Make Deposits in the Love Bank (Part 1)
By Barry and Carol St. Clair
How can we make daily deposits of loving communication in our children's lives?
Occasionally we get a notice from the bank notifying us that we have overdrawn our account. We have noticed that it always happens to us when something big is occurring, like going on vacation. One time as we walked out the door for our vacation, we grabbed the mail. We opened the notice from the bank and discovered an error of several thousand dollars. That led to total panic. All other activities came to a halt. Frantically we called the bank and then went over there for a personal visit. A big deposit had been recorded incorrectly. We worked through the process of fixing the problem. This problem distracted me (Carol) so much that when we finally resolved it and got into the car to leave for vacation, I left my wallet at the house. Having to do without the wallet reminded us of the problem during the entire vacation.
The lesson from the deficit: Don't overdraw your account. Even better, make enough deposits to ensure plenty of margin in the account. If we overdraw, then we not only have to make the extra effort to fix it, but sometimes we also have to live with the frustrating consequences it typically always causes.
Opening an Unconditional Love Account
Our children's lives parallel that bank account. They have a need for security and significance that come from unconditional love. When a deficit occurs in their lives, that threatens their security and significance, and then they panic. It's not hard to spot it when their account gets overdrawn.
- They seek attention.
- They want to control the situation.
- They get revenge (usually by clobbering a sibling!).
- They resist and rebel.
- They turn to their friends.
- They get depressed.
Only through communicating unconditional love can we make deposits in their account and get them out of a big deficit.
As we discussed in the last chapter, building intimacy with our children is a big investment in the relationship. In addition, we make another large investment when we communicate lovingly. Daily deposits of loving communication bring very positive results. Our children:
- have positive self-worth.
- have a willingness to obey.
- are less drawn to peer pressure.
- develop openness and honesty.
- set a pattern for healthy communication as they become more independent.
The most positive result, however, is that they will grasp God's love more easily because of the concrete example of love they have experienced. Many parents fall into the trap of expressing "if" love to their children. That means they love them if they perform properly. For example: "I love you if you get good grades." Other parents get trapped into expressing "because" love. For example: "I love you because you are beautiful/handsome." Sometimes we express that form of superficial love without even knowing it. Every time we do it, we undermine our children's sense of security and significance. Yet God desires for us to express "in spite of" love to our children." I love you in spite of your attitude right now" That kind of love is totally unconditional. It comes from God to us, then through us to our children. It encourages our children's sense of security and significance. "In spite of love from us prepares our children's hearts to receive God's love for them.
Communicating unconditional love to our children creates closeness and emotional warmth with them so that when we have to say "no" or discipline them, we can draw from a surplus in the account. As parents we are responsible to make the deposits that keep our children's accounts in the black until they learn for themselves how to let Jesus make deposits. Even then our children need consistent deposits of unconditional love from their parents.
Ross Campbell, child psychologist and author of How to Really Love Your Teenager, reinforces how critical communicating unconditional love really is by using the word picture of a gas tank instead of a bank account. A teenager will strive for independence in typical adolescent ways - doing things by himself, going places without family, testing parental rules. But he will eventually run out of emotional gasoline and come back to the parent for conditional maintenance - for a refill....
During times when a teenager is striving for independence he may upset his parents to such an extent that the parent overreacts emotionally, and usually with excessive reserves to anger. This emotional overreaction, if too excessive or frequent, make it extremely difficult, and perhaps impossible, for the teenager to return to his parents for emotional refills. Then if parent-child communication is broken, a teenager may turn to his peers for emotional nurture. What a dangerous and frequently disastrous situation this is! [Ross Campbell, How to Really Love Your Teenager, Chariot Victor Publishing, 1981, p. 27, 30]
The principle remains the same using either illustration. By communicating unconditional love we build reserves to draw from later.
Avoiding Unnecessary Withdrawals
Before any of us opens a bank account, the bank personnel offer clear instructions on how to avoid overdrawing the account. We need that same instruction concerning loving communication with our children. Poor communication causes unnecessary withdrawals. Over time the relationship becomes depleted, resulting in an overdrawn account.
That's what happened to Amy (not her real name). Amy's parents brought her to talk to us. In the first thirty seconds we established the fact that she was unhappy. She had quit trying at school. Once an honor student, she was flunking all of her courses. Tension had mounted at home. Disrespect, dishonesty, and disobedience were everyday occurrences. Eventually she ran away from home with a boy. Why? What happened that brought this relationship to such a desperate point?
The problem had begun two years earlier when her parents relocated the family without communicating with her or considering her feelings. That began a pattern of poor communication that became increasingly worse. When she rebelled, her dad came down hard on her. He made her quit seeing her best friend across the street. He constantly criticized her rock music. When he got fed up, he put her on a three-year phone restriction. (That's three lifetimes to a teenager!) Once he yelled at her and threw her against the door. Her mom criticized Amy's friends, what she listened to on the radio, and what she wore. One day her mom opened a letter from Amy's boyfriend and read it.
In spite of all of this, Amy's parents desperately loved their daughter and wanted to break through to her. But they were going about it the wrong way. They had set up patterns of communication that expressed anything but unconditional love. When they came to see us, the parents had made so many unnecessary withdrawals that the account had not only been depleted but also was operating in the red. Amy, on the other hand, had her own set of problems, most of them related to adolescence, and yet her struggles were no different than what most teenagers face.
- They search for identity and self-esteem. They need people to respect them as individuals. Their request is simple: "Give me the chance to be me and not somebody else."
- They react against parents' use of authority and discipline. They need space to express their newfound independence. They beg us: "Trust me and treat me like an adult, not like a little kid."
- They have an almost desperate frustration over the failure to communicate. They need for us to open the lines of communication and keep them open, even when they seem to do everything in their power to shut them down. Their heartfelt desire: "Please listen to me and not just talk at me." [Adapted from Fritz Ridenour, What Teenagers Wish Their Parents Knew about Kids, Word, 1982, p. 13.]
Amy and her family struggled with all three of these issues. Sadly their poor communication kept the door locked on the other two.
What happens to children when they become adolescents is like going from an open field into a dark cave. Teenagers "go into the cave" by withdrawing inside themselves and pulling their thoughts and feelings in after them. For example, when our friend Rick [not his real name] went into the cave during adolescence, his easy-going, talkative demeanor with his friends disappeared at home. He refused to let his parents into the cave to find him. Because he hid in the cave most of the time at home, his side of the conversation sounded like: "Ugh." "Yep." "Hmm." "Wha."
Adolescents go into that cave for many reasons, but almost all of those reasons can be traced back to broken communication with their parents. Repeatedly we have heard teenagers make these statements to their parents.
"You don't understand me." They don't think their parents know where they are coming from, and if their parents did know, they are so out of it they couldn't relate anyway. It's the "my dad was a teenager in the Fred Flintstone era" routine. They say things like: "If my parents knew this, they would kill me. I could never tell them."
"You embarrass me." They know that we are going to say or do something stupid around their friends. One kid's mom let him out at school, where all of his friends were standing and yelled, "When you get home from school, you better pick up your underwear!" Now that is embarrassing!
"You don't pay attention to me." Often our children feel as if we shut them out. They try
to talk to us, and we are preoccupied with the computer, our cell phone, TV, the news-
paper, or some project we think is more pulling their important than they are. Because we don't pay attention, they don't open up to us.
"You put me down." The messages our children tend to internalize are the negative ones. All some kids hear is "Don't be such a jerk" or "You never do anything right." The constant flow of condemning statements, including teasing and sarcasm, hurts kids and makes them clam up. Not only do they feel the stinging criticism, but often they think we hate them.
"You won't let me grow up." During adolescence our children want to become independent. When they tell us to "buzz off," we tend to either cling more tightly or to withdraw. The balance of knowing when to let go and when to hold on is a delicate one. In the midst of communication problems with our children, we need to learn to lovingly talk and listen without being defensive. If we can teach our children to do the same, we will have the basic tools to keep them out of the cave or to help bring them out if they are already in.
Go to Part Two of this article, or, go back to the index and click the next article.
These two articles comprise chapter five of the book, Ignite the Fire, by Barry and Carol St. Clair. It can be ordered through your local bookstore, through Reach Out's online store at http://reachout.gospelcom.net/catalog/item.asp or from their office by phone at 1-800-473-9456. Another parenting book by Barry is Life Happens: Help Your Teenager Get Ready, which helps parents direct their teens in such areas as personality, spiritual gifts, life purpose, values, goals, use of time and decisions.
Copyright 1998 by Cook Communications Ministries. This chapter was taken from Ignite the Fire by Barry and Carol St. Clair. Used with permission. May not be further reproduced. All rights reserved. It may be purchased from Reach Out Youth Solutions at http://www.reach-out.org .