Communicating Empathy: A Recipe for Closeness and Connection
So often we're asked about the specifics of what parents should say to guide their kids while still giving them room to make their own decisions. Indeed, that's what this book's about-communicating in a way that fosters a healthy sense of control. Our goal in this chapter is to adopt the role of Cyrano de Bergerac, sharing what words might work, and to weave that advice together with a little Robert Sapolsky, explaining the brain science behind why.
In our first book, we emphasized the importance of autonomy-of kids having a sense of control over their own lives. Autonomy has a starring role in this book, too, although we focus on how to promote it through conversation. This first chapter, though, steps back to lay the groundwork for future independence, because before we can promote their autonomy, we have to be connected to our kids, and they to us. A strong connection with a parent is the closest thing to a silver bullet for preventing mental health problems in kids. A healthy bond with a parent is a predictor of emotional health and resilience, and it can lessen the impact of even significant adversity on a child's health and, eventually, on their life span. A close relationship with parents allows kids to feel safe, accepted, and respected-which ultimately helps them develop a sense of control and the self-drive that goes with it.
Building closeness begins in the first months of an infant's life when parents and other caregivers respond to the baby's needs. Through repeated interactions, infants and toddlers learn that a caregiver can be trusted to feed them, change their diaper, help them fall asleep, and comfort them when they're upset. With a secure attachment, toddlers then use their parents as a safe base from which to explore their world-and to which to retreat if things are too stressful. A secure bond with a caregiver (usually a parent) is the most important outcome of the first eighteen months of life, as children who feel securely bonded to their caregivers have stronger emotional regulation, are more likely to develop healthy self-motivation, achieve at higher levels, and are happier and more confident than those who don't.
Kids don't stop needing connection with their parents as they get older. In many ways, they need it more. Still, the ways in which we connect change over time. Ten-year-olds can feed themselves; sixteen-year-olds don't need to be picked up when they cry. But they still need closeness, and they always benefit from warmth and responsiveness. Although teens are biologically driven to spend more time with peers-and to push their parents away to some extent as they forge their own identities-when they feel close to their parents, they are much less likely to develop anxiety or mood disorders, abuse drugs or alcohol, or engage in delinquent behavior. They are also more likely to listen to their parents rather than exclusively to their peers. They are more likely to integrate their parents' values as their own. This is key because no one can make a child do anything. Parents can't make them work hard, or care about others, or nurture a spiritual life, or vote Democrat or Republican, or even vote at all. But if kids are close to their parents, and the parents value hard work, caring about others, spirituality, and civic engagement, their children are much more likely to as well.
When Ned's son, Matthew, was a sophomore in high school, they were taking a walk one afternoon when Matthew asked an important question. He was planning to attend a school dance that evening, and then a party at a friend's house afterward. He was concerned there would be drinking at the party. He asked Ned, "What should I do if kids are drinking alcohol?"
Ned suppressed an urge to pump a fist in the air and holler, Yes! Parenting win! My kid is talking to me about this! Instead, he suggested they do some mental role-playing of different scenarios, and what Matthew might do in each.
Matthew's coming to Ned was a very vulnerable move. Matthew trusted his parents, because his parents had long trusted him. Ned could have said, "What? Drinking! You're not going to that party!" Had Ned and his wife, Vanessa, constantly been on Matthew or failed to treat him respectfully in general, Matthew never would have risked sharing his concerns. Instead, they had a great conversation about the pros and cons of staying at the party versus leaving. As they talked, the issues became more nuanced. Matthew confessed he was really bothered by a cautionary tale he'd heard about a student who'd attended a party where people were drinking. One kid was so incapacitated that the police and paramedics were called. While most of the partygoers fled, a student stayed to take care of the incapacitated kid, and as a result was fined $500 for being at a party where there was underage drinking. The moral of this story, as Matthew seemed to understand from classmates, was "don't be guilty by association." Ned told Matthew he saw it differently. What if this kid who stayed actually saved the other's life? He was fined $500, which was unfortunate, but wasn't that more than worth it to save a life?
The point is, when our kids feel close to us, these nuanced conversations-about values, ethics, and consequences-are possible. And there are more and more of them as kids grow up.
Fostering and Maintaining Connection
A close attachment requires the development of a one-on-one bond with a parent, and the power of "private" time never diminishes. The way we get to really know someone is to spend time alone with them. If you have dinner with a married couple or a group of friends, you can feel close to your companions, but true intimacy requires being one-on-one. This is as true for parent-child relationships as it is for any relationship, and we've seen dramatic turnarounds in discouraged kids when parents started to spend one-on-one time with them-instead of just family time. This is clearly easier to do if you have one child than if you have five, but even when you are dealing with just one or two kids it can be hard to carve out the time to be alone with them.
A friend of ours, Raina, worried that she was losing her connection with her middle school daughter. Though the busy family prioritized time together, it was just that: time that all of them were together. Then one day Raina and her daughter had two hours to kill in between errands. They went on a long walk, and Raina said it was like the floodgates opened. "She told me everything-not just about what was going on in her life, but about what was in her brain. She went from talking about a cafeteria drama to how she would decorate her dorm room one day, to whether dogs could cry, to what she wanted for dinner." All that was in her head had been there when she was surly that morning. But having her mom's undivided attention let the stream of consciousness flow.
Bill feels lucky that he learned about the power of one-on-one time when his kids were very young. He had weekly dates with each of his two kids from when they were three until they left for college. There are 168 hours in a week, he always thought to himself, so surely I can devote two of them to one-on-one time with the most precious things in my life. When the kids were little, they'd draw or play a game with Bill, and as they got older, private time often involved Bill pitching or hitting grounders to them, going for ice cream, riding with the kids while they practiced driving, or running an errand together that they were both interested in. Bill would usually ask the kids what they wanted to do for private time, and if they weren't sure, he'd offer choices. He promised not to take any phone calls, and every week he'd write the time for the next week's private time in the family calendar. He also consciously made eye contact with his kids during private time (and throughout the week as well). Research has documented the extremely powerful effects when two people look into each other's eyes for a few minutes. There's also important research showing that what people really feel, while they may try to hide it, is given away by the smallest of expressions around the eyes. While we don't need to "stare" at our kids, making eye contact when we talk is a powerful way to connect with them.
Especially in an era of smartphones and multitasking, when our attention is really divided, something as seemingly simple as focusing your full attention on someone else is powerful. One high schooler told us he liked talking to his mom, but not his dad, because "When I talk to my dad he doesn't seem as interested. He looks around, goes on his phone, doesn't really look at me." Your full attention shows them they are worth your time. Luckily, Ned learned this lesson before kids came along. Early in his career, when Ned would come home from work, he and Vanessa would have dinner together and Ned would have half his attention focused on the newspaper. It's understandable, really-he was mentally fried and the paper was a bit of a mindless temptation. But Vanessa's perspective is understandable, too-she felt like what she had to say wasn't as worthy of Ned's attention as the paper was, and she told him that. It was hard for her to say, and hard for Ned to hear. But he heeded the oft-given advice to treat people like they have a sign on their forehead that says make me feel important. Now, decades later, their two teenagers keep honored seats at the table-the paper still isn't welcome. (And neither are smartphones!)
Individual time matters, and proximity matters. Show your kids you care by sitting alongside them-even when they're playing dress-up . . . or, more likely, video games. Several experts have suggested that one of the best ways parents can help regulate their children's use of video games, in fact, is to understand the games and even play with them. At a talk we gave some years ago, a father, nearly in tears, described his supreme frustration with his elementary-school-aged son effectively shutting himself away for hours at a time playing "some STUPID video game." Ned asked what game his son played. "I have no idea," said the dad. "Something that's a complete waste of time." As we'll talk more about in Chapter 8, we can more effectively guide our kids' use of technology if we watch them play or see how they use their social media.
Proximity also means showing up and being present at events that are meaningful to our kids-like their games, performances, birthdays, and parent-teacher meetings. Obviously, you won't be able to attend everything that's important to them. But you can say, "You have two games a week for the next few months, and as much as I'd love to, I can't go to all of them. Which are most important to you? I want to be sure I am there when it matters most to you." The being present part means actually paying attention to your kids at these events and not to your phone or other adults. There are few more powerful ways to show kids that they are loved and important to us than to take time out of our day to share something that's important to them.
Look, we get it-you're not going to love everything your kid does. But finding an area of shared interest is incredibly helpful for connection. A friend of ours loves outdoor sports and competition of any sort. He wanted nothing more than for his kids to share his love for any one of a variety of sports-he wasn't picky!-and had dreams of coaching them one day in whichever one they chose. But his daughters love theater, music, and crafting and have no interest whatsoever in anything competitive or, overly physical, or in anything that takes place outside. So they've found some middle ground. They have movie rituals together, and they all became passionate about the Percy Jackson book series. This dad also acknowledges to them that while he doesn't love theater the way they do, he loves being with them and hearing them sing. He also makes sure to use his daughters as resources in areas where they're skilled, which communicates respect and fosters connection. For instance, since the girls are so into music, he asks them to make him exercise playlists based on their favorite songs.
Family rituals also offer a way to connect with our kids and let them know that they are important members of our family. Rituals don't have to be elaborate. One of Bill's family rituals when he was growing up was getting drive-in burgers on Christmas Eve on the way to his grandparents' house. Rituals can involve religious practices, making pizza every Sunday, or something like going to the library together once a week. One mom reported that when she drops her kids off at school, each kid gives her a fist bump and says "Team Jackson," before hopping out of the car. It's a way to give them confidence before they go out to face their day, to stay unified, and to remind them that they are part of something larger than themselves.
Individual time, proximity, shared interests, and family rituals-these elements together foster a pretty simple foundation for closeness. We worry, though, that more and more parents are missing out on this closeness with their kids, and that the kids are missing out in the process. Twenty years ago, researcher Suniya Luthar was shocked to discover that kids from affluent families and high-achieving schools are actually at significantly higher risk than kids from disadvantaged families for anxiety and mood disorders, for chemical use and abuse, for self-injury, and for certain kinds of delinquent behaviors-a finding that remains true today. The two main factors that appear to explain this finding are excessive pressure to excel and a lack of closeness to parents. Many affluent parents are surprised by the latter finding, particularly those who spend a lot of time driving their kids to practices, rehearsals, tutoring, and therapy-and are intimately familiar with their kids' school assignments and grades. That's proximity, sure, but without the other three: individual time, shared interests, and family rituals that make kids feel like they belong to something larger than themselves. As a result, the kids from these families don't feel as emotionally close to-or as connected with-their parents. Ned recently asked one of his clients, the daughter of extremely wealthy parents, who she feels closest to in her life. She answered, "My nanny." Ned asked who she feels next closest to and she answered, "My driver." Ouch.
Copyright © 2021 by William Stixrud, PhD. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.