Last fall, I participated in an almost universal rite of passage: I sent my eldest child off to school for the first time. At the same time, my youngest daughter entered the “terrible 2s” and decided she could do everything “self, self.”
These changes left me longing to slow the clock—until the memories of midnight feedings and diaper changes brought me back to reality. Ultimately, I realized that what I truly desired was what all parents want—to remain close to our children as they mature.
Experts in parent-child bonding and parents themselves understand this need and have many hints for keeping close while children grow up.
Not just for babies
When children are first born, they demand and usually receive their parents’ full attention. We hold them and gaze into their eyes. These intimate interactions create a lasting emotional connection between parent and child. This bond is extremely important to an infant’s development. As a result, bonding is often thought of in reference to newborns. But bonding is not just baby stuff.
In his book Becoming Attached, psychologist Robert Karen explains that a child’s bond with his or her parents is not fully developed until 18 months of age. But once it is formed, the strength of the parent-child bond has lasting effects on the happiness and development of children, adolescents and adults. For example, studies show that school-age children who have formed a more secure bond have been found to be more cooperative with their parents and get along better with other children.
And the parents’ bonds with their own mothers and fathers may also influence the adults’ relationships with their children. Jill Thomas, Lake Zurich mother of Tyler, 10, and Elizabeth, 6, gives much of the credit for her own warm interactions with her children to her parents. “They modeled [this affectionate] behavior,” she says.
Naperville resident Shilpa Jobalia, mother of Sedona, 2, and Aiyana, 10 months, says her relationship with her parents has grown even stronger in recent years and has helped her as a parent. “We talk about everything,” she says. “I think we have even become closer over the past year as my sister and I entered parenthood.”
How does the bond change?
As children age, the bond between a parent and child goes through a number of changes as well. But staying close does not mean your children will want to be with you for the rest of their lives.
Dr. Linda Wark, associate professor and chair of the department of human services at Indiana University-Purdue University, says that as children get older they gradually experience increasing independence. n Infancy. In infancy, the parent-child bond begins to develop through an interactive process in which the parent responds sensitively to the child, meeting both the child’s basic physical and emotional needs through exchanges that include playing games, touch, smiles and eye contact, Wark says.
For example, after adopting her daughters, Julia and Samantha, from Guatemala at 6 and 12 months of age, Lynne Morrow, a north suburban mother, remembers using music throughout the day to help strengthen her emotional connection with them. By singing to the girls, now 4 and 2, while changing, feeding or dressing them, Morrow could transform an ordinary interaction into a special moment that had emotional importance as well.
As a healthy bond forms, children develop the ability to hold on to a mental image of their parents, even when the parents are not present. This allows the toddler to gradually become more independent. As this occurs, parents may notice their children exploring more on their own while still checking back in with their parents for security. For example, toddlers will crawl away from their parents to investigate a new toy or interesting object while still looking over their shoulders to make sure that Mom or Dad is still there.
• Toddlerhood. Linda Eisle*, former executive director of the Association for Treatment and Training in the Attachment of Children in Lake Villa, says that as children move into the terrible 2s they are especially focused on their emerging independence. Parents often start to notice that their child may “not listen to them sometimes or say ‘no,’ ” and it is normal for parents to second-guess their bond with their child at this point. Eisle stresses that this increase in independence, although sometimes difficult, helps the child to “figure out who they are as being different from their parent.”
*Since this story was reported, Linda Eisle has died.
• Ages 3-7. As children enter preschool or the early elementary grades, they are increasingly independent and better able to withstand separations from their parents. However, children of this age generally still enjoy being with their parents. For example, children now may leave for school in the morning without objection, but return home with special pictures or crafts.
• Ages 8-12. The so-called “latency years” are called that for a reason, Eisle says: “The reason is things go latent or underground, and kids often don’t talk with their parents the way they did when they were 5 or 6.” Again, she notes, this is normal. Thomas says she gets her son Tyler to open up by making him a snack after school. “When his tummy is full and he is relaxed, then he will talk,” she says.
• Adolescence. As children reach adolescence, they enter a second period in which there is a strong focus on separating from their parents. “If the parents are Democrats, then the kids become Republican,” Eisle says. “They do everything the opposite because then they have to come back to the middle and figure out where they are, but that’s what drives parents crazy.”
As children get older, with varying degrees, they will want to talk and confide in their parents. Sara Peters of downstate Champaign, mother of Tara, 23, Erica, 21, and Carrie, 19, has found this to be true with her daughters. “People assume that they can’t be close to their kids [in adolescence] but you definitely can. You don’t have to act like them or dress like them. You just have to love them and love being with them.”
Fixing a broken bond
As your children become older, is it still possible to strengthen your connection with them? Yes—with these approaches.
• Keep in touch. To help strengthen bonds with older children, Wark encourages parents to go back to the things that create a bond with infants—touch, eye contact and empathy. For example, sit next to your children while reading, working on an assignment or watching a movie; sit knee-to-knee while playing a board game or simply sit across from each other and make sustained eye contact during dinner.
• Walk in their shoes. Wark calls this “empathetic responding.” It starts when parents are sensitive to their children’s needs and respond to them in a way that meets those needs at that time. Thomas says she likes to “be active” with Tyler and Elizabeth. It helps her understand and meet their emotional needs. For example, when her son was younger, Thomas gave him a hammer and nails and let him pound away when he was frustrated. For her daughter, she used to bring out the Play-Doh. Now Thomas’ daughter colors and writes in her diary.
• Focus on the big things. Both parents and professionals note that giving children an age-appropriate level of independence can help keep the parent-child relationship strong. Parents say it’s important to do this gradually, letting children try new skills under supervision and offering more privileges as they demonstrate they are responsible enough to handle them.
And stay focused on what’s really important. On a recent Sunday, a frazzled teen raced into my church just before the sermon began. He squeezed in next to his father, prepared for a rebuke. Instead his dad turned to him, put his arm around his shoulder and said, “You’re just in time.” This demonstration of understanding on the father’s part immediately changed their whole interaction.
• Make the time. Experts, as well as parents, stress the importance of continuing to spend time with your children as they mature.
Flexibility can be the key here. Peters knows how to be flexible and doesn’t let the setting impact her connection with her adolescent and young-adult daughters. “Just keep talking,” she says, “in the car—whatever.” She also encourages parents to “make use of the time [teenagers] don’t,” such as chats over breakfast and early evening activities that finish in time for the teens to make it to their own social activities.
• Get interested in their stuff. Kids always appreciate when their parents show an interest in the things that matter to them. Maggie Van Schaayk, 9, of Hinsdale, says she enjoys hanging out with her friends and their fathers in her Indian Princesses group. Her favorite family activities, Maggie says, are when “[my father and I] go camping out with my friends and their dads.”
If camping isn’t an option for your family, try inviting some of your children’s friends to family events. And let them know you value their work. George Dempsey, Hinsdale dad of five children ages 36 to 45, has kept a file of each of his kid’s most important papers for decades. It is something they have always remembered.
Or try one of their favorite things: I’ll never forget that my father learned to play soccer at age 40 for his kids. You can also turn their activities into a celebration. Go out for dinner or ice cream after a big game, test or contest, regardless of whether they win or lose.
After you go this extra mile to develop a secure bond with your kids, you can face the gradual letting go more confidently—you’ll know that although your relationship may change, you and your children will remain connected.
As Wark puts it, a strong bond will help ensure that, “Your children will still want you to be their parents, and you can weather the ups and downs.”
Tracy Frizzell is a writer living in Hinsdale with her husband, Brian, and daughters, Elenea, 6, and Jenna, 3.