Becky Meline, LIMHP, LISW, IADC
Focus Therapy | A West Omaha Counseling Practice
Parenting is the hardest job on Earth. As a licensed child therapist and mother of three, I have been trained in numerous evidenced-based therapies to intervene with my children in an effective way; so why are there still times when I ask myself, “What in the world do they want from me?” Unfortunately, the same intervention used on three different children, may work well for one and be completely ineffective with the other two. Each and every child is uniquely different requiring that we meet their needs in a way that fits for their personality and temperament. Kids do not come with a manual explaining what works well and what doesn’t, or how to discipline them most effectively and build up their self-esteem. Parenting can feel like putting together an 80 piece bookshelf with no instruction manual; frustrating, and praying that our best guess is good enough so we don’t screw it up. I want to focus on one key component to parenting that is critical across the board, regardless of the child, and is something that all people need.
The Importance of Connection
To understand what our children need, we must first understand the importance of connection. From the first day children come into the world, they innately know that they need to be loved and cared for and they seek it out immediately. Human connection is powerful and the brain recognizes it as something that we need for survival; the same as food and water (Wolpert, 2013). Human connection can be healing; and without it, it can be devastating. We are hardwired for connection at all ages; and when caregivers consistently provide connection, we give children the gift of a secure attachment (Powell, et. al, 2013). The benefit of a secure attachment is life-long; they grow up to have healthier relationships, higher self-esteem, and the confidence to make their own choices (Powell, et. al, 2013). We all want the absolute best for our kids; so how do we build this secure attachment with our children and help them feel connected; even when their behavior drives us to want to do the opposite?
How Do I Connect with my Child?
· Fill Their Need
From the time babies are born they are trying to communicate their needs with us (Powell, et. al, 2013). Babies cry when they are hungry, tired, wet, upset, or just about everything else. Children throw tantrums trying to tell us what’s going on, and adolescents stop talking altogether and make us guess at what’s wrong. They are all communicating; it just doesn’t seem very effective; however; I do believe that it’s always the best way they know how. To build a secure attachment, Circle of Security would say that you need to do 2 important things. Comfort your child when they are upset, and meet their needs whenever possible (Powell, et. al, 2013). For example, if a baby is crying because they are hungry, and that need is never met, the baby eventually attempts to self-soothe and learns that they have to depend on themselves for comfort. On the flip side, when we identify their needs and meet them consistently, they see us as stable, predictable, and capable of providing for them, which increases their security with us (Powell, et. al 2013).
One thing I want to be clear on is that we don’t have to be perfect; in fact, it’s not healthy for our children to have a perfect parent. We can parent and make mistakes; lots of them. In fact, we only have to get it right about 30% of the time and that seems to be good enough for a secure attachment. (Powell, et al, 2013)
· Be a Detective
Jason was having a tantrum one morning and his mom was at her wits end; she was fed up with the kicking, screaming, and fighting to get ready for school. This was out of the ordinary; Jason was usually a pretty calm kid with minimal issues in his morning routine. Mom screamed, “What is wrong with you?” She then walked away to calm down, and eventually remembered that Jason had a dentist appointment scheduled later that morning. She will be picking him up from school to attend this and was dreading it because at the last appointment he had a couple of cavities filled and it was not a pleasant experience. After calming down, she heads back to the room and sits down on the floor next to Jason, she said, “Honey, are you worried about going to the dentist today?” His crying turned to a whimper and he leaned his head into her lap and said, “I don’t want another shot.”
Have you ever found yourself saying to your child, “Just tell me what you want!” or “Use your words!” The truth is that it’s actually really hard for many adults to be able to say what they need or express it appropriately. So imagine how difficult it is for kids to communicate their needs to us with less vocabulary and skills. Pay attention to changes in your child’s behavior because behavior has meaning and is usually driven by some underlying emotion. If the behavior seems out of place, ask yourself if something has changed recently for the child. When their behavior feels out of control, put on your detective hat and ask yourself, “What might they be feeling?” “How can I help them manage these emotions?” “How can I connect with him right now?” Physical touch is one of the fastest ways to calm your child down; either with a hug, rocking them or rubbing their back. By connecting with your kids when they’re upset, you help them see that they can trust you to help them handle their big emotion which builds a strong foundation for security (Powell, et. al, 2013).
· Play, play, play.
One of the best ways to connect with children is through play. Play allows us to enter the child’s inner world on their level and understanding. Play is how children make sense of their experiences and communicate them with us. Imagine if your boss could come and do your job for a day and deal with what you deal with. Would they have more empathy and perhaps a better understanding of why you’re feeling stressed, anxious or upset? When kids feel connected during play; they open up and express their feelings more freely. In PCIT (Parent Child Interaction Therapy), we teach a specialized play called Child Directed Interaction, and it basically teaches the parent skills to enhance the relationship and genuinely engage on their child’s level (Troutman, 2016). Parents come to session astonished because their child has started opening up more at home, their behaviors have decreased and their relationship is stronger. I encourage every parent to spend 5-10 minutes a day playing with their child; and not just playing but genuinely enjoying your time together. You’d be amazed at the results. For older children, family game nights help set aside time to connect in a world driven by electronics.
Connection is the foundation of all relationships; we need to know we are valued and that we matter to people. Children especially need to know this from their parents. They need us to connect not only when it is easy and fun, but especially when their behavior is at its worst. When every ounce of your mind and body is telling you to run away, shut down or scream at them; try to push through those feelings to connect with them. That will be a difference maker in your relationship. When we view the behavior as a need for connection rather than acting out to gain attention; we are more likely to meet their needs in a healthy way which will strengthen our relationship and give them lifelong benefits.
Powell, B., Cooper, G., Hoffman, K., Marvin, B. (2013) Circle of Security Intervention. New York, NY. The Guilford Press.
Troutman, B (2016) IOWA-PCIT, unpublished manuscript. www.pcit.lab.u-iowa.edu
Wolpert, S (2013, October, 10). UCLA neuroscientist’s book explains why social connection is as important as food and shelter. Retrieved from URL http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/we-are-hard-wired-to-be-social-248746.