In early childhood, relationships with family and primary caregivers are more important than any other relationship. As children grow, relationships with friends become much more important. At any stage of life, however, it is important to feel in our hearts that our parents care. Some people have parents whose lives seem to revolve around their children: they coach their kids’ sports teams, plan weekend outings with the kids, carpool their kids and their friends all around town, do their kids’ laundry and fix nice family meals every night. Now, this parent involvement can get a little overwhelming, but those kids sure know they’re cared about!
A lot of kids live in households with one or two parents who just seem to have stuff going on all the time. They work long hours (whether paid or unpaid), and when they’re not at work it seems like they’re always running errands, doing chores, going to the gym, going out with friends, or planning big social activities. There’s no down time. There’s no time to just hang out and be together. These parents may be there in a crisis, but they won’t necessarily be at every sports event or school play. They won’t just stop by your bedroom to see how your day was. In my experience, this approach to life tends to have much more to do with ingrained personality traits than it does with relationship, but that doesn’t mean it won’t affect how that parent relates to you, or how you relate to that parent.
Very often, the busy parent is driven by anxiety and a desire to please. This is a person who defines themselves by how much they accomplish in life, and they feel a nervous tension when they are not doing something that can be quantified: today I (1) worked 9 hours, (2) spent two hours commuting, (3) picked up the kids from soccer, (4) went to a church meeting…. The idea of just being is strange and uncomfortable to them. Even though the busyness of this person’s life is not a reflection on how much they love and care about their kids, it can feel that way. A child might think, “My mom has no time for me. She doesn’t even care what’s going on in my life. She doesn’t know me at all.”
There are two things that need to happen to cope successfully with a distant relationship. First we must attempt to understand and respect the other person’s thoughts, feelings, and motivations. As much as it may feel that a busy parent doesn’t know, prize, or cherish you, that is almost never the case. Second, we need to express our own feelings, wants, and needs to this person in a way that works. As mentioned above, most busy parents are driven by a desire to please. They don’t make time because they don’t realize you need it. So tell them. Without accusing, blaming, or criticizing, say, “Dad, I feel like we don’t get enough time just to be together. When you don’t make time to hang out with me, I feel like I’m not important to you. And when I think I’m not important to you, I feel really bad about myself. I know you’re really busy, but can we start scheduling some time to hang out together?” Just remember that when you make this request, it may mean choosing to sometimes hang out with Mom or Dad instead of with your friends.
If you’re not comfortable talking with your parent like that, write a letter, send an email, or send a text. And if your parent agrees but doesn’t do it, or only does it once or twice, tell them again and again and again. Nobody wants to be a bad parent. Nobody wants their kid to feel unloved. Tell them. It’s not magic, and it doesn’t work every time, but usually it does. And if you never try, you’ll never know. Worst case, if you can’t get the time and attention you’d like, still recognize that another person’s inability to slow down and just be with you does not equate to a lack of love.