Article by Justin Coulson. See his Happy families blog here or follow Justin's twitter.
The word connection describes something being joined, bound, fastened, or united. To connect in a relationship requires joining two people together, and becoming united.
We have endless opportunities to "connect" with our children, and research confirms that not only is this good for them, but it is absolutely NECESSARY if they are to grow up feeling secure and stable.
Our favourite times for connection are the "fun" times. Singing, playing, and being together allow us to bind - unite - ourselves with our children.
We can also connect through learning together. Parents who spend time on music practice, sporting activities, or school projects often find ways to make these experiences positive and meaningful.
A tougher challenge for parents is to "connect", or join together, when you or your child are experiencing negative emotions, like fear, anger, or sadness.
A short while ago, as I tucked my seven year-old daughter into bed, she began sobbing. She revealed that she was worried about something that might happen in the near future. It was something that might be painful, and could lead her to being teased at school.
It was late, and everyone was tired. In such circumstances many parents might be likely to dismiss the emotion, or give it some ‘band-aid’ attention. After all, she was probably just crying because she was over-tired and ‘emotional’.
To go for a quick-fix, or dismiss the emotion entirely may be the easier option, or even the natural response, for a tired parent. But to do so means missing out on an important opportunity to connect. We can use these times to join our family’s hearts together.
The Adult Context
To explain, it may be useful to consider this experience in an adult context.
Imagine you had a major concern in your life. Perhaps an upcoming operation, or a significant issue at work.
How would you feel if the person you chose to confide in told you;
“I’m sure it’ll be ok.” Or “you’ll get through it"? Or “lots of people have been there and things always work out”.
These trite promises are unlikely to make you feel better. They lack support, understanding, perhaps even compassion. Imagine if you shared your concern with someone and heard this as a response:
“No wonder you’re worried.”
“That sounds like such a difficult situation.”
“You think that things aren’t going to work out if they keep going this way.”
Chances are you’d feel validated, understood, and even empowered to decide for yourself how you’d respond.
It’s the same for Children
Our children need the same thing as us. Asking them what’s wrong and making promises we can’t keep do not make them feel better. If we promise everything will be ok after our child has sobbed to us about a significant issue, they’re unlikely to walk away saying,
“Gee, now that you’ve told me it’ll be fine I go ahead and live my life with courage and optimism.”
Instead they are more likely to walk away wondering if you really understood, and questioning how you can assure them that everything will be ok when you aren’t really in any position to change things.
Four Keys to Connection
To really connect with your kids – or anyone for that matter, there are a couple of simple steps:
1. Create an environment where it is safe to share feelings.
This means we turn off the computer, tv, phone, or whatever might be a distraction, and we make sure we are able to be entirely attentive to what our child may say.
Your child may say some words that matter, but listen even more deeply to the feelings underlying the words. Your child may say things are “ok”, but as his shoulders slump, his eyes look to the floor, and his voice goes quiet, you might find more useful information in feelings.
3. Show you understand by restating, in your own words, the FEELINGS your child is experiencing.
It’s really important that, rather than asking questions, you make statements based on what you perceive. Your child will confirm if you are on the right track.
In my daughter’s case I made the following statements:
“You’re scared it might hurt.”
“You feel like the other kids might notice and pick on you.”
“When people tease you it makes you feel awful.”
4. Shut your mouth! Don’t go any further. Just be there.
As parents we are always trying to “fix” things. And all too often we get involved, taking away their sense of autonomy, and undermining their judgement.
But often our children don’t need us to do the fixing. They just need us to understand them, let them know it’s normal to feel the way they do, and support them with compassion and love. Once you’ve identified how they feel, stay quiet, and wait.
5. When they’ve worked through things, reassure them of your love.
Thank your child for talking with you. Let her know you will always be there if she’s worried. You don’t have to provide answers unless asked. Usually it’s better to ask “what do you think?”
Communication researchers have discovered that perceived support matters more than giving actual support. And emotional support increases the likelihood that a person will perceive she or he has been supported. Informational support is often seen as much less supportive.
The amazing thing about being supportive is that it’s really about emotions, rather than actually having to DO something. On occasions, action will be required on your part. But often, when our children are scared, anxious, or upset, they just want to know you’re there and that you can understand them.
My daughter calmed down after I listened, showed that I comprehended her feelings, and held her. After I assured her that “no matter what”, I would be there for her, she peacefully went to sleep. The following day she said to me, “Thanks for listening to me last night dad. You made me feel much better.”