What is Connection?
Connection is being emotionally present with our children. Connection means we put ourselves into our child’s experience to understand and feel what it’s like to be them. Connection with our children lets us be grateful for them, enjoy our time with them, and savor the memories we create with them. Connection is showing our sincere interest in them by paying attention to them.
Connection is curiosity about who our child is and what they are experiencing. Connection compels us to be open to learning, without expectations, who our child is.
Emotional Social Parenting teaches us how to connect with our children so they can understand and regulate their emotions. Our connection is that unique and special bond we share with our children that lets them know and feel how much we value, appreciate, and love them. It isn’t enough to tell our children how much we love them. They need to feel our love deep inside of them. Our connection lets them know how deeply loved and accepted they are. For this to happen, connection has to be our highest parenting priority.
How Can I Increase My Connection With My Child?
We connect with our kids when we are present with them and can see things from their viewpoints. Being present means putting aside distractions while we pay attention to them. Yes, being present is a lot of work. What we give our attention to will flourish, whether it’s our marriage, kids, or hobbies like gardening or learning to play an instrument. If we want our kids to thrive, it’s critical to devote some connection time to each child every day.
What is Connection-Time?
Connection-time is time you set aside every day to spend with each child.
Connection-time can be as brief as 5 or 10 minutes. But the key is to carve out one on one time with your child every day.
Connection-time is when other children are otherwise occupied or if you have a co-parent, ask them to help. Make connection-time, no phone time! Avoid distractions by turning off your phone and all devices and screens. You may have to put your phone in another room so it doesn’t disturb your connection-time with your child
What Should I do During Connecttion-Time?
During connection-time, follow your child’s lead in a play activity.
Do describe your child’s play almost like you were a sportscaster.
- “You are building a tall lego tower. ”
- “You are coloring the horse red.”
- “You are jumping so high.”
Do praise your child for positive behavior. Be as specific as you can.
- “I notice that you are focusing on coloring the horse.”
- “I love having connection-time with you.”
When you describe what you observe during connection time, you let your child know that you are fully present and interested in what they are doing.
This helps your child stay in the lead.
Don’t ask questions. I challenge you to see if you can make it through connection time without asking questions. It’s hard to do. Avoid questions because they may interrupt what your child is doing. It is essential to let your child decide what they want to share and when they want to share.
Don’t give directions. Giving directions takes the lead away from your child.
Giving directions is an integral part of parenting, but it should be outside of connection time.
What are Some Other ways I can Build a Connection with my Child?
Mirror The Good In Them.
Kids form opinions of themselves every day, all day long. They need us to reflect back to them that they are good kids. Our brains have a specialized nerve cells called mirror neurons. These cells communicate from person to person. They mirror the feelings that go along with the facial expression and body language between two individuals. The neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni expressed it in a 2008 interview with Scientific American: When I see you smiling, my mirror neurons for smiling fire up, too, initiating a cascade of neural activity that evokes the feeling we typically associate with a smile. I don’t need to make any inference on what you are feeling, I experience immediately and effortlessly (in a milder form, of course) what you are experiencing. The same is true for negative emotions like anger, disgust, or fear.
When we see our kids as good kids, our body language and facial expressions communicate that to them without us ever saying a word. Unfortunately, the same is true when our body language or facial expressions are judgmental, frustrated, or angry. When our child dysregulates, they are in fight or flight mode. In fight or flight, their hearing decreases, and their ability to process what we say is offline. However, their mirror neurons will still understand what our facial expressions and body language is saying. A warm smile, relaxed posture, and caring expression will let your child know they are safe and you see the good in them. If you find it difficult, most of us would, to project safety, calm, and connection when your child is tantruming or yelling that you are the worst parent ever. It might be necessary to take a few deep, calming breaths and give yourself some connection first. One thing you might find helpful is to place a hand over your heart and take several slow, calming breaths while you repeat. I’m a good parent. There is nothing wrong with me; there is nothing wrong with my child.
Be Proactive Not Reactive
Parenting proactively lets us watch for times that emotional dysregulation is in our child’s near future. We can then step in and guide them around that potential problem. What might this look like?
Suppose your child is busy building a block tower, and it is almost time for his bath. Instead of waiting until it’s bathtime and insisting that he put the blocks away now and take a bath, tell him that it’s almost bathtime and ask him if he wants to go now and get his bath or play for five more minutes. Of course, he will opt to play, but he also knows what is coming next. Then, when the five minutes are up, tell him, “It’s been five minutes. Do you want me to zoom you like an airplane into the bathroom or race me and see who can get to the bathroom first?”
Another way to parent proactively is to HALT. Stop and ask yourself when you see your child has a hard time and his behavior is trending toward dysregulation.
Is my child Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired? Does your child need a snack, or do you listen to him and validate his feelings? Does he need some snuggles and a hug, or does he need an earlier bedtime or a nap?
Parenting proactively takes work and your awareness of when your child’s behavior is trending negatively. But sometimes, despite your best efforts to parent proactively, your child needs to let all of his big feelings out and have a good cry. We have to fight the urge to punish, lecture, or redirect. This is the time to lend our presence with our mirror neurons and connect.
Respond Instead of Reacting
When our child is upset or misbehaving, it’s essential to pause and think about the best course of action. How do we want to respond, so we don’t react? When we are triggered, if we can pause with a deep breath, our response will be intentional instead of an unintentional reaction to our child’s behavior. When our child does A, we don’t automatically do B; instead, pausing lets us consider B, C, D, or even E.
The pause creates time and space in our mind to let us consider other possibilities. It allows us to be present in the moment’s experience and reflect on what we want to do, if even for a few seconds, before engaging the neurocircuitry of action. It helps us access the wisest part of ourselves in a difficult moment so connection can occur.
My Four-Part Strategy for Connection.
#1 Reach Out And Touch Your Child.
When I say to reach out and touch your child, please take me literally. Touching your child by putting a hand on her arm or back, gently rubbing her shoulders or back, and enveloping her in a hug is a powerful nonverbal way to communicate safety and quickly defuse a confrontational situation.
A nurturing and loving touch from another person changes our brain and body chemistry. We release oxytocin (our feel-good, love chemical) into our brain and body. That same touch will also decrease your feelings of stress and anxiety by reducing your cortisol (stress chemical) levels.
If you also drop down to eye level with your child, or just below eye level, you are communicating safety to them, that you aren’t a threat. Your nurturing and loving touch and body position and posture express empathy to your child. You tell your child, “I’m right here with you; I’ll help and comfort you,” all without saying anything.
#2 Allow and Validate all Feelings.
All feelings are allowed, always. Some behaviors get a firm NO. A child with lots of big feelings shows us they are having a hard time regulating those big feelings; the best way to connect with them is to let them know we hear them. We want them to know, “I get you. I see and understand what you are feeling.” Our children need to feel seen and felt.
When we validate our child’s feelings, we avoid saying things that deny or minimize those feelings and the child’s experience. We avoid saying, “I know your brother knocked over your block tower, but that’s no reason to hit him. You can build another one. We avoid saying, “stop throwing a fit because you can’t have a sleepover. You just spent the whole day there.” Consider how you would feel if you were upset and your partner said, “what’s the big deal? Just calm down.” When we tell our kids to calm down, we invalidate what they are feeling and experiencing.
Instead, we want to communicate to our kids that we will always be there with them when their big feelings come out. No matter how scary those feelings are to the child, we aren’t afraid of them, and we know they are a good kid, even when they are at their absolute worst.
We validate when we identify the feeling at hand, “I see that made you really sad, didn’t it,” or “that really made you angry.” This lets your child feel understood and helps her self-regulate, making it less likely she will lash out. It also gives your child an emotional vocabulary and emotional intelligence that will help her recognize name, and begin to understand what she is feeling.
#3 Get Rid of Iceberg Thinking.
What is Iceberg Thinking? Iceberg thinking is when we see only the “bad” behavior and forget to look below the surface of the behavior to figure out what is causing or contributing to the behavior.
Suppose your child comes home from school and says, “I hate school; my teacher is so stupid.”
Iceberg thinking only lets you hear what your child just said. You then react to what he said with, “Don’t say that. Of course, you don’t hate school. You are a great student. Also, don’t call your teacher stupid!” When your child comes home from school upset enough to use such extreme language, he is in fight or flight mode, and the part of his brain that responds to reason is offline. Using logic to convince your child of his feelings does two things. First, it overwhelms his senses, leaving him feeling more overwhelmed, dysregulated, and unable to hear you. Second, it conveys that you know better than he does what he should be feeling.
It teaches him to look to others to tell him how he should feel instead of trusting what the feelings in his body are telling him.
If you can first pause and look past the tip of the iceberg to what’s below the surface, you might say, “wow, something must have happened today at school to really upset you. Tell me more about it.” Then close your mouth and listen. Really listen, don’t interrupt, and don’t take what you hear too literally. Lean in and listen for what is going on inside your child. Now is the time to be present and listen. Now is not the time to explain or teach.
#4 Reflect Back.
Reflecting back to your children what they just told you lets them know that you heard what they said. When you reflect back and focus on what your child actually said, your child knows that you really understand what he’s telling you. You say, “I hear what you’re saying: you really hated it when the teacher said recess was over and there wasn’t enough time left for your turn at kickball. No wonder that made you mad; I’d be upset too.”
One additional advantage of reflecting back is that it tells our children they have not only our love but also our attention. Giving our children our attention doesn’t spoil them.
Attention is a need of children everywhere. There are many ways to spoil a child – but giving them too much love and attention isn’t one of the ways.
Connection lets us communicate to our kids that we will always love them no matter how they behave.
When your child feels connected to you, they will;
- Feel not alone.
- Make better choices.
- Be more confident.
- Develop a growth mindset.
- Be more resilient.