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How to Repair Your Relationship With Your Kids

How to Repair Your Relationship With Your Kids

We are family

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Parenting is one of the hardest challenges in life. It’s a tough job that never ends and takes work to improve at every stage. But there’s nothing quite as rewarding as watching someone you love most become their greatest and happiest self. 

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the relationship between children and their parents is one of the most important relationships in their life, often lasting into adulthood and contributing to healthy development during adolescence. No relationship is perfect, but if you feel like your bond with your child is strained, there are steps you can take to cultivate a strong relationship

We spoke with Dr. Casey Gamboni, a therapist and teaching and supervising faculty member at the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, and consulted guides offered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Education, to understand how parents can foster a healthier, stronger relationship with their children.

Listen to them

Listen to them

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To build a relationship with your child that will stand the test of time as they become adults, Gamboni suggests learning to actively listen more and handing out orders less. “I think something that could be beneficial for children or adults is to just listen to them, as opposed to telling them what to do,” Gamboni said. “I know that is a huge shift for emerging adults because parents are doing a lot less of telling their child what to do while listening and garnering insight from their child, but I think basic, active listening skills will go a very long way.”

Empower them

Empower them

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When your child was young, things were either your way or the highway, but as they age, Gamboni recommends projecting less power and allowing your child to feel empowered by making their own decisions. “What could really diffuse the tension or decrease the potential for offensiveness is to just fuse the power differential,” Gamboni said. “When the 18-year-old or 20-something is really coming into their own, they’re also garnering a lot of agency and confidence within themselves. I think something parents could do to help their child garner that power and agency is not be as power projecting as they once were when they were raising their child below the age of 18.”

Show an interest in their interests by asking questions

Show an interest in their interests by asking questions

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Whether it be a fun skill they’ve mastered or a cool online class they’re taking, when your child shares an interest in something new, engage in conversation to show that you’re invested in their happiness. “If your child is bringing up a topic that you are very unfamiliar with, a way to show your interest is just by asking questions in a polite, non-defensive manner,” Gamboni said. “I think people like to play an expert role to an extent, and one thing that could increase the child’s confidence is by having the parent create a welcoming, safe space for them to educate. The parent could do that by active listening, asking questions and paraphrasing and reflecting back what they’re hearing.”

Help them navigate life socially and emotionally

Help them navigate life socially and emotionally

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Controlling every aspect of your child’s life won’t help them grow into well-rounded adults, but you should still do your part to help them navigate life socially and emotionally. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Population Affairs, parents have more influence than peers on important decisions made by their children, including whether they smoke, use alcohol or take drugs. Parents should provide the necessary support and affection to help their children understand how their choices can affect their health and well-being.

Allow them to make mistakes

Allow them to make mistakes

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Part of parenthood is wanting to see your child accomplish important milestones while avoiding the pitfalls of life. But everyone makes mistakes. Gamboni suggests allowing your child to make a mistake or two because, in the end, they’ll most likely gain more than they’ll lose. “You need to have your child learn by mistakes,” Gamboni said. “Even if you disagree with the decision, even if it comes back to negatively impact them, it’s still a learning opportunity for the child.”

Guide, but don’t control

Guide, but don’t control

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According to the U.S. Department of Education, maintaining a healthy relationship with your adolescent child means knowing when to enforce rules and when to allow freedom. The easiest way to strike this balance is learning to guide, but not to control. Your child needs to learn to try different things and make mistakes, but also needs guidance on how to avoid harmful slip-ups. The U.S. Department of Education recommends asking questions that help your child think about the results of their actions.

Don’t broach conversations that will make them feel belittled

Don’t broach conversations that will make them feel belittled

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If there are certain topics that your child hates discussing — like questions about when they’ll have children or get married — stop having those conversations. Ignoring their emotions and having insensitive chats can make them feel belittled. “Every child has a different impact, meaning every child is going to have their topics or the way that things are presented to them that will have them feel smaller and make them feel belittled,” Gamboni said. “A lot of the time, a parent knows what those topics are. It’s a matter of closeness.”

Get to know them

Get to know them

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Ever hear your favorite TV mom tell their child “It’s like I don’t even know you anymore”? Chances are, as a parent, you’ve felt that way too. It’s because your child is forever changing. Who they were as a teen isn’t who they’ll be as an adult, and as they continue to experience life, they’ll keep evolving. Getting to know your child is a lifelong experience. “When you are a parent, you think you know your relationship with your child and you think you know your child,” Gamboni said. “And then it takes [your child] moving away, not seeing your child as often and having your child work off of different influences that don’t involve you to have you really get to know them. This presents an opportunity for the parent to get to know the child again now that they aren’t living under their roof.”

But ask consent before asking personal questions

But ask consent before asking personal questions

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Getting to know your child might mean unknowingly diving into questions your child isn’t comfortable answering. Before asking personal questions, Gamboni suggests asking consent to see if your child is OK with the direction the conversation is headed. “Asking consent before asking questions allows the person to give consent and prepare for the topic that is about to be addressed,” Gamboni said. “I think you run into a boundary violation when you jump into a topic without asking for consent and jumping into a topic that could be crossing the line. Everyone has their own definition of what that line is.”

Create secure boundaries

Create secure boundaries

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There are relationship boundaries you might not realize you’re violating when it comes to your child, like asking insensitive questions about their personal lives. To show you respect your child, Gamboni suggests establishing secure boundaries. “We can have diffused boundaries, rigid boundaries, but there’s also a thing called secure boundaries,” Gamboni said. “How to create secure boundaries is through communication that is on the same page and understanding what is and isn’t a violation to your child’s space.”

Have the difficult conversations early

Have the difficult conversations early

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Having discussions with your child about sensitive topics is never easy, but neglecting important conversations could negatively impact the decisions they make later in life. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, when parents delay having conversations about sex, substance use and other sensitive topics, their peers, the media and other sources provide their children with information before they do. Instead of waiting to have important conversations, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends having ongoing conversations with your children through adolescence and using TV shows or movies as starting points for conversations. The more you create an open space for discussion, the easier it might be for your child to come to you with tough questions.

Don’t lump their needs into one group

Don’t lump their needs into one group

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Siblings shape each other’s lives — often for the best. But just because your children might be similar in nature doesn’t mean they have the same needs. To have a better relationship with your children, Gamboni suggests the best thing a parent can do is “get to know their child on an individual basis as opposed to a group basis.” “I think what’s so interesting is that it’s such a common narrative [to say] ‘I treat my children the same,’” Gamboni said. “But you don’t, actually. If you look at it just on a surface level, we treat younger children differently than we would older children. We are just so vastly different as individuals. What works for someone doesn’t simply work for everyone.”

Get to know their partner personally

Get to know their partner personally

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When your child begins seriously dating or decides to tie the knot, how you treat their partner will contribute to what your relationship is like with them. Every parent wants their child to end up with the perfect person, but instead of grilling your child for their love life details, get to know their partner personally. “I always encourage getting to know your child’s partner through your child’s partner,” Gamboni said. “I think a lot of the time, parents get to know their child’s partner through their child, and as significant as that is — you want to get your child’s perspective of them — formulate your own opinion based on what you think about the partner. Instead of getting to know the partner through your child, get to know the child now that they’re in the relationship. What positive influence is this relationship bringing them?”

Respect their new roles as parents

Respect their new roles as parents

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Having a child is a life-changing event. As your child adjusts to parenthood, respect their boundaries and understand that their needs from you as a parent might change. “Life is full of ebbs and flows of re-getting to know someone when they’re going through significant life changes,” Gamboni said. “It’s not only the child transitioning to parenthood, it’s the parents transitioning to grandparents. It’s a reestablishment of boundaries, rules and roles and re-getting to know your child in a way that you haven’t before. [Your child] isn’t going to be a completely different person after having a child of their own, but it’s worthy of reevaluating what your child’s needs are now that their lives have changed.”

Accept you won’t always be right

Accept you won’t always be right

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Refusing to accept responsibility after making a mistake is a sign of toxic behavior. Everyone, including parents, makes mistakes, but accepting when you’re wrong can strengthen your relationship with your child. “I think a big thing is for parents and children to own their wrongs,” Gamboni said. “No one should be asking for perfection or a lack of mistakes, but when you’re below the age of 18, it’s a rarity that you ever get to hear your parents apologize for something.”

Work to repair tears in your relationship

Work to repair tears in your relationship

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Building a better relationship with your child takes more than accepting mistakes you might have made. It also means taking the time to repair tears in your relationship and building a lasting foundation from a potentially cracked surface. “The goal isn’t to avoid offending someone, the goal is to — if you do offend someone — own it, apologize and repair the tear,” Gamboni said. “Of course we don’t want to offend someone, and of course we don’t want to hurt someone, but we’re human beings who are going to make mistakes. I think if there’s a sense of ownership and leadership in terms of repairing the tear, then you’re in good shape.”

Don’t assume what your child needs from you, ask

Don’t assume what your child needs from you, ask

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As well as you think you know what your children need, the more they age, the less you probably do. As a child, they might have needed to participate in fun activities with you to feel close, but as an adult, it might be solid words of advice. The only way you’ll know is by asking. “I think something that parents tend to do is assume for their child,” Gamboni said. “What could be done a little more to avoid those potentially offensive interactions is to just ask. Again, it’s re-getting to know your child, and you do that by asking questions. Ask your child, don’t assume. I think the offensiveness can lie in the assumption.”

Learn your child’s love language

Learn your child’s love language

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Just as you would learn your partner’s love language to have a lasting relationship, so should you learn your child’s love language. “The love languages could be words of affirmation, acts of service, touch, gifts and quality time,” Gamboni said. “At the end of the day, most people need to feel loved in their relationships, but many people respond differently. The important thing to keep in mind is that we all respond to love in different ways and assumption is a poison.”

Participate in activities they enjoy

Participate in activities they enjoy

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When your child expresses interest in a new activity — like cooking classes or a crafty hobby — ask if you can join in the fun. Participating in an activity with your child can build closeness by showing your child that you’re interested in learning more about what brings them joy. “Doing something while speaking does tend to grow closeness,” Gamboni said. “So there isn’t necessarily a specific activity that I recommend. I recommend assessing what the individual responds well to, and then encouraging them to lean into that.”

Listen to their dreams

Listen to their dreams

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Whether they’re hoping to become a superstar or start their own big business, when your child discloses their passions and dreams with you, it’s important to listen. “I think as long as the child is getting reassured that they’re being thought of and their passions are being taken into consideration, you’re in good shape,” Gamboni said. “It’s all about communicating with the child.”

Accept their sexuality and identity

Accept their sexuality and identity

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According to the CDC, if a teen shares their sexual orientation and feels rejected, their overall wellbeing can be negatively influenced. Teens who are supported after sharing their identities with their parents are less likely to experience depression, attempt suicide, use drugs and alcohol and become infected with sexually transmitted diseases. Educate yourself and learn how to support them.

Understand that they’re human

Understand that they’re human

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Every parent thinks their child is perfect from their head to their toes, but don’t let your unconditional love for them blind you to the fact that they’re human too. “What I hear from clients is the significance of humanizing your child,” Gamboni said. “I do think the special thing about emerging adulthood is that it humanizes the system and you get to know each other on a different level.”

Understand they’re not children anymore

Understand they’re not children anymore

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In the blink of an eye, the child who once needed you every step of the way will head to college or move out to start a life of their own. As much as you might miss the days when they were children, understand and respect that they’re adults who have to forge their own path to experience life. “I think a very common narrative that I hear with clients is the emerging adult feeling like they’re not being heard or being treated like an adult,” Gamboni said. “With the parent, they’re used to their child being a certain way, and there’s definitely a transition period between raising children and raising adults that sometimes doesn’t get acknowledged.”

Provide warmth and support

Provide warmth and support

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Communication is the heart of every healthy relationship. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, when parents are warm, encouraging, responsive and demonstrate kindness and support daily, adolescents are better able to have tough discussions because they trust their parents will love them no matter what.  

Accept your differences and grow from them

Accept your differences and grow from them

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It’s OK to not have everything in common with your child. Just because you have different opinions, interests or personalities doesn’t mean you’re doomed to a life of disagreements. Accept your differences and grow from them. “Differences might come off negatively because they bring combativeness sometimes, but the adjustment is finding ways to make [your differences] complimentary,” Gamboni said. “Being the same is what brings you together, but being different is what sustains.” To avoid turning differences into ruined relationships, avoid these offensive things that might be damaging your relationship with your child.

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