It wasn’t until recently I realized how my relationship with my father affected me growing up. After attending dozens and dozens of therapy sessions over the years, I started to better understand the dynamic between me and my father.
Over time I thought about what I wished my father did and didn’t do as a parent. So, I came up with a list of 5 things that I wish my father did to make my life as a young boy feel more comfortable, confident, and safe. I also think any father can use these to better their relationship with their child.
1. Have more meaningful conversations
There are three things I think a father needs when having meaningful conversations with their child: Empathy, listening skills, and the ability to be vulnerable. In my opinion, these are key ingredients to having a productive conversation with your child, making them feel safe to open up. When you show that you’re listening, it tells your child that they’re being heard and that it’s safe enough to express their entire thought without any consequences. This will also help prevent frustration or future miscommunication.
While listening, you want to also use empathy. This is when you try to relate to your child’s experience and understand what they are going through, even if it’s not your own experience. If you show your child empathy they’ll feel understood and will encourage them to continue sharing on a deeper level.
Both empathy and listening lead to vulnerability. When you show vulnerability you’re sending the message that it’s ok for your child to be open and honest. If you take a chance to open up about your personal experiences, showing them you’re not perfect, they’ll let down their guard and instill a sense of safety in your relationship and the relationships that they develop with other people.
2. Talk about my day on a deeper level
I know it’s obvious that having a conversation with your child about their day is important. But, it’s more than just a routine question. It’s about allowing space for your child to express themselves and to be able to comfortably open up. Too many times my father would ask, “How was your day?”, but wouldn’t listen, explore, or empathize with me. It became a meaningless, flat, and redundant question asked without intention.
However, to create an intention, fathers might want to go beyond the question, “How was your day?” or ask it differently. The question can lead to a better understanding of who they are and what they’re going through. This leads us into the next item of how important it is to ask better questions.
3. Ask better questions and be more eager to explore
Now, it’s time to move beyond the basic “How was your day?” question and consider asking above-average questions to get your child talking and trusting you. Also, try to keep in mind what your child might want to talk about and what they think is funny and interesting.
Next, get a sense of how your child is feeling to get an idea if they have the energy to talk or not. If they are willing to talk, the next step is to ask open-ended questions, which start with,” What” and “tell me about…”
Dale Carnegie said, “Ask questions the other person will enjoy answering.” I think this is also applicable to your child. Sometimes the simplest way to become a better questioner is to ask more questions. However, keep in mind the type of question, the order, tone, and framing of the questions. For example, your child will most likely open up when you ask questions in a casual non-judgemental tone.
Here are some examples:
“What were some moments that were frustrating this week at school?”
“Tell me what you enjoyed most about your day?”
“What are your thoughts on [subject here]?”
4. Talk about feelings more, including anger, joy, frustration, fear, and anxiety.
Keep in mind your child is learning from you and will mirror your actions, including your energy, facial expressions, and how you manage your feelings. If you’ve shown anger, or have never cried because you think it’s weak, then your child might be learning the same behaviors.
Talking about your feelings can be a way to cope with the challenges you’ve been carrying for a while as a father. I’ve carried it as a man myself and have seen my own father carry it his whole life. The simple experience of feeling heard can help you feel supported and less alone. So why don’t you show your son how to do this or at least try? If you already do this, then you’re ahead of a lot of fathers. But if you don’t, I encourage you to try because you’ll feel better and you’ll teach your child to be emotionally healthy.
How do you do this? Attempt to be that person who listens to your child’s difficulties. Studies have shown that simply talking about our problems and sharing negative emotions with someone we trust (which can be you for your child) can be profoundly healing—reduce stress, strengthen our immune system, and reduce physical and emotional distress (Pennebaker, Kiecolt-Glaser, & Glaser, 1988).
Also, encourage writing about stressful issues. Writing about problems is another way to help your child release frustrations and gain perspective. Psychologist James Pennebaker (1997) found that writing about emotional experiences improves mental and physical health. The theory is that keeping painful secrets is stressful, increasing the risk of illness and that self-disclosure, whether spoken or written, relieves the long-term stress of repression, leading to better health (Pennebaker, Kiecolt-Glaser, & Glaser, 1988). If your child doesn’t enjoy writing, help him or her find a creative way of getting the same benefits; like making a private video blog, keeping a voice recorded journal, or art.
5. Be self-aware enough to communicate better and consider going to therapy
For better or worse, our past relationships influence and affect the relationships that we create with our partners, friends, and children. Some people are more affected than others, and that’s okay. In my opinion, to be a father you should be able to provide a safe and non judgmental space for your child. If you haven’t been able to do this, it likely hasn’t been modeled for you and, in this case, therapy could be beneficial. If you’re unable to communicate with your kids in a healthy way it is probably time to ask for help. I know this is challenging for a lot of men because therapy and asking for help has a stigma attached to it. But it can change your life and your child’s life if you take it seriously.
A therapist or other mental health professionals can help parents learn to cope with parenting issues and, most importantly, your internal struggles. Therapy can help you become a happier person. When that happens, you’ll be a better parent, which then leads to a happier and healthier child.
Steve is a youth advocate, student of a complex relationship with his father, and the creator of Loopward.com, a source to help people improve their conversation skills. He is also an entrepreneur, a world traveler, and enjoys a good conversation over coffee.