Reacting vs. Responding: A Parent’s Guide to Handling Unexpected Behavior

By Greg Baer M.D.

January 11, 2024

A mother wrote: “Yesterday, my four-year-old daughter, Luna, suddenly pulled my hair. Angrily, I yelled at her, ‘Stop!!!’

“Instantly I knew I was wrong. She cried a lot. I consoled her for a good while. I felt bad about it.”

Yes, what a temptation for you to feel bad about yelling at your daughter.

How HORRIBLE of you. Oh, the shame.

But NO, that assessment of your behavior is actually wrong.

Reactions and Reflexes

When you are tempted to feel bad about an unloving moment, it can be quite helpful if you take into account the factor of surprise.

When an event occurs, if we have even a couple of seconds to respond, we have the opportunity to THINK. We can choose from more than one perspective or judgment.

But we have that choice ONLY if we’re not empty and afraid—only if we’re not in pain. But when we’re in pain, we can only REACT, instinctively, much as an animal would.

With enough love, our pain and fear begin to lessen. With fear out of the way—even partially—we can begin to CHOOSE how we see things.

With an accurate judgment, we don’t have to automatically become afraid at every potential threat. (There’s a thorough discussion of Event-Judgment-Feeling-Reaction in the Parenting Training.)

With enough love, we can choose to feel loved and genuinely safe. That’s the power of love.

Why Reactions Happen

But if something happens to us suddenly, sometimes we don’t have either the time or strength to CHOOSE our judgments and decisions. We are overwhelmed by pain or fear or both, and then old REACTIONS just happen, like a knee jerk.

When you touch a hot stove, you don't have time to THINK. You just react. And that's what happened when Luna pulled your hair. You reacted to a hot stove.

So, I’m saying that you were not as unloving to your daughter as you thought. Don't feel bad. Just learn from this. I recommend that you talk to her about it. Teach her about surprise.

What to Do When a Reaction is Spontaneous

Let’s go through some of the words you could say, and in order to make this extra difficult, let’s imagine that you are back in time to the moment when she’s crying loudly. What can you do?

First, do NOT console her. That would only confirm her belief that she’s been victimized.

Instead, take her by the shoulders or face with both hands, and say, firmly but gently, “Stop! Look at me.” That alone will likely startle her, and then she’ll probably stop and listen.

Keep going. Say, “Do I love you? Yes, I do, and you know that. All day long you see that I love you, over and over. When you pulled my hair, I was only surprised. I did not stop loving you.”

On a later occasion, you might bring up this situation again, to teach her more about surprises. You could say something like this: “If I stab you in the leg with a fork, what would you do?”

She’ll say something like, “Jump” or “Scream.”

You say, “But if you jump up, you might knock a glass off the table, so it spills all over the floor. But did you MEAN to spill it? No. You were just surprised. You reacted. And I didn’t MEAN to yell at you either.”

You’ll find other ways to explain this whole interaction to her. She needs to know that:

  1. Pulling your hair was still wrong, and she knew it. She thought it would be fun, but she knew it was wrong. She’s FOUR years old, not a nursing infant.
  2. Yes, YOU were wrong to be angry, but it was just a natural reaction.
  3. She has to think before she does things, because out in the world, people will react strongly to her if she does thoughtless things like that. If she's aggressive or hurtful, people WILL react to her in ways she won't like.

There are great lessons here for you, kid, and for your daughter. Great lessons for all of us.

Want to learn more?

Eliminate confusion and conflict with your children.

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About the author 

Greg Baer, M.D.

I am the founder of The Real Love® Company, Inc, a non-profit organization. Following the sale of my successful ophthalmology practice I have dedicated the past 25 years to teaching people a remarkable process that replaces all of life's "crazy" with peace, confidence and meaning in various aspects of their personal lives, including parenting, marriages, the workplace and more.

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