Repairing the Parent-Child Relationship
The parent-child relationship is being assaulted from many directions these days. Parents are under the gun of mounting economic pressures resulting in long work hours, and often more than one job. Our 24-hour a day culture has created a job market that never goes to sleep, and many parents find themselves working hours outside of the usual nine to five workday. This leaves big gaps in childcare arrangements, especially since the school day has continued to remain somewhere between the hours of 7AM and 4PM. Another cultural development that has significantly impacted the family is the explosion of mass media and mass communication, particularly internet style. This evolutionary step in technology has permanently changed the environment within which parents are trying to monitor and control the development of their children. The massive exposure to all kinds of information, and particularly information that is unhealthy or beyond the scope of a child's developmental age, has placed parents in the untenable position of battling outside influences that tear at the parent-child relationship rather than assisting to safeguard family values, parental guidelines, and promote normal psychological growth.
All of this is exacerbated if you happen to be a single parent trying to do it all. These parents are often just plain tired and worn out, and the idea of trying to sift through the problems that confront their children after a long workday when its time to cook dinner, do homework, and get everyone into bed can seem daunting to say the least. Nevertheless, the strength of the parent-child relationship is more important than ever as it is our primary means of keeping our children safe, helping them to navigate the world, and assisting them to develop personal strengths for making the right choices. The problem is how to make sure that the parent-child relationship is strong and meets the child's needs in spite of some of the circumstances just described. For many, the relationship is already in need of repair. What's offered here are some of the more proven methods for enhancing the relationship along with some tips on how to begin the process of repair.
Signs of Problems
The first step is to evaluate the state of your relationship with your child or children. You can get a pretty clear picture by asking the following questions:
Do you know your child's likes, dislikes, choice of activities, favorite TV shows, favorite clothes to wear, best and worst subjects in school, etc., and if so, how detailed is your knowledge about these things? For example, you might know that your son likes video games, but do you also know that he likes two or three in particular? Do you know what it is that excites him about these particular kinds of games?
Do you know your child's friends, what they do together, what kinds of struggles they encounter, what they have in common, and so forth? This is particularly important if you have a teen. Do you know the interrelationships of your teen's peer group? Do you talk about such things together? Does your teen want to tell you about her friends?
How effective are your attempts at discipline? Do you find that most of your communication with your child is around issues of discipline? Are you having a lot of problems with disrespect, defiance, and chronic misbehavior?
How well is your child doing in terms of developmental tasks and behavior? Is she regressed? Are there chronic problems with schoolwork or school behavior? Do you feel she is able to maintain responsibilities appropriate for her age?
Is your child overly whiny or attention seeking, or does he show any signs of having inappropriate separation anxiety from you?
Are their any overt signs of low self-worth, low self-esteem, anxiety or depression, and if so, are you able to talk to your child about these feelings?
Is your child overly aggressive, involved in deviant behavior, chronically angry, or conversely overly withdrawn and passive?
If your answers were less than satisfactory to more than two of these, then it is likely that there is too much distance between you and your child, and that he or she is reacting to the distance in a negative manner. This doesn't mean that you are a bad parent. It just signals that you need to reestablish some closeness with your child by making yourself more available and attentive. One caveat to keep in mind is that some of the above problems can be caused by other factors such as ADHD, drug abuse, divorce, peer problems, and so forth. Nevertheless, these situations can also significantly tax the parent-child relationship, and in some cases professional counseling is necessary which we highly recommend in addition to the ideas outlined below.
Methods for Repairing the Relationship
If you've done any reading about the parent-child relationship, you know that the main advice given is that you need to spend time with your children. This is absolutely true and there really is no way to get around this very important step. All relationships are built upon contact that is characterized by caring, dependability, trust, empathy, acceptance, energy, and time. Relationships that are not tended to and nurtured on a regular basis become problematic and eventually erode or break down. So the first rule of thumb is that you must figure out a way to make some "relationship time" with your child that is separate from discipline or tasks. The second part of the equation has to do with how the time is to be used and what is to be accomplished as a result. There are four types of activity that are particularly conducive to building the parent-child relationship while also accomplishing the goals of involvement, self-exploration, recognition, problem-solving and expression of feelings. These are play, conversation, participation in activities outside the home, and verbal recognition.
For younger children (all the way up to 10), play is the primary mechanism for the expression of feelings, communication, and solving emotional problems. It is both a window for stepping into and understanding your child's world, and a vehicle for creating a solid bond between the two of you that is felt by the child through your interest and involvement at their level. You can begin by setting aside some time each day (or as often as you can) to play with your child. The number of times per week will depend on your schedule as well as on the amount of repair that's needed. If the relationship is very strained, then try and play at least five times a week to start and back off as the relationship improves. Keep in mind that any amount of playtime is better than none.
HOW TO PLAY. For younger children, you might clear a space on the floor and announce that you would like to play, or you can join in with play that's already in progress. For older children, it is more effective to play in the child's room. Either way, let the child be "the boss," meaning that they decide what they want to do and what toys or materials are to be used. Let them guide you as to how you can join in or interact and then follow their lead. Don't ask questions other than to clarify their instructions. If you have not done this before, you might find that your child is a little wary at first of your participation. If that's the case, then sit and observe until you're invited to join in. You can try making comments about what you see going on, but you want to be sure that your comments are strictly descriptive and carry no judgement.
For children who can't seem to get started, you can initiate play by simply beginning to play with something yourself. For example, you could begin coloring in a book or lining up toy cars, or engage in any activity that you know your child likes. This will usually peak the child's interest and before long, he or she will join in. Sometimes they join in by taking charge and instructing or correcting you.
RULES DURING PLAY. The important rules to observe during playtime are as follows: (1) the child needs to be in control during playtime; (2) absolutely no conversation about discipline should occur, nor should their be any hint of judgement or criticism on your part; and (3) other distractions need to be eliminated for the duration of the play session. If you have only 25 or 30 minutes, that's fine. You just need to be sure that you make some arrangements to avoid distractions. Take the phone off the hook, have your husband or a friend watch the other kids, and so forth.
The more you engage in playtime with your younger children, the less struggles you will have with discipline and gaining cooperation. Your undivided attention during playtime combined with the child's opportunity to be in charge will go far to satisfy his or her needs for attention and power.
Just as play is the most powerful tool to use with younger children in sustaining the relationship, conversation is the tool par excellence to be used with adolescents. The kind of conversation we are talking about here is used to do several things: (1) promote expression of feelings; (2) facilitate self-exploration and identity building; (3) identify problems and solve conflicts; and (4) communicate interest, understanding and empathy. It is very important to keep these goals in mind as you engage in conversation with your child or teen as it is easy to digress into disciplinary problems, criticism, or attempts to push your own agenda. This kind of conversation should create an atmosphere of exploration and have a give and take quality to it, although I would suggest that it's helpful to be more of a listener and let the teen do most of the talking. Avoid drifting into lectures. This is deadly and will defeat the purpose. Remember, your job is to listen and facilitate.
HOW TO PROCEED. You can set aside a special time for conversation, but generally it works best with teens if it is more spontaneous and occurs at a time when they are not distracted by other activities. If you haven't done much of this before, it will seem awkward at first and your teen might ask what you're doing, or even be rather cynical and standoffish. If that's the case, then it's best to sincerely state your purpose. You can say something along the lines of "I've noticed that we really are not in sync lately, and I think some of it is my fault. I haven't really given you the time you need, but I really am interested in what's going on with you." If that doesn't get the ball rolling, then begin with some general questions. Tell your son or daughter that you want to know what they're interested in, what it's like to go to their school, what their experience is of their teachers, what their friends are like, and so forth. Why do they like this person and not that one? What's is it like to be a teen these days? How is it different from when you were a teen? What are they struggling with? Basically, you want to know what it's like to be them.
Once you get in the habit of regular conversations such as this, you can move on to helping your teen think about her identity. What are the qualities and values she aspires to? Who are her mentors? What kinds of relationships is she hoping to develop, or what kind is she engaged in now? Your job is to reflect back what you hear in such a way that implies that you know what has been said and you understand the point of view. You may not agree with or like everything you hear, but you will find out much more about who your child is if you allow this sort of open conversation.
Conversation is not just for teens, but can begin as early as your child learns to talk. The idea is to establish the habit of conversing in an open manner so that your children feel free to express their feelings and ideas to you as well as to feel that they can gain your support when a problem occurs. With both teens and younger children, sometimes all that's necessary is to just be attentive and present as your son or daughter chatters on about something that is of interest to them. A computer whiz might bend your ear with the details of how to maneuver software or create new programs. Your young teen daughter might chatter endlessly about the various goings on among her immediate group of friends. Your simple attention and reflective comments are the tools in this case for allowing your child to feel understood, important, and valued. As you build this base of understanding and empathy, you will find that your children will view you as someone who can help them when they have problems.
Participation in Outside Activities
So far we've been talking about one-on-one interaction between parents and children within their own environment. Another avenue for enhancing the parent-child relationship is to participate in activities outside the home. This extends the parent-child relationship into the community thereby helping the child to maintain that sense of specialness and love while operating in the world. Such activities can continue to be one-on-one such as going out to eat together, taking in movies, engaging in singular sports like playing tennis or riding bikes, and so forth. When I was eleven years old, my dad took me grocery shopping every Saturday followed by grabbing lunch at the drugstore next door. As a young girl, I looked forward to this regular outing with my dad. It was something special that just he and I did together and it always gave us (I should say me) an opportunity to talk. It was a ritual that facilitated a feeling of security for me as well as a sense of being loved and important. Such experiences can have a far-reaching impact on your child's sense of self as well as her ability to connect with others.
Equally important to this kind of singular experience is the involvement of parents in their children's extracurricular or school activities. Seeing your mom or dad in the stands at the basketball game when you are playing, or feeling their admiration as they watch you perform in a school play, or maybe catching a glimpse of the understanding in their eyes when you miss your lines . . . All of these sorts of experiences spell interest, recognition, and involvement to your children. The feeling that someone is rooting for you whether you succeed or not, is very powerful. Such participation in your child's activities or endeavors provides a certain kind of acceptance and recognition as well as interest that will go a long way in teaching them how to perform and participate in the larger community.
ABOUT VERBAL RECOGNITION. The last mechanism for enhancing the parent-child relationship that was offered in the introductory paragraph is "verbal recognition." This technique is somewhat involved and requires more space for explanation, so I have offered it as a separate article entitled "Giving Recognition." Try using this technique or any of the others described above on a consistent basis for a month or more, and I think you will see marked improvement in your relationship with your child as well as a reduction in behavior problems.