Are you feeling disconnected from one or more of your children? Or are you a working parent wanting to build a deeper relationship with your kids? Or a step-parent wanting to create solid relationships with your step-children?
A relationship is defined as a connection between two people, whether by blood, marriage, or emotion. It’s a rather perfunctory relationship that is built on blood only; a deeper and more fulfilling relationship is one built on emotion, even if its circumstances are based in blood. Building a meaningful relationship means emotionally connecting with the other person, getting to know and understand him or her. In a well-connected relationship between parent and child there is a beautiful give-and-take and flow, a high level of trust, and genuine respect. And in any relationship *you* want to build stronger, it is up to you to make the first move. So what can you do?
There are a couple of things that I often see get in the way when a parent is trying to connect/reconnect with a child and build a stronger relationship. The first is the parent not honestly evaluating how supportive he or she is of connecting opportunities when they appear. Think about the flow of your relationship with your children as it sits right now. When they ask you for help do you most often say yes? Do you consistently help right away or put them off until it’s more convenient for you, if ever? Maybe they’ve stopped asking for your help except as a last resort? Or does your spouse often ask you for help for them? Looking at these questions can help you see the signals you are giving them regarding your availability for connection. Each of these situations, if they occur with any regularity, interferes with the healthy give-and-take of a relationship.
Let’s look at the flow from the other direction. When you ask your child for help is the answer most often no? Are the answers to your general questions short and sweet, lacking the richer details that deepen an already well-connected relationship? These are clues that your child is feeling disconnected too.
The second thing I see time and again is the parent trying to connect with their child by attempting to pull the child to them rather than going to the child: “Want to go for a bike ride with me?” The answer is often no because as part of the relationship disconnect they likely don’t trust that you are suggesting the activity for their enjoyment. And are you really? Do you truly think it is something your child would enjoy, or is it really something that *you* would enjoy doing with them? There’s an incredibly important difference there.
How can you break this cycle? For the next while, just stop asking. You already know you are both feeling disconnected so stop creating moments that highlight this disconnect and increase frustration in the relationship. Stop asking questions where the answer is likely to be no or lacking in any meaningful detail.
So, if you’re not asking questions, not asking for help, not asking them to join you in activities, what do you do instead? Go to them; join your children in activities they enjoy. Take the time to see the world through their eyes. Spend some time quietly observing them so you start to see what kinds of things they like to do. Make getting to know them one of your high priority projects. Watch the TV shows and movies they like with them. No need to make conversation to connect; your relaxed presence is a starting point for building future connections. Let them just get used to your company. Maybe play their favourite board or video games with them. If they don’t yet want you to play with them, don’t take it personally; sit nearby and soak up their joy. Take your direction from them.
But don’t do these things passively; passionately spend this time observing and learning more about them. Creating a strong base of trust to build a relationship on is not about putting in time with your child but about using that time to actually learn who your child is: the activities she enjoys, the food she likes to eat, the kinds of clothes she prefers to wear – and the whys behind those answers. What are the signs that she is hungry or tired? What kind of humour does she enjoy? What kind does she have? Does she have a favourite seat by the TV? Does she like to go out-and-about regularly or does she prefer spending time at home?
If your child doesn’t like apples, don’t continue to offer him apples. Offer up his favourite seat if he comes to watch TV and you happen to be sitting there. Offer to take him to the park regularly if you know he likes to get out; and don’t if you learn he does not. Don’t offer advice while playing games together if you know he doesn’t like that. Bring him his favourite snack, or pick him up a t-shirt you’re quite sure he’ll like as an impromptu gift. Show him that you understand *him*. To build a relationship with your child is to connect with him as he truly is, not with an idealized version of a child you have in your mind.
In that same vein, don’t just imagine what a great relationship looks like to you and start acting like it already exists. That’s presumptuous and he likely won’t respond in kind. Even though your internal motivation has changed, your child can’t see that; your actions still look selfish from his current perspective. You have to *show* him and earn his trust, no short cuts.
And a quick note: If you are a working or newer-to-their-lives parent with a spouse that already has a strong relationship with the child, these ideas aren’t about trying to create the same relationship with your child or step-child or grandchild that your spouse has; they are about creating a strong base of trust from which your unique relationship with your child can grow.
Once you begin to deeply understand your child you can begin to connect with her where *she* is – that is the comfortable place from which she can welcome you. And once you know your child well you will be able to bring things to her that she will be much more likely to enjoy with you. And that’s a true connection: proof that you see *her*, that you understand who she really is.
As you create more and more of these connections your relationship will get stronger. And as you understand your children better you will see that their actions and reactions are truly grounded in who they are, not random outbursts designed to frustrate you. As you understand their actions better you will be less frustrated and more trusting of them. And with this developing trust comes true respect, a deep sense of the inherent worth of your children, which will most likely be reciprocated in abundance as you use this strong base to build uniquely wonderful relationships together.