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  • Writer's pictureDr. Amie DeHarpporte

Building the Parent-Child Relationship

building the parent-child relationship

Parents often ask me what they can do at home to bring peace to the household

when parenting a child who has a tendency to argue, talk back, or have frequent

meltdowns or anger outbursts. These parents are often at the end of their rope,

often having tried multiple solutions to no avail, including explaining ad nauseam,

rewards and punishments, threats, or yelling. Often by the time parents get to me,

they’re ready to try a different way.

What parents may not realize is that they possess the very thing that is the most

powerful tool for bringing about peace in the household: the relationship with

their child. But like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz who doesn’t realize that all she

needs to do is click her heels, many parents have overlooked the power of their

relationship with their child, not realizing just how impactful it is. Not only does it

shape the household climate, but it also wires the child’s brain, determining their

ability to weather emotional storms.

One thing we have learned from decades of research into the psychology of

parenting is that the parent-child relationship is worth its price in rubies. When it’s

going well, requests are honored, good humor is common, and there is mutual

enjoyment and respect. When it’s not going well, everything becomes a battle.

Parents of “easy” children have children who are easy to build relationships with.

Parents of “difficult” children–for whatever reason, be it ADHD, anxiety, giftedness,

temperamental intensity or emotional sensitivity (for either parent or child—or,

most often, both!)–often have a parent-child relationship that is frayed or fraught

with irritation. They need to be very intentional about investing in the parent-child

relationship and take specific steps to build it. These ideas are based on the

principles of developmental psychology and supported by research:

  • Reframe your child’s behavior. Remember, “He’s not giving me a hard time,

he’s having a hard time.” We’re much more likely to be compassionate

toward a child we think of as struggling with a hard task, rather than one

we’ve labeled as lazy, selfish, or trying to be difficult. Rather than blaming

your child for their difficulties, remember that he’s still a child, and he’s still

learning. Repeat mantras to yourself like, “He’s doing the best he can,” “This

is harder for her than it is for me,” or “Kids do well when they can. She would

do better if she could.” How can you reframe your irritation with your child in

a generous and compassionate way, that gives him or her the benefit of the


  • Catch your child doing something right. Try to notice the litany of

corrections, criticism, and negativity that can be an everyday occurrence and

take responsibility for changing the tone. Notice little things your child is

doing right and point them out (“‘Thanks for going to bed when I asked,

even though you probably didn’t want to”), remark on what you appreciate

about them (“I’m glad I get to drive you to school every day. I look forward to

being in the car with you for these 20 minutes every day”), and bring up fond

memories (“I was thinking today about our trip to Yellowstone that summer.

I had so much fun with you on that hike.”) You might want to set a goal for

yourself: 10 positive comments each day, or a 5-to-1 ratio of positive

comments to criticisms.

  • Start each day fresh. Often leftover frustrations from the night before can

color the next day, or repeated mistakes can remind parents of old

frustrations. Decide to let go of resentments and drop old complaints. If you

find yourself tempted to remark again on the hole in the wall or the D on the

test, remember that if harping on it worked, you wouldn’t find yourself in

your current spot. Bite your tongue if you’re tempted to say something like

“There you go again,” or “I’ve told you this a million times before.” Start each

day with a positive attitude toward your child and communicate that by

offering a smile, a hug, or expressing genuine joy the first time each day that

you see them, or when you reunite after an absence. Vow to wipe the slate

clean after every day.

  • Spend quality one-on-one time with your child every day. Think of this as

time to fill their relationship tank. Set an internal timer for 10 minutes and

during that time, join your child in an activity of their choice. This may mean

joining them while playing a video game, inviting them to do an activity

they enjoy, or taking time to sit on their bed at night before bedtime. Maybe

you don’t love Minecraft, but can you muster 10 minutes to listen to what

your child loves about it?

During this time, avoid the temptation to interrogate, offer advice, provide

direction, give correction, or criticize. Instead, notice or describe what he’s

doing (“You’re looking for the Ender Dragon!”), offer praise (“I like how you’re

trying again, even though it’s hard!”) and join in (“We’re going to build the

best Lego castle ever!”). Genuinely delight in your child! Keep your manner

friendly and the mood light.

If this sounds hard, remember it is only for 10 minutes! Try not to go too

much beyond that, or the expectation will become a burden and you’ll be

less likely to follow through on it. This brief article describes how this activity

is done with younger children; the same principles apply to an older child

with some age-appropriate modifications.

  • Offer validation. It’s important as parents to remember how much we

appreciate being listened to, taken seriously, and really heard. Well, kids

need that, too. But because they are kids, they are more likely to be

dismissed, interrupted, ignored, or have their concerns minimized. Research

has found that parental invalidation of children’s feelings can be harmful,

impacting their ability to effectively manage their emotions into adulthood.

Remember that the way we talk to our children becomes the voice of the

self-talk they hear inside their heads as adults.

“It’s not that big of a deal.” ⇒ “It’s ok to be upset.”

“Get over it. Stop acting like a baby.” ⇒ “It’s good to let it out.”

“You’re fine! Stop making such a big deal.” ⇒ “That sounds hard.”

“You’re being ridiculous.” ⇒ “I feel that way too sometimes.”

“It’s not that bad.” ⇒ “It’s totally normal to feel that way.”

“Really?! What’s wrong with you?” ⇒ “What can we learn from this?

“Why are you overreacting?” ⇒ “Let’s take a breath and sit with this.”

“I’m disappointed in you.” ⇒ “It’s ok to make mistakes.”

“Stop being so lazy.” ⇒ “That must be hard. How can I help?”

“Calm down!” ⇒ “You seem upset. Tell me about it.”

“Stop acting that way.” ⇒ “How about a do-over?”

  • Practice Emotion Coaching. This is an approach that takes validation one

step further, combining it with active listening in order to help children

recognize and cope with their big feelings by offering empathy. This

approach is based on research that has found that children lack the ability to

regulate emotions maturely because their prefrontal cortex is still

developing until about the age of 25. So it outsources some of that

emotional regulation to the parents, who can function as an external

prefrontal cortex, modeling for the child how to cope with big emotions in a

healthy way.

This article by Dr. Laura Markham does a great job of explaining what

Emotion Coaching looks and sounds like. This course on Emotion Coaching

by the Gottman Institute; this Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids course; and this

No Drama Discipline course by Dr. Dan Siegel can all help parents build skills

in this area. I would recommend these skills for any parent but they are

priceless for parents of emotionally intense children.

  • Sometimes parents need to tag in/tag out. That means, in a two-parent

family, having a system for signaling from one parent to another when it’s

noticeable that the parent dealing with the child is becoming irritated,

frustrated, or in danger of going “off the cliff” of irrationality, just like their

child. It’s not uncommon for children to be so irrational, to say such

ridiculous things, or to do something so uncalled for that a parent can lose

their cool. When that happens, parent and child ping-pong off each other, in

a mutually-reinforcing cycle of anger and things said or done they wish they

could take back. Before getting to that point, it’s helpful for a parent to learn

to calm themselves down, usually by stepping out of the fray, breathing

slowly and calmly, counting to 10 (or 100 or 1000!), and only coming back to

the interaction when they’re more calm. Sometimes they need their

parenting partner to help them see when they’re in this place and suggest

they “tag out,” either by saying that or by having a pre-arranged non-verbal


  • It’s important for parents to remember not to use too many words. There is

a therapist in town who specializes in working with emotionally intense

children who hands out a beautifully embossed business card to every

parent on the first visit that reads: “STOP TALKING.” Why? Because parents

often want to explain, scold, correct, or lecture, and usually at exactly the

wrong time. When a child is emotionally flooded, every word feels like frozen

rain, pelting their face. Too many words is just too much. We need to pick our

moments, and when our child is escalated, use few words and short phrases.

Sometimes our presence is enough.

  • Say yes often: It’s important to be flexible and look for reasons to say yes to

our child’s requests. Especially when our relationship is frayed, saying yes is a

good way to help children feel seen and heard. Often parents say no

because they feel like they need to be uncompromising with rules in the

name of consistency. Sometimes it’s not even clear why we say no, it is just a

knee-jerk first response! But isn’t flexibility important, too? And don’t we say

yes to ourselves with extra treats when we’re feeling stressed? So what if a

child has dessert before dinner now and then? Or gets an extra 15 minutes of

video game time? It’s not the end of the world. Of course we need to be firm

when it comes to safety and we hold the line when we need to. But

well-timed yesses, especially when our child is frustrated or out of sorts, can

go a long way to helping them see that we hear them and are on their side.

● Resources: Books I also highly recommend:

○ Laura Markham’s Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling

and Start Connecting

○ Alfie Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and

Punishments to Love and Reason

○ John Gottman’s Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of


○ Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and

Listen So Kids Will Talk

○ Dan Siegel’s No-Drama Discipline and The Whole-Brain Child

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