Building a Great Relationship with Your Child
Want to be a great parent? Want to raise a happy, healthy, well-behaved kid? Want to live in a home where discipline becomes unnecessary? The secret is to create a closer connection with your child.
“What do you mean? Of course I love my kid, and I tell him so all the time. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t need discipline!”
It isn’t enough that we tell our children we love them. We need to put our love into action every day for them to feel it. And when we do that our kids need a lot less discipline!
“But what does that mean, putting our love into action?”
Mostly, it means making that connection with our child our highest priority. Love in action means paying thoughtful attention to what goes on between us, seeing things from the our child’s point of view, and always remembering that this child who sometimes may drive us crazy is still that precious baby we welcomed into our arms with such hope.
“Doesn’t that take a lot of energy?”
It takes a lot of effort to fully attend to another human being, but when we are really present with our child, we often find that it energizes us and makes us feel more alive, as being fully present with anyone does. Being close to another human takes work. But 90% of people on their deathbed say that their biggest regret is that they didn’t get closer to the people in their lives. And almost all parents whose children are grown say they wish they had spent more time with their kids.
“Being fully present? How can I do that when I’m just trying to get dinner on the table and keep from tripping over the toys?”
Being present just means paying attention. Like a marriage or a friendship, your relationship with your child needs positive attention to thrive. Attention = Love. Like your garden, your car, or your work, what you attend to flourishes. And, of course, that kind of attentiveness takes time. You can multi-task at it while you’re making dinner, but the secret of a great relationship is some focused time every day attending only to that child.
“This is all too vague for me. What am I supposed to actually DO?”
1. Start right for a firm foundation.
The closeness of the parent-child connection throughout life results from how much parents connect with their babies, right from the beginning. For instance, research has shown that fathers who take a week or more off work when their babies are born have a closer relationship with their child at every stage, including as teens and college students. Is this cause and effect? The bonding theorists say that if a man bonds with his newborn, he will stay closer to her throughout life. But you don’t have to believe that bonding with a newborn is crucial to note that the kind of man who treasures his newborn and nurtures his new family is likely to continue doing so in ways that bring them closer throughout her childhood.
2. Remember that all relationships take work.
Good parent-child connections don’t spring out of nowhere, any more than good marriages do. Biology gives us a headstart — if we weren’t biologically programmed to love our infants the human race would have died out long ago — but as kids get older we need to build on that natural bond, or the challenges of modern life can erode it. Luckily, children automatically love their parents. As long as we don’t blow that, we can keep the connection strong.
3. Prioritize time with your child.
Assume that you’ll need to put in a significant amount of time creating a good relationship with your child. Quality time is a myth, because there’s no switch to turn on closeness. Imagine that you work all the time, and have set aside an evening with your husband, whom you’ve barely seen in the past six months. Does he immediately start baring his soul? Not likely.
In relationships, without quantity, there’s no quality. You can’t expect a good relationship with your daughter if you spend all your time at work and she spends all her time with her friends. So as hard as it is with the pressures of job and daily life, if we want a better relationship with our kids, we have to free up the time to make that happen.
4. Start with trust, the foundation of every good relationship.
Trust begins in infancy, when your baby learns whether she can depend on you to pick her up when she needs you. By the time babies are a year old, researchers can assess whether babies are “securely attached” to their parents, which basically means the baby trusts that his parents can be depended on to meet his emotional and physical needs.
Over time, we earn our children’s trust in other ways: following through on the promise we make to play a game with them later, not breaking a confidence, picking them up on time.
At the same time, we extend our trust to them by expecting the best from them and believing in their fundamental goodness and potential. We trust in the power of human development to help our child grow, learn, and mature. We trust that although our child may act like a child today, he or she is always developing into a more mature person (just as, hopefully, we are.) We trust that no matter what he or she does, there is always the potential for positive change.
Trust does not mean blindly believing what your teenager tells you. Trust means not giving up on your child, no matter what he or she does. Trust means never walking away from the relationship in frustration, because you trust that she needs you and that you will find a way to work things out.
5. Encourage, Encourage, Encourage.
Think of your child as a plant who is programmed by nature to grow and blossom. If you see the plant has brown leaves, you consider if maybe it needs more light, more water, more fertilizer. You don’t criticize it and yell at it to straighten up and grow right.
Kids form their view of themselves and the world every day. They need your encouragement to see themselves as good people who are capable of good things. And they need to know you’re on their side. If most of what comes out of your mouth is correction or criticism, they won’t feel good about themselves, and they won’t feel like you’re their ally. You lose your only leverage with them, and they lose something every kid needs: to know they have an adult who thinks the world of them.
6. Remember that respect must be mutual.
Pretty obvious, right? But we forget this with our kids, because we know we’re supposed to be the boss. You can still set limits (and you must), but if you do it respectfully and with empathy, your child will learn both to treat others with respect and to expect to be treated respectfully himself.
7. Think of relationships as the slow accretion of daily interactions.
You don’t have to do anything special to build a relationship with your child. The good — and bad — news is that every interaction creates the relationship. Grocery shopping, carpooling and bathtime matter as much as that big talk you have when there’s a problem. He doesn’t want to share his toy, or go to bed, or do his homework? How you handle it is one brick in the foundation of your permanent relationship, as well as his ideas about all relationships.
That’s one reason it’s worth thinking through any recurring interactions that get on your nerves to see how you might handle them differently. Interactions that happen more than once tend to initiate a pattern. Nagging and criticizing are no basis for a relationship with someone you love. And besides, your life is too short for you to spend it in a state of annoyance.
8. Communication habits start early.
Do you listen when she prattles on interminably about her friends at preschool, even when you have more important things to think about? Then she’s more likely to tell you about her interactions with boys when she’s fourteen.
It’s hard to pay attention when you’re rushing to pick up food for dinner and get home, but if you aren’t really listening, two things happen. You miss an opportunity to learn about and teach your child, and she learns that you don’t really listen so there’s not much point in talking.
9. Don’t take it personally.
Your teenager slams the door to her bedroom. Your ten year old huffs “Mom, you never understand!” Your four year old screams “I hate you, Daddy!” What’s the most important thing to remember? DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY! This isn’t primarily about you, it’s about them: their tangled up feelings, their difficulty controlling themselves, their immature ability to understand and express their emotions. Taking it personally wounds you, which means you do what we all do when hurt: either close off, or lash out, or both. Which just worsens a tough situation for all concerned.
Remembering not to take it personally means you:
- Take a deep breath
- Let the hurt go
- Remind yourself that your child does in fact love you but can’t get in touch with it at the moment
- Consciously lower your voice
- Try hard to remember what it feels like to be a kid who is upset and over-reacting.
- Think through how to respond calmly and constructively.
You can still set limits, but you do it from as calm a place as you can muster. Your child will be deeply grateful, even if she can’t acknowledge it at the moment.
10. Resist the impulse to be punitive.
How would you feel about someone who hurt, threatened, or humiliated you, “for your own good”? Kids do need our guidance, but punishing your child always erodes your relationship, which makes your child misbehave more.
11. Don’t let little rifts build up.
If something’s wrong between you, find a way to bring it up and work it through positively. Choosing to withdraw (except temporarily, strategically) when your child seems intent on driving you away is ALWAYS a mistake. Every difficulty is an opportunity to get closer or create distance.
12. Re-connect after every separation.
Parents naturally provide an anchor, or compass, for kids to attach to and stay oriented around. When they’re apart from us they need a substitute, so they orient themselves around teachers, coaches, electronics, or peers. When we rejoin each other physically we need to also rejoin emotionally.
13. Stay available.
Most kids don’t keep an agenda and bring things up at a scheduled meeting. And nothing makes them clam up faster than pressing them to talk. Kids talk when something is up for them, particularly if you’ve proven yourself to be a good listener, but not overly attached to their opening up to you.
Being on hand when they come home is a sure-fire way to hear the highlights of the day with younger kids, and even, often, with older ones. With older kids, simply being in the same room doing something can create the opportunity for interaction. If you’re cooking dinner and she’s doing homework, for instance, or the two of you are in the car alone, there’s often an opening. Of course, if one of you is hunched over the computer, the interaction is likely to be more limited. Find ways to be in proximity where you’re both potentially available, without it seeming like a demand. This may seem obvious, but stating your availability is helpful, even with teens.
“I’ll be in the kitchen making dinner if you want me” or
“I have to run to the grocery store, but don’t hesitate to call my cell phone if you need me.”
But the most important part of staying available is a state of mind. Your child will sense your emotional availability. Parents who have close relationships with their teens often say that as their child has gotten older, they’ve made it a practice to drop everything else if their teen signals a desire to talk. This can be difficult if you’re also handling a demanding job and other responsibilities, of course. But kids who feel that other things are more important to their parents often look elsewhere when they’re emotionally needy. And that’s our loss, as much as theirs.
What’s Connection Parenting?
What’s Connection Parenting? → Prioritizing your relationship with your child, because you know that’s the foundation for emotional well-being.
“The model of parenting most of us grew up with was authoritarian parenting, which is based on fear. Some of us may have grown up with permissive parenting, which is also based on fear. Authoritarian parenting is based on the child’s fear of losing the parent’s love. Permissive parenting is based on the parent’s fear of losing the child’s love. Connection parenting is based on love instead of fear.”
–Pam Leo, Connection Parenting
Children grow up fast. It may not seem that way when your 11 month old cries all night, or your 3 year old is screaming on the floor next to the candy display. But age 9, with its delightful reasonableness poised on the brink of preteen sophistication, arrives in what seems like the blink of an eye. As your child blows out those 9 candles, you’re halfway to 18. The age of majority, when he’s legally considered enough of an adult to marry, vote, and die for his country. 18 – and usually earlier – is when you’re officially fired as a parent, and, if you’ve done a good enough job, re-hired as a consultant.
“All parents hope that’s what we’re doing, of course. How can we be sure?”
At this point, there’s not much doubt. Research teams have shown again and again what it is that builds a strong connection between parents and children. It starts early, with parents who respond to the infant’s needs, so that she develops a secure attachment to them. This body of research is called Attachment Theory, and has given rise to a child-raising approach called Attachment Parenting.
“Isn’t Attachment Parenting about moms never being apart from the baby? I love him, but I need a break sometimes.”
Attachment Parenting has indeed become known for its recommendation that babies need a lot of holding by their parents, but of course no mother holds her baby every minute. That’s a caricature. And please notice I said “parents,” as in fathers as well as mothers. All parents need a break sometimes; that’s why nature set us up with two.
But the critical ingredient in Attachment Parenting is actually the attentiveness with which the baby’s adults respond to her, which gives her a secure attachment. That’s the foundation of healthy emotional development.
Attachment Parenting is only the beginning of the bond you build and nurture with your child. The parenting philosophy that helps parents create a close lifetime connection with their kids is known as Connection Parenting, a coin termed by Parent Educator Pam Leo.
“But why does that need to be a parenting philosophy? Aren’t all parents connected to their kids?”
What’s different about Connection Parenting is that it’s about the relationship with your child, rather than a set of “skills’ to make you a better parent. You’re a fine parent the way you are, if you’re in touch with your natural parenting instincts.
“If that’s true, why do so many of us find parenting such a challenge?”
Because no amount of “parenting skills” can make up for the lack of a close parent-child relationship. Kids accept our guidance because of who we are to them. Without that relationship, it’s very hard to parent. A close bond not only makes our kids want to please us, it gives us access to our natural parenting know-how.
It’s especially challenging to create a close relationship with our kids these days. Human beings weren’t designed to handle the amount of stress our modern life loads on us, which makes it difficult to hear our instincts. Most of us try to parent in our spare time, around the demands of work, commuting and household responsibilities. Finally, our culture devalues and erodes our relationship with our kids, and woos them away from us at too early an age.
“So not all parents are sufficiently connected to their kids?”
Of course, every parent has a relationship with his or her child. The question is what kind of relationship. We can think of relationships as the slow accretion of daily interactions. You don’t have to do anything special to build a relationship, per se. The good — and bad — news is that every interaction creates the relationship. Grocery shopping, carpooling and bath time matter as much as that big talk you have when there’s a problem. He doesn’t want to share his toy, or go to bed, or do his homework? How you handle it is one brick in the foundation of your permanent relationship, as well as his ideas about all relationships.
It’s true that North Americans think of themselves as more “child-centered” than ever. We take endless digital pictures of our babies that we post online, we plan elaborate birthday parties our two year olds find overwhelming, we let our four year olds run rampant in restaurants, we allow our daughters to dress like pop stars by age 10, we spend a fortune on wardrobes, Ipods, computers, TVs. But these things aren’t what our kids need, and they often disconnect us from our kids, as evidenced by the 2/3 of kids who have TVs in their bedrooms.
“I do spend time with my kids, driving them everywhere. But I have a demanding job and our life is so busy. Do I have to do something special?”
Close relationships are built, moment by moment, from shared experience that lets us touch each other deeply. Nothing extraordinary may seem to be happening on the outside, but on the inside we’re connecting with the fullness of our deepest selves. It’s a form of falling in love: most of it happens in our hearts. Experiences like kissing scraped knees, laughing hysterically over nothing, discussing human nature at the dinner table, or wrestling with a challenging decision during a quiet stroll at twilight – that’s what builds intimacy. But to have these kinds of deep moments with someone, we have to make our connection with that human being our priority.
“I love my kids. Of course I prioritize them. But I have other responsibilities that sometimes have to come first.”
Prioritizing the connection with our kids means we put them first. Not that we don’t work outside the home – and, when we can, throw ourselves into those jobs whole-heartedly. Not that we don’t have passionate, devoted, intimate marriages. But prioritizing our kids means that we take very seriously the responsibility we’ve signed onto: That for this eighteen years of our life, this small person who we chose to have placed in our arms gets our full attention. That we make decisions about the rest of our lives so our children get what they need.
“What do you mean by full attention? That sounds so vague.”
Some people think of it as love. But it isn’t enough that we tell our children we love them. We need to put our love into action every day for them to feel it. Like a marriage or a friendship, your relationship with your child needs positive attention to thrive. Like your garden, your wardrobe, or your work, what you attend to flourishes. Maybe attention is best thought of as being completely present in the moment with another person. Or bringing your full acceptance and appreciation to someone. And, of course, that kind of attentiveness takes time. You can’t multi-task at it.
“So lets be precise here about how much time. It sounds like you’re saying it’s fine to work outside the home if I make good decisions for my kids and give them my full attention when I’m home.”
We can’t come up with the answer for any given family by discussing this in the abstract. But let’s start with what we know is true. We know that for healthy development, babies need to form permanent attachments with intimate others who respond to their needs. By definition, any paid caregiver who is not a relative cannot offer a permanent relationship; you can count on it being disrupted sooner or later.
For an infant, more than a few hours a week of care by a non-intimate can be emotionally jarring. They’re biologically programmed so that their stress hormones go through the roof when their “special people” vanish. An older baby — starting around six months — can handle somewhat more time away from her “attachment figures”, but still needs to spend the majority of her awake time relating to a permanent intimate other.
“Does this need to be the mother?”
Only a sexist would say yes to that. And why should it be the mom rather than the dad, who loves his baby just as deeply? In fact, it could be a grandmother or aunt. But does this need to be someone who is a loving, permanent presence, who is able to form a deep intimate relationship with the baby? Absolutely. Otherwise, the baby is building a relationship with someone who is going to disappear on her. Or, worse yet, spending her days with someone who can’t adequately bond with her.
“So when is it developmentally appropriate for kids to be in daycare?”
Let’s fast forward to what we know about two year olds. If they spend most of their days with someone who is fully present and quietly attentive to their needs, someone with whom they have a strong permanent bond, they tantrum less. They have fewer nightmares. They have a lower amount of stress hormones circulating in their bloodstreams. They are altogether more cooperative, because their needs for autonomy are being met in the context of appropriate loving limits in an intimate relationship.
“But can’t toddlers get these needs met in daycare, or by a caregiver?”
Maybe in fantastic daycare, where the toddler has one special person who is “his,” so he gets the intimate relationship he needs. And maybe with a terrific caregiver. But again, by definition, those caregiver bonds will be disrupted sooner or later, and the younger the child, the greater the damage. We’re so cavalier in our culture about relationships; we don’t acknowledge the loss for our children – and then we wonder why we all feel so disconnected in this society. Of course, if your child doesn’t mourn the loss of a caregiver, then there wasn’t much of a relationship there, and your child shouldn’t have been left with that person to begin with.
The bottom line in non-parental care is the quality of the relationship that’s offered to the child. It’s hard enough for a loving parent who resonates with the toddler to set appropriate loving limits that nurture autonomy. It’s a superhuman challenge for any paid caregiver.
Also, if we expect to be our kids’ “attachment figures,” they need us around for most of their waking hours. So while being a Connected Parent doesn’t mean you won’t work outside the home, you will almost certainly make different decisions about work than you would if you didn’t have kids.
“Connection Parenting sounds very child-centered.”
Parenting takes enormous effort. But most of the time, the emotional rewards make it feel well worth it. If it didn’t work that way, humans would never have survived to this generation. And connection-oriented parents get something huge out of it, something other parents can’t count on. Parenting with a good relationship is like guiding that boulder downhill – you still have to pay attention and offer direction, and challenges certainly arise, but the momentum is with you.
A good parent-child relationship gets you through the hard times, and creates more frequent good times. It helps you to listen to, learn from, and meet the unique needs of your growing child. It makes it easier for you to influence your kid, so he’s more cooperative and discipline isn’t a challenge.
Of course, your child gets something even deeper. A strong relationship with you helps him to love himself, which is the foundation of mental health and happiness; and to love others, which is the foundation of future fulfilling relationships. Kids whose emotional needs are met express the traits and values we all want in our kids: consideration and respect for others, self-confidence, integrity, self -discipline. And study after study shows that a close relationship with parents protects children from the excesses of the culture and the peer group.
Connection Parenting keeps your family connected even as the pressures of daily life impinge on your time together and your children grow into their own lives, with their own friends and interests. And it insures that they’ll want to email you from college, or wherever their paths may lead.
Staying Connected with Your Child
Scientists have found a way to predict which couples will end up divorcing: those who don’t insure that they have at least 5 positive interactions for every negative one. According to John Gottman of the Gottman Institute, it is likely that maintaining this 5 to 1 ratio is effective insurance in every relationship, including between parents and children.
Life, with its infinite distractions and constant separations, has a way of eroding connection. All parents need to repeatedly reconnect with their children, just to repair the daily erosion created by life’s normal separations and distractions.
While our children are separated from us, they orient themselves around other things: their teacher, their peers, their computer.
As Gordon Neufeld, author of Hold On To Your Kids , says, when we recollect our children physically into our orbit, we must make sure we recollect them emotionally as well.
Effective parenting is almost impossible until the positive connection with your child has been re-established, so think of this as preventive maintenance, before there’s a problem. How?
1. Place a premium on relationships in your family.
If your expectation is that re-connecting after time apart is an important part of life, your children will share that expectation.
2. Acknowledge relationship and separation.
When you leave, say goodbye. When you return, say hello. When you first see your children in the morning, make a point of greeting each of them, preferably physically. This may seem obvious, but lots of families don’t do it.
Research shows that men who kiss their wives goodbye in the morning live longer, earn more, and are happier. While there is no data yet on how this applies to parents and kids, you can bet it works the same!
3. When you physically reconnect, consciously refocus your attention.
Otherwise, it’s automatic for all of us to keep thinking about the meeting you just attended or what you need to pick up at the grocery store.
4. Until you’ve re-established the connection, keep distractions to a minimum.
If you can discipline yourself to turn off the news when your child gets in the car, you’re lots more likely to make a connection with him and hear about what happened at band practice. If she’s coming back from a sleepover, try to avoid having family friends over at the same time. Insist that she spend some time interacting with the family before she gets on the phone or computer to chat with her friends. When one of you arrives home, don’t answer the phone during your greeting, even if it was a routine separation. As automatic as it is to answer the phone, greeting each other and reconnecting is ultimately more important. That’s what answering machines are for.
5. Attune to your child’s mood.
Your moods are unlikely to be in sync after time apart. To re-connect, you will probably need to adjust your mood to your child’s.
6. Connect on their level.
Neufeld and Mate, authors of the book Hold onto Your Kids and originators of the phrase “Collecting your child,” call this “getting in their face in a friendly way”. For toddlers, it means stooping down to make eye contact. For older kids, the idea is to demand their attention in an inoffensive way, which usually involves getting in their space physically.
7. Everyone needs “floortime.”
With toddlers, floortime is when you get down on the floor with them, in their space and in sync with their energy level, and connect in their world, whether it’s building a train track or playing pretend or reading a book. When they’re ten, floortime will probably take the form of snuggling on the couch while you chat, in a relaxed fashion, about anything from their day at school to the coming weekend to a TV show you just watched together. Forget about teaching or directing or rushing your kid to the next item on the schedule. None of those are quality time. Quality time means being in the present moment and responding to whatever is up for your child. The point is setting aside some time to just be present, daily, with every person in your family.
8. Welcome your child’s babyself.
It’s classic. Your child has been happily playing at childcare, but as soon as you show up, he has a meltdown. That’s because he’s been squashing his dependency needs so that he can function independently in a demanding environment. Your presence, with all of its comforting reassurance and warmth, signals to him that he can relax and let down his guard. Dr. Anthony Wolf calls this version of your child his “babyself.”
Scoop your child up, give him that snuggle he needs, and get him out of there. Some little ones need to cry for a few minutes in your arms before they’re ready for the carseat; those who are still nursing often need to nurse. Preschoolers may need to revert to babytalk. Accept all this as proof of the age-appropriate solace your child finds in your company. Just remember not to make a meltdown the precondition for comforting, so you don’t set that up as a daily response. Offer a pre-emptive snuggle as you pick them up at the end of the day and you can often avoid a meltdown. Some parents object to this as “encouraging dependency.”Instead see it as “allowing” the dependency that is there anyway, and will otherwise go undercover. Don’t worry, your kids won’t be dependent forever.
9. Remember the 5 to 1 ratio.
Try as we might, all of us sometimes have less than optimal interactions with our children. Remember that each one of those interactions that leave anyone feeling bad require five positive interactions to restore a positive valence to the relationship. These can be little – a smile or pat on the shoulder – as long as you make sure they have a positive impact.
One caution — don’t be tempted to buy five presents, even if you goofed royally. Occasional gifts for no reason are fine, but all kids distinguish between emotional connection and things, and they always notice when parents use money to buy their goodwill. They won’t turn down the gifts, but it’s a net loss to the relationship’s emotional bank account.
10. In addition to daily preventive maintenance, do repair work as necessary.
If your child’s attachment needs have gone unmet, for whatever reason, he or she has probably turned to the peer group to try to get them filled. Parenting becomes impossible when you aren’t your child’s “secure base,” as the attachment theorists say. You’ll need to do some relationship repair work to get your child’s attachment focused back on you where it belongs.
5 Secrets To Nurture Intimacy with Your Child
Intimacy is the glue that holds families together. It’s what connects us over the years, and across the miles. It’s what gets us through the hard times. It’s the grease that smooths the rough interactions of everyday life, and the honey that makes it all worth it.
Intimacy is hard to define, but we all know when we’re feeling it. Whether it’s crying on your best friend’s shoulder after a tragedy or snuggling in companionable silence with your partner in front of the fire, intimacy is when we feel connected.
How we humans build connections with each other, how we deepen them, and how we repair them when they fray is both as simple as a warm smile and as mysterious as the way the ground lurches when we see a picture of someone we have loved and lost.
John Gottman, has distilled the creating of intimate relationships down to their practical essence. It turns out that the building blocks of connection are the small overtures we make to each other every day, and the way our loved ones respond. Gottman calls these bids, as in “bids for attention.” We could also call them overtures, as in opening movements.
In happy relationships, whether between romantic partners, parents and children, friends, or coworkers, bids are made and responded to warmly. It almost doesn’t matter what the bid is about; the process of reaching out and receiving a response builds the relationship. It also increases the trust level so that we are more likely to reach out to that person again, and the content of the bids deepens.
If we begin with “I’m worried about XYZ” and receive an empathic response, we’re likely to elaborate and maybe ask our partner for support. If, on the other hand, our comment is ignored, or greeted with anything that doesn’t feel empathic, we’re unlikely to make ourselves vulnerable in any way, and the relationship loses a chance to deepen. In fact, we’re hurt, so a little wall gets built.
The same process is enacted with our children in hundreds of daily interactions. If we ask our middle schooler about the upcoming school dance and receive an engaged response, we might venture further and ask whether she’s nervous. If, on the other hand, her response is surly, most of us will back off.
And, of course, our children often test us by saying something negative to see if we’ll empathize. If we don’t, they hold those feelings inside.
So How Can you Create a More Intimate Family?
1. Pay attention to the “bids” that go on in your family.
Is the usual tone responsive and warm? Distracted and ignoring? Hostile and sarcastic? Does anyone get ignored? Does anyone usually ignore others?
2. Focus on noticing your child’s bids to you.
The inconvenient thing about a bid from your child is that they initiate whenever they want to, and you can count on being busy doing something else. It takes real self-discipline to tear yourself away from your screen to answer a child’s question, but how you respond to his overture is crucial in building closeness. Later, when you try to get him to tell you about what happened at school today, that’s your bid, and by then, he’s shut down. To support yourself, make it a practice to turn off your screens when you’re with your child.
3. Train yourself to respond with empathy, no matter what the comment is.
If your daughter climbs into the car after school and greets you with a negative comment like “Dad, you know I hate that music, can’t we listen to my music?” or “Mom, I had a terrible day and it’s all your fault because you….” that’s a setup for an argument. But it’s also a bid; she’s asking if you’ll commiserate with her, if you care about what matters to her, if you’ll listen to her tale of woe so she can process all that upset. You’re only human, so naturally you feel like snapping at her. But if you can take a deep breath and respond with empathy, you’ll find you can turn the entire situation around. So you might say:
“Really, you don’t like the Rolling Stones? I guess this is a little loud….Okay, I’ll turn this off and we can talk while we drive about what music to play so we can find something we both like.”
“Wow, you sound like you had a really terrible day! Tell me about it.”
Later, of course, you can ask if she really thinks her terrible day was all your fault. She’ll almost certainly sheepishly apologize. In the meantime, instead of a fight, you’ve deepened your relationship.
4. If you don’t get the response you want to your overtures to your kids, step back and watch how you initiate.
Are you inviting a positive response? If what you want is connection, don’t start with correction.
5. If you make an overture and are greeted with something hurtful — disdain, sarcasm, or blankness — try not to respond with anger. Instead, show your vulnerability and hurt.
Say “Ouch!” and turn away (before you give in to the temptation to lash out.) Your son or daughter (or spouse!) will almost certainly feel badly about having hurt you, especially since you haven’t aroused their ire by attacking back. Later, when you aren’t hurt and angry, you can tell them how it made you feel to get that response. Try to talk only about your feelings, not about them being wrong.
Intimacy is a dance. It deepens or is eroded by every interaction we have. The good news? That means that every interaction you have is a chance to shift onto a positive track and deepen your connection to your loved ones.
Playing with Your Child: Games for Connection and Emotional Intelligence
“Play can be the long-sought bridge back to that deep emotional bond between parent and child. Play, with all its exuberance and delighted togetherness, can ease the stress of parenting. Playful Parenting is a way to enter a child’s world, on the child’s terms, in order to foster closeness, confidence, and connection.”
–Lawrence Cohen, Playful Parenting*
Children need to play. It’s their work. All mammals play; it’s their way of learning skills they’ll need when they’re full-grown, from finding food to getting along with others. It’s also the way small humans process their emotions.
All day, every day, children have to manage complicated feelings: Fear (What if there IS something under the bed?), Jealousy (Maybe you do love their sibling more!), Humiliation (The teacher acted like he should already know that, and all the kids laughed!), Panic (What if she doesn’t make it to the bathroom on time?), Anger (It was my turn!), Disappointment (Doesn’t anyone care what I want?!)…. The normal challenges of every day for a growing child of any age stimulate all kinds of feelings. Children release these emotions through play. Laughter, specifically, transforms our body chemistry by reducing stress hormones and increasing bonding hormones.
Kids are more physical than adults. When they get wound up emotionally, their bodies need to discharge all that energy. That’s one of the reasons they have so much more energy than we do, so they wear us out.
But we can use this to our advantage, because when we play physical games with children, they giggle and sweat and scream — and they release the same pent-up stress hormones that they’d otherwise have to tantrum to discharge. Playing is also how kids learn, so when you “teach” an emotional lesson by playing, your child really gets it. Best of all, playing helps parents and kids feel closer.
I realize that at the end of the day you might be exhausted. I personally would much rather snuggle on the couch than initiate an active game. The good news is that these games don’t have to last long — maybe 10 minutes at most, or even as little as 2 minutes.
And believe it or not, most parents find them energizing. That’s because the tension and irritation we carry around makes us tired. When we play, we discharge stress hormones just like our kids, giving us a little more energy as we head into the evening.
So when your child asks you to play, make a deal. Sure, you’ll play dollhouse, or build a train track. But first, will they play a roughhousing game with you for a few minutes? Don’t be surprised if your child loves this kind of play so much, he begins begging for these games over and over.
Here are some ideas to get you started.
When your child is annoying, or in your face.
“Are you out of hugs again? Let’s do something about that!” Grab your child and give her a LONG hug — as long as you can. Don’t loosen your grip until she begins to squirm and then don’t let go immediately. Hug harder and say “I LOVE hugging you! I never want to let go. Promise I can hug you again soon?” Then let go and connect with a big, warm smile, and say “Thank you! I needed that!”
A more intensive version, for when a child has a new sibling, or you’ve been doing a lot of disciplining.
Convince your child on a very deep level that you LOVE him by chasing him, hugging, kissing, then letting him get away and repeating — again and again.
This is my favorite game, guaranteed to transform your child’s doubt about whether he’s truly loved (and any child who is “misbehaving” harbors that doubt). (This is called the Fix game because it Fixes whatever’s wrong)”
A stepped-up version involving both parents.
Fight over your child (jokingly), vying to see who can snatch him up and hug him. “I want him!’ No, I want him!” “But I NEED him so much!” No, I need him! You ALWAYS get him!”
When your child is grumpy.
To a child who is getting over-excited or too revved up:
“You have so much energy right now. What can we do with all this energy? Do you want to spin around? Come over here (or outside) with me where it’s safe to spin around, and I’ll spot you.”
Find a safe place where no other kids or parents are there to further stimulate him, and let him spin around, or jump up and down, or run in circles around you — whatever he chooses. When he drops in exhaustion, snuggle him and say
When you and your child seem to be having a lot of power struggles.
Give your child the chance to be the more powerful one and to outsmart and over power a terrible monster — You! Swagger and strut and roar at your child about how you will catch him and show him who’s boss….but when you chase him, always trip and bumble and let him outsmart you or over-power you and get away. Give him a remote and pretend he can make you stop, start, move forward and backward. When she high-fives you, pretend she almost knocked you over. Another version of this is giving your child a feather, or a pillow, to hit you with. Every time he hits you, fall over! Repeat as long as he’s giggling. Acknowledge your child’s formidable power: “You are so strong! You pushed me right over!”
When your child is cheating at a game.
Say “Looks like we have new rules now….But how come you always win?!…I hate losing!” Overdo your role as the “sore loser” so that your child gets to laugh at you.
When your child is super-clingy or has been experiencing separation anxiety.
Cling to your child, being super-exaggerated and silly. “I know you want me to let go so you can go play, but I NEED you! I only want to be with you. PLEASE be with me now?” Keep holding your child’s hand or clinging to her dress. She will like the feeling that SHE is the one in charge of letting go, rather than feeling pushed away. If you act silly enough, she will also giggle and let off some of the tension around good byes. When she definitively pushes you away, say, “It’s ok. I know you will come back. We always come back to each other.”
When your child goes through a stage of only wanting Mommy (or Daddy).
Let the preferred parent sit on the couch. Get between your child and that parent, and boast
As he tries to get to Mommy, grab at him, but bumble and be unsuccessful. When he reaches Mommy, she laughs, cheers, hugs him and then lets him go. You lament that he got through, but continue to boast and challenge him and try to grab him. Exaggerate your boasting. “You can’t push around me to get to Mommy!” and then bumble and let him push past you. He should giggle and giggle, which means that he is releasing his fears and anxieties.
When your kids are fighting a lot:
When tempers are calm, say “Would you two please fight with each other now?” When they begin to fight, pretend to be a TV commentator. “We’re on the scene tonight watching two sisters who can’t seem to get along! Will they work things out or not? Stay with us while we observe this behavior live! Notice how big sister is bossy, but little sister is provocative! Both girls want the same piece of salami! Can they work this out? Are they smart enough to realize there’s more salami in the fridge? Stay tuned…” Your kids will giggle and let off tension, and get to see how ridiculous they are.
When your child feels like a bottomless pit:
Every day, spend 15 minutes snuggling. Revel in touching your child. Don’t structure this time. Just kiss him on the nose, nuzzle her hair, let him sink into the comfort of your lap. Even if your kid is eight, treat him as if he’s a baby, just beginning to be verbal. Rock him in your arms. Play the physical games you played when she was tiny. Resist tickling, which can make kids feel invaded and out of control. Mostly, just snuggle and lavish attention. If you want some help getting into the mood, look together at old baby pictures: “You were so adorable, almost as adorable as you are now!”
When your child goes through a stage of whining a lot.
Remember that whining is an expression of powerlessness. Refusing to “hear” until they use a “big kid” voice further invalidates them. But of course you don’t want to reward whining by “giving in” to it, either. Instead, express confidence that your child can use her “strong” voice and offer your assistance to help her find it, by making it into a game:
(If this doesn’t work, it’s because your child needs more tenderness and maybe a chance to cry.)
To help a child fall asleep at night.
Say goodnight to each part of your child’s body, touching each part in turn gently, with a little massage.
Take your time so your child relaxes each part of her body as you “recognize” it. The more you can simply relax and connect with your child, the more you are helping your child be in her own body and be fully present.
When your child has stolen something.
Get him laughing about this by enacting a stuffed animal “stealing” things from all over the room. Meanwhile, the stuffed animal mother is searching for the stolen things– “I can’t find the dog dish anywhere! Wherever did it go?!” Of course, the pile of stolen things is right in front of her. (You’ll still need to have a conversation with your child about how he wishes he could keep what he stole, but it must be returned, and that in the future he can ask you if he wants something. But playing a game like this first will take the shame and anxiety out of the situation for both of you, and will help your child be open to making amends.)
When your child has been screeching or complaining:
To help a child who’s coping with a challenging issue, like the start of school, or playground struggles, or being sick:
Have one stuffed animal be the parent, and one be the child, and act out the situation. Using stuffed animals removes it one step from reality so most kids find it more comfortable, but some children like to actually act the situation out themselves (as opposed to using the proxy of dolls or stuffed animals).
“Let’s pretend we’re in the sandbox and I want your truck but you don’t want to share” or “Let’s pretend you’re the teacher and I’m the student” or “Let’s pretend you’re the doctor and I’m sick.”
Playing out these situations that cause so much stress for kids helps them to feel more in control of their own emotions, and lets them be the powerful one in a situation where they might have felt powerless and humiliated in real life.
To work through a problem that keeps coming up, such as a child who dawdles in the morning or at bedtime.
Sometime on the weekend, grab a mom and baby stuffed animal. Have them act out the morning (or bedtime) routine. Have the little one resist, whine, collapse. Have the mom “lose it” (but don’t scare your child by overdoing it. Have the mom be a funny, incompetent bumbler.) Your child will be fascinated. Then, hand your kid the “mom” and play out the scenario again, with you being the kid. Make it funny so you can both giggle and let off tension. Make sure to include scenarios in which the kid goes to school in his pjs, or the mom goes to work in her pjs, or the kid has to yell at the mom to hurry up and get ready, or the mom says
Give him in fantasy what he can’t have in reality. You may learn something about how to make things work better. Almost certainly, you’ll see more understanding and cooperation from your child on Monday. At the very least, you’ll defuse the tension get a great chance to see how your kid perceives you!
Start a pillow fight, or a snowball fight, or a wrestling game in which you take each other’s socks off (an excuse for hugs). Or give your child a pillow to hold, and try to steal it from her. Always let your child win. Kids need to rough house. You might even find you like it too!
As long as your child is laughing, that game is working to alleviate anxiety and increase well-being. Don’t be surprised if your child wants to play these games over and over. They relieve stress, help your child master emotion — and believe it or not, they’re fun!
Everybody’s got a hungry heart.”