Building a positive relationship with our children is imperative if we truly want them to trust their ability to confide in and be guided by us. Creating a foundation of respect and trust is essential in any relationship, particularly if we are to feel safe to reveal our feelings, fears and problems. As parents, we need to make it known early in the lives of our children that we are here for them and that we are learning and growing together.
Being an adult doesn’t mean we have all the answers, it just means we have more life experience. When we keep in mind that we too have had to navigate our way through the world, making mistakes based upon the limited information and perspective that we had when we were young, it makes it easier to see the struggles of our children from a place of compassion, understanding and sensitivity. However, if we deny the reality that we too were once young and naive and take the position of the all knowing adult, we close ourselves off from our children and limit their ability to see us as a person and not just a parent. If we can acknowledge our shortcomings and failings and show our children through our actions and choices that we too are constantly working to be our best, our children will be more likely to accept themselves and connect with us as they make decisions and face challenges.
We can’t expect our children to come to us with issues that are affecting them if we have not taken the time to nurture their trust. Making the time to talk and really listen to our children every day about their thoughts, opinions and ideas sends a strong message about how much we value them. Creating daily opportunities for positive interaction with our children sets a pattern for discussion that makes it easier to discuss sensitive and more serious issues when they arise. If we consciously make an effort to remain connected to our children through constant and positive communication, we are making ourselves available to guide them in their decision making and help them to make positive choices.
It’s typical for teenagers to talk to their friends more than their parents as they try to establish their own identity and make their own way in the world. While this is a healthy progression toward autonomy, it’s essential that parents balance that need for independence with keeping the lines of communication open at home. One way we can do that is by breaking down the barriers that make us seem unapproachable or intimidating, particularly about difficult topics such as relationships, sex and drugs. For them to feel they can come to us about issues affecting them, we really need to make an effort to demonstrate that we are open and willing to discuss anything. Drawing from memories of our teen years can really help us to improve this communication. Being honest with ourselves about the doubts, struggles and difficulties that we experienced and remembering the embarrassment and self-consciousness felt can help us be more sensitive, thoughtful and understanding.
To successfully create an open dialogue with our teens requires perseverance and the ability to put ourselves in their shoes. It helps to acknowledge that the reason our perspective on life and the issues affecting us differs is because we have life experience to draw upon. Allowing our mind to revisit our feelings of awkwardness, confusion and uncertainty and how it felt when even the smallest thing going wrong felt like the end of the world is an invaluable exercise that will set a tone of compassion, sensitivity and understanding and help us to be more willing to and capable of speaking calmly and openly, especially when discussing more delicate issues. Additionally, when we’re young, we only have a limited picture of our parents, so communicating to our children that in our teens we too struggled to establish our own independence and making it clear that we certainly didn’t have all the answers (and still don’t), can help us to relate to them on a different level and open the way for them to communicate with us in a new and positive way. If they feel they can relate to us, they will be more inclined to let us into their world, to talk to us about the little occurrences in their day and to trust us with the bigger issues and more difficult topics.
As painful and frustrating as it feels to see our children make mistakes, that is precisely how we all learn to make better choices. The consequences of the mistakes we make give us the life lessons to draw upon when making future decisions.
Modeling positive behaviors to our children is the most powerful thing we can do to help them to cope with the ups and downs of life. If we model respectful interactions, remembering to talk to our children and not at them, if we make a point of really listening to what they are saying, recognizing their needs and spend less time judging and criticizing and more time identifying positive behaviors and choices, we can turn around a strained or difficult relationship or improve on the positive relationship we already have.
It’s never too late to change the way we communicate with our children. Being a positive role model doesn’t mean we’re immune to making mistakes, it just means that we’re seen by our children to be responsible for the choices we make and the outcomes of those choices. If our children see us face the challenges of life with flexibility, determination and optimism and perceive that we’re forever learning, changing and growing, they will be more inclined to follow our lead and meet their challenges with the same fortitude and positive expectations to overcome life’s obstacles. If we empower our children by teaching them that they have the ability to change anything that is not working in life through their thoughts and actions, they will be more inclined to take our positive approach and to involve us in their decision making.
Kellie-Lee Jackson is married with three young children. Jackson and co-contributor Caroline Schar are guiding kids through the difficult teenage years in their new book, My Journal, My Friend.