Connecting the Dots with Your Child

Connecting the Dots with Your Child

As a therapist, many families anxiously meet with me, frustrated by their family’s issues, child’s behaviors, and ongoing communication breakdowns. As a result, parents ask me how they can better connect with their child and are often curious why their children share insights with me that they are not aware of. There are a variety of ways for parents to connect with their child outside of counseling sessions.

Building any relationship requires deeper communication, consistency and shared experiences. In the busyness of our lives, parents can often lose sight on how to do that with their children who ever growing, evolving, and turning into more independent individuals. A more meaningful relationship that increases the connection within a family can be created. A stronger parent-child relationship will not erase problems, but it can give your family a foundation to weather the storms in your lives, which are often shared among family members, even if you are not having conversations about each others’ stress and pain. Two simple ideas explained below might help with establishing or reestablishing a connection to build on.

Being with your child vs. doing things with and for your child

Parenting is a non-stop job, but I challenge parents that I work with to press pause from parenting at times in order to build a stronger relationship with their child. After the initial blank stares and some explaining from me, it starts to make sense to them. Parenting involves so much work: setting boundaries, enforcing rules, teaching lessons, completing to-do-lists, play dates, extracurricular activities, cooking, homework demands, carpool, and the list goes on. In the midst of all of that, your child can get lost in your family’s life. Many parents express frustration to me, because they are doing so much for their children but do not feel as though they see the rewards or appreciation in the quality of their relationship.

What I ask parents to consider is, while their actions are well-intentioned, have they given much thought into what needs their actions are meeting for their child? I, then, ask them to prioritize their child’s needs. What they often find is that they are starting on the outer, surface level desires, but not directly addressing more inner, core needs of acceptance, belonging, self-esteem, and emotional safety. So, the formula of “doing” for their child is not best matched with the needs of their child. Families spend so much time doing and not enough time being. So, I ask parents to pause their parenting and doing and make structured time to just be with their child and enjoy each other. I generally, cross television time off the list. For children, their primary function is play, and it is also how they communicate. I ask parents to create a space for “play” with their child that allows for open communication. Be engaged and genuinely interested. Remove interruptions, avoid strict rules and criticism. Ask questions, listen to the answers, follow-up with more questions, share stories, jokes and feelings, give eye contact, and turn your phones off. You can learn a lot by creating an environment where the focus is just on being together. A good indicator of creating a successful environment to connect is laughter. Imagine the impact on your relationship and the value to your child’s self-esteem to learn that spending quality time enjoying their presence is important to you, and that it comes with no strings attached. They don’t have to earn it. They were born worthy of it and deserve it regularly.

Don’t focus on your child’s words, listen to the meaning

Communication is the main way in which we find meaning and expression with others. It is vital to connection, whether it’s verbal or non-verbal. We, naturally, tend to rely on verbal communication as a means to understand each other, although research shows that more than 90% of communication is non-verbal (tone, eye contact, body language, etc). I ask parents to consider all forms of communication as important to understanding their child better, and to put an emphasis on understanding the meaning behind their child’s communication.

Sometimes, your child might not have the words to say exactly how they are feeling. Other times, your child might not know how they are feeling. Whether your child is a stone wall that isn’t sharing much with you, very emotional, or uses words that hurts you and others; it is important to not be emotionally reactive to their words, but listen for the meaning or purpose of their communication. A child telling their parent that they hate them does not necessarily mean they hate their parent. Consider a few ideas. Maybe your child is hurting and has run out of ways to express that to you. Maybe your child is disappointed, angry, does not find your feedback helpful, or does not trust the relationship enough to feel vulnerable enough to share their true feelings. A guarded, and aggressive “hate you” feels more safe and will still probably get some reaction from you. This does not mean that it is any less painful to hear those words from your child. Whether it’s aggressive or disinterested, aloof communication with you, it is often a surface level way of ringing the alarm on a deeper, internal struggle for them. Focus on the meaning or purpose that is leading your child to express themselves in that way. For example, consider some of these word choices as meanings behind, “I hate you.” What if your child felt safe enough to say, “I need your help, now.” “I don’t know what else to do.” “I’m in pain.” “I don’t trust anyone.” “I feel like no one cares about me.” Addressing the meaning, rather than focusing on the sting of the word choice can bring you closer. Parents who are able to communicate with their child in a way that makes them feel safe and understood, not ashamed or blamed often report experiencing more increased feelings of connection towards their child, and their children report similar satisfaction levels.

Connection is truly experienced when we feel seen, understood, and accepted for who we truly are. Ask yourself whether or not your child is having a truly connected experience with you? If not, what can you commit to changing today to improve the connection? Let’s build on this commitment. Consider the tips above as a starter list to building a deeper connection and consider getting additional guidance from a professional to bridge the gap.