Parenting is one of the hardest challenges in life. It’s a tough job that never ends and takes work to improve at every stage. But there’s nothing quite as rewarding as watching someone you love most become their greatest and happiest self. We spoke with Dr. Casey Gamboni, a therapist and teaching and supervising faculty member at the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, and consulted guides offered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Education, to understand how parents can foster a healthier, stronger relationship with their children.
Listen to them
To build a relationship with your child that will stand the test of time as they become adults, Gamboni suggests learning to actively listen more and handing out orders less. “I think something that could be beneficial for children or adults is to just listen to them, as opposed to telling them what to do,” Gamboni said. “I know that is a huge shift for emerging adults because parents are doing a lot less of telling their child what to do while listening and garnering insight from their child, but I think basic, active listening skills will go a very long way.”
When your child was young, things were either your way or the highway, but as they age, Gamboni recommends projecting less power and allowing your child to feel empowered by making their own decisions. “What could really diffuse the tension or decrease the potential for offensiveness is to just fuse the power differential,” Gamboni said. “When the 18-year-old or 20-something is really coming into their own, they’re also garnering a lot of agency and confidence within themselves.
I think something parents could do to help their child garner that power and agency are not as power projecting as they once were when they were raising their child below the age of 18.”
Show an interest in their interests by asking questions
Whether it be a fun skill they’ve mastered or a cool online class they’re taking, when your child shares an interest in something new, engage in conversation to show that you’re invested in their happiness. “If your child is bringing up a topic that you are very unfamiliar with, a way to show your interest is just by asking questions in a polite, non-defensive manner,” Gamboni said. “I think people like to play an expert role to an extent, and one thing that could increase the child’s confidence is by having the parent create a welcoming, safe space for them to educate.
The parent could do that by active listening, asking questions, and paraphrasing and reflecting what they’re hearing.”
Help them navigate life socially and emotionally
Controlling every aspect of your child’s life won’t help them grow into well-rounded adults, but you should still do your part to help them navigate life socially and emotionally. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Population Affairs, parents have more influence than peers on important decisions made by their children, including whether they smoke, use alcohol, or take drugs.
Parents should provide the necessary support and affection to help their children understand how their choices can affect their health and well-being.
Allow them to make mistakes
Part of parenthood is wanting to see your child accomplish important milestones while avoiding the pitfalls of life. But everyone makes mistakes. Gamboni suggests allowing your child to make a mistake or two because, in the end, they’ll most likely gain more than they’ll lose.
“You need to have your child learn by mistakes,” Gamboni said. “Even if you disagree with the decision, even if it comes back to negatively impact them, it’s still a learning opportunity for the child.”
Guide, but don’t control
According to the U.S. Department of Education, maintaining a healthy relationship with your adolescent child means knowing when to enforce rules and when to allow freedom. The easiest way to strike this balance is learning to guide, but not to control.
Your child needs to learn to try different things and make mistakes but also needs guidance on how to avoid harmful slip-ups. The U.S. Department of Education recommends asking questions that help your child think about the results of their actions.
Don’t broach conversations that will make them feel belittled
If there are certain topics that your child hates discussing — like questions about when they’ll have children or get married — stop having those conversations. Ignoring their emotions and having insensitive chats can make them feel belittled. “Every child has a different impact, meaning every child is going to have their topics or the way that things are presented to them that will have them feel smaller and make them feel belittled,” Gamboni said.
“A lot of the time, a parent knows what those topics are. It’s a matter of closeness.”
Get to know them
Ever hear your favorite TV mom tell their child “It’s like I don’t even know you anymore”? Chances are, as a parent, you’ve felt that way too. It’s because your child is forever changing. Who they were as a teen isn’t who they’ll be as an adult, and as they continue to experience life, they’ll keep evolving.
Getting to know your child is a lifelong experience. “When you are a parent, you think you know your relationship with your child and you think you know your child,” Gamboni said. “And then it takes [your child] moving away, not seeing your child as often, and having your child work off of different influences that don’t involve you to have you really get to know them. This presents an opportunity for the parent to get to know the child again now that they aren’t living under their roof.”
But ask consent before asking personal questions
Getting to know your child might mean unknowingly diving into questions your child isn’t comfortable answering. Before asking personal questions, Gamboni suggests asking consent to see if your child is OK with the direction the conversation is headed. “Asking consent before asking questions allows the person to give consent and prepare for the topic that is about to be addressed,” Gamboni said.
“I think you run into a boundary violation when you jump into a topic without asking for consent and jumping into a topic that could be crossing the line. Everyone has their own definition of what that line is.”
Create secure boundaries
There are relationship boundaries you might not realize you’re violating when it comes to your child, like asking insensitive questions about their personal lives. To show you respect for your child, Gamboni suggests establishing secure boundaries. “We can have diffused boundaries, rigid boundaries, but there’s also a thing called secure boundaries,” Gamboni said.
“How to create secure boundaries is through communication that is on the same page and understanding what is and isn’t a violation to your child’s space.”