It's not enough to love your kids equally
In part two of this series, John Sharry looks at how we need to love our children uniquely, not just equally
Enjoyment is very important when it comes to close family relationships. Photograph: IStock
In this six-part series, John Sharry advises parents on how to promote emotional wellbeing and confidence in children and teenagers
When your child walks into the room, does your face light up? Because that is all they are really looking for from you. Let your face speak what’s in your heart. Toni Morrison on the Oprah Show
One of the main reasons children suffer a lack of confidence or poor self-esteem is that they are comparing themselves to others. Children feel unconfident in school if they are not doing as well in exams as others or they feel insecure in the family because they feel another sibling is doing better than them or has greater qualities than them. Many of these comparisons are exacerbated in schools as the formal exam system focuses on a narrow band of achievement (where only a few succeed) rather than helping every child find their unique talents and niche in life.
In families parents can inadvertently increase conflict between siblings by directly making comparisons between them or by over praising one child for success. In some situations, this might lead to a parent having a favourite and/ or getting on better with one child. This is generally a recipe for disaster and leads to one child feeling very insecure as well as putting pressure on the relationships between siblings as resentment grows.
To address sibling rivalry, and to ensure each child feels secure, the goal is to develop a unique relationship with each child that is beyond comparison. Or, put simply, the goal is to love them uniquely, rather than equally. This means that you strive to enjoy and appreciate each child’s unique qualities without comparison with their siblings. You might appreciate and enjoy one child for their sensitivity and how they think of other people and another for how they take action or how they work hard at things. You might have a relationship with one child that is fuelled by a shared interest in sport and with another that is built around reading the same books. The key is to develop and maintain a unique connection with each of your children that you both enjoy.
Enjoy your children
You know you have a good relationship with your children (that builds their self-esteem and security) when you regularly enjoy their company. Enjoyment is the most important word when it comes to close family relationships as it is this mutual enjoyment that is the sign of their health. Sadly, the challenges and stresses of family life can strain relationships and take all the enjoyment out of them. When I work with families, usually the first step is about improving relationships and bringing back enjoyment. Sometimes this starts with inviting parents to take time to prioritise play time with their children (as well as relaxation and self-care time for themselves). With small children, simply setting aside 15 minutes daily play time or a fun story time at bed can make an enormous difference within a week or so.
With older children and teenagers who are pulling away or are caught up with their own lives, it can sometimes be a bit trickier to reintroduce fun into a relationship. It does require a bit of thoughtful consideration and taking time to find the right opportunities – for example, you might take an interest in their favourite TV programme or video game (rather than being critical of it) or drive them to an activity, using the journey as an opportunity to chat. Enjoying your children when you are with them gives them a sense that they are appreciated and loved.
The goal is to try to have a connection with each of your children that allows your relationship to grow. Developing shared hobbies and interests that last over time can be a great way to do this. Simple things like reading the same books, following the same l team, liking the same music, or sharing a love for gardening, cooking or anything else, make all the difference. Sharing interests gives you time together and opens channels of communication.
One family I worked with survived their son’s teenage years through a shared interest in Manchester United. The 14-year-old had become extremely defiant and rebellious and there were constant rows between him and his father. But because they both loved Man U, and had done for many years, they always watched matches together – no matter how bad things got or even if there had been a recent row, they still talked about the match. Conversations about Rooney’s goals would thaw even the most difficult atmospheres and keep lines of communication open and preserve the relationship.
Unique relationships with both parents
When there are two parents or guardians, the goal is for each parent to have their own unique relationship with each child. Usually children get different things from each parent. From one they might gain a love of music and a value of working hard, from another they might gain a passion for sport and a value for treating people well. Having unique and different relationships with each of their parents, gives them two sources of inspiration in their lives that allows them them develop their own sense of individuality. For lone parents, other close family members can take on this special parental role with children.
Dr John Sharry is a social worker and psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus Programmes. This article is based on a chapter in his new book Bringing Up Happy, Confident Children: A practical guide to nurturing resilience, self-esteem and emotional wellbeing. See solutiontalk.ie Next week: Ask the expert - Helping your teen cope with the death of a friend July 19th: Series, part three: Help your child discover and express their strengths and talents