API Principle #3: Respond with Sensitivity

Responding with Sensitivity is the 3rd principle of Attachment Parenting International. This one really hits home for me right now as I have recently been struggling with the intense emotions of my almost three year old son. Reviewing the information from API regarding tantrums provides me with perspective and clarity on how I can best respond during these highly emotional episodes. The following two statements were the most meaningful to me:

  1. Some emotions are too powerful for a young child’s underdeveloped brain to manage in a more socially acceptable manner
  2. A parent’s role in tantrums is to comfort the child, not to get angry or punish her

The first statement helps me accept that my son is expressing his emotions in developmentally and or age appropriate ways. While I might desire for him to better cope with disappointments or frustrations, I need to remember that he may not actually have the ability to do so during times of highly intense emotions. Simply recognizing that he is expressing genuine emotions to the best of his ability, helps me respond with more compassion and sensitivity. For example, rather than belittle (oh, it’s just a balloon, we’ll get another one next time) or berate (you should have held onto it tighter) I can acknowledge and label the intense emotion (you are really upset the balloon floated away). In doing so, I am helping him process the intense emotion he is experiencing.

The second statement is worded quite perfectly. I like that it gives parents guidance on what to do during tantrums. So often a child’s tantrum makes a parent feel out of control and helpless. We simply want it to stop, but often don’t know how. We end up trying everything and anything we can think of that might bring an end to the tantrum and when that still doesn’t work, we get frustrated. In attempt to regain control over the situation we might begin to threaten punishments. However API encourages us to take a step back and let go of the need to feel in control. We can allow our children to express intense emotions and support them through it. Because the more opportunity they have to express those feelings, the more refined their ability to express them becomes. When we validate their emotions, we affirm that what they are expressing is worthy of being heard.

Much of the above relates to older children, so you might be wondering, well what about babies? What does API say about responding to their emotions with sensitivity? First they state that “Babies’ brains are immature and significantly underdeveloped at birth, and they are unable to soothe themselves” And it is “through the consistent, repeated responsiveness of a compassionate adult, children learn to soothe themselves” (http://www.attachmentparenting.org/principles/respond.php, 2008). They recognize the importance of the child’s relationship with the primary caregiver in providing a secure foundation for the child. It is completely normal for a baby to want to be in close physical contact with their primary caregiver and to feel anxious when separated from them. This does not indicate that a child has been spoiled nor has an insecure attachment. Rather that the child is developing life-long relationship building skills such as trust and empathy.

This is all stuff we know and aspire to do, but yet it can be so challenging to actually implement. As parents we are often tired, in a hurry, have a mile long to-do list, and all around operating at (or beyond?) our maximum. All of that combined can make it very difficult to respond to our children’s intense emotions in a gentle, compassionate, and sensitive way. It takes a great deal of energy to be intentionally present with our children during difficult emotions. Although the benefit is the close connection we form with our children through parenting consciously.

What do you do when your child has a tantrum? What has been a helpful approach and/or mindset in responding to your child(ren)’s intense emotions?


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