Relationships take time, mindfulness and commitment and this holds true as we form attachments throughout our lives. At times we can lose sight of how important it is to nurture our relationships; life may get in the way, we may take them for granted or fail to realise that we actively need to invest in them. Due to our own experience of being parented we may not know how to deepen our connections with our children. This may be particularly apparent during the holiday season when parents maybe spending more time with their children than usual and tensions can be highlighted during family get togethers. Here are 15 principles to consider which may help in deepening your relationship with your child.
1) Relationship first – your child needs to know that your relationship with them always comes first. If we want our children to feel close and connected to us it’s important that we nurture our relationship with them. We can make a commitment to clear space in our lives so that we can spend time with our children in meaningful ways. The quality of our presence, responsiveness and our emotional availability all communicate to our child that they are important to us and that we want to spend time being with them.
2) Taking responsibility for the relationship – we must actively communicate and choose to take responsibility for our relationship with our child by repairing any ruptures which might occur between us. It’s important that children don’t feel that our love is conditional. Children need to feel confident and secure in their relationship with us and as Dr Gordon Neufeld suggests in the video below: “Children must never work for our love they must rest in it… The role of a parent is to give more than what is pursued, that is the only way a child can rest”.
3) Turn towards our children’s bids for connection – in his research with couples John Gottman described how we all make bids for connection and affection multiple times throughout the day. Couples in healthy relationships tend to respond more positively and more frequently to their partners bids for connection. As parents it’s important that we learn to recognise and respond to our children’s bids for connection as often as we are able if we want to deepen our relationships.
4) Be playful – being playful, having fun with our children and laughing together is a wonderful way of deepening our relationships with them and creating wonderful memories to share together. Lawrence Cohen suggests lots of great ways to connect with your child through play in his great book ‘Playful Parenting‘.
5) Partnership – partner your child, support them, provide them with information and resources, help them in making choices. Think ahead, don’t leave them to manage difficult situations alone and help them if they are struggling. You might not always get it right and often we realise in retrospect that we could’ve done things differently. We are all learning but we can intentionally make changes next time. Treat your children with thoughtfulness and respect and your relationship will flourish.
6) Be present and engaged – each day be intentional about spending time with your child doing things that they enjoy and find meaningful. This might involve playing their favourite computer game, watching a YouTube channel together or playing imaginary games. Whatever it is that your child enjoys share it with them, the more you are able to do this the better. If you’re running short on time even being fully present and engaged for a short amount of time can be beneficial.
7) Notice what brings your children most joy and do more of this! – your child may enjoy spending time with you, there may be a particular place they love to visit, an activity they are pulled to, a food that they love or playing games together with you. It might not necessarily be something that you feel equally excited or joyous about but by creating the opportunities for our children to experience these things with us, they feel valued and it deepens their positive feelings and as a result their connection to us.
8) Value & nurture your child’s interests and passions – we all thrive when we are doing things that we enjoy. Take time to notice what your children love to do whatever that might be and celebrate it with them by engaging in it together. Learn more about their interests and passions, be curious, talk about it with them and share their love it will help your child and your relationship to thrive. By sharing what our children enjoy we can understand more about them and what lights up their hearts and ignites their spirits.
9) Value & celebrate your child’s individuality and difference – accept your child for who they are and where they are at right now, meet them there. Don’t spend time trying to change them or being critical of them either openly or inwardly, they will pick up on this, love them for who they are. You child’s quirks, their preferences, their likes and dislikes whatever those might be are what makes them special and unique! Let them know that you recognise that and cherish them exactly as they are.
10) See the world from your child’s perspective – by spending time with your children doing things they enjoy you’ll get to know them more deeply. You’ll know what they love, their strengths and vulnerabilities, the situations they shine in and the situations where they struggle. You’ll be more able to understand the world from their point of view and to appreciate why they do the things they do and make the choices that they make. Talk with them, listen, play, empathise and be curious about their experience and seek to learn more. All behaviour is communication and it’s up to us to develop our understanding of what our children are telling us.
11) Accept your child’s inner life and emotional world – listen, empathise and appreciate your child’s thoughts and feelings. Give them time to let their stories unfold and be comfortable with their emotional expressions. Don’t challenge or be critical of their perspective but accept that they have good reasons for seeing things as they do, even though this might not be immediately obvious to us. If we can listen carefully, be curious about their perspective and be open to seeing things differently they may be more willing to share their emotional life with us and come to us for support and guidance because they can trust us. It can help to examine our own thoughts and feelings when we are alongside our children so that we become more aware of how our own inner conflicts can prevent us from being fully present and engaged on an emotional level.
12) Be kind, be your child’s best friend and don’t coerce or punish them! – coercion and punishments don’t help to foster close and connected relationships – in fact they get in the way of it! Don’t hit, rough handle, shout, coerce, shame, humiliate, bully or threaten a child. Don’t place them in ‘time out’ or use their special possessions or the things that they love against them by deliberately restricting them or taking them away – this will only lead to a lack of trust, low self-esteem and disconnected relationships. It’s not helpful to focus blame upon a child or teen whatever the circumstances. As an adult your time and energy is better spent reflecting on how you and the responsible adults in your child’s life can make changes and deepen your connections. Children and teens who are feeling safe, connected and secure are less likely to engage in destructive and damaging behaviours and are more likely to make better choices.
13) Say ‘Yes’ more often or some version of it – if we can say yes more often to our children’s requests; it can open up new opportunities for creating more joy and happiness in their lives. This may involve stretching ourselves, overcoming our anxieties and questioning our own automatic responses to say ‘no’. If a yes is not possible for various reasons you can be creative and consider if there are alternatives which your children would equally enjoy. There are so many possibilities for saying ‘yes’ more! It can also help to consider the underlying need behind the request as this enables us to respond thoughtfully.
14) Support choice – it’s important that children feel that they have a choice and a say in things that affect them in their lives. If a child feels listened to, understood and supported in their choices they will learn to trust their own inner voice. They will also learn to trust that you are on their team and that you will support and advocate on their behalf when it is difficult for their voices to be heard, which in turn helps builds trust and confidence in others. If we can be curious about the choices our children make, we can be in a better position to learn more about them and to deepen our connections. If we listen carefully and observe the choices our children are making it also gives us a valuable insight into the type of environments and relationships that suit them enabling them to flourish. Depending on their unique individual and developmental readiness children may prefer different amounts of responsibility and choice. It’s important to be sensitive to this and to create a context which provides the right amount of support and containment so that our children can be empowered to make choices which suit them and enable them to feel good about themselves and in their relationship with us.
15) Explore the world together – visit interesting places, places that your children love or places they might like but you haven’t been before. Doing special things together and spending as much time as you are able with your children sharing enjoyable experiences can help deepen your relationship and create wonderful shared memories.
For parents wanting to learn more:
Hold on To Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers by Dr. Gordon Neufeld
Writing and articles by Dr. Emma Marie Forde, DClinPsych – Parent, Clinical Psychologist and Unschooling Advocate.