If you are like most parents, you do your best to be involved in your children’s lives by asking about their day, who they played with at recess, with whom they ate lunch and what their homework is for the night. You attend their school events, taxi them around to various play dates and parties and do what you can to keep an eye on their emotional and psychological well-being. Sometimes life gets in the way and you miss an opportunity to dig deeper. And, as kids age into adolescence, the window for involvement quickly shrinks, and before you know it, the only response you get from your tween or teen is a shrug or an “uh-huh.”
Recently, a man in his late 60’s came to see me to discuss his relationship with his 40-year-old son. He wanted to find out what he could do to uncover more about his son’s life. He shared his feelings of awkwardness about asking his son questions that required more detailed answers and noticed himself backing off the second that his son seemed to resist offering more details.
Reflecting on his own childhood, he recalled that his parents had a very cold and unhappy marriage and didn’t love him as he needed to be loved. The house, in which he grew up, was abusive and devoid of love. He left his home at 16 and never looked back. And, while he does have a connection with his parents, it is at the most superficial level, expecting nothing and giving nothing.
When I asked him what his degree of involvement was in his children’s life, he admitted that it wasn’t too deep, but that he made sure that he listened if they wanted to talk, that he exemplified control and public service, and financially supported them in any way possible. He is a self-made man, who has now realized that who he is as a father, with his son, isn’t what he wished he had been.
Many times he would ask me if he should inquire more often about his son’s life, ask more pointed questions and press his son to give more details.
I needed to teach this man a new skill; how to be involved in his child’s life . This skill felt so foreign to him that it was necessary for me to give him permission to be more emotionally accessible than he had ever been with his son. He, being a strong man, took the bull by the horns and paid attention to every word I said.
We talked about how to have daily conversations that mattered, even if they were just “check- in” conversations. We examined his nervousness about pushing his son further away if he were to press him a bit harder, about his current love relationship or his business plan for his practice.
What seemed to matter most for this man was that he give himself permission to be a different kind of father to his son than he had ever been, regardless of the life stage he in which he existed. He mentioned how daunting it was to look back on how limitedly he connected with his son and what change would look like and require.
I can’t begin to tell you how many people sit in front of me in session and share that change is scary and that they feel ill-equipped to find a starting point, especially when it comes to discussing feelings with someone else who could have the potential to reject them when they open themselves up and become vulnerable.
In response, I simply say, “Just start from here and it will be your new beginning.” I remind them that courage is within all of us and when positive action is taken in the face of fear, anxiety, anger, shame, and pain, wonderful results occur; results more wonderful than one could possibly imagine. Opening yourself up emotionally can be scary, but it can also deepen bonds with those who matter most to you.
I am pleased to say that this father has successfully deepened his relationship with his son over time. He has assumed the behavior that every parent must; to insert yourself in your child’s life and find out what is going on, even if they are adult children, they are still, YOUR children. He initiated conversations with respect, a genuine desire to want to know more for no other reason than to be closer to his son. He has changed his parenting legacy.
A parent- child relationship can become healthy and open if you, as a parent, commit to riding the waves of change with your child. Here are some suggestions that might help you develop great relationships with your kids.
1. How you were parented is the key to how you parent. It’s important to be aware of how your upbringing influences your ability to talk openly about your thoughts and feelings. Gender differences aside, if you were raised by non-communicative parents and you wished they had been more accessible, commit to yourself that you will be more accessible to your children, in the ways that you didn’t get as a child. If you don’t know how to do that, find someone who can teach you how to more effectively communicate. Remember, you can change your family legacy by being the parent that you always wished you had. On the flip side, if you were raised with parents who were loving, open, communicative and involved, and you can be that with your kids, then keep up the good work!
2. Be mindful of your feelings when you think about talking about your kids. The most important skill to hone is awareness of yourself. If you notice that you feel uncomfortable talking about certain subjects with your child, that’s actually a great thing! Just take note of that and remember this: practice awareness without judgement. What does this mean? Awareness without judgement means that you take notice of your thoughts and feelings about something and resist making them good, bad, right or wrong. You simply see them as they are; your thoughts and feelings that can change at any time.
Parents often ask me for guidance about involving themselves more deeply in their children’s lives. I encourage parents to be honest with their kids about how they might feel about addressing certain subject matter; this could mean sharing how awkward they felt when their parents talked about this with them, but how necessary it is to have uncomfortable discussions- because kids need to learn that parents are available to talk about anything; it could mean that parents share carefully detailed parts of their life experiences as they grew up as a way to break the ice and to bond with their child’s current circumstance or it could mean that an observation is made about a current issue that lets your child know that “you get it” such as, “Girls can be really mean sometimes”, or “Boys compete a lot with each other, huh?”
And, I always emphasize that your role as a parent is to insert yourself in your child’s life, even if your child tries to shut you out. (Kids can get really good at that if you let them.) Press on parents!
3. Talk often, talk casually, and set the stage for the “big whopper” conversations. This is, perhaps, one of the most important parenting tips I can offer. Practice taking the time to sit down, CASUALLY with your child and begin the habit of having more detailed conversations. No, I didn’t say confrontations. I said, CONVERSATIONS.
A parent once asked me how she can make sure her child has healthy love relationships, since he is of dating age. I encouraged her to rent movies that they both could watch that involved different story lines and then to just ask questions about what her son thought of the relationship and offer some tips about what to do and what not to do. The TV shows that your kids watch are prime examples of topics you can use as discussion points with your kids. So, watch what they watch and then begin a discussion. You can also talk about your love relationship, if it is healthy and loving and examine what they see and think about when they consider your love relationship.
4. Ask questions instead of assuming. The habit of assuming you know exactly what your child thinks and feels can be hard to break, but I can’t begin to tell you how valuable asking your child about what they think and feel AND KNOW is, as a way to get confirmation of your assumptions.
If you assume something about your child, you might end up losing a prime opportunity for your child to teach you about himself. Let me warn you…. don’t talk sooo much to your kids!
Connecting with your kids isn’t about you, it’s about them. Use short sentences that inquire. If you talk too much, your kids will tune you out in a heartbeat, and just wait for you to finish saying what you have to say to them. You’ll feel like you have done a good job and they feel like it’s just another boring talk from mom or dad.
Ask questions that are open – ended such as, “you know, I was wondering about X, tell me a little more about that.” or ” Help me understand this/where you are coming from.” “It seems that you are upset/worried/nervous. Tell me more of what’s on your mind.”
It’s never too late to refine your parenting skills. If your children balk at your new attempts, it’s only because they aren’t used to the new approach. Give yourself and the relationship some time to adjust to your new way of communicating with your children. They will stop resisting and start communicating with you when they know that your attempts are trustworthy, sustainable, and sincere.
In love and light,