This is the second half a two-part series on developing relationship with your child. Last time we looked at temperament, your own past, and being curious about who your child is. This time we will look at two more factors, attachment and communication.
Another factor in a strong, healthy parent-child relationship is attachment. Attachment is the ability for a parent to help ensure that a child feels safe, secure, and protected. A child is able to use the parent as a secure base from which they are comfortable exploring the larger world, knowing that he can come back to the parent as he needs her. Many factors influence attachment. As an infant, the child feels overwhelmed by emotions and the parent provides containment for these big feelings. The child then learns that the parent is there for her consistently and that difficult feelings do not need to be avoided. They child seeks comfort from her parent and receives it unconditionally. This is called “organized attachment,” wherein the chid has a predictable sense of comfort from her parents.
Parents can help foster this feeling of attachment by:
•being sensitive to their child’s cues
•accepting the child’s negative and positive emotions
•helping to label emotions, listening empathetically and validating feelings
•cooperating with their child’s desires and rhythms when possible
•remaining emotionally accessible
•showing pleasure in interaction
More information on attachment is available here.
This last factor is a reminder of how powerful it is to find activities that we enjoy doing with our children. Sometimes, we may find ourselves playing with our kids in ways that we wouldn’t choose, simply in order to show our children that we respect and honor their choices. But, finding things to do together that are pleasurable for both individuals also helps to build a strong relationship based on common values and interests. This is particularly valuable when you feel that you are very different kind of person than your child. These shared interests help to make you feel closer.
Most of us hope to build a relationship with our child in which the child will feel comfortable coming to us for comfort and advice in challenging times. Communication is key to helping a child feel connected to her parent and to imparting a family’s values to a child. When your child comes to you with a problem, try not to dive straight into problem-solving mode. Instead, your job is to help her feel heard. After that, you can ask if she wants help finding solutions. Often kids just want us to listen. If we begin to offer advice, we turn off our compassionate listening ear and often let our own feelings interfere. Take your child’s lead in this.
Model ways of communicating by telling your child about your own life. What were your challenges and triumphs during your day? Some families play a game at dinner time called “roses and thorns” or “highs and lows” wherein each family member has a turn sharing the best and hardest moments of his day. This allows a family to celebrate positive parts of our lives and also to potentially offer empathy for harder times. It also shows our children that lives are made up of good and bad parts, that even adults have challenging times. Most importantly, we model an important value of competency. Believing that our children have what it takes to solve problems will help them to believe in themselves as well.
When it comes to large conversations about challenging issues, my best advice is to start young. Don’t try to tackle challenging topics all at once. Instead, conversations about death, sex, money, religion, drugs and alcohol should all start in a very basic way when children are young and be built upon as children pass through higher developmental stages. You are also building your muscles for more complex conversations later on. It’s easier to keep building on a conversation than to start from ground zero. Also, if you don’t start, kids are more likely to get sensitive information from their peers or media and may feel that they can’t come to you with questions. But first, you must get straight on your own values. Discuss with your partner now how you want to handle certain “big picture” topics so that you can find a middle ground or come from a similar viewpoint in dealing with these topics with your child. That said, I think it is also perfectly acceptable to present kids with the information that good people can have different opinions about these topics. It is fine to impart that there is not one right answer. In this case, we are aiming to encourage an ongoing conversation between you and your child about values and decisions that will affect them their whole lives.
Putting it Together
If I could give parents one piece of advice it would be to trust the relationship you have with your child. Though this relationship is colored by our pasts and histories, it is a different entity than the relationship you had with your own parents. Trust your instincts and that you know your child better than anyone else. You have what it takes inside you to be a wonderful, though imperfect, parent to your unique child.
When we trust the inherent health of this relationship, we are able to handle the challenges that come up in raising our children with more lightness and humor, understanding the enormity of the task before us. We are trying to raise healthy, happy, kind people who will be productive in the world. Don’t underestimate the power of laughing together. And, remember that your child is having her own experience in life and not to take her attempts at independence personally. I wish you a long, enjoyable relationship with your child filled with many joyous times together!