Get creative with your connection!
Connecting with Your Child's Thoughts and Feelings
By Tracy Lamperti, LMHC, BCETS
Lamperti Counseling & Consultation
Life happens. Moments turn into hours, days into years. While parents are mired down in matters as seemingly small as what’s for dinner, or large, as where is this month’s rent coming from, or glued to our social media, a whole world is being lived out in our children’s mind.
Our children may pass through one stage of development to the next, with something significant on their mind and we don’t even know about it. In my office, often a child will be talking about something like when they first started checking light switches, or feeling sad, and upon further questioning, they will say, “It started when I had so-and-so for a teacher. I was in Kindergarten.” Well they are in 3rd grade now! What happened? What was going on inside that young mind.
How many adults can remember back to something really significant in their childhood and now recall, “I didn’t tell anyone!”
Sometimes children do something “bad” such as break something or lie about something. They know it was wrong but they feel too afraid to tell, leading them to have to try to forget about it or carry around the burden of guilt.
Then there is the devastating experience of a child being mistreated or used sexually, either by another child or by an adult. When is the “opportune” moment for THE CHILD to tell someone???
It is the parents’ job to show the child trust and to teach the child how to share their inner joys as well as burdens.
1. Timing is really important. Trying to compete with your child’s electronic devise is not going to be helpful and neither will a lot of chaos or distraction. Choose a time, unless there is a special reason to have siblings present, when you are alone with your child. What makes your child happy? Any bad mood can be turned around in my 9 year old by going for a walk on the beach or bike path. Just “BE” together. It might also be a good time when your child is doing something quite in their room. Pop in for a visit. A lot of children will think you are coming in to tell them to do something. Just relax and show them they are who you want to spend the next 15 minutes with.
2. Your mood is really important. Particularly for those who didn't have a parent or other adult who was good at talking with them, it might not feel natural at all. For some parents, certain stages are easier than others. Lots of parents are good at kissing boo boos and giving hugs and sad face looks to our toddlers. It might feel much trickier to respond to your 4th grader who has just come off the bus and looks angry or sad. Whatever the case, approach from a place of feeling centered. Take a few deep breaths, get a bit of fresh air, intentionally put your child on your mind and try to clear away any other distractions and just prepare yourself to feel relaxed and open.
Now for the Secret Tips!
Parents’ Oath….”I will not tell my child about these tips until they are a parent themselves and their child might benefit from them.”
3. For young Star Wars fans, a father, sitting casually with their child says, in a low tone, “I feel a disruption in the force.” Your young SW fan is going to have an immediate reference. They aren’t going to be sure if you are joking or not. You have just opened a door to your child’s inner thoughts. Wait for it. Your child might say, “What do you mean?” A loving and attentive father knows that children have thoughts inside that need to come out, even if the child isn't aware of it. You can continue along with the Star Wars theme, “Ah, a master knows things…” “I can sense there is something that needs to come out…” I’m not the Star Wars expert, but you get the idea. At this point, you may get nothing. You may get something later, because you have just planted the seed the door is open. You may get something kind of typical that children experience. You MAY get something that takes you by total surprise.
4. Favorite food! For example, Swedish Fish! While sitting down to some delicious fish, start talking…”I love these fish! They are so chewy! The more I chew, the more I feel like talking about things. In fact, I've had this thing on my mind for awhile (child appropriate…real life or based in a movie you have both seen, and yes, you could trade the Swedish Fish idea for celery). In fact, let’s start calling these things ‘talking fish.’ Yeah, talking fish…I like that.” Just get those jaws moving and get that child talking. What comes out might have needed to come out for a long time.
5. For an older child, such as 8th grade, maybe after a school dance, or any time really, you may say something like, “I understand there are some things happening in the 8th grade. I’m interested in how you are feeling about it.” If you are worried about not being completely honest, take it from me, right now, you are being honest. “Some things” ARE happening in EVERY 8th grade and it may be talking about “making out,” smoking pot, drinking and even worse. When you make that statement, you are telling the truth. By 8th grade, kids know they are experiencing things that they “shouldn't” be experiencing. They know they have at least one secret from their parents. At this point they will most likely be on edge. However, they should sense that you have not asked the question in an accusatory tone, but a tone that says, “I know things are going on in 8th grade. I know that’s not your fault. I want to be there for you as you experience things that will be challenging for you to figure out.” Again, you might get nothing or you might get something that kicks you right back! Take a breath and be present with your child.
6. Your child may have been given a punishment/consequence for something recently. OR they may have simply done something that upset the parents or required a talking to. In one of these quiet times of connection, even if it is a week or a month later (depending on the issue), it can be raised again. You may gently remind the child about what happened and say that you would like to talk about it again now. Any new thoughts? Now that time has gone by, how do you feel about it? What was the most important thing you learned from it?
7. You may start telling your child a story about yourself from childhood. Choose something that is similar to something you know your child is going through, as if the two are not related and then ask, “I’m wondering if you have ever felt that way?”
Unless your child is glued to electronics (games, tv, handheld devices, etc.) there is always a world of thoughts swirling about inside their mind (another reason to limit electronics!). Let it be your secret mission to be part of your child’s inner world. The more you practice this and come up with your own methods of engaging, the better you will maintain your closeness with your child and the more they will feel that you've got their back, no matter what, whether they need to be supported with loves or limits, you've got them and you aren't going to let them fall harder than they have to. The more distant you are from your child, the harder they will fall, always!
One word of caution; be very careful to NOT bond with your child at the expense of their relationship with their other parent. If there are issues between the parents and one or both parent notices it is taking a toll on the child, agree to work together to help the child or to engage a professional to help the child or help both of you together to help the child.
Tracy Lamperti, LMHC, BCETS
Cape Cod Moms