Are you merely managing your child, or are you deeply bonding with them? How can you build a lifelong connection?
The parent-child relationship is a unique and special one. It goes through rapid and significant changes over the years. Being close to your child helps you raise them (because they trust you more), and it adds joy to both your lives—even when they’re grown.
Read more to learn how to bond with your child and build a beautiful relationship that will last.
How to Bond With Your Child
According to Philippa Perry, you shouldn’t view a child as someone to manage but rather as an individual with whom you plan to maintain a close bond for the rest of your life. Maintaining this bond full of love and connection requires you to regularly confront your emotions, understand how your past affects your present, and recognize how your actions affect your child. She shares practical advice on how to bond with your child by attending to these matters.
|Characteristics of a Strong Bond Between Parent and Child
According to some parenting experts, the following are characteristics of a strong parent-child relationship:
1) Showing your child that you love them unconditionally. If they don’t feel like they have to earn your love, they’ll be able to make mistakes, learn, and grow in a healthy way. To do this, you must be emotionally available for them (which means confronting your own emotions and past experiences, as Perry suggests).
2) Offering your child respect. This means listening to their needs, setting clear expectations with them, and explaining the consequences when they don’t meet those expectations. Finally, recognize the effect of your own actions and admit when you’re wrong (as Perry suggests).
3) Being flexible in your parenting. Your child will change as they grow, and so will their wants and needs. Parent based on your child as they are now, not based on who they were or who you want them to be. Additionally, recognize that different parenting techniques work for different children—there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.
We’ll explore some of the areas of parenting Perry identifies as particularly important for securing your parent-child bond: addressing how your upbringing affects your relationship with your child, creating a secure attachment bond with your child, teaching your child to process their feelings, and making amends for your mistakes.
#1: Address How Your Upbringing Affects Your Parenting
Perry argues that your upbringing affects how you relate to your child. Emotions related to any harm your parents caused you will probably return in your experiences raising your child. This happens when your child’s actions remind you of something you did or experienced around the same age. You’ll likely relive the emotions you felt when your parents didn’t give you the attention, love, or support you needed when you exhibited the same behavior.
Often, instead of processing these emotions from past experiences—such as sadness that your parents didn’t give you what you needed—you’ll experience another strong, negative feeling toward your child. This might be anger, disgust, frustration, envy, resentment, or fear. You might not know why you’re reacting that way, but you can’t help it. For example, maybe your child becomes deeply interested in dinosaurs, and he wants to tell you facts about them around the clock. For reasons unknown to you, you find this annoying. It becomes so grating that you eventually snap at him, even though you know it’s unfair.
These negative emotions are defense mechanisms you’ve developed to avoid reliving what you went through at the same age. Your need to avoid the emotions you experienced in the past leaves you unable to empathize with your child, instead driving you to focus on an emotion that’s easier to feel (like anger).
Putting It Into Practice: Decipher Where Emotions Belong
Perry states that your past doesn’t have to rule your relationship with your child—if you examine and reflect on your childhood and allow yourself to feel the accompanying emotions, you can avoid passing the same issues down the family line.
Every time you feel an unpleasant emotion resulting from your child’s behavior, take it as a cue to think about any other possible sources for that feeling. Pause instead of expressing the emotion, step away from the situation, and take some time to reflect. Ask yourself if the emotion fits the present situation or if it’s related to something that happened to you in the past. What’s preventing you from understanding and empathizing with your child’s perspective? This will help you avoid acting on the negative feelings and emotionally harming your child in the process.
For example, after snapping at your child to stop talking about dinosaurs, you feel bad, so you think about where your annoyance stems from. Upon reflecting, you remember that when you were the same age, your parents rarely took the time to listen to what you were interested in—they always brushed you off or shushed you so they could continue talking about their interests. Instead of snapping the next time, you engage your child in a conversation about dinosaurs so he knows you’re interested in what he cares about.
#2: Foster Secure Attachment
Perry argues that another important aspect of developing a strong, lifelong parent-child bond is helping your child form the right attachment style. According to attachment theory, babies are born with the ability to bond with other humans, and they take their cues for how to do this from their parents. The way their parents interact with them in this early stage of life—when they’re learning how bonds are formed—determines how they’ll relate to others throughout their lives.
When you’re consistently offered affection, fed, comforted, and attended to as a baby, you tend to form a secure attachment style. You grow up able to trust and connect with others, and you believe in people’s goodness. This generally makes relationships and other aspects of life much easier.
If you weren’t cared for consistently as an infant, you may develop an unhealthy attachment style, such as the following:
- Insecure attachment: If you had to cry for long periods to get your parents’ attention, you’ll likely grow up feeling like the only way to get others’ attention is to be bold and forceful when expressing your needs.
- Avoidant attachment: If your cries went unanswered, you probably eventually stopped trying to get your parents’ attention. You may develop a sense of isolation, believing that you won’t be heard or understood by anyone. Therefore, you grow up feeling like there’s no point in letting people get to know you well.
- Dismissive attachment: If the attention you received was harmful or abusive, you might grow up feeling like other people are always a threat to you.
Putting It Into Practice: Consider Your Own Attachment Style
Perry states that the ideal is to create a secure attachment with your baby. To do this, think about what your attachment style might be. Do you form close, secure attachments with people, or do you struggle with this? If your experience is the latter, you may need to be more mindful about forming your relationship with your baby to create a secure attachment with them.
Putting It Into Practice: Respond to Your Baby’s Cries
Second, Perry states that the best way to create a secure attachment is by consistently responding to your baby’s cries. Babies can express themselves only by crying out. They can’t soothe themselves, nor do they have object permanence (our ability to discern that something exists when we can’t see it). So, they can’t reason with themselves and know that you’re still close to them if you’re not within their sight. When no one responds to them, they feel alone and scared.
Responding to babies’ cries is how you show them that they’re safe—they learn how to soothe themselves when you’re consistently comforting them and showing them that you’re there for them. If, in contrast, you frequently let your baby cry for long periods without going to them, Perry argues that they’ll eventually stop crying because they’re suppressing the feelings that make them cry—not because they’ve learned to calm down in a healthy way.
#3: Teach Your Child to Acknowledge and Name Their Emotions
According to Perry, recognizing, naming, and respecting your child’s emotions is a key way to form a strong bond with them and raise them to be mentally healthy individuals. By doing this, you teach them how to understand, regulate, and express their emotions in a healthy way, which is an important part of their development.
The Different Ways We Deal With Emotions
Perry states that, typically, parents who have trouble handling difficult emotions fall into two categories: They suppress their feelings, or they react disproportionately. If you tend to suppress your feelings, you’ll be more likely to do the same to your child, either by dismissing their feelings or telling them they should feel something different. Because this makes the child feel like their emotions are insignificant or undesirable, they’ll likely avoid expressing feelings to you in the future.
If you tend to react disproportionately, you might become overwhelmed by your child’s emotions, getting upset and crying with them. You take on their emotional state. In this case, your child may stop expressing their emotions to you because they feel like they’re upsetting you too much or you’re unfairly seizing their feelings.
Ideally, you recognize and respect your child’s feelings by naming and affirming them (which we’ll further discuss below), instead of denying them or making the emotions your own. When you’re able to do this, your child will feel understood and comforted instead of criticized. Over time, as you continuously show respect for their feelings and offer them love and understanding, they’ll learn to work through their emotions and comfort themselves.
Putting It Into Practice: Name Your Child’s Emotions
Perry says to practice naming your child’s emotions when they’re upset to show that you understand them and to show them how to do it for themselves. As you do this, remember to consider their age and how it affects their ability to express themselves.
Your child may react in a way that seems irrational to you, but their feelings are as valid as anyone else’s. For example, say your child falls and hits their knee. They have a small scrape, but you can tell they aren’t seriously hurt. Still, they begin to cry inconsolably. You might feel tempted to tell them not to cry or that their scrape is no big deal because it hurts you to see them so upset. However, this likely won’t comfort them since to them, the injury feels like a real danger. They might stop crying to please you, but they won’t feel understood.
Instead, acknowledge their feelings by saying something such as “You hurt your knee and I see that made you feel scared.” This shows them that you’re in tune with their feelings, they’re allowed to feel that way, and you’re there to support them. Over time, they’ll learn to name their emotions themselves.
#4: Make Amends When You Make a Mistake
Perry argues that, though you should strive for the emotional stability and empathy displayed in the above strategies, being a good parent isn’t about behaving perfectly all the time. You’ll occasionally react in an unhelpful way, hurt your child’s feelings, or misunderstand your child. What’s most important for your parent-child relationship is that you acknowledge your imperfections and make amends for the harm you cause.
Some people think that to feel safe, a child needs to believe their parents don’t make mistakes. However, this belief is faulty—children need you to model honesty and humility for them, not perfection. If you act as if you’re always right and never acknowledge your mistakes, you risk making your child feel like you don’t care about their feelings or that they’re responsible for your moods.
Your child’s intuition will likely tell them when you’re wrong, but your refusal to acknowledge it will make them question the validity of their feelings, increasing the likelihood that they’ll suppress them later. This may negatively affect the way they relate to other people, leading them to accommodate other people’s needs over their own.
Putting It Into Practice: Change Your Behavior and Apologize
To make amends for mistakes, Perry says to start by apologizing to your child and explaining what you did wrong, why you did what you did, and what you’d do differently. Then, change your behavior—figure out what prompted your unfair reaction or the misunderstanding, and act differently the next time a similar situation arises.