Growing up is hard to do. That’s not just a refrain from an old song, but a challenge for every generation. Today’s world, which has become increasingly confusing and complex, is rough terrain to navigate for both children and adolescents regardless of age.
By Yonatan Sapir
One of the most effective tools to ensure our children’s wellbeing is a healthy and positive parent-child relationship. If we provide them with emotional security, we help them develop a positive self-image, courage to take risks and resilience to deal with life’s inevitable challenges. And we stand a better chance of imparting the values we want them to embrace. And even though most teenagers have a fierce desire for independence, some part of them is usually yearning for a close connection with us as parents. But the means to that connection usually eludes us.
Love and respect are the two fundamental components of a healthy relationship, and Chazal echo this concept when referring to a relationship between husband and wife. But what do we mean when we say we love someone? Partly, love is the ability to appreciate and to cherish our loved ones. In colloquial terms, we could say we are their biggest fan, and being a fan could be one of two things. In sports for example, one type of fan loves a team because the team is most likely to take home the cup at the end of the season. The other type of fan loves a team even when they’re stuck in last place. Chazal called these two types of love: “dependent on external factors” and “not dependent on external factors.” The kind of love we should project and actively communicate to our children is of the unconditional kind, not dependent on what they do or how they act, so that they develop a sense of their innate goodness. When a child behaves in a way that drives us crazy, it can be especially challenging and requires a lot of thought and self-introspection to relate to that child from a place of love. When we find our aggravation getting in the way, a therapist can be helpful in overcoming feelings, which, when left unchecked, can overwhelm and prevent us from connecting to our children.
Another aspect of love is the desire to be close to someone we love. This entails wanting to spend time with them, getting to know them better and being genuinely interested in their lives. But we live in a fast-paced society and many of us are so engrossed in our own lives, we feel we just don’t have the time to be with, enjoy or try to understand our children. When we do eventually get round to it, we find it difficult to relate to them. Their games become boring and sometimes we can’t even understand their language. We do love our children and the most basic way we express our love should be by thinking about them, talking to them and playing with them. I once had a 12-year old client who loved to play a particularly boring game with me. That game wasn’t necessarily fun for me, but when we played, the child, who was often ignored at home, felt that I was attuned to his needs. The way to show a child they are important is to do things that are important to them.
The second component of a good parent-child relationship is respect. We must respect our children. You might be thinking, “From my knowledge of the ten commandments that sounds a little backwards,” but this is an essential lesson for us and them. Respect requires a different stance than love. Love makes us want to get as close as we can to someone (even in the physical sense) but too much closeness sometimes constitutes a lack of respect. We can define respect for children as appreciating our children as competent individuals, separate from ourselves. It is what renowned family therapist Murry Bowen called “differentiation.” When we helicopter parent or overcompensate, we disrespect their individuality, undermine their security and relay the message that they are incapable. Even when we scoop a young child up and whisk them away to the bath with no regard for their objections, we are asserting control and demonstrating a lack of respect. Conversely, when a child comes home from school and we probe them with questions about their day, we haven’t considered whether they are ready to talk. Holding back can be just as challenging as displaying affection but is just as necessary.
As a child gets older, they need even greater autonomy. Teenagers, in particular, have a need to feel validated, and if they don’t feel respected and heard, will often rebel as their way of expressing frustration. When parents recognize that their teen is ultimately responsible for their own decisions, it enables the child to move in a positive direction. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t offer our advice or opinion. A child should know how we think and feel. We must be cautious, though, not to become overbearing or try to rob the child of his autonomy. The balance between helping our children develop and grow by giving—and simultaneously holding back—can be a tricky one. But once we get the hang of it, we’ll be giving them the eternal gifts of security and belonging, a solid self-image and powerful tools to forge a successful life path.
About the Author
Yonatan Sapir, M.Sc. is a psychotherapist who works with individuals, couples and adolescents. Yonatan sees clients in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh.
He can be contacted at 052-767-7304 or firstname.lastname@example.org.