Each of us, in part because of our families and our society, holds various assumptions about what bonds and connects us to our children. For instance, we might think that filling our house with toys will make them happy—possibly hoping to make up for our absence. We might think that prioritizing their needs over ours is the right thing to do—and anything else would simply be selfish.
Sometimes these assumptions are subconscious. We don’t even realize we have them. After all, logically we know that possessions aren’t a meaningful way to cultivate a healthy, connected relationship. But when we’re getting home from work after 8 p.m. almost every night, we find ourselves clutching a new toy to surprise our little one (and to ease the guilt of what we think is a terrible offense: missing time). Logically we know that it’s not helpful to deplete ourselves. But we feel the pull to sacrifice, believing somewhere down deep that martyrdom underlies good parenting.
The above are just several examples of habits that diminish our connection with our kids. Below you’ll learn exactly why—along with other sources of disconnection and what actually works in helping you become closer.
Disconnecting Habit #1: Using technology in front of your kids.
We carry our phones with us everywhere we go. Which makes it all-too easy to check your email, to scroll through social media. Just for a minute or two. But these several minutes inevitably distract us, and they send the message to our kids that our time with them just isn’t that valuable to us (even though we don’t feel this way at all).
“Parents spending too much time on electronic devices can lead to negative attention-seeking behaviors on the part of young children in order to gain your full attention,” said Rebecca Ziff, LCSW, a psychotherapist who specializes in working with kids, teens and families.
Pay attention to how and how often you use your devices in front of your kids. If it’s more than you like, put your phone in a drawer in another room (or leave it in the car). Because when you’re keeping your phone in a purse or pocket, you don’t even realize that you’ve taken it out and started scrolling. Because it’s become that much of an ingrained habit.
Disconnecting Habit #2: Not taking care of yourself.
It is so easy to overlook yourself. Maybe you hold the above assumptions that you must put yourself last in order to be a good parent. Or maybe you work full-time. Maybe you’re the main breadwinner. Maybe you stay at home with your kids or homeschool them. Maybe you’re up late into the night and wake up early in the morning because you’re trying to balance working from home and parenting. And, of course, you have all the other usual responsibilities adults have: cooking, cleaning, paying bills, folding laundry sometime in this lifetime. In short, it’s a lot.
Either way, what gets left off the list is you and your needs. But, as Ziff said, “It is very difficult to be attuned to others’ needs when your own needs are not being met.” Your energy wanes. You start to feel resentful. You’re too tired or too frustrated or too stressed to enjoy your kids.
Identify your needs and ways that you can meet them. And if that seems overwhelming, identify one pressing need—sleep, spiritual guidance, movement, nutrient-packed meals, alone time—and give that to yourself. Also, when scheduling personal activities, view them as a vital as a work meeting. You wouldn’t cancel on your boss, so why cancel on yourself?
Disconnecting Habit #3: Replacing presence with presents.
“Too often parents spend a lot of money on gadgets and gifts, and not enough quality time,” said Sean Grover, LCSW, a psychotherapist and author of the book When Kids Call the Shots: How to Seize Control from Your Darling Bully—and Enjoy Being a Parent Again. “Unwittingly materialism becomes a primary expression of love.”
Research published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that kids who were rewarded with gifts and punished by having them taken away were more likely to become materialistic as adults. And materialism may come with a slew of negative consequences: It’s been linked to everything from credit card debt to gambling to compulsive shopping.
Connect with your child by helping them help others. According to Grover, “small children don’t have a sense of much beyond their world. It’s up to the parents to educate them about families who may not be as fortunate as them.”
He suggested considering clothing, toy or food drives or sponsoring a child through a charitable organization. This gives your child the opportunity to exchange letters and learn what it’s like to live in a third-world country. “I have a friend who did this for over 15 years, and her boys grew up with their surrogate sister in Ethiopia who they never met, but felt a real attachment to.”
Disconnecting Habit #4: Comparing your younger self to your child.
“When a parent compares themselves as a child or the terms of their upbringing with their child, that can paradoxically create a feeling of disconnection,” said Laura Athey-Lloyd, Psy.D, a psychologist who specializes in working with children and adults.
For instance, let’s say your child shares that they feel bullied at school. You reply that you’ve never been bullied. Or you reply that you were, and instantly suggest they let it go. And maybe you add that kids today are way more sensitive than they were when you were in school. Which leaves your child feeling foolish, misunderstood and alone.
“Instead, try to connect with the feeling behind your child’s experience,” whether you’ve lived it or not, Athey-Lloyd said. For instance, you might say, “Wow I can imagine you feel scared and upset; I’ve felt scared of things, too.” Honor your child’s emotions and experiences. After all, everyone is different, and everyone deserves to feel the way they feel.
Disconnecting Habit #5: Using closed-ended questions.
Your child comes home from school and says, “I got in a fight with Paul. I kicked him.” You instantly reply: “Did you start the fight? Did you apologize right away?” According to Ziff, this kind of closed-ended questioning creates various missed opportunities: the opportunity to connect with your child, to learn more about them and to help them label their emotions. And perhaps most important of all, it misses the opportunity to let “them know their thoughts and feelings matter and are important and worth [exploring].”
The key is to use open-ended questions (and not to jump to conclusions), Ziff said, such as: “Tell me what happened.”
Again, true connection comes back to listening to our kids. As Grover said, “In the end, emotional attunement is the greatest gift that you can give to your kid no matter what his or her age.” And no matter how many hours you have. Even devoting an hour or several minutes to sitting with your child—without any digital or other distractions—and talking about how they’re doing can make an important difference.