Helping Children Connect

We may think we are out of the woods and the world has moved on from COVID. We may think we have just moved on and now we are getting “back to normal.”

For many children, “back to normal” does not exist but instead, learning to live with the new normal with impaired skills and connection issues.

In fact, I honestly believe we will not know the full extent of the impact the pandemic has had on our children for many years to come. For now, though, we can take steps to help bridge the gap that exists.

Challenges that were presented to children during the pandemic were:

  • Constant mask wearing and hand sanitizing stressed the sensory system even further, resulting in sensory overload
  • Lockdowns meant a total change in routine (and when you cling to routine for stability, this presented huge problems) Children may also be challenged with being inflexible so such a major change so quickly was particularly difficult
  • Being confined indoors amongst low level, monotonous sounds stressed the auditory system even further, causing sensory overload
  • Vestibular seeking children were not able to go outside and play, run, ride bikes, or do the big motor body movements they desperately crave
  • Lack of cognitive ability to understand what a global pandemic was, children in general were more fearful and more anxious overall
  • Lack of cognitive flexibility stopped children from being able to “roll with the punches” and respond to changing circumstances
  • Loss of connection to family, friends, neighbors, and communities

Why do children need to learn to connect?

Impaired Skills

Because of the unusual conditions of the pandemic, children did not have the normal life experience. This did more than just limit access to outside, it restricted the opportunities for learning through social connection, routine, variety of experience, language acquisition and expression and much more.

This resulted in neurobiological and psychological challenges which affected the prefrontal cortex and executive function.

The Prefrontal Cortex is responsible for the processes and functions of the executive system.

  • Working memory
  • Self-regulation of emotions
  • Cognitive flexibility
  • Organization and planning
  • Decision making
  • Goal orientated behaviors
  • Inhibitory Control

So as a result, children may struggle (on an ongoing basis) with the following:

  • Remembering things
  • Keeping their emotions in check. Something small may happen and they might melt down. The response will not match the situation
  • Social situations
  • Stopping what they want to do and doing another task that you may want them to do
  • Understanding things. Cognitive flexibility is the ability to switch between two different concepts or to think about multiple concepts simultaneously.
  • Organizing themselves or their thoughts
  • Solving problems
  • Planning
  • Making decisions
  • Having a desire to reach goals or to move forward – they will have general apathy

Children are Sensory Creatures

We all experience the world through a variety of senses. For the brain to be balanced and work efficiently, those senses need to be integrated. The pandemic meant for an extended period, sensory stimulation and opportunities for sensory integration were extremely limited.

For some children, this will have been their whole lives, for others, the most formative time of their lives. Now it is time to play catchup.

You may find your child has more sensory issues than before. Emotional stress has clear neurobiological consequences (meaning it affects the brain and the body) but the pandemic has created a much more intense pressure cooker environment than previously experienced.

This can manifest in a variety of ways far too extensive to list here.

A few examples might be:

  • They may seem to not be listening (auditory processing challenges)
  • They may be more “clumsy” or accident prone and bump into things (proprioception issues)
  • They might be more sensitive to large movements not wanting to go on swings or may have trouble going fast on playground equipment (vestibular challenges)
  • Alternatively, they may crave large movements and moving quickly or may jump off everything (vestibular challenges)
  • They may hate certain types of clothing on them, not like certain foods, or not like the touch of some things (sensory integration issues with the tactile system)
  • They may not like the smell of certain things and may even meltdown when they smell them (sensory integration issues to do with smell)
  • They may be difficult to toilet train or not stop eating because they don’t seem to ever be full (interoception)

The list goes on and on. You may see a lot of these things as children being difficult when it fact they are developmental and integration issues that have not been resolved.

Parents Learning How to Parent

Another issue that exists is a gap in parenting experience, especially if you had your first child during the pandemic.

Your birthing experience may have been more stressful than usual, your baby may have cried more than other babies and you didn’t get to go out, have normal routines and socialize with other Moms.

This has meant that the normal progression of experience and learning curve of “normal” parenting was missed. Many first-time parents have not had an easy time and now are craving connection themselves because of what has happened.

On top of that, they are also now dealing with children that have challenges of their own that they now need to work on and bridge that gap in developmental skills.

Connection Before Correction

I will never forget a statement that a pediatric psychologist friend said to me when we were discussing one of my families who were really struggling. She looked at me and simply said “Connection before correction.”

That made total sense for me. Children need to be in an emotionally safe place to learn. They need to be connected to themselves, family, and the world around them.

Too often we respond to the behavior (which can be negative) rather than giving what the child needs most, connection.

Connection before correction
We need to provide mindful connections and lead our children to do the same for them to develop emotional intelligence.

Diana F Cameron

Regardless of how you choose to connect, connection BEFORE correction is a useful tool in helping children be ready for the correction. It is not rewarding them for the negative behavior, it is giving them what they are crying out for. You feed that, then you are in a better position to correct.

Now, more than ever, we need to provide mindful connections and lead our children to do the same for them to develop emotional intelligence.

There is a great TedX talk by Lael Stone who talks about how to not only engage in this connection, but to teach our children about connection and to get in touch with their feelings.

She explains that to do that, we need to provide the space and safety for that to occur. We then need to provide the framework for that to happen.

It doesn’t need to be complicated, but we do need to stop, create space and time which does interrupt our lives.

Too often we get caught up on our phones, are busy rushing out the door, late for appointments and often these moments come when it is most inconvenient. The benefits of taking that time though are enormous and pay dividends for years to come through our children.

5 Tips to Helping Children Connect

1. Connect with Family

At first, most of that living and learning takes place within a family. Take moments out of your day to mindfully practice connection. Your child can only copy what they see, so if they see a parent on their phone most of the time, that is how they will learn to connect with others and their own children.

Here are some suggestions for connecting at a family level:

  • Nighttime cuddles and chats – There is no other better routine for a child than knowing that at nighttime, they get to snuggle with you and have you all to themselves.
  • Regularly scheduled movie nights – as a single parent, these were both looked forward to and cherished. We knew that every Friday night it was out night to connect, unwind, have fun and share something together. There is something about the routine of knowing they can count on it that works really well
  • Car time chats – this has been a favorite with my boys over the years. In fact it got to be such a good time of connection they would often say “want to go for a drive?” I knew that was code for “I need to talk” and somehow it was just easier when we were driving together for them to get their thoughts out.
  • Board game nights – these are a great way to connect because you usually communicate while doing it. It also encourages skills like executive function, turn taking and flexible cognition.
  • Sing to and with your child – singing is therapeutic for both parent and child and singing to and with your child will increase your bond, help your mood, and bring calm.
  • Dance together in the living room
  • Out and about – you don’t need to go on big trips, it is the time together they will remember more than the place. Go for a picnic in the backyard, or a scavenger hunt around the house.
  • Photo time – reliving family trips by putting photos together in a book. Kids love seeing pictures of themselves but will also love reliving those previous memories
  • Weekly family night – having this tradition in our family has been the best thing we have ever done. We sat down together and worked out a night that suited everyone and then that was designated as our family night. From that point on, our timetables wrapped around that night. If we didn’t prioritize it, it didn’t happen. After awhile we found there was no way anyone wanted to miss it and of course, it always involved treats to eat! You can even get the kids to plan some of them which helps with cooperation, management, social and organizational skills.
  • Cook together – Cooking together creates a fun atmosphere while teaching all sorts of science and behavioral skills at the same time

2. Connect with Extended Family

While still family, the extended family is a steppingstone between the immediate family and the larger community of friends and neighbors. It is an opportunity to widen that circle of connection but still in a safe space.

You may not be in a position to physically visit family frequently but if the pandemic taught us anything, it was ways to connect virtually.

Connecting with different generations of extended family is beneficial for the child as well as the older person.

3. Connect Through Music

Music offers a great way to connect with anyone. Singing together as a group brings people together, just as moving to music as a group synchronizes heartbeats and builds community.

Here are 5 ways to connect using music:

  1. Sing together – singing together could be as simple as you and your child, or in a community or school choir. Singing together builds community as individuals work as a group to accomplish the same goal. Don’t worry if you feel you can’t sing, your child just loves to hear your voice!
  2. March or dance together – this could be in the living room or at a dance class. There are many ways of moving together. Marching also has the added benefit of cross lateral movement which builds the foundation for better reading and coordination skills.
  3. Play music together – you could create a home band out of pots, pans, and other items around your home. Get a variety of objects that make different types of sounds. If you want something more formal, your child might find connection as part of an orchestra or a music class.
  4. Rock Together – rocking time (even with bigger kids) can be a great way to connect. It is close, it involves touch as well as the security and safety of having you close to them.
  5. Move together with props – grab a scarf and move together. It doesn’t have to be complicated, you can do it to one of your favorite nursery rhyme you know. Here is an example:

4. Connect with Their Own Feelings

Emotional intelligence is being able to empathize with others (which also impacts on social relationships. That can’t happen in a child is not in touch with their own feelings.

As well as knowing what those feelings are, they need to have a safe and secure environment to be able to express and unload those feelings.

It is really easy to shutdown a child with a word or a look without even knowing it. For example:

A child is complaining about something, you give them “the look” which tells them to stop it. That look effectively says “Your feelings don’t matter, don’t let them out, keep them in. If that happens on a consistent basis, it teaches children that it isn’t safe to express their feelings.

That forces your child to learn to cope on their own with those feelings, so most people just repress them. They push them down deep and eventually disassociate themselves from their feelings.

The impact of that as children means those feelings are not dealt with, they remain inside and can surface even when an adult. When something unexpected happens in life along the same theme, those feelings come back up. Adults manifest repression in different ways than children and it could mean drinking more than usual, or scrolling mindlessly for hours on a phone or making yourself so busy that you don’t have time to feel.

Disassociation and avoidance become the norm.

If a child feels they don’t have a voice (an outlet for their feelings) they can often feel powerless which can manifest itself in aggressive behavior when they feel threatened or powerless in other circumstances.

We may label our children as “naughty” or “trouble” too often when they are just responding to their environment and what is happening to them at the time.

We need to break free of past parenting experiences we may have experienced as a child, as well as societal norms and create a space where our children feel free to express their emotions. We need to teach them that it is ok to say how you feel and provide them with strategies on how to do that.

This allows for connection, identifying what feelings they are experiencing, expressing those feelings and learning to express them in constructive ways which leads to healthy, emotionally intelligent adults.

participate in groups – Children develop a sense of belonging to groups and communities. They go to shops and
libraries and playgrounds. They
might also attend an early childhood
education and care setting. (maybe attend a music class etc)

5. Connect to their Environment

Children become socially responsible and show respect for the environment when they feel connected to it. Teach children to care for the things they own, for others’ belongings and the world in which we live.

Teach them to dispose of rubbish properly, to garden, to look after pets. All these things help them to feel a connection and a responsibility towards their surroundings.

Here are some suggestions for how you can help your child connect to their environment:

  • Find ways for your child to contribute to life in the family – Even babies converse so include them in family conversations. Help young children to learn how to do chores (washing dishes, feeding pets, washing clothes) or teach them about the benefits of recycling.
  • Include children in decision making – where possible, involve children in decisions that affect the family. Talk about decisions that affect them individually and all them to decide. For example:

“There is no more room for toys in your toybox. Where will be put these ones now?”

“Would you like to wear the red shirt or the green shirt?”

By participating and being included in these decisions, they will feel connected to other things in their life.

  • Explore diversity – by helping a child to experience and appreciate diversity, they will feel more connected to the greater environment. Go to zoos together, read books, go to museums, use the computer to find out and see different places, countries and people. Look at different celebrations (that may even be held locally) like Chinese New Year, lantern festivals etc. You could even learn some words in a different language.
  • Experience service – this is a wonderful way to build empathy and to feel connection to others and the community. You could serve at a soup kitchen, read to children in hospital, help an elderly neighbor with their garden or speak to them about any charity work you may do.

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