By Ron Huxley, LMFT
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that being a parent today is tougher than ever before. Blame it on the moral decay of society, the impersonal nature of technology or the breakup of the home. Either way, contemporary parents feel out of touch with themselves and their children.
The solution is not to turn back time but to open our selves up to our children. As stress bombards today’s families, parents retreat farther into their private self leaving a fully functioning but completely unsatisfactory public self to go through the daily routines of work and family life. This deprives both parent and child of the intimacy and closeness they both want and desire. Ironically, strength comes through vulnerability. Letting children see our frustrations, pain, and failure can be a valuable lesson to them.
Many parents can’t see the wisdom in being transparent to their children. Already debilitated, they can’t understand why they should give away their power. This notion of power comes from a false parenting authority of “Do it because I said so” or “I am the parent therefore you must obey!” This is not true strength. This is force. Strangely enough, giving up this false strength will lead parents to the true power of intimacy in their family relationships.
Children are naturally curious. They love to explore and learn. Parents can use this drive to increase intimacy with their children. The first step is to make/take time out of busy schedules to really be with children. TransPARENTcy is achieved in those unstructured but regular moments with children. It can be in the car on the way to or from school. It can be at a regularly scheduled playtime at home. It can be during the last few minutes of the day tucking your child into bed. The actual arrangement is not as important as simply making the most of everyday interactions with children.
To do this parents need to get comfortable being in the here-and-now with children. Children are naturally present focused. They are not worried about their future or their past. Get into that present moment with your child. Be aware of the environment you find yourself in and talk about those things with your child. This is how a child learn about the world. Encourage questions. Eliminate judgment about right and wrong and instead let your child explore ideas about the world to help them find ethical answers. Talk about your child’s thoughts and feelings in as objective a manner as possible and then share your own thoughts and feelings without lecture or sermonizing.
Honesty is still the best policy when it comes to our emotions. If parents feel one of the primary emotions: mad, sad or glad, share them honestly. Hiding these emotions lead to negative behaviors on the parts of both parent and child. Of course if parents are going through a major depression or anxiety children should not take the place of a good therapist or become the emotional dumping ground for a parent’s stressful life. Instead, parents can model how to manage difficult feelings so that children can learn how to regulate theirs. The truth is that parents can’t hide their emotions even if they want to. Most likely children already know when their parents are mad or sad even if they try to hide them.
Children were nonverbal long before they were verbal making them experts of the unspoken expression. If mom or dad find their own emotions so horrible that they can’t be honest about them, maybe children shouldn’t trust their emotions either. Many parents believe that by covering their own emotions they are protecting their children. Consequently, parents put on an act to only show positive feelings. This gives children a one-sided view of life making them unprepared to cope with others in the real world. This form of protection is really for the parent not the child. Children are harmed not helped by this belief.
Many parents who want greater connection with their children never experienced it as a child themselves. It is frightening to be transparent with anyone, especially one’s children. The greatest risk of vulnerability will come when parents must admit a mistake. To avoid this risk parents try not to reveal their inadequacies to their children causing children to mistrust what parents say and do. This is not the way build stronger bonds. If parents want to be an appropriate role model and achieve greater intimacy with their children they will need to admit their humanness.
Even more frightening for parents is the idea that they might need to ask forgiveness of their child for a word or action acted out in anger. Forgiveness has a spiritual quality that transcends emotional hurts and repairs relationships. It opens doors of intimacy that would otherwise remain locked shut by hurts and resentments. Taking this type of risks can be particularly difficult for fathers. There is an old notion that fathers must be proud, strong and therefore invulnerable. The rationale is that this behavior teaches boys how to be a man. Unfortunately, it teaches all the wrong things and ill prepares boys for future relationships. Today’s sons need dads who understand the importance of learning from one’s failures as well as successes.
Create a Family Team:
Some parents complain that the reason they cannot be transparent with their child is due to conflicts in personality. When children and parents have drastically different moods, reactions and motivations, it can make connecting quite a chore. To overcome this problem, parents try and focus on similarities versus differences. While this is helpful, it is also important to concentrate on those differences that divide parent and child. Talking about personality differences can actually be a way to connect to a child. Discuss how you and your child are different and why that makes each of you unique. Explore the various ways to process or react to life. Never define the differences as deviant, just different. Learn from the other person’s viewpoint and discover compromises that fit you both.
Parents can use personality differences to build a powerful “family team.” Match individual interests, skills and desires so that each person compliments the others. The role of the parents, in these family teams, is to cheer lead each personality. Make the motto: “one for all and all for one” your new slogan for family transparency.
The surest path to transparency is empathy. Empathy is the act of communicating our understanding of a child’s feelings, thoughts and needs without being overwhelmed or taking responsibility for them. This will be tough for parents who believe that parenting is simply about taking care of their child physically and not emotionally. Children with the best self-image have parents who validate their emotions. Consequently, these same children report feeling more connected and open with their parents. Some of the most effective parenting classes have at there root the concept of empathy. The philosophy is simple: You can’t harm a child if you are being empathic with a child. And the reverse is true as well: Your child will be more cooperative because he or she feels more connected.
Intimacy is rarely looked on as discipline. While it doesn’t negate the need for consistency and rules, homes without empathy get very little true cooperation. Oh, there is compliance, in the short term, but there is little cooperation. And there is little connection. Fortunately, empathy is a learned skill. It requires parents to do three things: give full attention, paraphrase a child’s words and reflect a child’s underlying feelings. With practice parents can use empathy to create a healthy, intimate relationship with their children.
Facing the Future Now:
If it is true that families today are experiencing greater stress than families of the past. This makes intimacy more challenging. More conscious effort on the part of parents to counteract this imbalance. While our technology might continue to progress, our relationships can continue to become more impersonal. True intimacy in families require parents to use the skills discussed here to be real with their children. This will require risk from both mom and dads. A change in attitude may be required that is different from how parents grew up. Traditional roles may need to be revised. TransPARENTcy is a skill that parents can practice to enhance family teamwork and connection.