How to build connection with your child: Mom/Dad vs. Parent Roles

mom and teen daughter having breakfast parent child relationship
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As a parent, you have many responsibilities in raising your kids. The onslaught of parental responsibilities today include: educational planner, activity director, organizer, taskmaster, chauffeur, emotional counselor and morals and values mentor (to name a few). With all these vastly different tasks it can be hard to keep in mind the most important part about parenting, cultivating the relationship. Connection has always been my priority in parenting my three children. Yet, keeping that safe connection can be tough with the many different tasks required in being a parent.

As a clinical therapist, I’ve helped families build stronger connections and emotional safety in their relationships for over 20 years. Having worked with teens and having raised some of my own, I know that connectedness is the key to parent-child relationships. I define connectedness as the feeling behind secure attachment.

In an effort to be conscious in creating safe, positive connections with my own children, I found myself dividing my role into two parts. I term these parts, “the Parent Role” and “the Mom/Dad Role.” This has really helped me reflect on the kinds of interactions I’m having with my own kids. It has also helped my many parent clients in creating a stronger bond with their children.

The Mom/Dad Role is the warm, loving side. This is when you enjoy each other. You have fun together, cooking, dancing, playing games, getting your nails done or playing ball in the backyard. This is when your teen feels your love the most. The Mom/Dad Role is where true connection can happen. Trust is being built. Your kids know you love them but with time spent in the Mom/Dad Role they feel you like them. They feel you want to spend time with them. This opens up the relationship for sharing, creating a safe landing place. Letting go of the to-do list and inviting true relaxation with you quickly allows home to be their sanctuary. Comfort and reassurance is felt in sharing time with you. Cultivating the most important part of the dyad, the relationship, will flow.

The Parent Role is the more instructional task of being a parent. It is filled with to-do’s. The planning, getting them to their activities, checking in on homework and all the interactions that begin with, “Have you,” “You need to” or “When are you going to.” Unfortunately these have to be done. They may be less pleasant interactions that begin with rushing, repeated direction and exasperation. You can imagine how these might not be relationship building interactions.

The Parent Role, while required, is unfortunately where we tend to get disconnected from our kids. When asking teens what percent of their interaction is negative with their parents, most say around 80%. In further discussions, teens share the majority of their interactions with their parents are around the to-do’s. This is viewed by a teen as a negative interaction and causes disconnection between teen and parent.

Now, this may come as a surprise to some parents, but, ideally, the Mom/Dad role is where we want to stay most often. The good news is that the more we stay in Mom/Dad mode, the less time we have to spend in Parent mode. As we continually build close bonds with our kids, especially into the teenage years, they become less likely to push back against us. It is the close bond of the Mom/Dad role that serves as a protective force.

I promise you that your teens want to spend time with you. I hear it daily in my sessions with teens, “I wish we did more fun things together.” They even share, “I wish I could talk about how I am feeling with my parents.” It may not always seem that way, but they may be unsure if they can go to this place with you. As the parent, you must lead. I see firsthand over and over again that once the barriers are down, teens find a sense of relief in being able to open up to their parents. One way to do this is by making yourself available to them whenever they want to talk (rather than trying to pry information out of them when you want to talk).

We all remember a time when we finally talked about something that’s been troubling us and felt better afterwards. Parents are the closest person to their child. The parent-child bond is a special one, whether biological or not. The Mom/Dad role helps create safety for emotional expression.

The truth is, the relational patterns our kids form right now will most likely carry over into their adult life in certain ways. How kids form relationships with their parents does in fact affect their ability to have healthy adult relationships.

Be conscious of spending more time in the Mom/Dad role. It will create a secure, comforting bond for you and your teen.