Keeping the Focus on Relationship

This post was orginally published on August 5, 2011

Next week my kids go off to school and as always, the bittersweet nostalgia sets in.  I so enjoy the summer months and spending more time with my kids.  I so look forward to school starting again so I can regain some focus on work, some peace and quiet, and some “normalcy” to our days and schedules.

This year my older son goes to high school and I am humbled by my relative lack of influence on his choices.  Gone are the days when I could share my values with him while he sat intently listening, asking questions, and formulating his own ideas and opinions—which pretty much mimicked my own.  Now I worry that our values seem so far apart.  Our priorities so different.  Our attempts at resolving conflicts messy and requiring lots of effort and self-empathy.

At 14, he is just entering those murky waters of the teen years.  Already we’ve wrestled with some big issues that could easily shake even a sturdy foundation.  I’m often gripped by fear when I observe behavior I label “risky,” “dangerous,” “self-destructive.”  I constantly walk a fine line between honoring his needs for autonomy, expression, and freedom and my needs for trust, safety and his wellbeing.  I seem to constantly be in the mode of relationship repair.  Conscious parenting is not for the faint-hearted.

And still there is comfort in knowing that we can repair the relationship when the connection breaks.  We do know a way back and have found it many times.  I’ve worked with families where the chasm in their connection is so wide that it can seem quite hopeless to build a bridge across.  And yet I know that certain conscious parenting processes, like Parenting From Your Heart and Connection Parenting, can support families in establishing, repairing, and maintaining trust and connection.  Even in those difficult teen years.

Compared to other processes, conscious parenting may take more time and effort.  It’s often easier to use power-over, especially when the kids are young, to get the behavior and “cooperation” we want.  But just try “counting to three” with a teenager or forcing a teenager to sit in “timeout.”  I think you’ll find those behavior modification techniques are short-lived and buy you a little extra time at best. At worst, they tend to be disconnecting and alienating, the antithesis of relationship-building.

The work of conscious parenting, of building a relationship with your child based on mutual respect and trust, is harder and takes more time.  You often don’t see results right away.  It may take weeks or months or even years to build the trust.  Why would you want to put that much time and effort into it?  Because keeping the focus on relationship rather than behavior allows the process to grow as you and your child grow (not just in age, but also in consciousness and skills).  Behavior modification techniques come and go according to the latest trend or parenting guru.  A connecting relationship between you and your child transcends all ages, developmental stages, trends and “experts.”   Keeping the door open to communication and connection serves the relationship when your child is a toddler and carries over into when your child grows into an adult.  A solid relationship built of mutual respect and trust provides a strong sturdy foundation that lasts a lifetime!  I mean, way past the teen years.  Isn’t that worth the extra effort?

How to say “I love you” without saying “I love you”

mom and daughter PAID

Studies have shown that our children learn more from what we model for them than from what we try to teach them with our words.  Think about it for a moment, does your child learn more when you lecture him about how to treat the family dog, or when he sees you gently stroking the dog’s head?  Does she learn more when you admonish her to say I’m sorry, or when she hears you expressing regret?  Like it or not, your child pays more attention to what you do than to what you say.

So even though it feels good to hear the words, “I love you,” it feels even better when someone consistently acts in a way that conveys love and caring.

Here are 7 ways that you can say “I love you” through your actions:

  1. Be present with your child.  Be fully aware and attentive to her being.  Lay aside all distractions (email, cell phone, to-do list) and just BE with your child, letting her guide all action (or inaction).  (Do this at least 10 minutes every day and see what a difference it makes in your child’s behavior).
  2. Listen with your whole being when he speaks to you. Get down to his level (whether that’s kneeling down or sitting beside him), look into his eyes, and listen with your ears and your heart.  This may not be possible every time he speaks, but do it consistently enough that he feels that his voice matters to you.
  3. Make your child feel special by letting him know what you notice and appreciate about him.  I used to play a game with my kids called “What I like best about you is …..”  and I would fill in the blank with something I noticed, liked, or enjoyed about them.  They could never get enough of this game and when the neighbors’ kids heard us playing this, they also started coming to me and asking, “What do you like best about me?”
  4. Ask them what you can do to make their lives more wonderful (that doesn’t involve spending money).  And then do more of those things.
  5. Get out the baby books and go through their birth and newborn pictures with them.  Children love to hear their birth stories and it will renew your feelings of that deep awesome wonderlove as you remember the first time you met.
  6. Let your children “accidentally overhear” you saying nice things about them to someone else.  Kids come to expect that we will say nice things about them to their face simply because we’re their parents.  So when they “overhear” you talking about them to someone else, it feels more objective and boosts their self-image and self-esteem.
  7. Stay loving and affectionate even when your child is acting out and losing it.  Let him know you’re on his side even as you hold loving limits and accept his intense feelings about those limits.  When your kid is the most unlovable…is when he needs love the most.  
♥♥♥ LOVE IN ACTION ♥♥♥ 

For the next week, act on the list above–try a different one each day.  At the end of the week, ask your child, “What makes you feel loved?”  Her answer can help you refine and keep adding to your list.

And also….keep saying “I love you.”  

The Unseen Effects of RIPPLES

There was a couple in one of my very first parenting classes who was struggling to relate to their teenage daughter.  They had a lot of anxiety about choices she was making and the friends she was hanging out with.  They were desperate to try the concepts I was teaching because nothing else had worked for them so far.  The fear-based techniques they were using (grounding, taking away privileges) were causing their daughter to move further and further away from them.  They were really, really scared and rightly so, for she had started to “experiment” with drugs.

It’s hard NOT to try to get a tighter grip on our kids when we sense they are slipping away from us into dangerous territory.  But often, tactics which use punishment (or guilt or shame) take us further away from the desired results.  The conscious parenting model I taught to this couple was a four-step process in which the intentions are to connect, to understand, and to let go of attachment to the outcome.  The main goal is to repair the relationship rather than change the behaviors. The premise being, that once the relationship is solid and the child trusts that her needs matter as much as the parents’ needs, then the door magically opens to empathic listening, honest expression, and care for each other.  This was very different from their earlier intentions which were to force their daughter to obey their rules so that she would stay safe.

This process is radically different from the fear and punishment parenting model most of us grew up in, so it takes a lot of practice to be able to apply it in the family.  The framework is a communication model based on Nonviolent Communication (cnvc.org), and it’s a lot like learning a foreign language.  It takes practice and repetition to be able to communicate in a “needs based” language.  But the mom and dad were committed to integrating the process and deepening their consciousness around a new way to parent.  They came to the eight weekly classes and then I lost touch with them.  Until…..

A couple years later the dad showed up at a mindfulness retreat that I had organized in North Georgia.  During the retreat he shared his story with the group.  He said that coming to those parenting classes had not only “saved” his family…he believed it had literally saved his daughter’s life.  Soon after the parenting classes, his daughter had made a choice that sent her life spiraling out of control.  At a party, on a lark, she tried crystal meth and was very quickly addicted. The dad said that it was his worst nightmare come true as he witnessed his daughter transform into someone he didn’t know.  He described the “darkest moment” of his life, when late one night, he found himself in a rundown seedy area of Atlanta in a “crack house” trying to rescue his daughter.  He found her upstairs drugged out, naked, in bed with her meth supplier.

He went on to describe how he and his wife used the process they had learned in the parenting classes to begin to repair their relationship with their daughter. To hear her, to see her, and to get clear on what the needs were underneath her use of drugs.  Once they could identify the needs under the drug use (such as, a need to belong) they could respect her need and support her in finding other ways to feel belonging that didn’t come at such a detrimentally high cost.  By respecting her need they weren’t seeing her as wrong and feeling a need to punish.  Together, as a family, they faced the dilemma before them and supported their daughter as she fought the addiction and healed.

But it didn’t end there…the RIPPLES continued…

The daughter, now healed and whole, and knowledgeable in a new way to communicate and relate to others (thanks to her parents’ modeling of the needs-based process), became passionate about working with other teens who were addicted to meth.  She became a counselor at a drug rehab center and used her experience to help countless other young people heal from their addictions and get their lives back.  And I imagine the RIPPLES continued on and on with these young people and the many lives they touched.

Repetition In Place Produces Little Effects Somewhere.  It’s a Law of the Universe.  What’s the quality of the pebbles you are dropping?  The ones that send their ripples in wave upon wave to eventually touch unseen and unknown shores………