Answers to Questions from Parents
If you have any questions on parenting, please contact me.
“HOW CAN I MAKE GOOD MEMORIES WITH MY ADULT CHILDREN?” (below is the question from a father. My clarifications in italics)
Hi Dr. B, here’s a question that probably takes book-loads of words to answer.
In a nutshell, what’s the best way to go about re-establishing a good parent/child relationship with a child who is now an adult?
Here’s a little of the backstory:
-I used to spank my kids. (I clarified this because it can mean so many different things to so many people. He spanked them 4 times in their entire life and expressed much remorse. He has since apologized to his children “in their eyes” and shared that he never hit them again.)
-divorced in 2010 when my kids were 11 and 9 years old.
-daughter is now 19, son is 17.
-daughter has severe social anxiety, rarely leaves home and has other significant issues.
-son has mild/high functioning ASD. (ASD is an abbreviation for Autistic Spectrum Disorder)
-my daughter and son both love me and tell me so (with hugs and kisses) every time I see them.
Maybe I should have asked how best to go about establishing good memories again.
There’s no doubt about our love for each other, but every time I ask either of them to go somewhere or to do something, my daughter will say “that sounds interesting, but I can’t commit to anything because of my anxiety” and my son immediately calculates the benefit of doing something fun with me vs. the costs of missing out on playing video games.
He’s addicted to them. It’s a sad situation. We were supposed to go to an awesome major city for the weekend a month ago and eat at restaurants of his choosing but he backed out at the last moment, after agreeing 2 weeks prior to do this with me, because of some free weekend offer of online gaming involving 1 of his favorite games.
Thanks for listening
First let me say thank you for sharing your story and concerns with me.
I appreciate your accompanying detailed information with your question. That background information helps guide my “broad reaching” response so it can be a bit more tailored to your specific situation.
It’s not a secret that raising kids is hard and there are lots of fights and squabbles that happen during those formative years. I believe the most important part of those disagreements/fights comes at the end.
No, no I don’t mean the fact that the fight has ended or is over. What I mean is how did you and your child (spouse, friend, co-worker….anyone really with whom you have a relationship) resolve the feelings that got thrown out and felt during the disagreement. .
Understanding the Process of “Tear and Repair” in Relationships
In psychology there is a term coined “tear and repair” in regards to the relationship between the therapist and the client. For example, a client loses trust in their therapist when suddenly the therapist starts cancelling sessions (due to a family emergency that they can’t tell the client about) and the client refuses to see an interim therapist referred by their primary therapist. Regardless of the referral, the client feels abandoned and loses trust that their therapist will be there for them. This “rupture” in the relationship (i.e. the tear in trust) will be a pivotal point in therapy based on how the “repair” goes.
A successful “repair” means the therapist and client continue to meet and are able to process their feelings in a positive and meaningful way. Obviously, it takes a skilled clinician and willing client to work through difficult situations in therapy. Similarly, it takes a willing parent and child to make a relationship stronger.
Ok, how does this pertain to you? It’s my belief that tears and repairs happen with parents and children all the time and these “endings” to the disagreements/fights with our children are more important than who “won.”
It sounds as if you and your children love each other very much and that’s great; doesn’t mean there won’t be times when you feel slighted by them or visa versa. Thinking about what you used to do and what you are currently doing is important because it impacts on future repairs. Are there ways you can change your approach so that your children may be more receptive to you? Things to think about.
Growing up I had many “rips” with my parent’s like all children do. Here is an example. I never recall my mom saying she was sorry after a fight even when fault lay clearly at both our feet; she would instead say “I’m sorry you feel that way.” or “I’m sorry you heard it that way.” All I wanted to hear was “I’m sorry.” That’s it. No more, no less. The extra words felt like she wasn’t sorry and it was actually my fault for being upset.
When disagreements ended with my mom throwing one of those lines at me….I never experienced resolution but instead my frustration would fester like an open wound. I have spoken to her about it…guess what her response was. “I’m sorry you feel that way.” HA! I share this just so you know adult children want close relationships with their parent’s too. At the end of the day we either accept our parents/children for who they are or we don’t and move on investing our time and energies into other relationships.
It is unrealistic to think you will notice and be able to repair each tear….you won’t and can’t. It’s humanly impossible.
However, if you notice a change in your kids’ behavior or you feel uncomfortable with how things “ended” with them at one point or another…….bring it up with them.
Share with them what you’re feeling and ask them if they felt the same way. Sometimes they won’t have and sometimes they might have, but they didn’t know how to talk to you about it.
The Terms of the “New Adult” Relationship
You mentioned wanting to make memories. Define those memories. What do you want them to look like? Are your ideas realistic? I.e. Wanting someone with social anxiety to suddenly be able to plan to go out twice a week isn’t very realistic (I know you weren’t thinking that. It was just an easy example :)).
You mentioned your daughter finds planning ahead anxiety provoking (which happens to many people) so have you just “dropped in” and offered a spontaneous trip to a restaurant? And if she says “no” take it in stride and tell her you can always bring over take-away. Maybe you could ask her if she could commit to a “spontaneous drive-through-then-straight-back-home-to-eat” once a month? Obviously, much depends on her anxiety and what causes it and those questions would be best suited for a therapist working with you/her. I am just offering an idea which might work given the information you shared.
I am sorry to hear about your son’s gaming addiction. Addictions come in all different degrees of dependence. That being said, I’m not sure there was anything which could have swayed him away from a free gamer’s weekend of his favorite game. Are there physical games you two could play when you hang out instead of online ones? Maybe chess, Dungeons and Dragons, complex card games, or anything else your son might have an interest in.
I would like to spend between 2-8 hours a week with you.
Twice a year I would like to do something special and out of the ordinary with you.
We will speak respectfully to each other.
Does everyone need to be on board with your terms? Can you write-up terms together with each child separately? Asking them what they need/would like from you moving forward in the relationship is another area to deepen the relationship. Involving them in this process will be vital to them AND you.
What do your kids want?
Meet your children where they are and listen to what they want from you.
Relationships ebb and flow just like the tides of the oceans. Let your children know you are wanting, willing and able to do whatever it takes to have a stronger relationship with them. It sounds like they love you very much and are open to this idea.
How Will You Know When You’ve Reached Your Goal?
It’s difficult to know when you’ve attained what you want if you don’t have a tangible goal. I love your idea of wanting to make more meaningful memories but that is difficult to measure. Something you can measure is the amount of face-to-face time you spend with your children.
Remember, it’s not always quality vs quantity (or visa versa) it’s about being mentally and emotionally open and present (i.e. don’t check your phone) when you are physically with your children.
I’m not telling you to create a one-sided relationship where you give give give and your kids take take take; this happens all too often in many parent-child relationships. What I am saying is that you should be honest with yourself about what you can realistically expect. I stopped expecting my mom to say she was sorry without caveats and I no longer get as angry in those situations. I also spoke to her about it and she is making an effort to recognize this and change.
What is your tangible goal? More face-to-face time? Increased texting back and forth? A spontaneous hug when you leave? Figure out how you will know and then ask yourself what things you can do to try and make it happen.
Relationships of all types are difficult and take effort from both people to make it work. Unfortunately we can’t force someone to spend time with us or love us. What we can do is control our actions and emotions and how we approach the situation. Good luck in your efforts. Thank you for your question. I can’t tell you how much inspiration your desire has given me.
“I saw something today that I experienced often when my children were young. A family was taking a walk with their dog and one of the kids (about 4 years-old) sat down and refused to walk. The entire family was urging this kid to walk with them on the family dog walk. How would you deal and what would you do?”
First let me say this is VERY common behavior in young children. One reason they could be refusing to walk is to test a limit/boundary.
1. Power and control– Sounds crazy I know, right?
Again, a normal process of development.
Your child wants your attention so they stop walking and in the process get not only YOUR attention but the entire family’s attention. That is serious power the child holds in that moment. Right? Maybe they need the attention because they aren’t old enough to articulate that they are beginning to feel fatigued, bored and hangry? It honestly could be a million reasons, even the child may not know.
Remember, when you’re coaxing/begging/negotiating with your child (especially with a 4 year-old) to persuade them to “do your bidding,” in that moment they have the power and control, not you.
Ok, back to the question. Your kid pitches a fit, what do you do? The first thing you need to assess is whether or not your child is in the “front of their brain” (frontal lobes which house reason/judgement) or emotionally overwhelmed and in the “back of their brain” (primal stress response which is fight/flight/freeze).
A good litmus test to see if your child is able to “negotiate” is to dangle a much sought after treat/prize in front of their nose.
If this chocolate loving child is NOT in the front of their brain they are more than likely completely emotionally overwhelmed and the promise of candy won’t be able to motivate them to walk. At this point, the primary caregiver needs to decide if this child isn’t moving because they are testing boundaries or another reason.
If this is about testing boundaries and you want to continue on the walk then have someone carry the kid, or one person stays behind and quietly sits with the child until they are back to the front of their brain and ready to walk. The rest of the family should keep going; don’t give the child that much power. Once the kid has had time to emotionally/internally “cool down,” they will be able to walk more.
Setting limits is always difficult and initially brings out the worst in our children. Breathe through this part and keep in the back of your mind that they will eventually wear themselves out (it could take up to 2 hours or more, so be ready). It only gets easier after this, seriously. Don’t give in.
Crazy, right? To think that if you stick to your guns for the first few major tantrums “post” limit-setting your life can be dramatically different.
How does this work, you ask? Great question. It happens because you stop playing your usual role and your child doesn’t know how to respond. So the kid just acts like a psychotic drunk racoon trapped in a corner to see how you respond. When they see your cool, calm as a cucumber attitude, they will eventually wear themself out and realize they need to learn this “new set of rules.”
Another reason could be simple:
2. Hunger and Fatigue– I’m not trying to be funny here, but sometimes we (primary caregivers) aren’t as focused/aware that our children need a snack or possibly have a cold coming on which makes them extra cranky/tired. This results in them needing a little extra TLC and maybe we only recognize this when they stop walking.
All of the attention of the entire family being focused on them, could cause the child to simply feel overwhelmed with the “power” and attention put on them and they shut down. Sometimes more isn’t better. Think about a time when you weren’t at your “best” and suddenly a bunch of people start coming at you with questions/concerns. It can be overwhelming.
Pick your battles-
The first thing you do when your child doesn’t do something you ask is to assess whether or not you want to fight this battle. Obviously, going on a family dog walk is something which might need a battle. Getting your child to eat their last bite of dinner might not be battle-worthy. Your call to make.
(If you don’t wanna fight it and the kid is 4 years-old…just have someone carry them kicking and screaming. If they wanted to be carried in the first place and you didn’t want to fight then it’s a “win/win” to carry them.)
You’ve decided it’s battle worthy-
Figure out whether or not your child is in the front or the back of their brain.
“You get up and walk on your own and I will allow you an extra book being read to you before bed because you’re making an effort even though you’re tired.
“You can sit here and I will sit here with you until you’re ready to walk again.” You should know that everyone else in the family are going to keep walking and because you’ve chosen to take time away from our family time you will lose your 30 minutes of TV tomorrow. Instead, you will participate in a 30 minute activity with the family.”
After they make their choice you, calmly, help them be successful in whatever it is they choose. This could mean sitting nicely next to them until they are ready, or getting excited and celebrating their choice to continue the walk.
The aftermath of battle: TALK ABOUT WHAT WENT DOWN–
It’s also important to normalize the need of the parent/primary caregiver to keep those limits firm and malleable and specific to the need of each individual child. Once you’re back to your car/home and you and your child have both cooled off from whatever happened, this is the time to talk.
This is the MOST important part of the process…putting words, feelings and explanations to what went down and how everyone got through it.
After a little chat my broad reaching recap of the conversation with a 4 year-old might go something like this:
“I’m glad we made it back home. It was unfortunate that you decided to stop walking and have a meltdown in the woods today on the family dog walk. I now understand that you were tired and hungry. Nevertheless, sometimes we have to “push through” things for the sake of the group, you know, like a team. I am very happy you finally decided to walk with me and I know you are sad you will miss TV tomorrow. However, we will have a really fun time going to the park instead.”
You don’t have to make the “family time” punishment like cleaning the bathroom together or something. The end goal is for you and your child to be able to work through difficult situations without meltdowns from kids or breakdowns by parents.
It ain’t easy setting limits with our children but it needs to happen. Never allow your child to have the “power” of the group. Yes, I know when the little sad 4 year-old starts to fuss that aunts, uncles, grans and papas all want to soothe and offer anything to get the kid to be happy/walk/join in the fun.
Just remember, oodles of studies have shown that loose limits with children only create confusion, fear and insecurities which result in bad/acting out behavior.
Be the boss. Set the limit. Enforce the rule. All within the framework of positive reinforcement, unconditional love, and the understanding that you are the ultimate rule enforcer.
Who do you think is in charge between these two scenarios?
A calm parent walking down the path with a kid kicking and screaming tucked under their arm.
A calm kid smirking at their parent who is yelling/begging/threatening them as they stand in front of their kid on the walking path.
Hope this answer helps! Thank you so much for your question. Good luck!