Feel like you are parenting on auto-respond? Here's how I make to shift to responsive parenting.
Upstairs the kids were thumping around and shouting at each other.
I paused from chopping mushrooms, hoping they’d stop, but instead heard a scream.
Racing up to see what happened, I found my oldest sitting on top of my youngest, a tangle of arms and legs spilling out from a single office chair.
She was dangling a sock in his face for who can only guess the reason why.
He was yelling, “Get off me”
I had no idea what they were fighting over. All I could see clearly was that the chair looked dangerously close to falling, and I heard my words before I realised I was saying them:
- “Stop that right now,”
- “What’s going on here?”
- To her: “Why are you hurting your brother?”
- To him: “What did you do,”
- To them both: “You know better.”
They were still wrestling on the chair. The chair was still threatening to cast them over. They were still screaming.
My torrent of questions and orders achieved nil points. De nada. Nothing.
But luckily, in that second, it dawned on me.
I’d flipped into “parent speak.”
I was in AUTO-RESPOND, and I needed to make a switch.
Only then did I know what I had to do…
Has it happened to you? My kids actually call it my ‘Teacher Voice’. (Sorry teachers, no offense, I have no idea where they got this, but it denotes my serious tone and a posher British accent rather than my usual casual twang).
Anyways, it’s my go-to “I will fix this,” solution, and actually, it’s about as useful in our house as the old DVDs I still find lingering in drawers and stuffed between shelves.
My kids close down like clamshells whenever they hear it.
You’d think this would be enough to stop me using it, but as I said, it’s my natural go-to, until I remember it isn’t because it simply doesn’t work.
Has this happened to you?
Has this happened to you? Flipping into your parent auto-responder?
Often you’ll hear yourself parroting things your parents said to you (no matter how much you vowed to never say those things).
Other times it’s stuff you’ve picked up elsewhere and mimic.
Reasoning or fixing.
Still, nothing seems to work.
The natural follow on is for your emotions to rev up into super auto-responder.
I’ve ended up pulling my children from each other and sending them off to their rooms, where I live a fairytale that they will sit with their actions, feel remorse and emerge 10 minutes later ready to apologise.
The happy endings rarely happen when I've parented from auto-respond.
Earlier I said it was lucky that I paused. That’s because, as I did, I registered my flip into auto-response – my ‘Teacher Voice’. I was able to change tack, and move to more responsive parenting. (As this article outlines, responsive is more effective than reactive states).
Instead, I used some calm, connecting parenting steps that I've termed “PEAR parenting.”
Here’s how that looks for me.
I gently got between them, and quietly said just one word. “Stop.”
I didn’t demand. I didn’t shout. I just looked them each in the eye and said it a few times.
Immediately the tension level came down.
And we paused. The chair became stable and my oldest lowered the sock.
We sat there for a minute, and then they began to untangle themselves.
A few words were thrown back and forth and as my youngest took my attention, my oldest began to cry.
“This happens all the time,” she said. “You always take his side.”
She went on a while about how he was always invading her space, messing with her things.
P.E.A.R lets helps me get to responsive parenting
Now, I heard the deeper issue.
Whatever they had been fighting about had stirred up her feelings of jealousy and self-worth.
I listened. (Not always easy when your own inner voice is in competition, telling you to reason, at best, or retort “Do you know HOW MUCH I do for you?” ).
I nodded as I listened. It IS hard sharing space. It gets to the best of us.
When she was drying her tears and her words had slowed, I told her I saw how hard it was. She cried a bit more then.
And then she came forward and we shared a little hug. My youngest, by this time, had lost interest and was hurtling around his bedroom making whooshing sounds and flying his Lego spaceship.
Here’s what PEAR stands for in my mind:
- P: Pause. Take a breath. Change tack. Ask yourself, is what I'm doing working? If not, what will work better?
- E: Empathise. Just listen. Nod. Practice hearing what your child is saying rather than answering back.
- A: Acknowledge. Tell them you can see why something feels hard, or feels unfair.
- R: Reconnect. Keep open to your child’s attempts to connect. They may hug you or come for a cuddle. They may joke or look for laughter. Or you can try asking if there’s anything they’d like to do next, or offer some Special Time where they can do anything.
And you’d think knowing it – and actually naming it – I’d remember to use PEAR always!
Here’s a spoiler. I don’t!
Here’s why it doesn’t always work
I love this idea. I do. I love the idea of responsive parenting using this strategy much as I love pancakes with syrup on a slow Saturday morning. It’s delicious.
But responsive parenting isn't my go-to. It takes practice to remember to pause and follow.
And lately, life has been stealing bucketloads of my time and attention. The world has felt rocky, I’m a zillion and one miles from my family, we have job concerns and I’m stressed.
I thought, actually, that as the kids returned to school (at least a version of school that involves a school bus and teachers with kids in a class), it would become easier.
We’ve been waiting to return to ‘the time before’ for so long, haven’t we?
And now, as our kids return to school, and our workplaces open, I thought life would feel more comforting.
Life looks a little more like it once did but, let’s face it, actually it’s not the same.
Schooling does not look the same. Playdates do not look the same. Maybe, after giving up your job because working and lockdown with kids was simply unworkable, your life is radically different from before, and you’re left asking, “What now?”
There are still too many questions and not enough answers, at least for me.
And this is when the auto-responder version of me kicks in and I struggle to remember P.E.A.R.
And auto-responder me is really a symbol of my larger reactive state.
Are you locked into a reactive state?
I react, even though I'd rather respond.
This reactive state, as I mentioned earlier, is usually impulsive. It rarely feels good. This is the moment you hear yourself yelling before you even finish your train of thought. You angrily dig your feet in against new rules or disruption.
It’s the moment you shut your child down because, quite frankly, you just don’t have the mental space.
It’s understandable. But it’s not ideal.
Responsive parenting reactions, by contrast, serve you and your family well. You feel less overwhelm, less guilt. You are less swayed by what the world is doing, responding to what you have in a certain situation, flexibly, lightly, with less resistance and frustration.
So, the big question becomes, how can we tune in better to responsive parenting – and living.
To get to this responsive state, you have to first figure out what the dream is.
A good question is: How do I really want to show up as a parent?
And what has to follow, naturally, is taking the steps you need to get there.
Responsive parenting asks: How do you want to show up?
Responding requires a step back. A little time to reflect and think. It’s also the Pause in PEAR.
But here’s the thing. When you are exhausted, or burned out already, thinking about dreams and higher visions feels impossible.
You might even be sighing in frustration or feeling your anger rising now just reading this.
Because you, like so many parents in our community,are so OVER being told how to live.
Burnout and exhaustion leave you feeling stuck and defensive. Unable to think, let alone take action.
And that locks us in a reactive state and triggers our auto-responder parenting.
Which, you know, feels good for no-one. And it becomes an unworkable, energy-draining, hope-sucking cycle.
At Hand in Hand we have tools to get to responsive parenting.
Oh yes, we do.
There’s Listening Time. A truly simple yet transformative tool to begin shifting those blocks.
There’s Special Time – not just for your child – but for you too. Giggles and laughter, and time for yourself doing what you love are incredibly freeing. Doing this with someone who champions you are shines attention as you do the activity
And there’s community. Being with parents who show you that you are not alone, and hold the space that you are doing the best you can with what you have. Who can remind you: You are a good parent.
Because you are. We are!
Many of us don’t know what this fall is going to look like. And that could mean more stress, overwhelm, guilt and frustration.
But rather than getting locked into a reactive state, we invite you to use the tools as an anchor. They'll help you reach a responsive state far more often.
It’s what restores my ability to leave panic-mode and auto responding, and restores my energy so that I can return to responsive parenting.
The bright spot?
You can try these ideas and more during our Parent Club.
Feel what a breath of fresh air it is to feel lifted. We have calls, workshops, Q&As and videos with Hand in Hand Instructors every week and month. Use these tools with hundreds of other parents, retune them to fit your family and get support as you do it, get support when and if you move offtrack.
Feel all the good feels
Feel your mood shift to more hopeful.
Feel the goodness of a community that cares.
Feel the lightness in your body as you play and laugh.
You can see all the support and bonuses you get in Parent Club here.