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How to Connect with Your Child at Any Age

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Laura Kuehn, LCSW
Written by Laura Kuehn, LCSW

If you are interesting in parenting (and if you are reading this post, that is probably true), you are likely hearing a lot about the importance of connection these days. Some parenting influencers would even go so far as to say that connection is more important than correction. I wouldn’t join them so far out on that side of the spectrum, but I do think it is essential to connect with your child. In my mind, it is one of the 5 Pillars of Christian Parenting.

Depending on your personality make-up or how you were parented, attempts to connect with your kids may not come naturally for you. Depending on your default parenting style, you may not be comfortable being on the same “level” as your kids. It’s important to explore any barriers to connecting with your kids. Some find parent counseling helpful to break old habits and explore new ways of relating.

Once you have addressed any of these barriers, you may be wondering how you can really connect with your kids. It’s essential at every stage of development. Here are just a few suggestions. Please feel free to add more in the comments.

Ways to connect with a new baby

For many parents, this is the easiest stage to connect with your child. Babies desperately need you for quite literally everything and the intense connection between parent and child is neurobiologically driven. You cannot hold a baby too much. You cannot spoil them with love and attention. But don’t feel guilty if you have attended to every need and they still cry. Make sure they are safe, do what you can to comfort them, but know that some babies need to cry to settle themselves. Just like a good cry can make us feel better sometimes.

If, for some reason, you are struggling to connect with your baby, don’t wait to get help. It isn’t your fault. Hormones wreak havoc in the weeks (and sometimes months) post delivery. There is support available.

Ways to connect with a toddler

This is a challenging stage where your child is transitioning from complete dependency to greater independence. It can lead to a tug of war over control and autonomy. This is a foundational stage in your child’s development when brain maturation is rapid so investment in connection at this stage is critical.

Physical connection is as important at this stage as emotional connection. Hug and cuddle your toddler often. But respect blossoming boundaries. Watch for cues that your toddler has had enough physical connection and seek to make it about his needs rather than yours. So instead of, “Come cuddle with Mommy,” you could say, “Would you like to cuddle for little while?”

Be present with your toddler. This pretty much goes for every subsequent stage as well, but it’s important for your toddler to see your eyes, enjoy your smile, and hear you talk – about everything and anything. It’s easy to multi-task at this age as toddlers are often content with one word answers or half-hearted attention. But don’t let your devices or work split your connection. If you are working, let them know you cannot fully attend to them at this very moment, but will be able to later (give a specific time and stick to it).

Limit the use of devices at this stage. Encourage exploration of the senses in safe ways. Listen to music, dance, sing, play in the sand, make bread dough, go for walks and notice the birds, bugs and leaves along the way.

Have your toddler join you in mundane tasks. Toddlers love to help so give them parallel tasks. For example, if you are wiping the kitchen table, give them a rag of their own. Or if you are folding laundry, have them try to match socks.

Narration is another effective way to connect with your child at this age. By simply stating what your child is doing, you communicate that you see them and that they are important to you. You can simply say, “You are petting the cat so gently. His purr says he likes it!”

When (not if!) you need to discipline, be sure to follow it with a moment of connection. This can be a hug, an affirmation of worth, or an activity like a puzzle or a picture book.

Ways to connect with a preschooler

Preschoolers are gaining more and more independence and can actually be helpful at this age. You can make use of their desire to please by enlisting their help in household tasks and chores.

Continue to limit the use of devices at this stage. While it may buy you a few moments of peace, it will be at the sacrifice of connection. Allow your child to be bored. It is the fuel for creativity.

You can add to your child’s feelings vocabulary at this stage by using feelings words as you speak about your day and ask about his.

Consider creating a “connect corner” somewhere in your home. Floor pillows or a bean bag chair make a comfy place to connect after a busy day of school or work. Stock it with books, blankets, stuffed animals and even calming scents. Ask open-ended questions which will allow your child to share his experiences and thoughts about his day.

Maintain routines that foster connection such as daily prayers, singing songs while giving a bath or “I spy” games in the car.

Ways to connect with an elementary aged child

For most families, long gone are the days of children playing in the streets, waiting for a neighbor to join them. Playdates are scheduled, supervised and structured. I understand this is a product of the safetyism mindset of our time and it may be difficult to go against it. However, to support connection with your elementary aged child, resist the pressure to enroll him in multiple structured activities. He needs time with you more than he needs to learn a soccer skill or scales on the piano.

Play is a child’s language of connection. Find regular time to play with your child. If he is interested in Legos, build something together. If he loves soccer, have him teach you his latest moves. If he loves drawing, create together. Talk about what you are doing. Ask good questions such as, “How did you think to do that?”

Go for walks and wonder at nature together.

Consider a night-time ritual of reading a chapter in a chapter book as part of your bed-time routine.

Make the most of “inside jokes” and things that you two share with no one else. This type of connection will create a solid foundation that will enable your relationship to weather the challenges of the years to come.

Ways to connect with a pre-teen

Many parents think that this stage is when they need to develop a “thick skin.” Pre-teens will say and do things that hurt. But the problem with a thick skin is that is separates instead of connects.

This is the time to create space in your relationship for honesty, humility and authenticity. It’s okay to share your feelings with your pre-teen (but not in a you-made-me-feel _______ sort of way – we are all responsible for our own feelings). And it’s okay to apologize when you were wrong.

As your child starts to shift from a parent-centric to a peer-centric mindset, it’s important to maintain family traditions like Sunday dinners at Grandma’s or Friday family pizza and movie night. Find ways to spend one-on-one time with your pre-teen whether that be shopping for new clothes or new cleats. Sure it would be easier to order them online, but they still need you to drive them and pay for everything. Make the most of every opportunity at connection.

Continue to limit screen use and content. Instead of focusing on what he can’t do with his devices, focus on what he can do. Talk to your children about the importance of using devices as a tool rather than a replacement for real-life relationships. Invite friends over to your house. Take a group out to dinner. Your role is changing as you move out to the periphery, but from the periphery you get the very best perspective.

Practice empathetic listening to communicate your interest and investment in them. You may think that what your child is saying is silly and not worth getting upset about, but try to remember what it was like when you were that age. Tapping into your own experiences as a pre-teen can help you connect to theirs.

Ways to connect with a teen

If you have laid a solid foundation of connection, this stage is simply a continuation of all that has gone before. Maintain family traditions, listen empathetically, prioritize human connection over digital.

If, however, you are just now starting to see the importance of connecting with your teen and your relationship is littered with conflict and strife, you may need to do some ground work before you can move forward with your relationship. You may need to re-establish authority and mutual respect. This site offers tools and insights for parents whose teens are struggling with outright rebellion and risky behaviors.

Most of the work in this stage will happen inside of you as you adjust to the shift in your relationship. Your teen developmentally longs for independence just as much as you dread it. You will be filled with questions and doubts, wondering if you did things right or if you messed up. Remember, parenting is never about perfection, it’s about connection.

Find support either in friends or in your community to help you with this transition. Your teen doesn’t know that this is hard for you- all he feels is your resistance to the process. Find the support you need to help you through it so you can hold them with open hands.

Be curious. Ask questions, but no too many. Curiosity can quickly dissolve into interrogation. Ask what they think about current events or events in your family. Start to see them as people with important thoughts and interesting things to say.

Stay connected while you are apart by texting your teen to let him know you are thinking of him. Write down significant dates for your teen in your calendar and acknowledge them. Be available (and look available) when he is home. Be prepared that 11pm may be the time that he wants to talk. The sleep deprivation of the teen years is real for both you and your teen. It won’t last forever. You have that perspective now so it’s easier to make these sorts of sacrifices.

Start to think of your role as coach. Firmly plant yourself in a you-can-do-it mindset. But also realize that your teen will need you when things don’t work out. Embrace the mistakes. You want them to happen now on your watch when you can support them and encourage them.

If this sounds like a lot. It is. Parenting is hard. So hard. Messing up is part of the package. One of the blessings of being a believer is knowing that God is in the business of making beauty from ashes. If you are struggling to connect with your child, ask God for help. He gave your kids to you for a reason and He will equip you for the task.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for treatment from a qualified mental health professional. Cornerstones for Parents is not liable for any advice, tips, techniques, and recommendations the reader chooses to implement.

About Laura

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura is a licensed therapist who offers parent counseling services to families in Connecticut. She loves to equip and encourage parents of kids of all ages. CfP is the place she combines some of her favorite things: writing, parenting and God's word. She is happily married to a wonderfully supportive husband and is the mother of two delightfully inspiring teens.

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