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Responsive Parenting – What It Is & Why It Creates the Best Outcomes

Effects | How to be a responsive parent

What is responsive parenting

Responsive parenting is a parenting style characterized by the parents’ high sensitivity to children’s needs. Responsive parents respond with warm acceptance of the child’s needs, feelings, and interests consistently. They are sensitive and react promptly to children’s signals. Children feel supported as the parents are emotionally attuned to their internal state of mind.

Effects of responsive parenting

Researchers have found that responsive parenting is linked to the positive development of children – physically, mentally, behaviorally, cognitively, and socially.

One plausible explanation is that responsive parenting creates secure attachment in children.

An attachment is the first emotional bond that children form with their caregivers. Attachment Security is determined by the family caregiver’s ability to meet the child’s needs.

Responsive parenting helps children develop a sense of safety, trust, and protection, and become securely attached.

Secure attachment has many benefits, as these positive life experiences of people allow children to generalize their learning to create more positive experiences throughout their lives.

responsive mother responds to son sensitively

Behavior

The study of responsiveness has revealed a strong connection between a child’s behavior and responsiveness. 

Using a sample of high-risk youths, a Chicago study found that 26% of those with the least responsive mothers and 16% with mothers who were moderately responsive in early childhood developed disruptive behavior disorders by the age of then.

In contrast, none of the children with the most responsive mothers developed such disorders​1​.

These kids also seemed to be protected from other kids’ behavior issues.

Another study found that children with warm and responsive parents were less likely to be bullied at school. Researchers suggested that children with positive family interactions in early life had better social skills and therefore, did not become the targets of bullying​2​.

Cognitive health

An analysis of a large number of studies found that maternal responsiveness was most often associated with language, cognition, social-emotion, and attention skills development​3​.

These kids had higher intelligence quotient (IQ) and cognitive growth at four-and-a-half years old.

They showed better school performance by age seven​4​.

Physical health

Researchers have found that maternal responsiveness can enhance the growth of infants born with very low birth weight.

It is also associated with a lower rate of childhood obesity in at-risk children​5​.

In contrast, those who grow up with unresponsive parents tend to suffer from chronic illnesses including hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and early death.

Mental health

Responsive parents can provide positive family relationships that are essential for mental health.  

A child’s social skills, social-emotional skills, self-esteem, and empathy are also enhanced by a positive parent-child relationship in a family setting​6,7​.

Without adult support, early-life stress can become toxic stress that is detrimental to the mental development for children. Responsive parenting becomes a protective factor that buffers the negative effects of distress on child development.

How to be a responsive parent

Becoming a responsive parent is quite simple. A responsive parent is attuned to their child’s emotions and reacts to their cues promptly in ways that are supportive and developmentally appropriate.

To infants and very young children, that’s all there is to it. Babies need your attentive care.

For older children, however, responsive parenting requires more work.

Clinical and developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind’s four parenting styles identify both authoritative and permissive parents as warm and responsive. But their effects on children are dramatically different​8​.

The following tips can help those who are new to this form of parenting and want to make the most of it.

Set high standards

Among the four parenting styles, both authoritative parenting and permissive parents show high responsiveness to their children. However, only authoritative parenting produces good child outcomes while permissive parenting results in negative outcomes.

A permissive parenting style differs from an authoritative parenting style in that permissive parents do not set boundaries or enforce rules.

Permissive parents are lax about behavior standards, fail to monitor their children’s activities, and have few expectations of their children.

Parents can only reap the benefits of responsive parenting if they are firm-responsive, not just responsive. In addition to being sensitive and responsive, set rules and adhere to them.

Use inductive discipline

Responsive parents don’t use punishment to force a child into compliance. 

Inductive discipline is used to teach children to discuss the reasons behind each decision and request so that they learn how to make sound decisions.

Behaviorally and emotionally responsive

During parent-child interactions, pay attention to not only the child’s behavior but also their emotional wellbeing. 

Be consistent

Early and consistent parental responsiveness is important in a child’s development​9​. Be responsive consistently so that your child perceives the experience as predictable​10​.

References

  1. 1.
    Wakschlag LS, Hans SL. Relation of maternal responsiveness during infancy to the development of behavior problems in high-risk youths. Developmental Psychology. Published online 1999:569-579. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.35.2.569
  2. 2.
    Healy KL, Sanders MR, Iyer A. Parenting Practices, Children’s Peer Relationships and Being Bullied at School. J Child Fam Stud. Published online September 11, 2013:127-140. doi:10.1007/s10826-013-9820-4
  3. 3.
    Landry SH, Smith KE, Swank PR, Guttentag C. A responsive parenting intervention: The optimal timing across early childhood for impacting maternal behaviors and child outcomes. Developmental Psychology. Published online 2008:1335-1353. doi:10.1037/a0013030
  4. 4.
    Cabral de Mello M. Responsive parenting: interventions and outcomes. Bull World Health Organ. Published online December 1, 2006:991-998. doi:10.2471/blt.06.030163
  5. 5.
    Savage JS, Birch LL, Marini M, Anzman-Frasca S, Paul IM. Effect of the INSIGHT Responsive Parenting Intervention on Rapid Infant Weight Gain and Overweight Status at Age 1 Year. JAMA Pediatr. Published online August 1, 2016:742. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2016.0445
  6. 6.
    Waters E, Sroufe LA. Social competence as a developmental construct. Developmental Review. Published online March 1983:79-97. doi:10.1016/0273-2297(83)90010-2
  7. 7.
    Landry SH, Smith KE, Swank PR. Responsive parenting: Establishing early foundations for social, communication, and independent problem-solving skills. Dev Psychol. 2006;42(4):627. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.42.4.627
  8. 8.
    SHUMOW L, VANDELL DL, POSNER JK. Harsh, Firm, and Permissive Parenting in Low-Income Families. Journal of Family Issues. Published online September 1998:483-507. doi:10.1177/019251398019005001
  9. 9.
    Landry SH, Smith KE, Swank PR, Assel MA, Vellet S. Does early responsive parenting have a special importance for children’s development or is consistency across early childhood necessary? Developmental Psychology. Published online 2001:387-403. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.37.3.387
  10. 10.
    Landry SH, Smith KE, Swank PR. The Importance of Parenting During Early Childhood for School-Age Development. Dev Neuropsychol. 2011;24(2):559-591. doi:10.1080/87565641.2003.9651911

About Pamela Li

Pamela Li is a bestselling author. She is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University).

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