Relationships are critical to success whether academic, social, personal, or professional. Our sense of being – how we see and feel about ourselves – is dependent upon our relationships with others, with the parent/child bond being of primary importance during the most impressionable years of life, early childhood through the teen years.
A healthy and balanced parent/child relationship bolsters a child’s capacity for resilience. We touched on resilience factors in an earlier post. Resilience is the ability to bounce back after challenges or setbacks. Some of us are naturally resilient based on our temperament, which is genetic. Fortunately, resilience is a characteristic that can be taught and modeled – another reason to foster a healthy parent/child bond. In cases where the parent is not available (physically, emotionally) or incapacitated to the point that his/her involvement is negligible or a hindrance, it is paramount for another responsible adult (family member, mentor, etc.) to fulfill the role. Since the parent/child relationship is most important, we’ll direct our focus there and conclude by highlighting key dynamics of healthy relationships, in general.
I think parents will agree that parenting is the hardest and most rewarding job, bar none. It will also present some of the most trying times of your life. If your aim is success, it helps to be confident in your parenting ability. I mentioned before that D.W. Winnicott is my favorite theorist. In addition to true self/false self (see post titled Cultural Self), another concept is “good enough parenting”. Essentially, the “good enough parent” is adept at responding to the child’s needs. In infancy, the responses include love and attentiveness which mean the parent will meet the baby’s need for food, sleep, love, healing when sick, etc. As the child grows, her needs become more complex. The main points to remember about “good enough parenting” are: you don’t have to be perfect or even close to it in order to be a successful parent; however, you do need to be attuned and responsive to your child’s physical, emotional, psychological, and cultural needs. Simply providing for a child’s physical needs, e.g., food and shelter is not sufficient. That might be okay for animals, but not for humans. I emphasize this because I’ve heard parents discount culpability in their child’s negative outcomes with statements like, “I always made sure he had clothes to wear, food to eat, and a place to live.” That is inadequate if you’re raising a child to reach his full capabilities and capacity. If that’s your goal, you must attend to the emotional and psychological, also.
There is a body of research that links healthy parenting to optimal brain development. The research confirms higher brain function (in the amygdala and hippocampus) for children who receive supportive or good enough parenting. Another motivation to practice good enough parenting is reciprocity of the parent-child relationship. When the child is doing well, the parent is happy and the converse is also true; when the parent isn’t well, it negatively impacts the child. A healthy parent-child bond and good enough parenting (I’m using these interchangeably) are a win-win for both the parent and child.
Some of the more complex parent-child dynamics arise when the child in is the identity phase of development, the teen years. What the parent does up until that time and during can make all the difference between a great or miserable 6-7 years and in some cases, a lifetime of misery.
In earlier posts, we covered some components of good enough parenting. Let’s go over three now. One is affirmation which is part of a warm and nurturing relationship. You can’t affirm your child without nurture; the two go hand-in-hand (see post titled Confidence). Another that we touched on is expectations (see post titled Education). In addition to setting high expectations for academic achievement, parents must expect appropriate, responsible behavior in line with the child’s level of maturity. The parent should establish rules for behavior and hold the child accountable. Show resolve but don’t be harsh. Try not to discipline when you’re angry or frustrated. If you’re at the boiling point, take time out to calm down. If possible, wait 24 hours. Remember, we mete out disciplinary measures with the goal of correcting and teaching, not to hurt the child. The third is a big one, communication – and I don’t mean one-way communication where the parent is a dictator. A child should be able to talk to his parent about anything, and I mean ANYTHING. If your child doesn’t agree with you on some issue or situation, allow him space to respectfully express his opinion. These are opportunities for you to teach sound reasoning and decision-making. Listening and tolerating disagreement doesn’t mean you have to change your mind, but don’t be surprised if you do. There were times when my husband and I changed our minds because our children helped us see differently.
Be proactive in facilitating your child’s comfort with open, verbal expression by encouraging her to use words, starting at a very early age. When she’s crying ask why, even if you think you know the answer. Do the same when she’s laughing, angry, or sad. This is something that my dad did when I was growing up. Something would happen, and I would start crying. I vividly remember him saying, “Crying isn’t going to change it. When you finish crying, we’ll talk about it.” Let me tell you, I hated having to “talk about it” because that meant we had to explore the role I played, how I could have done something differently, and what I learned from the experience. Today, I am thankful that it wasn’t negotiable because I don’t have a problem talking things out or hearing constructive criticism. If you’re uncomfortable with communicating, and a lot of adults are, you may not be able to model open communication practices for your child. If you’re afraid of confrontation or have misaligned emotions (e.g., confuse hurt with anger and act out the anger rather than verbally expressing the hurt), it’s likely that your child will adopt these less than optimal ways of being (we’ll address this in next month’s post).
In terms of your child’s other relationships (with friends, family, etc.) make sure that they are healthy. You should know your child’s friends and their character. The adage “birds of feather flock together” is true. If your child’s friends are not on a path that leads to good, you need to intervene. Also, be careful about familial relationships because sometimes those connections are not in your child’s best interest. Some of the same tenets of a healthy parent-child bond are key ingredients for other healthy relationships: nurture and affirmation, good communication, and appropriate, responsible behavior (aligned with maturity).
Next month we’ll talk about realizing your best self through Therapy and Counseling.