We live in a quick-fix world where it’s easy to think that popping a pill is the solution to preventing or treating any ailment. Even for the naturopaths among us, the first assumption can be that good health comes in the form of a vitamin or supplement bottle. In the quest for natural parenting, then, it’s easy to overlook the importance of emotionally healthy relationships.
Yet for diseases like mental illness and addiction — conditions that, since the advent of the smartphone, are reportedly afflicting a rising number of children in this country — an emotionally healthy parent-child relationship is probably one of the best preventative “home remedies” out there. For example, recent research in the world of social psychiatry has revealed that having an emotionally close, supportive relationship was more effective than an antidepressant at treating symptoms of depression. Similarly, new findings in addiction science show that healthy relationships of love and support are one of the best predictors of successful long-term recovery.
As an addiction therapist, I spend a lot of time helping clients and their loved ones address the interpersonal family dynamics of an addiction and build healthier relationships. We talk a lot about the necessity for “healthy boundaries” and define what those are. We also work on building better communication skills and stronger emotional connections. And as a parent myself, I have come to believe that many of these same tools and insights from the world of recovery have more universal parenting applications. On that note, here is some guidance for building an emotionally healthy relationship with your child.
Keys to an Emotionally Healthy Relationship
First, what are the keys to an emotionally healthy relationship? As a parent, you can strive for the following:
- Firm but loving boundaries
- Good communication
Firm but Loving Boundaries
Healthy boundaries are firm but loving boundaries that don’t “enable” (in the language of recovery) problem behaviors and disciplinary issues. As a parent, you can enact firm but loving boundaries by:
- Communicating clear and consistent rules and expectations, and abiding by them
- Letting your “no” be “no”
- Directly addressing problem behavior, by letting your child know what action you will take if they continue the behavior—being specific—and keeping your word if the behavior continues
- Allowing your child to experience the negative consequences of poor choices or problem behaviors (within reason)
- Encouraging your child to take responsibility for their actions when these hurt others (similar to “the making of amends” in 12-step recovery)
- Not doing for your child what they are capable of doing on their own
- Taking a collaborative, solution-directed approach to shared challenges, rather than assigning blame
Good communication is key to an emotionally healthy relationship. Here are some recovery-inspired tips for how to communicate effectively with your child:
- Pick a time that is conducive for conversation, whether around the dinner table or before bed.
- Get weekly, one-on-one quality time, so that you can connect with your child.
- Listen carefully: give your child your full presence when they are talking with you. Turn off and tune out potential distractions, like a smartphone or TV. Give eye contact.
- Be an active listener when you can, by voicing back to your child what you hear them saying and asking if you’ve heard them correctly.
- Don’t interrupt or butt in when your child is speaking.
- When you talk with your child, keep preaching or lecturing to a minimum.
- Avoid put-downs.
- Be honest about your feelings related to specific behaviors, and invite your child to share theirs. Honesty is also essential to healthy communication.
- Refrain from using judgmental language like “You should be ashamed of yourself.”
- In the tradition of a 12-step group, thank your child for sharing—and let them know how much you appreciate talking with them.
- Regularly use words of positive affirmation to praise your child.
- Use non-verbal communication—a hug or high-five here or there—to express your affection.
Empathizing with your child and modeling empathy with others can also help you build an emotionally healthy relationship. What is empathy? Empathy is compassion: feeling with another person, as opposed to feeling sorry for another person (which is sympathy).
In the world of recovery, addiction clinicians like myself often refer to the work of social scientist Brené Brown in helping clients develop empathy and understand the difference between empathy and sympathy. Oftentimes, substance abuse has blunted a client’s capacity for emotional connection with others. Research has shown, for example, that alcoholic men suffer from a deficit in empathy — so in treatment and recovery, the task of strengthening family relationships entails helping clients develop their empathic self.
You can get practical tips for how to cultivate empathy in your child from the Harvard School of Education’s “Making Caring Common Project.”
Finally, no parent-child relationship can be truly emotionally healthy if you are not practicing and modeling forgiveness.
Walk into any 12-step recovery group and chances are, you’ll hear some refrain of this theme of forgiveness or “letting go” of the past. Members are taught to admit their wrongs and actively seek forgiveness from those they have wronged, by making amends whenever possible.
You can take a similar approach with your child, by:
- Asking for their forgiveness when you mess up
- Teaching them to say sorry when they have wronged you or someone else
- Modeling forgiveness in your relationship with your spouse
- Encouraging your child to view their mistakes, failures, and imperfections as positive teaching moments and character-building lessons
Firm but loving boundaries. Good communication. Empathy. Forgiveness. Together, they comprise one of the best preventative home remedies for addiction and mental illness — namely, an emotionally healthy relationship with your child.
About the author: Anna Ciulla is the Vice President of Clinical and Medical Services at Beach House Center for Recovery where she is responsible for designing, implementing and supervising the delivery of the latest evidence-based therapies for treating substance use disorders. Anna has a passion for helping clients with substance use and co-occurring disorders achieve successful long-term recovery.