Building and maintaining a relationship with a child takes work. Even the most loving parents must put a lot of time and effort into developing positive relationships with their children. Yet parents can still have problems with their children, even if they've done everything they can to avoid them. When problems arise, don't spend time lamenting the broken relationship. Instead, take the necessary steps to fix the problems, and start rebuilding healthy relationships with your children. Whether the children are four or fourteen, it's not too late to start to make the relationship right.
The Importance of the Parent/Child Relationship
The parent/child relationship plays a critical role in a child's development. "When kids have dependable, reliable, consistent and stable relationships with their parents, they have a secure base from which they can explore and experience their world, leading to healthy growth and development," says Erin Tebben, a clinical counselor, who regularly works directly with parents to help improve how they interact with their children. Tebben also notes that "kids also use their relationships with their parents as models for relationships with others. If they do not have a strong, positive relationship with their parents, it will be much more difficult for them to develop strong, positive relationships as they interact with others."
While there's no recipe for building a healthy parent/child relationship, parents can do a few things to help build a positive relationship and prevent many of the common relationship problems. For parents, problems can often be avoided or lessened by remembering these three approaches.
- Parents should communicate with their children, encouraging their children to express their emotions and share their needs.
- Parents should provide for their children, meeting both their physical and emotional needs.
- Parents should provide consistent discipline, setting healthy boundaries and making sure kids follow them.
Five Common Relationship Problems
Often, despite a parent's best efforts, parent/child relational problems arise. These problems may start when a child is young or develop as a child gets older and enters different stages of development. For example, a teenager may show a lack of respect for her parents as she begins to become more self-absorbed and depend more on her friends than her family. Some problems require a little extra time and focused attention to make them disappear, while others may require parents to drastically change their style of parenting and how they interact with their children on a daily basis.
Lack of Respect
Children who do not respect their parents often show their lack of respect by failing to obey their parents or showing a disregard for their emotions and feelings. This lack of respect may transfer to a child's self-respect, causing him to make bad choices. It may also transfer to how a child respects others, making him treat others poorly. While sometimes a lack of respect simply comes as kids begin to rely less on their parents and more on the world, parents can continue to foster a sense of respect by:
- Setting rules and following up with reasonable consequences
- Showing respect to their children
- Modeling respect when interacting with others
- Parenting with confidence; make a decision and stick to it
Lack of Trust
Parents whose children have made a host of mistakes or who regularly engage in dishonest behaviors may have difficulty trusting their children. In order to rebuild trust in their children, parents need to give them a chance to demonstrate they are worthy of that trust. To build trust, parents should:
- Teach children the importance of being honest.
- Create a plan to help rebuild lost trust.
- React positively when children tell the truth, even if they share negative information.
Children whose parents regularly lie to them, betray their confidence, or fail to follow through on their promises may also experience a lack of trust in the parent/child relationship. Parents can help their children trust them by:
- Not making promises they can't keep
- Following through on promises made
- Keeping private information private
- Talking to children about why something shared in confidence must occasionally be shared with others
- Always being truthful with children
Lack of Communication
A lack of communication can be one of the most frustrating problems for both parents and children. Parents feel like their children don't listen to a word they say, while children feel like their parents don't understand them or never take the time to listen. When this happens, instead of working harder to communicate, parents and kids often stop communicating entirely, leading to anger, sadness and a host of other negative emotions.
Parents who have trouble getting their kids to listen should follow a few guidelines when talking to their kids:
- Get on the child's level
- Use positive phrasing
- Offer choices
- Keep it short
- Stay calm
Parents whose children complain they never listen to them should:
- Regularly take time to let children talk
- Avoid responding with strong emotion
- Focus on the child's interests and feelings
- Give children full attention while they're talking
Sometimes the child and parent relationship is thrown off balance. Instead of the parent taking care of the child, the child may feel a need to take care of the parent. This may happen when a parent expect a child to become more like a friend, listening to the parent's problems and providing a social outlet for the parent. It may also happen when parents become depressed, disabled, or otherwise able to care for themselves. Children may act in ways designed to make mom or dad happy, try to solve family problems on their own, or even simply take on the majority of daily tasks around the home, such as cooking or cleaning.
Parents who find themselves becoming too dependent on their children should:
- Seek out others to provide emotional support
- Set healthy boundaries with your child
- Remind yourself and your child of your roles in the home
Children may also be too dependent on their parents. This may happen when parents regularly make decisions or try to solve problems for their children instead of letting them safely venture out on their own. Children may also act in ways designed to get the approval of their parents, rather than coming up with their own thoughts, ideas, and interests.
When codependence becomes a problem, parents should:
- Give children a chance to take on age-appropriate tasks
- Allow children to safely solve their own problems
- Encourage children to develop their own interests
Physical and Verbal Abuse
Abuse requires immediate help and should be reported, but not all physical and verbal abuse leads to hospital visits, nor does it always take place in the open. In fact, even good parents can occasionally be guilty of abuse. They may hit a child or inflict pain on a child during a moment of stress. Other parents may use words to demean their children, regularly putting them down, yelling at them, or telling them they are not good enough. Seek help in situations by contacting the following for help:
- Emergency assistance for immediate danger - Call 911 if a child or parent is in immediate danger.
- Hotlines - Contact a national child abuse hotline like Childhelp for help, support, and connection to local authorities.
- Local human services or assistance programs - Call your local state agency to report and seek assistance.
If you are or suspect someone is abusing your child, getting help through therapy and other programs can help to lessen the impact on a child and improve your parenting style. Child abuse is clearly a parent problem and the focus on fixing it is on the parent - but children will react to abuse in different ways. While an abusive parent may not always recognize that he or she is being abusive, there are few things parents can do to stop abuse should it happen:
- Seek the help of a professional, like a therapist, counselor or doctor
- Look for signs of fear when a child approaches
- Listen to a child and stop negative behaviors if a child cries or says she is hurt
- Pay attention to other adults who express concerns
- Take a moment to step away and breathe when tempted to act out of anger
- Use only positive words and phrases when talking with children
Occasionally, children may also abuse their parents. As children grow stronger, they can start to hit, bite, or physically attack their parents in other ways. They may also start to call their parents names or criticize them in other ways. Children may abuse their parents when they get angry and do not how to control their emotions, when they want to gain control, or even when they are under the influence of alcohol or illegal substances. Abused parents do not have to sit back and allow their children to abuse them. Instead they should take steps to stop the abuse, which include:
- Getting professional help for the family and/or the child. In extreme cases, this could be a medical emergency that requires immediate psychological help through an inpatient psychiatric facility. Especially if they are seriously harming others.
- Respond firmly, but calmly
- Helping the child find healthy ways to express anger
- Not retaliating or responding in kind
Rebuilding a Positive Relationship
Rebuilding a positive relationship with a child takes three main components: love, structure, and time. "Kids need a balance of things in order to grow and thrive. They need love and warmth and they also need structure and consistency. Frequently, when parents and children report feeling dissatisfied with their relationships with each other, the balance between love and warmth and structure and consistency is thrown off. Kids also need time from their parents and they need to know that they will have time from their parents when they need it," says Tebben.
Solving Your Problems
While some parent/child relationship problems may require a professional, such as a social worker or counselor, to step in, most parents and children can solve their problems on their own. Parents need to communicate to their children that they love them and that they have their best interests at heart. They also need to take the time to interact with their children, figure out what may be at the root of the problem, and also give children time to share their emotions and needs. When parents and children take the time to communicate with one another regularly and act out of the mutual love they have for one another, most problems will become temporary obstacles rather than major roadblocks in the relationship.