A Psychologist’s Guide to Having a Loving Relationship With Your Kids
By Dr. Ester Cole and John Hoffmann, Psychology Foundation of Canada
Feb 28, 2020
No matter how you want to influence your children — supporting mental and emotional well-being, passing on values, teaching good behaviour or simply loving them well — the foundation is a secure and supportive parent-child relationship.
Here are some tips for building and maintaining strong, nurturing relationships with children at various ages.
Read more parenting tips from the Psychology Foundation of Canada here.
Connecting and Attachment with Babies and Toddlers
Babies and toddlers need relationships that provide a secure base. Because they need a way to:
- Feel secure and safe.
- Seek comfort when needed.
- Handle the ups and downs of life.
- Feel curious and confident to explore their world.
Here's how parents provide a “secure base”:
- Respond consistently to your child’s requests for attention, reassurance and exploration.
- Watch over your child while they explore.
- Comfort crying babies — this helps children learn to calm themselves.
- When you need to leave your child, say goodbye rather than “sneaking off.”
- Reconnect and welcome your child back when she needs or wants to be close to you again.
- Provide predictable daily routines and special family rituals.
A baby’s first language is non-verbal
Babies are born with the ability to respond to your loving touch and to tune into the expressions on your face and your tone of voice. Toddlers and preschoolers also crave touch and are still very sensitive to our non-verbal communication. So try to be mindful of what your touch, facial expression, body language and tone of voice are “saying” to your baby or toddler. Pay attention to how they react and respond to you.
Interaction that Builds Attachment
Be a mirror
Respond to baby and toddler feelings with both facial expressions and words. If they are excited, give a big smile and say, “Oh! You’re so excited!” If they are upset, show you understand with a sympathetic facial expression and supportive words: “Did that noise scare you?”
Follow baby’s lead
Look for ways to participate and support your baby or toddler as they play. Wait to see what they are interested in, and then join in. Help them do the things they want to do, but still let them take most of the initiative. Help them get the toys or safe objects that interest them. If you introduce a new toy or action into the play, watch their eyes and facial expression to see how they react. Let their responses guide your actions and responses.
Using the acronym WAWA, here's how to take turns when talking to toddlers
- Wait with undivided attention to hear what they have to say.
- Ask a question to find out more of what they're thinking or feeling.
- Wait to see what they have to say next.
- Add ideas to keep the conversation going.
Connecting and Attachment with Older Children
As children get older, the same core attachment principles still apply:
- Provide a secure base.
- Spend time together.
- Lead by following, while providing guidance and teaching when needed.
- Pay attention to what your child’s responses and behaviour are telling you, and base your responses on that.
However, connecting with school-aged children, preteens and teens is a little different. They need less of our direct care, and spend more time away from us at school and with friends. But their relationships with parents are still very important. Here are some tips for maintaining that connection.
As a working parent, your life is most likely quite busy. But try to find some unhurried time to connect with your child each day. Play is a natural way for adults to connect with children. When playing with your child, follow their lead, keep the activity short and simple, and focus on fun, not competition.
Look for small ways to connect: a few minutes before bed and conversations during routine activities such as meal times and car rides. Even small moments of connection are valuable.
Demonstrate that they matter to you
When children feel they are important to us, it enhances their self-esteem and feelings of belonging. In order to feel significant, kids need to receive interaction and feedback that tells them that who they are and what they do or say matters to us.
Show interest in your child’s interests
As parents we spend a lot of time talking to children about rules or what we need them to do. So it’s important to make an effort to have conversations based on your child’s ideas and interests as well. And let them lead the conversation. This is another good way to connect and show our kids that they matter to us.
Listen without judgment
Listening with empathy and understanding enhances communication and strengthens relationships. Judgment and criticism, on the other hand, put a strain on relationships. They also shut down communication and make it more likely that children will feel reluctant to come to us with a really important problem.
Some parent-child conflict is inevitable and normal. And sometimes kids need to be told what they did wrong and how to make things right. But always keep looking for opportunities to repair your relationship and share good times after the conflict is over.
Be ready to listen when they are ready to talk
Preteens and teenagers aren’t always eager to open up to their parents. So when they do come to us, we need to be willing to listen, even if the issue is an uncomfortable one or the timing is less than ideal.
Comfort them when they need it
Older children may not come to us for comfort as often as babies and toddlers. And the comfort you offer may involve more talking and less physical contact than in the past. But school-aged children and even teenagers still need to know that their parents are a source of comfort they can depend on. Offering comfort reminds them that we are still their secure base. It also teaches them that, while it’s normal to feel bad at times, our loved ones and friends can help us recover and feel better again. That’s a very important life lesson!
Shared enjoyment is like rocket fuel for parent-child relationships. Shared activities also build memories that can help kids remember the best parts of the parent-child relationship. Those memories are valuable when the going gets tough. So plan and do activities you both like. Laugh and enjoy each other’s company. It’s good for your relationship.
Don’t give up!
Parent-child relationships have their ups and downs. If you go through difficult times, like a period of conflict over a particular behaviour issue, whatever else you do, remember to keep building (and repairing) your relationship. Make sure that some of your interactions take place when you are both in a good mood. Do things together. Notice and comment on your child’s positive behaviour. Small steps like this will help maintain the relationship you both need.
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