Image by John Hain
(Editor's Note: While this article is geared to your relationship with your children, it is also very applicable to relationships and communication with the adults in your household and family. The sub-titles of the article, in themselves, provide great guidelines for happy adult relationships.)
Every day when my daughters get off the school bus, I try to be there. And by “be there” I mean be fully present, as best I can, letting go of my worries from the day, centering myself, and becoming calm in my body. I give them each a big hug, and I tell them, “I’m so happy to see you!” And I really am. I want each daughter to know that she really lights up my world, and that I am there for her.
After they play for a while near the bus stop with our neighbors, we walk home together. I know that the strength of our relationship lies in these little moments and in the rhythms and rituals that shape each day.
Mindful parenting is not about a technique to create an outcome but about building a loving relationship for life. Our connected relationships are the only way to cultivate willing cooperation. Children want to please us when they’re treated with love, compassion, respect—and when their own stress levels aren’t too high.
How do you cultivate that strong connection and maintain balance in their days? Mindfulness meditation, disarming your triggers, loving-kindness, reflective listening, I-messages, and mindful problem solving constitute a road map to a strong relationship. In this chapter, I’ll share with you other habits that will strengthen your connection with your child and support your peaceful home.
Consciously Cultivate Connection
The relationship we have with our children is the glue that holds us together. It’s truly the very foundation of raising a good human. Mindfulness and self-compassion comes foremost, to ground us—so we can connect and show that love.
The more our children experience our unconditional love, the safer and more relaxed they feel. When they see the love in our eyes, they feel valued and value us back. They feel trust and trust us back.
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All of this love creates a positive feedback loop, making parenting easier over time. We can create strong relationships by intentionally spending our time and attention to cultivate a loving connection.
Connect with Physical Touch
Recently, my eight-year-old daughter was mad at me, and there was no one else around to offer her comfort. She was sobbing. When I went to her, she said, “Go away!” I stayed and sat behind her to gently rub her back. Even though her problem was with me, this affectionate touch soothed her and she eventually climbed into my lap. Snuggling helped her calm down and regulate her feelings.
Being touched and touching someone else are fundamental modes of human interaction. Positive physical touch is a powerful way to communicate affection, care, and concern. Hugs, kisses, and cuddles reassure children of our presence, decrease their stress response, and help them regulate their own emotions.
How much loving touch should we offer? The “mother of family therapy,” Virginia Satir, famously said, “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need twelve hugs a day for growth.” So indeed, as often as possible. Make lots of hugs and snuggles a habit when your child is younger, and he may still want to stay close as he ages. Although it’s rare that I get to hold hands now with my eleven-year-old, she’ll often lean into me for that close, physical affection.
Cuddles and hugs are vital and essential forms of physical touch that children thrive on, but did you know that roughhousing and wrestling are great for kids too? Laurence Cohen, psychologist and play expert, tells us that aggressive, physical play can help children express their feelings, learn impulse control, and build confidence.
How do you roughhouse? He provides a simple explanation for parents in his book, Playful Parenting (2001, 101): “You say, ‘Let’s wrestle!’ She says, ‘What’s that?’ You say, ‘You try to pin me down using all your strength you try to get me on my back with both my shoulders on the floor. Or, you try to get past me onto the couch, but you can’t sneak around, you have to use all your strength to go right past me.”
Roughhousing helps children physically connect with us in an active way, burning off some of their energy. It builds children’s physical strength and creativity, and connects us to them physically and emotionally. Just remember these rules about roughhousing: pay attention, let your child win (most of the time), and always stop if someone is hurt. Just as with tickling, when a child says stop, stop right away. This teaches our children that their body deserves respect and that they are in charge of their own body.
Whether it’s wrestling, cuddling, or hugs, intentionally connect with your child physically. Touch is soothing and helps children regulate their emotions. It’s a great way to keep your relationship strong.
Connect with Play
Many of us busy adults (me included!) have resistance to getting down on the floor and playing with our children. Can’t they just play on their own? The very idea of Candy Land makes me want to run and hide. Yes, children can and should have independent play time, but we should take time to enter into their world too.
Play is the currency of childhood. Children need play like they need air and water. It helps them understand the world, heal hurts, and develop confidence in their abilities. When we connect with our children playfully, we refill their cups with love, encouragement, and enthusiasm. Moreover, it helps us literally and figuratively “loosen up,” which we might need!
Saying yes to play with your child doesn’t have to be onerous or take up a lot of time. In fact, kids are often ready to move on after just a short while. Set a timer for ten minutes and dive in wholeheartedly for that time. Think of it as a “playing meditation,” and practice being fully present, noticing when your mind wanders and judges. Practice paying attention to your child with kindness and curiosity. Play gives you a wonderful opportunity to find out who your child is today—to discover this human being anew.
Don’t remember how to play? Just follow your child’s lead—temporarily give her the power she craves in a world in which she is mostly powerless. Often your role will be minimal. You might be the audience for a skit or a dance. You might just wave goodbye and cry mock dramatic tears as your child leaves for the moon. You can also play by being silly and getting your child to giggle. Pretending to bumble or fall down is hilarious to a child. You can give your child “Special Time,” as described below.
Whatever form your play takes, practice being fully present. Practice appreciating this time, knowing that it is fleeting as your child grows and becomes more independent.
Practice: “Special Time”
Special Time is a way for us to give kids what they crave: 100 percent of our attention without any distractions. The premise is that you let your child lead the way (while keeping him safe), and you agree to be up for anything.
Parents who try this exercise often see significant positive changes in their child’s behavior. Why? Because it shores up that essential connection.
Here’s how to do it:
- Announce Special Time. Say to your child, “I’ll play whatever you want to play for ten minutes. The only things we can’t do are read or use screens. What do you want to play?”
- Set a timer. Ten minutes is great, but five minutes will do. After a while, try twenty minutes and see how that feels. Special Time needs boundaries around it to signal that the rules aren’t the same as in regular life.
- Let your child lead. During this time, put your squeamishness, your preferences, your worries, and your judgment aside, and let your child try the thing you wouldn’t choose to do in a million years. If he wants you to pull him back and forth on an old skateboard until he falls over, over, and over, resist “teaching” him how to skate, consider it your workout for the day, and make it fun.
- Resist the urge to judge or evaluate your child. Don’t take control or suggest your own ideas unless your child asks.
- Refrain from checking your phone. Just show up and give your child the gift of being seen and acknowledged. As best you can, be fully present.
- End Special Time when the timer sounds. If your child has a tantrum or is upset, offer him the same empathetic listening you would for any upset feelings.
Special Time is a way to put those essential deposits in your relationship bank account. Some parents offer Special Time daily or several times a week. Try this out and see how your child responds.
Connect by Working Together
Children want to be able to do all the things that adults do. Encourage this! Children can and should work with us in daily life. It might start with having a sturdy stool in the kitchen so that our children can help wash the potatoes and peel carrots. Very young children can wipe up spills, set out the napkins, help feed the cat, and so on.
As they grow, their responsibilities should grow too. When children contribute to the smooth running of the house, it fosters their sense of capability, which is empowering. Think of your child as part of your family “team.”
In fact, research has shown that a child who does chores has a greater chance of success later in life! Dr. Marilynn Rossman, professor of family education at University of Minnesota, looked at data from longitudinal studies to look at “success” defined as not using drugs, having quality relationships, finishing education, and getting started in a career.
She concluded that the most successful kids started doing chores at three to four years of age, whereas those who waited until their teen years to start doing chores were less successful. Psychiatrist Edward Hallowell says that chores create a kind of “can-do, want-to-do feeling” that fosters young adults with a feeling of capability (Lythcott-Haimes 2015).
A lifetime of capability and responsibility starts with you taking the time to connect through working together. Expect (and insist) that your young one does his part, knowing that when you are teaching him how to do the laundry and make the bed, you are teaching him life skills.
Connect with Verbal Encouragement
Positive words of encouragement let our children know that we believe in them and that we’re in their corner. Instead of growing into adults with Mom or Dad’s critical voice in their heads, our children can use words of support and confidence to motivate themselves and reinforce positive behaviors.
Rather than “Good job,” use I-messages to praise your child honestly and descriptively. Instead of vague, general words, be specific in your encouragement: “When you gave that bike a try even though it was scary, I really appreciated your courage.” Here are a few other phrases that can create connection through encouragement:
Thank you for your kindness.
I really appreciate how hard you tried for that.
What you did was very generous.
You showed enormous strength in handling this challenge.
I love your sense of skepticism!
Your imagination is awesome!
Thank you for reminding me how fun it is to be playful.
A warm, positive connection is the fuel for a cooperative relationship with your child. When you intentionally, consciously connect, you put deposits in your relationship bank account—allowing for inevitable withdrawals later. Positive physical touch, play, working together, and praise are just a few of the many ways you can connect.
Make it a point to ensure that your child knows you see her, hear her, and love her often. This will fortify your relationship through the inevitable rough times that life brings.
©2019 by Hunter Clarke-Fields. All Rights Reserved.
Excerpted from "Raising Good Humans", Chapter 8,
New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Raising Good Humans: A Mindful Guide to Breaking the Cycle of Reactive Parenting and Raising Kind, Confident Kids
by Hunter Clarke-Fields MSAE
With this book, you’ll find powerful mindfulness skills for calming your own stress response when difficult emotions arise. You’ll also discover strategies for cultivating respectful communication, effective conflict resolution, and reflective listening. In the process, you’ll learn to examine your own unhelpful patterns and ingrained reactions that reflect the generational habits shaped by your parents, so you can break the cycle and respond to your children in more skillful ways.
For more info, or to order this book, click here. (Also available as a Kindle edition and as an Audiobook.)
About the Author
Hunter Clarke-Fields is a mindfulness mentor, host of the Mindful Mama podcast, creator of the Mindful Parenting online course, and author of the new book, Raising Good Humans (New Harbinger Publications). She helps parents bring more calm into their daily lives and cooperation in their families. Hunter has over 20 years of experience in meditation and yoga practices and has taught mindfulness to thousands worldwide. Learn more at MindfulMamaMentor.com.