Heart to Heart Relationships

Heart  to Heart  Relationships. I’m sure many people  would agree that parenting  would have to be one of the  most wonderful yet hardest gigs  on the planet! Not only are we responsible  for keeping our kids safe and healthy, we are  also accountable for raising wholesome individuals  and give them every opportunity to flourish in life.  Quite a weight hey!? Once that beautiful baby is born,  we are essentially thrown into the deep end and faced with   the daily challenge to raise our kids the best we possibly can.  

There  are countless  different (and sometimes  conflicting) tips, approaches,   strategies and interventions circulating  out there, it can be overwhelming to choose   which advice we will take on board and apply.  Often, we learn along the way through the trial  and error approach, but self-­‐doubt soon creeps in  about whether we are doing the right thing! Parenting  can push you to the limits you didn’t even know you had  as it is linked with our innermost feelings, instincts and insecurities.   One the one hand you can experience the most tremendous love and joy towards   your children, but also feel the heavy weight of fear and expectation.

Out   of all   the parenting   theories and interventions   I have studied and used with   clients, there is one that stands out  to me personally but also proves to be  the most effective in clinical practice. That  is simply investing into the relationship between   parent and child. I’m talking about the type of relationship  that is founded on love, trust, security, acceptance, respect   and genuine understanding. A relationship in which you truly   know each other’s strengths, struggles, likes, dislikes, hobbies,   passions, interests etc.

We  know  from the  research on  attachment theory  that the quality of  the bonds of affection  between infants and their  primary caregivers, determines  the way a child sees their own  worth and also establishes the pattern  of relational behaviour that persists throughout  their lives. Children who develop secure attachments  with their caregivers learn that they are worthy of  care as their needs for survival, security and affection  are met. This sets them up to be confident individuals, allowing  them to form secure attachments with future relationships with   a greater capacity for closeness. Investing into the relationships with  our children, no matter their age, will continue to reap a lifetime of rewards.  

The  author  Danny Silk  in his resources  on “Loving Our Kids  on Purpose” emphasizes   the importance of creating  and maintaining heart to heart  connections with children through  deliberate methods that aim to build  love and freedom rather than just obedience.  He refers to the concept of parenting from the  inside out, and explains that we are either motivated  by love which creates connection, or fear which leads to  distance or disconnection in every interaction. In order to cultivate  a family environment characterized by love and trust instead of fear of  failure or disapproval, we must actively choose to connect in a loving way  in those moments of decisions or conflict.

This  does not  mean that we  don’t discipline  our kids or exercise  boundaries, but the way  we address issues is grounded  on a bigger purpose. Where there  are loving connections  within the family,  it brings the freedom  to feel safe, accepted,   vulnerable and makes them more  likely to respect one another despite  differences. Once respect has been established,  it is a key part of maintaining a healthy connection  and is the prerequisite to rules and boundaries. When children  learn to respect their parents, they are more compliant. Clinical  Psychologist Dr Robi Sonderegger uses the phrase “rules before relationship  causes rebellion but relationship before rules equals respect” when teaching on  parenting.

It’s  amazing  to me how  many times I  have worked with  children who have issues   associated with poor behaviour,  low self esteem, depression and anxiety  symptoms that evidently have very distant,  fractured relationships with their parents and   siblings. Feelings of disconnection can have devastating  effects on not only the individual’s mental health, but  the family and community they are a part of. Children who  lack significant relationships, grow up in a state of trauma and  insecurity, which causes them to learn ways of coping that are not  always helpful long term in developing close relationships, hence perpetuating  the problem. As humans, we are all looking for connectedness and so children will  find it somewhere else if they aren’t getting it from you and that may not necessarily  be the healthiest example of connection. E.g. addictions, dysfunctional relationships etc.

What  prevents  connection  in families? Too  often, things get  in the way of our  ability to connect with  our kids. Between juggling  schedules, work, school, extra  curricular activities, socializing,  church etc everyday life can become  robotic as we go through the motions without  stopping to remember and engage with what truly  matters to us. It’s all with good intention as we  try to offer our kids every opportunity to thrive academically,  creatively, physically, emotionally etc. But unfortunately, all these  good things can sometimes compound and create disconnection within the  family.

I  have  noticed  a few things  that prevent parents  from connecting with their  children. Distraction seems to  be a big one, especially by our  smart phones and social media. We  are bombarded with quick, convenient entertainment  at our finger tips which can be an easy way to  switch off for a while. There’s a reason why kids are  so interested in our phones from an early age and it’s  not just because of the colours! They see us using them and  become curious as to what the fuss is about. In my family, we  have had to make conscious effort not to pick up phones when our   daughter is around. Having the urge to check or look up something has  definitely stopped me from connecting with her at times.

Another  barrier is  having unrealistic  high standards of ourselves  and what we should be able  to do which often reflects skewed  priorities. For example, expecting to  be on top of housework at all times  (I don’t know if this is actually possible  seeing as people tend to live in the house!).  Sometimes we need to weigh up what is more important  in the moment: getting the dishes done or spending the remaining   minutes before bedtime playing and chatting with our kids. A mature  lady wisely told me that you can either have a clean house and an  unhappy child or an unclean house and a happy baby.

Authoritarian  parenting styles  can also interfere  with heart to heart  relationships because the  solely fear based approach prevents  children from feeling a sense of emotional  safety. In response, children tend to learn behaviours  that are driven by fear and anxiety as they naturally  try to protect themselves e.g. answering back disrespectfully,  externalizing etc. Parenting approaches which are loving and empathetic  to the child’s needs yet firm and consistent are the most effective short   and long term according to psychological research.

Perhaps  the biggest  obstacle to connecting  with our families in a  meaningful way is poor self-­‐management.  When we are not proactive in understanding  and managing our own stressors, our tanks can  become too full which reduces our capacity to control  strong emotions such as frustration, stress and anxiety, causing  us to react and say things that we don’t mean in the heat of  the moment. As parents, we are often caring for everyone else all  day long but our own self-­‐care can be neglected, leaving us feeling  depleted, overwhelmed and resentful towards our family or circumstances. Ignoring  our own basic needs causes us to lose access to our rational brain, making it harder  to regulate our emotions, solve problems and empathize with our kids. This is why we sometimes  miss opportunities to connect with our kids because at the end of a tiring day of constant giving,  we feel we have nothing left to give so we are triggered easily and end up losing the plot!

Understandably,  this unintentionally  creates distance within  our family relationships.   Not to mention we are also  teaching and modelling unhealthy  expression of emotions!

Building  heart to heart  relationships So how  do we ensure that we  do not fall victim to the  things that prevent connection   and make sure we are cultivating  an environment that encourages it? Well  firstly, parents must identify what they  value most and then learn ways to prioritize,  protect and actively pursue these things. It is  a daily, intentional choice to be motivated by love  and connection rather than things that create distance and  disconnect. In order to practically nurture the relationships  with our kids we must put aside time to be fully present and  focus our undivided attention with each individual in the family despite  all the competing tasks. We wouldn’t usually expect to grow in friendship  with a person if we don’t bother finding out about them and showing them that  we care. It’s no different with our kids. Some ways to achieve this are practicing  mindful parenting/modelling being present in the moment, listening actively, taking interest   in their world, making them feel heard, praising them, discovering the language in which they  give and receive love (love languages), all of which make them feel a sense of importance.

Choosing  to connect  is perhaps more  possible if we proactively  set up the conditions to do  it well. Taking responsibility for  our own self development by striving  to be the best version of ourselves is  crucial as it seems that so much of parenting  relies on us growing and maturing psychologically  as individuals. As we become more self-­‐ aware, we  learn to recognize our own triggers, overcome limiting  beliefs and the conditioned responses/behaviours that cause  hurt in our close relationships. This empowers us to regulate  our emotions and stress levels before responding to our

children  so that we  actively choose  to approach problems  from a place of love  rather than our own frustration  or parenting fears.

It  also  allows  us to be  proactive about  how we choose to  distribute our time  and energy and helps  us to see where it is  necessary to implement boundaries.  For example, sometimes we give our  energy to all sorts of things and people  throughout the day, but have nothing left in  our tank at the end of the day, so our children  miss out on the best of us. We need to be careful  with who and what we offer our time and energy to and  must also engage in self care so that we protect ourselves  from burning out.

When  we recognize  that our stress  levels are starting  to rise, and our self  care is lacking, we can  try to regain some balance  in our lives by scheduling the  things that help us to rejuvenate.  Sometimes we can see this as a luxury  but we need to take this seriously in order  for us to have the capacity to show up as the  best parents and choose connection in every interaction.  It is much more conducive to have a balanced foundation to  draw our resources from so that we can give out of a place  of security and strength. We are then more equipped to make the  daily choices to pursue relationships over our own emotions, rules  and expectations.

Succeeding  at heart to  heart relationships  in the family requires  us to make an active effort  to pursue and maintain them. So  we must be purposeful with the people  in our homes so that we don’t end up  choosing distance and disconnection unintentionally.  Let’s challenge ourselves to operate from a place of  love and openness in the relationships with our children  and therefore, cultivate an atmosphere of trust and respect  instead of fear.

Francesca  Finelli Clinical  Psychologist and Writer  for Be That