Be the Person Your Child Confides In

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I loved my mom and always felt we were close, but I never told her the sorts of private things my daughter tells me.  There was plenty Mom did not know and (yikes!) that I didn’t want her to know.  I sensed she didn’t want to know either, even though she adored me.

Nothing is more precious to me than the discussions I have with my 19-year-old daughter.  I consider her frequent use of me as a sounding board my crowning achievement as a parent (yep, I’m taking full credit for this one).  After keeping so many secrets from my own mother, this element of our relationship has been a tremendous surprise and immensely flattering. Here’s what I believe has made it possible:

Respectful two-way communication from Day One

It can feel downright weird to talk in our authentic voice about “real” things to a baby. But if we take this leap of faith, the results are both fascinating and rewarding.  By verbally engaging with our baby about pertinent issues like, “Do you want me to pick you up now?” while also taking the time to observe and listen to her responses — by relating to our infant as a whole person from the beginning — we soon discover this wonderful truth: Babies can (and will) begin to return the favor by sharing their unique points of view with us. This early dialogue can be the cornerstone of a future healthy relationship.

Empathy, understanding, limits without shaming

Empathy is essential for children to feel our unconditional love and acceptance. Without those elements in place, there isn’t the trust necessary for honesty and sharing. Children need to feel safe in the knowledge that we see none of their feelings and desires as wrong, shameful or beyond our understanding.

But this doesn’t mean we give up our authority, because kids are lost and insecure without our leadership. It means continuing to acknowledge our children’s feelings and perspectives while clarifying expectations and preventing unacceptable behavior.

In other words, we let our child know that it’s okay to want 50 ice cream cones or feel like hitting a sibling, but we won’t allow those things to happen. If we don’t get there in time and the hit happens, we stay calm (remembering we are on both of our children’s teams) while definitively stating our expectation. Even then, we remain open to hearing each child’s feelings and point of view.If there was a mantra for fostering communication with children, it might be: stay open, stay open, stay wide open.

Punishments might seem to be the quicker, easier path to teaching impulse control and “good” behavior (though not in my book), but they create an atmosphere of shame that makes kids more guarded.  Young children can’t compartmentalize bad behavior, so punishment tends to convince them that they are bad (rather than the behavior) and must therefore hide away parts of themselves, which will not foster open communication, now or in the future.

Not taking sides or criticizing

Never take sides, including your child’s.  When we judge a sibling or friend because our child is hurt or disappointed, we are perceived as critical, judgmental and a less trusted confidant. Hardly seems fair, but it’s true.

Listening and acknowledging, not fixing. Only give advice when asked.

Parents are hardwired to make it all better, so listening without fixing is easier said than done, but crucial. Let it be okay to just be there while your child cries rather than trying to comfort her with “it will be all right”. Don’t try to fill the silence. Children don’t open up unless we offer them an attentive ear and a wide open, accepting space.

Comment only to acknowledge feelings:  “Getting nervous and flustered during your oral report was upsetting after all the work you did on it.”  And then refrain from adding, “But that probably won’t lower your grade in the class” or “It will be easier next time”.

Honest, humble admissions

I’ve reminded my children over the years that there is nothing they could possibly do — any mistake they could make — that I haven’t already made. In fact, I’m fairly sure I’ve done far more careless, thoughtless or reckless things than they could ever do.  This has been easy for me to acknowledge to them, because I believe it. From time to time, if it seemed age appropriate, I’ve added specifics.  I see this as a reiteration that I love unconditionally and will not judge.

Patience through the lean times. Let the child initiate.

The most successful discussions I’ve had are child initiated. Pressure kills intimacy. Adolescents, especially, don’t want probing parents. If we’re lucky, they feel safe enough to share their private thoughts and lives, but it will usually be on their terms and timetable. All we can really ever do is let children know through our words and actions that we are wide open, non-judgmental, ready when they are.  And then be prepared to drop everything and be fully present when we are offered the privilege of being needed.

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