Shortly after my mother passed away, I was conversing with my friend and shared how both my mom and I had zero regrets when looking back on our years together. I told her how our mother-daughter relationship had evolved into a deep and meaningful friendship where we greatly enjoyed each other’s company. I related how my mom’s unspoken message was always “You are embraced for who you are, not what you do.” My friend said I am so lucky to have had this very unique and special relationship. How was my mom able to cultivate such a highly connected relationship? The answer is that her every action and interaction were driven by connection and unconditional love. She understood that the relationship is the foundation that all of parenting rests upon. Trying to parent without the relationship being at the forefront is like focusing on the finishes of a second floor bathroom addition while neglecting the foundation. We all know what happens when the foundation is lacking.
How can you achieve the amazing connected relationship with your child that you’ve always dreamed of? Here are six steps you can follow. This approach is neither quick nor easy. Developing the relationship is a process that takes time and effort, but it is so worth it, and remember that more work now makes for a greater chance that it’ll be easier in the future. (Teens, anyone?)
1. Work on getting off autopilot and developing self-awareness. You remind yourself as you leave work to stop at the dry cleaners on your way home. As you get out of the car to go into the house you say, “Oops, I forgot to pick up my dry cleaning.” You have gone home on autopilot. Many people live their lives this way, going through the motions without really stepping back to contemplate and analyze. We need to slow down enough in our busy lives to really get to know ourselves and be able to see situations “from the outside looking in,” to learn the skills to reflect on a situation rather than react. When we parent from a place of reflectiveness rather than reactiveness, building the parent-child relationship that we yearn for becomes so much easier.
2. Put aside ego. How do power struggles between parent and child arise? It is not a battle between two people; rather, it is the battle between two egos. Here’s an important point: Kids are supposed to be driven by ego. It is developmentally appropriate for a child to be self-centered, want to get their way and see the world through an unempathetic lens. The parent’s job is to role model for the child how to exhibit empathy by taking another’s perspective, deal with emotions calmly and demonstrate how to compromise to bring about a “win-win” situation. When the ego is allowed to be in control, we as the parents may win the battle but it surely does not mean we’re going to win the war.
3. Think about how you’ve cultivated other relationships. When you were dating your spouse, most likely the building of the relationship did not include pointing out mistakes and negative behavior, scolding or criticizing. Rather, the relationship began with being curious and wanting to get to know the other person, seeing “faults” as part of the bigger picture, not the focal point, and just enjoying hanging out. You sensed there was something unique in this individual, and you were determined to find out exactly what it was. Cultivate the relationship with your child in the same way and watch the transformation happen.
4. As the parent, take full ownership of the relationship. The parent is solely responsible for creating the parent-child relationship. The child does not need to do anything. No need to “behave,” get good grades, hit the winning shot, listen to us, make us “look good” in front of others etc. The child receives unconditional love just for “being.” Not only does this yield a stronger more connected parent child-relationship, it also results in increased self-esteem when they internalize the message, “You are loved ‘as is,’ not for who we want you to be.” Ask your child questions about their interests. Engage in fun activities where joy and laughter abound. Just sit quietly next to your child and enjoy their presence. My son just got a machine that lights up his ceiling with “stars.”. I cherish the time where we “stargaze” and we are just “present” with each other. Being “present” is a gift. And being “present” with your child is the greatest gift of all. Never squander this gift.
5. Focus on the relationship rather than behavior. Of course as parents we want our kids to speak and act respectfully towards others and display appropriate behavior. However, when we only focus on managing the behavior instead of connecting with our child and understanding where the behavior comes from, the parent-child relationship is negatively affected. Behavior like the tip of the iceberg is what everyone can see. I help parents to see what is beneath the surface. For example, a mom recently reached out to me for help. Her child was having frequent meltdowns and was generally uncooperative, and nothing the mom did to address the outbursts was helping. Through answering thought-provoking questions during our sessions, she was able to uncover the root cause of the challenging behavior. She realized that by focusing on what her child was doing wrong and constantly trying to correct the “misbehavior,” her child’s frustration and emotional dysregulation only increased. She started to prioritize connection over “fixing” behavior and after a short time the mom reported a significant decrease in the challenging behavior and an improved relationship with her child.
6. We, as parents, must get our own needs met. As I mentioned above, the process to cultivate a truly loving and connected relationship with our child requires energy, effort and patience. When parents feel exhausted, depleted, “at the end of their rope,” they are functioning in “survival” mode and there is little energy to actually work on the relationship. We must get clear on how to meet our own needs. I acknowledge that finding time to do the activities that allow us to be regulated may be challenging, but making this a priority is crucial. When we cannot fit it in our tight schedules we may need to combine getting our needs met with having family time. For those who find calmness through time in nature, go on a family hike. If you need time to relax and read, have your child read or look through picture books or albums nearby. Physical exercise can be achieved through going for a run while your child is biking or a family dance party where everyone gets movement while having fun. The bottom line is you cannot pour from an empty glass. You must keep your glass full.
Parents frequently ask, “How do I get my child to listen, to cooperate, to be respectful, to behave? The answer to all these questions is one word: relationship (you probably guessed that already). Rather than asking those types of questions, we as parents need to ask: “How can I improve myself?” And “How can I improve my relationship with my child?” When the relationship piece is secure, the child will naturally become more cooperative. See the building of the parent-child relationship as an investment in the future and understand that there can be no better dividends then having your grown-up child reflect back and say, “There are zero regrets, just deep love and connection.”
After working with kids for over 25 years as an occupational therapist, Rivka Stern has made the leap to the parenting side, with Invite Calm, LLC, in order to help parents get to the root cause of their child’s challenging behavior and help them cultivate a deeper and more connected relationship than they ever thought possible. Contact Rivka at 917-499-5882 or [email protected] to set up a complimentary 15-minute consultation.