You can work all day long at being “consistent” in your discipline and following through on consequences, but if you don’t have a bond with your child, you will not be effective. The stronger your relationship the more effective your other parenting efforts will be. This relationship takes work and effort, but will be so worth it. You’re going to have to be around and deal with this child anyway! You might as well make it as enjoyable a relationship as you can.
The best way to work on your relationship with your child is to spend quality time with him. I recommend shooting for 10-15 minutes of one-on-one time each day. During this time there are no expectations and no disciplining, just hanging out. There are also no checking the phone or working on the computer. Put your phone on airplane mode if you must, but take a break from it and give your child your undivided attention! You could play Barbies or trucks, memory match games or just sing and talk together. It’s just a time to “be”. It’s really a relief and can become quite an enjoyable time to just hang out with your child. So much of parenting interactions are centered on telling the child what’s right and what’s wrong. It can get exhausting for both of you. This is a nice break from that. I’m not saying it’s easy to do – it can be hard to put aside other things that need to get done and just hang out. It helps if you make it a habit or connect it to something else that happens daily. For example, as soon as you put the baby down for afternoon nap you spend 10 minutes with the 3-year-old before doing anything else.
I try to revamp my schedule and find a reliable time to do this with each changing phase of life – when the kids go back to school, in summer, after a baby is born, etc. Last year I made a goal at the beginning of summer to spend a certain amount of time with my kids each day, because I knew that if I didn’t really focus on that I would just do my computer work and errands all day and never stop to be with them (other than taking them places, which is not the same). I told myself, this is my job – a stay-at-home mom – so make time to actually spend time with the kids!
If you feel like your child is having a particularly hard time, misbehaving more than usual or regressing, it’s a good idea to focus even more one-on-one time with him. He needs that extra attention and love, and a dedicated time with you when he is not getting in trouble. This can be a key part of the solution to improving his behavior.
Another important part of staying close to your child is listening to him. Listening is the kindest thing we can do, for anyone. It is putting aside our thoughts and needs and words to give our undivided attention to someone else. It is a great act of love. And the child will feel loved the more we listen to him. He will feel like he matters to you and is important to you.
Beyond showing your child you care and that he is important, listening can have a very healing effect on him. Problems can seem less overwhelming if someone has listened to them and validated the feelings. Everyone wants to be heard and validated. It is essential to being human. If you don’t allow your child to speak or express his feelings, those feelings will be pushed down and will fester and grow into bitterness. When your child is upset, even if you feel like there’s nothing to be upset about, listen to him and help him express himself. It will calm him down and help him figure out the solution on his own.
This all sounds great until you actually hear what your child has to say! It’s often not that interesting, and likely not even that coherent! It takes a lot of patience to listen to a child. But, as often as you can (there are some situations where it’s not possible), try to really listen to what he has to tell you. Act interested as he tells you all the details about the last Disney show he watched or how his Pokemons are fighting. Listen and answer respectfully when he asks for something, and listen when he wants to tell you something you already know. Many parents will cut off their child and finish the sentence or idea for them. I feel like this shows disrespect, a sense of “I already know everything you know”. Your child might be telling you a joke or story you know the ending to, still listen and let him finish and be proud of telling the whole thing. Don’t contradict him off-hand. If he says, “My teacher doesn’t like me,” don’t say, “That’s not true.” This statement shuts down the conversation. Instead say, “Why do you think that?” This prompts the child to tell you more.
As often as you can, listen more than you talk. Don’t lecture and go on and on about things. Listen to their side of the story. Another exasperating but crucial example of this is when the children are arguing with each other or have a disagreement. In Use Your Words I talk more about how to handle these conflicts, but it’s important to listen to both sides of the story, in-depth, before helping them solve the problem. People really feel empowered when they get to say their piece.
While you’re listening, empathize with them, also. Use phrases like, “That must be hard” and “I can see why you’re upset” to let them know you understand the importance of what they are saying. You don’t have to go on and on with your empathy, just some quick phrases to let them know you’re listening and you’re on their side. Sometimes you can help them move on with a “Things will be better tomorrow” or “I’m sure you’ll remember next time.”
Don’t use “I told you so” phrases. Let the consequences teach the lesson and you empathize with the sadness/disappointment. This can be so hard because you want to point out that you knew the right way from the beginning, and maybe she should listen to you next time! But I promise this truth will be communicated more clearly and forcefully if you DON’T say it, just let it sink in on its own.
Listen when they want to talk. This gets to be more important the older they get. Little kids want to talk all day long; they don’t need prompting. But the older kids get the less they talk (which is good and appropriate), and when they become teens it’s even harder to get them to talk. You have to be ready to listen when they’re ready to talk. This is usually at 10:30 at night when you’re about to go to bed! But if you want to be close to your child, you have to put aside your needs and listen to them. If you know something is going on and they don’t want to talk, say, “I’d love to hear about … when you’re ready to talk.” If you’ve established a habit of listening to your child, from the time she was little and didn’t say very interesting things, you will have a close relationship and your teen will open up to you from time to time.
In general, take every opportunity you can to have frequent positive interactions with your children. Smile a lot; laugh often; make chores and other household duties fun and enjoyable; touch and hug and talk a lot! Overall, kids need more time and attention than most people think. When you give it to them, and parent in a way that you can stay emotionally close to your child, you will be greatly rewarded – with positive, loving feelings toward your child and with good behavior from your child!