How to improve your parent-child relationship

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How to improve your parent-child relationship

by Keely Bebbington

Parenting can be hard work. From ensuring that your children have a roof over their heads, food in their stomach, friends to play with, an education, and a life path - it’s easy to get caught up in providing for (rather than connecting with) your children. Importantly, parent-child relationships form the template for future relationships that they will have with friends, partners, and their own children. Therefore, the attachment that you form with your child is something to pay close attention to. In this post we’ll look at the different types of attachment as well as 5 tips for strengthening the parent-child relationship.

A bit about attachment and relationships

Children with a secure attachment learn that they are loved and supported. They are encouraged to explore the world, feel secure enough in their bond with their parent to venture out, and are welcomed with open arms when they return.

Research suggests that a secure attachment in infancy is linked with greater sociability, better emotion regulation, higher self-esteem and greater empathy.[1] From this secure base a child feels more comfortable navigating what lies ahead in life.

Sometimes, the process of forming a secure attachment can be interrupted. Perhaps you have a child that has been unwell, fussy, or quite difficult to settle. Perhaps you have struggled with ongoing stress, depression or anxiety. Or perhaps you’ve faced challenges in your relationship with your own parents and thus a secure attachment may feel uncomfortable.

All these things can sometimes make it difficult for you to be the parent that you want to be, but regardless of your parent-child attachment there are things that you can work on to strengthen the relationship. Read on for our 5 tips for strengthening the parent-child relationship.

TIP 1: Take care of yourself

Taking care of yourself may seem counterintuitive at first given we’ve spoken at length about focusing on your child and the outcomes of attachment for your child. However, it’s important to remember that you play a role in the attachment too!

Just like being told to secure your own oxygen mask on the plane before your children’s, it’s important to ensure you are paying attention to, and responding to your own needs. After all, if the parents aren’t ok, how can we expect their little ones to be?

Feeling stressed and overwhelmed can affect your ability to handle the daily challenges of parenting, and leach into how you interact with your children. So, tune into your own needs, know how to meet them, and schedule time to meet these needs (rather than consider them as something to get around to doing ‘when you have a spare moment). In doing so, you not only develop greater capacity to handle the ups and downs of parenthood, but being calmer also provides a more solid and secure foundation for understanding and responding to your children’s needs.

TIP 2: Put yourself in their shoes

What are your children thinking? What are they feeling? What do they need from you? It can be hard to know what is going on for them, moment-to-moment. They can sometimes seem like a puzzle and it can take a few tries to find the piece that fits.

Sometimes our children’s behaviour can be a red-herring – masking what is really going on. Take, for example, a little boy who gets angry and lashes out when you’re trying to wind up an afternoon playdate in the park. His behaviour at that point can surely seem challenging, particularly as you’ve attempted to create a nice afternoon for him.

Step outside your own thoughts and feelings about your boy’s behaviour for the moment, and try to put yourself in his shoes:

  • Could he be feeling anxious because he doesn’t understand that this goodbye is not final and that he will see his friend again? If this is the case what might he need to hear to help him to manage his anxiety?
  • Could he be feeling overstimulated, and finding it difficult to cope with everything that is going on? If so, what would be the best way to help him cope with everything that is going on?

Try to hang in there - by approaching it from their perspective it can make it easier to understand what the issue is.

TIP 3: Is your messaging on point?

Consider what messages you send your children through your own comments and behaviour. Children are like sponges, absorbing what they see and hear. What you say and do helps shape their understanding of the world. They start to understand how relationships work by watching you with your partner and your parents. They start to learn about how to relate to their looks, to others, and to their abilities based on what you focus on. They develop attitudes like yours simply because that’s what they’ve been exposed to.

For example, watching your children start to explore the world on their own can sometimes be anxiety-provoking. Understandably, you may want to protect them from harm, but sometimes your anxiety can ‘leak out’. If you become overly anxious as your children start to explore, you may inadvertently send them the message that the world is a dangerous place or that they’re not capable.

TIP 4: Help your children organise their feelings

Big feelings can be confusing and distressing for adults, let alone little ones. Our children need help to make sense of big feelings and learn how to respond to them appropriately.

Many of the coping strategies we use as adults are learned when we are very young, so help your children organise their feelings by helping to label them and to use helpful coping strategies. This helps them grow into healthy adults.

So, if your child is scared of doing News at school, you can help by naming anxiety and its symptoms (e.g. butterflies in the tummy), then focus on some practical strategies including:

  • Teaching them some mindfulness techniques and talking about different situations they can use them in,
  • Normalise these feelings, and if you’ve experienced the same thing share your experiences
  • Help them gradually approach doing News in a less scary manner, for example start out doing News in front of a group of toys, then in front of the family, all the time reinforcing gains made.

TIP 5: Conflict happens…it’s what you do with it that matters

No one can be completely attuned to another person all the time. Sometimes we misinterpret our children’s behaviour or, in the haze of sleep deprivation and busy schedules we might get irritated and snap our children. Not only are these ‘slip ups’ to be expected, they are important.

These slip ups give us an opportunity to teach our children how to repair relationships when something goes wrong – but we need to make the first move. So if you don’t quite know where to start, think about how you would like someone to approach you if they’ve snapped at you.

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[1]  Sroufe, L.A. (2005) Attachment and development: A prospective, longitudinal study from birth to adulthood, Attachment & Human Development, 7, 349-367, DOI: 10.1080/14616730500365928