Ira Hillman -

Sep 22, 2022

Five Principles for Fostering Connection with Children During Times of Transition

Ira hugging his son before drop-off at summer camp.

Teething. Toddler tantrums. Teenage angst. Feeling left out. The start of the school year. While the challenges may change over time, every year and every season bring new transitions to our lives as parents and caregivers.  

I am in the midst of the first few weeks of my two kids’ second years of middle school — a time not necessarily known for mutually nurturing interactions. Last year was a lesson in adaptability for them and for me. They each started at new and different schools, where they each knew only a couple people. All of us had to learn new systems and new routines, while also building new relationships. With two months off for the summer, and new hormones racing through their bodies, this September feels like déjà vu all over again, yet also full of novelty and change. 

I am a planner and a problem-solver. I like puzzles and math because there are correct answers, and everything is organized and methodical. Unfortunately for me, child development (especially these pre-teen years, in my observation) is far from linear and exact. 

Still, my instinct is to address challenges with my kids by explaining all the knowledge and experience I’ve gained in my extra decades on this planet and then telling them how to fix the situation. However, when I share advice or questions unprompted, the kids hear it as a “correction” which triggers anxiety and defensiveness. This makes their bodies and brains less receptive to reason and more likely to fight or flee.  

So, now instead, I lean into the adventure that comes from connection with my children and meeting them where they are to connect on their terms and their turf with physical closeness and emotional communication. When I do so, they stay calm and initiate engagement, which gives me an opening that they receive as conversation rather than control. As a result, we co-regulate each other’s bodies and brains and get in sync with one another. 

Here are the five principles that guide my approach to building emotional connection with my children: 

  1. Follow their lead. This starts with noticing where their attention is and then engaging around their interest. 
  2. Get close. Physical proximity maintains connection. Holding a child on your lap or putting a hand on their shoulder brings your bodies into sync and calms you both.
  3. Express your emotions. Using your eyes, your words, and your body, share your feelings (both good and bad). Emotional expression signals our brains and bodies to pay attention to each other, which is the first step toward connection.
  4. Build routines. Our bodies’ reflexes are conditioned over time, including our reflexes around connection. So, creating “special time” for one-on-one connection will calm our bodies and deepen connection the more we practice.
  5. Stay focused. When it’s time for connection, prioritize and center it. Put the phone down and turn off the TV. Tune out the distractions so you can tune in to each other. 

“Emotional connection” can mean different things to different people. I’m talking about a scientific construct developed by Columbia University’s Nurture Science Program. Dr. Martha Welch describes emotional connection as being like “the force between two magnets…that attracts two individuals to one another and keeps them together.” This emotional connection is enriched through heartfelt communication, sensory engagement, and physical closeness with each other, feeding a cycle of mutually nurturing interactions. 

I remember when my kids were babies and many of the experienced caregivers in my life encouraged me to get down on the floor and follow my baby’s lead. If they grabbed a toy, that’s what we played with. If they crawled to the other side of the room, I followed. But I wasn’t just a passive lemming. I engaged at each step of the way, playing with the toys they chose or conversing (using parentese in their youngest months) about our shared adventure. With kids who are much older (and taller!) today, I have adapted these lessons from infancy and toddlerhood to adolescence.  

When my husband and I picked up our children from camp a few weeks ago, I so wanted to spend as much time with them as possible and pepper them with questions about their experiences. The “default” me would have sat them down for an interview (translation: deposition) and plowed through a list of group activities planned for those first two days.  

This year, I followed their lead and responded when those bids for connection showed up. When our son started telling long stories about some random camp event, even if I was in the middle of something else, I turned my attention fully to his recounting of the ordinary activity and actively listened. When our daughter asked me if I could play a game right when I was getting to the good part of the book I was reading, I put down the book, sat on the floor with her, and joined her for cards. 

In each of these moments of connection, we were able to talk about harder topics like friendships, dating, and other personal concerns, because we were already in sync with each other. As with so many things in life, my patience paid off, and it was worth the wait.  

The benefits of connection weren’t just in our relationship with one another; they frankly helped me calm down. Studies show that connecting interactions can increase heart rate variability for mothers and newborns, even five years after the child’s birth. We want our heart rates to be flexible and adaptable to all kinds of changes and stressors, rather than rigid or fragile. So improved heart rate variability (what scientists and doctors call vagal tone) can decrease risk of heart attack as well as being more likely to engage in positive social interactions with others. 

Connection, calming, and improved heart health are all valuable. So, too, is the joy of the unexpected. With all my decades of experience, there is still a thrill from trying something new. When I take the meta-moment and pause, and then give up control and let my children take the lead, I increase possibilities rather than close them off. Together, we kindle a spark that brings smiles to our faces today and creates memories that will rekindle that happiness again and again. 

Depending on where you live in the country, you are now a few weeks or possibly even a couple months, into the new school year. And, even if you don’t have kids in school, the transition for us as adults from “summer” mode into what feels already like “end of year” mode is jarring. We are all a bit distracted and dysregulated. We are all stressed and want to control things so we can calm down. As we seek new ways to adapt to the changes around us, let’s choose a new adventure that lets go of control and instead starts with our shared desire to connect with one another. 

Ira Hillman leads Einhorn Collaborative’s Bonding strategy. Learn more about our work in Bonding and more about Ira. Sign up to receive our monthly newsletter and be the first to read Ira’s blog posts.