A few years ago, my husband and I sat in our child’s middle school auditorium for a special meeting for parents presented by local health care authorities. For an hour and a half, we were given discouraging statistics about the behavior of local young teens. These statistics included teen pregnancy, substance use, violence, and criminality. They shared stunning and surprising stories regarding anonymous youth.
While I sat in my folding velour chair taking copious notes, my mind spun with questions and my heart ached for the lives negatively affected by poor choices. I could not help but wonder what these teens' homes were like. Did they have two parents in the home? Were the adults in the home married to each other? Were they “latch key kids?” What was the social climate in the home? Was there any abuse? It would take a case worker to answer these questions.
Toward the end of the evening, the speakers opened it up for questions. One earnest parent asked, “What can we do?” One of the community health nurses responded emphatically, “You need to connect with your children. The teens that are engaging in harmful behaviors do not feel connected to their parents. They are looking to other sources to fill a need that is not being met by a significant other.”
I believe most people understand that youth gravitate toward gangs looking for “family” when their own falls apart. Similarly, teens that do not feel loved at home seek love from other sources, which leads to unwanted pregnancies and single, teen mothers. Young people who are unhappy are drawn to harmful alcohol and drugs to escape their feelings.
There are accessible and meaningful solutions to this problem. We need to find ways to connect with our children on a regular basis. This may be more easily said than done, but it is possible for everyone regardless of circumstances and demographics. When and how do we start? Start now. It is never too late to build positive relationships with our children. How?
1. Spend time with them
When we spend time with our children, it's a message that we care and that they are important to us. It allows for shared experiences to happen naturally. Don’t quantify time. The more time the better. Don’t discount time driving in the car together or trips to the grocery store. Children open up when there is unstructured time.
2. Listen to them
Turn off the radio when you're driving. Put down your phone. Most kids will talk when there isn’t something competing for your time and attention—when there are quiet moments. Engage your child in a rhythmic activity working beside you, like peeling carrots or pulling weeds. When our hands are busy, our minds are free.
Notice I did not say talk toyour children. Talking with connotes give-and-take instead of one-way communication. Of course, you may need to get the conversation going with some pertinent open ended questions like, “Tell me the best part of your day.” or “What did you do today to help someone feel happy?”
4. Plan one-on-one time with each child
This may sound overwhelming, especially if you have more than one child. However, this does not need to be accomplished every day or even every week. This may only be plausible once every month. The important thing is having one-on-one time as often as possible. Go on a walk together. Throw a ball. Buy an ice cream cone. It matters to your child more than you will ever know.
5. Make and keep positive family traditions
Traditions do not need to be complicated, expensive, or time-consuming. They can be simple, thoughtful things you do for special occasions or in weekly or daily patterns. For instance, my aunt always made caramel corn and served M&M’s for family movie night each Sunday. One family recites lines from movies during dinner together. Other families organize a trip once a year.
Connecting and staying connected is the key to making and keeping happy homes where children feel valued, loved, cherished, and important. Undesirable behaviors are thwarted when we take honest stock of the challenges facing youth today. We do have the power as parents to stave off problems and heartache with an investment of time and continued effort. Connect with your child today!