Can you become a gentle parent?

A calm middle-ground, gentle parenting centres on trust, empathy and positive language. Lisa Salmon finds out more.
Can you become a gentle parent?

Kelly Medina Enos with her son George

IF being smacked and shouted at was how you were raised, you may feel there must be a better way to bring up your own children.

But if the other extreme - ‘permissive parenting’, where there’s very few boundaries and little or no discipline - is a step too far, could ‘gentle parenting’ be a good middle-ground?

Gentle parenting focuses on four key elements: respect, empathy, boundaries and understanding. And while it’s all the rage on social media at the moment, this school of thought has been around under different names for a long time.

As consultant clinical psychologist Emma Citron (citronpsychology.co.uk, inset below) explains: “Gentle parenting has likely become another fad, but it’s merely a different name for old rope.

 Consultant clinical psychologist Emma Citron
Consultant clinical psychologist Emma Citron

“Any type of parenting should be encouraged to be gentle parenting - in psychology, we call it positive parenting. It’s based on the idea that we notice the positive things children do and make a fuss of them, but ignore the silly things, because the model is encouraging good behaviours rather than poor.”

She says there’s no need for punishments or negativity if you have a good relationship with your child, based on listening and gentle communication. So, for example, instead of saying, ‘Get your feet off the couch’, it’s more helpful to say, ‘I’d prefer you not to put your feet on the couch because the mud gets on and I have to wash the covers’.

“You can have consequences,” explains Citron, “but there’s no need to raise voices or be negative or punitive - all that does is erode the relationship and the trust and communication between you.”

Mum-of-one Kelly Medina Enos “stumbled across” gentle parenting when her son George, now three, was 18-months old, and she posted a video on TikTok about him hitting her and asking for advice on what to do.

“At the time, I was just defaulting on how my parents brought me up, which was authoritarian-style, with a stern voice and saying, ‘No, you do not hit me!’ Somebody mentioned gentle parenting and I started looking at various books,” she says.

The York mum has since embraced it and posts videos to her 389,000 followers on TikTok.

“Research says children brought up with gentle parenting have more regulated emotions, and there’s less chance of them having depression,” says Enos. “They’re more emotionally intelligent and able to communicate those feelings to people. But I don’t read too much into the stats, I just know it works for me and my family.”

Here, Enos shares her take on gentle parenting...

Use positive language: Positive language is powerful, says Enos: “Just change a few things you tell them. Instead of ‘No, get down from there’, it’s ‘Feet on the floor please’. Instead of ‘Stop running’, it’s ‘Walking feet, please’. There’s not a ‘one sentence wonder’ for every child, find what works for both of you. If you say, ‘No! Don’t you dare draw on that wall!’, children don’t tend to hear the words ‘no’ and ‘don’t’, they just hear the part after and think, ‘Oh, I get to draw on the wall’,” adds Enos. “So say something like, ‘Pens are for paper’. You have to change the way you speak to them.”

If they ignore you...: Enos admits this will still happen and gentle parenting is not “a magic wand overnight. Her son loved climbing on the table and she recalled: “I’d say, ‘Feet on the floor please’. If that was ignored, I’d say, ‘Do you feel safe up there?’ If they say they do, ask them how they’re going to get down. As a last resort you might say, ‘Either you can get yourself down, or mummy can help you’.”

Dealing with hitting: Instead of telling a child to stop hitting and punishing them, Enos explains a gentle parent might say: “I won’t let you hit me. If you continue, I’m going to move away to keep myself safe.”

If the child gets upset when the parent moves away, you could say: “I understand you’re upset, but I will not let you hit me.”

Facing tantrums: Enos says parents need to “be the calm in your child’s storm” with tantrums. “When George was having a tantrum, I just sat on the floor and gave him enough space and allowed him to feel his feelings,” she says. “When there was a break in the crying, I’d offer a hug, and if he said no, I’d say I was there when he needed me.

“I’d remain calmly sitting, model deep breaths, and if he got a bit more verbal, I’d discuss how deep breaths could help him when he’s really frustrated. Expecting them to regulate their emotions on their own at this age is impossible.”

Give them options: If you find yourself in a power struggle with your child, give them options, suggests Enos. For example: It’s bath time soon - do you want me to set the alarm for five minutes or 10 minutes? Or: How much more playing do you want to do, two minutes or five minutes?

“They’ll feel really in control of their routine, and you’re still respecting them, but getting them to do what you’d like them to do.”

A scene from TV series Happy the Hoglet
A scene from TV series Happy the Hoglet

Introduce them to Happy The Hoglet: New ITV children’s series, Happy The Hoglet - about a baby hedgehog who learns how to build inner strength by tackling his big feelings - could be a helpful way to get young children more familiar with this approach.

Enos says: “That’s been amazing - you can see the animals having emotions and everybody coming together, helping them resolve that emotion.”

Teach them breathing exercises: Enos says her son uses a ‘breathe board’, which has an infinity loop-shaped groove the child runs their finger along one side of as they inhale, and down the other side as they exhale. “You can do a clever thing where you put five fingers in front of them and pretend they’re candles and ask if they want to blow them out,” she says. “They blow all your fingers down, and that really helps to regulate their emotions - not smack-bang in the middle of a tantrum, I’ll admit.”

Create a ‘calm down corner’: Enos suggests putting cushions, books, a breathe board, non-stimulating ‘fidget’ toys, etc, in one space - she has a cupboard under the stairs where the door was open, offering it to her son when he was frustrated. “A lot of people think it’s in place of the naughty step, but the difference is a child goes to the naughty step to think about what they’ve done, whereas the calm-down corner is for when your child’s emotions start to rise,” she explains. “It’s not a place of discipline.”

Don’t expect to be a ‘perfect’ gentle parent: “I’m not going to say I never shout at George,” admits Enos. “Don’t think if you do that you’re the worst parent in the world. I’ve found deep breaths and taking a moment away from George is a good idea, when I feel that what’s going to come out of my mouth isn’t the parenting that I want it to be. But if parents are even changing just one or two things that their parents did, they’re still breaking the cycle.”

Happy The Hoglet airs in the UK weekdays at 10.40am on ITV’s littleBe and in Ireland on RTÉjr.

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