Guest Post by Rachel Bailey, M.A., CPDPE
Redefining Perfect Parenting | www.Rachel-Bailey.com
You may have already heard how important it is to connect with your child. But you may wonder: What does actually look like to “connect” with my child? And why exactly is it so important? How does connecting teach my child to be responsible? And do I have to connect all the time? Sometimes we just have to get out of the door and don’t have TIME to connect; I just need them to do what I ask!
In this post, I will address all of these important questions.
What It Means To Connect
I define connection by seeing your child’s point of view from your child’s world.
Many of us know that it is important to validate our children’s feelings. So we’ll say, “I know you want to play with the toy [a validation], but we have to leave now.” I would give a lot of credit to a parent who even recognizes that their child’s agenda (to play with the toy) is different from ours (to get out of the house). But that statement does not demonstrate a connection because the parent is seeing the child’s perspective from their own world – not the child’s world.
To truly connect with a child, we must leave our world (temporarily) and get into our child’s world. We must understand what life looks like from their vantage point. Here’s what I mean: A child who is playing with the toy is filled with positive feelings. They may feel confident in what they are playing (which is particularly satisfying for a child who doesn’t feel confident in many areas of her life). They may even feel “in control” because they are in charge of how to play with the toy (which is particularly fulfilling for a child who is constantly being told what to do, when to be somewhere, and how to act when they’re there). And a child who is playing struggles to transition easily from experiencing positive feelings to doing something that she doesn’t care about, such as leaving the house. That’s because the part of the brain that helps with transitions and impulse control is not fully developed in children and teens.
So when a child is asked to stop playing and leave, to them it is as if they being yanked out of their comfort zone – and they are left feeling disrespected (no one is recognizing what they are experiencing), out of control (they have no say in leaving or where they are going) and disconnected (they definitely don’t feel connected to a parent who is focused on her own agenda).
What Connection Looks Like
A connection with a child simply demonstrates respect for the child’s perspective from the child’s world. (Note: This has nothing to do with agreeing with the child’s perspective. This is simply treating it with respect.) A parent can demonstrate this respect through language or behavior. A connected parent might say something like: “You were playing and having so much fun! And now you’re frustrated that we have to go.” A connected parent will genuinely mean this statement; he or she will not be making this statement simply to get the child to cooperate faster.
Or if a child says, “I hate you!” when they are told that they can’t go to a friend’s party, a connection allows a parent to respect their child’s perspective and mean it when they say: “I know you are really disappointed right now. You wanted to go to that party and now you’re afraid your friends will have a good time without you… and maybe even talk about you when you’re not there.”
Or if a child just hit their sibling, a connection allows a parent to put themselves in their child’s shoes and feel genuine when they say: “Of course you just hit your sister. She was trying to take something from you, and you didn’t know what else to do!”
Again, connecting with a child does NOT mean we condone their behavior. Once a child feels our connection, we will always give them the tools they need to CHANGE their behavior. But we cannot change behavior without connecting with a child first – which brings us to the next topic.
Why Connection Is So Important
There are 3 reasons that connection is essential.
Reason 1: Connection motivates cooperation. (It’s science.)
The first reason that connection is important will appeal to many parents who want their children to listen when asked to do something. When we connect with our kids, they are much more likely to cooperate. Actually, it’s the opposite situation that is more important in this case: When we don’t connect with our kids, they are less likely to cooperate.
And it’s not just because when we’re connecting with our children we’re being “nice.” (I’m simply not a nice enough person for this to be the only reason that I connect with my kids!) It’s actually because of the way human brains work.
When any human, children and adult alike, is flooded with emotion (stress, fear, feeling unheard or disrespected), their brain sounds an alarm, our fight-or-flight response. Our fight-or-flight response focuses on protecting and defending ourselves and – here’s the important part – it turns off the part of the brain that allows us to be cooperative or learn new lessons. When our children feel disconnected, disrespected, or out of control, their BRAINS WILL NOT ALLOW THEM TO COOPERATE or listen to the lesson that we are trying to teach them. When we connect with children by treating their perspective with respect, we reduce their dependence on their fight-or-flight response and they are able access the part of the brain that allows them to cooperate.
Reason 2: Connection allows to us understand which tools our children are missing
When I worked with children, it was amazing how often I learned that they didn’t cooperate because they didn’t have the tools to do so. Of course children may know how to clean up their toys. What they don’t know how to do is transition from something that feels good (playing with toys) to the thing that they don’t care as much about (leaving the house). Children also have a tough time controlling their impulses (so they jump on the couch even when they know they’re not supposed to), handling their frustration (so they whine or thrown tantrums when they’re overwhelmed with the emotion) or doing monotonous tasks (so they take a long time to do “simple” routines like brushing teeth, getting dressed, or getting shoes on).
The part of the brain that allows them to handle their emotions and control their impulses and emotions doesn’t actually develop until the mid-20s! Now that doesn’t mean that we have to stop expecting them to clean up or brush their teeth until they are in their mid-20s. But it does mean that we have to teach them tools to do some of the things we ask them to do.
And connecting with our kids – respecting their perspective from their world – allows us to identify which tools the child is lacking. If a child hit his sister because she was taking his toy, we need to give him tools for handling his frustration in a more respectful way – perhaps he can stomp his feet, clench his fists, or come talk to an adult. If a child is resisting brushing his teeth, we have to teach him how to make monotonous tasks more stimulating – perhaps asking him to brush his teeth with his opposite hand, or brush slowly like a turtle, or brush to the rhythm of a favorite song. Once we know the “problem” of why children aren’t cooperating (which we figure out through connecting), then we can find the solution.
Reason 3: Connection allows children to believe in their worth.
I will be honest that reason #3 is my personal favorite, because it has the biggest impact on a child’s behavior in the long run. Reason #3 is the reason children ultimately make healthy decisions when they’re in really tough places (when someone asks them to drink at a party, when someone asks them to cheat on a test).
When we connect with children in the moment, we demonstrate our child’s value. That’s because when we tell them that we understand and respect their perspective (even – especially — if we don’t agree with them), we teach them that they are worthy of respect no matter what. And they start to internalize that they are worthy of respect. When we take the time to see their perspective from their world, we teach them that they deserve our time and our effort. And they start to believe that they deserve to be treated that way. And when we teach them that their perspective makes sense (even if their behavior needs to change), they don’t wonder why they are so “messed up” for feeling the way they do.
A child who hits their sister and gets punished for hitting their sister may be confused and question their own internal experiences. After all, their sister was the one who was trying to steal the toy from THEM! And they didn’t know how to express their frustration. But when a child receives a message of understanding, “Of course you hit your sister! She was trying to take a toy from you…” as well as the TOOLS to do something different, “We don’t hit in this family. Next time, come talk to me when your sister tries to take something…” then they trust themselves and believe in their capability. And this is what gives a child the strength say no when asked to do something that they know is wrong….and it gives them the strength to persevere when “right thing” to do is difficult or uncomfortable.
What To Do When You Don’t Have Time To Connect
I’m a parent too, and I know how unrealistic it is to think that you can connect with your child all the time. (In fact, when you’re in a bad place, your brain won’t allow you to connect. It will focus on taking care of you rather than connecting with your child.)
The truth is, are going to be times when you will just say “Let’s go! We need to leave!” without a connection. And actually, if we put too much pressure to do this “right” all of the time, it only stresses us more as a parent.
That’s why I teach the concept of “Proactive Parenting by Deposit.” That means that you are proactively “depositing” by connecting with your child when you’re NOT trying to get out of the house – and when you’re NOT flooded with an emotion. It means “depositing” by making simple, quick (I’m talking 20 seconds or less) connections on a daily basis.
One example of a “proactive deposit” is a strategy I call “Remember What They Say.” When you Remember What They Say, you notice something that your child mention that they seemed excited about. (Maybe your child talked about horses, or a favorite sports player.) Then, two or three days later, ask them about it. Say, “Hey, I remember you were talking about [topic]. I have a question about him. Can you answer it for me?”
A deposit like this takes about 20 seconds, but it has a huge impact on your relationship AND how your child feels about him/herself – because it clearly demonstrates that they matter to you. Deposits like these build a “reserve” so that when, inevitably, you have to make a withdrawal without a connection, they will have something to withdraw from. And the good part is that you can make these connections whenever you want to…not only when you’re exhausted and frustrated.
For more information about The Parenting by Deposit Solution and Program, visit. http://rachel-bailey.com/parentingbydeposit/.
Rachel Bailey is a mother of two daughters. She has a Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology and is a Certified Positive Discipline Parent Educator. As a trained coach and therapist, she currently teaches parents how to raise children who believe in themselves, make healthy choices, and meet their full potential. She also helps parents redefine “perfect parenting” in order to reduce the worry, guilt, helplessness, and desire for perfection that are so often a part of parenting. You can learn more about her work at Rachel-Bailey.com