How to Get Close to Your Child

How to help a child and stay close without enabling.

Posted Jul 02, 2019

The difference between helping a child and enabling a child is significant. Parents often believe if they fix a child's problem, the child will love them more. However, this enabling may lead to a self-absorbed and entitled child. Alternatively, helping the child in a healthy manner instills closeness in the parent/child relationship and strong character within the child.  

A healthy way to help a struggling child is to understand how he or she feels in the situation instead of fixing it. When a parent sets aside his or her own feelings and attempts to resonate with how the child feels, the parent is acting in a selfless and empathic fashion. As soon as a child feels understood, he or she usually feels less alone in the predicament, and closer to the parent who understands. 

A common barrier to empathy is a parent who thinks to himself or herself, “I can’t relate, because I never went through that.” However, it is not about the situation, it is the child’s feelings that are relevant. For example, say a child’s best friend is suddenly moving away. A parent may not have shared that experience as a child, but has certainly felt the sadness of a loss, the fear of being alone, and the anxiety of starting over with a new friend. Empathy is easier if a parent contemplates the emotions the child is experiencing, not how to remedy the child’s circumstances.

Listening for feelings and remaining present instead of thinking about how to problem-solve is crucial. For example, say the young girl, in between sobs, admits she is terrified to start middle school without her best friend. The parent should focus on what the child is feeling: “You are so sad and scared. I'm so sorry, honey. You have every right to be upset. I would be too. I get it.” 

Reflecting and validating the child’s feelings helps the child to feel understood, less alone, soothed, and close to the parent. The child may transition to an emotional state which allows her to better absorb her parent’s reassurance, encouragement, and advice: “I know it hurts, and you feel alone. I am here for you, and I always will be.”  

In many cases, empathy may be enough to empower the child, which means, in time, the child figures out a way to fix her problem. “Mom, do you think I should go out for cross-country?” The mom may encourage a fall sport like cross-country as a constructive and useful way to make new friends before middle school starts. Supporting and validating her daughter’s ability to find a way to help herself affirms the daughter's belief in herself and brings the parent and child even closer. 

The research is conclusive. A close relationship with a parent (secure attachment) helps a child avert depression and anxiety, and effective empathy is at the heart of the bond. Researchers have outlined the four critical components of healthy empathy: 

1. Affective response and self-other awareness: This is a parent’s ability to feel what the child feels for a moment in order to understand, while maintaining an awareness that he or she is the parent and needs to keep composure. Breaking down does not help a child, and it takes the focus away from the child and places the attention on the parent. 

2. Perspective-taking: It is vital for a parent to avoid imposing his or her own perspective on a child before fully understanding the child’s perspective. For example, saying, “I never had a best friend, and I am fine, so go make a new friend,” does not support the child, because it dismisses how the child feels. 

3. Emotional regulation: This is when a parent puts himself or herself in the child’s shoes for a moment in order to feel and understand the child’s emotional experience, but prevents the emotions from overwhelming him or her. It's important for the parent to calmly and compassionately communicate understanding to the child.

4. Contextual understanding: This is when a parent is mindful of the child's developmental plight. For example, an adolescent girl entering middle school without her best friend may be more traumatized than a third-grade girl who is remaining at the same school. Peer relationships have heightened importance in the adolescent and teen years, which is developmentally appropriate. 

Helping a child who is hurting is essential, yet doing so in a way that soothes and empowers the child avoids instilling a sense of entitlement in the child. Effective empathy is one way to ensure a parent remains close to a child while bolstering character and self-esteem