A friend told me her son couldn’t understand why a young child he knew had such a hard time being away from his mother while at school. The kindergartener would cling to her mother’s hand and in tears, voice protestations to being left behind. My friend explained to her son that the 5-year old felt scared to be separated and left with people she didn’t know well. Her son, still confused, looked up at her and said, “but why doesn’t she just talk to her Mom in her head?” Astonished, my friend looked at her son and said, “is that what you do?” He replied, “Yeah, I talk to you in my head all day, it helps me not feel so lonely and I don’t miss you as much.”
What every kid needs to take to school is an adult they hold onto psychologically. It is the sense they carry with them that there is someone to return home to, share their secrets with, and feel a sense of significance, belonging, and caring towards. It underlies their capacity to be resilient, resourceful, and survive adversity. It allows them to face the challenges that school will present, from learning new subjects to persevering on tasks that are difficult. It will be critical to helping them deal with tricky peer groups, friends that turn into enemies, and bullies that are on every playground.
The beautiful design inherent to attachment is that we don’t have to be physically close to someone to feel connected; rather, we need to make sure we are firmly planted in their heart. A strong relationship with at least one caring adult is the answer to resiliency in our kids – not skills they have to learn, having to act tough, or to ‘suck it up.’ We don’t need to work at preventing our kid’s from facing adversity but make sure they don’t face it alone. Relationship is the natural home for the human heart.
The Shielding Effect of Adult Relationships
When a child has a strong relationship with an adult, their heart is shielded. The emotional system is protected from the wounding words and ways of others because a child cares more what their closest adult attachment thinks about them. What kids say doesn’t hurt as much, it doesn’t feel as toxic, personal, nor as deep. The best inoculation against ‘mean’ kids is an adult who is holding onto a child. It is an adult who should offer a child an invitation for relationship that is gracious, generous, forgiving and unwavering.
While adult relationships shield kid’s emotional systems from the worst parts of their day, there will still be tears that may need to be shed. There will be emotions that are stirred up and need to be expressed as well as problems to be solved. It is through relationship they are invited to rest from all that does not work so that they can embrace what might.
As a parent it feels like my homework each night involves gathering my kids and trying to take their pulse emotionally. I aim to help them make sense of their disappointments, hurts, as well as excitement and joy. Sometimes the stories and day’s events spill out of them spontaneously, or sometimes they need space, quiet, food, or to play before I can engage them. At dinner my kids sometimes compete for airtime or can be mute, alerting me to the fact that a bedtime chat is likely the best place to connect. I care little how or when my children and I engage on the day’s event and only that we do. I keep my eyes on our relationship and an ear to their emotional world, vigilant to when I am needed most. I take faith that what my kids need most in facing the world outside are the relationships that anchor them to home.
How to Cultivate Strong Relationships with Kids
The recipe to cultivating a strong relationship with a child cannot be reduced to a set of instructions, directions, or mantras to hold onto. Relationships at their root, are an invitation that is offered to someone. It is an invitation to depend, to trust in, be guided by, and feel at home with someone. We cannot dictate how relationships are forged and protected but we can be certain that it is the answer to the problem of facing separation and adversity.
Tragically, there are too many kids who are not tethered to an adult home and will look for substitutes to hold onto. They often lean on their friends for connection which usually leads to issues in terms of their emotional vulnerability. An immature child is a poor substitute for the caring relationship an adult can offer.
The good news is it is also possible for a teacher or another adult to anchor a child’s heart as well. The sense that someone cares for them and offers them an invitation for relationship goes a long way when they face rejection, separation, or are shamed by their peers. From the educational assistants who encourage kids to keep trying to the counsellors that are a soft place to land when days are hard – these adults can make a difference to kids when home is challenged to offer what they need most.
The following strategies are key to building strong relationship with kids and protecting them from competing attachments such as peers or technological devices.
- Collect their attention and engage their attachment instincts
We all seek connection – it is the primary driver in our attention system. The goal is to get their first with kids, meaning we need to collect their eyes, smile or a nod in agreement. We need to engage them each morning by checking in, talking about the plans for the day, to sharing a funny story – anything that puts you into relationship with them. Feeding them is a wonderful opportunity to collect their eyes and to invite them to depend on you.
- Cultivate loyalty and a sense of belonging
When a child perceives an adult as being disloyal to them by not taking their side, understanding their perspective, or using what they care about against them through consequences or the use of time outs – the relationship can take a hit. When there is a sense that an adult is not for them, a separation is created in the relationship. The challenge is there are times we cannot abide by a child’s actions or their words, when their behaviour is clearly inappropriate and we will need to act. Finding our way through these situations while maintaining a sense of belonging and loyalty can be achieved by coming alongside the feelings and thoughts that have stirred a child up. While we make note of what isn’t okay, we can cue the child that we do understand and are there to help with what isn’t working for them. It doesn’t mean we have to change what isn’t working, but we can give them some room to express it.
- Family rituals, structure, and routine
As kids face the separations that are part of life, they need to regularly return to things that ground them. Rituals and structure are these anchors, providing a regular hum and predictability to contact with their key relationships. From the morning routine that starts with a hello and ends with a goodbye to the dinner time that starts with a hello and ends with a goodnight – these are the rhythm’s that connect kids to time, place, and people. If separation is the problem, then holding onto to the connection that comes from rituals, structures, and routines is the answer.
The reality is we can’t perfect a child’s world or ensure they never face adversity. Venturing away from home is an important part of life. School often represents the first bold steps in this direction but we need not be alarmed by what awaits them. We just need to work at making sure they have our relationship to hold onto that will shield their heart from wounding. Relationship is the home of the heart and when we understand this, we won’t ever fear that our kids will ever be too far away from us.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara is the Founder of Kid’s Best Bet, Counselling and Family Resource Centre, on faculty at the Neufeld Institute, and author of Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one). For more information please see www.macnamara.wpengine.com or www.neufeldinstitute.org.