Sensitive parenting is also commonly referred to as responsive parenting. It has its roots in Diana Baumrind’s “authoritative” parenting style, a term she came up with following a study undertaken in the 1960’s. Baumrind spoke of authoritative parents as those who have high expectations but are also receptive to their kids’ needs and emotions.
Sensitive parenting has been defined as parents’ ability to:
- respond to kids’ cues and signals appropriately and promptly,
- engage in positive interactions with the child, and
- provide a secure base enabling kids to explore their environment.
Some research has also defined this type of parenting as “active emotional, affective, and behavioral engagement with the child characterized by high levels of responsiveness, positive reinforcement and praise, stimulation and animation.”
There appears to be a consensus that the impact of sensitive parenting goes well beyond the childhood years. This type of parenting has also been associated with multiple social, cognitive, and emotional benefits for kids.
Sensitive parenting fosters kids’ cognitive development
Much evidence suggests that sensitive parenting influences kids’ cognitive abilities. It has been identified as one of the strongest predictors of cognitive development. One study which sought to analyze the extent to which parents’ responsive behavior would facilitate infants’ development found that the kids whose parents had been guided toward responsiveness displayed greater social, emotional, communication, and cognitive competence. In other words, teaching parents about responsive behavior and helping them analyze this behavior had an impact on their parenting. Yet another study found that sensitive parenting during the first three years of life has a significant impact on social and academic competence through age 32.
Sensitive parenting helps foster kids’ emotional intelligence
When we provide a family environment in which kids feel safe and are taught about emotions, they are more able to deal with tough times. Several studies have reported that providing kids with a supportive emotional climate through sensitive parenting provides an optimal context which enables kids to explore their surroundings, communicate more effectively through both verbal and non-verbal communication, and react to failure better.
Sensitive parenting has been associated with health benefits
According to one study conducted among low income households, sensitive parenting has a buffering effect against poor health outcomes. The study found that kids who had memories of being raised by sensitive mothers were less likely to suffer from health issues. However, these findings remain inconclusive as it is yet to be determined whether the impact on health resulted from sensitive parenting alone or from other alternative unobserved factors. Moreover, the study did not determine why the results were only observed for maternal warmth.
How to become a sensitive parent
1 | Get attuned to kids’ feelings
Being a sensitive parent involves guiding your kid through emotional regulation. When we help kids name their emotions and teach them how to manage them, we give them important tools to navigate life’s challenges. Fostering kids’ emotional regulation means helping them be aware of different feelings, the events that spark those feelings, and how they can react to them in a socially acceptable manner.
When we get into the habit of naming our kids’ feelings – “I can see you’re upset, do you want to talk about it?” – we make it easier for kids to deal with their emotions. It is also important to talk to kids about your own emotions when you’re angry, happy or sad. Tell them what happened. How did you feel? What did you do?
Teaching kids to regulate their emotions helps them develop important mechanisms that enable them to cope with their own emotions. It also helps them be more aware of others’ emotions.
2 | Practice “mind-mindedness”
Mind-mindedness is an ability to appropriately “read” your kid’s mind. The research on mind-minded parents has been unable to determine whether this characteristic is inborn or whether it can be learned. However, parents can become mind-minded by being sensitive to their kids’ cues and signals and making a concerted effort to determine the behavior behind kids’ signals.
Being mind-minded means assuming that kids’ signals are meaningful and making an attempt to understand the hidden meanings.
3 | Focus on your relationship with your child
No two kids are similar, which means that kids might react differently to similar situations. When we focus on our relationship with each of our kids and treat them as individuals, we are more likely to be attuned to their signals. When we expect kids to “be like other kids their age,” we fail to see them for who they really are and to respond to their own unique signals.
The thing to remember about sensitive parenting is that it’s not about giving in to kids’ every whim. Sensitive parenting is the ability to find the right balance between firm boundaries and a democratic parenting style that is attentive to each kid’s emotional needs.