Why Gentle Parenting Failed For My Neurodivergent KidsMar 08, 2023
I longed for gentle parenting to work with my whole heart. I wanted to keep my world intact, to keep my power and control, and still create radical trust and connection with my kids. But it just was not possible.
The path to true connection was much more complex and painful. I needed to rework my self-identity, what it meant to be a "Good Mom." I needed to actually listen to my kids and to have the courage to act on what they told me. I needed to step off the standard path and explore the woods on either side. I needed to accept them, just as they are, without condition.
"Empathy" strategies enraged them.
Gentle parenting focuses on "hearing" our kids by using reflecting listening ("you're telling me your brother took your toy!") or sportscasting ("you're wanting to hit, you're raising your arm to hit.") or emotion naming ("you feel so frustrated!"). Not one of these strategies worked to calm the intensity or to connect deeply with my neurodivergent children. Each strategy escalated them further, making the situation even more difficult for me to manage.
Holding my boundaries alienated them.
Gentle parenting also preaches the importance of strong parental boundaries to make kids feel safe. But they obviously did not feel safe. With a kind and gentle voice, I would name a boundary, only to see my children flip out, attack me, or attack one another. The connection between us broke down as I stayed more committed to my boundary than to listening to my kids.
Standards of behavior didn't match up.
Gentle parenting holds certain standards of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Rules like "hands are not for hitting" and "we keep calm bodies" fell flat with my neurodivergent, sensory-seeking children who seemed to crave play fighting and constant movement for calming. I read stories of unrecognizably tame challenges and simple solutions that did not match up with what I was seeing at home.
As meltdowns and aggression grew violent in our home, I looked for deeper wisdom in gentle parenting as my boundaries and empathy methods escalated the kids further. What to do when they attacked me without stopping for an hour? Gentle parenting didn't even have my family and our struggles in view. "Keep a gentle body, and they will eventually crawl into your lap." Nope.
I felt like a failure.
Most of all, gentle parenting methods are so confident that they will work for all kids without any nuance of what to do if these strategies don't work as proscribed. The methods don't fail. It is the parent who is failing to implement them accurately. It is always the parent who is to blame. If I just stayed calm enough, was consistent enough, and used the strategies, they would work. My kids would do what I asked. I would stop feeling so furious, exhausted, and ashamed.
Gentle parenting preaches empty respect.
While gentle parenting is intended to respect children, it still maintains traditional ideas of discipline --that kids do well only when they want to --and that it is parents' job to foster the qualities they want to see more of by selective ignoring, natural consequences, and strong boundaries. But true respect must be coupled with trust and respect. True respect releases power-over and embraces mutuality.
Is it truly respectful to say, "I hear that you don't want to go. We are going to go anyway"? Are we actually listening to what children are saying, and honoring their courage to express themselves to us? Can we respect children enough to respect their needs and boundaries, even when it makes US feel less powerful or in control? Can we find true consent, not empty ways to mimic "respect"?
Gentle parenting imports ableism.
Like the rest of our ableist culture, gentle parenting does not actively question the norms and standards that we unthinkingly apply to all children, without taking their neurodiversity into account. Sometimes, my children need to kick walls, scream, hide under beds, and punch things to calm down. Sometimes they need total silence or hours of screen time. These strategies are adaptive for them, though they are never suggested in gentle parenting.
I longed for gentle parenting to work with my whole heart. I wanted to keep my world intact, to keep my power and control, and still create radical trust and connection with my kids. But it just was not possible. The path to true connection was much more complex and painful. I needed to rework my self-identity, what it meant to be a "Good Mom." I needed to actually listen to my kids and to have the courage to act on what they told me. I needed to step off the standard path and explore the woods on either side. I needed to accept them, just as they are, without condition.
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