Building Family Connections

Contributed by Jody McVittie, MD

Relationships matter. As human beings we have a deep pull toward being connected to each other. We learn about who we are in the context of social connections and those social connections change the way our brain grows neurons which, in turn, influences the way we interpret and respond to the world around us. Families play a big role in how we make meaning of ourselves and the world around us. Children who hold the belief and experience that there is another person in the world to whom they really matter are more resilient. This person could be a parent, relative, teacher or mentor. Families play an important role – yet building a sense of connection in your family can be a challenge, especially if you did not have strong connections within your own extended family growing up. How do we grow that sense of connection?

Know that relationships are messy. Being “connected” does not mean that everyone is cheerful and happy when you are spending time together. Those magical moments do show up but children learn the sense that they matter when you see them for who they really are even when they are tired, grumpy, mean, bored, and angry.

Help your child build language to describe their inner experience. Children who can name and recognize the feelings that they have “feel felt” (connected) and do a better job of self-regulating. Teach children feeling words:
• Describe what you see. “It seems like you are feeling disappointed because you wanted a candy bar and I won’t buy it for you.” “It looks like you are angry because your sister destroyed your building.”
• Share your own feelings. “I’m feeling stressed because I need to get to work and I’m worried that I’ll be late.” “I’m feeling grumpy because a customer yelled at me today.”
• Read stories together and talk about what the characters might be feeling.
• Put a chart of feeling faces on your refrigerator so that you and your children can explore the meanings of different words. Here is a sample feeling faces chart.
• Make a feelings chart of your own by taking pictures of your children making faces representing different feelings.

Remember that the “problem behavior” is usually a solution to another problem. Children misbehave more when, at that moment, they are missing their sense of connection (feel left out, ignored, rushed etc.) or when they are missing their sense of being valuable. That doesn’t excuse the behavior – but it can help you understand that “who” your child is might be different than what she is doing when she is being obnoxious when her brother has his friend over to visit.

Model mistakes and taking care of your own emotions. “I’m feeling angry and disappointed right now because I burnt the rice. I’m going to sit and calm down so I don’t yell.”
Connect before correct. “I can tell that you are angry right now but it is not okay to hit your brother.”

Believe in your children. Over and over again moms and dads tell us that one of the most powerful things that one of the most powerful things that their parents did was to believe in them – even when they didn’t believe in themselves. Having faith that your child is really capable and loving despite the current challenge(s) is one of the biggest gifts you can give him or her.

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