SALT LAKE CITY — Recently, I was in a discussion about children preferring one parent over the other in different situations, like when they are at the doctor and want one parent, or they enjoy mountain biking and don't prefer to go with you.
As parents, we would like to think that our children like both parents equally, but often times this is not true. We are engaged in complicated relationships with our children, and just like us, they seek a specific person to meet different needs.
As hurtful as this might sound, it is completely natural. As children move through different phases of life, they have different needs from each parent. Our relationship with our child as a toddler will be different from our relationship with them as a teenager into adulthood. The key is not taking it personally and understanding that this is healthy stage development.
One aspect that is consistent through all stages is that parents are the most important influence in their child’s life. According to Shannon Sachs of Ohio State University, even as relationships become tested through the teenage years, parents still have a large influence on their teen’s decisions.
Easier said than done, of course. But we don't have to sit back and just watch as your relationship deteriorates in front of us.
Here are five ways to maintain and cultivate your relationship with your child.
Look in the mirror
This is the most effective and most difficult way to create a relationship with someone. As yourself some questions: Are you always negative with this person? How often do the two of you spend fun time together? When they talk, do you listen? Are you always busy when they need you? Do the two of you have anything in common?
After honestly answering all of these questions, you should have a good idea of what areas need to be remedied in your parent-child relationship.
Go do something with your child one on one, with no distractions. This can be a common hobby like mountain biking or video games. During this time you do not necessarily need to be talking, but make sure you are completely present. Do not worry about grocery lists, chores, work or other concerns that take you away from the moment with your child.
Find something to talk about and listen. Often times, as a parent we are juggling a million different tasks and do not fully listen to our children speak. Find something that your child is interested in and have them educate you in it. Have him or her tell you about his or her favorite band, all the secret levels to a video game, a book series he or she just read, or have him or her teach you how to draw. You are spending time with your child and truly paying attention to the things he or she cares about.
No one wants to be around someone who is negative. We want to increase the amount of positive interactions so that when we need to have a negative interaction it will have little to no effect on the well-being of the relationship or person. Ideally, we want a four positive to one negative interaction. It is best to track this on paper for a chunk of time, usually half a day. Once you have discovered your relationship ratio, try to increase the positive interactions in order to hit this 4:1 ratio.
Make sure that your positive interactions are genuine and specific. Instead of saying, “Good job!” say, “Thank you for doing the dishes. You sure are a good helper!” This gives them a clear understanding of what you found great about them.
Being a parent is a busy, full-time job, but setting up clear expectations and routine can make it a bit easier. For instance, if there is a certain time when you are not available, make your children aware that you won’t be able to talk. You can set up a normal time that they can solve problems or talk about their day with you. Establish a set of rules that the household must follow and keep to them. This way when they break a rule, it is not a surprise when they get a consequence.
Lastly, if you set up a date to hang out with each other, make sure you follow through. This shows that you care and are excited to spend time with them. This aspect alone and be a huge benefit to creating a close, loving relationship.
Jessie Shepherd, MA, ACMHC specializes in assisting children, adolescents and parents to overcome life's challenges. She is the director of Youth Services at Life Stone Counseling Center. Learn more at www.lifestonecenter.com.