Saturday September 24th 2022

Aware parenting – a more gentle way to raise your child

Nine-month-old Josh starts crying just before bedtime. His anxious mother gives him a dummy to soothe his distress and stop the tears. It’s been a horrible day – several hours earlier, his sister Zara, 3, had been told off and sent to her room for throwing a loud, red-faced tantrum in the supermarket because she wanted a packet of sweets.

Millions of parents face these stressful scenarios every day. We accept them as a “necessary evil” of early childhood and respond as our own parents did – by taking control. We try to stop crying babies from crying; we try to teach toddlers right from wrong by offering rewards and punishments; we praise obedience and don’t accept “naughty” behaviour. In short, we do our best.

However, a radically different child-rearing philosophy argues that our best could be better. Aware Parenting challenges traditional assumptions about discipline, crying and behaviour. Working from the inside out, it pinpoints stress and trauma as the primary causes of our children’s emotional and behavioural problems.

The Aware Parenting philosophy was created by Swiss American developmental psychologist Aletha Solter, who proposes that a new approach to child-rearing could completely shift a parent’s relationship with his or her child. Following this approach, she says, results in children who are “bright, compassionate, competent, non-violent and drug-free.”

California-based Dr Solter founded the Aware Parenting Institute in 1990, an international organisation with branches in eleven countries, including South Africa.

Aware Parenting is based on three primary principles :

  • Attachment-style parenting. Natural childbirth and early bonding; lots of physical contact; extended breastfeeding; prompt response to crying and sensitive attunement.
  • Non-punitive discipline. No punishments, rewards or bribes of any kind; discovering underlying needs and feelings; anger management for parents and peaceful conflict-resolution (meditations and family meetings, for example).
  • Prevention and healing of stress and trauma. Emphasis on preventing stress and trauma, while recognizing the healing effects of play, laughter and crying in a loving parent/child relationship; empathetic and respectful listening and acceptance of children’s emotions.

In essence, an Aware Parent responds to common childhood issues such as crying, sleep, tantrums and discipline in a very specific way.  Those responses are based on two “levels” of awareness: the belief that there’s always a valid reason for children’s challenging behaviours and an understanding that parents’ own childhood hurts and fears can colour their reactions to their children.

Mainstream methods versus Aware Parenting

In an interview ahead of a workshop tour to South Africa in May, Dr Solter said that she has observed two very different parenting philosophies in the United States, with most parents falling somewhere between the two.

The first favours harsh discipline such as corporal punishment and sleep training methods in which the baby is left alone to cry itself to sleep.  At the other end of the spectrum is attachment parenting, which rejects sleep training and corporal punishment and theorises that children are “sensitive, feeling little people in need of protection, love and nurturing.”

The majority of parents are “confused about different kinds of advice and struggle to find an approach that makes sense to them,” she Dr Solter. The current heated debates in the USA – as here in South Africa –  are between co-sleeping and baby sleeping alone and spanking versus time-out.

“Many parents are afraid of being too permissive, but don’t know how to set limits without the use of punishment. A typical middle-of-the-road, mainstream approach recommends use of time-out and other ‘consequences’ for ‘misbehaviour’.”

Off to a good start

Attachment-style parenting – firm bonding at birth, breastfeeding, co-sleeping or close-sleeping and empathetic response to a baby’s cry – is a hallmark feature of Aware Parenting.

It also teaches that giving natural, gentle birth is preferable to birth practices that rely heavily on medical intervention.  Gentle birth reduces trauma for babies, who may “become frightened and confused” by less natural birth procedures and traumatized by unnecessary separation from their mothers after birth.

Extended breastfeeding and close physical contact are also important for bonding, as the sense of touch is highly developed at birth.

However, mothers who have had caesareans, traumatic births or who did not breastfeed can still practice Aware Parenting, she says. “In fact, adoptive parents can practice it and their children will thrive.”

Most important is the fact that parents need to understand the impact a difficult birth can have on a baby’s emotional development, and that it can trigger a host of behavioural issues, such as fussiness in babies, tantrums or frequent night-waking.

Go to your room!

The major negative practice in mainstream parenting is the use of punishments and rewards – sometimes called “consequences” – to control children’s behaviour, argues Dr Solter.

Zara, for example, was punished with a time-out for her tantrum in the supermarket. This type of method may bring “temporary compliance, but at great cost.”

Aware Parenting rejects all forms of punishment as authoritarian and harmful. “Even mild punishments, such as the use of time-out, can lead to a feeling of rejection and insecurity, because time-out involves withdrawal of parental love and attention.”

Punishment and reward systems also negate self-discipline and may cause children to feel manipulated, resentful and rebellious, she says. “Interestingly, studies have shown that the teenagers most likely to use drugs are those whose parents have used strict authoritarian discipline.”

But what is the alternative for a harassed parent with an un-cooperative child?

“Parents may believe that the only alternative to authoritarian discipline is permissiveness. This is incorrect. There is a third way – democratic discipline,” says Dr Solter.

Aware Parenting posits that each conflict is unique and therefore requires a unique solution. “Look beneath the surface and try to figure out why children act the way they do. When we learn to decode children’s behaviour, it is easier to find an appropriate solution. Work with children to solve conflicts, rather than imposing consequences on their behaviour.”

Zara’s tantrum in the supermarket is a case in point. An Aware Parent would do the following :

  • Stay nearby and “calmly listen” to the child, until the tantrum ceased. The parent would realise that the child was frustrated and angry and needed to release pent-up emotions through crying and raging.
  • Not back down on the issue that triggered the tantrum (in this case, parents not allowing the child to buy sweets), but rather allow the child to protest – either at the scene if nobody was bothered by it, in a quiet corner nearby or on the way home.
  • Acknowledge that anger may be out of proportion to the incident because of accumulated stress – a long day, visits to several shops, the parent acting impatiently or being too preoccupied, for example.
  • Allow no shaming, punishment or ignoring of a child who is feeling hurt, angry or upset.

The stress factor

Aware Parenting postulates that traumatic events and stressful situations are the triggers for behavioural and emotional problems in children.

Pre-natal stress, a difficult birth, physical pain, separation anxiety, over-stimulation, developmental frustrations, unmet needs (especially not enough nurturing physical contact) and a host of other day-to-day issues can result in crying, tantrums, lack of cooperation, inappropriate behaviour, sleep problems and general unhappiness.

Dr Solter cites the case of a four-year-old girl who consistently procrastinated and refused to get dressed on school mornings. She suggested the parents sit down on a non-school day to discuss the issue with their daughter, who then revealed that she wanted to spend more time with her mom.

The parents responded by waking ten minutes earlier to read and cuddle in bed before getting dressed. The girl immediately stopped procrastinating and the problem was solved.

Cry, baby, cry

When babies cry, parents usually try to pacify or distract them. Toddler tears or tantrums are mostly treated with a punishment and reward system. Aware Parenting views both reactions as incorrect.

Dr Solter explains that babies cry for two reasons – to communicate a need or to heal from stress or trauma. Understanding the difference between these two kinds of crying is essential.  If physiological and emotional needs have been met, a baby should be allowed to cry, if they need to, while being lovingly held.

“One of the functions of crying in children of all ages is to release accumulated stress and heal from trauma. Even adults need to cry when upset. The more stress and frustrations in a child’s life, the greater the need to cry.”

Frequent tantrums or crying episodes in toddlers should spur parents to seek and reduce all possible sources of stress. A bout of tears or a tantrum is best dealt with by staying close and being supportive until the episode runs its course.

“When a child no longer needs to cry, she will stop spontaneously and will feel much better afterwards.”

Parents commonly make two mistakes when responding to a crying baby, says Dr Solter. They either put it in a cot to cry alone or assume that the crying reflects an immediate need, so try to stop the tears with frantic jiggling, rocking, feeding, a car ride or a dummy.

“The problem is that these behaviours usually only postpone the crying,” she says. “When crying is a need to release pent-up stress, the infant will still need to cry later, and will often do so at inconvenient times such as the middle of the night.”

Aware Parents adopt a “crying-in-arms” approach if a baby is still crying after her important immediate needs – such as hunger, thirst or cold  – have been met.

The difference between “crying-in-arms” and “controlled crying” – or “cry-it-out” – is that the baby is never left to cry alone and is always held by the caregiver.

“Babies left to cry alone can become terrified. They have no way of knowing that their parents still exist. Repeated lack of responsiveness to a baby’s cries, even for only five minutes at a time, is potentially damaging to the baby’s mental health.”

Crying at bedtime is not necessarily a bad thing either – as long as baby is being lovingly held. If a child is healthy, warm, fed, and loved, then she may simply need a good cry in her mother’s arms to release accumulated stress. Trying various techniques to stop the baby from crying is not helpful at such a time.  These babies will often wake again at night because they need be allowed to cry, but were prevented from doing so earlier.

Becoming an Aware Parent

If this philosophy appeals to you, then a good place to start is to talk to someone about your own childhood. Dr Solter suggests finding out about both helpful and hurtful things that your parents did. If you were spanked or punished for crying, how did you feel? How did your parents respond when you cried? Remember what it was really like to be a child.  This is the most important step towards becoming a better parent.

About Aletha Solter

Dr Solter is the author of four books – ‘The Aware Baby’, ‘Helping Young Children Flourish’, ‘Tears and Tantrums’ and ‘Raising Drug-Free Kids’. She studied with Dr Jean Piaget in Switzerland before earning her PhD in psychology at the University of California.

Visit : for more information Dr Aletha Solter

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