Healthy adult relationships are based on a balanced give-and-take. This balance is particularly important in relationships that we are heavily invested in. While this may sound like a no-brainer, achieving such a balance may be easier said than done, especially if you grew up in a household where this balance was heavily skewed.
In families where a parent is struggling to address their own emotional needs, children will turn the tables on caregiving and attempt to care for the parent. It can becomes their primary task to provide care for their parent so that the parent will, in turn, be able to provide a minimal level of care for them. As a result, children internalize skewed ideas about their role in the world, their ability to address their own needs appropriately, and their ability to respond to others' distress without taking on the role of compulsive rescuer.
How parents take care of their emotional needs directly impacts how their children will connect with others as adults. So, how can you ensure that both your and your children's emotional needs are addressed so that they can enjoy healthy relationships as adults?
Here are eight action steps to take.
1. Accept care and support when you need it.
When needs are not met, it is easy to fall into a pattern where you expect kids to support your emotional needs. Being preoccupied with whatever is bothering you can cause kids to shift into "caretaker" mode, while you might not don't realize the issues that they are currently grappling with. When you access and accept care and support for yourself, you have more resources to address your child's needs.
2. Be aware when your children try to take care of you.
When children see that your needs have been overlooked or neglected, they will begin to "monitor" your emotional state by regularly checking in to see if you're "okay." Or they will try to please you by being good, smart or funny.
Sometimes, more subtly, they do this by acting out in ways that draw not only the parent's attention but also a parent's resourcefulness .If you recognize that children are exhibiting this "caretaking" behavior, it is important to check in with how they are doing by emphasizing your interest in their well-being, paying attention to their emotional state and offering support and presence in a consistent manner.
3. Allow kids to see you repair conflicts.
Perhaps you are stressed about events within a marriage or over the pressures at work. Either way, you have to show them what resolutions of conflict look like, too. When you are able to, allow your children to witness the resolution of an argument or conflict.
4. Model relationship balance.
When you don't allow kids to see you going to your partner or others for help and support, you inadvertently send a message that they shouldn't ask for help, either. Though you may explicitly tell your children that they can rely on you and turn to you when they are in distress or in need, it sends a conflicting message when you do not turn to others, especially to a partner, for care, help and support ourselves.
5. Model healthy relationships.
It might seem obvious, but parents should never allow kids to see them being mistreated by others. There is no better way to reinforce a distrust of other people than to model for children an acceptance of being mistreated.
The message is one that results in a child developing a reliance on self-sufficiency as a way of protecting themselves from relying on others. It also may result in kids growing up to take on "hard cases" (people who mistreat others) in an attempt to "fix" them, rather them allowing themselves to seek and develop relationships of mutual reliance and care. Instead, model what healthy relationships look like and have open conversations about that.
6. Avoid indulging in and expressing self-pity.
Parents shouldn't complain that the world and other people "don't treat us right" without looking for and talking about solutions. The root of self-pity communicates that you cannot find solutions to unhappiness, or healthy ways to solve problems. When appropriate, encourage your entire family to work towards a solution together.
7. Seek and exhibit relationship equality.
When parents dominate or are dependent upon others, they commit to a relationship dynamic that isn't equal. In this case, it will prevent kids from developing respect and mutuality and will, most likely, recreate relationship dynamics where one partner plays the stereotype of an authoritative parent and the other plays the role of erring child.
Having opening discussions about equality and splitting roles between both parents can help kids understand a healthy relationship model from an early age.
8. Show healthy interdependence in key relationships.
When parents are self-sufficient in relationships, it can become a treasured asset that kids wish to emulate. This is a surefire way to ensure that kids will not allow themselves to build reliance, collaboration and partnership in their adult relationships.
If we allow our kids to see us taking care of ourselves by looking for appropriate support in the right times and places—especially in times of crisis and emotional upset—we model healthy reciprocity. When we make this a conscious practice, we communicate vital messages to our kids about what healthy and balanced connections with others look like.
For most of us, modeling a balance of giving and receiving is a lifelong task, but we needn't try to perfect it. In fact, we don't even have to get it right. Research has shown that a relationship based on reciprocity develops as a kind of experiment, where we increase our connection and our intimacy by making mistakes and then working together to fix it.
This process is called "rupture and repair," and when we model this for our kids, we present a realistic, healthy way to allow them to accept themselves and others.
How parents take care of themselves and allow others to contribute to their care determines how children experience care. This experience creates the foundation for how children see themselves as being worthy of being cared for, capable of caring for others, and willing to rely on others for care throughout their lives.
In this sense, the importance of parental self-care and the impact of it cannot be stressed enough. Despite the fact that it is so often a low priority, parental self-care is, ironically, the highest priority for children's well-being.