On this week’s podcast (listen with the player above!), I’m talking about some first steps you can take toward turning over a new and more connected parenting leaf. Listen to the end to hear about everyday ways to increase relational safety and connection with your kiddo.
In western culture, the new year traditionally brings with it desires to commit to new habits, recommit to current habits, finally tie up loose ends or repair previous wrongs. New families coming into my practice at the beginning of a new year are often determined to make a positive change in their relationships, starting with the relationship with their children.
If you’re interested in creating a more connected parent-child relationship, it’s important to focus on healing what may have been unconscious or unacknowledged ruptures in the relationship, increasing everyone’s felt sense of safety, and learning and teaching ways to moderate and cope with big feelings and challenging behaviors. Let’s look at each one of these in more depth.
Create external and internal safety for your child
If you’ve historically used punishment, control and coercion to try to force your child to comply with your demands and directives, your child may lean toward more fear-based challenging behaviors because they’re more hypervigilant about ‘getting in trouble.’ To foster more trust-based interactions, focus on creating a good foundation for environmental and relational safety.
Though you might be certain that your child’s environment is safe, it’s important to tend to your child’s internal experience of safety, and make sure your child actually feels safe. So as a foundation, make sure your child’s environment is generally predictable. You can start by helping your child with the three kinds of transitions they’ll encounter in life: daily transitions, significant life transitions and developmental transitions.
For everyday transitions from one activity to another, give your child a heads-up about what’s going to happen next. Some kids are fine with one 5-minute warning that it will soon be time to leave the playground, but other kids might need several ‘countdown’ reminders, like 20, 10, 5, 3 and 1 minute warnings to make a smooth transition into or out of an activity.
Major life transitions like the first day in a new school or the first dental appointment can be stressful for children. Using books to spark discussion, or telling your own stories about your own ‘first times’ can help kids process upcoming or past events. Help your child make a book telling the story of a major happening in their life that has already happened or a story about what will happen in an experience they’ll soon have.
Developmental transitions like moving from childhood to adolescence can also be made less harrowing by remembering to keep what stability you can during these periods of upheaval. Having regular family dinners or other family traditions and rituals can be a beacon of light in the stormy and confusing time of puberty.
Sensory deficits can also be a source of stress for a child who has difficulty integrating sensory information. If your child is sensitive to the way clothing feels on their body, doesn’t seem to know their own strength, or melts down in loud, bright or busy environments, you might consider having them evaluated by an Occupational Therapist to see if they might be struggling with a sensory processing disorder. Kids who have sensory challenges may act out reflexively and defensively when they are stressed by sensory over or under stimulation. Making adjustments to your child’s sensory environment can contribute to your child’s felt sense of safety.
Prioritizing healthy eating, appropriate amounts of sleep and regular physical exercise also contribute to meeting your child’s basic physical needs and help to provide a foundation upon which environmental and relational safety are more easily maintained. Don’t forget to meet your own basic needs as well – you may need to build in support for your own daily and life transitions and sensory needs. And make sure your own nutrition, sleep and exercise needs are met.
You might also enjoy episode 643 of the podcast where Dr. Coor shares 7 Tips for Telling Your Child About Their Neurodivergence. Listen with the link, or with the player below.
Focus more on relational connection than behavioral correction
Instead of habitually aiming to get your kid to do what you want them to do, make your relationship with your child the focus of your interactions.
When you have the internal bandwidth to make or take opportunities for silly, joyful and fun times together – do! Every time you connect with your child in playful ways, it can actually help you become more attuned to who they are. Plus your child feels more open to showing you who they are! Engaging playfully with your child eases tension and fear that may have crept into your relationship if you’ve previously used a lot of consequences, punishments, and knee-jerk lecturing, yelling and shaming.
And even if you don’t have it in you to be silly, try to begin to see your child and their behavior – whatever it is – in a positive light: they’re simply trying to get their needs met, however unskillfully they might be doing that. Try to give them the benefit of the doubt.
The more your child comes to expect that they’ll have neutral to positive interactions with you, the less their fight/flight/freeze reactions will fire up. So engage them playfully as much as possible. Even if you have to be firm and set hard limits sometimes, revert right back to playfulness as soon as you can.
Improve challenging behaviors both proactively and responsively
If losing your cool, ending up in power struggles, and giving out punishments that are hard to follow through with and mostly make your child angry without improving their behavior much are interactions you’re ready to leave behind – you’re going to need better options! What’s more effective for challenging behaviors is staying connected with your child and helping them learn more appropriate behaviors at the same time.
Ideally, the best way to handle problematic behavior is to prevent it in the first place. A child who knows that their basic internal and external needs will be taken care of and who consistently has a felt sense of safety in their relationship with you already has a full-enough “cup.” That challenging behavior will simply happen less often. So proactive parenting involves creating that predictable and nurturing environment I’ve been describing in this episode.
Another episode to check out is 668, How to Reduce Your Child’s Challenging Behavior. Dr. Nanika Coor explains the collaborative and proactive problem-solving process that can help parents reduce their child’s challenging behavior.
Responsive parenting involves encouraging positive behavior from your child while maintaining connection with them, such that they leave the interaction feeling content, rather than shamed or discouraged. Your focus isn’t simply ending the behavior in the moment, but for your child to learn and eventually master important life skills, all while strengthening your relationship in the process.
When your child is doing or saying something that doesn’t work for you, use a playful, kind – or at least firm-but-neutral – tone of voice as a nurturing way to remind a child what behavior would be more appropriate. Remember to tell kids what to do instead of what not to do, and use go-to language and phrases that you can return to again and again that convey the idea “this is how we do things in the culture of our caring and respectful family”.
For instance using the words “gentle” and “kind” are ways to alert a child who has still-developing self awareness that they might soften the force they’re using with their body or their touch or the tone of their voice. “Whoops – I can’t let you touch the baby like that,” you might say while removing their hand from the baby’s body. Then gently touch their arm and demonstrate gently touch the baby’s arm as you say “You need to use gentle hands.”
If your kiddo is trying to motivate you to help them in some way by using a demanding tone that rubs you the wrong way, instead of refusing to help until they ask “nicely,” you can simply say, “Ah! You’d like some water please? Sure, I’ll get that for you.” Or, “Sure – when you want some water, you can say, ‘Papa, may I have some water please?’” Or even give them some information about yourself as you walk over to get their cup by saying, “You know, I prefer to be spoken to with kinder words and a gentler voice – otherwise, I just don’t feel so helpful. Next time you can say, ‘Can I have some water please, Mama?’ Here you go.”
You can help your child accept a ‘no,’ by using many more “yeses.” When your child asks for ice cream first thing in the morning, you can say, “Sure! You can have some tonight!” When they ask for more screen time when their time is up for the day, you can respond, “Yep – you’re going to have screen time while we’re brushing your hair for school in the morning! What are you excited to watch?”
Practice makes progress
Did you know that when you intentionally try to mirror your child’s behavior or physical position in some way, it actually increases their felt sense of safety and their connection to you?
This week, try tuning into your child’s physical and emotional presence in front of you. Avoid standing over your child and instead, get on their eye level – or even below that. Sit on the floor if they’re in a chair or sit in a chair if they’re standing. And while you’re on their level – give them warm eye contact – so they see in your warm expression and soft eyes that they are valued, protected, cared for and precious to you.
Also try mirroring their behavior and their expression of emotion. If your child is on the floor playing with trucks, get down there and make the same truck noises they’re making! If they’re telling you in any angry voice about someone at school saying something snarky to them, match their anger when you respond, “Well, that wasn’t cool! Sheesh!” Matching their affect and their body language and getting on their level builds trust between you.
Test it out and report back!
Be patient with both yourself and your child as you build more safety, trust and connection together – you’ll both continue to learn about yourselves, each other and the relationship as it grows and develops. You’ll make progress and you’ll make mistakes – repair with your child and double down on self-compassion. The kind of intentional and mindful parenting I advocate for in this podcast and in my private practice – and that I strive for in my own parent-child relationship – requires a lot of effort in the short run yet makes for meaningful change and less efforting in the long run. It really does pay to slow down and try to mindfully tune in to your child’s words and behaviors in terms of what those things are telling you about your child’s inner experience in the present moment.
Parenting is so hard, and you need a village because you’re not meant to do it all alone. But not every parent you’ll meet will be on board with this kind of conscious and deliberate parenting. When you’re feeling isolated or misunderstood on your respectful parenting journey, tune in here to Project Parenthood to find inspiration, and use the internet to find local like-minded parents and professionals to support you as you work to heal yourself and your relationship with your child.
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.