As humans, we have a consistent drive to connect, to attach. This drive is often most evident when we look at relationships between parents and children.
As parents, I’m sure you can recall times when your children were hanging off your legs, trying to get your attention, or wanting to show you their artwork while you were in the middle of doing dishes or mowing the lawn. Dr. Gordon Neufeld, a developmental psychologist based out of Vancouver, refers to these as “bids for proximity”. Our children are reaching out because they’re needing to connect, they want to attach – they’re bidding for proximity to us, the adults in their lives. These bids are often instinctive, and if you were to ask your child, they probably wouldn’t be able to articulate that they’re feeling the need to attach to you. It’s intuitive.
Unfortunately, we as adults (parents, teachers, caregivers) tend to be reactive – we respond to these bids only after our children are already feeling the deficit. Neufeld often talks about “being in right relationship” with our children. This is where we as adults are proactive in ensuring our children are so full of attachment energy that if a disruption occurs – a conflict, the need to discipline, an unavoidable separation – our children are equipped to manage it. They are resilient, and most importantly, the attachment relationship is preserved.
Here are 4 ways to strengthen your relationship with your children:
Show Them They’re Important
Children need to know, in as many ways as there are, that they are significant. Share their birth stories with them, letting them know how excited you were to meet them. Make their favourite meals even when there isn’t a special occasion. Tell them you love them; show them you love them.
Keep in mind that each of your children is different and will have different needs, so make sure that whatever you’re doing is unique to that child and will be significant to them. It’s important that these bids originate from you, and that they happen without your child seeking them out – remember that it needs to be proactive, not only in response to your child’s bid.
Share Yourself with Them
One of the ways in which children feel attached is through sameness. Think back to when your child might have played dress up with your clothes, or shared that they were going to be a _____ just like you. Build on that by sharing stories with your children in which you’re the same; draw parallels between your experiences and theirs. Emphasize interests that you might have in common. Your children will flourish the more they see that they fit in their family, that they belong.
Be In Charge
There seems to be a trend these days that parents should be their children’s friends. This is not actually in your child’s best interest. Children thrive with firm boundaries and limitations being set for them. This isn’t about a power struggle, but rather gives children a sense of safety from which they can explore and experiment.
As parents and caregivers, you need to be in charge of their well-being. When necessary, you need to be the decision maker. Children need to know that you’ve got them, that you’re able to handle them, at their best and at their worst, that nothing they do is too much for you to take. Having a strong alpha presence gives them that security.
Comfort Them Through Futility
It has become common for parents to avoid saying no, or to rescue their children from situations that are distressing, because they themselves are unable to tolerate their children being upset. This isn’t helpful. Children learn to adapt and become more resilient when they are faced with futility and are able to experience it fully. They learn adaptation when they come out the other side and realize they’re all right.
Losing a favourite toy will be distressing, and that’s okay. Instead of distracting them, or buying them another toy, let your children fully experience the sadness that comes with that, and comfort them through it (I know you’re sad; you really miss that toy; it’s okay to cry… etc.). Other examples are being told no, losing a friend or the death of a loved one. Children will learn that they will face things that they cannot change (futility) and they will also learn that with support and comfort from their loved ones they are able to come through it and be safe.
When we are in right relationship with our children, when they are feeling full, when they know our love for them is unconditional, our relationship acts as a protective shield. This shield will help them navigate a world where, even though they’re likely to face disappointments, emotional woundings and futility, they will be in the best possible position to adapt and be successful.