What to do when ‘gentle parenting’ fails

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Recently there has been a movement on social media and the parenting community more broadly to practice “gentle parenting.” The exact definition of gentle parenting is not completely clear because it is not a term that has been studied in the research or used by psychologists in clinical practice. The term gentle parenting is credited to British author, Sarah Ockwell-Smith, who wrote several books on the topic. Gentle parenting has since become a buzzword and been co-opted by countless parenting influencers on social media.

Reassuringly though, most conceptualizations of gentle parenting seem to be based on principles that nearly every child psychologist or expert in child development would endorse such as respecting the child, taking the child’s perspective into account, empathizing with and validating your child and building the parent-child bond through positive experiences. However, where gentle parenting seems to deviate from research-backed parenting programs is in what to do when you encounter behavior problems even after you start using these more positive strategies or when it is not possible to use these positive parenting strategies. Most evidence-based parenting programs work on these gentle or positive parenting skills first and then move to other techniques that help parents to handle the behavior problems that inevitably come up even after working on these positive, relationship-building strategies.

There are clearly some parents that gentle parenting works well for, or it wouldn’t have gained such a strong following. If gentle parenting is working for you, that is wonderful and there is no reason to change what you are doing. However, many parents report that gentle parenting does not work for their individual child and family. Research backs up this experience and suggests that gentle parenting strategies alone may not be effective for every situation and every child. Specifically, researchers have found that gentle parenting techniques are not as effective for more serious challenging behavior, such as aggression, or for children that are oppositional or harder to manage.

Of course, we as parents would all love if simply validating and empathizing with our child’s emotions was all we needed to do — but in the real world it doesn’t seem to be so simple. It is easy to stay calm and validate your child’s emotions when you are calm and everything is going well but nearly all parents reach a point of overwhelm during which they just can’t be the gentle parent they want to be. In these moments, parents may be tempted to resort to harsh and ineffective parenting strategies, like yelling or spanking, instead of using research-backed strategies that are not technically “gentle parenting” but are less harsh and might actually work. Sometimes gentle parenting strategies may even result in a pattern of increasingly frequent episodes of challenging behavior, which makes gentle parenting more difficult because you as the parent eventually get worn down, or the parent-child relationship suffers due to a lack of positive interactions.

Real life may also get in the way. You can empathize with your child that they hate wearing socks but at some point you have to get them to put on their socks and shoes or you will be late for school. You may also have other children and responsibilities that make gentle parenting difficult. It is hard to “help your child to stop hitting” when you are breastfeeding a newborn or making dinner for your family.

Although the overarching principles of gentle parenting may resonate with many parents (I know they do for me), these same parents may still feel at a loss for how to apply these principles in the more difficult situations of parenting. So what happens when gentle parenting doesn’t seem to be working? Or maybe gentle parenting does work most of the time but doesn’t work in some situations, such as when either you or your child is having an off day? The strategies listed below are not recommended by most gentle parenting advocates but are consistently supported by research and included in most evidence-based parenting programs. If gentle parenting is working for you, of course, you do not need to use these strategies but if you are one of the many parents who feel like you might need something more, the following strategies may be helpful for you.

What to do when gentle parenting isn’t working

1. Use consequences: Consequences seem to be a bad word in the gentle parenting sphere. Gentle parenting advocates suggest that the problem with consequences is that we want our children to be internally motivated to behave rather than responding only to externally imposed consequences, such as having an internal motivation to be kind rather than being kind simply to avoid losing iPad time. Yet it is important to keep in mind that all behavior has consequences regardless of whether you impose them or not. Imagine this situation: Your child takes a toy from their brother and you go over and empathize with them that it is hard to see your brother play with a toy you want but it still isn’t okay to take the toy. Your child then has the positive consequence of gaining access to the toy and getting your attention. Whether it was your intention or not, you just increased the likelihood of them snatching a toy in the future. All humans respond to these laws of behavior. Even as an adult, you may consider yourself intrinsically motivated to be a conscientious person but if there were no penalties for speeding, would you always drive under the speed limit? And if you got a ticket would you be more careful about speeding in the future?

In particular, research consistently finds that logical consequences are related to improved behavior and mental health in children. Logical consequences are consequences that are related to the behavior so they make sense to children. Logical consequences can include any of the following: making them stop play to get an ice pack or a bandaid for another child that they hurt, leaving the playground when they aren’t following the rules, cleaning up a mess that they made before they are allowed to move on to the next activity, not having time to watch their favorite show because they didn’t clean their room when you asked, and losing access to a toy when they don’t use it appropriately. Research finds that logical consequences may even be linked with increased intrinsic motivation to follow the rules. Research also suggests that logical consequences are more effective than simply reminding children of the rule or limit. Although research indicates that it is important for parents to remind children of the rule or limit and explain why it exists, research also suggests that parents sometimes need to use consequences alongside this type of verbal reasoning in order to positively impact behavior. For example, one study found that this type of verbal reasoning only works to improve behavior and reduce aggression with toddlers if parents followed through on consequences some of the time (at least 10% of the time).

2. Selective attention/planned ignoring: Research finds that attention is an incredibly powerful parenting tool. To use your attention to improve your child’s behavior and make your day-to-day parenting a little easier, try to make a concerted effort to pay more attention to positive behaviors than negative behaviors. This is called “selective attention.” So if your child is whining to get your attention, make an effort to notice and praise whenever they use a “normal voice”. However, if simply noticing and praising the positive behavior doesn’t seem to be working, it is okay to ignore more minor misbehavior, such as whining, fussing, mild arguing or asking the same questions over and over again. Sometimes children and parents get into a bad cycle where negative behaviors get more attention than positive behaviors so to get out of this cycle, parents may have to both pay more attention to positive behavior and ignore some negative behavior.

When parents are only using more gentle parenting strategies like emotion coaching for challenging behavior, which is a great research-backed strategy, parents may unintentionally end up paying more attention to children when they are showing challenging behaviors than positive behaviors which then increases the frequency of the challenging behaviors and decreases the frequency of the positive behaviors. This could create a situation in which challenging behaviors become so frequent that the parent eventually loses patience and resorts to harsh and ineffective parenting strategies.

Most research-backed parenting programs, such as Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT), advise parents to use ignoring for minor challenging behavior. Research finds that this type of brief ignoring of minor behavior is associated with improved behavior and reduced non-compliance (translation: children being more likely to listen to parents). An important note about ignoring: Ideally parents should only ignore minor challenging behavior that has the goal of gaining attention. It doesn’t make sense to ignore any behavior related to emotional dysregulation, since your child may genuinely need your help with calming down, or a more serious behavior like aggression, since you need to step in to keep your child and others safe. It is also important to remember that you are ignoring the behavior and not the child. When the child stops the behavior, make sure to pay attention and notice and praise any positive behavior.

3. Try timeout: It seems that one of the core tenets of gentle parenting is that timeout is harmful to children and some gentle parenting advocates go so far as to equate timeout with physical abuse. Yet, research does not find any evidence for harm associated with timeout and even finds that it may be linked with positive outcomes. Research also indicates that timeout is very effective in improving behavior. In particular, timeout may be helpful at times when a parent is at risk for using more harsh discipline strategies. For example, when you feel “triggered” as a parent, timeout can give you all a chance to calm down in order to effectively deal with a difficult situation. Research consistently finds that harsh discipline tactics, such as yelling or physical punishment, are associated with worse mental health in children. If timeout gives you and your child a chance to calm down before you resort to these strategies, it might be the right choice for you and your family. The gentle parenting movement often recommends “time-in” as an alternative to timeout. Yet, research has yet to determine whether “time-in” is an effective strategy. If “time-in” works for you and your child, it doesn’t matter that it is not supported by research and you should continue to use it. However, if it is not working for you or your child, feel free to use another approach like timeout without guilt. If it does not feel right to you as a parent to use timeout, follow your instincts and don’t use it. Research does not indicate that you must use timeout in order to be an effective parent.

4. Take care of yourself before your children: The advice of gentle parenting advocates sometimes doesn’t seem to acknowledge that parents are people too. We have feelings, needs and desires that matter. For example, many gentle parenting advocates suggest that parents should never tell their children when they make you feel sad or angry because this may cause codependency. Of course we do not want to use our feelings to manipulate or guilt our children, but we have no evidence that honestly sharing our emotions with our children has any negative impacts and we do have some evidence that hiding your emotions from your child is associated with more stress in children and strain on the parent-child relationship. It is also impossible to help your children to regulate their emotions when you are feeling dysregulated, as is often the case when your children are dysregulated — particularly if you are an empathetic person.

Some gentle parenting proponents fail to mention that it is more than okay if you need to take care of your own emotional needs before your children’s. This might mean telling your children that you can’t play with them because you are too stressed or busy. It could be walking away from a situation and calming yourself down before you calm them down. It could be ignoring their demands until you have met your own needs. As parents we often put our children first, but being a good parent may also involve occasionally putting yourself first. If you feel guilty about this then remember that even if you could be a person devoid of all emotions and the perfectly calm co-regulator for your child, you are setting up an unrealistic expectation for all future relationships — future friendships and spouses will never be able to completely put aside their own feelings in every scenario. It might cause guilt in the moment but remember that you are modeling healthy emotional regulation when you take care of yourself first.

Overall translation

Research supports the core tenets of gentle parenting, which include validating and empathizing with your child’s emotions, enhancing the parent-child relationship, giving your child positive attention, assuming the best of your child and modeling for children the behavior you want to see. However, for some children and parents and in some situations, these strategies don’t seem to be effective. When gentle parenting doesn’t seem to be working, it does not mean that you have failed at being a gentle parent— only that it might be time to try something else. It is important to remember that these strategies have not been found to be effective for all families. When gentle parenting doesn’t seem to be working, parents should feel free to try using evidence-based strategies such as consequences, timeout, ignoring, and taking care of yourself before your child. Above all, it is important for parents to remember that gentle parenting is a trend and not a religion — feel free to take the parts you like and leave the rest.

Cara Goodwin, PhD, is a licensed psychologist, a mother of four and the founder of Parenting Translator, a nonprofit newsletter that turns scientific research into information that is accurate, relevant and useful for parents.

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