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Strengthening the Parent-Child Relationship, Even in the Most Difficult Times

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Grumpy Teen and Mom

I’ve worked with kids since I was a kid myself. Whether at schools, camps, or community organizations, I have taught and guided thousands of young people from elementary, middle, high school, and college. It is meaningful work that I love, but it is also challenging, sometimes even overwhelming. Yet nothing compares to the trials and joys of parenting. Being a mom is the hardest job I have.

My three kids are now 21, 16, and 13. We are very close and connected, but through the ups and downs of our family life, it hasn’t always been easy. We’ve faced our share of adversity, but through persistence we’ve weathered the storms and come out stronger in our connections to one another. For me, being connected means that I provide a safe place for my kids to share their hearts. They want to talk with me and spend time with me as I do with them. Not only do we love each other, but we also like each other. This may not seem like a significant distinction when it comes to family, but if you’ve ever had a family member you loved but didn’t especially like―or worse, had your kids going through a phase where they definitely didn’t seem to like you very much―you know what a big deal it is. At this point, we are truly each other’s biggest fans, but the life and love that flows between us has taken time, energy, and effort from all of us.

After my divorce 10 years ago, my oldest son didn’t want to see me for several months. He was angry, and he took it out on me. Even if I thought there was a way of convincing him to change his mind, there wasn’t much I could say right then. I just had to give him space and stand firmly in my commitment as his mama. It took time, what felt like forever, and my heart ached. But we made it through. This past Mother’s Day, he sent me a note that showed me how much progress we’ve made: “We’ve come so far…I’m thankful for it…I love being able to talk with you about anything that’s going on with me.”

Divorce is one specific form of adversity, but there are, of course, challenging times in our parental relationship with every child. When my daughter was in middle school with her raging hormones, she would argue with me about everything. She was nine going on 30. With her sassy attitude, she couldn’t hear a thing I’d say. I remember a colleague of mine giving me some sage advice about her own parenthood journey: “When she acts like that, Tamara, just ignore her. Go on with your life. She’ll come around.” There were days when we wouldn’t talk to each other. I had to learn to wait, not push. As my friend predicted, my girl came to me and reconciled…when her heart was ready. Now we are like Lorelai and Rory from “Gilmore Girls": always there for each other.

My thirteen-year-old son is currently obsessed with screens. Fortnite and YouTube are his favorites. Just last week I addressed this rude behavior when a family friend was over for dinner. We were both upset, and it took a few days for us to re-engage. Last night he initiated the conversation and apologized for his disrespect.

Whether the difficult times are brought on by major life events, the predictable surge of adolescence, or smaller incidents that nonetheless leave a mark, patience and calmness are two of the tools that help us parents navigate the rocky road. The waiting isn’t easy, but I have taught my children to be authentic. I would rather we take time to process the good, bad, and ugly rather than slap a smiley face on the situation and say, “Everything’s fine.” Everything is not always fine, and that’s okay. As parents we need to remain steadfast during the discomfort. That means I keep my heart open to my kids even when they are distant, angry, or rude. I remind myself of the tenets of attachment theory and that my job as the mama is to be bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind.

For those of you going through a rough patch with your kids right now, or preparing for the next one that comes along, here are a few simple suggestions based on what I’ve learned when navigating difficult times of my own. At the root of each are the goals of establishing and maintaining healthy connections with your children:

Don’t take it personally. When your child is distant, angry, or rude, remember that s/he is a unique individual―his/her own person―and needs to process big emotions in a personal way. Even if your children call you names or lash out against you physically, it’s not about you. This isn’t easy; words can be extremely hurtful and often we don’t learn their true power until we’ve been hurt or hurt someone else with what we’ve said. But as your kids develop, it’s about them learning how to identify and manage their feelings. Remain calm and present.

Model authenticity. Kids are smart. They can tell when our mood is off. Don’t try to hide it. Tell them the truth. You don’t have to share all the nitty-gritty details, but you can say, “I’ve had a hard day at work today” or “My heart hurts because my friend is moving away.” Being honest and open with your kids about how you feel gives them permission to be open and honest about how they feel.

Cultivate moments of connection. Whether it’s eating dinner each night, reading a chapter book together, watching and discussing a TV series, or engaging in some physical activity, do things together as a family. Dedicate a minimum of 20 minutes of uninterrupted time each day. Look in each other’s eyes. Talk. Smile. Laugh. Play. Build relationship. Fill this treasure chest with love and support that you can draw on when times get rough.

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