Connecting and responding to children and adolescents
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Prescriptions for Parents

Making Scientific Research Practical for Families

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Sensitive or Responsive Parenting

Sensitive or responsive parenting refers to family interactions in which parents are aware of their children’s emotional and physical needs and respond appropriately and consistently.  Sensitive parents are “in tune” with their children and provide a secure base from which children can explore their environments – and thereby learn. They understand individual developmental and temperamental differences, respond quickly and appropriately to their children, and provide encouragement and support during times of distress.  Research shows tremendous benefit to children when parents interact responsively and supportively.  (In some articles sensitive parenting is also referred to as authoritative – see our parenting newsletter on Parenting Styles.)
In fact, supportive sensitive parenting can possibly mitigate the effects of adverse events and stress in a child’s life.  Researchers followed preschool children (aged 3 – 6 years) for five to ten years and obtained MRI brain scans at early adolescence.  Poverty adversely affected brain growth, but these effects were mediated by positive caregiving(Luby J, et al.  The effects of poverty on childhood brain development:  the mediating effect of caregiving and stressful life events.  JAMA Pediatr  2013; 167(12):1135-42.)
Another study confirmed this.  When 163 individuals were followed from birth through age 32 years, stress in early childhood and adolescence predicted adverse health outcomes in adults.  “Higher maternal sensitivity, however, buffered these deleterious effects.”  (Farrell AK, et al.  The Timpact of Stress at Different Life Stages on Physical Health and the Buffering Effects of Maternal Sensitivity.  Health Psychol.  2016)
This newsletter shares specific ways you can demonstrate sensitive or responsive parenting.


Infants who perceive their parents to be connected and responsive to them also feel more secure and are able to trust their parents, which will become the basis for later discipline and teaching.

One study showed that language development was enhanced by maternal responsiveness. Another study showed that mothers who know their infants and respond appropriately to them are actually helping their infants’ brains develop


  • Talk with your infant -- constantly. 
    • Narrate your day.  “Now I am going to change your diaper”
    • Sometimes use baby talk and babbling, allowing your baby time to copy your expressions
    • Other times use long sentences so your infant learns grammar and syntax of language
  • Discover your baby's temperament. Know Your Baby Quiz
  • For the very young infant, try to respond quickly to cries to reassure your baby you are there for him.  
As your baby grows, she will learn to wait a few minutes to be picked up or comforted or fed. Just the sound of your voice will soothe and reassure him because he has learned to trust you.

Today – make a special effort to talk more to your child. Fathers and mothers talk differently to their children -- and both are important for infant language development.
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Children in Elementary

Greater maternal responsiveness has been associated with lower levels of stress hormones.

Also, responsive parenting has been associated with healthy BMI, whereas uninvolved, indulgent or highly protective parenting has been associated with higher child BMI and risk of obesity.


1. Continue to be connected to your elementary age child. Here are some guidelines from How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk:
  • Listen quietly with full attention; stop what you are doing and look at your child.
  • Acknowledge the child’s feelings by nodding, or saying a short phrase like “Oh”, or “I see”.
  • Give their feelings a name – even if it not the correct feeling, your child will feel validated.  “I think I hear you say you are sad your friend called you a name.”
2. Expect the answer to “How was your day?” to be “Fine” without any elaboration and think of ways to help your child tell you more:
  • Have a time during family dinners for each person to share something that happened during the day - and the topic can change each night.
  • Children will often share more just before going to sleep so try sitting quietly by your child’s bedside at night.
  • Take your child out on a special date to a place of his choosing.
3. Be sensitive to your child's nutritional needs
  • Purchase healthy food and provide appropriate boundaries on snacking
  • Teach children how to choose healthy food.
  • If your child has a weight problem, please consult your pediatrician and never berate or criticize your child for this.
Remember to commend children for healthy choices and
never ridicule a child for a poor food choice, especially in public.
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Toddlers & Preschoolers

A responsive parent pays attention to his child, acknowledge the child’s emotions, and may provide some options or distractions without becoming emotionally involved in the child’s distress as the child needs to view his parent as stable and dependable.

The sensitive parent also recognizes the child must experience disappointment and frustration in order to learn creativity and problem solving skills.


  • Parent your child according to temperament. A temperament quiz online may help you feel more confident and competent as a parent during the emotionally turbulent stages of development.
  • Acknowledge your child’s emotions. "It looks as if you are disappointed that it is raining so we can’t go to the park.  Is that right?"
  • Structure your child’s day so she feels her environment is stable and secure, incorporating consistent rules for behavior that are gently enforced. Introduction to DisciplineDiscipline Techniques
  • Provide comfort with reassuring physical touches and hugs when appropriate
Also, acknowledge your own emotions“I am feeling frustrated right now because I burned the vegetables.  Can you play with your blocks while I clean up?” Practice this today – and you will find that when you acknowledge your emotions, you actually begin to feel better!
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Teens need to see their parents as supportive, as role models and helpers in decision making, as the authority figure in the home, and as the person who loves them unconditionally – especially when they make foolish decisions

Adolescents face many developmental tasks that challenge them as they seek to move from dependence to independence.  Similar to toddlers, they may experience emotional roller coasters, and once again, it is crucial that parents do not participate in that ride.

Your adolescent may lash out at you in anger when you ask where he has spent the last two hours as he struggles to develop independence. Pause and take a breath before you respond back in anger.

Your teen may not actually be angry with you for asking, he is rather trying to say he is struggling with the conflict between his need for independence and your need to help him stay safe.

Adolescents’ brains are still developing, so they need parental input, insight, and oversight throughout their teen years.  For additional information see our newsletter on Connected Parenting and the article The Teenage Brain:  Under Construction.

This week, think of one way you can be a sensitive parent. You may need to actually schedule a time to connect.

  • Schedule a date
  • Spend time sitting quietly next to her as she does homework
  • Volunteer to be the driver on school activities
  • Go camping
  • Attend an activity with your teen – watch a sport practice or game, sit in on a musical rehearsal or performance
  • Schedule one evening a week for family night or as a time without any technology
  • Work on a home project together
  • Volunteer for a charity together
Be creative in discovering ways to stay connected – and remember to LISTEN more than TALK.
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