When it comes to building a relationship with your child, you’re on your own. The strength of the parent-child bond is determined by the receptivity of the child and on the behaviors of the parent. 

Children are born with different levels of receptivity: some live in their own world, not interested in connecting to other human beings; some are super-connectors longing for attachment with everyone; and most are somewhere in between these two extremes. Let’s look at the “average” connector for the purposes of today’s discussion.


Your Child Needs You

Normal children are born with an intense need for connection to their primary caretakers. They need to feel loved by both their mother and father, and they want to feel loved by others in their close family circle. 

 

They want to feel liked by virtually everyone they meet, as the desire to feel welcomed and accepted is a default setting in human beings, an important craving that facilitates human survival. We live in social groups and depend on each other for the basic necessities of life. Being socially excluded is therefore a threat to our very existence; we try to avoid it at all costs.

 

Your Child Shuns You

Despite the intense need for parental approval that a child bears, it’s possible for a child to reject his mother or father. This happens when being in the parent’s presence is a painful experience. For example, if being around a parent means being yelled at, criticized, or reprimanded, the child associates the parent with pain and starts pulling back. 

Soon, the child stops seeking parental attention, preferring to entertain and soothe himself in other ways. He puts a wall around himself and lives his life “independently,” peeping out only to receive food, health care, and birthday gifts when offered. By the time this child is a teenager, he or she may be a virtual stranger to the parent. 

Sometimes the withdrawal only starts in later adolescence, resulting in a stronger separation that is facilitated by schooling and marriage in distant locals. Skype might as well not exist; it won’t be utilized to strengthen the already weak bond.

 

Triangulation and Parental Alienation

Many parents feel that their spouse is robbing them of their rightful parent-child bond. For example, a wife might claim that her husband plays the “good cop” to her “bad cop” — she’s the one who sees to it that homework is done, bath and bedtime happens, and kids get off to school on time. He’s the one who plays with them, jokes with them, and even makes fun at Mom’s expense. 

If she tries to discipline the kids, he tells her to “let it pass.” The family is “triangulated,” with the children aligned with the father against the mother. Eventually the kids come to see their mother as an ogre, while their father is the lovable hero. 

In cases of separation or divorce, a similar dynamic occurs under the name “parental alienation.” Here, one parent maligns the other to the point where the children lose respect and affection for him or her. For example, a mother tells the children that their father is a “good-for-nothing” who doesn’t pay his bills. As a result, the children cannot relate to this man in a trusting, loving way. 

Although some parents try their hardest to make their partner or ex-partner look very bad, even victims of this mistreatment can usually save their relationship with their child. The trick is in maintaining a very firm 80-20 ratio in parenting: the ratio of “good feeling” to “not-so-good feeling” communications. 

Playing “bad cop” to the other parent’s “good cop” ruins one’s ratio. Refusing to set limits (in order to counterbalance a partner’s lack of limits) doesn’t work either because it can turn a much maligned parent into a disrespected doormat. Instead, no matter what a spouse or ex-spouse does, one always needs to maintain the ratio: 80% positive, loving attention and 20% boundary-setting/guidance attention. 

When determining your ratios, keep in mind that all instructions (“Time for bed, sweetie”) are in the 20%. The strength of the parent-child bond depends on the way it feels to be in the parent’s presence — and very little else. Your eight out of ten positive, appreciative, affectionate, interesting communications make it very nice to be around you — and that experience can’t be undone by anyone else’s negativity. 

When it comes to building relationships with your children, you’re really on your own — it’s what you say and do that counts.