Non-reactive parenting is a conscious approach to parenting that seeks to react strategically rather than with automatic emotion. It involves being mindful and aware of your own feelings and making choices about how you respond to your child’s behavior based on long-term goals rather than immediate gratification. This style of parenting encourages parents to take the time to consider the best response for their child in order to foster more positive behavior.
Non-reactive parenting doesn’t mean an absence of reaction. I’m not over here asking caregivers to be zombies. Non-reactive parenting is reacting strategically.
It’s reacting neutrally when kids are being jerks (yeah, I said it) and reacting happily to children’s positive behavior.
Practicing non-reactive parenting as a parenting style means going off autopilot where adult feelings are concerned; feeling anger and consciously not reacting. Non-reactive parenting is counterintuitive and takes practice.
The opposite of non-reactive parenting is reactive parenting.
Reactive parenting is a style of parenting in which adults respond to situations emotionally, often resulting in yelling or other forms of punishment. This type of parenting typically involves responding out of anger or frustration and not taking the time to stop and reflect on how their reactions may affect their children. Reactive parents may be unaware that emotions can be felt without necessarily leading to immediate action.
Reactive parenting happens when emotions guide adult reactions and behavior. It’s responding in anger to parenting woes; yelling and doling out consequences from a place of frustration.
It’s not bad to feel anger or frustration. Get angry. Tell your children that you’re angry. Non-reactive parenting just asks that parents do it calmly.
Cuz, get this: one can feel an emotion without acting on it (this was, like, one of the biggest realizations of my adult life). In fact, I’d argue that’s best. Especially where parenting is concerned.
Don’t Call Me Patient
Non-reactive parenting looks like patience.
But. I am not a patient person. No one would ever ever ever use that word to describe me.
I’ve gone through the non-reactive parenting process of stopping, estimating, apprising, and taking action (Taking a S.E.A.T) so often it’s a habit.
You’re not seeing some warm personal trait, you’re seeing automation.
Don’t Call Me Lazy, Either
Sometimes I get strange looks when Big A throws a tantrum in public. Onlookers see my lack of reaction and think I’m doing nothing.
But I’m using all my energy to stay calm, figure out the source of conflict, de-escalate, instruct, and follow through with consequences.
Non-reactive doesn’t mean non-punishment. It means punishment without anger.
It means no yelling, beseeching, or questioning, no matter the child’s behavior.
It’s not about letting a child “get away with it,” it’s about adults not indulging their emotions.
Parental Judgement Can Suck It
Reactive parenting is something we’ve all done. Even armed with the knowledge of non-reactive parenting, I fall back into reactive parenting daily, if not hourly. It’s a constant realignment.
You might yell at your kid ten minutes after reading this article. I probably will.
Don’t be afraid to “fail” at non-reactive parenting. Cuz you’re gonna. Brush yourself off and keep trying.
Why Non-Reactive Parenting?
Non-reactive parenting serves two purposes: it makes non-engagement a punishment in and of itself and it tricks me (through conscious repetition) into staying calm.
The Still Faces Study
Developmentally, babies and toddlers are wired to encourage engagement from caregivers, positive or negative (anything but disengagement).
There’s a landmark study (known as The Still Faces Study) that highlights this phenomenon, finding that infants were highly motivated to turn neutral expressions into happy ones.
Associating negative behavior with a lack of engagement and positive behavior with lots of engagement encourages children to repeat the behaviors that bring the best kind of engagement from their caregivers.
Still Faces, Older Kids, and Mirror Neurons
But what about older kids? Are still faces distressing to them?
No, not in the same way. But I’d argue that using reactive parenting techniques (which is what you’re doing if not using non-reactive techniques) creates power struggles that become familiar and, hence, comforting to older kids.
There can be no power struggles if one party doesn’t engage. There’s nothing to win if only one participant is playing. By using non-reactive parenting, the adult is breaking familiar power struggle cycles.
The evidence of mirror neurons argues that reacting negatively (yelling) to older children’s behavior only causes them to react negatively in kind (yelling back).
I’ve written an article about the mirror neuron phenomenon when documenting my own struggles not to yell at my kids, read about it here.
My non-reactive parenting stance comes from a place of practicality rather than emotion.
It’s not that I think children are too precious to ever be subjected to a raised voice. Life can be stressful and unpredictable; raised voices happen.
I love non-reactive parenting because it trains me.
Every time I don’t lose my cool with my young children now means it will be that much easier to stay calm when they’re teenagers (and really know how to really push my buttons).
I’ve used these techniques to spread non-reaction to all areas of my life. Know what I’ve learned? Reacting to negative emotions is for suckers.
Never before have I been so in control of my reactions to my emotions, and therefore, my own peace.
Non-Reactive Parenting Tips
H.A.L.T (Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired)
No one is at their best when hungry, angry, lonely, and/or tired. It’s harder for children to regulate themselves and listen to adults, and it’s harder for adults to stay calm under adversity.
Non-reactive parenting is made that much harder by these conditions.
It’s important to schedule things like meals/snacks, socialization, and sleep (for adults and children), in an attempt to head these issues off.
Don’t Forget The Praise
Reacting neutrally to negative behavior is only one side of the non-reactive parenting coin.
Positive behavior must be liberally praised for non-reactive parenting to work. I’m not talking about an occasional “oh hey, good job.” I’m talking about praise on steroids.
I’ve written an article all about practicing praise, read it here.
For The Love of God, Keep Trying
Non-reactive parenting works quickest with young children. This is because they’re all shiny and new, free of ingrained patterns, behaviors, and power grabs.
It can take longer to see the pay-offs of non-reactive parenting techniques with older kids. The older the kid, the more years’ worth of power struggles to chip away, from both children and adults.
And, adults? You can only control your own behavior. Trust the process.
I’ve worked with some families where it’s taken eight months to start seeing results. But see results they did.
It’s imperative to keep trying. The trying on the part of the caregiver is more important (especially in the beginning) than the results on the part of the child.
Non-reactive parenting is tough. But It’s an important skill that can be learned and practiced.
It takes more than just the absence of reaction, it’s about being strategic in your reactions and not letting yourself go on autopilot with adult feelings.
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