Creating intimate bonds with our children is the primary parenting goal for most of us, and there are enormous benefits. Our kids are far more cooperative when they’re regularly reminded that we see and accept them. The mutual trust we foster creates a sense of safety that helps our kids stay more grounded and self-regulated, so there won’t be as much challenging behavior. When it does arise, it will be easier to resolve. Most important of all, our parent-child relationships will be deeper, richer, more rewarding, and lifelong.
Janet’s guest Dr. Taniesha Burke is a researcher and parent coach who has extensively studied how parent-child intimacy works and what we can do to increase it. Dr. Burke and Janet discuss these findings and how we can apply them with our children and in all our relationships.
Transcript of “The Science of Intimacy With Our Kids (With Dr. Taniesha Burke)”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.
Today my guest is Dr. Taniesha Burke. She’s a scientist, a parenting coach, and a child development consultant. She’s also a parent herself, she has a teenage boy and two younger sons. So she really does know the struggles and challenges of raising a self-disciplined child while also keeping her center as an adult.
Taniesha began her journey to understanding parent-child dynamics as a researcher. She had the interest in studying all aspects of parenting that fostered healthy relationships and confident, resilient children, regardless of culture. Then the academic life, it wasn’t as fully rewarding as she’d hoped. So Dr. Burke became intrigued by the prospect of making her findings directly and readily available to the parents who needed it most.
I’m excited for her to share the results of her studies on parent-child intimacy with us today. How can we nurture a closer, more intimate, authentic, lifelong bond with our children? We’ll be discussing those details.
Hi, Taniesha. Welcome. Thank you so much for being here.
Taniesha Burke: Thank you so much for having me, Janet.
Janet Lansbury: I’m such a fan of your work. I know that you’ve done a lot of research on families and in particular you did a study all about intimacy with parents and children. That’s kind of what I want to focus on talking about today. I would love for you to share about that study, maybe what struck you as surprising. And also the practical ways that parents can be more aware of creating intimacy with their children, because that’s something that we all want, is to have the closest bonds that we can with our children for life, right?
Taniesha Burke: Right. Yes. The parent-child relationship is a category of child development or relationships in general that is heavily studied. Oftentimes the studies focus on discipline— so whether you’re an authoritarian, authoritative, or permissive parent. And to some extent in early childhood, a lot of research looks at attachment. However, not so much of the research looks at intimacy. And that’s one of the things I found out when I was doing my doctoral studies. And I wanted on a personal level to find out that myself. What creates intimacy in the relationship and how is that expressed in different cultures?
So for example, if we look at the western individualistic societies such as North America, Western Europe, they would say intimacy is more of the child and the parent being physically affectionate, self-disclosure, and so on. And when you look at more collectivistic societies such as Asian, Chinese societies —Chinese culture in particular— you will notice that intimacy doesn’t normally express itself like that. It is more of the parents sacrificing their wants and needs for the child and making sure everything for the child is okay. So in every society or in every culture, in the parent-child relationship intimacy does exist, but it’s just that, depending on the culture, that expression might be a bit different. And that was very interesting for me.
Janet Lansbury: But were there standard aspects of creating intimacy that were aligned with all the different cultures? I mean, were there some classic ways of developing intimacy that everybody uses?
Taniesha Burke: Yes. Intimacy is all about co-creating meaning. So both of us have to be on the same level and page in the sense of we are creating this intimate or close interaction with each other. And throughout the cultures we do see it.
So my research looks specifically at the Caribbean Jamaican culture, and then some of the other research looks at— for example, we can compare with the Canadian cultures. And what we found was that, for example, intimacy comes up a lot with self-disclosure in the parent-child relationship. And that is very similar to an intimate partner relationship, where both the parents and the child feel really connected with each other when they share what is happening in their lives, things that the other person might not immediately expect or know about, but that the parent or the child is volunteering this part of their life. Especially the child sharing what is happening in school, sharing what is happening with their friends, sharing their thoughts and ideas about things without being prompted by the parent. A lot of parents realize this is a special moment to embrace and they do have a sense of closeness with their child.
Janet Lansbury: What are some of the ways that we can facilitate that happening? I know we all want our children to tell us right when they come home from school, What did you do today? And children don’t do that all the time, but what needs to happen? Obviously a lot of trust on the child’s part, right? That we’re not going to say, Oh, that’s terrible, you shouldn’t do that or say that. That kind of withholding of judgment from the parent, right? I mean, what are some things that we can do that make that more possible for children to share with us? We all want that.
Taniesha Burke: So let me go back to looking at the whole element of parent-child relationship, there are three domains. You have the authority domain that looks at everything regarding socialization. That is discipline, guiding the child so that they have the values and attitudes and behaviors of society. And then you have the attachment domain that looks at more of protection and security. Now, with the intimacy, if the authority domain where you have an authoritarian style of parenting where the parent says, Do as I say. What your thoughts and feelings are don’t matter to me. It is my rule. Everything that I say goes, it is difficult for that kind of self-disclosure to come about. So the best environment as it relates to authority or socialization is where the child is interacting with the parent regarding values and attitudes and socialization on an authoritative playing field where the parent, yes they are the authority figure, but they also consider the feelings, thoughts, and views of the child. So there has to be a sense of safety there.
And also with the attachment, that is also important. So are you a parent who is responsive to my needs? When I am in distress, do you tell me to just get over it and ignore me? Or are you responsive and find a way to comfort me? So if that kind of secure attachment is there, it makes self-disclosure a lot easier because the child already feels safe and secure with you to open up and share a side of their life that you wouldn’t necessarily find out about unless you go and investigate it yourself.
So it’s important to have an authoritative form of interaction in the socialization process and also in the attachment process, being there, responsive to the needs of the child in order to get them to feel comfortable to open up to you. So the three domains interact with each other.
Janet Lansbury: That makes a lot of sense. In the published paper that I read, the study that you did with the Jamaican parents, that culture is more authoritarian, right? In their discipline strategies.
Taniesha Burke: Yes.
Janet Lansbury: In that culture, did the children still find ways to disclose and did the parents notice that this felt like positive intimacy?
Taniesha Burke: Yes, they did. Interestingly, when we looked at specifically middle class families, there’s something that parents often talked about. So taking their children to school, they would be driving and the child is in the backseat, and that is when the child opens up. It’s something about not the face-to-face, the direct eye contact, that allows a child to feel comfortable to reveal what is in their mind, in their thoughts. It’s not so intimidating. Another thing is walking with the child, doing activities that do not present that face-to-face. So if there are interactions where there’s not so much intimidation or hierarchy, a child is more open or receptive to sharing what’s going on in their lives. And for parents, doing things together. So, running errands, doing chores at home, any sort of special project, that makes them feel close to their child.
And also when the child spontaneously gives them a hug or says, I love you mami, I love you papi. That makes the parents feel really close to that child during that interaction. So in the research, children did initiate a lot of intimate moments with their parents and they absolutely appreciated it. Some parents even thought about when they are ill or they’re not doing so well and the child is attentive to them, receptive. The child noticed that they might not be in high spirits or something is going on with them. And the child notices that and approaches them and says, What’s going on? Everything will be okay, mami, and gives them a hug. In those interactions, the parents feel really close to their child and describe that as an intimate moment.
Janet Lansbury: Wow. Well, I can definitely vouch for the driving thing because that works with my children. When I want them to talk to me about certain things, not making eye contact, that makes a lot of sense. I used a more authoritative approach, but what’s interesting to me also there though is that the children, even if they were raised more authoritarian and maybe there was fear involved in interactions with parents, which can be a result of that, where there’s intimidation and fear on the part of the child, the child still craved intimacy so much that they were able to take those risks to open up.
Taniesha Burke: Children need to feel that they matter. They need to have a sense of connection with their primary caregivers, whether it’s a parent or somebody in their extended family. So to feel that they matter, sometimes they do that initiation of intimacy. And if the parent is open and receptive to it, that satisfies the need for connection and a sense of belonging with the child. And the child will continue to make those initiations to continue that connection.
Janet Lansbury: And what about the parent disclosing? Obviously there are some things our child would probably not be comfortable with us disclosing to them. So what are the parameters for that? What kind of disclosure from parents creates more intimacy and trust between them, and what might be overwhelming or not as positive an experience for a child to hear? Maybe they feel too responsible for us in our issues or they feel like, Now I have to be the parent, or something like that. Right?
Taniesha Burke: So it’s the issue of parentification of the child, right? So if you as a parent are putting onto this child the sense that they need to take care of you, they’re responsible for your feelings and helping you to recover and all of that, that is not going to create an intimate moment for the child. So intimacy is where there’s a mutuality there that you are both experiencing a sense of positivity and enjoyment in interaction. Now if you’re dumping your stuff on your child, the child is not going to feel that sense of positivity and neutrality, right? So it is simply saying, You know, I had a rough day. Things didn’t work out so well at work. I’m just trying to figure out things, I’m just feeling a little bit overwhelmed. Just sharing your feelings, that things aren’t perfect or I made a mistake. But without going into the details and the nitty gritty of what is really happening. Just showing your child that I am also human. I’m not always perfect at it all the time. Things happen and I’m trying to sort it out, similar to how you might make a mistake and you’re trying to sort it out. That’s what’s going on with me. And the parents have responded to say the child says, Everything will be okay. Can I give you a hug?
A parent mentioned that one day she went to work and when she opened her bag, her child actually left her a note to say that she was going to have a good day at work, because she was just having troubles at work. And she just said, You know, work is a little bit tough for me now and I’m trying to figure out things. And as a way of connecting, her daughter actually left a note in her bag that surprised her the next day when she went to work and saw this beautiful note that says everything is going to be okay. So it’s not going into the woods of what is going on, but just saying, I’m trying to solve some things. I’ve probably made some mistakes, trying to figure out how I’m going to solve this, and so on. That gives the child an idea that you are human, you struggle with things as well, but without giving them the burden of trying to solve it for you.
Janet Lansbury: Right. Oh, I love that story about the note that child put in the handbag.
Taniesha Burke: Yeah, that was absolutely beautiful that she opened her bag and that her daughter left a note there to say she’s going to have a good day at work. So it’s those little things, that you can see that children, they take the initiative and if they value their relationship with you, they will do little things to communicate to you that you matter to them as well. It’s not only them saying, Do I matter to you mami or papi? But they’re doing things to say, You matter to me and I’m going to show you by doing these little things.
Parents have expressed as well that children bought things for them. They might buy a little candy or a little card. It’s not necessarily Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, just a random thing. Just to say, I thought of you when I was buying my thing and here’s a little thing from me. And for a lot of parents that for them was like, wow, this was more important than a birthday or Mother’s Day card or something like that. Because it is spontaneous, it’s not related to a fixed day of celebration.
Janet Lansbury: Wow. A hundred percent. Yeah, I totally can see that. Those children probably experienced similar outreach from the parents. I’ve done that with my children where you leave a note in their lunchbox or especially when my children went off to college, they got a note from me in their luggage, which was probably more for me than for them, to be honest. When children receive those kinds of gestures from us that we maybe initiate, then they’re more likely to reflect them back to us and reciprocate.
Taniesha Burke: Yes. So the relationship is reciprocal, right? What you give is what you get. The thing is when the child is experiencing frequent interactions of intimacy, they want to maintain that. So if you are giving it to them, whether it’s in a note or hug, watching TV with them, they want to maintain that kind of intimacy with you. So they will initiate and sometimes replicate what you have done with them.
Janet Lansbury: I think another benefit of the parent disclosure is that if we can reflect back on feelings that our children are already noticing in us, maybe they can’t pinpoint what it is but they sense that we’re upset, and then to express that to them not only creates intimacy, but it’s a relief, right, for the child, that they know at least what it’s about?
Taniesha Burke: And it’s not about them, they’re not burdening you. They realize you have other things going on in your life that you’re trying to solve. And it’s just to say, Yes, I am trying to work things out right now. I’m a bit distracted and everything will be okay. The important thing is don’t put it on your child to be responsible for your emotional wellbeing and to solve your problems for you.
Janet Lansbury: But that could be tempting too, sometimes. I think if we’re going through something or we’re mad at our partner who’s the other parent, as a child gets older, you kind of want to bring them into that and that’s obviously not going to feel good.
Taniesha Burke: Yes, that’s definitely not a good thing. Children do not appreciate it, especially when they’re teenagers. It makes them feel that they have to take a side, especially if it involves both parents, and it’s overwhelming for them to try and figure out how to help you as a parent. So it’s important not to parentify your child in that way. Best friend, a therapist, somebody else except your child.
Janet Lansbury: Yes, absolutely. I think even with siblings. Siblings Without Rivalry, I don’t know if you’ve read that book, but they pinpoint so many ideas that I would not have had without that book. Which is that even if you’re saying to your son or your daughter, Oh your sibling did this and it really bugs me, or You’re so much better at this than they are. And we feel like that kind of communication, that it’s creating more intimacy with our child, but what the child can pick up there is, Oh, there are a lot of comparisons and judgments going on here in this family. And I could be on the wrong end of that too.
Taniesha Burke: And that is why intimacy is really that you’re both co-creating this experience where you’re both benefiting from it. You both perceive that this is creating positivity, warmth in the interaction. But if one of you perceives that, This interaction is putting me in a position where I now have to choose, do I side with my sibling or do I side with my parent, that is not intimacy.
Janet Lansbury: Right. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a child.
What other things can we do as parents to help nourish the intimacy between us and our children?
Taniesha Burke: One of the things that parents did was they construct distinct relationships, meaning they had these one-on-one interactions. So if they had multiple children, they had, for example, let’s say on a Saturday morning they go to the bakery with this one particular child to get bread for the family. This child knows, This is my time with this parent. And they create that special bond with one-on-one, and they do that with each child. Set aside specific activities that they only did with that one child and the other sibling was not part of it. So they create this distinct relationship that the child can look forward to bonding with the parent one-on-one. And that’s how they created meaning and intimacy.
Also it’s enjoying things such as watching TV programs together, discussing the programs, for boys in particular going into their gaming world, asking them questions about their games. Or even if, especially as a mom you really don’t understand these sporting events, but kind of following what’s going on so you can have a discussion with them. My soon-to-be 17-year-old is a big Arsenal fan and what I’ve done is that I’ve followed people on Twitter who are part of this Arsenal world. And so every time Arsenal news comes up, sometimes I’ll initiate conversation. He’s like, Whoa, how did you know that mom? And he appreciates that I’m willing to continuously go into his world and share with him. So it is creating that opportunity to really knowing what matters to your child and educating yourself on it and initiating those conversations.
It’s communicating too that your child matters to you. Saying, I do appreciate when you helped me with this. I do appreciate how kind you are. You matter to me. It’s communicating that you are not just my child and you’re part of this family in general, but you are special to me in your unique way. And again, that ties into also, you do the self-disclosure and so on.
And integrating them into your lives. So, let’s look at that. If you are building a bookshelf, for example, at home it’s inviting your son or your daughter, they might not necessarily be hands-on building the bookshelf, but just sitting there talking with you, you showing them things and them being interested in it, create that sense of intimacy. So try to integrate them as much as possible into your lives.
I know sometimes as they become teenagers, parents might say, Oh they just want to hang out with their friends and not me so much. But the literature on teenagers do show that even though they crave this independence and need to be with their friends, they still want to know that they matter to their parents and they still want to know that their parents want to integrate them into their lives.
So things like family meals, how often do you have family meals with each other? That’s a time of intimacy and bonding as well because you are all at the table talking about what’s happening in your lives, what happened in the day, a few hours ago, and you’re connecting with each other over food and creating that bond. So those are some of the ways that parents can create intimacy. And the routines, especially with the little ones, the morning routines, the evening routines, all of those are ways that you can create intimacy. Cooking meals together, leisure activities, whether you’re doing sports, riding a bike around the community together. Those are ways you can create intimacy with your child.
Janet Lansbury: So doing projects together, sharing hobbies, and really what you’re talking about I think is that we’re seeing our child. Our child feels seen in their interests, that we care enough to look into it and research it a little bit and join them in that. That we really want to know and see them and that we think what they’re doing is interesting and cool. You know, what they’re interested in is interesting to us.
I noticed with my older children that now when we have time together, and especially if they’re confiding in me or something, I’m so tuned in. I’m like laser-focused because this is precious time, I realize that. And then because I’m tuned in, I remember all kinds of weird details that they tell me. So then later we’ll have another conversation and I’ll say, Oh yeah, that’s that person or that’s that thing. And they almost seem surprised sometimes that I remember. But it feels good, right? Because that means you were really listening, you made mental notes of this and that because it was important to you.
Taniesha Burke: One of the things, Janet, I want parents to consider is that when you take the initiative, when you really make intimacy a priority with your child, you will realize that the authority domain of discipline, the resistance to requests and so on, that is reduced significantly. So when children feel that sense of connection, feeling that they matter, have frequent intimate interactions with you, guess what? They’re more likely to comply, they’re more likely to work with you. They’re more likely to brainstorm and come up with solutions. So it all ties in. If you are having a lot of pushback from your child, ask, Am I creating enough intimate interaction with my child? Do they feel like they matter? Do they feel connected? Do they feel like they belong? Not just, Okay, I’m a member of the family, but do they deeply feel connected to us?
And if you think that’s not the case, what can you do? Maybe you need to really have that distinct relationship where you focus on one day of the week for one or two hours where you connect only with that child. Because once that intimacy is there, other issues solve themselves or they don’t occur as frequently.
Janet Lansbury: Are there ways that we might not realize that we’re interfering with intimacy between us and our children?
Taniesha Burke: Yes. So when we become overbearing with our authority, that is one thing that children, because they all have this need to protect their autonomy, they’re going to push back. Some will push back, some will recoil and become sneaky and withdrawn. But in general, when we become overbearing with the need for control of what they’re doing and how they’re doing things, that can severely reduce intimacy. And that is also tied into the issue of constant conflict. So if there’s a lot of power struggles, a lot of arguments, that is how we disrupt the intimate interaction with our child. So when we misuse our power on our children, that can significantly damage the relationship with them.
Janet Lansbury: One thing that your study didn’t show, but that I try to frame for parents because I actually totally believe in this and I’ve seen it in many ways with many different children: other people’s children, my children. And that is that you can actually be in conflict with your child in a way that is positive for intimacy, ultimately. And this is if you are sort of rising above the argument or power struggle and welcoming your child to fully disagree and be mad at you with the choices that you have to make as a parent, seeing the bigger picture and what the real needs are in the family and for that child. And that sometimes conflicts with what they want in the moment, right? So even that interaction, which doesn’t look so cozy on the outside, is very intimate. It really creates more trust because you can be yourself, you can be mad at me, you can be in conflict with me, you can have a totally different point of view. I welcome that. I’ve still been given this job to take care of you or take care of myself. This is what I’m deciding. But yeah, you get to feel how you want to feel. I’m not going to get mad at you for not liking my boundaries, or whatever it is.
Taniesha Burke: Actually what you shared just now, it’s something that came up in my colleague’s research, where part of the repairing of the relationship is where the parent and child actually talk about the source of the tension and try to find a solution to that tension. And it’s going through that difficult conversation of understanding why the tension has occurred or the conflict has occurred and what can we do together to solve it? That is how the intimacy is repaired in the relationship.
Janet Lansbury: I get that, yes. Because my natural tendency is avoid the conflict, pretend it’s not there, just go along with it. But then neither one of us feels seen and accepted for where we are. And so that bravery to get into it, like a mediator or relationship counselor would for adults, and to open up and say, This really hurt me. I didn’t like this. It does take you to a deeper level, right? So that makes sense to me.
Taniesha Burke: Yes. But it’s in that communication with your child and finding a solution and just being open and honest and also apologizing that the intimacy is restored in the relationship.
Janet Lansbury: That’s beautiful. So helpful, I think.
Taniesha Burke: I think it’s important too because so many parents are so hellbent on, I am the authority figure, right? And I need to make sure the rules and the boundaries are whatever are set. Some parents fear that if they don’t do that, they’re going to have children who do not listen to authority, who are unruly, and so on. And so they might hold firm that as the authority figure, I have to be firm. However, the research is showing that the intimacy is really restored when you’re willing to be vulnerable and have that conversation about what is the source of the tension. I hear what you’re saying as the child, this is my stance as a parent, let’s collaborate and find a solution together.
Janet Lansbury: Wonderful. Well, before we finish, I definitely want you to talk about your beautiful parenting journal, The Parenting Journal: Key to Strengthening Your Parent-Child Relationship. You say it’s a journal for parents, guardians, or caregivers who desire to improve or maintain a healthy relationship with their children. It’s a simple idea, but the way that you executed it, it’s so insightful. You have prompts that help us to reflect on where we are each day, or each day that we decide we have time to log in it, about where we are with self-compassion, what we want to do more of, what we want to do less of, what’s going on between us and our children.
And it reminded me of how I have the privilege of receiving a lot of letters from parents, messages about their issues. And it’s interesting, at least about one in five of them, the parents will say at the end, sometimes it’s paragraphs and paragraphs and paragraphs, right? And then at the end they say, Even if you don’t answer, which you probably won’t, this really helped me. Writing this to you has already helped me so much to digest what’s going on and think about it and figure it out. So that’s what I thought of when I saw your journal. I thought, Oh this is brilliant.
Taniesha Burke: So the idea of the journal came from my research after interviewing all the parents and there are certain themes that came up. You know, in academia a lot of times the research is hidden behind the paywall of the library where you have to try and get access to the publication. And I thought, Why not create a journal based on the conversations I’ve had with so many parents?
One of the objectives too is with the journal, when you start to record what was good about the day, what was good about being a parent, what was challenging about being a parent. When you start going through that over a number of days and weeks, you start to see the pattern. You start to have a better sense of awareness that I need to be a little bit more reflective. I need to be a little bit more patient. Or you have changed some things and you’re now able to see the changes in your relationship with your child or even your child’s behavior overall. So it’s a day-to-day thing, whether or not you are working with a therapist or you just want to keep something for yourself to be accountable to yourself and to really improve your relationship. This is what the journal helps you to do.
And on a long term, when your child is 21, 25, or even when your child is an adult and becomes a parent, you can hand your journals to them, right? And say, This is what I documented when I was parenting you. These are some of the challenges I experienced. These are some of the solutions that I came up with. You might experience the same thing. You might feel overwhelmed. In case that ever happens to you, here’s my journal just to show that this is nothing that you can go through alone. So it’s in the immediacy of building the relationship. But I want parents to also keep it as a long-term gift to hand over to their children when they’re adults as well to say, This is what parenting you was like, these are my struggles or were my struggles and you might get some insights from the things I experienced while I was parenting you.
Janet Lansbury: What an incredible tool and gift to give.
Taniesha Burke: Thank you.
Janet Lansbury: Wow. Well you’ve shared so much information and insight and research and really helpful ideas and thank you so much.
Taniesha Burke: Yes, thank you so much as well. And before we go, I’d just ask parents as you listen to this podcast and at the end of the podcast, ask yourself, How are you with your children? Do you give them enough intimate interactions and what are those interactions? And start to also evaluate, How does my child, or how do my children initiate intimate interactions with me? Paying attention and being more intentional. So maybe you haven’t been initiating enough and it’s now time for you to really step that up and you will see that it benefits all aspects of the relationship in the end.
Janet Lansbury: Absolutely. And you can change things with children at any time and they are very willing because that’s what they want most of all.
Taniesha Burke: Yes. They want to feel they matter, right? They want to feel connected to you. So they will change along with you as well.
Janet Lansbury: Well that’s a beautiful way to end. Thank you so much again. And, everybody go check out Dr. Burke’s website, it’s TanieshaBurke.com. And you’ll find that she has some wonderful resources and coaching. You can sign up for that and enjoy her journal and everything else that she has to offer.
Taniesha Burke: Yes. And thank you so much for having me, Janet, to really speak about intimacy. It’s an important topic and an important part of our journey as parents with our children. You know, so many memories can be created that we will share years to come with our children just by being proactive in creating intimacy in the relationship.
Janet Lansbury: Yes. We’ll never regret anything that we did to enable more intimacy between us because we will be reaping those benefits for life.
Taniesha Burke: Definitely. Take care.
Janet Lansbury: Okay, you too. Bye-bye.
Taniesha Burke: Bye.
Taniesha’s website is: https://www.tanieshaburke.com
Also, please checkout some of my other podcasts at janetlansbury.com. website. They’re all indexed by subject and category so you should be able to find whatever topic you’re interested in. And remember I have books on audio at Audible.com, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple.com.
And please know that wherever you are on your parenting journey, with boundaries, especially, I created the No Bad Kids Course to empower you to take your parenting to the next level.
Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.