All relationships in life require work and effort, but building and maintaining a strong relationship with your child will most likely be one of the hardest challenges you’ll encounter. It’s not just about building a better relationship, it’s about building a connection — a genuine connection filled with respect, communication, love and hope. Here are five habits that can help you build and maintain a strong connection with your children.
1. Bring yourself to their level and play.
Playing is part of a child’s language. It is how they have learned to work out their problems, differences and emotional struggles. Playing with your child allows you to speak their language and enter their world. Play with them using toys that let both of you use your imagination. It isn’t about just playing with their blocks, dolls or figurines, it’s about allowing them to let you into their secret world of freedom where there are no rules and their imagination is the leader. Sit on the floor and bring yourself to their level. Letting you into their world will develop trust and help you learn who they are.
2. Let them win … sometimes.
Many parent-child relationships involve conflict over authority and leadership. Your child knows you’re the boss, but sometimes they want to challenge that. Instead of playing tug-of-war, there are times where you can let them win. Race each other, but slow yourself down and let them experience what it’s like to be ahead of you. Trip or fall and show them how funny you can be. Let them choose what’s for dinner, allow them to win during a game or give them the chance to teach you something — even if you already know how to do it. You are their parent and their partner. It’s important to let them know what it’s like to feel victorious. Let them have the opportunity to feel like they can win against you, or that they can teach you something. Inadvertently, you will be able to model what it’s like to lose or be a student. It gives them a chance to build their self-esteem, feel valuable and important.
3. Let them know you’re listening.
My younger clients often tell me that they think their parents aren’t listening. We both know you are doing your best. However, it’s hard for your child to know that in the heat of the moment. During an argument or a misunderstanding, pause and address the obvious so that it affirms what you already know: “I want to better understand what you are saying,” “I heard what you’re trying to say, but I am confused,” “Help me better understand what you want.” This gives your child a chance to explain themselves without feeling the need to become defensive. We all feel more willing to repair damage if we think our counterpart is willing to do the same. It helps diffuse the situation and helps your child understand that you’re wanting to help them and in turn help your relationship grow together.
4. Let them feel, and put yourself in their shoes.
I believe this is the hardest one for any parent. I often encounter a parent’s sense of helplessness around their child not doing or not progressing. The frustration is inevitable and normal. One thing I have asked parents to keep in mind is to let their child feel however they are feeling when they are in the moment. If you encounter a tantrum or sob fest, as difficult as it may be, let them get it all out. Remember that they are communicating with you and that there is truth to what they are feeling – even if it’s far less than a perfect delivery. Before you correct them or give them a new lesson, stop and put yourself in their shoes. What was it like for you when your parents didn’t do something? What would you have wanted them to do instead? It will help model empathy and a drive to understand what they are going through.
It’s hard to think about the next moment when you’re feeling so strongly in the present moment. Acknowledge your child’s pain, frustration, sadness or anger by saying, “I know you are upset right now. I understand this is hard for you. It must really hurt when that happens.” You are giving them a chance to own up to how they feel while teaching them how to handle themselves in these types of moments. Most importantly, you are communicating that you are there, and that you are able to listen to and comfort them.
5. Be curious.
Children are incredibly intuitive and smart little people. They know what they want and have a level of insight that is profound. In moments where it’s hard to know what a child is thinking, or if they are not willing to change their minds, I often tell parents that the best thing you can do for them is to be curious. Ask them questions and follow their train of thought. You will never really know why your child doesn’t want to go to school until you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and figure it out.
You know yourself and you know when you don’t want to do something. Children are the exact same way. Learn to trust them and their intuition. You are teaching them to listen to themselves and to trust their instincts, an invaluable lesson that will help them their entire lives.
Chantel Cortinovis, Psy.D., is a pre-licensed, registered psychological assistant in private practice in Westwood. You can reach her on Twitter @DrChantelPsyD.