It’s always the parent’s (or teacher’s) job to take responsibility for creating connection with a child; it’s never the child’s responsibility to initiate connection.
I see this get turned around sometimes, when parents or teachers use a child’s behaviour to justify their own disconnecting actions.
- a child speaks “rudely” to the parent or teacher, and the parent (or teacher) feels justified in reprimanding the child or creating a punitive consequence (and maybe even using a shaming tone)
- a teenager yells at her Mom that she hates her when Mom has set a limit. When it’s time to repair after the conflict, Mom expects the teen to make the first move or apologize because their behaviour was “wrong” or “disrespectful”, instead of empathizing with how her teen was feeling
It’s common among parents of teens because sometimes teens are more reactive—experiencing big emotions, and still not having developed the capacity to contain those emotions while remaining level-headed. We often expect teens to do better. After all, they almost look like adults and we believe they “should” know better.
Parents and teachers who haven’t yet developed the capacity to hold steady with equanimity during kids’ reactions will be more likely to respond by demanding respect, or by saying or doing something to shut the child or teen down rather than connecting with them.
Reasons we do this:
- We feel entitled to have their respect, as adults, parents or teachers
- We believe our age or role in their lives give us authority over them (We do have a responsibility and a commitment to guide them with love while also setting limits—I’m not advocating permissive parenting. However responsibility is different from authority over.)
- We don’t realize that building connection and relationship is a critical first step that not only meets their belonging needs, but must happen before they can learn from us
- We were shut down or punished ourselves for this type of behaviour when growing up, and we therefore believe that it’s the only way to get our child to behave in a socially appropriate way
- We’re afraid that if we don’t use these tactics, they won’t learn how to behave appropriately
- We get triggered by their behaviour (we’re afraid when we realize that we can’t control their behaviour and the consequences of that)
- Our anxiety rises when we feel disconnected from them, and the disconnection triggers us into a fear that we won’t be able to re-connect with them or influence them (resulting in
Kids trigger the somatic memories (memories held in our bodies) of our most painful past experiences. Their behaviour also prompts us to behave in ways that expose the beliefs and “parenting scripts” we subconsciously learned when we were being parented. If those memories and past experiences included being disconnected from our parents or other adults in our lives, we will automatically behave in ways that disconnect from them.
Kids want to be connected to us (yes, even your teen who doesn’t act like they do), and they need to feel seen, heard and understood. And when it comes to connection, we always need to take a leadership role in showing them how it’s done. It’s not a “level playing field” on which it’s “their move” if they’ve made a mistake—they need to learn from us.
We can have compassion for ourselves as parents and teachers for sometimes slipping into our old patterns or getting irritated—after all, we’re human. But once we get our own emotions regulated, we need to repair the relationship by apologizing and acknowledging our mistake.
Justifying your behaviour based on what the child did first is falling into the role of acting emotionally childlike yourself instead of taking an adult leadership role.
Our kids and teens need us to maintain our ability to accept and connect with them regardless of how they’re behaving. If we can’t show them by role modelling it so they can experience receiving it, they’ll have no one to learn this skill from. Someone has to be the leader, and that’s us. And it’s hard if we weren’t treated that way ourselves as kids or teens, but we can learn now as adults.
Our children will eventually initiate and take responsibility for connecting with us and others after they’ve experienced us doing it repeatedly while they are growing up. That’s how we’ll stay connected to our kids and create emotionally mature, empathetic adults capable of being in healthy relationships.