9 ways to connect with your kids on a deeper level
If you had to nominate your child’s favourite toy, food or rock/indie band, you would probably be able to reel off all the names within a femtosecond.
Keep an eye on your child’s body language, eye contact, mood, energy levels and interactions so you can get a sense of how they are.
But what about what your child has been thinking and feeling? Today, yesterday, last week and last month? Do you even have a clue? Do you really know what’s going on in your child’s world? What issues and topics are trending for them at the moment?
When asked these questions, many parents are surprised to realise they are stuck for answers. Although we spend a lot of time in the physical presence of our kids, that doesn’t mean we’re tuned into them — at all. Ensuring that we are more intimate and plugged in to who they are, where they’re at and what they need requires quality parent-child time — with minimal distractions, regular communication and the creation of opportunities to share, cuddle and fully engage in the world and with each other.
Keen? Then here’s how to start getting more connected.
Book reading encourages affection and closeness between children and parents. It can also be an important intimate one-on-one time for parents who have been away all day at work. Connect on an even deeper level through books by using them to teach your child how to reason, make decisions, form opinions, articulate feelings and problem-solve situations. So don’t just speed through the text. Use the afternoon or bedtime story (or novel reading before bed by your teens) to:
- Make connections between your child and the book. For example, when reading about a duck, say, “You like playing with your duck in the bath too, don’t you?”
- Engage in discussion about the story: ask how much your child liked the plot or characters or the writing style of the author.
- Introduce objects. If reading about a spinning top, get your child to grab their spinning top and reinforce the connection between object and word.
- Milk your child’s interests. If they’re obsessed with trains or dinosaurs in kid’s books or quotes or music mentioned in John Green’s books for teens, get them more information (or send web links to teenagers).
- Introduce challenging vocabulary. Kids love language play in rhymes and the sound of big, new and unusual words, even if they don’t completely understand them.
Switch off your phone
Yes, you can.
If you are constantly checking your mobile phone, texting or answering or making calls then you are clearly not present in the moment or present to your child and they will know it. Instead, set these healthy habits around your screen use so that your kids know they are visible and matter:
- Turn your phone off during special activities like watching a film together, playing a game, going to playgroup or eating dinner.
- Let message bank take the call when your child is telling you an important story or has asked for your help with homework.
- Put the phone down. And step away from it. That way you can ask your child to do the same. Otherwise, as they get older, when you’re trying to connect with them they may be connecting more with their phone or tablet device than you!
Be curious about your child’s interests
OK, so you may not be crazy about their love of Minecraft or their My Little Pony collection. And no matter how hard you try you may not like your teen’s obsession with brand-name shoes or vampire films.
But that doesn’t matter. Show an interest. Ask questions and listen to the answers respectfully. You will instantly understand more about your child’s tastes, passions and world. When the moment is right, you might also like to invite your child to share in something that interests you. That might mean you go to a stadium soccer game, a play or a music concert together or you invite them to come to an art gallery or look through some old photos of when you were at school.
Sometimes we get so busy that the only affection we manage with our kids is a quick peck on the cheek at the start and end of the day. This is a shame, because touch is pivotal to intimacy and connection and it can trigger hormones like oxytocin, which make us feel good.
So aim for at least three to five shows of affection with your child each day such as
- Holding your child’s hand
- Gently touching their face or stroking their hair
- Snuggling in bed, on a chair or on the couch
- Stopping for a big cuddle
- Group hugging — good for teens who are awkward about cuddles. You may also need to show them verbal affection by using their pet name
Connect through music
Singing songs with your kids is a wonderful and uplifting way to tune in to them and have fun together. If you play an instrument and they learn as well, you can hang out and practise learning a song. And if you don’t? You can still put on music and play percussion with drums and shakers or spoons and saucepans.
Once the teen years arrive, take the time to listen to the music your child is into even if it’s not to your taste. It can still provide another point of connection when you discuss why they like that band’s lyrics or lead singer or second album more than the first. If you have any music that your teens also love (like The White Stripes or the Beatles or Adele), bring it along in the car.
Mealtimes provide the perfect opportunity to check in with your kids. Instead of just treating them as a daily chore, make the most of the time together to chat and act like a family team in the kitchen. Aim to:
- Get your kids to help make the salad and set the table. After the meal, everyone can give a hand clearing the table (to help set a good vibe, play music to ramp up the fun factor).
- Break mealtime blahs with an outdoor family picnic or breakfast al fresco on the weekend.
- Look through a simple recipe book together and get each child to pick a meal they would like to have this week. Then they can help you cook it.
- Once a month, have a theme night: eg cook a Spanish paella and download some Spanish music to play. Add to the family fun by dressing up with a sombrero or fake moustache.
- Express gratitude: go around the table after dinner and encourage each family member to mention three things they were grateful for today.
Catch up & communicate
Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans, said John Lennon. Sadly, according to his first son Sean, that meant Lennon was not very present as a parent at all. To ensure you don’t fall into this trap, you need to spend quality time together where you talk and touch base. Make an effort to:
- Sit with your kids separately for 10 minutes or more when they get home from school or you arrive home from work and give them your full attention while they chat about their day. Tell them a little about your day, too. Engage in the same ritual with your partner once you are both home.
- Ask your children’s opinions about things and respect them — even if you calmly present a different perspective.
- Go out with each child individually for quality one-on-one time — even if you have to fit this in over three weekends to give everyone a turn.
- Discuss the film or television program your child just watched. Don’t just ask them about the plot; ask them what they thought about the difficulties or situations that arose and what they think about the behaviour of the players.
- Notice emotional cues. Keep an eye on your child’s body language, eye contact, mood, energy levels and interactions so you can get a sense of how they are. If something seems amiss, show them that you notice and care by saying, “You don’t seem like your usual self. Would you like to talk about it?”
Share family-only activities
Co-ordinating your family’s weekly schedule can sometimes make you feel like you’re more of a social secretary than parent. Yet, regardless of how many afterschool activities or work commitments impinge on the week, make sure you get some time together as a family.
- Have an early dinner so there is time to play a board game like Pictionary or Trivial Pursuit.
- Look through old photo albums and video footage — kids roll about laughing when they see their cute toddler antics.
- Do more on a family project together, such as improving a section of the garden or making a patchwork quilt for grandma’s birthday.
- Make one night a week “family night” where you do something together, such as watching a special film, making a collage of family photos, going for an evening walk or playing table tennis, darts or charades.
- Enjoy a chapter book together with each family member taking turns reading on different nights.
- Join in. Instead of watching your child run around at home or the park while you’re texting a friend, get up and get involved. They will love the change to run around with you and you will benefit from injecting more exercise into your day. Here’s how:
- At the park: play Frisbee, cricket or bull rush.
- In your backyard: shoot some hoops, play chasies or kick a ball around.
- At the beach: Go surfing or sailboarding, investigate the rock pools, play beach volleyball, walk on the sand or collect shells together.
- Outdoors: Go rollerblading, skating, rowing or cycling. Walk the dog or stroll along the nearest bush trail.
Connecting during the holidays
Though it’s tempting on the holidays to always visit extended family or go on camping trips with friends, it’s very important to sometimes take time to enjoy R&R with immediate family only.
Connect on an even deeper level through books by using them to teach your child how to reason, make decisions, form opinions, articulate feelings and problem solve situations.
This means you’re not going away with them and constantly giving your attention to other adults. It’s particularly important in households where one parent is away long days or where both parents are frazzled from juggling work and family and everything gets done on the fly (including being with the kids). These “just family” go-slow holidays are the stuff that precious lifelong memories are made of, whether spent at home or away. To help make them special:
- House-swap with friends in another suburb or state.
- Spend a night away in a self-contained cabin or go camping for the weekend even if you can’t stay for the week.
- Take day trips to caves, lakes, mountains or scenic gardens.
- Avoid cabin fever on school holidays at home by organising one outing away from home every other day: go for a picnic, see an exhibition at the museum, take an afternoon bike ride, visit the library, fly a kite or visit a swimming pool with a slide.
- Plan fun activities, such as dress-ups, drawing with chalk on the driveway, playing hopscotch or table tennis, French knitting, making a go-kart or dry-pressing some flowers.
- If you can’t get leave from work, negotiate to take some half or full days off so that the family can spend some time altogether.
There’s no quicker way to encourage your kids to switch off from you than losing your cool. It causes conflict escalation and encourages your kids to speak to you and each other in the same way, which leads to further distance and withdrawal. A far better approach that fosters good feeling and connectedness is to:
- Speak respectfully with a calm tone of voice, no swear words and without being sarcastic or condescending — even when your child has been working hard to push all your buttons!
- Give your child constructive feedback. For example, saying, “Do you know why that’s unhelpful?” is much better than criticisms such as, “You’re hopeless,” or, “You’re a naughty child.” Explain what your child has done and give examples of behaviour they could have chosen instead.
- Give positive instructions. Your child will be more likely to comply if you say, “Could you please do that quietly? I’m trying to concentrate,” rather than, “Stop making so much noise; you’re a right pain.”
- Offer praise where it’s due. Say, “I was very impressed with the effort you put in to helping your sister/cleaning your room/finishing that school project.” A child’s self-esteem increases when they feel they have successfully accomplished something. And then they feel more connected to you in a positive way.
- Show you care. Be available to talk to your children when something is obviously worrying them. Even if it seems like a small thing to you, don’t say, “That’s not big deal,” or, “You have nothing to worry about.” Your child will feel you’re not taking the problem seriously and next time won’t share their feelings with you.
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