Teaching your kids to drive, in a car with no gas, just “ain’t gonna happen.”
If we don’t have “gas” in our proverbial relationship tank with our kids, trying to get them to listen to us, talk to us, or to be able to role model anything will work as well as teaching them to drive without gas in the tank. You just won’t get anywhere!
So before we can talk about developing traits such as integrity, empathy, responsibility, etc. we need to ensure there’s gas in the tank. We need to intentionally and deliberately make choices and take actions, on a regular basis, to strengthen the relationships we have with our children.
Josh Shipp, a youth advocate, says:
“Kids spell trust – T.I.M.E.
Spend time doing what matters to them, because they matter to you.”
Wise words. But what happens when we are actually with them – doing what they love, or just going through the day-to-day routines of life? The quality of our relationship with our children sits at the heart of our ability to help them thrive. So how do we ensure the time we spend with our kids is actually helping develop the foundational relationship we need? How do we foster that essential two-way communication? What can we do as parents to ensure we are developing the quality relationship we need to help our children thrive?
Clues can be found by looking at other important relationships in our lives. Think about the relationships you have with friends, family, and co-workers. Which of those relationships are the strongest? Who do you go to when you’re feeling overwhelmed, or think you’ve messed up? Who do you go to when you need advice? Or need to vent? Who do you share your dreams with? Who do you want to talk to when you’re worried, sad, confused, or proud of something? Who in your life do you look to as a role model? Who are your mentors? Hopefully our children will have many folks who’ll fill these varied roles over their life time, yet it is important that they are comfortable coming to us for as many of these needs as possible, for as long as possible. Because, to use another Josh Shipp phrase, “If our kids aren’t talking out, they are acting out.”
So, who are the people we turn to? Despite varying situational specific factors, typically,
our go to people have four things in common. They are people who:
Care about us. We believe that they genuinely like and care about us, and demonstrate that care in ways that are meaningful to us. We can speak openly to them without fear of being judged or ridiculed.
We trust. We feel safe with them. They take our feelings and needs into account. They can keep things confidential. They are well grounded emotionally and able to:
understand and manage their own emotions
have empathy for others
display emotions appropriate to the situation, and
make sound judgments and decisions without being swayed by personal desires.
We respect. We typically need to respect someone on two levels to consider reaching out to them.
We need to respect them in a broad way - as a person. They need to conduct and handle themselves in a manner that engenders respect. For example, we may not go to a coworker for advice if they are known to be short tempered, or don’t exhibit sound judgement, even if they are considered a subject matter expert in our particular area of need.
We need to believe the person has expertise, experience, and/or insight in the area in which we need support.
Listen to us. They listen with their ears and their heart, openly and warmly displaying an interest in us and what we have to say. They are active listeners – asking relevant questions and displaying body language that lets us know they are interested in what we have to say.
So, how do we fare on those four points in our children’s minds?
Do they think we care about them?
We all care about our kids, but how would we “score” on a test designed to determine how well we actually demonstrate that care on a day to day basis?
Do you know what makes your particular child (ren) feel cared about? In their book The Five Love Languages of Children, Gary Chapman and Ross Campbell outline five ways to make different types of children feel loved and cared about. Understanding what makes your child(ren) feel loved and cared about, and learning to adapt your style to their needs, will go a long way in helping ensure your child feels your love and care. The five love languages are:
Touch: They like hand holding, cuddling, high-fiving, being carried, hugs. Enjoy lots of physical activity.
Words: Likes for others to tell them they did a good job. Favorite words to use: Awesome, great job, you did it, terrific.
Quality Time: Loves to do things with you. Go out to eat, cook, watch a movie, run errands. Younger kids want to always sit next to you, or watch them while they play.
Gifts: Enjoys having someone give them something. Feels good about birthday & surprise presents, earning a treat, or having their favorite food made for them.
Service: Likes having people do things for them. Helping with their chores, or a homework project. Driving them places or making meals or snacks.
Many children respond to more than one love language – but most have a dominate language. What is your primary love language. Depending on your child(ren)'s age, consider discussing the love languages, and how you can each demonstrate how much you care in ways that are meaningful to the other person.
Do they believe they can trust us? We think, “Of course my child can trust me. I would never do anything to hurt them, and work tirelessly to protect and provide for them.” But what would they say?
At a relationship level – do they believe they can trust us?
Do they trust that if they tell us what they are worried, hopeful, angry, excited or sad about, that we will:
Really listen (not be simultaneously texting, cooking, or otherwise distracted). As parents, we’re busy and can’t always make time for our child(ren) when they would like, so if your child wants to talk and you are busy at the moment – explain that to your child and set a specific time later in the day. Don’t forget. They’re watching.
Not dismiss or belittle their concern. Can we empathize with how they feel, hearing and helping them deal with the emotion involved, even if to us, the current concern seems silly or trivial compared with our own? This is huge for children. And if we can hear their emotion, instead of just the circumstance, it will help us have the empathy to handle the conversation in a more caring and helpful way. We will empathize with a second grader whose upset about not being chosen for a special classroom project much more effectively if we can relate to the core emotion of being “passed over”or “not good enough” instead of trivializing the situation as small silly kid stuff.
Not over react emotionally – letting our own fear, anger, or worry overshadow what they are already feeling. Despite the buttons that can be pushed when our kids open up – if we over react, the situation feels worse for them. They’ll shut down and won’t likely risk opening up in the future. We may need to step in, take action, or even provide a consequence for something they did, but hearing them out first, and then responding from a calm centered perspective will build trust, not destroy it.
Do they respect us? Our kids are watching us – and they don’t miss much. They aren’t just watching when we are “on,” they see us all the time. They are watching what we do, what we say, and how we handle ourselves – with them, family, friends – and in the world. And depending on the child, and their age, they are either taking on the behavior we model without questioning it (for good or bad) or as they age, beginning to question, and decide if they want to be like us, or not. Kids may not be thinking in terms of “do I respect my mother/father/caregiver” – but at a gut level, they know. These are the type of things kids are observing as they consciously or unconsciously determine if we are someone they respect.
As a person:
Do your actions line up with your words - with what you say you want / believe?
Do you do what you say you will?
Do they see you treat yourself and others with care and respect?
Do you walk the walk, or talk the talk?
Do they believe you'll listen - in a way they'll feel heard? There are lots of books and on-line articles about how to communicate with our kids so they’ll feel heard. Ideas like using open-ended, non-leading questions, paraphrasing, empathy statements and keeping our emotions in check. Those are all helpful techniques, but I want to return to the idea of looking at our relationships with others, to explore the idea of making our children feel heard.
Imagine you’re in a tough situation at work. You have a new boss you don’t get along with. She doesn’t seem to respect you or your work, and has dropped hints she’s considering outsourcing some company functions which you know put your job at risk. You make plans for dinner with a friend.
If you could take out your crystal ball, and see four potential outcomes of that dinner, which would you choose:
After explaining what’s up at work to your friend, they say, “You don’t really need to worry about that” and proceeds to compare your situation to theirs or they believes are more difficult than what you’re facing.
After you explain what’s up to your friend, they immediately tell you what you should do to handle / fix the situation, and then moves on to another topic.
Your friend spends much of the evening talking about what is going on in their life, never stopping to ask about you, and leaving little room for you to bring up what you’re struggling with. They respond to several texts, and answer a phone call during dinner. When the waiter brings the check they say, “So, what’s going on with you?” as they look down at their phone.
Your friend listens attentively as you explain what’s going on. They ask questions to clarify some of the things you’re explaining. They empathize with how unsettled and worried you must be. They ask if it is hard to go to work each day in such a difficult situation – and how else it is affecting you. After you’ve talked for a while they ask if you’d like to discuss things that may help you feel better now and explore what you may want to do longer term.
For most of us – the obvious answer is #4.
The power in #4 – the magic one-two punch that makes people feel heard is:
Step One: Providing validation and empathy
Step Two: Involving the person in creating solutions
As parents, despite our best intentions, it is easy to come across as dinner companion 1, 2, or 3. Sometimes, in our efforts to want to help our kids feel better, or to set some perspective, we tell them that other people are worse off than they are. Or, we want to fix it for them right away because that makes us feel better, and/or we just don’t have time to deal with their issue at that point. In option #3 – we wouldn’t likely talk endlessly to our kids about what is going on in our lives and not recognize their need to talk, but it is easy to imagine that we may be so consumed with the stress and “stuff” of our own lives, that we'd spend the night talking /texting friends, or co-workers, or choosing from a myriad of other distractions to make ourselves feel better – such as watching TV / Netflix, Facebook or surfing the net.
Thinking about what makes us feel heard will help us understand how to make our kids feel heard.
I can hear the motor running now!