by Alisa Goodwin Snell
Young parents may expect to have a strong bond with their children naturally. However, there are many ways in which parents accidentally push their children away without realizing it. This is particularly common during discipline, but it can happen in any interaction.
I’ve spent over two decades educating couples and families on how to create secure attachments. There are many theories on the subject, but I have found the simplest and clearest way to understand attachment behavior is through the concept of “invitations and push aways.”
The idea of invitations and push aways was an attachment technique taught by Dr. James Harper, a marriage and family therapy professor at Brigham Young University. The examples below represent my own interpretation.
Test: Do I push my kids away or offer them invitations?
To assess whether your behaviors and words are pushing your children away or inviting them in, review the questions below. Choose an answer that best describes your behaviors.
1. When my kids want to talk, play, or get my help…
a) I don’t look them in the eyes. I stay focused on what I am doing and passively listen.
b) I tell them we can talk or do something later, but I don’t mention when or follow through.
c) I look them in the eyes and listen while still doing what I’m doing.
d) I put what I’m doing aside, listen, and use words to show them I’m tuned into their emotions.
e) I express excitement about what they’re saying, get on their level, and give them my full attention. I make one-on-one time for them most days.
2. When my kids get angry, act out, or do something I dislike…
a) I get angry, yell, lecture, or punish them.
b) I ignore them, withdraw, shut down, or get depressed.
c) I calmly address the behaviors, set boundaries, and follow through with consequences.
d) I see the bigger picture, recognize their emotions, and ask them questions to better understand their behavior. I still set boundaries and consequences, but I try to tune into them and the situation.
e) I do “d” from above, and I also focus on ways to provide positive reinforcement for good behavior.
3. When my kids are in need, struggling, stressed, or upset…
a) I tell them that they need to grow up or get over it.
b) I leave them alone and give them their space. I don’t talk about it later.
c) I ask them about their day and show them that I’m there for them.
d) I share my similar experiences and talk about the emotions I felt then. I ask them to talk about their feelings.
e) In addition to “d,” we explore options for handling the situation. I don’t pressure them to do it my way. I express confidence in their ability to problem solve. I ask what I can do to help.
4. When my kids are making poor choices…
a) I don’t hold back. I tell them exactly how I feel and why they are wrong and I am right.
b) I withdraw, assume the worst, and emotionally distance myself.
c) I ignore the problem and just act warm and respectful, hoping the issue will go away.
d) I speak up and encourage them to talk through the issue with me. I offer touch and comfort. I seek to understand the full situation and how their behavior makes sense to them. I enforce consequences but show empathy for the feelings they have about these boundaries.
e) In addition to “d,” I ask for their input on the rules and consequences in our family. I give them control when appropriate. I ask them how they would like to be closer to me. I share how I would like to be closer to them.
5. Relative to our relationship…
a) I get angry, yell, lecture, or punish them when they treat me badly.
b) I don’t punish disrespect. Instead, I use sarcasm, drop hints, or withdraw when they hurt my feelings.
c) I have clear rules and consequences about how we treat each other. Disrespect and unkindness are not tolerated.
d) I talk about my feelings and needs and how their disrespect affects me. I help them to feel more empathy and take personal responsibility to repair relationships with both me and others.
e) In addition to “d,” I discuss ways we as a family can make each other feel loved and how these things can both repair hurt feelings and maintain healthy relationships. Attending siblings’ events, eating meals together, and having fun together is a family expectation. We need to know we can depend and rely on each other.
If you responded to two or more of the questions above with “a” and “b” answers, then your words and actions are sending the message that your children are not your priority. They may assume that you are angry or indifferent toward them. They may not have a clear idea of the family rules and their responsibilities to each other. They may feel pressure to take care of themselves.
If you responded to two or more of the questions above with “c” answers, then you are sending stalemate messages. You may be available and have rules, but your children can sense that you are not fully engaged. Stalemates confuse kids about how invested you are in them. Ask yourself, “Would my kids describe our relationships the way I hope they would? Do I know what I want in our relationships?” Pondering these questions will help you know how to communicate and act with them in a way that will bring you closer.
If you responded to two or more of the questions above with “d” and “e” answers, then you are doing a good job of creating clear family rules and a safe environment for vulnerability. The more “e” answers you gave, the more skilled your children will be at knowing how to resolve conflict, empathize with others, and communicate their needs effectively.
Alisa Goodwin Snell spent 17 years as a marriage and family therapist and is now a dating and relationship coach. She’s an author and public speaker and has been featured on more than 100 TV and radio programs nationwide.