Most parents search for a better way of parenting because they do not feel connected to their children or they want to have the best connection possible, both in the short term and in the future. The benefits of a strong connection between mother / father and the baby will unfold throughout their childhood and into adulthood. Connecting with your children rather than controlling them will help them to respect you and seek you for advice and support in the many years to come. How do we go about forming the best connections with our children? This blog will tell you how.
Gentle Parenting – What Is It and How Will it Improve My Connection with My Child?
This may be your first introduction to gentle parenting and what it is. The definition is not simply to be gentle with your children, i.e. not to smack or shout. It is a dynamic process of listening or anticipating your child’s needs, responding to them kindly, leading behavioural issues by example, being in control but not being controlling, enjoying your children for who they are, to encourage them to be authentic to themselves and to you.
When you think of the best relationship you have had, whether that be with a parent or a lover or a best friend, what key features made it so comfortable for you to spend time with that person? You chose to be in that person’s company for a reason. The best relationships I have had were with my father and my best friend. What makes these two individuals so amazing to me? They connected with me enough to allow me to be myself, even if the connection was not always perfect.
My father died a few years ago but, besides not being able to deal with my emotions, he loved me for who I am as a person. He liked spending time with me. He missed me and I miss him now, even years after his death. My best friend on the other hand is very much alive, with 3 wonderful children of her own. What are common themes that made both of these people so important to my life, and how can these themes be applied to helping us all become a gentler parent?
Both my Dad and my best friend have gentle natures. They did not shout at me, or huff when I talk or roll their eyes, they don’t have behaviours which make me feel like they want me to shut up or do things differently. They just seem, in their nature, to be good listeners and show an interest in me and my life. They have always made me feel that no matter what I talked about, and no matter how much I waffled nonsense, like I was a pleasure to be around. They showed a genuine care and no judgment for how I was doing when I hit life’s biggest challenges. This may be a challenge for you to remain gentle when you may be triggered by things done to you when you were young. Have a read of my blog post about dealing with childhood traumas, which will help you move on from your own emotional reactions and support your children gently.
Meals and Food Were a Common Meeting Activity
Whether our interactions involved an ice cream on the beach, a cake from a bakers during the course of a walk, or meeting out for dinner at a local restaurant, most of our interactions involved food to catch up with our stories. The importance of family sit down meals is also explained by the psychologists Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate in ‘Hold Onto Your Kids’. A regular and daily gathering around the dinner table helps to secure strong connections with your children too. It requires that the table is focused on the family, so no phones or other distractions while eating together. Conversations will start and connections will more likely form. It is also important for all family members to sit at the dinner table until the last person has finished eating. Many parents feel a pressure to rush through the meal to wash up or clear the dishes away but this signals to the children that their company is not as important at those other duties.
Being There When Needed
I now live many miles apart from my best friend, so we do not see each other, but even with distance I still feel like she would be there for me in an instant. When we come to meet up again, it feels very quickly like we’ve never had distance between us. We can just catch up from where we left off, although regular emails helps with that too. An important part of connecting to people is that you feel they are there for you when you need them. In terms of our children that may be when they cry or shout for us, even if there is no obvious reason as to what they want. Being there for them physically and emotionally helps them build trust that they can always seek comfort from us.
Trust with Feelings and Secrets
Whilst it was important for me to feel I could trust them with feelings and secrets, it also helped me feel connected when they shared parts of their hidden selves back to me too. It is what makes you feel they value your opinion, trust your judgment and value you as a friend. These traits are important to raising our children gently and connected. This trust grows in time and with being consistent in your reactions to your children’s communications with you. If you judge them regularly and tell them they’re silly for crying, for example, they will not want to confide in you about other issues in the years to come either.
Supporting You to Be Authentic
An important part of connecting to loved ones is to feel you can be your true self. My friend and my father seemed to just enjoy me, whether I was happy or sad, angry or excited. However, although my dad was good at listening to my emotional talk, he would try and direct me to keeping my emotions locked away in a box as talking too much can put other people off wanting to be with you. Subconsciously that made me feel anxious about how I could behave around other people. Actually, who cares what those people think, if they don’t want to be around me then they can find other people to spend their lives with and vice versa. I should not be any less than genuine with anyone I meet because that is how you are more likely to find true friendships.
My friendship with my best friend formed sort of accidentally. We had been hanging out for a long time I think at school. I don’t remember the first day we met, for example. I just remember how much fun we had walking to a school volunteering activity and buying cakes on route. Soon I had built trust in her and knew I could confide in her. I was always myself with her and expressed my emotions openly, and she never judged or looked at me with anything but respect. Imagine if I’d consciously been keeping my secrets inside, to help her like me. She may not have liked the fake person I would have been as an emotionless human anyway!
To support your children to grow into authentic adults, we can listen to all of their concerns and worries and be there. We can aim not to judge them or tell them they should behave or feel differently. I find it helps to keep my children being authentic, whilst allowing myself to remain authentic to my views too, by following my steps in my post on dealing with emotions.
The ‘Subconscious’ Ways to Connect
To become mindful in being the best parents we can, it is useful not just to think of the obvious ways to connect to our children by considering the connections we have with others. There are also subconscious signals we give to connect to someone which can be applied to our children once we know they exist.
Connect Through the Eyes and the Nod
Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate in ‘Hold Onto Your Kids’ explain how to connect with our children. Because children are born to copy those to whom they are attached, if you spend a little bit of time trying to connect before asking your kids to do something, you will see a more positive outcome than you usually would. The way to connect starts with the eyes, which you naturally will do with newborn babies.
You raise your eyebrows and give a big smile, and keep doing it until your child starts to copy. Then you try and get them to nod along with you, so as you’re talking you may start saying things that involve nodding actions. For example “are you having fun with that hosepipe?” after having raised your eyes and smiled and they’ll likely do the same. Continue connecting for a bit and then you’re more likely to have them on your side with what you’d rather have done. Again, raising your eyebrows and smiling, with a nod, “Do you want to help me put that away…”
Conversations Your Children Overhear
You may not realise but every single conversation you have about your child, even if you’re attempting to hide the words by talking quietly, seems to streamline straight to your children’s ears. Bear this in mind and let the messages about their nature and personalities be kind and loving ones, rather than negative and demeaning ones.
I keep trying to remind my husband that he does not need to tell me the words “Owww! She just bit me!!!” in a negative tone, as it’s a negative behaviour that I don’t want our 20 month old to start being associated with, by her siblings or her Dad. Instead, he can say “Owww!” which naturally comes out and then just move on and consider protecting himself from further bites. Have empathy that she is teething her first molars and that she doesn’t yet realise biting another human really hurts. The tone of explaining a negative behaviour may be picked up on by others around her and in her own self esteem. Knowing that she is teething, instead of talking about the negative behaviour out loud, try and work out the cause of it and find a gentle solution. For example find a teething toy or use some child safe teething gel.
Children Need to Feel That You’re In Charge
The importance of gentle parenting can create long lasting connections with your children. It is also important to be aware of another style of parenting that can creep into some well-intentioned parents. Permissive parenting is on the rise, as people aim to ‘do the opposite’ of what their parents did to them. They live in fear of setting boundaries as they do not want to end up shouting at their children or being like their parents were to them. Parents may be aspiring to be gentle but may feel they cannot enforce a boundary as it will upset their child or cause a negative reaction. In the long term this may not help your child and your connection with them, as they feel out of control like they can do whatever they please. They may not come to you for guidance as they have not built a trust that you will give them the best solution in a situation, merely saying whatever you think they want to hear.
Gentle parenting is fully supportive of setting boundaries, but it’s how we go about holding the boundary that sets us apart from other parenting styles. We do not use physical, verbal or emotional force, or bribes to ensure compliance with the boundary. We enforce boundaries through conversation involving emotions, empathy, and explanation. There may well be consequences where the safety of your child or someone else is at stake, or if something important will be damaged for example, but the whole process will be fully explained to your child and their emotions will be comforted. See my previous post on disciplining toddlers gently.
Create Situations for Long Lasting Memories
If you’re struggling to connect to your child, try doing something different that they may enjoy. The adrenaline, the raised eyes and smiles may help create a new connection between you both. The other day we pulled out a 6 man tent we bought and our kids were so excited. They are only toddlers, so we did not take them camping at night but just having it in the back garden for a couple of days helped them connect with us and each other. It also filled us with excitement about what the future holds for us as a family when the kids are old enough to take camping.