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Parent-Child Relationship: How To Strengthen It

Benefits of strong relationship | Why “Spend More Time” or “Eat meals together” don’t work | Relationship problems | How to strengthen

Why Is A Parent Child Relationship Important

The early parent-child relationship is important because it directly affects a child’s physical, emotional, social, and attachment development, which determines the child’s future personality, behavior, relationship, and life choices.

In other words, this relationship forms the foundation of the child’s future success.

A study at Harvard University shows that a loving parental relation is the strongest predictor of a child’s future success​1​.

Creating a close and positive parent-child relationship is a crucial aspect of parenting.

Despite its importance, building strong parent-child relationships is rarely the focus of day-to-day life.

Father and son walk in the park

Benefits of having a strong relationship with your child

The benefits of a positive relationship on child development are numerous. They contribute to a child’s future success in the following ways.

Secure Attachment

Having a positive parent-child relationship in early childhood fosters a secure attachment in the child.

Psychologists have found that secure attachment is the best type of attachment.

Children with a securely attached relationship with their parents are more resilient.

They persevere when facing challenges. They have fewer behavioral problems, higher self-esteem, better academic performance​2​ , and other positive outcomes. 

Family relationships also affect how one forms future relationships in adulthood.

Securely attached people have positive internal working models allowing them to develop competent social skills.

Social-Emotional Regulation

Parent-child interactions in the early years set the groundwork for a child’s social development.

Young children learn to self-regulate by watching and mimicking their parents. A close relationship with the parents facilitates the emotional development of children​3​.

Mental Health and Well being

A healthy parent-child relationship is strongly associated with a child’s mental well-being.

Research shows that having a poor connection is a risk factor for developing depressive symptoms​4​.

Self-motivation

Relations with others are vital innate motivators in humans​5​.

A child is more intrinsically motivated to engage in an activity valued by people they feel connected to.

Parents who have a strong bond with their children can have a great influence on their academic interests and help them succeed.

Mom and son hug and laugh together

Why “Spend More Time” or “Eat Meals Together” Don’t Work

A lot of advice found on the Internet concerning parent-child relationships is ineffective at best, but detrimental to the relationship at worst.

You can find advice like “spend more time” or “eat family meals together” everywhere.

Here’s the problem with this type of advice:

If spending more time and eating meals together were the way to improve relationships, we should all have had perfect relationships with our kids after the year 2020 when we were in lockdown.

But it didn’t work out that way for many families.

For many parents, that year actually made the relationship worse, a lot worse.

This advice would have worked if the parent already had a great relationship with the child and just wanted to deepen it.

Chances are, you are not looking for that type of advice because your relationship isn’t exactly great yet.

Here’s why this kind of advice doesn’t work.

If a relationship were a bottle of water, following that advice would be like you keep pouring water into it, but ignoring the huge leaky hole at the bottom.

Without first fixing the hole in the relationship, you will not fill up the bottle no matter how much you pour in.

That means, spending more time together without addressing the source of strain in the relationship is useless.

Parent-Child Relationship Problems

Parenting is one of the most fulfilling yet challenging jobs.

Family life can be stressful. It’s no surprise that creating healthy parent-child relationships is often put on the back burner when the issues of missing homework, poor grades, unfinished household chores, or bad behaviors arise.

Many parents unknowingly spend more time damaging the relationship than strengthening it.

When problems become too big to ignore, desperate parents try to follow advice found on the Internet.

When they cannot get the results with this ineffective advice, they think there’s something wrong with their kids.

Self-motivated learner
Have trouble motivating your child? Check out:

How To Motivate Kids

Mom hugs girl from the back

How to strengthen the parent-child relationship

While younger children care more about how much time you can spend with them, older kids don’t translate more time into closer relationships.

You actually don’t need to spend a lot of time connecting with your kids.

Children need quality time, not just time together.

But before you work on the relationship, think about your parenting goal.

Are you committed to building a strong relationship and setting it as your parenting goal?

Knowing your goal will help you prioritize what you do on a daily basis.

For example, is getting good grades more important than having a close relationship?

Is having the trash can emptied worth damaging it?

One of the best things about prioritizing your relationship is that once you have a strong connection, all your other goals will be much easier to fulfill.

Once you know your goal, here are the steps you can take to strengthen your relationship.

First, Attune

Step one to strengthen a relationship is to show attunement. It means attuning to your children’s emotions.

Emotional attunement is the best way to establish a connection with another person.

When they’re happy, you share their happiness.

When they’re sad or frustrated, you share their sadness or frustration, and you show that visually through your body language, facial expression, and words.

For example, if you have a conflict with your kid and they’re angry, without sounding angry, you can say with a frown, “You look really upset, it is so unfair, isn’t it?”

This attunement can usually calm a child immediately, and by doing that, you strengthen and repair the relationship quickly even during a fight.

Then, Repair

Fix that hole in your relationship bottle!

If you have conflicts with your child on almost anything, that means you don’t really have a discipline problem… you have a relationship problem.

For some parents, to repair is to apologize if you feel that you might be wrong in a recent fight. You don’t have to take on everything. Point out the part you could have done differently. If your child’s feelings were hurt, apologize.

Admitting a mistake will not undermine your authority. You show that you’re big enough to take responsibility for a mistake. That will earn you respect.

If you haven’t had a recent fight, follow these steps.

  1. Start with the biggest conflict or disagreement in your relationship.
  2. Evaluate whether being right in it is that important to you.
  3. Imagine 20 years from now, will you care more about winning this fight or your relationship with your child?
  4. Talk to your child about your decision in #3.
  5. Invite your child to discuss alternative solutions together, collaboratively. Do it together. A relationship takes two.
  6. Go down your list of conflicts and repeat #1-5.

Finally, Quality

Here are some of the essential qualities psychologists have found to benefit your relationship with your child.

Practice Responsive, Warm Parenting

A responsive parenting style, such as authoritative parenting, can help your child develop a secure attachment​6​.

Being responsive means meeting your child’s needs and showing parental warmth.

For instance, attune to your child’s emotional responses. Acknowledge your child’s feelings when they are in distress or emotionally dysregulated. Use emotional coaching rather than dismissing to teach kids about self-regulation.

Spend Quality Time Together

Spending quality time with your child doesn’t mean doing more educational activities.

It means mindfully attending to your child’s needs. It means being present.

Even resolving conflicts can become quality time if done right.

When there are conflicts, many parents bulldoze over the problem, skip over it or try to sweep it under the rug so they can move on to “happily spend quality time together”.

But quality doesn’t mean that only positive emotions are involved.

Helping your child develop emotional regulation skills during tantrums, teaching them patiently how to disagree respectfully, or encouraging problem-solving instead of just saying no, are all quality times well spent.

Use Positive Discipline

Using punishment is the most common way to damage your relationship with your kid.

Discipline means to teach, not to punish.

You don’t need to punish to teach.

Using positive parenting to discipline can strengthen your bond​7​.

Positive discipline is about teaching, guiding, and correcting your child in a kind and firm way.

Children as young as 1-year-olds can benefit from using discipline that is nurturing and positive.

Being positive is not being permissive. Permissive parents don’t set boundaries or enforce rules.

Authoritative parents, on the other hand, are positive and still enforce reasonable rules.

Mom dad kids play together in the living room have close relationships parenting styles

Respect Builds Relationships. Lack of Respect Destroys Relationships.

Mutual respect is crucial in every healthy relationship.

A positive parent-child relationship is no exception.

Respecting a child means respecting that they are people, too.

They have their own needs, wants, and preferences. They may be a little ignorant because they still have a lot to learn, but we shouldn’t treat them as less because of that.

Provide Autonomous Support

Besides basic needs, such as food and safety, autonomy is the next most important innate human desire​8​.

Human beings thrive when given the freedom to choose and decide on their actions.

Allowing our children to act autonomously on things that are not safety- or health-related is a significant motivation booster.

Being a controlling parent not only reduces your child’s motivation but also damages your relationship with them.

Allow Open Communication

Talk to, not at, your child to build trust. Have a good conversation.

Listen to things that bother them; even things that may make you unhappy.

Some parents feel that children giving negative feedback or voicing their concerns are talking back.

But if you can demonstrate taking feedback with grace, your child will learn to do that, too, when you give them feedback.

Letting your child have a voice also helps them build confidence. Language development is another added bonus to these new communication habits.

Mother and daughter listen to each other and make eye contact. Helps child exhibit respectful behavior and create connection

Love Them Unconditionally

Unconditional love from the parent is the most precious gift you can give your child.

Unconditional means you love them even when you dislike their behavior such as not doing homework, when you are mad that they fail an exam, or when you are annoyed that they don’t finish their chores.

None of these are more important than the unique bond between parents and children.

Final Thoughts On Parent-Child Relationships – Change is hard

Building a close, secure relationship with their child is a goal that many parents have but not many actually pursue.

We are too inundated with daily hassles and often forget the most important thing in life — families.

Shifting our focus from using shortcut parenting hacks to creating a long-lasting bond with our kids is not easy, but it’s very well worth it.

The last thing we want is to have an estranged relationship with the ones we love when they grow up.

Also See: Why Adult Children Are Cutting Off Their Parents


References

  1. 1.
    Vaillant G. TRIUMPHS OF EXPERIENCE: THE MEN OF THE HARVARD GRANT STUDY. Harvard University Press; 2012.
  2. 2.
    Greenberg MT, Siegel JM, Leitch CJ. The nature and importance of attachment relationships to parents and peers during adolescence. J Youth Adolescence. Published online October 1983:373-386. doi:10.1007/bf02088721
  3. 3.
    van Ijzendoorn MH, Kranenburg MJ, Zwart-Woudstra HA, van Busschbach AM, Lambermon MWE. Parental Attachment and Children’s Socio-emotional Development: Some Findings                on the Validity of the Adult Attachment Interview in The Netherlands. International Journal of Behavioral Development. Published online December 1991:375-394. doi:10.1177/016502549101400402
  4. 4.
    Branje S, Hale W, Frijns T, Meeus W. Longitudinal associations between perceived parent-child relationship quality and depressive symptoms in adolescence. J Abnorm Child Psychol. 2010;38(6):751-763. doi:10.1007/s10802-010-9401-6
  5. 5.
    Ryan RM, Powelson CL. Autonomy and Relatedness as Fundamental to Motivation and Education. The Journal of Experimental Education. Published online September 1991:49-66. doi:10.1080/00220973.1991.10806579
  6. 6.
    Ryan RM, Brown KW, Creswell JD. How Integrative is Attachment Theory? Unpacking the Meaning and Significance of Felt Security. Psychological Inquiry. Published online August 13, 2007:177-182. doi:10.1080/10478400701512778
  7. 7.
    McKee L, Roland E, Coffelt N, et al. Harsh Discipline and Child Problem Behaviors: The Roles of Positive Parenting and Gender. J Fam Viol. Published online April 20, 2007:187-196. doi:10.1007/s10896-007-9070-6
  8. 8.
    Cullaty B. The Role of Parental Involvement in the Autonomy Development of Traditional-Age College Students. Journal of College Student Development. Published online 2011:425-439. doi:10.1353/csd.2011.0048

About Pamela Li

Pamela Li is a bestselling author. She is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University).

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