Give the gift of time and your children are more likely to give you the gift of willingness.
Time is something we can not make more of. We take it for granted, and our children take it for granted, but whether we spend less or more time with our children can have a cumulative effect on compliance.
For many, this idea seems counterintuitive. If your children are “difficult” or draining, it’s only natural to not want to spend more time with them. We don’t want to indulge them or give them more attention when they are not behaving, and we inadvertently give them more negative attention by lecturing or arguing. However, their attention is exactly what they need, and what benefits your relationship with them. It is not important to be the perfect parent. While we all want to do our best for our children, the most important thing we can do for them is simply to try.
When we get home from the hospital, we are not given an instruction manual. We can get advice from family and friends, read books and even hire a sitter to teach us the basics of diapering and burping, but we ourselves need to do the work of getting to know our child. When the baby cries, is it a cry to have a diaper changed, or because he is hungry or tired? We need to figure it out, and in that process of trial and error, we get to know our children and they learn that we are in their corner.
When this process is derailed by a parent who is narcissistic or preoccupied with an intense drive to drink or use drugs, the parent is not fully engaged in the process. The child may smile and if the preoccupied parent does not respond in kind, the child will continue to make efforts to engage the parent. This parent who is out of step with her child may smile at the child to elicit a response for her own satisfaction. The child now learns that in order to connect, she should smile back. The process of connection is now reversed. The child is accommodating the parent instead of the parent accommodating the child. This dynamic can cause the child to relinquish her inner life so she can be available to the parent. In extreme cases, this can cause something called a “false self.” The false self can lead to low self-esteem, difficulty maintaining stable relationships, being unable to relate in a natural or spontaneous way or other deficits in relating to herself or others.
The child may continue to develop his outer life, leaving the “inner child” developmentally stunted, and may be more likely to struggle with addiction problems or narcissism themselves as adults
The example provided here is extreme, but it illustrates the importance of making sincere efforts to connect with your children. The process of getting to know them and being interested in who they are is deeply felt and can create a strong connection that will not only benefit the parent-child relationship, but will help to build the child’s sense of self-regard and trust in the world.
The process demonstrating interest in your child can be harder with a child who is hyperactive or a teen who wants nothing to do with you. However, they continue to need involvement in order to feel safe. As they grow, their job is to separate so they will do all sorts of things to move away from their parents. Some of these things will not be pleasant. Structure and limits are important, but so is the continued curiosity about the world that they are living in, as well as receiving positive reinforcement. They need to know that their parents continue to love them and are interested in their lives, and that the world will give them more attention for positive behaviors than negative ones.
Alan Kazdin, Ph. D., arguably the world’s foremost expert on parenting, says “a timeout is only as good as the time in.” In other words, your child will learn important lessons better from someone he cares for and someone with whom he has a connection to, not someone who is less available. If he does not feel connected to you, he is less likely to desire to please you and trust your teachings.
So whether it is a walk on a nature trail, a one-on-one meal, or playing a board game or puzzle, finding time to connect with your child is worth the effort. Even when things are not going well, it can turn out to be an enjoyable experience that also may provide you with you the opportunity to positively influence your child.
And that is a priceless holiday gift.