By Dana Harris


Once upon a time when my daughter was little, I heard a phrase that I have never forgotten: The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice. Children pick up on the words and behaviors modeled by the adults in their lives. They hopefully learn about love, integrity, humility, sharing, self-control and how to get help when needed. If these types of behaviors are learned, your child will most likely handle their daily interactions in the same fashion.  They will also probably grow up to be parents who model the same behaviors with their children. Let’s face it, parenting is challenging. Few of us enter the sacred journey of parenthood with the tools necessary for success.  We do, however, enter the adventure with visions of what it will be. It takes a lot of effort to fully attend to another human being, but when we are present with our children, we often find that it energizes us and makes us feel more alive. Being close to another human takes work. It may come as a surprise but 90% of people on their deathbed say that their biggest regret is that they didn’t get closer to the people in their lives. And almost all parents whose children are grown say they wish they had spent more time with their kids. We all have our days when we wish we had a rewind opportunity.  And if you happen to be the parent of a toddler and/or a teenager, you will find that they have a lot in common.  During both stages, they are doing exciting new things, but they’re also pushing boundaries (and buttons) and throwing tantrums. The major developmental task facing both age groups is also the same:  kids must pull away from parents and begin to assert their independence.  No wonder they sometimes act as if they think they’re the center of the universe.

Because teens carry a blueprint within them, they are often already in touch with who they are and what they want to be in this world. We are chosen as their parent to help them actualize this. It isn’t enough that we simply tell our children we love them.  We need to put our love into action every day for them to feel it. That means that having a healthy and trusting parent-child relationship during the teenage years is more important than ever. Being a great parent doesn’t involve doing extraordinary things. It’s the little things you do every day that are most valuable. Here are some steps that I think can go a long way to assure a healthy and happy relationship with your child.

• Be Here Now.  It’s more about quantity than quality. If you are curious about what’s going on in your teen’s life, asking direct questions might not be as effective as simply sitting back and listening.  Kids are more likely to be open with their parents if they don’t feel pressured to share information. Spend one-on-one time with your child doing something you both enjoy. Prioritize time with your child.  Take an active (but not intrusive) interest in your child’s hobbies and activities.  Set aside 20-30 minutes each day for reading.  Read to your child, and look for those teachable moments.  For example, if there’s a storm, talk about what causes thunder and lightning. If you don’t know, try to find the answer together. Promote the idea that learning is a lifelong process.

• Be your child’s greatest cheerleader.  Parents tend to praise children more when they are younger, but adolescents need the self-esteem boost just as much.  Teenagers might act like they’re too cool to care about what their parents think, but the truth is they still want your approval. Show him/her that they are valued and validated. This will encourage them to reach new horizons, building self-assurance, self-reliance and the positive reinforcement of being prized and loved. Success is the greatest motivation.  Recognize, reinforce and celebrate your child’s success and progress— even the smallest of victories.

• Consistency is crucial. Mean what you say and say what you mean.  This principle helps young people gain a stable sense of how to interact with others.  Although your child will eventually encounter people who will be emotionally or behaviorally inconsistent with them, they need you to offer them the ongoing consistency that creates a positive standard.

• Be observant and listen. Acknowledge your child’s feelings.  Empathy is one of the most powerful and comforting responses we can give to another person, especially a child.  When you acknowledge those feelings, you validate them. When you validate a child’s emotion, you sensitize them to that emotion and give them permission to feel it and acknowledge it in other people.

• Control your emotions.  Don’t take it personally. Your teenager may slam the door to her bedroom. Your eleven-year-old huffs, “Mom, you never understand!”  Your five-year-old screams, “I hate you, Daddy!” What’s the most important thing to remember? DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY!  This isn’t primarily about you.  It’s about them: their tangled-up feelings, their difficulty to control themselves, their immature ability to understand and express their emotions. When this occurs, take a deep breath, remind yourself that your child does love you but can’t get in touch with it now. You may want to take time to respond calmly and constructively. As the parent, you can still set limits, but do it from as calm a place as you can muster. Your child will be deeply grateful, even if he/she can’t acknowledge it now.

• Encourage, Encourage, Encourage.  Kids form their view of themselves and the world every day.  They need your encouragement to see themselves as good people who are capable of good things.  And they need to know you’re on their side.  If most of what comes out of your mouth is correction or criticism, they won’t feel good about themselves, and they won’t feel like you’re their ally.  You lose your only leverage with them, and they lose something every kid needs: to know they have an adult who thinks the world of them.

Our children won’t stay around us forever. They will soon move on to their own lives.  It’s during the few short years we have them to ourselves that we can help them awaken to the fullness within them. How fulfilling our children’s lives will be is so very much affected by their relationship with us. Remember that all relationships take work.  Good parent-child connections don’t spring out of nowhere, any more than good marriages do. So, create a home that your children want to come home to.  Build a relationship that will only continue to grow with time. Parenting isn’t about perfection— it is about intention.  Identify your parenting intentions— and take it one day at a time. That is what heart-to-heart parenting is all about!

This article appears in the February 2020 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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