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When Gentle Parenting Doesn't Work

Why gentle parenting doesn't always work, and what you can do instead.

Key points

  • Research supports the core tenets of gentle parenting.
  • However, for children and parents and in some situations, these strategies don't seem to be effective.
  • Gentle parenting alone may not be effective for every situation and every child.

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 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 has 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 the 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 you do when you encounter challenging behavior after 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 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 more oppositional or harder to manage.

What to Do When Gentle Parenting Isn’t Working

Although the overarching principles of gentle parenting may resonate with many parents, these same parents may still feel at a loss for how to apply these principles in the more difficult situations of parenting. 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.

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.

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 playing to get an ice pack or a bandaid for another child that they hurt or leaving the playground when they aren’t following the rules.

2. Try selective attention or 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”). If your child is whining to get your attention, make an effort to notice and praise them whenever they use a “normal voice.” However, if simply noticing and praising the positive behavior doesn’t seem to be working, it is OK to ignore more minor misbehavior, such as whining, fussing, mild arguing, or asking the same questions over and over again (this is called “planned ignoring”).

Most research-backed parenting programs, such as parent-child interaction therapy (PCIT), advise parents to ignore 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).

3. Take a time-out.

It seems that one of the core tenets of gentle parenting is that time-out is harmful to children, and some gentle parenting advocates go so far as to equate time-out with physical abuse. Yet, research actually does not find any evidence for harm associated with a time-out and even finds that it may be linked with positive outcomes. Research also indicates that a time-out is very effective in improving behavior. In particular, a time-out 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, a time-out 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 a time-out 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 time-out. Yet, research has yet to determine whether “time-in” is an effective strategy.

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. Parents have feelings, needs, and desires that matter. For example, many gentle parenting advocates suggest that parents should never tell their children when they make them feel sad or angry because this may cause codependency.

Parents do not want to use their feelings to manipulate or guilt their children, but there is no evidence that honestly sharing emotions with children has any negative impacts. There is 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 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).

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