When life gets tough, we want our children to know that they can come to us with anything. But an open and trusting parent-child relationship isn’t something that happens by accident. It takes a few intentional choices. Here are 5 things that can add to a healthy, trusting and positive environment that invites openness.
1. Be consistent
Consider an anchor on a ship. It’s role is to hold fast below the surface, when nothing is steady above. It is dependable and will keep a ship from drifting. Consistency in parenting creates a space where children know that what they see is what they get, no matter what. Values are consistent. Rules are consistent. Consequences are consistent. Mom and dad’s response is consistent. It doesn’t matter what might be going on – good or bad – your child can be confident that when they engage you, they know what they are going to get. This creates security. There isn’t an insecurity about the kind of mood you’re in, or if they’re catching you at a good time, or if it might be better to just leave it and not engage, just in case it’s one of ‘those days’. The security of consistency allows children to know that you are you, and they are welcome to approach you with anything and they know your immediate response will not be a guessing game.
2. Discipline firmly and fairly
Discipline is about guidance – not punishment, as many assume. As parents our role is to guide our children through the many opportunities, decisions and circumstances which they encounter and equip them to manage them well. Linked with consistency, if children know that each decision carries consequences, they will in time learn that their choices have power and determine outcomes in their life. This again builds confidence and security. When we discipline fairly and firmly, as opposed to inconsequently and emotionally, our children learn that they have power to be themselves and determine their outcomes instead of being controlled by a powerful ‘other’. Being free to be oneself is part of a healthy relationship.
3. Be honest, genuine, transparent
Nothing ruins a relationship more than dishonesty. For any relationship to thrive, both parties need to have a certain level of trust of one another. Trust is built on honesty, genuineness and transparency. What you see, is who I truly am. This is probably one of the hardest things to do – be the real you. The truth is that we are flawed individuals on our own journey’s towards our full potential. When we put up a front we break trust, we become judgemental and have double standards. Children are very perceptive and quickly realise when adults don’t ‘practice what they preach’. As far as possible, live up to the standards you set for your child – be a good example. But when you fall short, apologise, explain why you did what you did, and what you will change for the better. Use your weaknesses as opportunities to grow, and let your children get a glimpse (age appropriate) of what that growth journey looks like. When children know that you are human, they will feel comfortable sharing their weaknesses and shortcomings, fears and concerns, questions and opinions with you as well.
4. Practice empathy
Empathy is more than feeling for a person – that is sympathy. Empathy is being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and see things from their perspective. In fact, it actually goes further than that. Empathy is communicating this understanding to the other person in such a way that they are able to understand what is going on inside of themselves, and empowers them to act on that understanding. Empathy is like being a mirror and providing a reflection of the truth. When we look at ourselves in the mirror we gain understanding as to our present condition and we can choose to do something about it – make-up, hair gel, or nothing. Using every opportunity to understand and reflect what is happening within our children helps us know them for who they are, but allows them to develop a healthy sense of self, and then empowers them to make the necessary changes for positive growth. Empathy might take the form of giving words to emotions when a child is having a tantrum – “I can see that you are angry. Not getting what you want doesn’t feel very nice. But sweets before supper is not allowed. You can be angry, but screaming at me will not change the rule”. It might take place during or after a play date, “It seems that you were disappointed when your friend didn’t want to play the game you wanted. You didn’t say anything and just went along with them anyway. Why was that?” These moments can lead to teaching moments for better choices of behaviour or conversations about deeper issues.
5. Respond to their needs
All people have basic needs. Our behaviour is driven by our needs. If we are observant, our children’s behaviours and responses can tell us what it is that they need. Needs can be anything from basic survival (highly emotional outbursts could be because your child is hungry – a term we at home refer to as HANGRY), safety (your child may need to feel a sense of security by hovering, reach out and hug them, hold them close, rather than sending them away because they’re irritating), belonging (children may need to know you love them no matter what, trying behaviour may be testing whether or not you will truly love them as they say or trying to fit in with the crowd at school), esteem (the move for independence is frustrating when they want to do it their way, but without that space they will never achieve, and we all need to feel a sense of achievement), and self-actualisation (ultimately we all want to be all we can be, meeting the other needs helps a child towards this). Children also have love needs such as quality time, words of affirmation, gifts, acts of service and physical touch. Sometimes their behaviour is communicating that one of these areas are lacking. By responding to our children’s needs we fill up their love tanks and ensure that they are emotionally satisfied. This brings two people in a relationship closer. In healthy adult relationships both parties should seek to fill one another’s tanks. In the parent-child relationship, this responsibility lies solely with the parent. Children may respond to your love with love, but if they don’t remember parents unconditionally love their children but seek personal fulfillment from other adult relationships. Be careful not make your child your emotional crutch by relying on them for love.
As you engage with your child, creating a space where you child knows who you are, and where they can be who they are, where they are loved and their needs are met, and where they are able to understand themselves better and are equipped and encouraged to make choices and move towards better outcomes, you are creating a place of openness and trust and a place where they can feel safe no matter what is going on in their lives.
Take a moment to recall some of your childhood memories. I’m sure that many of them contain at least one other person – a friend, an enemy, a family member, a stranger. Life is made up of moments where we engage with others.
From birth, children are in need of human relationship. At first, there is a complete dependency on our parents and caregivers. As we age we become more independent, but our need for relationship continues. A key aspect is developing a healthy balance of interdependence. Our experiences (good or bad) in childhood lay a foundation for our adult choices, including relationships. So learning how to form healthy relationships early on will guide children towards forming healthy relationships later in life.
Social skills, as with any skill, need to be learnt. For some it may seem to come naturally, while others need to diligently practice. Social skills also change as societal norms change. As parents we need to help our children understand and manage the social rules that guide interactions.
Social skills cannot be developed in a vacuum, and therefore interactions with others are necessary. These interactions take place in any social setting, at home, with extended family or friends, in shopping centers, parks, walking down the street, driving in the car, etc. Anywhere where a child might come into contact with another person, social skills can be developed. Children learn from watching our interactions with others, and they learn from their own experience, with ongoing adaptions.
Peer relationships play different roles at different stages of childhood. This is because of children’s emotional, cognitive and behavioural development and how they are able to understand their own and other’s feelings, behavioursand perspectives.
In early years, friends are momentary – you’re a friend as long as we are together having fun.
In early primary school, friends are those people who do nice things for you.
Later in primary school, friends are based on social rules such as mutual benefit, but are often termed “fair-weather friends”. Falling out is common, and emotions are high, in-crowd vs out-crowd thinking comes to the fore.
Through primary school and into early high school, children can develop friendships with genuine care for the other person. More often it is in high school that children can develop friendships that last through thick and thin and that encourage character development.
So as a parent, reflect on how you interact with others. Are you portraying the social skills and values you would like your children to learn? Commit to making some changes if you need to.
Observe your children as they interact with others. Engage with them and help them to see what they are doing that is helpful or harmful in building healthy relationships. Let them practice by engaging with others and trying new things – greeting other adults (respect), saying “no” when they feel uncomfortable (boundaries), explaining their position on something when they disagree with a friend or sibling (assertiveness), having to share or take turns when others are playing with them (cooperation), etc.
Help your child understand what kind of friendship they are involved in – this also helps them manage expectations. Is it momentary? Is it one-way? How do they feel? How do others feel? What consequences can they expect from their behaviour? How can they respond to other’s behaviour? How do they feel being on the outside? How can they help others feel like they belong? How do their friends help them grow in character? How can they help their friends grow?
As we help our children navigate friendships when they are young, we help them develop the tools they need for healthy interactions for life.
One of the benefits of living in Cape Town is the array of markets one has access to. Artisan foods, craft beers and upcycled products… it’s a wonderland of creative genius. My favourite stalls are run by those who have upcycled what others would have considered rubbish. A cup with a broken handle turned into a beautiful pot plant. An old window frame transformed into a work of art. Scraps of metal moulded into a magnificent baobab tree. What does it take for someone to look beyond the broken and see the potential?
A different perspective.
Our approach in society is very much the same. There are two main perspectives in how we perceive and behave towards others who are different. The first is to focus on the problem. In psychology, this is known as the needs-based or medical model. Thanks to the wonders of modern medicine over the last few centuries, we’ve been able to isolate the root cause of diseases and find cures and preventions. However, it has also caused us to replicate this way of thinking in our everyday lives. “What’s the problem?” We ask ourselves.
As parents, we might see that our child’s behaviour is unacceptable and ask, “What’s wrong with this kid?” We might go further to ask, “What is happening at school? What am I doing wrong?” As a teacher, we may notice that a child is unable to complete the required tasks and think, “What’s wrong with this student?” We might have the insight to ask, “What is happening at home? Is there something going on in class? Am I doing something wrong?” These questions can help us unearth difficulties and challenges within and around a child.
Unfortunately, one problem just leads to another problem, and another, and another. It can leave us feeling overwhelmed, paralysed and disheartened. When all we can see is the problem, the person gets lost, labelled and belittled – the ADHD kid, the bully, the slow learner, the uncooperative one, the unavailable parent, the incompetent teacher… Much like the trash we so easily discard once it breaks, we discard the individual and replace them with a generalisation.
On the other hand, a different perspective is one that acknowledges that there is a problem. But it shifts the focus onto the skills and resources available. Strengths not only in the person, but around the person. This is known as an asset-based approach. This perspective requires a complete shift in thinking. Instead of asking, “What is wrong?” We ask, “What is useful?”
While a cup without a handle may not be suitable for drinking tea, it is still useful for holding substance – soil, a succulent, and some pebbles. A glassless window frame cannot keep the wind out of a house, but it can frame some precious memories. The asset-based approach recognises that the original design is not being achieved, but that the usefulness of product lies within its unique makeup. Instead of just seeing the child’s problem, we see the strengths of the child and utilise them to his or her benefit. We recognise that there may be difficulties within class, or home, or school, but we find those areas where the child flourishes and use them to his or her advantage. We build on the strengths so that the child has resources available to overcome the challenges. We recognise the individual’s uniqueness and see his or her potential for the future.
It means looking beyond the problem, and seeing the person.
I am an Educational Psychologist practicing in the Northern Suburbs of Cape Town, in South Africa. I am passionate about children and encouraging them to reach their full potential. I am also passionate about parents and teachers who carry the mandate of raising and equipping the next generation. Together we can journey beyond the challenges of now, toward the possibilities of tomorrow.
For the most part I will address issues based on research and scientific findings. However, I will also share some personal beliefs, opinions and experiences that have shaped how I see parenting, teaching and childhood. My hope is that you will find this website helpful and informative.