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  • Writer's pictureDr. Jacqueline Cahalan

Respond More Than You React

What is the difference between responding and reacting?

Responding is when the words and actions that you use to address a situation are based on what your child is showing or telling you they need in a particular moment. It requires you being open to trying to understand what they are experiencing. It is rooted in compassion and encourages connectedness.

Reacting is when we address things based on our own immediate feelings and needs, or on what we think our child “should” be doing. When a parent reacts, it can make it harder for a child to feel validated and to get their underlying needs met.

For example, if a child has a meltdown, a response would take into consideration questions like: “How tired are they?”, “How stimulating is the environment they are in?”, Or “What exactly about this situation is overwhelming to them?” and addressing that underlying need. A reaction pays more attention to what is happening on the surface level and might involve trying to coerce your child into doing something they aren’t able to do in that moment (e.g., “Calm down!”, “Just eat your food!”, or “Let’s go! Now!”. It may involve yelling, and although it might lead to compliance, it will also likely involve a lot of frustration for everyone.

If you do find yourself reacting instead of responding, be kind to yourself. We don’t need to be perfect parents, we just need to be doing our best. You can always go back and repair later on. You can say something like “I’m sorry for how I acted when you were upset earlier. I was having some big feelings and I’m working on that. I realize you were tired from school and maybe that playdate was a bit too much for you. We will try to think about that next time.” It will help teach your kids that no one is perfect and we are all human.

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