Responsive vs. Reflexive Parenting

The Gottman Institute has been blogging a lot about parenting lately. In today’s blog:
they discuss The Stillface Experiment.

I remember watching these videos in a child psych class in college. One specific three minute example I remember was much more heart-wrenching than the example embedded in the blog post… in it the baby became dis-regulated and then completely shut down. When I was diagnosed with PPD as a new mom, seeking medical treatment was a really difficult decision. Taking medication felt like some form of giving up or failing. And then I recalled those videos. My therapist gave me the risk assessment – Yes, there is a slight unstudied and not well understood chance that a nursing baby could be affected by anti-depressants, which can be compared to well documented evidence of the harm a depressed parent can have on the developing infant. So I promptly decided to take the meds, do the counseling, read the books, and hoped that the damage wasn’t already done.

Now, I’m curious to see the video of what happens if you Stillface a teenager? Actually, just the opposite is tending to occur in my home. Mom is busting out, finding her heart, her spirituality, wanting to be all lovey and talk about feelings all the time. And this is happening at just the same moment when the teens are wishing for a little space, a little privacy, some sense of autonomy. I can’t help but rewind and play the tapes of what it was like for me as a teen. I craved emotional intimacy with my recently divorced and remarried parents, in fact, I still do. I wanted the details, to be included in decisions, to be seen, to be asked for an opinion, to feel like I mattered. I think I got a little too much Stillface at that time? So, here I am, 30 years later, 180 degrees on the same line, tending to want to “do better.”

The Gottman folks suggest tuning into your child’s emotions, validating and empathizing and helping them label them, and setting limits when you are helping them solve their problems. In short, they suggest you employ responsive parenting. Unfortunately, my attempts at responsive parenting sometimes come out as reflexive parenting – doing onto them what I wanted done onto me. To them, I imagine that comes out as over-parenting, over-sharing, meddling even, in their private thoughts and feelings. I know I can do better.

So I’m learning to love them lightly. To hang back a bit. To ask before entering. I’m suggesting and inviting better decision making on their part, rather than pretending like I’m some reform specialist who is in charge of “making” them into good men. Mostly, I’m trusting that they each already have a decent emotional vocabulary, and will use their “big boy” words when they need me, and that they know I’ll be here when they do.

Here are two grumpy boys who clearly do NOT want to spend their day with Mom.
Here are two grumpy boys who clearly do NOT want to spend their day with Mom.

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