Ideas for Staying Connected to Your Child
Even when you have 10,000 other things to do.
Posted Apr 21, 2020
Over and over again, we’re hearing how important it is to stay connected to our children during this time. Psychologists, myself included, constantly cite the parent-child relationship as the single most important protective factor against our current collective trauma. And while the advice, aside from its basis in science, is intended to be a comfort—“no need to stress about having a color-coded academic schedule when all your kids need is you!”—it can also feel like a lot of pressure.
We’re being told, after all, how important it is to connect to our little ones during a time when it’s exceedingly difficult to do so. Maybe we are essential workers, and so we’re not physically present. Maybe we’re grieving, or worried about a loved one. Many of us are just juggling too many things—attempting to parent while we also hold down a job, plan meals, order groceries, and keep up with school assignments, to name just a few obligations among the daily chaos. We’re also, of course, distracted for various internal/emotional reasons. In sum, the conditions are less than ideal, to say the least, for strengthening our connections to our little ones. And yet we’re told it’s essential.
So how do we do it? There are the big principles, of course—making sure to take care of ourselves, being more responsive than reactive to our children's behavior—but what about when it comes to the day-to-day? How do we make connecting with our kids a priority when we’ve got a zillion other priorities as well? I have five suggestions:
1. Wear a matching item of clothing. There are few things young children like more than “twinning,” or being “twinsies” with some beloved other person. In this case, it’s you. You don’t have to do anything fancy—think “blue T-shirt Monday” or “black leggings Thursday”—though don’t let me discourage you if you feel like going all-out. Then spell it out explicitly for your child: “We are going to be super-duper connected today because we are wearing the exact same thing. Even when we’re doing different things, we’ll be thinking about each other because we’re both in blue T-shirts!”
2. Wear matching tattoos, or sparkly headbands, or superhero/character paraphernalia. This is basically the advanced version of the above, Twinning, version 2.0. You each wear Paw Patrol or PJ Masks tattoos on the tops of your right hands, or Elsa crowns, or superhero garb. Then you can be connected not only in your style, but in your “mission” too—whether it’s “saving the day,” “fighting crime,” heading “into the great unknown,” you get the idea. You can also make matching things to wear (e.g., breaking out the beads, clay, or yarn over the weekend) if crafts are your thing (Twinning, version 3.0).
3. Schedule/plan hug breaks. No, this is not just a tip of the hat to Trolls (although I am a big fan of the original, taking the fifth on the sequel). Unfortunately, what tends to happen these days is that we end up giving our children the most attention when they behave in a way we don’t like (for example, begging us to get off a Zoom call, arguing with a sibling, whining about a school assignment). In contrast, we tend to lay off when they’re doing exactly what we want them to do (e.g., playing quietly, focusing on schoolwork). In this way, we inadvertently reinforce the exact behaviors we want to see less of, because our children learn that’s the best way to get our attention. Instead, think about filling their bucket (of you) before they start falling apart. It can be as simple as having set breaks (the intervals will vary based on your child’s age) when you stop what you’re doing to give (and get) a hug or some other kind of quick and positive interaction your child craves.
4. Prepare notes or videos the night before. This is exactly what it sounds like. Take 15 minutes before you crash each night to write (or potentially draw, if your child can’t read) a few quick notes that you (or, potentially, your partner) can dole out the following day, either at planned intervals or when most needed. They don’t need to be complicated—even post-its will do—although, if you have spare notecards lying around, kids sure do love opening envelopes. You can also hide them in special places, or start the morning by slipping one under your child’s door.
Similarly, if you’re not a writer or artist (once again, though, emphasis on the fact that you absolutely do not need to be), make a few super quick videos you can have on hand for the following day. You or your partner can then show them to your kid when you can’t be with them because you have no choice but to return an email or be on a conference call. Sing your child’s favorite song or reiterate an inside joke. Speak in ridiculous voices or accents. Wear a silly hat.
5. Trade “important things” to hold for each other. Perhaps you have a special pen (and it might just be the plastic ballpoint you got in a pack of 20). Or a flannel shirt that smells like you. Or a coin. Or a necklace (read: probably not your actual special necklace for these purposes). Have your child hold onto it for the day, as a favor to you to make sure nothing happens to it. Then ask if there’s something of theirs that you can hang onto; “Let’s trade things that are important to us for the day, so that we think about each other a lot even when we’re not in the same room/place.”
Happy connecting. You've got this.