Good enough parenting



Chapter Five


The Core Emotional Need for Connection and Acceptance can be defined as the state children live in when they feel completely attached to their parents in a healthy way, and when they feel like they belong and are accepted and loved unconditionally. Children whose core emotional need for connection and acceptance has been met naturally develop traits and beliefs such as trust, self-acceptance & openness, emotional fulfillment & intimacy, belonging & affinity, emotional spontaneity & expressiveness, and mastery & success.1 They will consistently, on an emotional level, hear and believe the following messages about their parents:

They are playful with me and spend time with me.

They like me, and miss me when I am not around.

They care about deep feelings, both mine and theirs.

They are proud of me even with my flaws.

They talk to me in a respectful way.

They believe in me and guide me.

Denise, 37, grew up in a home where she was made to feel stupid, ugly, fat, and unwanted. Her parents wanted a boy for their first born, and she was reminded of that fact frequently. They also had high hopes for her academically, even though they themselves had only finished elementary school. When she did not “excel” in kindergarten, they called her mean names like “idiot” and “retard” and made it no secret that they wished she had not been born. She was beaten for the slightest offence, and when she was sexually abused by a relative, no one seemed to care. Locked out of the house for minor infractions such as laughing too loudly, she quickly learned to stay in the background. When her brother arrived a few years later, Denise’s only value to the family was as a caretaker. In every possible way, her parents did not meet Denise’s core emotional need for connection and acceptance, nor any of her other needs, for that matter. This lonely child did poorly in almost every subject, and eventually failed out of high school. As an adult, Denise has been hospitalized for suicidal tendencies, and constantly struggles with relationships, finances, depression, boundaries, and self-esteem issues. It is not hard to surmise that Denise’s issues are directly related to her childhood and it is no wonder she continues to have trouble connecting with others and accepting herself.

Caroline, 32, was never beaten or sexually abused. Her family went on nice holidays. She had lots of friends, attended a posh private school, and excelled in her favorite hobbies. Although her parents both found it hard to express their feelings and had very high standards, they believed in being firm but kind, valued discipline, trying one’s best, being humble, and showing respect. Her mother had a flexi-hour job so that she could be at home with the children whenever possible; her father worked long hours as a lawyer. Her older sister was “a handful” and seemed to get the brunt of the discipline, while her younger brother was sickly, so the parents spent most of their time worrying over Caroline’s siblings. In this environment, Caroline was overlooked and did not feel her parents’ love. As a teenager, she yearned to break free and rebel against the disapproving oversight of her fairly strict and emotionally inhibited parents. Although her siblings are doing well in their careers, Caroline never graduated from college, and has many boundary issues. Like Denise, Caroline has been on suicide watch at times, and finds it hard to hold a job or keep a long-term relationship. Many people would look at her parents and family and think she had the ideal home, but her core need for connection and acceptance was not met, and she has trouble feeling connected to her family and accepting herself or others. What do these two women, from very different families, have in common? Their core emotional need for connection and acceptance was not met by their parents, and now, even though these two women should be able to function as successful adults, their struggle is immense.

Real connection with our children is when the sharing of emotions takes place in both directions; parents to children and children to parents, such that a healthy affectionate bond and an empathic understanding develops between the two sides. The result is children feel their thoughts and ideas, hurts and feelings, and victories and defeats have a place in their parents’ hearts and vice versa. Acceptance with our children is when children feel that their parents value them for who they are, with their strengths and weaknesses, flaws and all, and regard them as a blessing in their lives. Authentic connection and unconditional acceptance make home a safe place.

These two constructs go hand in hand. It is impossible to get connected to a child on an emotional level and at the same time not accept them. When a child gets connected, the acceptance usually comes with it; connection and acceptance are interwoven. The reverse is also true; where there is disconnection there is also a sense of rejection. Children will feel discouraged and their behavior will reflect these feelings. When this core emotional need is met well, it lays the foundation for a lifelong enjoyable and fulfilling relationship of genuine love between parent and child.

Connection is Crucial

Children must feel a deep emotional connection with their parents in order to mature into healthy adults; they must feel accepted by their parents if they are going to develop a healthy sense of self-esteem. In our opinion, most of the harm in today’s world is caused by this core emotional need not getting met. Oh, that parents would take heed of the absolute necessity of meeting this core emotional need!

Of all the “four plus one” core emotional needs, connection and acceptance is the need in which emotions play the keenest part. Meeting this core need cannot be done if parents insist on staying in “logical” mode. We repeat, for parents to connect with their children and help them feel accepted, they must interact with them on an emotional level. And that does not mean the home needs to be filled with screaming, temper tantrums and crying. It does mean that parents must deal with their own hesitation to have anything to do with emotions, such as anger, fear, sadness, shame, joy, peace, and so forth.

As we think of the importance of emotions in parenting, we should note that our emotions get communicated through many different means, even when we think we are keeping them in check. Experts teach that most communication occurs not only with words but also through non-verbal means such as body language, tone of voice, demeanor and gaze. Albert Mehrabian is the originator of the much quoted “7%-38%-55% rule”; back in the late 1960s, his experiments led to him assert that words account for only 7% of what we ultimately communicate, tone of voice accounts for 38%, and body language accounts for a whopping 55%! His work points to the importance of congruence—that if our words are saying one thing and our tone another, our listeners will believe the tone.2 So, when we as parents think we are just being “rational”, our soulless eyes and flat tone of voice might be telling our children that we do not care about them. When we say the “right” words while our body language repeatedly conveys disdain or disapproval, our children may be experiencing exasperation. Working on eye contact, tone, and body language when speaking with our children is not just a good suggestion, it is crucial if we wish to meet our children’s need for connection and acceptance.

When this core emotional need is met, parents and children alike experience satisfying emotions—the “positive vibrations” are almost palpable. You will notice a lighter atmosphere in the home, with parent and child both feeling free to be vulnerable and childlike with each other. This experience is very fulfilling and creates a sense of joy in parenting. When the opposite takes place, both sides feel disconnected and rejected, and parenting feels more like an exhausting chore—three cheers for connection and acceptance!

We notice in the parenting sections of bookshops that most titles tend to be about changing children’s behavior. Very few books teach parents how to develop a meaningful and enjoyable connection with their children, yet having such a connection with them is probably the most important need that they have as they grow up.

Some dads think it’s a “girl thing”—only daughters benefit from having this core need met. But the core emotional need for connection and acceptance is not unique to a particular gender—research indicates that a father’s approval is just as important for the development of healthy self-esteem in boys3 (RR5.1). Some parents feel connected to their young children but find that they are not as connected to their teens. As our children’s level of autonomy increases (see Chapters Nine to Eleven), we should maintain the connection as well as successfully make the transition from leading by authority to leading by relationship/influence.4 This is where many parents err; they allow the connection level to deteriorate with the increase in autonomy, thinking that this is part and parcel of their child growing up. We need to fight hard to ensure that our children make room for us in their lives. If we are nonchalant about this gradual separation, we will end up forfeiting a valuable on-going connection which teens need as they make the transition from childhood to adulthood. While autonomy (the second core emotional need) is increasing, the connection must be maintained.

In addition, some parents worry that if they have a strong emotional connection with their children, it will prevent them from guiding and teaching their children and helping them shoulder responsibilities effectively. This really is not true; in fact, it is just the opposite. Dr. John Gottman has conducted research on marriage and parenting for over a quarter of a century. He has concluded that the more a child is emotionally connected with his parents, the more likely the child is to accept his parent’s values.5 When the level of connection is high, the ability of the parents to influence them is also high—connection isn’t just good for the kids, it’s good for the parents, too!

When babies are born prematurely and need to live in incubators, hospitals know that they will thrive only if exposed to human touch. We were created to connect with one another, especially with our loved ones—and children need the affection of their parents constantly, not just when they are first born.

One of our favorite studies supporting the need for connection between parents and children is the research done among students who attended Harvard University between the years 1952 and 1954. These students were asked whether their relationships with their mothers and fathers, were close, warm, friendly, or strained and cold. Thirty-five years later when the participants were middle-aged, their medical records were collected. Results showed that 87% of the students who had rated their mothers and fathers low in parental caring had been diagnosed with diseases, such as coronary artery disease, hypertension, duodenal ulcers and alcoholism in midlife, whereas only 25% of them who had rated both their mothers and fathers high in parental caring had diagnosed diseases6 (RR5.2). While many academically ambitious parents fight tooth and nail to get their kids into Ivy League schools, how many of the put in the same effort to be connected and to show acceptance?

Some parents think that loving their children means that they should provide for their shelter, clothing, food, healthcare and education, and that is it. But what does it take for our children to feel connected to us and accepted by us to an adequate degree? Do our children sense that we like them? We will only be able to meet this need of connection and acceptance if our children sense that we as parents enjoy being around them as people. Many parents are so consumed by their worries that they either do not have room in their hearts to connect with their children or they actually see their children as being in the way of meeting other goals.

Parenting Pioneers

We would like to end this chapter by sharing the findings of some of the most intuitive family educators over the last 50 years. See if you can spot a pattern, a common thread that runs through their parenting philosophies:

Haim Ginnot was a clinical psychologist and therapist who wrote a best selling book called Between Parent and Child. He said that parents should accept the feelings of the children but not necessarily their behavior. He also felt very strongly that parents, and teachers, should connect with and accept their children. He stated:

I am a child psychotherapist. I treat disturbed children. Supposing I see a child in therapy one hour a week for a year. Her symptoms disappear; she feels better about herself, gets along with others, even stops fidgeting in school. What is it that I do that helps? I communicate with her in a unique way. I use every opportunity to enhance her feelings about herself. If caring communication can drive sick children sane, its principles and practice belong to parents and teachers. While psychotherapists may be able to cure, only those in daily contact with children can prevent them from needing psychological help.7

Rudolf Dreikurs, a student of Alfred Adler, who was trained by Freud, wrote Children: The Challenge. Here are two of his well-known principles explaining misbehavior and the importance of non-verbal communication:

A misbehaving child is a discouraged child . . . In a thousand subtle ways, by tone of voice and by action, we indicate to the child that we consider him inept, unskilled and generally inferior . . .8Parents many times do not know how they go about discouraging their children, starting in very subtle ways, both verbally and with tone and body language.9

David Elkind is a professor emeritus at Tufts University, Massachusetts, and wrote several best sellers, including, The Hurried Child. Elkind has this to say about how pushing children to learn academically and hurrying them to grow faster than their natural pace puts them in harm’s way:

The abuse of hurrying is a contractual violation. Contractual violations are experienced as exploitative and stressful by children because the implicit contracts between parents and children are the fundament of the children’s sense of basic trust, a kind of standard against which the children’s social interactions are measured. Two different types of contractual violations and exploitations can be identified. One is qualitative and might be called calendar hurrying. It occurs whenever we ask children to understand beyond their limits of understanding, to decide beyond their capacity to make decisions, or to act willfully before they have the will to act. But children can also be hurried quantitatively, and this might be called clock hurrying. We engage in clock hurrying whenever, through our excessive demands over a short period of time, we call upon children to call upon their energy reserves.10

This Elkind quote deserves extra attention:

In effect, adolescents pay us back in the teen years for all the sins, real or imagined, that we have committed against them when they were children.11

Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, disciples of Ginnot, co-authored what is known in some circles as the “parenting bible”. They wrote:

If our attitude is not one of compassion, then whatever we say will be experienced by the child as phony or manipulative. It is when our words are infused with real feelings of empathy that they speak directly to the child’s heart.12

Gottman, who we quoted earlier, believes strongly in helping children deal with their emotions in an empathetic and guiding way (he calls it “emotion coaching”), which in turn contributes to the connection between parent and child. Gottman and his team at the University of Washington conducted in-depth research with 119 families to see how parents and children interact with each other, following children from the age of four until adolescence. His conclusion:

Children whose parents consistently practiced emotion coaching have better physical health and score higher academically than children whose parents don’t offer such guidance. These kids get along better with friends, have fewer behavioral problems, and are less prone to acts of violence. Overall children who are emotion coached experience fewer negative feelings and more positive feelings. In short they are healthier emotionally.13

Gottman asserts when parents help their children deal with uncomfortable feelings like guilt, regret and sadness, their children feel more supported. He goes on to say:

If children are emotion coached from a young age, they become well practiced at the art of self-soothing and they can stay calm under stress, which also makes them less likely to misbehave.14

Gottman’s research demonstrates that the practice of empathy by parents makes children feel supported; they feel like their parents are their allies, and they are much more likely to accept the parents’ values.

This is the common thread running through all of the excellent parenting philosophies above—that parents must connect with their children empathically, and not cause exasperation. This is not just a good idea; it is the foundation of effective and healthy parenting; it is the bedrock of Good Enough Parenting.