Growing Minds

Responding vs. Reacting

We’ve all been there, during a particularly rowdy game of tag something in the house shattered. Now your child is staring at you in tears. Now what?

Do you react or respond? While we may want to say we would respond, more often than not, it’s not that easy. When difficult things happen, we are often victims of our gut reactions. It can be difficult to think before we act. Many times, depending on the situation, we can go into ‘fight or flight” mode. This is an acute stress response that can lead to over-reaction, yelling, and even aggression. 

As a parent or guardian, it is important to know the difference between reacting and responding to our children. If our children break a glass, spill a drink, or have a tantrum, we need to be aware of how we are behaving in response. 

What is reacting?

Your initial reactions are usually fueled by emotions, and emotions are not always rational. When you react, you are matching the child’s emotional response. If they’re screaming and having a tantrum, you’re screaming and yelling in response. If something causes you to have an emotional response, you are going to need to recognize the emotion, take a deep breath and think. If your first reaction is to yell, the reaction you will be met with is far more likely to be negative and emotionally fueled. Is your child yelling and screaming? Yelling back will only make the situation worse.

What is responding?

On the other hand, responding gives your child the opportunity to express their emotions in a safe space. Taking a minute and regulating your initial response can also lead to a more thoughtful reply. Responses contain more reason than gut reactions. When you take the time to add reason to your response, you have more time to consider your child’s feelings and thoughts. For example, in the aforementioned example, saying “How could you be so careless!” would be a reaction. However, a response may be: “Okay, I see there was an accident here, let’s get a sponge and clean it up together.” For several other examples, Imperfect Families created a useful chart for reference.

Why does it matter?

When you respond to negative behavior rather than react to it, you are encouraging your children to express their emotions. An emotion that is met with anger can cause a child to be fearful to express their frustrations or to make mistakes. Children will look to you for help understanding their emotions and feelings rather than shying away from your guidance.

Being a parent is difficult. They are faced with a variety of challenges every day. However, taking time to sort through your emotions and responding to your child, will help create a more positive environment where emotions are celebrated and shared openly.