I’m exhausted from a late night of decorating heart cookies for my seven-year-old’s classroom, only to be followed by an early morning of packing lunches and finishing up reading homework and signing (what seems like hundreds of) school forms. “Girls, time to get boots and coats on for school!”Crickets.After a few minutes of searching and my blood pressure climbing, I find my oldest daughter hiding under her bed: “I don’t want to go to school.”I’d been so caught up in my own version of my daughter’s day that I had forgotten to connect with her, meet her where she was at, be present with her. There was now a large hole I’d need to dig myself out of in order to help her find her footing for the day ahead. Connection is a basic need for all humans, right up there with grande lattes and Costco chocolate covered almonds (or food and water if you’re old school). It’s been found that, in the context of a relationship, the brain experiences discomfort the exact same way our bodies experience actual physical pain. Relationships matter. That being case, the relationship between a parent and child matters more. The parent-child dynamic has most often been referred to in terms of attachment, which considers the quality of the relationship in the context of the first few years of a child’s life. We know a secure attachment in the early years builds the foundation for future relationships and predicts a myriad of positive outcomes, such as a higher ability to cope with stress and lower incidents of behavioral problems later in life. This research stretches back for decades, but we’re now becoming fully aware of the power that lies in continuing to nurture a strong connection with our child throughout their development. Developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld has conceptualized ongoing attachment stages in a way that highlights the many components of a secure attachment that continue to unfold throughout a child’s life. When our children feel emotionally disconnected from us, odds are they will feel unsettled, misunderstood, and all around insecure. On the other hand, when our children to us, they feel seen, heard, and accepted as individuals. Only when children feel fully accepted can they view their parents as being on the same team and trust that a parent knows what’s best, which leads to cooperation and listening. Feeling connected frees up children’s emotional assets, allowing them to be their best selves. Sounds pretty awesome, right? Moments of connection are readily available to us each day, but there are many barriers lurking about that can deter us from our good intentions.
You’re there, but you’re not there. It’s all too easy to shut down in the midst of family chaos and turn towards our electronics. After all, it’s a pretty good way to accomplish a momentary sense of control and calm, thanks to the quick hit of dopamine we get from a Facebook ‘like’. But the benefits are fleeting, and soon you’ll need to split up the children as they’re chasing each other around with pointy objects, which could have been avoided altogether if you’d chosen to engage with them instead of your phone.
“Running around every night is exhausting, but everyone else’s kindergartner is on varsity club intramural championship soccer!” There’s a lot of pressure for kids to do it all. When that pressure tugs on our mom jeans, we need to remember that what kids really need for optimal development is time for free play and connection with their caregivers.
It can be challenging to leave our work stress or that nagging conversation with Mom at the door. Children aren’t the only ones pressured to do it all these days. When we’re with our children but our thoughts are elsewhere, they pick up on it. (Sorry to break it to you, but they pick up on all the other things, too.) Only when we take note of our wandering thoughts and re-engage with the current moment can we reap the benefits of the opportunity to connect.
When we meet our child exactly where they’re at, that, my friends, is the sweet spot for connection. A large percentage of time, where they’re at – or should be at – is in the midst of play. It may be hard to jump into a dramatic role play of the ice palace scene from “Frozen” when we’re exhausted from a long day. But instead of steering children toward what we’d like to do, there is magic to be found in immersing ourselves in their world.
When we’re on the parent front lines, trying to army crawl our way through daily challenges, such as bedtime and getting out the door for school, it’s easy to go into robot mode. Our minds focus on the tasks at hand, and we neglect to see that these daily routines can be fantastic times to implement rituals of connection. Special handshakes before school or a morning prayer together show your children they are the center of your focus in that moment. Getting creative with some daily bonding activities that promote connection with your child will be fun and beneficial.
Missing small moments
Odds are, if we sit around waiting for an hour block of “quality time” with our child to present itself, it will never come. The awesome thing is, we don’t need it to. Myriad opportunities for connecting with your child lie dormant in the small and seemingly inconsequential events that unfold throughout the day. Some great examples: eye contact, laughter, and physical touch. Sharing a joke on the way to school or a meaningful cuddle out of the blue make a big difference.
Digging out of the hole
With only a few minutes to get my daughter on the bus, I know I have to work fast. (Luckily, as a therapist, I have ninja super powers when it come to listening and validating my children’s feelings – so much so that they often exclaim, “Stop doing that!” in annoyance when I reflect back what I hear.)After a few minutes of listening and trying to empathize with my daughter’s worries about a friend leaving her out of a game at recess, I playfully encourage her to skip downstairs with me so we aren’t late for school. Feeling secure and connected, she she can now move forward with her day.Next time, I’ll need to connect earlier, though. The bus came and went, and I had to drive her to school anyway.