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Opening the Gateway to Connection: Strategies to Facilitate Healthy Parent- Child Relationships

Parents often ask me, the “expert”, how do you do it? I respond with “I use Play to Parent.” Parents often tell me "I spend all my time with my children" yet, I have learned as a parent and therapist there is so much more to “being with” children that we often miss the signals that children are really looking for from us. Children need to know intrinsically they are connected to us and we “get” them even in the hardest of times and particularly during their heightened emotional times. Nothing brings this to the forefront like transitions such as going back to school.

During the fall, back to school chaos shows us the missing pieces in our parenting ways. Suddenly, parents have a forced agenda, kids are shuffled from one place to another on a different schedule, the moments with your child can become fleeting and chaotic.

  • How can you connect with your kids and be with them, in the chaos?

  • How can you meet them where they are at?

  • How can you have a healthy relationship that is growth oriented and healthy amid the busy-ness?

As play therapists we use a number of tenets(beliefs) in how to “be with” a child in an authentic way. For parents, “being with” is being fully present with the child in front of you--that is, interacting with the child through observing, listening, and making statements of recognition. Children often experience the agenda of adults (get them ready for school, get them to school, get their homework done, put food in their bodies, get them to sleep), which is needed to help children accomplish the tasks of their day. Being with is being present with the child’s wants, needs, and feelings. Children are people (not miniature adults!) and experience deep emotions and are worthy of mutual respect. "Being with" is recognizing that the child may be having difficult feelings around a task that needs to be done (for example, getting ready for school). By recognizing the feeling a child is having in the moment, does not mean the child will not get ready for school, but instead allows the child to feel as though their needs are truly being seen and heard alongside the task. Giving them space to problem solve by engaging their “thinking” brains versus being stuck in their “emotional” brains melting down. All because they feel heard and their parent is "with them."

A common phrase in play therapy is “if you have enough information to ask a question you have enough information to make a statement.” This can help parents to demonstrate “be with” to your child. Parents often state “didn’t you hear me?” Instead try “listening ears help us understand each other.” Or “why did you do that?” instead try “tell me about the choice you made.” This way of speaking decreases defensiveness and takes parental judgment and shame away from the relationship. Similarly, you’ve got to Name it to Tame it, by Dr. Siegal would say by identifying the emotion involved identifies their emotional distress below the surface. If your child is having a hard time picking out what to wear, maybe they’ve tried on four outfits that morning and still have not made a decision: “You’re feeling worried about what other kids will think of your clothes.” This statement recognizes the feeling, names it, and therefore allows the child to better understand themselves and the feeling behind the behavior. This in turn engages them to be curious, to problem solve versus meltdown emotionally.

An effective way to let children know you are “with” them is to learn reflective responses

when communicating. This is a way of following, rather than leading, it is extremely helpful for parents to learn. Reflecting behaviors, thoughts, needs/wishes, intentions and feelings without asking questions shows the child you are “with them” in their experience. Not judging them or shaming them for making mistakes and having emotions. Your job as a parent is to strive to be a “thermostat instead of a thermometer”. To help the child by responding to them via modeling and directing the emotions across the spectrum. Whereas a thermometer just goes up with emotional distress, it is reacting to your situation and emotions. This encourages you to a moment of connection for you, the parent, to understand the child and help your child feel understood. The goal is for connection.

A great way to prevent and decrease meltdowns for attention is to practice giving a 30-second Burst of Attention. If you are on the telephone, say, “Can you hold for 30 seconds? I’ll be right back.” Put the phone aside, bend down, and give your child undivided, focused attention for 30 seconds; then say, “I have to finish talking to ____.” Stand up and continue talking to your friend. You would be surprised how long 30 seconds is! Try it now, start your timer and let it run for the full 30 seconds. Think of how much could have been said and problem solved in that short but long time frame. Taking this time buys you, the parent, time to actually finish your conversation. And you and your child feel connected, heard and respected by each other, enhancing your overall relationship.

When you focus on the problem or behavior, you lose sight of the child. A child enters this

world growing and learning from every experience, developing their brain to understand the world around them and their role in it. Play is the child's language, allowing them to master, control, learn, fail, express emotions, and develop social skills. Play helps children learn to interact with the world and learn how their behavior acts as communication to adults and peers. You focus on the behavior, the problem that needs to be solved to make the distress go away. In doing this, the parent loses sight of the human child in front of them and seeks to have compliance and dominance over the developing child. A child’s brain does not function as an adult’s, it is growing and developing. By focusing on the child and the intention of their behavior, you will find connection and strengthen your relationship. A child feels they are safe, secure, loved and attached when their caring adult is fully present and communicating through the child’s natural language of Play.

To "Be With" you must believe & model the tenets(beliefs) below:

I am here. Nothing will distract me. I will be fully present physically, mentally, and emotionally. I want to be so fully present that there will be no distance between myself and the child. I want to enter into the child's world, to sense what the child senses and to feel what the child feels. Can I enter so fully into a child's world that I have no need to evaluate the child?

I hear you. I will listen fully with my ears and eyes to everything about the child, what is expressed and what is not expressed. I want to hear the child completely. Can I experience and hear this child as is? To accomplish this kind of hearing, I must be secure enough within myself to allow this child to be separate from me.

I understand. I want the child to know I understand what they are communicating, feeling, experiencing, and playing and so I will work hard to communicate with the child. I want to understand the inner depth and meaning of this child's experience and feelings, the loneliness of feeling no one cares, the hardship of failure, the desperation that can accompany sadness. Their internal wishes and desires recognized.

I care. I really do care about this little person and I want them to know that. If I am successful in communicating fully the first three messages, I will not be perceived as a threat and the child will allow me into their world. Then, and only then, will the child know that I truly care about them as a human.

“Be With” Attitudes Convey: NOT:

I am here; I hear you. I always agree

I understand I must make you happy

I care I will solve your problems/ I will take your pain away

As a professional I'm asked, "How do you parent?" I respond with “I use Play to Parent.” I use the wisdom of neuroscience, child development, the language of play and a “be with “ attitude to develop a relationship with my children. This has allowed me to develop strongly attached, curious, independent problem solvers that have empathy and compassion for others. I’m in awe of my children that by being in relationship with me they have found their true selves.

Join us at our new Parenting Site: Playful Wisdom. If this parenting style is something you would like to learn more about, Play-based Relationship Parenting. At to learn Online, In person, & through Parent Coaching how to be proactive and preventative in helping your children develop emotional wellness from the experts in child mental health & development. @playfulwisdom #playfulwisdom

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Adapated from: Play Therapy the Art of The Relationship by Garry Landreth & Child Parent Relationship Therapy by Bratton/Landreth

Downloadable Content:

What Does it Mean to Be With pdf here

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