For many years when my son was young, he took a fishing trip to northern Minnesota with his friends and their dads. He loved these trips. He asked me several times to join them, but I’d grown up around sisters and girl cousins, and fishing seemed…yucky, so I always had an excuse for why I couldn’t go. Finally, one year, I gave in.
Well, it was beyond roughing it—there was nothing up there but mosquitoes the size of Volkswagens—and what with putting wriggling worms on hooks and handling slippery fish, it was pretty much as yucky as I’d feared. But spending one-on-one time with my son and seeing his joy in the whole experience was truly special. I didn’t even realize how special until years later, when he told me it was one of his favorite memories of childhood.
Of course, it doesn’t require a weekend getaway or a special occasion to make a vital emotional connection with your child—in fact, we should be doing that every single day, in ways large and, more often, small. Having one-on-one conversations in the car on the way to school. Helping solve perplexing problems while doing the dishes together. Showing up for a soccer game or a talent show. And, taking an interest in their passions—yes, even if it’s fishing!
I like to describe these everyday moments of emotional connection as “preventive medicine”: We’re immunizing them against the twists and turns and the frantic pace of daily life. And the long-term benefits are enormous. Research shows that children who grow up feeling listened to and understood have lower levels of stress hormones and lower heart rates, and develop greater resilience and feelings of self-worth. They also have a strong feeling of trust in their parents, which makes it easier to lovingly set limits to guide them and help them become autonomous.
But creating these moments requires true, heartfelt focus. It means carving out a no-device zone where you can be in the same space (physically and mentally), truly listening to each other. Naturally, this is easier when kids are preschoolers who love spending time with you! It gets a little trickier with teenagers who grunt in monosyllables; they’re doing their job as adolescents—beginning the process of separating from their parents—but they still need to know they’re loved. At this stage, it’s better to show your commitment through actions than by hovering, nagging, or trying to guilt them into talking to you (not that I would know anything about that). Drive them to soccer practice and create a safe space in the car for conversation. Go out for pizza. Take a walk together. Choose an activity they like to do and use that as an opportunity to connect.
Once you’ve made the time and space to talk with your kids, here are some ways to make it a positive and productive experience:
When our children are born, we become intimately attuned to their every need—we jump at each cry, we soothe them and hold them, and we forge strong bonds of emotional connection. As our kids grow older, we start to hold them a little less and let them go a little more. But we want to ensure that those bonds remain strong and secure throughout their lifetime. That means checking in with them every day, looking them in the eye, and letting them know, “I’m here. I’m listening. And I love you.”
Denise Daniels is a Peabody award-winning broadcast journalist, parenting and child development expert and author who specializes in the social and emotional development of children.