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The Heart of Parenting: Building Relationships to Grow Great Humans



Embarking on the parenting journey involves navigating a landscape filled with stressful challenges as well as amazing moments.  It can be a rollercoaster and it’s a journey of growth for us as parents as well as for our children, of developing our understanding of ourselves and our children, and building meaningful family connections. 


In fact, that’s the key – that’s what is at the heart of parenting – meaningful connection.  A secure and loving relationship forms the basis for absolutely everything else.




“… parenting is not a set of skills and behaviours but above all a relationship … without understanding relationship, and plan of action will only breed conflict”

Neufield and Mate, 2019




Investing in a positive parent-child relationship lays the groundwork for successful parenting … and  … the thing I am often asked to help with … behaviour change.  Relationship is key but all too often we are pulled away from a relationship focus to concentrate on correcting our kids or managing challenging or unwanted behaviour.


How often do you find yourself:

-          Saying “no”, “don’t” or “stop”

-          Trying to stop your kids from fighting

-          Nagging your kids about their homework or chores

-          Trying to correct things like behaviour, manners, and attitude

-          Telling your kids what they are doing wrong




“We usually ask “What do we do when things go wrong?” 

The more important question is “How do we help things go right?””

The Arbinger Company, 1998


A focus on helping things go right in family life and in our kids’ behaviour and attitude seems common sense and intuitive but it takes a conscious shift in mindset.  As a therapist who draws on solution focused therapy, I know that what we talk about and how we talk about it makes a difference in the search for solutions.  And I know it can make a huge difference to consciously shift from a problem-solving mindset to a solution finding mindset.




This is one of my favourite memes and shows the helpfulness of a shift to a solution focus. 

Thanks lauragibbs on Flickr

 

One way we can shift into a solution building mindset is to turn problems into teaching moments where our goal is to build a solution – that’s the real meaning of the word discipline, to teach.  Start by assuming your kids are doing the best they can in the moment based on their level of tiredness, hangry, over/under stimulation, central nervous system state, and development.  Keep in mind their level of functioning can vary day to day and even moment to moment.  Operating from the assumption they can’t Vs they won’t will help to not take things personally and it gives you the opportunity to turn “problems” into moments to connect, build solutions, teach life skills, and positively shape your child’s behaviour in a context of love, patience, and respect.


And yes, there will be days when the level of patience required involves a huge and very conscious effort. 

It’s an effort that is worth it though.  The more we meet our kids where they are at and support their development by connecting and then teaching and coaching in loving respectful ways, the fewer mistakes they will make. 


But here’s the kicker.  In order to teach our kids, we need to have a good relationship with them.  It’s the quality of our relationship that will predict how open to our influence our kids are, and they need to be open to us to learn from us.  Plus, brains learn best when not stressed, upset or angry and when connected to regulated brains of caring adults who are interested in them and present in the moment with them.



This is no easy feat, and you might need to cut yourself a break and practice some self-compassion if you feel bad about losing your cool at times.  Remember, you are human!  It’s a feat, it takes practice, and we don’t always get it right, but it’s worth the effort to keep trying because strengthening connection increases your child’s openness to your influence.


The key to building a connected affectionate relationship with your kids involves who you are a person, your “way of being”.  Way of being means who we are as people.  This is at the very heart of parenting. 



“Successful parenting is not grounded in parenting skills or discipline techniques,

but rather rests upon the quality of family relationships,

and the quality of family relationships rests upon the individual members’ way of being.”

Arbinger, 1998; Arbinger Institute, 2015 in Davis, S.D., Fife, S. T., Whiting, J. B. & Bradford, K, P., 2020


Take a moment to think about how you are with your kids. 


I’m willing to bet you love your kids, but when you get caught up in the challenges and stresses of life or you’re feeling time poor, what might your kids say about how you see them?  As a person whose hopes, dreams, needs, joys, and struggles matter?  Or as an irritation, problem, nuisance, or time vacuum?  Do you see your child as a person in need of help, guidance, and teaching, or as a person causing you a problem?  When your child interrupts you, has big emotions, misbehaves, or seeks your time and attention what does your response communicate to them?



If your child feels like a nuisance or problem to be solved, it will impact the way they respond to you … and not in a good or helpful way, or a way that helps build secure connection. 


And keep in mind genuine connection takes more than going through the motions.  Kids have a great radar for your presence.  They will know in their heart if you are thinking of them or of work, how much washing you have to do, or some other tasks.  That’s why in a busy world with multiple demands on your time and energy it is so worth the effort to slow down and consciously choose how you want to invest your time.  Investing in your relationship with your kids matters and will make parenting more enjoyable and managing behaviour challenges smoother.  It also necessitates investing in yourself, including tending to your nervous system.


What does it mean to tend to your nervous system?  In a nutshell, it means connecting to yourself and looking after yourself in terms of your brain-body connection; to take a moment to tune in to yourself, work on developing your awareness of how you are feeling, notice what you need, and then act on what you need. Ask yourself, “What is it I need?” Is it water, food, a good stretch, some fresh air, movement, sleep, music, fun, connection with others, quite time.  This is important because you can only be as resilient and patient as your nervous system is capable of being.



Your relationship with your kids predicts how easy or hard it is to respond to challenging behaviour and big feelings and to teach your kids, and it rests directly on your way of being with your kids. This means that trying to correct or manage a behaviour is unlikely to work as effectively as you’d like if you don’t pay attention to and prioritize the heart of parenting – your way of being and your relationship.


“The roots of effective parenthood lie deeper than anything we DO;

the roots of effective parenthood lie in how we ARE.”

The Arbinger Company, 1998



So what does this actually look like in daily parenting life?  Here’s a few ideas.

  • Have fun with your kids, play with them, enjoy them and get interested in them.  “Children’s brains thrive when interacting with adults who have the brain capacity to love them unconditionally, experience joy from being with them, pay close attention to them, and understand them deeply” (Hughes and Baylin, 2012)

  • When your child does something you don’t like or approve of or that pushes your buttons, take a moment for self-reflection.  Acknowledge your feelings, take a breath, and think about your values and best hopes for yourself as a parent before responding.

  • Build relationships with your kids by taking an interest in what matters to them.  Spend even just 10 minutes a day with them and find moments of micro-connections e.g., ruffle their hair, wind, share a joke, tickle and wrestle, and hug.

  • Build your relationship by apologizing when you need to.  This is also great modelling and just imagine, not only the benefit to your relationship but the chance to teach your child how to do a good apology. “If you don’t offer a heartfelt apology to your child when it’s due, why should your son or daughter apologise to you?” (Lerner, 2017). It takes nothing away from your parental leadership to apologise, in fact, it adds to it.

  • Assume your kids can’t not won’t and guide, coach, and mentor your kids in everything from emotional language to losing a game with grace to using cutlery.  Consider all aspects of life as opportunities to help them develop skills and understand that developing skills can take a lot longer than you might think (or like).

  • If your child makes a mistake or has an accident, e.g., spilling something, instead of reacting with frustration, approach your child as a person in a way that shows how much you love and accept them.  They need to see this.  Demonstrate a patient and understanding way of being, e.g., say “Accidents happen.  That’s okay.  Let’s clean it up together” and find a developmentally appropriate way for your child to help you.



  • Make sure you kids know without a shadow of a doubt that you love and accept them, even when they have big behaviours, big feelings, and spicy words.

  • Avoid shame-based discipline for managing behaviour.  A great way to do this is to separate the behaviour from the child e.g., instead of saying “You’re acting like a baby”, say “That [behaviour] is not okay.  We don’t do that in our family.  Can you please [desired behaviour].”

  • Don’t try to “toughen up” your kids.  They will best develop their resilience when you accept them as they are and respond to their emotional needs.  This is actually what builds emotional intelligence and emotional regulation as kids develop into adults.  “Offering your kids unconditional support is not going to make them soft.  They will explore more courageously and venture farther out, than children who haven’t received that kind of attention and care” (Seigel and Bryson, 2020).  “The more security we provide for our kids, the more the difficulties they experience will produce tolerable or positive stress, as opposed to toxic stress” (Seigel and Bryson, 2020). 

  • Reclaim your kids if you need to.  Don’t fall into the trap of thinking their friends matter more than you, or that your teen is a mini adult because they look like one.  You need to matter more than their friends and devices.  Plan activities together and develop rituals that foster your connection e.g., a family camping trip or hike out of wifi range, Friday night pizza-movie night, a pedicure, beach day, ComiCon costume shopping or a trip to the cricket or football – whatever your kids are interested in.



  • Nurture your relationship by practicing mindful connecting with your kids.  Ensure you have moments when you put your device down when you talk to them and use your verbal and non-verbal communication to show your interest.

  • When they get things wrong, get curious not judgmental.  Being curious will help you avoid getting into fights with your kids and it will build your relationship. There is always a reason, even it if looks ridiculous, unreasonable, or "intentional".  “Curiosity have a lovely way of keeping hearts, mouths, and minds open” (Karen Young).  They way we respond teaches our kids whether or not it is safe to come to us no matter what, and there are going to be times as they grow when they will definitely and sometimes desperately need to come to us.

  • Remember that you matter and look after yourself.  You are so incredibly important to the young people in your life.  Something you can do to enhance your ability to be present and act in line with your best hopes for yourself as a parent or carer is to look after yourself. Remember that old saying about fitting your own oxygen mask first?  Practice self-kindness and self-compassion

 

 "Warm discipline, where we approach these things with genuine affection, is far more effective than just punishing our children for making poor choices. You are your child’s number one teacher, and it is your job to keep teaching them about life and all the stuff that happens within it." 

Maggie Dent


Parenting can be a rollercoaster.  Some parts of the rollercoaster we all share, and some are unique to each of us.  No matter what type of rollercoaster you are on, I hope you remember the heart of parenting, your relationship with your child, and the importance of your way of being with your kids in building a safe, secure, connected, affectionate relationship that helps your kids grow and flourish… and makes your parenting journey smoother and more enjoyable.



And I really hope you remember you are human; you live in a stressful world, life is a work in progress, there’s no such things as a perfect parent, and self-compassion will get you through (and it will serve you kids as much as it serves you).

 

Leonie :)

Dr Leonie White - Clinical Family Therapist and Psychologist

Helping people grow, connect and thrive in life’s unique journey.


Please note - this article is educational in nature and does not constitute therapy advice. 

Please seek help from a professional if you require support. 


 Photo Attributions:

All photos Vecteezy Pro

 

 

References:

Davis, S.D., Fife, S.T., Whiting, J.B., & Bradford, K.P. (2020).  Way of being and the therapeutic pyramid: Expanding the application of a common factors meta-model.  Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 47, 69 – 84.

Huges, D.A., & Baylin, J. (2012).  Brain-Based Parenting: The Neuroscience of Caregiving for Healthy Attachment.  W. W. Norton: London.

Lerner, H. (2018).  Why Won't You Apologize?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts. 

 Neufield, G. & Mate, G. (2019).  Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers.  Vermilion: London.

Seigel, D.J., & Bryson, T.P. (2014).  No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind.  Bantam Books: New York.

Seigel, D.J., & Bryson, T.P. (2020).  The Power of Showing Up: How Parental Presence Shapes Who Our Kids Become and How Their Brains Get Wired.  Scribe: Melbourne.

The Arbinger Company.  (1998).  The Parenting Pyramid.  The Arbinger institute.

White, Leonie.  Helping Families Thrive Cards https://www.drleoniewhite.com/helping-families-thrive-cards

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