Want a "Close" Relationship With Your Child? Then Back Off!

By: Mark Friestad, Guest Blogger

We all value “close” relationships. There’s a level of intimacy and reciprocity that makes both people feel validated. Communication flows freely, and there’s a high amount of mutual respect. Everyone knows that having a close family is better than having an estranged one. But that’s just the problem.

Because “everyone knows” it’s good, we rarely define “closeness” with any precision. As a result, we often make this faulty assumption: if a parent and child have a close relationship, there will be (and should be) no secrets.

In fact, exercising discretion over what to share about your own life, and who to share it with, is a healthy step of autonomy. To be sure, kids and parents should communicate, about issues large and small. But young people also need to cultivate trusting relationships with confidants other than their parents.

This shifts the dynamic in the parent-child relationship. It’s not that teenagers need their parents any less – they just need them in a different way. Kids learn to problem-solve, to negotiate, and to handle disappointment in ways that require less direct parental involvement. Naturally, fewer details get shared.

If a parent feels lonely or alienated by that (Why can’t we spend time together, like we used to? Why won’t he/she open up?), they may try to press in. The kid in turn withdraws, becoming even more secretive. Or, a parent might withdraw, concluding, I guess they just don’t need me anymore. They’d rather be with their friends. That’s not healthy either.

One study by Nancy Darling of Oberlin College found that a combination of warmth and intrusiveness by mothers caused kids to put up privacy barriers, keeping secrets and even lying to prevent parents from knowing what they were up to. Sensitivity was good – it showed kids that the parent respected their desire for autonomy. But the higher the level of warmth – or what we might call the expectation of a “close” emotional bond – the higher the desire for privacy. And warmth plus emotional insensitivity caused kids to be desperate to draw and preserve boundaries of identity between them and their parents.

What, then, should we be aiming for?

  • Remember that we want young people to broaden their networks of supportive relationships. Sharing with and leaning on those outside the nuclear family lays the groundwork for lifelong intimate relationships.
  • In communicating with teenagers, the goal isn’t to get them to disclose everything. It is to establish trust so that they perceive you as safe to talk to about serious issues if and when they choose to.
  • Our relationships with them are for their benefit. While it’s rewarding to be in the life of a young person, parents and other caring adults need to have their own networks of support and not look to meet those needs through the kids they parent or work with.
  • Emotional sensitivity is good. It means that what kids think and feel matters to you, and you respect their desire to grow up and aren’t threatened by it.
  • Emotional responsiveness is also good. You can be a resource to help them accurately self-assess, set goals, and problem-solve.
  • Pushing too hard to remain “close” is not good. It can, in fact, inhibit healthy growth.
  • How do you know when you’re “too close” for your child’s good? One way is to ask them! Kids, like adults, desire different amounts of direct help and support in different situations. Asking, listening, and then responding out of respect for their needs is a wonderful model of parental support.

    Mark Friestad has been a youth pastor to 4th-6th graders since 2005 at North Coast Calvary Chapel in Carlsbad, CA. As part of that role, he coordinates programs for parents on healthy family life and youth development. He was also a high school teacher and worked for a nonprofit organization promoting civic education and participation by youth. He is completing work on his Master’s of Divinity from Bethel Seminary San Diego.

    I have seen this information vital for families who have children within this range of age and even need to those who have at early age to be aware and be ready because parenting needs careful attention. Since parenting is part of carving or modeling a human-being to this society. It is up to us, and have a big responsibility with the help of GOD, that the way we raise our child is our primary work in this world. It should be considered as accountable to our children’s life and will be questioned. So I am happy with your article or advise and appreciate your devotion on this.

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