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April 29, 2024

April 24, 2024

Understanding and Implementing Responsive Parenting: How to Break the Yelling/Shame Cycle

E:
222
with
Dr. Cindy Hovington
Founder of Curious Neuron

What You'll Learn

  • Why the Goal of “Never Yelling” Often Backfires
  • How Our Childhood Plays Into Responsive Parenting
  • The Internal and External Expression of Emotions
  • The Pressure to Be Calm (and Why “Responsive” Should be the Goal Instead)
  • The Importance of Regulating Ourselves First
  • Nuance, Self-Compassion, and Responsive Parenting
  • Why Responding to Our Own Needs Matters in Parenting

We’re parenting in uncharted territory, with pressure to break generational cycles, follow best practices for responsive parenting, and support our children’s emotional health. But we often find ourselves struggling to do so. 

At the beginning of the year, I reached out to the Momwell community to hear what they wanted to leave behind this year. Overwhelmingly, the answer was that moms wanted to leave behind yelling, losing their cool, or becoming emotionally dysregulated. 

This is something that comes up in the community a lot. In the online world, we have a wealth of knowledge about tools, tips, and strategies for parenting. But so many moms find themselves becoming triggered or dysregulated—and suddenly all those tools, tips, and strategies seem to go out the window. 

As moms, we feel immense pressure to stay calm and peaceful even in the toughest, most triggering moments. And when we fall short, we often beat ourselves up and feel ashamed. But if we want to break this cycle, we need to move away from shame and find a way to offer ourselves the same compassion and understanding that we have for our children.  

This week I’m joined by Dr. Cindy Hovington, founder of Curious Neuron. She previously appeared in episode 43 on Managing Tantrums According to Science. Today she is back to discuss what responsive parenting really looks like and how we can move away from the cycle of unrealistic pressure and shame. 

Why the Goal of “Never Yelling” Often Backfires

The commitment to breaking cycles or practicing responsive parenting is a positive one. But it’s not realistic to think that it will happen overnight or that we will never make mistakes. 

Dr. Cindy pointed out that we often think of the goal as “not yelling.” When this becomes our goal, we feel like we’ve failed when we have our own human emotions. 

She said that if we parent the way we want most of the time, we’re creating a positive environment for our children. And moments here and there of yelling or reactive parenting don’t negate that environment. 

If our goal is “not yelling,” we feel like we’ve failed when we have human emotions.

It’s important to extend compassion to ourselves. If a mom friend was having a tough moment, we wouldn’t tell them they are failing. We would encourage them, pointing out all the good things they do. But it is often hard for us to support ourselves the same way. Instead, we focus more on our mistakes than on the strides we make. 

This comes from a good place—we want to do right by our children, and we might fear that our negative interactions will cause emotional harm. But the pressure has become unrealistic, leaving us wondering if every less-than-perfect moment will traumatize our children. 

Dr. Cindy said it’s helpful to move away from all-or-nothing thinking and unfair expectations, and instead look at the big picture. Our goal might be to respond positively 70% of the time. This can leave room for our humanity and help us remember the positive difference we are making. 

How Our Childhood Plays Into Responsive Parenting

Many of us want to embrace responsive parenting because we want to do things differently than our parents. But when we weren’t raised with emotional skills, this can be a struggle. 

The process of responsive parenting takes a lot of learning and unlearning—all while juggling the day-to-day mental and emotional load. This can create very stressful situations where we often find ourselves unintentionally falling into the patterns that we observed in our own childhood. 

The process of responsive parenting takes a lot of learning and unlearning. 

Dr. Cindy pointed out that moms often feel like we went from 0 to 100, losing our cool in a moment. But the 2-99 are there—even if we didn’t notice. Stress, overstimulation, our own childhood trauma and needs, sleep deprivation—it all plays a role in the way we react. 

For example, perhaps your child started screaming in the car and it triggered you to yell or lash out verbally. But there were likely many moments of frustration and stress leading up to that moment—maybe a battle over shoes or breakfast spilled all over the floor or a sibling argument on the way out the door. 

Dr. Cindy calls these “micro emotions,” and she said that if we bottle them up and don’t cope with them, they build up into those mom rage moments or triggered situations. 

This also happens in our relationship with our partner. Maybe a small frustration here or there gets brushed under the rug—but as more and more pile up, so does resentment, often leading to a bigger argument

Dr. Cindy said that emotional awareness and intelligence are a big piece of the puzzle when it comes to responsive parenting. Understanding what’s happening with our emotions and how they show up in our bodies can help us learn how to stay more regulated. 

The Internal and External Expression of Emotions

Building emotional awareness and intelligence doesn’t just help us with our own emotions—it also changes the way we respond to our children. 

Once we start understanding that more in ourselves, we can empathize more with our children when they struggle with their emotions. We can start to see the needs, emotions, and triggering moments contributing to tantrums and show up with compassion—which often helps de-escalate stressful moments rather than contributing to them. 

Perhaps our children are feeling lonely or need connection, or maybe they are frustrated because they don’t understand their own emotions, or maybe they are overwhelmed and overstimulated. When we can start to look at the needs and emotions behind the behavior, we can stay more regulated and help our children through co-regulation. 

When we can start to look at the needs and emotions behind the behavior, we can stay more regulated. 

Dr. Cindy said that emotions occur internally and externally. The external piece might look like a child having a tantrum, or us losing our cool and yelling. Once the emotional buildup has occurred, we have less control over the external piece. Our brain isn’t thinking rationally. 

That’s why the internal piece is what we really need to look at in both cases—the needs, the emotions, the environment, the stress triggers. Then we can make proactive changes that can have a big impact. 

The Pressure to Be Calm (and Why “Responsive” Should be the Goal Instead)

Dr. Cindy said that there are many misconceptions around the idea of respectful parenting. One of the biggest is that it means we are always calm. 

She pointed out that studies show when parents try to practice positive parenting, they are often experiencing more stress. This is because when we try to force ourselves to stay calm, we suppress our emotions, which is harder on our mental health and emotional well-being. 

The goal shouldn’t be to “stay calm” or use a specific script or follow one model you saw on social media. It should instead be to respond.

We can respond to our children while still validating our own emotions

We can respond to our children while still validating our own emotions. We can model healthy emotional expression without always appearing calm. And we can build relationships with our children while also being human. 

Dr. Cindy said that often one of the key pieces to shifting in this direction is turning into your own needs. What unmet needs have you been ignoring? What brings you joy that you have put on the backburner? What have you done lately that was just for you? 

For many of us, these things slip through the cracks when we are struggling with the invisible load and trying to be and do more. But our needs matter—and when we take care of them, we can show up better for our children. 

Practicing real self-care, advocating for our needs, pursuing our passions—these things aren’t selfish. They are essential for taking care of ourselves and, in turn, supporting our family. 

The Importance of Regulating Ourselves First

Once we start to build our emotional awareness and we do the work to identify our needs and start practicing real self-care, it becomes much easier to stay regulated and to model that regulation for our children. 

Dr. Cindy said that when she sees stressful moments, like her children arguing, she knows she needs to get in touch with herself first. She gauges her emotions—is she too tired to deal with this in a healthy way? Or is she feeling ready to handle it positively? 

If she feels like she is not in the right place, she will tell her children, “I am going to deal with this in about three minutes…but first I need to step back and take a breath.” 

She has even seen her children start to model this behavior, taking a step back and regrouping while in arguments with each other. 

Dr. Cindy pointed out that this is what we want to model for our children—not how to always stay calm, not how to never experience emotions like anger or frustration, but that we all have emotions and we can cope with them in healthy ways. 

When we have worked to build strong relationships with our kids, mistakes don’t damage that. 

We won’t always be able to respond this way. Sometimes we’ll make mistakes. Sometimes we will think we are ready to responsively parent, only to find ourselves reacting or yelling. But when we have worked to build strong relationships with our kids, these moments don’t damage that. We can repair—which also models for our children how to do so. 

Nuance, Self-Compassion, and Responsive Parenting

Dr. Cindy said that shifting the goalpost from being calm to being responsive allows us to hold space for our emotions as parents. It also lets us view our tone of voice and our emotions with more nuance. 

Not all reactions are equal. Yelling loudly that it’s time for bed because we’ve asked many times already and it’s overstimulating and chaotic is not the same as verbally lashing out at a child with shame and blame. We can want to reduce the yelling and still understand these differences. 

On the other side, checking out emotionally or ignoring stressful situations might appear “calm,” but it isn’t responsive—and it doesn’t help our children co-regulate. 

There are also situations where raising our voice is necessary. If your child was running into the street, you likely wouldn’t want “calm” to be your goal. You would yell out and respond immediately. 

Dr. Cindy said that parents don’t need to fear raising their voice or yelling at their kids—it’s far more valuable to keep the word “responsive” in mind. This can help us remember how to co-regulate, how to bring their nervous system back into a calm space, and how to model humanity, repair, and empathy. 

When we show up for ourselves rather than trying to be calm for the sake of “calm,” we can support our own emotions and change the way we show up for our children. This likely creates more calm than trying to suppress our feelings. 

We can express anger, frustration, and stress without being disrespectful to our children.

It also allows for deeper conversations about emotions, respect, and behavior. We can express anger, frustration, and stress without being disrespectful to our children. And we can communicate with them about moments where we struggled and encourage them to let us know if they feel disrespected or hurt. 

This relationship, this connection, is far more important to our children’s emotional health than unrealistically aiming for perfection. 

Why Responding to Our Own Needs Matters in Parenting

Dr. Cindy believes that we should ultimately move away from the idea that being respectful parents means responding to our children at the cost of ourselves. Our emotions and needs are valid—and they deserve to be on an equal playing field. 

Our emotions and needs are valid—and they deserve to be on an equal playing field. 

This can be tough depending on our season of life—especially in the postpartum period when basic physical needs are difficult to meet, let alone emotional ones. 

But as we regain some capacity, we can choose to move away from the image of a self-sacrificial, martyring mom, and advocate for our needs, our social development, our passion, and our interests. 

We have often been conditioned to think that taking time for ourselves is selfish. But it’s helpful to understand the research behind what our children actually need from us. Studies have shown that even five minutes of true connection can strengthen the bond and help support our children emotionally. 

This means that we don’t have to be “on” 24/7. We can take time for ourselves, time for our careers, time for our passions and relationships, and still build positive relationships with our children. 

This doesn’t have to look like a complete overhaul of your life. Dr. Cindy said that every day she writes a small checklist—personal, health, family and work. And throughout the day, she tries to do one small thing to support each of those. 

This might be having a cup of coffee while it was still hot, going outside for a few minutes, showing up responsively in a moment with her children, or generating an idea for work. These small moments of making time and space for ourselves can make all the difference. 

Struggling with emotional regulation skills? Working with a mom therapist can help! Book a FREE 15 minute virtual consult today!

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Tags:

Dysregulation, Mom Rage

Stage:

Motherhood, Postpartum

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OUR GUEST

Dr. Cindy Hovington
Founder of Curious Neuron

Dr. Cindy Hovington is the founder of Curious Neuron and Co-Founder of Wondergrade. She is a Canadian mom of 3 and has a doctorate in neuroscience. Cindy shares research focused on emotional well-being in parents and emotional development in kids. She is a reoccurring parental mental health expert in Montreal media. Her work has been highlighted in Today’s Parent, The Bump, Le Figaro in France and more. She has worked with brands such as Airbnb, Pampers and Dialogue and has a top parenting podcast in Canada, the US and the UK.

Erica Djossa
Erica Djossa
PMH-C | Founder of Momwell
Erica is the founder of Momwell, providing educational resources and virtual therapy for moms. She is a mom of three boys and a registered psychotherapist. Erica’s work has been featured in the Toronto Star, Breakfast Television, Scary Mommy, Medium, Pop Sugar, and Romper. how they want it.
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