All parents want to have a close, healthy relationship with their kids. But what do you do when your once-affectionate daughter suddenly turns into a sullen teenager? Or, after an ugly divorce, you move out-of-state, and your few custody visits seem strained?
The good news is that no matter how “distant” your kids seem, they really do want to be close to you. The parent-child bond runs very deep, and no matter what you’re going through right now, there will always be ways to rebuild your connection and show them how much you love them. Here are some tips.
1. Show them that you’re really interested in getting to know them.
Persistence is crucial. Don’t give up after one monosyllabic conversation. Each time you reach out you prove, at the very least, that you’ll always be around when you need them. This is very important if you’ve just gone through a divorce. Your kids are hurt, scared, and still struggling to understand this new family structure. Rituals like calling every Sunday night, or having dinner with them at least once a month, can create a sense of constancy and rebuild trust. (And “being busy” isn’t an excuse. Find bonding ideas for busy parents. )
If divorce isn’t the problem, just that strange universe called adolescence, take heart. All kids go through a stage when it’s just not cool to be with mom and dad anymore. But even if they like going out with friends, they still want to come home to supportive parents. Ask them about their day, their likes and dislikes. Even if you don’t agree with their choice of music, let them know that you respect their individuality and just want to be part of their lives.
2. Be their biggest cheerleader.
Remember how awkward you felt when you were a teen? You were always struggling to fit in, and scared of being labeled “weird” or “stupid.” Even your friends could turn on you at a moment’s notice, and make fun of you just because you said something they didn’t agree with.
That’s why it’s important to boost your child’s confidence now, more than ever. You don’t have to pay her false flattery, like “Never mind what those stupid boys say. I think you’re the prettiest girl in school!” That’s not helpful at all. Instead, zero in on something specific. “That dress looks really nice on you. It brings out the color of your eyes.” Or, “Thanks for watching your brother last night. You’re growing up to be a very responsible young lady.”
3. Listen to their stories and feelings.
Bite your tongue whenever your children open up about a problem. Yes, you feel like you should give advice, but the most important thing is to make them feel that you’re there for them, and you care about them. After all, no amount of lecturing can ease the heartache of not being picked for a school play. Don’t say, “You just have to practice harder!” or “At least you can focus on your Math grades now.” Instead, put yourself in their shoes and imagine what they feel—then multiply that by 100. (Remember, teen hormones tend to make us all dramatic.)
So when that happens, hold their hand, nod your head, hug them tight. If you must say something, share something similar that happened to you before—and be sure to open up about how you felt at that time, too. You can share your wisdom, but only after you’ve shared your vulnerability, too. That’s the secret of a good heart-to-heart.
4. Open opportunities for them to talk.
They may not feel like talking to you right now, but make it easier for them to approach you if there’s something that’s troubling them. One good example of this is to have a bonding ritual—like talking a walk after dinner, or if you don’t have custody of your kids, calling them up on a particular day each week. Even the daily drive to school, or the time spent washing dishes together, can be an “open invitation” to open whenever they feel like it.
Just grab the opportunity when it comes. When your kids say, “Mom, I have a problem…” drop what you’re doing and make yourself available.
5. Give respect, get respect.
We often complain about rude teenagers, but where else did they get the habit of interrupting or yelling except from us? If you tell them to “Stop giving me that crap!” then that gives them license to use that kind of language with you, too.
If you don’t like their tone of voice, just firmly say: “I don’t appreciate how you said that. Please say it again, in a nicer tone.” And if you’ve always treated them well, you can always cut back the sass by telling them: “I’ve never talked to you that way. Why are you saying that to me?”
We bring this up because by the time your kids become teenagers, they yearn to be recognized as individuals and respected as a “person” and not just a “little child.” Barking orders at them or talking down to them will make them withdraw or rebel. So even if you’re still an authority figure (you make and enforce the rules), be conscious about your choice of words and even your body language. Effective communication builds your relationship and your family bond.
You can also show that you respect their individuality and opinions by getting them involved in some family decisions. For example, get a “family vote” on whether or not you’ll go to the beach or take a hiking trip this summer vacation.