“I can’t believe how things have changed with my daughter since I started focusing on connection.” – zoé
We all crave those close moments with our kids that melt our hearts. connection is as essential for us parents as it is for our children, because that’s what makes parenting worth all the sacrifices.
That connection is also the only reason kids willingly follow our rules. children who feel strongly connected to their parents want to cooperate, if they can. they will continue to act like children, which means their emotions will sometimes overwhelm their still-growing prefrontal cortex. but when they trust us to understand, to be on their side, they are motivated to follow our example when they can.
Researchers remind us that we need five positive interactions for every negative interaction to keep any relationship healthy. And since we spend so much time guiding, that is, correcting, reminding, scolding, criticizing, nagging, and yelling, it’s important to make sure we spend five times as much time on positive connection.
but we’re only human. there are days when the only thing we can do is satisfy the most basic needs of our children. some days it’s nothing short of heroic to just feed them, bathe them, keep an encouraging tone, and get them to sleep at a reasonable hour, so we can do it all over again tomorrow!
so, since parenting is the hardest job in the world, and we often do it in our spare time, after being apart all day, the only way to maintain a strong bond with our children is to develop daily connection habits. here are twelve habits that don’t add time to your day, but they do add connection. Simple, yet incredibly powerful, these habits heal the disconnections of everyday life. you will discover that using them daily changes everything.
1. aim for 12 hugs (or physical connections) every day.
as famous family therapist virginia satir said, “we need 4 hugs a day to survive. we need 8 hugs a day to sustain. we need 12 hugs a day to grow.”
Cuddle your child first thing in the morning for a few minutes and last thing at night. Hug each other when you say goodbye, when you meet, and often in between. ruffle hair, pat on the back, rub shoulders. make eye contact and smile, which is a different kind of contact. If your tween or teen rejects her advances when she walks in the door for the first time, keep in mind that with older children you need to ease the connection. calm her down with a cold drink and chat while you give her a foot massage. (Does it seem to go further? It’s a surefire way to listen to what happened in your life today. You’ll be glad, many times, if you prioritize that.)
Laughter and horseplay keep you connected with your child by stimulating endorphins and oxytocin in both of you. Making laughter a daily habit also gives your child the opportunity to laugh at anxieties and annoyances that would otherwise make him feel disconnected and more likely to misbehave. and play helps children want to cooperate. which one is likely to work better?
“come to breakfast right now!”
“little gorilla, it’s breakfast time. look, you’ve got bugs and bananas in your oatmeal!”
3. turn off technology when interacting with your child.
really. Her son will remember for the rest of her life that she was important enough to her parents that they turned off her phone to listen to her. Even turning off the music in the car can be a powerful invitation to connect, because the lack of eye contact in a car takes the pressure off, so kids (and adults) are more likely to open up and share.
4. connect before transitions.
Children have a hard time transitioning from one thing to another. they need us to “co-regulate” them in those moments when they really don’t want to drop what they’re doing to move on to something we want them to do. if you look him in the eye, use his name, connect with him, and then make him laugh, you’ll give him a bridge to handle himself through a difficult transition.
5. make time for one on one.
do whatever it takes to schedule 15 minutes with each child, separately, every day. alternate doing what your child wants and doing what you want during that time. On her days, just shower your love on her as you follow her example. in your days resist the temptation to structure time with activities. instead, try any physical activity or game that makes your child laugh. (For game ideas, click here.)
6. welcome emotion.
Of course, it is inconvenient that children have such great emotions. but your child needs to express those emotions to you, or they will drive his behavior. In addition, this is an opportunity to help your child heal these discomforts, which will bring you closer to yourself. so he muster all your compassion, don’t let your child’s anger shoot you down, and welcome the tears and fears that always hide behind anger. remember that you are the person your child trusts enough to cry, and breathe to get over it. simply acknowledge all those feelings and offer understanding of the pain. that creates security, so that he can move through those emotions and reconnect, afterward, he will feel more relaxed, cooperative, and closer to you. Yes, most children start out angry, so you must remain calm and patient in the face of their anger if you want the most vulnerable feelings to surface. this can be very, very difficult. Regulating our own emotions in the face of our child’s anger is one of the most difficult parts of parenting. but that does not mean that we are exempt from giving our best.
7. listen and empathize.
connection begins with listening. bite your tongue if you have to, except to say
“wow!…I see…really?…how was that for you?…tell me more…”
The habit of seeing things from your child’s perspective will ensure that he treats you with respect and seeks win-win solutions. It will help you see the reasons for behavior that would otherwise drive you crazy. and it will help you regulate your own emotions so that when you’re pushed and find yourself in “fight or flight,” your child doesn’t look so much like the enemy.
8. slow down and savor the moment.
Instead of rushing your child through the schedule so you can spend a few minutes with him before bed, use every interaction throughout the day as an opportunity to connect. slow down and share the moment with your child: let him smell the strawberries before putting them in the smoothie. when you help him wash his hands, put yours in the running water with his and share the flow of water. smell his hair. hear his laugh. look him in the eye and find him heart to heart open, sharing that great love. connect in the magnificence of the present moment. which is really the only way we can connect. (For most parents, this is also the secret to being able to tolerate playing the same game over again.)
9. snuggle and chat before bed.
Set your child’s bedtime a little earlier with the assumption that you’ll spend some time visiting and snuggling in the dark. Those nice, safe moments of connection invite whatever your child is currently dealing with to come to the surface, whether it’s something that happened at school, the way you yelled at him this morning, or his worries about tomorrow’s field trip. . Do you have to solve his problem at that time? No. just listen. acknowledge feelings. Reassure your child that you hear his concern and that together you will work it out tomorrow. the next day, be sure to follow up. You’ll be amazed at how your relationship with your child deepens. And don’t give up this habit as your child gets older. late at night is often the only time teens open up.
Most of us go through life half-present. but your son only has about 900 weeks of childhood with you before he leaves your home. they’ll be gone before you know it.
Try this for practice: When you’re interacting with your child, present yourself 100%. just stay here, right now, and let everything else go. you will not be able to achieve this all the time. but if you make it a habit several times a day, you’ll find yourself switching to presence more and more often.
and you’ll find many more of those moments that make your heart melt.