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Self-Improvement Column: Re-establishing spousal and parent/child relationships

By Jeff Hartwig MA, PPS, LPCC  
Self-Improvement Columnist, Canyon Lake Insider 

Encourage, nurture, and affirm. Regardless of the family dynamic, these three simple words have assisted many of my clients in re-establishing both spousal and parent/child relationships.

Take for example the plight of a father concerned about the growing distance with his middle school daughter. It can be concerning when a once normally communicative youth becomes silent at the dinner table. The conversation may begin to wane during car rides to and from school, soon to be replaced with texts to friends and social media posts (I will delve deeper into the electronic dopamine distraction, aka smartphone, in a future article).

Efforts to inquire about friends, school, and extra-curricular activities are received with the obligatory “fine” or “it’s good” responses. Returning home at the end of the day may consist of slipping through the front door and retreating into the bedroom until dinner. Does this sound familiar?

My wife and I have also gone through this scenario with our kids when they were young and still lived at home. We certainly have felt the pain of being excluded and experienced the concern of briefly losing touch with our children.

There is hope. There are several ways to improve and restore personal interactions. In my professional experience, utilizing the strategy of actively interjecting three words during responses from the non-communitive child or adult will, over time, undoubtedly deliver results.

  1. An objection/complaint provides opportunities to encourage.
  2. Adverse circumstances can elicit a nurturing response.
  3. A victory, achievement, or overcoming a challenge gives cause to affirm. 

The continued and ongoing genuine use of these words will eventually allow the child to slowly seek out the parent, knowing they will not receive the standard responses of, “Here is what you do” or “I told you that you’d be good at volleyball,” or “Oh, you’ll be fine, just get another friend.”

The next piece of information that I am about to share has literally changed lives. I taught a parenting class for over four years and made it a point to stress implementing my “Availability Clause.” This concept is simple. As a parent, you drop everything when your child has been away at school or outing, approaches you, and has something to tell you. It typically consists of about five minutes of your undivided attention.

It looks like this: “Hey, check it out, Dad.” Your child is now giving you 100 percent of their mind. They want feedback and interaction from you. If you tell them, “Wait, I’m busy,” “Not right now,” or “I’ll see you in a minute,” etc., they’ll go away. If you happen to return to see them about what they wanted, your child may not give you that same 100 percent they had initially. In fact, it is likely that their involvement and communication may now be diminished or even nonexistent. For example, in this scenario, you might get a “Never mind, it’s not a big deal.”

Parents are busier than ever; however, seizing these little moments to stop and reciprocate that same initial energy to your child, consistently every single time will develop trust and pay dividends as your child grows and matures.

Many of my clients have utilized this and some have thanked me for guiding them to these small benign, innocuous actions and have experienced positive results. Does it happen overnight? We are impatient, aren’t we? No, it won’t be overnight, but should you decide to use these actions, the end result will be beneficial.

Remember, there is a time limit for your children to be under your direction, control, and guidance. Think hard, can the dishes wait five minutes? Will your work wait five minutes? Are you willing to sacrifice five minutes knowing you are banking time for the future in your child’s mind?

I have had parents state valid circumstances (I have three kids, I work from home, I run a business, etc.) I never argue. I understand that change is hard. Whether child or spouse, today, I challenge each reader to discover your “why” for making a change for your family.

Jeff Hartwig is a licensed clinical therapist and founder of 1 Focus Counseling in Canyon Lake. The information in this article is for informational purposes and not clinical advice, nor should it be taken or applied as a replacement for clinical advice. If you or someone you know is in crisis or in danger of harming self or others, call 911.

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