“I will NEVER do this to my kids!” I thought heatedly, with deep conviction, for the thousandth time. I was a little kid with big emotions, one of them being frustration rooted in the feeling that my parents just didn’t understand (or try to) how I felt about [insert any number of things here]. I would iterate this same conviction a thousand more times as I grew up, each time knowing wholeheartedly that I would never forget what that ever-so-important point was that I would purportedly never deny my future progeny, and that we would have a better relationship.
Well, I forgot. All those times I thought those words with such certainty, and yet now I can’t remember any of the points on the list. But there is something I haven’t forgotten: the frustration I suffered when I truly felt like my parents weren’t listening or trying to understand how important something felt to me. The connection and communication just weren’t there for me to lean on in those times because the foundation for it hadn’t been built in my family. I cannot guarantee that my child (or children – you never know what the future holds) and I will always agree, or that I won’t say no to things, or that there won’t be discontent between us. However, I can put in the effort as the parent to lay the groundwork for a more open relationship.
It starts with understanding and connecting with your children at every opportunity, and fortunately the opportunities happen multiple times a day, every day.
We as the parents have the tools to build the framework for communication, and it’ll be there as our children grow up so they truly feel they are being heard and understood. I have been working on this since I became a parent, and it has given me the confidence that, though I will still be the parent which inherently means we will have major differences of opinion, I will have a better connection and a better relationship with my child than I had with my parents growing up.
The general ideas that bring a relationship to this point are easy to grasp – it’s finding ways to consistently abide by and implement them that are hard. It takes active presence, thought, and work to build understanding and connection, and it’s an everyday thing.
Understanding begins with recognizing where your child is at developmentally, what that means in terms of how they process things, and what their needs are. For you, that might mean learning about how your new teenager experiences moodiness or a shortage of confidence as his or her body goes through unfamiliar changes. For me, that means understanding the developmental stages and milestones my toddler is moving through. It means taking the time to learn and understand how her emotions are becoming bigger, but that she hasn’t developed many tools for dealing with them yet. Knowing this information gives me the ability to be patient instead of feeling angry when she becomes worked up or stuck on something. It’s not personal, it’s just her working through new emotions and finding ways to manage them. My job is to give her patience and understanding, and help her find the tools to manage – teaching her how to take deep breaths, how to say things like “RED LIGHT!” when she begins to feel frustrated or naming emotions as they pop up so she can better communicate what she’s feeling.
Can you imagine feeling terrified, having all the physical responses that go with it (adrenaline or a racing heart), but not knowing what is going on in your body or why you feel that way? It would be even scarier. This is a toddler’s reality.
On top of that, not yet having the rationalization that most adults can use to calm down after feeling fear (oh, that loud bang was just my partner dropping the soap in the shower). The fearful feeling would just keep building until you almost couldn’t tolerate it. So I start by understanding that my toddler doesn’t yet grasp a certain emotion or how to cope with it.
As I look deeper into where my toddler is at developmentally, I can understand that she is reaching very hard for independence, she is needing to exercise and develop new skills, and she is testing boundaries – all healthy things to do for a kid her age. I have to go in with the mindset that she needs to do all these things, and I can meet those needs with patience. It means I have to accept what will happen as a result – the messes made as she works to develop fine motor skills, the bumps and bruises that occur as she demands to try things on her own, the lengthy boundary-testing as she determines why adults make rules. I can be present to connect with her through all these things, to let her know that she is heard, that I understand, and that we will work through it together. When she says she wants to try something that I know will create a mess, I get the towels ready and we clean up together, then follow up with reassurances that trying is important, messes are okay, and practice will get her to where she wants to be. Before I ask her to do something that I know will be tough (transitioning to bedtime, getting dressed in the morning, or sitting down for a meal), I try to set us all up for success by ensuring I’ve allowed enough time for her to work through the process. I might let her know there are ten minutes until we transition to bedtime activities, and use a timer as a neutral way of counting down the minutes. When I know she needs “rainbow” foods but isn’t really into them, I offer choices of two different foods so she’ll feel empowered by being able to choose the one she likes more. Thinking through situations that you know are difficult for your child can allow you to come up with creative and appropriate solutions to help you move through them more easily.
But things won’t always go right, even when you do your best to set everyone up for success. For me, it happens all the time. My toddler will fall and get hurt, or refuse to eat a meal, or cry about something that seems so trivial (but is not trivial to her). When it happens, I always choose connection. I won’t minimize her feelings by saying, “You’re fiiiine, don’t cry!”. I won’t yell at her for not listening to what I’ve told her, or ask her why she didn’t listen (because I have taken the time to understand that impulse control is not something toddlers excel at). I don’t force her to eat. Instead, I use the opportunity to connect with her over something that is difficult for her. I get down on her level. I open my arms to give hugs and kisses if they are needed. I open up the dialogue.
- “I’m sorry that happened to you. I bet it hurt when that happened.” (Recognizing her feelings are real and true.)
- “That noise was so loud, it startled you! I was surprised too. It was a garbage truck on the road. Do you remember seeing the garbage truck on our walks?” (Naming the feeling, relating to it yourself, then talking about the thing that was scary.)
- “I see you haven’t eaten any carrots. Did you try them? No? Oh, hmm. I wonder, are they squishy or hard? Did you try squishing them?” (Understanding that there are a lot of flavors that are powerful to young kids, but that toddlers love tactile experiences. This can be built up into your toddler using all their senses, including tasting, which means you could get your kiddo to try something new!).
Building a great relationship starts with these small communications – connecting with your child instead of building a wall by becoming angry or dismissive of how they feel, and meeting your child where they are developmentally. Take the time to be mentally present and patient as your child works his or her way through their development. It can grow into a beautiful relationship. It will empower your child, and make them feel heard and understood. My own frustrations are less because of my acceptance of where my child is developmentally, and my patience has grown. She still tests boundaries, loves to say no, and has big emotions. But connecting with her makes everything go more smoothly. Emotions rarely escalate into tantrums, and she is much more pliable and willing to try when I exert patience.
Go ahead. Take every opportunity to connect. Do your best to understand. The resulting relationship is 100% worth it.