The Danger of 180-degree/Reactive Parenting

As a counselor, I've worked with thousands of individuals and couples struggling with parenting. It is amazing how at the beginning of parenthood, everything seems exciting. Babies are sweet, smell wonderful and love cuddling. But as they grow, we realize that parenting is hard. When your sweet adorable infant becomes a terror at age three or your preteen screams, “I hate you,” emotion overwhelms us and we find ourselves parenting reactively. We scream, “Go to your room,” lock ourselves in the bathroom to avoid conflict or find ourselves shouting the same phrases we heard growing up.

For those who had less than ideal childhoods, it becomes easy to slip into what I call 180-degree parenting. It’s when we become aware of the unhealthy habits from our own childhood and instead of objectively choosing healthy parenting techniques, we parent in ways that are 180 degrees opposite of our own parents’ style. 
It’s the mom who grew up in a highly authoritarian, abusive household and promises herself she will never speak badly or set boundaries, then wonders why her children are out of control. It’s the parent from a neglectful home who lavishes love to the point of enablement. It’s the mom from a non-Christian home who forces her children into church every time the doors are open, then wonders why they are resentful about church.
When we parent from a place of reactivity (“Anything’s better than what I grew up with”), it’s amazing how in our efforts to be a good parent, we can still make unhealthy parenting decisions. Some people grow up with examples of what we should do as parents, but many grow up with examples of what not to do as parents. Unfortunately, knowing what not to do as a parent still doesn’t guarantee healthy parenting.
If you are someone that finds yourself parenting reactively from a 180-degree perspective, here are several ways to move towards healthy parenting.
1.       Take a parenting class. I know this seems obvious, but many people are too embarrassed to attend a parenting class. They feel like they are admitting to the world that they don’t know what to do. When our kids were very little and my husband and I were struggling, we signed up for a parenting class through our local hospital. Despite the fact that my husband taught parenting classes through his job and I was counseling parents consistently, we needed help. We were good at helping others but parenting through the baggage and habits of our childhoods was different. 

We swallowed our pride, took the class and loved it! We learned what healthy techniques to use instead of using ones that were 180-degrees from our childhoods (because let’s be honest, parenting in the 80’s was different than today). So even if you cared for your younger siblings, worked at a daycare, or babysat as a teen, I would encourage you to take a parenting class. Because parenting is a complex, ever-changing process, the more tools and ideas you can learn to be a healthy parent, the better. 

2.       Identify your parenting style. Awareness of your parenting style is a crucial first step. I love Chip Ingram’s four parenting styles. The first is authoritarian. This is the “my way or the highway” parent. The controlling parent who expects perfection in every area from their children and berates or abuses them when they “fail.” Their children often end up looking successful on the outside but becomes very angry and resentful inside.  

The next style is permissive. This is the opposite. This parent lavishes love but doesn’t set clear boundaries. Discipline (guidance, timeouts, consequences) is a dirty word. However, without boundaries, direction and support, kids can end up undisciplined, struggle in school and feel unprepared for life, which in turns leads to low self-esteem. 

The third is the neglectful style. No love, no boundaries. Parents are so wrapped up in their struggles that they have nothing left to give their children, and these children end up feeling unloved and can have attachment issues. 

The last and ideal style is authoritative. This parent has a good balance of love and boundaries. Of affection and discipline. These children end up feeling secure and loved, but boundaries and clear expectations allow them to succeed in life. 

Unfortunately, while we know authoritative is ideal, 180-degree parenting means we often pick the opposite style of our childhood, not the healthiest one. The mom from an extremely authoritarian or neglectful childhood becomes overly permissive. The father from a permissive household becomes a strict authoritarian. By identifying your parenting style, you can then seek help and move towards a healthy parenting style. You will learn how to better balance love and discipline, affection and boundaries, support and discipline.

3.       Practice self-care. This is so incredibly crucial. When we are tired or hungry, it’s easy to let those emotions and negative self-talk overwhelm us. Setting boundaries with a child is difficult when you are tired. Being loving when you are irritable is a chore. Often moms feel guilty taking time away from their family, but it will make you a better parent. Being with other adults, going on a walk, taking a yoga class, reading quietly at a coffee shop for an hour, laughing with your friends, all of these will allow you to regain perspective, increase your energy level and refill your cup. When you are better rested and confident, you will make healthy parenting choices, not just react negatively. 

4.       Seek counseling. Please. Sometimes people think that counseling is a last resort, something to seek when you have mental health issues or addiction issues. That’s not true! I’ve had numerous couples over the years seek counseling simply to help them process their childhood and learn healthy parenting tools. No counselor will laugh at you if you show up and say, “I’m overwhelmed and want to be a better parent.” As a counselor, I had numerous handouts, tools like parenting contracts, parenting style tests, etc. that I gave to individuals and couples who wanted to be a healthy parent instead of a reactive parent. 

I often tell people that parenting is the hardest job I have. Being a wife and a social worker seems easier than dealing with cranky kids, last minute projects and whining. It’s only when I actively use these tools that I can move from 180 degree/reactive parenting to healthy parenting and you will too.


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