The good news is that our children are born trusting us. And trust is the basis on which we can enjoy a lifetime of togetherness with our children.
But sometimes, we teach them not to trust us. By not doing what we say. By not following through.
So how can we rebuild this trust?
If your child is very young, just make a decision to pay more attention to what you say to her, and to do it. Then reinforce that you did it. “I said we’d play on the swings this evening, and we did! Wasn’t it fun?” When you slip up, she’ll point it out. “You said you’d draw a picture with me, but you didn’t!” And you’ll have a chance to correct your error.
Over time, she will learn that you keep your word, and she will learn to keep hers too. She will learn to trust you.
For older children, because they’ve learnt not to trust over a longer time, it will take greater effort. If you have more than one child, do this individually with each one for maximum impact.
Step One: Confess. Yes, this is the only way out. Pick a time when you and your child have time – if you think it might take 15 minutes, budget for an hour. Not that you will necessarily need an hour, but she has to participate in the conversation too, so give her time to listen and understand. Give yourself time to explain and clarify. Give yourselves time to agree on a few things. Like I said, trust takes time. So make sure you have ample time on your hands.
Step Two: Pick a time when both of you are relatively calm. If you’d planned to talk to your child about it after dinner, and she’s distracted or excited or upset about something, pick another time, when she will be calmer and more able to engage with you.
Step Three: Tell your child what’s bothering you. “I feel sad (and bad, and ashamed, and…) that I say so many things, but don’t do them. When I say I’ll go biking with you, I mean to, but somehow, other things seem to take over, and we both end up feeling bad. I’d like to change that.” Correlate to something she would like to change. “You’d like to do better at math, but you need my help for it. Well, I’d like you to help me with this.”
Step Four: Talk about what goes wrong. “I get urgent work assignments.” “I’m so tired by the time I get home.” “I get distracted by other things so I don’t finish my work on time, and then I’m behind schedule, which cuts into my time with you.” “I worry about not having enough money, and this puts me in a bad mood. Then I don’t feel like doing fun things.” This is a very grave acknowledgement to make.
In essence, you are telling your child that thus far, you have put work, exhaustion, distractions and worries ahead of him. Not in so many words, but that is what you are saying. And it needs to be said (but not spelt out!). When you say this to your child, he will listen. He knows it, but hearing you admit it will make him sit up and listen. It will reassure him that this time around, you are serious about making a change, that there might just be a point to this talk the two of you are having.
Step Five: Now that you have got his attention, ask him what behavior of yours bothers him the most. Having asked him, wait for him to respond. This talk is not about your unburdening yourself. It is about both of you seeking a way to build trust. Let him come up with some answer. If there’s none, ask him what would be the top (one, two, three, five – whatever, but let’s not get too ambitious to start with :-)) thing he’d like to change about you.
He might say, “You don’t listen when I tell you something. Like when I told you I had debating practice, you nodded, but when it was time to go, you yelled at me saying I hadn’t told you before…” Make sure he gives you an instance (or two or three!) of whatever it is he’s ‘complaining’ about. This helps him clarify his thoughts, and decide which one thing he’d most like to change about your behavior with him.
Step Six: If you agree with his assessment, decide on the nature of the change you will make. If he says you embarrass him in front of his friends, ask specifically what embarrasses him. It might be the fact that you hug him, or yell at him, or are too chatty with his friends. Whatever it is, ask him precisely how he would like to see change.
“Don’t put your arm around me.” “When my friends come over, just say ‘Hello!’, then go away.”
Step Seven: Be practical. If the habit is too ingrained, you might want to negotiate. “It’ll be hard for me to change all of a sudden. Will it be okay if I don’t yell at you more than twice a day – at least to start with?” Then sit down to define ‘yelling’. Let him help you. “Will you just tell me the next time I start? Just say, ‘Mom, you’re yelling again’, and I’ll stop. Then that won’t count as a yelling. Okay?”
Step Eight: Decide when you’ll have another chat to assess your progress. At assessment time, you might decide to do away with the earlier exceptions because you’re getting better at your new behavior. 🙂 You may even decide to change other things!
Step Nine: Three little words: Go do it.
There will be times you slip up. You’ll slide back every now and then, but your child will be on your side, helping you keep track.
But more often than not, you’ll find that this ‘one’ change will change everything about your relationship with your child, and many issues will simply fizzle out.
Believe me, this works. With both boys and girls, however old or young they are. Because children love to be taken into confidence by adults. Being asked to help a parent, and that too with behavioral change, makes them feel both valuable and powerful. The very fact that you are asking your child to help you will bring you both closer than before.
All that remains is to celebrate the trust you are building with your child. I raise a toast to you!