Editor’s Note: Psychologist John Duffy, author of “Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety,” practices in Chicago. He specializes in work with teens, parents, couples and families.
Within the first several weeks of any school year, I receive dozens of calls from parents concerned about their increasingly frayed connection to their children.
Conflict about school and homework, laziness and screen time dominates relationships between parents and their kids during the school year. Parents too often find themselves frustrated, helpless and disconnected from their kids. Over time, they get more anxious, creating more conflict and disconnection.
With the disruption of Covid-19, many families are beginning this school year navigating poor connections created over more than a year of pandemic living. The good news is that you have the power to change the dynamic here, and the beginning of the school year is a great place to start. There are several things you can do to restore or preserve relationships with your children.
Have positive interactions with your child
Removing conflict from a relationship isn’t necessary for satisfaction and longevity, according to marital therapist John Gottman. But a counterbalance of positive interactions needs to outweigh the negative, by a ratio of about 5 to 1, based on his research.
In my clinical practice, I have found that this 5-to-1 ratio works for the families I see. That doesn’t mean you have to eliminate all discussion of homework, putting the phone down, staying out too late or cleaning a room. These issues are normal, and they are going to arise.
For your relationship to thrive, especially during this particularly difficult school year, you also need make time for positive interactions.
That means listening to your child’s music with them on car rides. Watch what they’re watching and talk about it with them, even if you’re not particularly interested. Ask them how SnapChat or TikTok work. Play their video game with them (which allows them to be better at something than their parents). Or simply ask them how they are with no agenda attached.
These are all deposits in your child’s emotional bank account. If there is a positive balance in that account, you are going to find not only a stronger connection with your child, but he or she is far more likely to listen to you when you need them to pay attention.
Keep your own concerns at bay
A parent’s fears, judgment and ego are the main obstacles that interfere with effective, connected parenting. None of us are going to be perfect at controlling all of them all the time, nor is that necessary. But if we can keep our own fear, judgment and ego in check, we will strengthen the connection with our child even further.
We parents carry so many fears about our kids. Will they do well in school? Will they fall into negative, destructive or even dangerous habits? Will they have friends? Will they be bullied? We all want the best for our kids, but we fear the worst. And when fear overtakes us too often, our kids pick up on it, and they take that in as a show of no confidence in their abilities. Trust your kids, and trust your parenting to date, and you’ll be better able to keep that fear at bay.
Parents I’ve worked with have suggested their kids are lazy, disappointing, even worthless. Your kids know when you judge them, believe me. Trust that they are good people, with good intentions. Remember that they are developing, and that you made mistakes when you were their age as well. Show them grace here, and it will pay dividends in your connection.
It’s also important that we do not judge ourselves as parents. Parenting these days is challenging, especially with conflict in the schools over how to protect our children, and we need to take a moment from time to time to remember that we are doing our best, and learning as we go, as well.
Finally, we need to make sure our parental egos remain in check. We all want to be proud of our kids, for them to achieve and exceed expectations. But when we get overly invested in our kids’ accomplishments – and all but claim them as our own – they are aware. Remember the importance of building your child’s sense of self-worth is more crucial than the bumper sticker on the back of the car.
Keep in mind your parenting goals
If you ever feel you are losing your direction as a parent, in any decision or discussion you engage in, remember that you are always trying to develop competence and resilience in your kids. You want them to know they are capable in ordinary times and can make it through more trying times. If you question a parenting decision, turn to the development of competence and resilience as guides.
And remember, just making it through a school year in a pandemic is a powerful show of resilience, far more potent than A’s on a report card. So, allow your kids, and yourself, some pandemic grace this school year. Recognize how tough this is for your kids and give them credit for their role in managing it. Afford them that grace, and you’ll build your connection while building their sense of self-worth.