Children's Hospital Colorado

How to Connect with Your Kids

A dad and daughter wearing matching red and white checkered aprons are baking together in the kitchen.

Most parents intuitively know that it’s good to connect with our kids. They’re cute, after all, and their childhood won’t last forever. Still, if you’re anything like the rest of us, your definition of “leisure time” is five minutes of a TV show before you fall asleep on the couch.

Almost by definition, parents are busy people. And in the day-to-day grind of work and school, obligations and schedules, it’s easy to let those simple moments of connection — you know, the ones we imagined before we had kids — get lost in the clutter.

How to make time in a busy world? We asked clinical psychologist Bridget Burnett, PsyD, and Jason Williams, PsyD, Clinical Director and Director for Quality and Safety at the Pediatric Mental Health Institute at Children’s Colorado.

For kids, the family is an anchor. It’s their frame of reference, their support, their “normal.” Feeling connected to family, especially to their parents, is how kids thrive.

And when they’re not feeling it, they show it.

Kids’ natural language is behavior — not words. A child probably won’t be game for a rational conversation about how she felt when dad took that phone call after she’d been trying to get his attention. Instead she might throw a tantrum, grab the phone, pick a fight with a sibling or do anything she thinks might get dad’s attention.

Attention is what kids crave, and negative attention is better than none. But negative attention has consequences. It hurts relationships. It lowers their self-esteem, and it can result in a negative feedback loop where parents and kids feel constantly at odds.

No family is perfect. But taking some intentional time to be with kids — to reward them with positive attention, just for being them — can work wonders for their confidence and their sense of themselves. And for babies and younger children, it can even aid their development.

Source: Bridget Burnett

Tons of things: going on a bike ride, walking the dog, talking in the car, letting them help you grocery shop. Really, any time you spend around your kids can be an opportunity for connection, and it doesn’t have to be complex. With a baby, it could be as simple as 30 seconds of peek-a-boo or tickling toes. Our 1,000 ways we care brochure (.pdf) offers tons more fun suggestions on how to promote babies’ development through the ways we interact.

With older kids, it can just be taking a moment to stop and look at something your kiddo is interested in, commenting on it, and seeing the world, for just a moment, through her eyes. It might be playing a game — even a video game — or having a teen show you what he’s posting on Instagram. The important thing is to get on their level be in their world.

Source: Jason Williams

It’s not the quantity of time you spend with your kids, it’s the quality. Even just setting aside 5 or 10 minutes of every day to take a short walk, read a book or do some activity your kids can anticipate — and sticking to it — can make a huge difference.

Opportunities for connection happen all the time — we might just not notice them. The time spent in the car taking kids to school can be a chance to talk, sing songs, play word games and just be engaged and active together. Even parking in a spot further away from the store can be a chance to take your kid on a little walk.

One thing to keep in mind, though, is to avoid overscheduling kids. Activities are great, but too many can be overwhelming. Kids (and adults) need time to just relax and be at home.

Source: Bridget Burnett

Every family is different. Some have an easier time navigating a load of activities and some feel the strain. To figure out what’s comfortable for yours, it helps to think about priorities. If it’s a priority to eat dinner together, say, five nights a week, then maybe two activities each week are all that priority will allow.

It’s also worth asking: How does it feel? If everybody’s tired and stressed and cranky, that’s a good sign you’re trying to do too much. And if kids can’t get to bed at a decent time because of too many activities and homework, that’s going to have consequences for them and the family as well.

Source: Bridget Burnett

For most families, commitment is a value, and most parents want to model their values for their kids. It can feel wrong to back out of a commitment, especially in front of kids. Is that what we want to teach them?

On the other hand, people make mistakes. And as parents, we also want to model healthy ways of dealing with that: admitting the mistake, trying to make it right and moving on. It can be easy to fall into the mindset that, if we’re not saying yes to everything, we’re failing. But sometimes we have to say no and tell people: “I’m sorry, but this is too much for us. We want to help out, but we need more time together.”

A sincere intent to do the right thing can turn an uncomfortable situation into a positive, genuine experience — not only for your kids but for everyone involved.

Source: Bridget Burnett

The lines of communication between parents and kids can sometimes break down, and negative attention can become a feedback loop. If negative attention is what a kid expects, she’ll act accordingly.

Every kid can be frustrating, but every kid has also probably done at least one thing good thing on any given day. The key is to seek out that thing and reward it with attention. Did he put his dishes in the sink? Praise it! Go over the top: “Hey, great job!” Our Be A Fan of Your Kid page offers tons more suggestions on how to turn a negative feedback loop into a positive one.

Some children, too, have a harder time with parents who are distracted or doing something else — and their demands for attention increase in, ahem, unwelcome ways. At those times, it can just help to stop, notice it, and think about putting what you’re doing aside. When did you last spend time together? Do you have a few minutes right now?

Source: Jason Williams

Let’s say you’re busy cooking dinner. Can you get your kiddo involved, even indirectly? If your kid is school-age or older, you might recruit him to help you cook by chopping veggies, finding or mixing ingredients, handing you utensils or putting a pot of water on to boil. For a younger kid, you could just tell them what you’re doing: “First I’m going to put this in, then this, and can you guess what comes next?”

Redirection can also be helpful. If your kid’s doing something that’s not safe or appropriate, like kicking things around, try to turn it into something that is, such as kicking a ball outside. Allowing the behavior within a set of limits can also be helpful. If they want to make a lot of noise, for example, let them turn up the volume and have a dance party for, say, one minute. Set a timer. Try to meet them where they are.

Of course, sometimes getting them involved isn’t feasible, and redirection doesn’t always work. In those cases, try delaying the attention: “Hey, I can’t pay attention to you right this second, but I can in five minutes. How about if I finish this phone call, and I’ll play with you then?” The key with that trick, though, is that it’s crucial to keep the promise of whatever deal you set. (Because if you don’t, it’ll never work again.)

Source: Bridget Burnett

Children, especially little ones, love it when parents play with them. It’s a time for them to show their skills and their excitement. For parents, let’s be honest: it’s sometimes kind of boring.

On the other hand, though, parents don’t always need to be in the trenches making the “vroom vroom” noises. Playing with kids can also be just noticing what they’re doing and commenting on it — almost like a sportscaster for their lives.

Feeling spent as a parent is perfectly normal. Every parent needs a break. Making sure to make time in your life to get one — getting a babysitter and doing adult things every now and then — can go a long way toward renewing that energy level.

Source: Bridget Burnett

Kids thrive on routines. Their sense of security is rooted in their ability to predict what’s going to happen in their day-to-day. And when that sense of security gets disrupted — even by something awesome and fun, like a special occasion — the overstimulation can lead to some not-so-fun behavior.

That might be a fact of life, but it’s also a fact that connection doesn’t require a special occasion. Moments of connection are often small — five minutes here, five minutes there. They can happen spontaneously, and sometimes they’re the ones that mean the most.

Families can also establish little special occasions that don’t cost anything, and that kids can anticipate and repeat (so they don’t trigger a freak-out). Starting a family tradition is a great way to connect, and it can be as simple designating certain foods for certain occasions or throwing a little celebration when the season changes.

Source: Bridget Burnett

It’s normal, especially for teens, to put up a little resistance from time to time against whatever the parent is offering or asking. But there are ways in. For instance, if they’re involved in something and don’t seem to want to drop it in order to talk to you, ask them about it. If they’re playing with an iPad or video game, join them or station yourself in a place where you can notice and comment on what they’re doing. They’ll feel like you’re part of it, and it can be an opportunity to talk.

Children, even teens, want to be noticed and feel special. Recognition can be the key to lowering the resistance.

It can also help to have some pre-designed questions to ask when you know you’ll be spending time together, like at the dinner table. Ask them to tell you about the funniest thing that happened to them that day, or something embarrassing, something sad. Asking about their emotions throughout the day can be a little more thought-provoking than “how was school,” and it helps them build emotional vocabulary, which can help them learn to cope with emotions — even ones they might not like.

Think of what you know about their interests, and focus on what’s interesting to them. Once you get them talking, you never know where a conversation might go.

The important part is being open to the opportunity for them to come to you. If they don’t seem to feel like talking, well, sometimes a little silence is OK, too.

Source: Jason Williams

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