“My child is determined to push my buttons.”
“She just acts out to get attention.”
“I get so tired of his misbehaviour, I just don’t enjoy my son any more.”
Misbehaving kids are often discouraged and looking for a strong emotional response from their parents. They want to know they matter to their parents! But in the blur of family life, they often get that energized response when… they misbehave. “Carson James Smith! Stop that right now!” delivered with intense eye contact and furrowed brow.
Ah, zing. Reward. Connection made. Cycle reinforced.
Carson just got lots of attention for misbehaviour, strengthened his identity as a pain-in-the-neck, and is even more likely to repeat the behaviour. Soon. Parents often resent this repeated misbehaviour and connect even less with their child.
Changing this pattern starts with realizing: my kids have a God-given need for my intense attention! It’s an important part of bonding. This is especially true of more challenging kids. They are looking for an “intensity match” to their big emotions.
There are better ways to meet that need than “fertilizing” kids’ misbehaviour with strong negative attention. When we consciously give kids intense positive attention throughout the day, it meets their God-given need to bond with us, and almost always helps to prevent misbehaviour.
But here is where stressed out parents feel stuck — “I feel like I’m too negative with my kids, and I know I should connect with them more, but I don’t have two hours a night to play Barbies and Legos!” Or, “My child seems to be a ‘black hole’ for attention — it’s never enough.”
Not to worry — there are some “secret ingredients” that are power-packed ways to maximize even brief efforts at connection: fun and joy, affectionate touch, and noticing details. In this article, find out why these three are important and learn creative ideas for each.
All kids long to be enjoyed, not just tolerated because their parents happen to be reasonably patient people. It’s the ultimate measure of belonging and feeling valued. So what crazy or silly things do your kids like? How could those activities become joy-filled interactions that bond your relationship? Joyful affection communicates: “I’m having fun loving you. You’re easy to love!”
When our kids were young, we had lots of crazy little ways to connect with them, whether we were carrying a laundry basket, riding in the car, or fixing dinner. With silly voice and exaggerated expression, Jim would point at a child, pause, grin, and dripping with drama, proclaim, “You. You! I feel so strongly about you!” I made up a little “rap” for Bethany, “You’re my girly, girl, girl; whom I lovey, love, love; far above-y, ‘bove, ‘bove; all other girly, girl, girls; in the worldy, world, world.” Shazam — big download of affection in seven seconds (try it!). We made up goofy little songs for the boys too, and all the kids continued to enjoy them when we spontaneously sang them throughout the years.
As kids get older, most enjoy a little more sophistication as parents connect with them. When Daniel was in middle school he and I used to have “I love you more” cleverness competitions. One night I thought I’d really scored a “three-pointer.” I painted on his cement floor (awaiting new flooring) the equation, “I <3 U >”. I enjoyed my victory rather smugly as he found it on his way to bed. But I soon heard a strange noise repeating from the office. He had gotten the last word by programming my computer to say electronically, “I love you more. I love you more….” This kind of fun connection made sure that our relationship wasn’t defined by the conflict that we struggled with fairly often.
Some examples of quick, fun joy together:
- Make up a silly affectionate song.
- Draw a quick picture of your child with hearts all over it and tuck it some place they’ll find it.
- Take a picture of your child doing something silly and post on Facebook — “Love this goofball!”
- Give quick winks and thumbs up for no reason.
- Simply look at your child with a big smile — “I just like lookin’ at ya!”
- Make up silly but affectionate, flattering nicknames.
- Prime your facial expression to light up as your young child enters the room. A gentle smile and, “Hey, glad you’re home” might well connect with an older child.
- Share a crazy YouTube video, or altered Snapchat voice for older kids.
- Text a child — “Thinking about you. So glad to be your Mom/Dad.”
Touch is another great way to quickly and powerfully connect with your kids. Your skin is your body’s largest organ, and when its sensory receptors are stimulated, the hormone oxytocin (the one that makes us feel good) is released. At the same time, cortisol (the stress hormone) is reduced and anxiety and depression eased.
According to David Linden, author of Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart and Mind, “…interpersonal touch is a crucial form of social glue. It can bind partners into lasting couples. It reinforces bonds between parents and their children and between siblings.” This makes sense when you realize that purposeful, affectionate touch can communicate these powerful messages:
- I value and enjoy you. I like being close to you.
- There are no barriers between us. You are safe with me.
As beneficial as it is, connecting with our kids through touch isn’t always easy. One child eagerly crawls into your lap and covers you with kisses. Another may deftly escape your affection. The third is unpredictable based on their mood.
When our son, Noah, was a toddler, he was a high-speed mover and a shaker, but absolutely not a snuggler. For ways to provide touch to this kind of child, click here.
The attentive parent will discern how their children’s unique personalities wire them to best receive touch. Expressing physical affection is a “dance” in which parents alternate between leading and following their children’s lead.
The way parents and kids can learn to enjoy touch together can be quite unique, but still very effective. A father in a small group discussion shocked us by sharing, “Abigail loves it when I kick her!” He laughed and explained he had joined his daughter in her Tai Kwando classes in an effort to connect with this somewhat evasive, temperamental child. He discovered that the easiest way she could accept hugs was to start with some martial arts roughhousing. They’re both quite athletic and competitive, so this was a great discovery!
The following list describes various ways parents and children can share physical affection. The list starts with minimal, low-risk possibilities and works toward more intimate physical expressions. If a child is uncomfortable, quicker and more playful touch works best.
- “High fives,” special handshakes, fist pumps
- Little nudges/jostling, contact during sports
- Patting or briefly touching a child’s shoulders or back
- Arm wrestling, wrestling, piggyback rides, other physical fun
- Back/shoulder rubs
- Write a quick message or picture on your child’s back with your finger
- Sitting close together or on your lap
- Hugs of varying intensities of intimacy, from a quick squeeze around the shoulders to a noisy, affectionate bear hug
- Holding hands
- Touch to a child’s face
Imagine looking at a fuzzy grainy picture before the pixels finish loading. Picture it as it loads into beautiful clarity and detail — you can feel the intensity and energy emerge in the photo. Sometimes parents’ compliments can be like the low resolution pictures. “Great drawing, Honey. Nice work.” ZZZZZZZ, a bit boring for me as an intense little person. Maybe I’ll throw some markers on the floor to see if I get a bigger burst of “connection.”
So instead, take a few extra seconds to load some energized detail into your statements. “Wow, I love how hard you worked on that! I could tell by the intensity on your face as you drew. And you really used some awesome bright colours in this section. What’s your title for it? Can I put it on the fridge?” Fifteen seconds, and some intentionality to care and notice. This effort communicates some important messages as well:
- I care enough to look closely.
- I love the little stuff about who you are and how you were created.
Some examples of using detail to connect quickly and well:
- Describe a feature of your child and savour how God made them. What’s your favourite feature? What different coloured flecks are there in their eyes? Which freckle do you like best?
- What’s a unique thing they do that you love? When do you have fun watching them and what do you notice?
- Ask detailed questions about their day that show you know and care, (not “How was school?”)
- Simply describe what they are doing with a little detail as you walk by, “I see you are…”
- What are ways I already connect well (and quickly) with my kids?
- How could I expand on that?
- What stands out to me as something new I might want to try?
As you fill your days with these intense bursts of joy, touch, and detailed noticing, you’ll see parenting become more fun, kids become more affectionate with you and each other, and the tone of your days begin to change. Your children will most likely be more peaceful and respectful. But this isn’t a technique for manipulating them — if they continue to struggle, know that you are building essential messages of value and belonging into their lives. So have fun!