By Ben Hill
With all the various challenges that families are presented with while living overseas, many parents often find themselves wondering how they can remain close to their children as they grow up and move through the various stages of their development. According to the research of John and Karen Louis, in their book Good Enough Parenting, children have four core emotional needs that need to be met in order to support them in becoming emotionally healthy adults.
Establishing the need for Connection and Acceptance
The first of these core emotional needs is the need for connection and acceptance. If, as parents, we are keen to understand how strongly our children feel emotionally connected to us, it can be a useful exercise to reflect on how consistently they experience the following thoughts about themselves as a result of the messages, words, actions, and atmosphere provided by us:
- They are playful and spend time with me.
- They 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 think I am special.
- They talk to me in a respectful way.
- They are truthful and honest with me.
- They believe and guide me.
In our experience of working with parents who live overseas and are raising third culture kids, many choose to pay less attention to the emotional development of their children, instead focusing more on their academic achievements. We are finding that with the increasing number of child referrals we are receiving, many of the issues they require support for often have their root in a lack of emotional connection with their parents. The danger of neglecting the emotional needs of our children can be severe, especially given the rise in screen time and children being bombarded with messages from social media. The number of young people facing significant mental health issues continues to increase at unprecedented levels.
Parents are often interested to learn about a longitudinal study conducted nearly seventy years ago by Russek and Schwartz where students who attended Harvard University in 1952 and 1954 were asked about the quality of their relationships with their parents. They were asked to rate one or both of their parents either low or high in parental caring. Thirty-five years later, once the students had reached middle age, their medical records were collected. Of those who rated their mothers and fathers low in parental caring, 87% had been diagnosed with diseases such as coronary artery disease, hypertension, duodenal ulcers and alcoholism in midlife. However, only 25% of the students with positive parental experiences had any diagnosed diseases.
So, given that the core emotional need of connection and acceptance is so important to the emotional and physical wellbeing of our children, what is the best way of trying to meet this need?
One of the best ways to build connection with our children is by showing empathy and helping our children to process their emotions. Empathy is the ability to put ourselves into our child’s shoes or, in some way, experience their outlook. This can be a huge challenge for parents as with the fast pace of life and all the various demands placed on our time, we can often just feel too exhausted to listen to our children. It’s much easier to give a quick solution, jump to a conclusion, provide a sanction to correct an undesirable behaviour or simply ignore our child’s cry for attention rather than choosing to engage on an emotional level with them.
Many parents can be emotionally unavailable and often a parent’s refusal or lack of ability to process their own children’s feelings is often related to their own lack of awareness of their own emotions. The greater the ability of a parent to identify the range of emotions that children experience with regularity such as anger, joy, frustration, guilt, embarrassment, contentment and the like, the better the core emotional need for connection and acceptance will be met.
The research conducted by psychologist John Gottman over a ten-year period and outlined in his book Raising an Emotionally Healthy Child – The Heart of Parenting, showed that children of parents who were able to express empathy and help process their emotions became emotionally intelligent individuals and fared well in the following areas:
- Emotional well-being
- Physical health
- Social competence
- Academic performance
In conclusion, the following five steps can serve as a practical guide for parents wishing to build a stronger emotional connection with their children:
- Attempt to detect what emotion your child may be experiencing in a given situation. This involves having an initial idea of what they might be feeling and then interpreting their verbal expressions of tone and non-verbal cues such as their body language.
- Don’t rush into providing a solution in an attempt to fix your child or their problem. Rather see the child’s feelings as an opportunity to connect with them on an emotional level.
- Draw the child out verbally so they can express their feelings and then help them to label these correctly.
- Provide validation of their emotions so they understand that what they are feeling is not weird or unusual. By showing empathy and compassion to the child and by not rushing into a solution, you are communicating that their feelings are important to you.
- Once your child feels understood on an emotional level, offer to collaborate on a solution if one is needed.
The practical tips above and further practical parenting insights into helping children to express emotions can be found in Faber and Mazlish’s book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and How to Listen so Kids Will Talk.
Ben and Titi Hill are Counsellors, Educators and the Founders of Hill Dynamics Ltd, a company they formed with the vision of helping people to grow and strengthen relationships. They offer a range of training and coaching services, designed to increase self-awareness and enhance relationships for parents, educators, and business leaders. Their goal is to help people can flourish in their personal and professional lives. They have been based in Asia since 2014 and are parents of two children
Their website is www.hilldynamics.org and they can be contacted at
Louis, J.P & Louis, K.M (2015). Good Enough Parenting. An In-Depth Perspective on Meeting Core Emotional Needs and Avoiding Exasperation.
Russek, L. G., & Schwartz, G. E. (1997). Perceptions of parental caring predict health status in midlife: a 35-year follow-up of the Harvard Mastery of Stress Study. Psychosomatic Medicine, 59(2), 144-149.
Gottman, J. & Declaire, J. (1998). Raising an Emotionally Healthy Child – The Heart of Parenting.
Faber, A & Mazlish, E. (1980). How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and How to Listen so Kids Will Talk.