Updated: Aug 25
Somehow, I find myself falling into TikTok rabbit holes on the "Gentle Parenting" subject. I find this quite ironic as I'm not currently raising young children and my usual TikTok habits include scrolling through therapist tok, neurodiverse tok, along with a blend of rescue animal, LGBTQ+, and baking content. The algorithm has grown well-accustomed to me, but recently it's been insistent that gentle parenting merits a place on my 'for you' page.
Before we dive further into this, it is essential to understand what "gentle parenting" is. This approach to child-rearing emphasizes empathy, respect, understanding, and setting boundaries. In the face of a child's strong, challenging emotions, a gentle parent acknowledges the child's feelings, demonstrates how to manage those emotions, and upholds boundaries for safe, expected behaviors. These boundaries, having been clearly communicated to the child, are usually accompanied by an explanation.
For instance, if a young child is having a meltdown because they can't be in the kitchen while their caregiver prepares a fried chicken dinner, a gentle parent might tackle this situation by saying, "It's hard not being near me when I'm doing something interesting, isn't it? I can see you really want to be part of what I'm doing. It's okay to be upset, but it's not safe for you to stay in the kitchen right now. I'm using hot oil, and it isn't safe for you to be in here when I'm handling it." The parent may then guide the child through a calming breathing exercise, redirect their attention to another activity, or offer them a choice between two safe alternatives to being in the kitchen.
Truth be told, I love gentle parenting. I love it not only for the behaviors it embraces, but also for the behaviors it avoids. Gentle parenting does not belittle a child's feelings, nor does it shame them for their reactions, blame them for their behavior, or inflict punishments born out of anger. It's a partnership where a child's caregivers steer them with compassion, consistent boundaries, and open communication. If a boundary is crossed - for instance, if the child from the earlier example continues to venture into the kitchen - then the caregiver might communicate a natural consequence - such as not having fried chicken nuggets for dinner because it's unsafe to fry chicken in hot oil with a child present. This consequence directly relates to the child's decision, instead of something arbitrary like reducing screen time.
In this instance, the child gains insight that it's okay to be disappointed when they can't participate in preparing their favorite meal with their caregiver. The parent openly acknowledges that it's challenging to watch someone we adore doing something we find fascinating without being able to join in. The child learns to regulate their intense emotions by using calming techniques they were taught by their parents, instead of concealing their feelings out of fear of a potentially angry adult. Through gentle parenting, the child understands that being around hot oil is dangerous, and that cooking cannot continue if they are in the kitchen while the oil is being used. Gentle parenting embodies empathy, respect, understanding, and reasonable boundaries that are explained.
After spending considerable time on gentle parenting TikTok, I had a revelation... empathy, respect, understanding, and boundaries are the exact qualities I taught myself to harbor towards, well... myself! These are also the traits I work to foster within my clients in therapeutic sessions. How frequently do we, as adults, respond to our powerful emotions with negative self-talk? We shame ourselves for feeling awkward in a social scenario, blame ourselves for other people's emotions, and punish ourselves by pushing ourselves extra hard at the gym after missing a few sessions. How regularly do we extend to ourselves the compassion inherent in gentle parenting?
Imagine the impact of telling ourselves, "Of course I'm nervous today, meeting new people can be challenging! Being at a social event is already overstimulating, it's natural that I'm feeling uneasy." How soothing would it be to ground ourselves by putting a hand on our chest and taking a few deep breaths, reminding ourselves why we’re here and what strengths we have that can get us through this experience? Wouldn't it be nice if we could interact with ourselves and confront our own fears and anxieties from a gentle and nurturing perspective?
Next time you're feeling stress, anxiety, frustration, or doubt, instead of beating yourself up or getting mad at yourself, remember to be positive and gentle with yourself. Just as children deserve compassion and gentleness from their parents, we all deserve to show those same traits to ourselves, especially in difficult times.