Reactive Parenting: 5 Simple Actions to Break the Cycle

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Dr Lucy Russell Founder of They Are The Future
Author: Dr Lucy Russell

We are all reactive as parents sometimes. We are human. But as a rule we should aim to reduce our reactive parenting so that it doesn’t affect our parent-child relationships.

Let’s explore what I mean by this and how to do it.

What is Reactive Parenting?

Reactive parenting can be defined as: Allowing our own emotions in the moment to control the responses and decisions we make in interacting with our children.

Our initial reaction is not always the most appropriate or helpful reaction. When we react, we are hijacked by our emotions and we can’t choose the best or most effective course of action.

We can’t see the child’s perspective because we are consumed by emotion.

This can lead to regrets once we calm down.

family eating a meal on the sofa

We are not always in a highly aroused state when we react, though.

Sometimes, we react out of habit. We say “no” or give a certain response because our brains have got used to doing it, and we have accepted that without reflecting.

We are still reacting with emotions rather than a thoughtful approach. This is fine sometimes.

If your 12 year-old asks to stay up and watch a movie at 10pm on a school night, it’s okay to have a standard response if you have a clear rule (no late-night TV on a school night) that has been thought through in advance.

Sometimes however, we need to check our reactions and make sure we are responding in a way which serves us and our children.

Healthy parent-child relationships require a degree of flexibility, as well as rules and boundaries!

Reactive Parenting Affects Us All

As I said at the beginning, we are all “guilty” of reactive parenting sometimes. Good humans often make poor decisions!

No matter how hard we try to be the best parents we can, life happens and we cannot always respond in the ideal manner.

However, a reactive parenting style shouldn’t be our dominant way of responding to our children.

a mother and teen girl arguing

Why is Reactive Parenting Harmful?

Reactive parenting can contribute to feelings of shame or failure for you as a parent. It can leave your child feeling resentful or misunderstood, and producing their own negative responses.

Reactive parenting isn’t the best way to grow a healthy relationship with your child, especially if they are sensitive.

It’s also not the most effective way to encourage positive behavior in your child or manage “problem behaviors”. It models a confrontational style of interacting which isn’t always the best way for your child to communicate with others.

Antidotes To Reactive Parenting

You might be thinking, how can I be less reactive?

Well, it’s a gradual process.

I’m going to help you develop some new tactics.

responsive parenting dad and teenage daughter

For real change to occur, you need to work on calming your nervous system.

A rested nervous system is needed for the demanding task of staying calm and making effective parenting decisions.

Responsive Parenting: The Opposite of Reactive Parenting

Responsive parenting is being present in the moment to contain your child’s emotions and respond helpfully to their needs. It is taking a pause before deciding what to say or do.

Here are my top five “antidotes” to reactive parenting. These methods lead to “non reactive parenting”, also defined as responsive parenting.

  1. Rest and sleep
  2. Planning/ground rules
  3. Mindfulness strategies
  4. Posture and tone of voice
  5. Insight

1. Rest and Sleep to Prevent Reactive Parenting

Do you feel constantly tired? Perhaps you get “brain fog” or mental sluggishness? You may not be getting enough sleep, and you may be squeezing too much into your days, with not enough down time.

Lack of rest and sleep contributes to reactive parenting. Your brain is stretched to the max and doesn’t get a chance to fully recuperate through enough rest and sleep.

For your own health and the sake of your family relationships, something needs to change.

woman resting head on a pillow

You might start with one small step in the right direction.

The case study below is an example of a small but effective step.

Andrea – a single parent with two teenagers – found that as each new week went on, everyone in the family got more and more tired and grumpy. They had been caught in a vicious cycle for a long time.

They were so tired that they sat in front of the TV or their phones to relax, and then were too tired to start getting ready for bed on time. Everyone was awake well after midnight, and had to be up by 7.

Andrea found herself becoming more and more snappy and reactive towards the end of the week.

She decided something needed to change. So she planned that on Wednesdays – mid-week – everyone would get an earlier night. Andrea would switch off the TV by 9, have a bath, and aim to be in bed by 10.

She encouraged her children to do the same and gave them reminders to help.

Andrea found that having an early night on Wednesdays made an instant difference. She was more rested and her brain was able to take time to respond calmly when her children wound her up, rather than reacting in the moment.

anti-reactive parenting strategies include communicating from a side-on position rather than face to face
Photo by sofatutor on Unsplash

2. Planning & Ground Rules to Prevent Reactive Parenting

If we have a plan, we don’t need to think on our feet. We can be proactive rather than reactive, shaping our interactions in the way WE choose.

Ground rules are important for young children, but they are vital for parenting older kids and young adults.

Our older children are exploring identity and becoming increasingly independent from us. It is inevitable that they will test boundaries and this is a normal part of growing up.

Try to set your ground rules as a family. You want each member of the family to buy into the rules. Boundary setting is an important aspect of proactive parenting; choosing the “culture” and tone of family life.

Once your rules are in place, make sure there are visual, colourful reminders around your home (see below for an example).

Pearson family rules - setting family rules helps prevent reactive parenting

Next reflect on how you are going to “interact” with each rule.

How are you going to support your child to follow the rule?

What are you going to do when they work really hard to follow it?

What are you going to do when they don’t follow the rule?

If you decide in advance, you are much less likely to be reactive.

3. Mindfulness Strategies for More Responsive Parenting

Mindfulness is much misunderstood.

Many people think mindfulness is meditating in silence with our legs crossed. This turns many parents off.

The reality is that mindfulness is a way of life – a way of being – which can drastically improve your relationship with your children.

Mindfulness is paying attention, in the present moment.

We cannot do this all the time, but if we practise it regularly we can be more present for ourselves and our children.

woman lying back in water mindfulness

There are many research studies showing that engaging in mindfulness practices regularly can reduce stress, anxiety and depression and improve concentration.

Mindfulness teaches responding rather than reacting.

Responding means choosing our approach, rather than reacting on auto-pilot. It allows us that extra millisecond to consider the possible consequences of our actions and imagine the child’s perspective.

Here’s a case study:

How to Stop Being a Reactive Parent: Case Study (Andrew)

Andrew had noticed that he often responded to his children in a harsh, sarcastic or angry way which he later regretted.

Andrew felt that work stress was impacting his relationships at home. He wanted to find a way to break the pattern of negative interactions and knew he needed to make a fundamental shift.

Andrew began reading about mindfulness and began listening to a 10 minute mindful guide audio track on the way to work every morning.

This repetitive practice helped him to become more aware of all his interactions, not just with his children but with friends and colleagues too. It led to more mindful parenting.

Andrew was able to recognise instances of reactive parenting and press a pause button in his mind, buying himself time to implement different ways of managing his children’s behaviour.

If you have never tried mindfulness before, this website by Dr Danny Penman contains some free audios to help you get started.

4. Reactive vs Responsive: Posture and Tone of Voice

Did you know that deliberately altering your posture and tone of voice can make you feel calmer and less reactive?

These are simple changes which can have an almost instant effect.

father and son relaxing together with electronic device

Here’s a case study to illustrate what I mean.

Examples of Reactive Parenting: Case Study (Lindsay)

Lindsay was frustrated with her 16 year-old daughter’s behaviour.

She felt that her daughter was taking her for granted, expecting meals to be brought to her at her desk, and never helping out with household chores. She often felt that her daughter spoke to her as though she were a servant rather than her mother.

Lindsay regularly found herself “squaring up” to her daughter – facing her head-on with clenched fists and raised shoulders. They would often end up in bitter arguments with angry, escalating voices.

Lindsay knew this was an unhealthy pattern and she wanted to do make a change.

Next time she felt angry with her daughter, she decided to take three deep “belly breaths” before responding.

Each deep breath calmed her nervous system and bought her time to decide on a response, rather than reacting instantly.

She made a conscious decision not to face her daughter head-on, but to sit down next to her instead. She made her feelings clear but she managed to make her tone of voice more neutral, so that her daughter’s defences were not raised.

After a calmer discussion, Lindsay’s daughter apologised for her behaviour and committed to helping out a bit more.

My article, Staying Calm With Your Child, contains further examples of practical, in-the-moment strategies to stay calm.

5. Insight

You are here, right now, reading this. That means you are working on building your awareness and insight about your parenting reactions. Keep doing exactly what you are doing. Never stop reflecting on your skills as a parent. You are doing brilliantly!

mum and little boy relaxing together lying down holding a camera

Instead of Reactive Parenting, What Should We Aim For?

The opposite of reactive parenting is proactive, responsive and (ultimately) peaceful parenting.

We should of course frequently reflect on how to be a better parent, whilst acknowledging our efforts and recognising how hard it is.

But it’s not healthy to aim to be a “perfect parent”, for the following reasons:

  • We put too much pressure on ourselves and set ourselves up to fail. There’s no such thing as a perfect parent.
  • We model to our children that perfection, rather than “good enough”, is something we should be aiming for.
  • Children need to learn that people do not always respond in the ideal way. They need to learn to interact successfully with others, even when they believe others are treating them unfairly. You are teaching them to do this.

Reactive Parenting Vs Responsive Parenting

Nobody is a reactive parent all the time, or a responsive parent all the time.

The secret is to work on increasing your responsivity, so that you are responsive more often than you are reactive.

Responsiv Parents (5 characteristics) From the article Reactive Parenting: 5 Actions to Break the Cycle by Dr Lucy Russell

Responsive Parenting Examples

  • Responsive parents can reflect on their mistakes and plan to do things differently next time.
  • Responsive parentins take on board constructive feedback about their parenting, including from their children.
  • Responsive parents practise the skill of pausing before reacting.
  • Responsive parents focus on listening as well as imparting knowledge to their children.

Reactive Vs Responsive: Change Your Percentages

Life happens.

Responsive parenting is not an all-or-nothing game.

In the same way that experts recommend we eat healthy food  80% of the time, let’s see if we can aim to be responsive parents 80% of the time.

happy family outdoors

What’s your current figure?

Fifty percent? No problem.

Start by aiming for 51% and continue in that direction!

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Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years. In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children.

Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.

Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.

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