Positive parenting relationships

Depositing into the emotional bank account of your child

By Youthrive Psychologist Kasey Lloyd

Have you ever thought about the importance of demonstrating positive relationships to your child?

We know how a regular bank account works: we make regular deposits (and withdrawals), and hopefully put enough aside for a rainy day. But, what is an emotional bank account? Dr Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families, using the metaphor of an emotional bank account to describe how parents can build – and break down – relationships with their children. He suggests that deposits are made when parents proactively do things that build trust, while withdrawals are made by reactively doing things that decrease trust. The current ‘balance’ determines how well two people can communicate and problem-solve together. To stay ‘in the black’ relationship researcher John Gottman suggests that for every one negative interaction, parents should aim for five positive interactions during times of conflict, and TWENTY positive interactions in everyday life! So, how is your balance currently looking?

Some common withdrawals are quite clear – things like yelling, criticising, nagging, interrupting, breaking promises, and speaking negatively about kids to others clearly does not build trust in a relationship. Other withdrawals are less obvious, such as admonishing your child for doing the right thing (e.g. they clean their room, and you say ‘Well you really should do that all the time without being told!’), removing an earned reward (e.g. the trip to the ice-cream shop they earned for doing extra chores is cancelled because they had a fight with their sibling), and responding to news in a dismissive or destructive way (e.g. they tell you they made the football team and you say ‘I don’t have time to talk about this, go wash your hands for dinner’ or ‘That sounds like a whole lot of running around for me, how many times a week do you have practice?! How are you supposed to get to games on the weekend?’)

Don’t get me wrong, some withdrawals are necessary – just like our regular direct debits and monthly bills! Warranted discipline, firm boundaries, repeatedly asking a child to do their chores…plus, parents are human! They get tired and frustrated, and sometimes snap. This is not going to destroy a relationship – rather, the idea is to have a significant balance ‘in the bank’ that you can make withdrawals from time-to-time without eating in to your savings.

So, what can parents do to make sizeable deposits into a child’s emotional bank account?

Five positive parenting tips

  1. Apologise when you make an unnecessary withdrawal. If you snap at your child, a simple ‘I’m sorry I spoke to you like that’ will not only deposit what was withdrawn, but is a valuable teachable moment for your child where they can learn respect, empathy, and that everybody makes mistakes.
  2. Recognise the little things. Praise is often piled on a child who gets a good report card, wins their soccer game, or nails their dance concert. However, less obvious opportunities for praise often go unnoticed. If a child treats their sibling with kindness, entertains themselves while you’re busy, makes a brave choice on the jungle gym, or creates a Lego masterpiece, take notice and share your pride with your child. Not only will that make a deposit into the emotional bank account, but it will further encourage similar acts in the future.
  3. Avoid problem-solving. When a child has an issue, we often switch into problem-solver mode and come up with a myriad of solutions for them to try. Often though, this makes a child feel unheard and frustrated. If your child says ‘Billy didn’t want to play with me at lunchtime today’, instead of ‘Did you play with someone else instead? Did you ask Billy to play? Why didn’t you just play with Sally?’ try ‘Oh. How did you feel about that?’ Listening with empathyand validating your child’s feelings does wonders for the emotional bank account. Do not offer suggestions for the situation unless the child asks, or until they’ve had their feelings heard and validated.
  4. Try electronics-free family dinners. Have each family member share three good things about their day, and three things they’re grateful for. Not only are strong connections being built between you and your child, but research shows gratitude is linked to wellbeing.
  5. Have fun! Play, laugh, wrestle, tickle, run, jump, climb, swing. Be a child with your child. Positive emotions not only feel good, but they strengthen relationships, promote creativity, and build resilience.