5 Simple Ways to Establish a Solid Relationship with Your Children
Do you ever feel like you just can’t say the right thing to your kid? Say one thing, and you’re being too nosey. Say another, and suddenly you’re too serious. And you can forget about the dumb wanna-be-cool-parent jokes….that’s the premiere way to publicly humiliate Junior! Parents have a lot of competition these days, and I am not limiting the scope to fellow parents who have earned the respect and admiration of the neighborhood kids. You’re up against the virtual playground of social media athletic events, peer hangouts, demands from school, and your child’s innate desire to spread his wings…all of which are vying for his attention on a daily basis. So, how is a parent supposed to get a word in edgewise or capitalize on a child’s downtime with so much traffic clogging the left lane?
As someone I know and respect says all the time, “It’s not that complicated.” Kids don’t need a lot when it comes to establishing and maintaining a healthy relationship with their parents or guardians. You don’t have to choreograph an intricate 30-second Tik Tok video to warm your child’s heart (although, if we’re going to be painfully honest, that gesture will likely earn you a week’s worth of cool parent points.). Nor do you need to convert your home into a hotel capable of hosting 40 children to mark your daughter’s seventh birthday (I don’t know that the number of cool parent points you would earn in this scenario warrants the Mount-Vesuvius-degree of stress that will accompany such an event, but go for it, if you must.).
Kids have very basic needs, and too often, the extraneous noise that comes from the surrounding environment blinds them and their parents as to what exactly these needs are. Consistency, transparency, presence (too often confused with presents), safety, and love will do the trick every time. Even on their worst days, even if they are facing seemingly insurmountable distress or challenges, if we sweep away the “mud” of a trying period of time, kids will always rally and respond well when these needs are met.
So, what’s the secret chocolate sauce on top of that ice cream sundae? Here are some tried and true strategies you can use with your children, regardless of how old they are and the challenges they are facing.
Open Your Lines of Communication: Keep the lines of communication open; it is so important to prevent miscommunication and ensuing debates and arguments. First and foremost, remember that your audience is comprised of children. It doesn’t matter if they are three years old or a full-blown teenager, these are your children. They don’t necessarily need to be privy to the gory details of a situation. If a tragedy occurs, talk with your child about the situation, but you don’t need to go into great detail about how many times a person was shot, their last dying breath, and the fact that the victim’s best friend was also injured and may never walk again. Limiting the details of this situation seems obvious for our younger audiences, but don’t think for one minute your adolescent or teenager won’t be traumatized or deeply upset in a similar conversation. Sadly, social media will fill in the gaps sometimes quite inaccurately and you will need to be prepared to answer their questions and listen to them as they work through their feelings and thoughts on each issue. There are too many traumatic and upsetting events that play out daily, and it’s up to you as parents to protect our kids. No, I am not suggesting you wrap your kids in bubble wrap, although there are plenty of days when that might not be such a bad idea. But kids of every age do not need to be subjected to the world’s ugliness every day.
In addition to remembering your audience, be consistent. Before you speak on an issue, before you address a behavior, be clear in your own mind about what you are feeling and what you want to say. Telling a child one day that they need to turn off the television while they are doing their homework, and then not addressing them when they turn it on two days later while they study is confusing to a child. If you want the tv off during homework hours, make sure you are consistent.
Your consistency is not just about the message you are delivering but the personality that shines through behind it. What does this mean? Parents are pushed and pulled in multiple directions throughout the course of a day. Your lives are not just confined to the role of parent or guardian, you are professionals with job-related obligations; you pursue your own passions and hobbies; and you are human beings who are subject to exhaustion, illness, and stress. Despite your own emotions, you have to be even-keeled in your interactions with your kids-the parent they have in one moment needs to be the parent they have the next. Depending on the day, I fully acknowledge this can be a tall order. Deep breaths, walking away, and thinking things through before interacting with your children can help to keep a parent emotionally even-keeled. You must work out your own issues behind the scenes.
Listen: The partner to clear and consistent communication is the ability to listen. When it comes to parenting, listening takes on many different forms, the most obvious of which is literally standing in front of your child and paying attention to what they are saying. What are their thoughts? What do they worry about? What were the day’s wins and losses? Sometimes listening does not require parents to say anything-your presence and the body language you use to let your child know you are present and really absorbing what they have to say is enough. In moments when a response is warranted, think things through before you speak and give your child some indication their message registered with you-repeat back to them what they said, respond directly to a comment they made.
The opportunity to listen to your children does not always directly involve you. Some of the most memorable listening a parent can do is while driving your children and their friends in the car. Their abject propensity for overlooking your presence is fascinating. It’s during these jaunts as a chauffeur that you may gain insight about what is going on in your children’s lives (and that of their friends). Who among their peers was fighting and about what? Which child was coping with tragedy or difficulty? What are these passengers feeling about a current event and better yet, what they do they think should be done to address the issue? Not only can you gain insight into their innermost thoughts and feelings, but this knowledge may serve to inform your parenting and future communication.
Listening also requires paying attention to what your children are not saying. During one particular car ride, your kids and their friends may discuss a serious event like a school shooting. The conversation may be limited to the violence of that event. The focus may be on the shooter and the police, but not one of them may mention the victims or the survivors. What does this mean? Is this reflective of their discomfort about what had happened? Or does it indicate their own fears about a similar scenario playing out at their school? Or is it a sign that the enormity of the horror is just too much to handle? Revisit these moments with your children because it may help them to process their feelings about what had happened.
Be Present: Three quarters of the parenting gig is about being there. Being physically present in your kids’ lives speaks volumes to them about your commitment to their well-being and the relationship you share. Start by being a physical presence in your home. The age of your children will dictate how much interaction is required-younger kids need more hands-on attention than their older counterparts. Be available for help with homework. Spend time together doing not only the activities your child enjoys, but those you both share an interest in. Sit down for dinner together and talk about the day’s events, the highs and lows for each family member, etc. Someone has a sporting event? Go. Someone is playing in the school concert? Attend.
And by the way, there’s more to being present than just physically showing up. Parents need to be mentally present too. Clear your headspace each day. If that means taking 15 minutes to engage in meditation or mindfulness, do it. Make lists of to do’s, set them aside, and then return to them when your attention to your children is no longer required. Work off the day’s stress with a solid workout. Prioritize your own well-being by paying attention to the amount of water you drink, the quality of food you eat, and the amount of sleep you get. When you are with your family, eliminate, to the best of your ability, the cellphone and other devices that detract from your ability to be in the moment. If you can’t get rid of it altogether, at least carve out specific times that are designated as device free.
Laugh: Humor is the best secret parenting weapon. Humor?! Really? You’re drunk with exhaustion and overwhelmed with the push-pull of daily life. How are you going to weave humor into your parenting portfolio? It’s difficult, but bit by bit, you will become a natural. I promise you it works. Instead of locking horns with your kids, come through the backdoor with humor. Billy won’t put on his shoes, and the whole family is going to be late to school. “Hey Billy, I don’t know about you, but I would be willing to bet your little toes aren’t going to be very happy with you when they have to walk barefoot across the driveway in twenty-degree weather. They’ll probably come back to frostbite you!” Ok, ok, it was a really bad pun, but you get the idea. Your teenager is on the phone until all hours of the night, and while she is not keeping you awake, their early morning giggles create ambient noise reminding you she is up way beyond a reasonable hour. When you go to wake her later that morning, she grumbles something about not understanding why it’s so difficult to get up in the morning. You smile sheepishly and reply, “Hmm, let me think about this one. Maybe it has something to do with a particular FaceTime call that didn’t end until a couple of hours ago, do ya think?!” Message received.
Love Deeply and Unconditionally: You love your kids, and they love you; that’s a given. But how often do you say it? How do you show it? Embrace your kids, literally, every day. Tell them you love them and share the reasons why. Love them when they’re the best people you have ever known, and shower them with twice as much on those days when you think EBay might coffer up the deal of a lifetime on the auction block for your kid. Even when they “hate” you, even on their worst day, even when their actions make you gasp and their words are like a dagger to your heart, love them. Your kids need to know you have their backs, even during the most trying of times. Knowing they are loved and feeling loved are the greatest source of comfort that only a parent or guardian can give them.
Establishing a meaningful relationship with your child, regardless of his or her age, is challenging, but here’s the thing: when you eliminate the distractions and the noise, it’s really quite simple. The recipe for this secret sauce is showing your kids you love them and you’re there for them. Anything else you do is just extra sprinkles on top of an already amazing ice cream sundae.