like a big deal.

In conclusion, gentle parenting offers a compassionate framework for helping children and teens manage their anxiety. By conversing thoughtfully, fostering resilience, and subtly integrating coping skills into everyday life, we can empower our young ones to face their fears with confidence. Remember, it’s about guiding them to understand that while anxiety is a part of life, it doesn’t have to define their experiences. As parents, our unwavering support and belief in their abilities can make all the difference.

Thank you for joining us on this journey towards understanding and nurturing our children’s emotional well-being. Keep embracing the power of gentle parenting, and let’s continue to create a supportive environment where our kids can thrive, even in the face of anxiety.

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Nurturing Calm: Gentle Parenting for Anxious Children

As parents, we often find ourselves in a delicate dance of nurturing, guiding, and setting boundaries for our children. This dance becomes even more intricate when you have an anxious child or teenager. Gentle parenting approaches can be incredibly effective in these situations, but how do we establish healthy boundaries while still providing the support and understanding these sensitive souls need?

Understanding the Reflective Nature of Anxiety

At the heart of the matter lies an essential truth: our children are mirrors to our own emotional states. The most important thing we can do as parents who respect, love, and are attuned to our anxious children is to take care of our own anxiety about them. Anxiety can be contagious, and as gentle parents who prioritize the relationship, we are especially susceptible to this emotional contagion.

When our child’s anxiety begins to ramp up, it is not uncommon for us, as parents, to follow suit. This isn’t just because of our attunement to our kids; it’s also because anxiety naturally tends to spread from person to person. Therefore, we must become adept at managing our own emotional responses. Learning to calm ourselves becomes crucial not just for our well-being but for the well-being of our children as well.

Cultivating Self-Calm to Foster Stability

Anxiety may be catching, but so is calm. The more we can ground ourselves, the less likely we are to be swept up in the anxiety and reassurance loop. Imagine yourself as the anchor in the stormy seas of your child’s emotions. By maintaining your calm, you provide a stable point of reference for your child. This stability is essential because it offers them a chance to tune into your calm instead of spiraling further into their anxiety. This is, perhaps, the most crucial boundary we can offer our anxious children: not joining them in their anxiety.

It’s not about being a stoic or emotionless figure; it’s about demonstrating that emotions can be managed and that calm is achievable even when anxiety is knocking at the door. This silent lesson in emotional regulation is one of the most powerful tools in a gentle parent’s arsenal.

Setting Boundaries with Love and Consistency

Establishing boundaries doesn’t mean erecting walls. Instead, it’s about setting consistent expectations and maintaining a space where your child knows what’s acceptable and what isn’t, all while feeling supported and loved. Communicating clear boundaries in a gentle but firm manner teaches children self-regulation and respect for themselves and others.

Boundaries are not just for behavior; they’re also for emotions. We can teach our children that while all feelings are valid, not all responses are appropriate. We can guide them towards healthy outlets for their anxiety and help them to understand the importance of self-care and self-soothing techniques.

In the end, gentle parenting is a balance of empathy and structure. It’s about being a compassionate confidant while also being a guide who sets limits. By modeling calm, staying consistent with boundaries, and offering unwavering support, we can help our anxious children navigate their emotions and the world around them with confidence and resilience.

Parenting is no easy task, and it becomes all the more challenging when anxiety enters the equation. However, with patience, understanding, and a commitment to self-regulation, we can provide the nurturing environment that our anxious children need to thrive. Remember, the calm you cultivate within yourself isn’t just for you—it’s a gift to your child, a beacon of peace in the tumultuous journey of growth.

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What about gentle parenting for older kids with anxiety?

This week is the question I got from a listener after they listened to episode 64, which was Are there any downsides to practicing gentle parenting with an anxious child?. Let me read you the whole thing, because it’s long and specific and I’ll be referencing their question in this episode.

Ok. Here it goes:: 

“I have always considered myself to be a gentle parent and that really worked for us when my son was small. He has always been intense and anxious and being there for him made a big difference in his functioning. But now he is ten and I feel like we’re stuck. I don’t know how to gentle parent a big kid. I am exhausted from his meltdowns and I don’t understand why he has them. He has had a full work up from a psychologist who said he is only anxious. But I don’t understand how to help him function better. We’ve tried therapy and he says he is bored and we didn’t get anywhere because he wouldn’t engage. Our worst times are bedtime when he won’t let me leave. I need some time for myself in the evening but I feel so guilty because he gets very upset. When I do try to leave, he just follows me so I end up giving in. I don’t know what to do.”

All right I have to tell you all I’ve heard so many versions of this from parents of little kids of bigger kids and even of much older kids. So if this describes your life, I want to tell you that you are not alone.

I mentioned in a previous episode that I brought my kids up in the gentle parenting community and I can remember at playdates and social events hearing discussions about big kids who won’t or can’t sleep alone and I can remember that some of the advice was to just get a bigger bed. And I had friends who did that. They had mattresses wall to wall, which worked for them. Everyone was ok with it. And I had other friends who also gave in, got a bigger bed or one parent slept with one kid and the other slept alone or with the other kid. I mean all kinds of musical beds. And that’s fine, too. If people are ok with it, then they’re ok with it. 

But lots of people are NOT ok with it for a million reasonable reasons and they feel bad about that. 

Because they’re supposed to be gentle parents, right? And gentle parents make sacrifices. Gentle parents prioritize their child’s well being. Gentle parents are patient and trust their kids to take the lead.

Here’s the problem with this. Gentle parents aren’t just parents, they’re people. And they have a right to their own well being. Part of parenting is helping our children adjust to a shift where they are no longer the center of the family. They are still important of course, they still need to be the priority, but there needs to be a healthy move towards more independence, and towards letting other people in the family have the spotlight now and then. Now this is a negotiation and how it looks will be different in every family. Some kids need more help, some parents have less time, it’s not a DO IT like this is the end of discussion period. It’s an ongoing discussion and collaboration.

You know, one thing that I’m often struck by in working with parents is that most of us get all the way to adulthood and parenthood without getting any formal instruction on child development so we don’t alway know what to expect from our kids. We don’t always know what’s realistic. Sometimes this means our expectations are too high, like expecting a toddler to have an attention span. But sometimes — especially for gentle parents who tend to err on the side of caution — our expectations are too low.

It’s reasonable to expect a 10-year old to be able to fall asleep alone. Now that doesn’t mean you have to do bedtime that way. If reading to your 10-year old and cuddling with them until they fall asleep makes you happy and is an enjoyable part of your day, then great. But if you’re unhappy or frustrated or resentful, you do not have to keep doing it. There is nothing selfish about wanting your 10-year old to go to bed by themselves. It’s fine. It’s ok to want that. It’s ok to build a plan to get that. And in fact, I’d say that if there are these problems at bedtime, there are likely other problems elsewhere and working on anxiety at bedtime may help in those other areas.

Just to be clear, it’s not that the family is doing this that’s the issue. That’s fine. It’s when people are doing things they don’t want to do, that are making people unhappy, that are holding kids back that it becomes a problem.

Gentle parenting should grow with the family. It needs to change as the family’s needs change. Here are somethings I want you to know about anxiety and gentle parenting.

Gentle parenting doesn’t mean that your needs are always on the chopping block. 

I strongly belief that in connected families where parents have worked hard to connect with their kids, that our frustration or impatience is a sign that our child is ready to grow. I think our impatience is a tool, a diagnostic tool, for what needs to happen next. So if you find yourself dreading certain parts of your parenting life, that doesn’t mean your a bad parent or that you have a bad kid, it means it’s time to look at that part of your parenting life and see what needs to change. 

Gentle parenting doesn’t mean doing whatever will make your child happiest. 

Happiest is not always healthiest. And short-term happiness doesn’t always lead to long term growth and contentment. We do not need to treat our kids like they’re made of spun glass. Our children need to know that we see them as resilient and strong and brave and capable. That means that sometimes we’re going to be pushy. We’re going to expect them to stretch. Some children need that gentle pressure to move to the next stage. If you have a child who’s always been a dragging their feet kind of kid, you can expect them to continue to be this way. 

Gentle parenting lends a different context to decisions.

When I talk to gentle parents about getting out of the parenting pitfalls and we decide on a course of action, like expecting the child to lay down alone at night, the parents often start to remember their own feelings of being abandoned and alone as a child and they become understandably fearful that they are asking too much of their child. But I ask them to remember that they are parenting from a different place of understanding, love and support. They are not walking away from their child. There is a plan, there is preparation. The child is informed and supported. There is a whole cohesive process based on the research and then personalized for that child and that family. And that makes all the difference.

If you’re feeling stuck or overwhelmed or frustrated, please consider joining the program. You get the asynchronous courses, but you get me, too. I am there to offer you private personalized support through the live office hours in real time or via messaging in the site. 

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Can I parent so well that my child won’t have anxiety?

The question this week is a subtext to so many of the questions that I get. People say what if I had done this, would my child still be anxious? Is it because I ddi that? Is that why my child has anxiety. And the gist of it is: Can I parent so well that my child won’t have anxiety? Is there a perfect way to parent? If I avoid all of the parenting pitfalls will my child never struggle with their anxiety?

Boy being a parent is so hard, isn’t it? Not just the lack of sleep, lack of time to yourself, the drain on your resources. No, the hardest part is how it feels when your child is struggling. Or how it feels when we are struggling as parents, as people.

Let’s just stop for a minute and acknowledge how fragile we can feel as parents, which is so hard since we’re supposed to be the strong ones, right? Didn’t you think you’d have it more together when you became a parent? 

I remember as a kid watching my mom wrap presents and she was so good at it. And I wanted to be that good. I wanted my folds to be razor sharp. I wanted the tape to disappear like hers did. And I thought that it would be like that when I was grown. I thought that was one of the secret things that adults just knew how to do. 

So imagine my surprise to hit eighteen and still wrap lumpy presents. Of course you don’t have to imagine your surprise because I’m sure you have your own stories of running up against your incompetence in some thing, some event where you realized, “rats, I’m the grown up and I don’t know what I’m doing.” And this is especially difficult and even painful when you come upon this within your parenting relationship.

If you struggled as a child, you will revisit that in your relationship with your own child. You may be especially vulnerable when they hit certain ages where you struggled. Or when they arrive at certain events that you found especially difficult. There may be aspects of yourself that you see in them that scare or worry you. Or aspects that you didn’t like in other people and then you see it in your child. 

Parenting is indeed the most triggering thing you can do.

It will be tempting to think that there’s a perfect way of parenting where you can avoid all of that. You might look at other parents who seem to be having an easier time and think they have better answers.

So let me dissuade you of this notion. 

Here are some truths, some facts, about the reality of parenting that I have learned in my 30 plus years of working with parents and in my 26 plus years of being a parent.

The first is that, some kids are harder than others. That’s just a fact. Some parents have it easier not because they’re better parents or have made better choices, but because that’s the luck of the draw. They got a child who is objectively less demanding and/or a child that meshes with them in ways that makes parenting easier. 

The second is that parenting is a job and sometimes jobs aren’t fun. You can love your kids and not like the job of parenting. You can love hanging out with a toddler and struggle with a ten year old or vice versa. Parenting is a job that changes because your child is growing and changing and you are growing and changing and sometimes you will have bad days. IT’s also a job that you learn as you’re doing it which means it’s inevitable that sometimes you’ll have to course correct. I think a big part of effective parenting is being willing to change it up because it’s not working.

The third fact about parenting is that your child is not an accurate representation of what a good job you’re doing. This goes back to that first one about some kids being easier. Sometimes you can do everything quote unquote right and your child will still be a mess. Great parents can and do have children who aren’t always doing great. Sometimes your patience and your wisdom won’t show. People will look and say, “I would never let them get away with that” but the truth is, they don’t have your child and they don’t know. 

The fourth thing is that your child is the protagonist in their own story. They’re starring in their own show. You are the protagonist in your story and starring in your own show. Once you realize that — I mean, really realize that — you’ll understand that even though you feel very consumed with what’s happening to you including your experience of being a parent, you’re a supporting actor in your child’s experience. Their story — their narrative — belongs to them. At the beginning when they’re an infant, we are enmeshed. We are almost the same people. Because babies, especially in that first year, are relying on us so heavily, that it’s easy to get confused. Where do we leave off and where do they begin? Sleep, feeding, even for the tiniest infant whether they’re on their front or their back is all up to us. But as they get older it becomes and more clear that they have their own movie to star in. They’re in their own cinematic universe and we’re just like backstory.

All of this is to say that our child will have their own experience and functioning and preferences and personality and mental health. And we are there to support them.

Which means some of them are going to have anxiety no matter what we do. Anxiety is born and made but it can’t made — that is to say, we can’t force a non-anxious child to be anxious — if they don’t;’ have a brain that is shaped to be anxious.

We can take kids who go through the exact same experiences and one will come out with an anxiety disorder and the other will not. It’s just the way the cookie crumbles.

What we can do is figure out how to support them. Remember it’s their movie, right? So this is part of the narrative they are going to explore and grow through. How do we help them do that? It’s not about us being good or bad parents, it’s not about us saving them from the trajectory of their lives. It’s about being the best supporting players that we can.

And in our own show, in the story that we are starring in, its’ about learning how to uncover our own strengths, confront our own challenges, grow through OUR narrative in being parents to these particular people.

It’s not about whether or not you can parent so well that your children don’t have anxiety. That’s not the right question. It’s’ about here is what we are doing together. Here is where we stand. How do I help you? How do I become the parent that you need and that I am meant to be? 

How do I take my experience as a child and bring it to this experience as a parent. How do I confront and consolidate my past so that I can get out of the way of your future. How do I learn to heal parts of myself without visiting my own expectations on you.

Big work. This is big works. But it is work we are meant to do. I have faith in you. I have faith in your child. 

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Are there any downsides to practicing gentle parenting with an anxious child?

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.

Are there any downsides to practicing gentle parenting with an anxious child? Read More »

When the bottom drops out

Imagine that there are four people about to get on a ride at the State Fair. It’s the Graviton, the ride where you stand up against the wall with a thin chain hooked loosely in front of you and the ride starts spinning and spinning, faster and faster and then it tilts and the bottom drops out. The only thing that’s holding you in is the centrifugal force of the ride.

One of the people has been on this ride before and knows how it works and loves how it works. That person remains calm. They get off the ride and they’re fine. We’ll call that person A.

The other person hasn’t been on the ride before but assumes that the people running the park know what they’re doing. That person feels nervous. They get off the ride and they’re fine if a little shaky. We’ll call that person B.

The third person doesn’t trust the park owners and thinks that when the bottom drops away that the ride has broken. They’re afraid for their life. They get off the ride sobbing and are greeted by warm, loving friends who embrace them and comfort them. That person is C.

The fourth person doesn’t trust the park owners either and believes the ride has broken, too. Think think they are about to die. When they get off the ride, there is no one there to greet them and they feel miserably alone and abandoned. That person is D.

All four people were on the same ride. All four people had fundamentally different experiences.

Here is the definition of trauma: If you are fearful for your life or the lives of those around you.

It doesn’t matter if the ride was safe if a person does not perceive it as safe. (As an aside? I was told by my mom all of my growing up that those State Fair rides aren’t safe. There is no way I’d get on the Graviton and if I accidentally did? I’d be person C.)

A is going to be fine because they liked the ride, they liked how it worked and how it felt. B is going to be ok, as well, because B has faith that the people in charge know what they’re doing. C will likely be all right, too, because C is immediately surrounded by people who validate their experience and offer comfort and support. But D? D is not going to be OK because what mitigates trauma (and even if this does not look traumatic to everyone there and wasn’t experienced as trauma by everyone there, for D it was) is connection and D has no one to connect with.

This is my message to you. We do not get to decide when people get to be afraid or what their experiences ought to be. There are people in our community who are afraid right now; maybe you are afraid right now. It doesn’t matter if person A or B doesn’t get it; you have a right to your feelings. And what you need — what weneed — is to find each other. Mr. Rogers says to look for the helpers and now is the time to do that and now is also the time to be the helpers.

If you are person C or D, please reach out. Find your safe people and start planning some specific ways you can spend time together. There are lots of ways to create good, solid connections and sometimes that’s coffee together, sometimes that’s phone calls, sometimes that’s joining together and organizing, and sometimes it’s joining together to help someone else. We need each other to mitigate our fear when the bottom drops out.

If you are person A or B, please understand that your experience is not everyone’s experience. You may not be afraid, you may even be having fun but we are a community and we must recognize that many people in our community are suffering.

When the bottom drops out Read More »

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