Scientists have found a way to predict which couples will end up divorcing: those who don’t insure that they have at least 5 positive interactions for every negative one. According to John Gottman of the Gottman Institute, it is likely that maintaining this 5 to 1 ratio is effective insurance in every relationship, including between parents and children.
Life, with its infinite distractions and constant separations, has a way of eroding connection. All parents need to repeatedly reconnect with their children, just to repair the daily erosion created by life’s normal separations and distractions.
While our children are separated from us, they orient themselves around other things: their teacher, their peers, and their computer.
As Gordon Neufeld, author of Hold On To Your Kids, says, when we recollect our children physically into our orbit, we must make sure we recollect them emotionally as well.
Effective parenting is almost impossible until the positive connection with your child has been re-established, so think of this as preventive maintenance, before there’s a problem. How?
1. Place a premium on relationships in your family. If your expectation is that re-connecting after time apart is an important part of life, your children will share that expectation.
2. Acknowledge relationship and separation. When you leave, say goodbye. When you return, say hello. When you first see your children in the morning, make a point of greeting each of them, preferably physically. This may seem obvious, but lots of families don’t do it.
Research shows that men who kiss their wives goodbye in the morning live longer, earn more, and are happier. While there is no data yet on how this applies to parents and kids, you can bet I kiss my kids, as well as my husband, goodbye!
3. When you physically reconnect, consciously refocus your attention. Otherwise, it’s automatic for all of us to keep thinking about the meeting you just attended or what you need to pick up at the grocery store.
4. Until you’ve re-established the connection, keep distractions to a minimum. If you can discipline yourself to turn off the news when your child gets in the car, you’re lots more likely to make a connection with him and hear about what happened at band practice. If she’s coming back from a sleepover, try to avoid having family friends over at the same time. Insist that she spend some time interacting with the family before she gets on the phone or computer to chat with her friends. When one of you arrives home, don’t answer the phone during your greeting, even if it was a routine separation. As automatic as it is to answer the phone, greeting each other and reconnecting is ultimately more important. That’s what answering machines are for.
5. Attune to your child’s mood. Your moods are unlikely to be in sync after time apart. To re-connect, you will probably need to adjust your mood to your child’s.
6. Connect on their level. Neufeld and Mate, authors of the book Hold onto Your Kids and originators of the phrase “Collecting your child,” call this “getting in their face in a friendly way”. For toddlers, it means stooping down to make eye contact. For older kids, the idea is to demand their attention in an inoffensive way, which usually involves getting in their space physically.
7. Everyone needs “floortime.” With toddlers, floortime is when you get down on the floor with them, in their space and in sync with their energy level, and connect in their world, whether it’s building a train track or playing pretend or reading a book. When they’re ten, floortime will probably take the form of snuggling on the couch while you chat, in a relaxed fashion, about anything from their day at school to the coming weekend to a TV show you just watched together. Forget about teaching or directing or rushing your kid to the next item on the schedule. None of those are quality time. Quality time means being in the present moment and responding to whatever is up for your child. The point is setting aside some time to just be present, daily, with every person in your family.
8. Welcome your child’s babyself. It’s classic. Your child has been happily playing at childcare, but as soon as you show up, he has a meltdown. That’s because he’s been squashing his dependency needs so that he can function independently in a demanding environment. Your presence, with all of its comforting reassurance and warmth, signals to him that he can relax and let down his guard. Dr. Anthony Wolf calls this version of your child his “babyself.”
Scoop your child up, give him that snuggle he needs, and get him out of there. Some little ones need to cry for a few minutes in your arms before they’re ready for the car seat; those who are still nursing often need to nurse. Preschoolers may need to revert to baby talk. Accept all this as proof of the age-appropriate solace your child finds in your company. Just remember not to make a meltdown the precondition for comforting, so you don’t set that up as a daily response. Offer a pre-emptive snuggle as you pick them up at the end of the day and you can often avoid a meltdown. Some parents object to this as “encouraging dependency.” I see it as “allowing” the dependency that is there anyway, and will otherwise go undercover. Don’t worry, your kids won’t be dependent forever.
9. Remember the 5 to 1 ratio. Try as we might, all of us sometimes have less than optimal interactions with our children. Remember that each one of those interactions that leave anyone feeling bad require five positive interactions to restore a positive valence to the relationship. These can be little – a smile or pat on the shoulder – as long as you make sure they have a positive impact.
One caution — don’t be tempted to buy five presents, even if you goofed royally. Occasional gifts for no reason are fine, but all kids distinguish between emotional connection and things, and they always notice when parents use money to buy their goodwill. They won’t turn down the gifts, but it’s a net loss to the relationship’s emotional bank account.
10. In addition to daily preventive maintenance, do repair work as necessary. If your child’s attachment needs have gone unmet, for whatever reason, he or she has probably turned to the peer group to try to get them filled. Parenting becomes impossible when you aren’t your child’s “secure base,” as the attachment theorists say. You’ll need to do some relationship repair work to get your child’s attachment focused back on you where it belongs.
Dr. Laura Markham is the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. She earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University and has worked as a parenting coach with countless parents across the English-speaking world, both in person and via phone. You can find Dr. Laura online at AhaParenting.com, the website of Aha! Moments for parents of kids from birth through the teen years, where she offers a free daily inspiration email to parents.