Remember when your children were babies and you snuggled with them for hours at a time, gazing into their twinkling eyes and kissing their chubby cheeks, as you fed, comforted and played with them.
Fast forward to the school years: You wake up your bleary-eyed kids, make lunches, rush them through breakfast and whisk them off to school. The days are packed with sports practices, music lessons, homework and the constant ding of text messages and email.
In this fast-paced, overscheduled lifestyle, the challenge is finding time to slow down and connect with your child and focus on what really matters — your relationship.
Giving kids a few minutes of your undivided attention is one of the best ways to make them feel loved and valued, according to Jim Taylor, Ph.D., psychologist and author of “Your Children Are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear from You.” “People get caught in the flow of life and they don’t take the time to just stop and connect.”
Many parents comfort themselves with the fact that, although they spend little time with their kids, when they are together, it’s “quality” time. But some experts says quality time is a myth.
“In relationships, without quantity, there’s no quality. You can’t expect a good relationship with your daughter if you spend all your time at work and she spends all her time with her friends,” says Laura Markham, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and author of “Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting.” “Like a marriage or a friendship, your relationship with your child needs positive attention to thrive. Attention equals love.”
Connect During Daily Rituals
Daily rituals offer natural opportunities to connect with your kids — before and after school and at bedtime. They remove you from the craziness of your busy life and strengthen your bond. Markham encourages parents to spend 10 minutes snuggling and connecting with each child when they first wake up in the morning and at bedtime. For teens, a warm greeting and embrace before they rush out the door or head off to bed is a simple but powerful way to express your love and affection.
Numerous studies have shown that warmth and open displays of affection between parent and child are associated with higher self-esteem, better communication and fewer psychological or behavioral problems.
When you are reunited with your children after school, make a point of being off your phone and take a break from work or household chores, so you can spend a few minutes finding out how their day went. The more time you give them, the more free time you get in return. Kids are more likely to be cooperative and fight less with siblings if you take time to connect with them on a regular basis, says Markham.
The car ride to and from school and activities offers a golden opportunity to talk with your kids. You have a captive audience and they can’t scurry into their room, if they get bored or uncomfortable. It’s tempting for parents to use this time to talk about hot ticket items such as grades, tests and colleges. But instead of bombarding them with questions on what they’re “doing,” parents should use this downtime to find out how they’re feeling.
“You want to have time where you’re just being — being in love and creating a space without judgment where you can talk about what’s going on in their lives,” says Kenneth Ginsburg, M.D., adolescent medicine specialist at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and author of “Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings.” “That’s what’s so protective for kids — that parents are available to listen and to give guidance. And we shut them down when we react or when we always ask about what they’re doing.”
Put Family Time on the Calendar
If your life is very hectic with little downtime, schedule family time on your calendar as you would an important appointment with a customer or client. Choose activities that encourage interaction such as hikes, picnics, riding bikes, playing ball or doing a craft together. Older kids may enjoy lunch at their favorite restaurant, going to a movie or shopping together. If you want your children’s buy-in, ask for their input and choose activities that interest them.
Mealtime is another important time to connect, “as long as we grill the food, and not our children,” says Ron Taffel, Ph.D., child family therapist and author of “Childhood Unbound: Authoritative Parenting for the 21st Century.” If dinnertime turns into an interrogation or a time to dole out punishments instead of food, kids will dread coming to the table. Keep conversation light-hearted, share stories and save emotionally charged topics for another time.
Research consistently shows that having meals together strengthens family bonds and makes kids more well adjusted and less likely to be overweight, drink alcohol or take drugs. What makes dinnertime so powerful is that it offers a predictable and consistent time for families to come together. If you can’t be together at mealtime, find another activity where you can come together on a regular basis.
Listen without Distractions
When you give someone your full attention, it sends a clear message that you value that person. We listen intently when our boss calls us into his office or a dear friend needs a comforting ear, but when it comes to our kids, we often forget the fundamentals of listening and showing respect.
“Everyone wants to feel listened to and understood,” says Taffel. “But as parents we’re busy thinking about what we need to teach, giving advice and fixing the problem and hurrying them along.”
During Taffel’s travels around the country conducting parenting workshops, he has interviewed hundreds of kids from 4 to 17 years old. When asked what they want most from their parents, they invariably say undivided attention from their mother — when she is fully listening and not multi-tasking.
“Mothers are still the logistical engineers of everything. No matter what has happened in our lives, mothers still take care of what needs to be done the next day, what needs to be packed, the pediatrician appointments, the playdates,” says Taffel. “Kids sense in us that we’re multi-tasking every minute and that dilutes the relationship.”
Being a good listener means stopping what you’re doing and giving kids your full attention and not interrupting, criticizing or lecturing.
A sure-fire way to squelch a conversation is by overreacting. If you act appalled or shocked when your son mentions that some of his peers are smoking marijuana or having sex, he will clam up and think twice before sharing details again. Markham suggests taking a deep breath and staying calm — no matter how distraught you feel on the inside — and to ask open-ended, non-judgmental questions.
“When we push too hard to enter the lives of our teenagers, they sometimes push us away,” says Ginsburg. “But if they understand that we’re just kind of there, and we’re present and we’re available without judgment, and we’re always willing to be a sounding board, then kids will come to us.”
You can connect with your children by simply being in the same room with them when they’re hanging out, having a snack or watching their favorite TV show. Encourage kids to do their homework in the common areas of the home instead of locking themselves in their bedroom. This will give you more chances to interact with them and to monitor their computer use.
Taylor recommends setting limits on technology, especially during dinnertime, family activities and certain times on weekends. And those limits should apply not only to kids, but also parents. Avoid being on your phone at school pick up time or shushing your kids when they get into the car because you’re on an important call.
If you attend all of your kid’s ball games and performances, but spend most of your time with your head buried in your phone sending texts and tweets, you have communicated that your child’s soccer game or dance performance is less important than keeping up with work or social media.
Set Limits with Love
Kids need boundaries and your job is to set clear limits when it comes to safety and morality. But if you lose your temper and start yelling, you also lose their respect and the opportunity to teach them how to control their emotions. Constant nagging and criticism erode your relationship and make kids tune out.
Every interaction you have with your child creates the relationship. “Grocery shopping, carpooling and bathtime matter as much as that big talk you have when there’s a problem. He doesn’t want to share his toy, go to bed, or do his homework? How you handle it is one brick in the foundation of your permanent relationship, as well as his ideas about all relationships,” says Markham. “Every difficulty is an opportunity to get closer or create distance.”
Parents are so busy focusing on the day-to-day stuff — work, laundry, cooking, shopping, homework and after-school activities — that they forget that the foundation of any good relationship is built on love, respect and trust.
Finding moments of connection was so much easier when they were babies snuggling in your arms. Although they may be too big to hold in your arms or sit on your lap, they still need your attention, your warm embraces and kisses and unconditional love. Taking just a few minutes to regularly connect with your child builds loving relationships that last a lifetime.