Take a minute to think about someone who had a wonderful influence on you in your life. As soon as you have that person in your mind think about how you would describe that person? Would you use words like kind, patient, loving, or empathetic? Could you say that person was caring or that he or she treated you with respect? Would you say that it was easy or hard to learn from that person?
Now think about someone who was suppose to teach you important things but who you had a hard time learning from. This could be a teacher, a supervisor, or even a parent. How would you describe this person? Is it a similar list as the one you came up with in the previous paragraph or is it different? If it is different, what are the major differences?
As you keep in mind the major differences between those you learned most from, and those you learned least from, let’s consider how the brain takes in and processes information. Human beings are programmed to survive. When a child (or even an adult for that matter) feels unsafe or threatened, the brain will go into survival mode. This means the front part of the brain (which controls higher thinking functions such as problem solving) will start to be overruled by the brain stem and surrounding areas which govern our reactions to fear. These reactions are commonly known as the fight, flight, or freeze responses. An illustration of this is when a child has done something the parent has told the child not to do so the parent asks the child in a frustrated tone, “Why did you do that?” to which the child freezes and then routinely replies, “I don’t know.”
Parents may feel certain that the child does indeed know “why” but that the child is just being defiant. In reality the child usually doesn’t know exactly why he did what he did. At the moment the parent approaches the child with anger and frustration the child feels unsafe and the frontal lobe of the brain shuts down and the child starts to react out of survival mode. If this situation repeats itself over and over again, the child may start to go into survival mode automatically each time the parent approaches him. The front part of the brain may shut down and he may develop a thinking block whenever the parent is around.
At this point parents often say, “My kid never listens to me. I tell him to do things and he just shuts me out. It’s like talking to a brick wall.” Parents in these situations feel that they have very little influence over their children. Truthfully, when it gets to this point, parents do have little influence over the decisions their children make – unless things change.
Look back on the differences you came up with between people you learned the most from and people you learned the least from. Did you find that you had a better relationship with those you were influenced most by? Generally speaking, people you feel closest to usually have a greater ability to influence you in a positive way. This is especially true in families. The stronger or better the relationship parents have with their kids, the more they are able to influence their kids. A parent’s ability to have a long term positive influence on his or her child directly correlates with the quality their relationship.
How does a parent develop that type of a close relationship? Here are some suggestions that many parents have found very helpful in developing strong relationships with their children.
Spending time – I have heard it said that love in the home is really spelt T I M E. Kids feel important and loved when their parents choose to spend time with them. This may require sacrifice and restructuring of the parent’s life in order to make the time necessary to send the message to their child “you are what’s most important in my life.”
Being present – Spending time with children can be fruitful or it can be fruitless if the parent is not truly present with the child. When parents are so stressed with their own situations in life that their own frontal lobes have shut down, they lose their ability to really connect with their child. They may be with their child but their thoughts and their heart are not with their child. Some parents find that simple meditation practices like deep breathing or stretching can be helpful to get them present to be with their child. Then parents can focus on sharing eye contact (with softness in the eyes), smiles, touch, and movement while they’re spending time with their child in order to help them bond and stay present with their child.
Showing empathy – Empathy is such a powerful way of communicating with our children. Simply put, empathy means to be able to attune or join your feelings with those of another person. Empathy helps children really feel understood. It is not shaming in any way; rather it is understanding and patient, and it communicates respect and recognizes an individual’s self-worth. Empathy in parenting can be described as the sugar that helps the medicine of life go down.
As mentioned before, the ability of parents to influence their children is directly related to the quality of the relationship they have with their children. Parents can increase their capacity to influence their children by building and strengthening their relationships with their children. Some of the most effective ways of strengthening the parent-child relationship include spending time with your children, being present with them, and showing empathy towards them.
Shiloh Lundahl, LCSW, is a child and family therapist in Gilbert and Mesa, Arizona. He is the founder of Parent Arizona and Counseling Services and is part of the Arizona Family Institute.
He provides parenting classes using the Love and Logic curriculum, classes for parents of children with ADHD, step-parenting classes, and advanced trainings for foster and adoptive parents. He also provides in-home therapy in Gilbert, Mesa, Queen Creek, San Tan Valley, Chandler, and Tempe, Arizona.