We are home with our families 24/7, but are we really connecting to one another? Finding authentic ways to connect can be difficult in these current times of social distancing. Striving to ground yourself and find balance without your usual face-to-face support from friends, family, and the community is hard. It leaves us feeling exhausted, stressed, and anxious at times.
It can leave us feeling more disconnected from our children which in turns makes our children feel disconnected from us. When kids feel disconnected they feel it intensely. They might yell, scream, whine, throw things, and more. And while conflict and disconnect are accepted and natural parts of life, we can all use some reminders on how to repair and reconnect when needed.
Reconnect with Yourself First
All behavior is a form of communication. Behaviors may communicate a feeling or a need. And not just the needs and feelings of our children, but ours too! What does your behavior communicate about how you feel, what you need? If you want to connect to your child differently then you need to start by reconnecting to yourself. So, before you ask what is the feeling or need behind this behavior, how can I reconnect with my child, I would first ask: what do YOU need? If you feel irritated or ready to snap, it’s important to catch yourself before you do. Take a pause and get yourself back on track. Of course, when we are tired or our patience is running thin it’s more difficult to respond with respect, empathy, and compassion. And if you can’t catch yourself in time and you do snap (who hasn’t) try not to beat yourself up too much. Check back in with yourself, take a breath, get some help, take a moment for yourself, apologize, and then focus on ways to reconnect with your child. Your children learn a lot from observation. You want to model the behaviors that you want to see in your children. As they watch you regulate emotions or watch you repair the hurt from reactivity, they will develop their own social emotional skills they will need to learn and grow.
Get Comfortable with the Uncomfortable
Children learn emotional expression through our modeling about emotions and emotional self control. They will also learn as their prefrontal cortex develops. When behaviors are challenging (hitting, throwing, yelling, pushing) our children do not want to be doing this. Stress hormones flood the brain when humans feel threatened or stressed which blocks clear thinking, logic, and reason. AND, your child’s behaviors become impulsive because the human brain that is responsible for impulse control, reason, logic, empathy, and emotional regulation is not completely developed until you are in your mid-twenties! So, young children especially cannot control impulses, cannot self-regulate. They do not yet have the social and emotional skills to cope in healthful ways. From a neurological perspective, the only way that the brain can change in ways to support the development of self-regulation skills is through co-regulation. Co-regulation is when a caring adult offers support and models to children what they need to understand, express, and modulate their feelings and behaviors. It means that parents need to lay the foundation for the development of self-regulation in children. This also means that parents need to be tuned in and responsive to ALL feelings.
Hold Space – What Your Child Needs
How can we overcome our discomfort around challenging emotions? Emotional awareness, expression, and regulation begins with holding space for those emotions. Shift your perspective from one of fear and avoidance of these emotions to one of openness and acceptance. Support, trust, and allow your child to express the way they need to with you as their safe presence. Communicate to them that their feelings are seen, heard, and validated. Keep them and others physically safe from harm if and when a toddler kicks, throws, or hits, but understand that you will have to learn to be comfortable with the expression of uncomfortable emotions. It is not behavior that we need to control or fix. It is not something to take personally when our children express big feelings. Feelings are safe and healthy. We have to accept them and learn to identify them. What children are doing in their emotional expression is normal.
Reconnect With Your Child
After the dust has settled and the stress hormones are back in check, work on reconnecting with your child. A lot of how we communicate and how our children read us is not through our words but through non verbal communication. Our body language, tone, and facial expression all impact the way in which our children see us. Sometimes it is more powerful and effective to use non verbal communication strategies to reconnect. Other times we might jump straight to words and actions.
Non Verbal Ways to Connect:
Get down to your child’s level. Bending or sitting down to reach eye level with your child allows you to look into their eyes. It permits the physical proximity that often eases the feelings of disconnect. It makes you more approachable and less intimidating to your child. Try to make eye contact, but don’t force it if your child is not willing at the time.
Positive, calm facial expression. Smiling with eyes wide in understanding, acceptance, or excitement to reconnect can impact your child’s receptivity to your efforts. Perhaps you might sit close to them with an open palm, relaxed shoulders and soft eyes to show them that you care, emphasize, and acknowledge their hurt.
Soften your tone of voice. Our tone of voice is our presence and when we want to connect we want a presence that is open, builds trust, is accepting, and helps children feel safe.
These kinds of non verbal cues communicate to your child that they are seen, heard, and validated. This strengthens their self worth and shows them through modeling that the release of big feelings can heal.
Verbal Ways to Connect
“I am here, it is okay to feel mad/sad/upset.” Suppressing what you are feeling is not helpful, in fact it is hurtful. It means that the feeling is stuck inside and may intensify once it comes out. All emotions and feelings are human, they are normal. If you did not completely feel the full range of emotions, that you would not be human as I like to explain to my 5 year old daughter. It is normal and acceptable to feel those icky feelings so get them out as much as you need.
“Talk to me about how you are feeling” Help your child learn to identify the emotion that he or she is feeling. Can you use the word sad, mad, scared, or frustrated? Once you put a name to the emotion you will help your child build emotional vocabulary which can later help them learn the first step to expressing their feelings in healthy ways.
“Help me understand how you are feeling.” The best thing you can do when your child is feeling upset, frustrated, and disconnected is to try and see things from their perspective. This will help you understand the need and reasons behind their behavior and help you respond with empathy, understanding, and acceptance.
“Can I give you a hug?” Expressing empathy by offering a hug or physical touch can restore the need to bond and feel connected which supports the brain’s capacity to regulate and deal with emotions.
“I love you, even when you’re angry.” Of course we love our kids unconditionally, but our reactivity can be seen by our children as not so loving. They may feel scared to express themselves fully, shamed, or blamed. This statement will clearly communicate to your child that they are loved exactly as they are so they can thrive.
In the end, we are all humans who have a right to express how we feel when we feel it. Moments of disconnect are not a cause for worry or concern. They are natural, normal, and expected. Having this perspective will ensure that your children can learn to regulate their emotions in healthy ways over time. In the end we want to build healthy relationships with our children and model emotional regulation for a strong sense of self and self worth.
How do you reconnect with your children? How do you reconnect with yourself? Please share with me!