Foundation Blocks for Mental Health: Connect with your Kids

In this age of video games and social media, many of us need reminders and practice around how to genuinely connect with others, including our children.  Whether your child is a toddler or a teen, your influence is only as strong as your relationship.  Rules and disciplinary strategies will not work without a strong underlying relationship.  Strong relationships are based on emotional engagement, connectedness and the ability to repair disconnection.  Nurture the relationship early on and you will avoid much of stress people think is characteristic of adolescence.

We are all so busy.  As parents, it is critical that we spend quality time with our children.  Put phones and devices away.  Turn off the TV.  Get curious about what your child is interested in….let them take the lead and follow them without educating or correcting.  Just be present and enjoy their company.  Build little rituals that create space for sharing (e.g., before bed, dinner time, driving in the car, etc.).

The acronym WINNER summarizes the key components of establishing and maintaining connection with a child:[1]

WITNESS   Step out of your parent role and just observe.  Whatever the behaviour, it is what it is.  So often, we react in a way that communicates “You should be different.” When we respond to the moment with no agenda or judgment, we are better able to meet a child where they are at and choose an intervention that matches their needs.  Try describing what you observe (e.g., “You look really angry right now. You want to throw stuff and hit someone.”)

INQUIRE.  Get to the root of the matter. What we think we see in a child’s behaviour often is not what’s actually going on.  Acting out is usually due to an unmet emotional need.  We can’t really know what our child is experiencing, but we can try to connect and make space for them to willingly share their thoughts and feelings.  Try shifting your stance from Critic to Ally.  You want to convey that you are here to listen without judgment or advice when they want to talk.  Also ask yourself how your own behaviour may have led to your child’s behaviour.

NEUTRALITY.  Our own emotional energy often contributes to relationship disconnection.  A calm tone and demeanor helps reduce reactivity so we can address our child’s needs.  Children usually respond to emotion not logic.  They pick up on our emotional energy, which sets the tone for the interaction.  Be patient – emotional need easily overwhelms logic and good judgment.  Children are not thinking of us when they act out, so don’t take their behaviour personally.  Pause and breathe.  Repeating a key word such as calm, equanimity or breathe can also help you stay calm in the chaos.  If your own emotional baggage consistently gets in the way, get help and sort it out.

NEGOTIATE.  A my-way-or-the-highway approach undermines children and usually leads to fear or rebellion.  Most conflicts warrant a meeting in the middle:  if one party wants A, and another wants B, the way forward is to find C.  It isn’t Me vs. You, but you and me together finding a solution.  Through negotiating, children learn to assert themselves while also learning to consider others.

EMPATHIZE.  We are all imperfect, trying to muddle through a messy world!  We can never know exactly what another is feeling, but we can witness and just be with our children when they are struggling without taking away their pain.

REPEAT. REPAIR.  Be aware of when your connection with your child is weak, and attempt to repair it.  Apologize when you slip into anger, frustration, or absence.  It is impossible to always be present and respond in a neutral manner!  The key is to set the intention and be aware of when our emotions get the better of us.

Connecting takes effort, especially when we are busy, exhausted, and distracted, but the investment is worth it.  A strong emotional connection with your child is a key foundation block in their mental/emotional health and will support them through every developmental milestone as well as life challenges.

Further Reading:

Gordon Neufeld & Gabor Mate. (2004).  Hold on to Your Kids. Vintage Canada.

Shefali Tsaybary (2010).  The Conscious Parent.  Namaste Publishing.

Shefali Tsaybary (2013).  Out of Control. Namaste Publishing.

[1] The acronym WINNER was developed by Dr. Shefali Tsaybary (2013) in her book Out of Control.  I have adapted and modified it for this post.