Imagine in your mind’s eye that you are a new parent holding your baby in your arms. You have visions of a perfect relationship with your child and see this beautiful future. Fast forward a few years, your baby is now in grade school or even highschool. While you are holding onto those visions you once had of holding your infant, the feeling of a perfect relationship appears fleeting. Your child feels distant, cold, and even emotionally volatile. It is fairly common and natural for a parent to react to their child by blaming themselves as though there is something intrinsically wrong with them as a parent. It is equally as natural for a parent to wonder “what the heck is this kid’s problem?” You may have even had the question come across your mind, “why does it feel like my child hates me?”
I have worked with many families with similar complaints relating to concerns about the relationship dynamic between themselves and their child. Desperate for love, respect, or a combination of the two, parents come into therapy hoping to soothe the discomfort experienced within the parent-child relationship. The ways one forms healthy attachments within relationships is built upon the receptiveness and responsiveness of their physical and emotional needs by their care-giver during childhood.
At this point you’re probably asking something along the lines of “Great… Now what can I do….” The wonderful thing about restoring a healthy attachment and why I am so passionate about the work I do with my clients is that there is always hope. Below are four helpful tips to form, restore, and maintain a healthy relationship with your child no matter the age.
1. Stop, drop, and listen
We live in a fast-paced society, constantly on the go and connected to technology. It is no surprise that this would likely affect the parent-child relationship. Building a healthy attachment with your child starts with establishing that they are safe to approach you with their needs and you will in turn be receptive. Helping your child understand this means giving them your undivided attention. Stop what you are doing, put down any distractions (i.e. your phone), and listen. Whatever you were doing before can wait, but the opportunity to establish a connection with your child needs to take precedence.
2. Be consistent and clear with boundaries
As much as it may seem like they are fighting it, your child or teen needs structure. This is done through consistently keeping to your boundaries and expectations. Start by making concerns, expectations, and boundaries verbally clear. Your child or teenager won’t know your expectations without you communicating them (they aren’t mind readers). Once you’ve communicated your expectation or boundary, keep to it and be consistent every time. No phones at the dinner table? Set the example through your own behavior and keep your reminders firm yet gentle. Setting a firm boundary does not need to end with a yelling match where your child only remembers the stress of the interaction and not the boundary itself.
3. Create intentional interactions
Cultivating connection with your child requires intentional action. Try to set aside time each day where all you are doing is connecting with your child or teen with something that they enjoy. Maybe it is a game, a craft, or even just talking about a subject they enjoy. Your intentional actions will be remembered positively and help your child establish resilience against shame, which brings up the next important tip.
4. Fight the shame monster
Whether it is the marker drawings on the wall from your toddler, or your teen’s missing assignment from algebra, it can be easy to react. You want the best for your child and will do everything you can to see them succeed. However, when we give a punitive reaction, we trigger a fight or flight response and harm the attachment. The association for the child is no longer that their parent is a safe and supportive guide, but is an enforcer of shame. It is instinctual to avoid shame through all means possible, and for your child, this may take the form of lying, acting out, or even worsening the behavior. To combat the shame monster, invest in your child’s intrinsic worth. Support your child in their strengths, keep a gentle approach, and create space for grace. Your child needs to know first that they are accepted unconditionally before taking the steps towards change.
Whether you have a toddler or a teenager, give these tips a try. You may be surprised by how effective taking the time to slow down and listen to your child can be. Be patient with not only your child, but also yourself. It is likely that you are going to be working on changing some behaviors and patterns that have been in play for some time now. However, no matter the difficulty, there is always hope for you and your child to build a healthy, connected relationship.