Do you ever feel like you and your kids aren’t on the same page? Welcome to the club. It’s likely your kids feel it too, even if they aren’t able to express it with their words. And beyond the unsettled sense that lingers when kids feel disconnected from their parents, a lack of connection can make kids feel alone, unheard, and less confident.
Without the ability to process and communicate all of those feelings, kids tend to convey a lack of connection with you by becoming increasingly disengaged or by making bids for connection that manifest as behavior problems, such as temper tantrums that stop the moment you leave the room, exaggerated rudeness, and persistent interrupting.
In most cases, all it takes to straighten out these issues and build connection with kids is a few simple steps. Although they require a little time and plenty of intentionality, you don’t need to invest in a week-long retreat to set things straight.
Psychologist and parent Chad Brandt, Ph.D., has five suggestions for parents who want to strengthen their connection with their kids that will keep children from feeling like their parents just don’t get them.
Encourage Child-Directed Play
One of the most effective ways for parents to connect with their kids is through child-directed play. It’s not a huge commitment as child-directed play works best in 10- to 15-minute increments. The challenge is finding time windows — ideally a few each week — that allow for completely undivided attention.
“Child-directed play is highly beneficial for connection, shame reduction, and confidence building,” Brandt says. “Just ask your kid what they want to do, and then follow them around and enjoy it. With young kids, you’ll want to parrot back to them what they’re doing, making sure to stick to commenting instead of questioning.”
Seattle Children’s Hospital recommends the following practical tips for parents looking to incorporate child-directed play:
- Describe your child’s play with the same inflection you’d use when reading a book to them, but don’t get caught up in granular detail.
- Imitate your child’s play activities. For example, if your child starts drawing a ship, you might say, “That looks cool. I’ll draw a ship too!”
- Repeat, with more detail, what your child says without turning it into a question. So if your child says, “There’s the tree,” you could say, “Yes, there is a tall tree with green leaves.”
- Encourage specific behaviors by praising your child, remarking both on what they do as well as how they do it. “You’re working really hard to color in the lines” or “You’re being so kind to your doll “are both preferable to more general praise like “Good job.”
- Allow your child to play with toys in any way that is not harmful.
Simplicity is key here. The child’s activity of choice shouldn’t include screens or competition, but it can be anything that isn’t dangerous. “Just follow them around and enjoy whatever it is they are interested in,” says Brandt.
Ask Less Questions
Asking questions is a crucial active listening skill. And it’s natural for parents to ask kids follow-up questions out of genuine interest and in a benign effort to keep conversations going. However, kids don’t always interpret questions the way parents intend.
“Questions can absolutely make kids feel like we don’t trust them or we’re not hearing them,” says Brandt. Instead, he suggests pulling a page from child-directed play by making a conscious effort to reflect every now and again instead of asking a question.
“If your child tells you they had a good day, respond with, ‘I’m really happy to hear that. It sounds like you played with Jimmy on the playground, and that was fun.’ Period. That way, you acknowledge that you’ve heard them, and there’s this implicit ‘tell me more’ that leaves the door open for them to continue sharing,” Brandt says.
Make Room For Silliness
Some kids are so silly so often that parents can get into the habit of automatically shutting them down the moment things start to get squirrely. Between the energy that builds when the silly cycle begins along with the speed and frequency with which kids blow through the line of what’s appropriate, keeping silliness tamped down before it gets out of hand is an understandable reaction.
But encouraging silliness when it starts to manifest while at the same time building in boundaries on the front end can help kids feel seen. Doing so defuses some of the attention-seeking nature of over-the-top silliness and replaces a struggle over control with an opportunity to connect.
“My oldest is in first grade now, and there are times when he wants to do silly stuff like run around and smack his bum. It’s really, really hard for me not to lecture him about the inappropriateness of that, and sometimes I will. But sometimes it helps to say, ‘Hey, it seems like you’re trying to be silly right now. So I’ll set a five-minute timer, and let’s see who can be the silliest.’ When we do that, we are telling our kids that we see them, and we want them to be themselves,” Brandt says.