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