Parenting Purposefully: How to be Present and Connect with Your Child
As parents we so often remark to each other about at how fast our children are growing up and we tell each other to cherish each moment. At some deep level we know what an extraordinary gift it is to be a parent, to witness and guide our child’s growth. We are crystal clear we want to show up, be our best and not miss a minute of this precious time. And yet….
What happens day to day?
- You kiss your child as they run for the bus, but your mind is already in your morning meeting.
- Your child invites you to play and you say, “let me just finish this. I will be with you in just a minute” and then you don’t remember to shift your focus back to them as promised.
- Your child asks you a question about why some kids are mean at school. You start to answer but a text comes in from a friend. You get distracted and start texting back, leaving your child’s important question unanswered.
We are in a time and culture where we are expected and even invited to be distracted constantly. Sometimes I picture that we live our lives with our heads 4 feet in front of our bodies, thinking and racing to try to get the next thing done while fully missing the present moment and the magical opportunities to parent purposefully.
As much as our children benefit from us being knowledgeable, skillful parents, the most important thing we can do is learn to be fully present and engaged with them. What they really need more than anything is our compassionate, attuned connection.
Why is this so important?
Picture a child, newborn. The child looks to the faces of their caretakers and already has the ability to read their facial muscles to detect if they are safe, loved and valued. The child’s nervous system is looking for the reassurance in each interaction that they will be cared for and not hurt or forgotten. And every time we turn to our child, make eye contact, smile, sooth them, attune and respond to their needs, they build the confidence that they are safe and valuable beings on the planet. As humans we are wired to be connected with each other – it’s a matter of survival.
And this doesn’t end once we grow out of infancy. Through all the stages of development, we look to our parents and caretakers for this essential connection, guidance and sense of well-being. We receive it from their eye contact and facial expression, tone of voice, simple gestures, undivided focus, caring touch – we know we are loved just for being. Connection lays the inner bedrock for self-confidence, self-respect and joy.
So let’s consider how this essential and healthy human need for connection is being met in our current culture. Many parents work full time jobs that don’t end at 5 – they may receive texts that require attention at 9 pm. Children are often in day care or long school days. Schedules are then further stretched by sports, clubs, activities, birthday parties not to mention laundry, dishes, and grocery shopping. And then there is technology vying for our attention – it’s far more than TV shows now – you tube, video games, twitter, snap chat…. In all of this, when do we pause and find both brief and longer moments to be present with our child? When do we make eye contact, tune into what they are feeling, feel flexible and available in the moment they ask us a question or want us to play? Are we just so distracted and busy that we keep missing these moments? The culture of constant business and distraction feels inevitable, contagious and inescapable. What is the effect on children?
Parents often come to see me with concerns about their child. They report their child is distracted at school, they don’t follow directions at home, they dis-regulate and have tantrums easily, they are annoying and don’t stop when asked, in fact, they seem to enjoy repeating the very behaviors others dislike, “they just want negative attention”…. Parents are worried about their behavior and wonder if they need a diagnosis. Of course many factors play into behavior. It is essential to rule out any biological factors, the context of family and school relationships and to consider the distinct temperament of the child. Very often, however, I find that when I take time to speak with the child, what they are asking for through their behavior is connection. I spoke with a gentle hearted 8 year old girl this summer who upset her family by sneaking around a family party tickling all the adults from behind. When I explored what she really wanted she said, “I just want people to laugh, play with me and have fun!” As she cried lightly I acknowledged what a wonderful wish this was and with her parents we explored other ways she could ask for this kind of connection.
And while it’s great to help children find new ways to express their need for connection, ideally, we, as the adults in the room, stay aware of this need. We are the tuning fork and our children regulate themselves off of us. When a child’s behavior feels disruptive, annoying, or extreme, we can consider, “How is this a request for connection?” and “What is a positive way I can meet that need?”
True connection is not something that is scheduled for a chunk during quality time. True connection comes from being present moment by moment, staying attuned to our child’s needs and choosing to give our attention to them when the window opens. I appreciate that we can’t give them our attention all the time and that children need to respect boundaries. At the same time, when we give them these brief moments of engagement very often they don’t need as many boundaries and discipline because their needs are met and they are more content.
Simple Moments for Present Connection may be when your child is:
- saying good bye in the morning or greeting you again at the end of the day.
- asks a question
- upset and dis-regulated
- quiet and removed
- sharing a meal with you
- sharing activities – board games, sports, walks in the woods.
- gesturing for physical connection
But again, it’s not about scheduling them. It’s about being available and noticing the moments as they arise. Embrace them as an invitation. Choose your child over the incoming texts. Choose to be curious about them before you judge them. Choose to to step out of your ruminations of what happened earlier or what you are planning for the future and step into the gift of now. Learn to notice when you are distracted and build your muscle to bring your attention back to your child in front of you – they need you there to reflect love – this is true soul food!
So let’s do it!
My name is Joanna C Curry-Sartori and I am a Marriage & Family Therapist, LMFT. I create a welcoming, respectful, and engaging space for clients of all ages. I partner with you and your family to understand and address your concerns and challenges. I offer you a safe, creative process in which you can uncover inner resources and experience your natural capacity to create change and find solutions. When you or a family members struggles with intense emotions (depression, anxiety, emotional dis-regulation, etc.), I support you to experience space from the thoughts and feelings that “highjack” you and discover pathways to connect with your innate inner strength and joy.
When you experience misunderstanding and hurt in relationships, I help you find renewed compassion so you can experience authentic connection and call forth the best in each other. When you feel overwhelmed by challenges, I offer tools to pause and access your center of calm, courage, and effectiveness.
I bring the whole of my life experience into our work; my experience as a marriage and family therapist, 20 years working in the field of mindfulness and yoga, 5 years working in schools, my journey as a parent, and my life long commitment to live from the heart.