Bonding During Tough Times
Marital problems, financial stress, unexpected responsibilities, medical problems — all of these issues can leave you ill-equipped to deal with daily life, let alone a defiant child. If you're a worrier or find yourself increasingly distracted by other stressors, set aside certain times to think about them, and reserve other chunks of time when worrying or obsessive thoughts are off-limits and you can freely engage with your child.
If your child has suffered trauma through loss of a loved one, abuse, or catastrophe, take the pressure off of everyone and keep bonding situations low-key. Let your child pick an activity she'd like to do, and just be by her side while she does it. If at first she picks TV or videogames, it's not ideal, but it's okay for a while as long as it's not extremely distressing.
Just watch it with her and be fully engaged. You can make nonjudgmental observations like, “Wow, it's really getting to the good part now, huh?” or “What do you think is going to happen?” Emphasize that you want to be with your child, and demonstrate that you love her and will always be there for her. Gradually transition into non-media bonding activities as your family recovers.
How do you use “worry time?”
Matthew McKay's workbook Thoughts and Feelings can help you become more aware of your train of thought, pinpoint underlying troubles, and alleviate anxiety, panic attacks, excessive anger, and obsessive worrying. In a nutshell, corralling worry into preset times of the day will keep it from taking over your thoughts so you can function better.
As your family recovers from trauma, keep the pressure low and let your child pick the activity when bonding. If your child wants to stay inside and work on a 3-D dinosaur puzzle, sit closely, and resist the urge to pick up the glue and pieces yourself while gently narrating what your child is doing. You might say, “Oh, you're getting out your paintbrush now,” or, “Looks like you're figuring out how to fit those ribs together.” Don't pick up anything unless your child specifically asks you to, and don't take on the role of expert, turning the activity into Dad's Paleontology Basics 101.
By the way, parents of teenagers can use these techniques for getting teens to talk more about what's going on in their lives. If you don't have an agenda for “finding out what that kid is up to,” and you just spend some downtime together without specifying that you want to talk about serious issues, your teen may very well open up about her life without you having to prod her. Sometimes important discussions need to happen as well, and you can still have an agenda for those — just remember that they're different from bonding activities.