What kind of relationship you have with your kids is the cornerstone to your capabilities in parenting and creating the family life you want. It really is the thing that makes all the other things work or don’t work. Think about it - if your kids don’t respect you will they follow your rules? If your kids don’t feel like you’re ever around to spend time with them will they respond appropriately when you try to give consequences or set limits? My guess is no.
“But I have a great relationship with my kids and they still don’t listen to me!” Sound familiar? Well it does to me. I hear it all the time. We can totally feel like we are getting along great with our kids... and then be confused by the feeling that they don’t respect us. Or we can feel like they trust us to take care of them, or to look out for their happiness, but also find they don’t listen to or follow our directions. That’s when we have to pick apart the pieces of relationship that matter the most and still remember that the relationship is the FOUNDATION the rest of your parenting practices hinge on.
The most important pieces to building strong relationship with your kids, and a place to parent from, are Respect, Trust, Connection and Communication. Each one of these components weave together to create the foundation of relationship. Each has their own importance and their own pitfalls and all have to be present for there to be a balanced parent/child relationship. Let’s look at each one and what they have to offer.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T….Find out what it means to me! Ok, sorry, it’s hard to not get carried away by the late, great Aretha Franklin when discussing respect. So, seriously, it seems obvious right? Kids are supposed to respect their parents. Well, here’s the thing - is it just as obvious that we as parents should have respect for our kids as well? Respect is most healthy and strongest when it is mutual. For this reason I believe it is important to have a healthy level of respect for your kids’ needs, wants, feelings, etc. By showing them this type of respect, you’re modeling to them how they should respect you. There is no "one-sidedness" to this equation. It should not be parents fully in-tune to respecting their kids' needs and wants, with kids having no regard for that of their parents. And it shouldn’t be kids blindly respecting their parents simply because they should. Bottom line is that people in any type of relationship will listen and cooperate better with the other person if they feel respected. Just ask Aretha!
Trust is a high stakes subject. It is a piece of relationship that is crucial and may be taken for granted at times. It is a dynamic concept. People may trust each other in one way but not another, which can be complicated. I might trust my best friend to keep my secrets, but not necessarily to perform open heart surgery on me. So when it comes to being trustworthy in the eyes of our kids, they need to believe that you will say what you mean and mean what you say. That you will be there to meet their needs, protect them and keep them safe. And like respect, trust needs to be mutual. Kids need to believe that you trust them as well. This trust you have for your kids can then become a thing of value that your children will protect through making good choices and being honest with you. So at the end of the day, because you trust them, they may just make better choices - like not trying that cigarette in the parking lot after school. (Oh wait, was that an after school special?!?)
Spending time or doing things to connect with your kids shows them you think they are important, that they matter, and are valued. Like being picked first for kickball at recess (a euphoric-type feeling, I'm guessing, since I was never the first-picked! ) kids light up with an internal feeling that they are awesome….because YOU picked THEM. When we feel appreciated and worth someone’s time and attention we open ourselves up to valuing our relationship with that person and our interest in keeping the relationship positive goes up. This means that our kids will try harder to please us and stay in our good graces when they feel important to us. They will feel important to us if we do the work to connect with them.
Calm and respectful communication is basically the sauce that blends it all together. It is crucial in order for kids to feel respected, and to build trust and connection. And when those things are in place, and kids feel heard, cooperation and respect for the limits you set improves greatly. When parents can respond - instead of react - to situations and hear their children’s thoughts and feelings with openness and respect, they create a safe place for kids to feel like they can be themselves and are valued for who they are. Honesty is increased as kids are less fearful of telling the truth and relationship deepens through steady streams of communication. Think about how you’ve felt when someone has barked orders or screamed at you. Did you listen or could you only pay attention to how they were talking to you? Or when you’ve had that friend that never listens to you but always expects you to listen to what she thinks and how she feels? At the end of the day is she the person you choose to talk to?
These components, Respect, Trust, Connection and Communication, all fold into each other but also weave into all things we do as parents. Again, trying to manage expectations we have of our children as well as keeping our kids accountable for their actions and teaching them to be the kids we want to raise is all managed much better when there is mutual respect, trust, solid connection and sound communication. It creates value in the relationship that your kids may not be able to explain in words, but can feel. This will also be something they want to protect and reproduce in other relationships they have with friends and significant others as they mature. So when working on goals in parenting with my clients, this is the first area we work on and the area I would recommend folks to look at when wanting to make improvements in their family functioning. Absolutely everything else you do as a parent will work better if the foundation of relationship is solid.