By Dr Justin Coulson
Think about the most recent positive experience you had with one of your children; one where you felt truly connected. Perhaps it was an instant of joy as she made a new discovery. Maybe it was a flash of laughter as his joke landed perfectly on your funny bone. Or it could have been a tearful or heartfelt embrace, a moment of deep reflection, or a twinkling of peace as you simply sat together and felt… safe.
Brené Brown says connection is “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued.”
It feels good to belong. To know that you matter. To feel worthy.
But connection is an impermanent state. That beautiful energy between you and your child ebbs and flows. You’ll note that I described an “instant”, a “flash”, a “moment”, and a “twinkling” to describe how true connection occurs. That’s because connection requires intention. Each interaction requires us to re-connect with our child to maintain the experience of being connected. And this explains why parenting – and relationships generally – can be so hard. The obstacles to maintaining connection are endless.
Connection is not a luxury item
Scientists have studied connection in all kinds of different ways and with a number of tightly related meanings. Some call it relatedness, or responsiveness, or warmth, or nurture. Regardless of how it is defined, research evidence points to this connection between parent and child as an irreducible necessity for our children. It’s not a luxury item. It’s a must-have.
And the data highlights what happens for our children when we offer them connection. Parental responsiveness to children’s attention and interests correlates with their cognitive performance. Lack of warmth and connection is related to poorer cognitive outcomes.
Researchers (from as far back as the 1970s) have known children are more curious, more competent, more resourceful, and more likely to initiate behaviour (rather than waiting to be told) when parents are responsive and empathic. Kids are better at regulating emotions, solving problems, and are more resilient when parents are connected with them. And they act out less.
“They’re only doing it for attention!”
A parenting trope, all-too-often promoted by behavioural scientists in the 1970s is that when our children are behaving in a challenging way, “they’re just doing it for attention.” The old-school thinking is that if you give a child attention after they’ve behaved poorly, you’ll reinforce their poor behaviour. If you “reward” their poor behaviour with your attention it means that every time your child wants something, they’ll play up. Therefore, the best thing we can do – according to the behaviourist mindset – is to sever our connection with them when they behave in challenging ways.
Today’s best science comprehensively rejects this approach. We now know that children are seeking attention because they need it to be healthy and happy. In fact, it may be less about “attention-seeking” and more about “connection-seeking”. Sensitivity, empathy, and responsiveness are at the core of creating a nurturing environment that will support our children’s needs and allow them to flourish. And paradoxically, giving them attention when they are being challenging will reduce their difficult behaviour in the moment and over the longer term as well. (Ignoring and disconnecting only reinforces their feelings of unworthiness and incompetence, and creates a bigger relationship divide that exacerbates problematic behaviour.)
This means: If your child is seeking attention, give it to them! Seriously. The research shows it matters more than we can possibly know. It’s less that you’re dealing with a challenging child, and more that you’re helping your child deal with a challenge. This re-frame is important.
How ignoring your child affects connection
Let’s switch up the context. Instead of your child’s attention-seeking behaviour, let’s make it you. Imagine you’re emotionally out of sorts. It’s been a rough day. You haven’t eaten enough (which is like many kids), you’re tired (which is like many kids), and someone has told you that your plans are not going to work (which happens to kids every day).
You feel disgruntled; agitated. Your emotions begin to spill over a little. The frustration starts seeping out of your eyes in the form of tears. Your partner walks over to you and says one of the following things:
“Quit crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.” “If you keep that up I’m not even going to talk to you.” “Don’t worry about it. You’ll be fine. It’s not that big a deal.”
Or perhaps they lean over to a friend and say,
“She gets like this all the time. I’m sure she only does it so I’ll give her attention or cave in and give her what she wants.”
Let’s pause and ask what “lessons” you’re learning in this situation. My guess? You are learning that your partner is lacking in kindness, perspective, and compassion; that your partner is untrustworthy when it comes to the tender feelings of your heart, which means that vulnerability is not an option in your relationship. You learn that your emotions get you into trouble so you should bury them in future. Your needs are secondary to those of everyone around you. The list goes on, although there is one more that needs special emphasis: You will learn that you don’t matter; you are not valuable as a person; you are not worthy.
Again, for emphasis, connection is feeling seen, heard, and valued. Where there is connection, there is life in a relationship. A relationship with no connection has no life.
(In contrast, how would you feel if your partner had said to you: “It seems like your day’s been pretty rough. Do you need a hug? Would you like some space right now? How can I help?” Chances are that you’d melt into their arms because you feel seen, heard, and valued. The relationship has life.)
What connection looks like
Think about moments of genuine connection you’ve experienced with your child and pay attention to what you notice.
• Connection is that moment when your infant smiles at you and you mirror their delight as you smile back.
• Connection is when you hold out your hand in response to your child reaching for you.
• Connection is a mum and her daughter sitting quietly together on the bed, backs against the wall, as her daughter sobs because a friendship is failing at school and mum is the only one who can console and comfort.
• Connection is your face lighting up with the thrill of seeing your child serve an ace on the tennis court, slam a spike on the volleyball court, bowl out middle stump on the cricket pitch, kick a goal on the soccer field, or swim a personal best in the pool.
• Connection is your eyes meeting your child’s across a room after school, followed by a smile, a squat with arms extended, and a run-up hug for a child who misses their parent.
• Connection is what we feel when we truly accept our child for who she or he is.
Dr John Gottman calls our children’s choice to reach out to us a “bid for connection”. When we respond to those bids with warmth, acceptance, and engagement, we build life into our relationship with our child.
Science Says: Key Elements for True Connection
If connection is so important, but also so transient, how might we best create connections and maintain connections?
On a typical morning in a typical family home, our parenting responsibilities compete with our personal to-do list, our children’s missing sports uniform or library book, our social media timelines and news headlines (let’s be honest), and the relentless ticking of the clock as it counts down to that moment we scream, “we’re late… hurry up and get in the car!” We operate on auto-parent. If LOVE is spelled T-I-M-E, what does HURRY UP spell? And are we thinking about this as we interact with our kids?
Our reactions are, at best, a response to unexpected and unforeseen difficulties and at worst, the equivalent of an emotional bomb blast because we aren’t intentional and mindful of what needs to happen to make the morning function well.
Mindfulness, according to Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychologist and researcher, is an active state of mind, characterised by being
• situated in the present, rather than 20 minutes in the future
• sensitive to context and perspective, rather than screaming
that “I don’t care what your sister said to you! You should
• rule and routine guided, rather than governed by how it
“ought to be”
• engaged in the moment-to-moment interactions
of the family
We miss those instants, flashes, moments, and twinklings unless we’re intentionally, mindfully watching for them.
When I’m researching for an article or typing out a book chapter, my attention is on my laptop, my books, and my thoughts. My seven-year-old’s best efforts to connect are ineffective when I fail to be involved in her bids for connection. Connection doesn’t exist – until I turn away from what I’m focused on and involve myself in her conversation, her play, her world.
Studies show that for us to help children live life fully, we must allow them to make choices. Some of the best connection occurs when we give up our desire for control of our children. For them to make those choices in healthy, safe, wise ways they need our connection, but not our control. In fact, control may be a reliable rupturer of relationships.
Relinquishing control in a connected way means we:
• consider our child’s perspective (which usually requires
connecting through curiosity and questions)
• provide meaningful and helpful choices (where they are not
developmentally capable of developing solutions on their
• encouraging and supporting our child’s initiative and voice
• minimising our controlling language, and
• offering meaningful reasons for our behavioural requests.
But this level of connection sometimes feels too hard. There are many obstacles. And there are controversies around connection too.
An unexpected truth
We live in a culture that frowns on connection sometimes, particularly when it appears that a child is dependent on the adults around them. Our society teaches that we ought to want our children to be tough enough to stand on their own two feet. Therefore, we unquestionably and uniformly value independence as an attribute of successful graduation from childhood to adulthood. And we see dependence as a failure.
This perspective resonates for most of us. And it is right and developmentally appropriate that our children learn to do things without us; to make us redundant so they can live their own lives.
But as I’ve watched three of my six daughters grow to adulthood, the dependence we have on one another for connection has become more important. I’ve cherished the opportunity to continue to offer continued love, support, and connection to those girls. Of course, I take delight in their growth and self-reliance. I thrill at their new discoveries, willingness to take risks and follow passions. They don’t need me like they did when they were little.
But they do still need me. I’m their dad. And in some indescribable way, I still need them to need me. It’s not an unhealthy co-dependence. Instead, I welcome dependence and neediness in developmentally appropriate ways. Our connections strengthen us, even in adulthood. In the same way, I have a deep desire to depend on my wife. I need her. I crave her responsiveness, warmth, and connection.
Dependence is often disparaged – and connection is often considered a form of dependence. But depending on others is valuable at every age and every stage. For a healthy life our children need to learn to comfortably rely on others for emotional support, guidance… connection. And it is this connection (and dependence) that predicts wellness and adjustment.
Ideas for connection
To build stronger connections, consider these ideas:
1. Do what’s important but unspectacular over and over again.
We often get caught up in planning the perfect party, the heavenly holiday, or the exciting event so we can all connect and make memories. This can be a useful strategy, but a focus on consistent small episodes of responsiveness and connection will do more for happiness, wellbeing, and growth.
2. Review the way you use your time.
The time that people with lousy relationships spend on Netflix, social media, excessive work, or with other distracted pursuits, people with extraordinary relationships leverage into opportunities to be present, mindful, and connected. Build your catalogue of connection experiences, not your catalogue of movies to watch on your streaming service.
3. Allow your worlds to cross-over.
Our children are desperate to enter our world and connect with us. Even more, they crave the opportunity to bring us into their world and share their experience of life with us (yes, even when they grunt in response to our query about how their day was). Let your children know that you are interested in what they’re interested in, and pay attention to their lives.
The true meaning of connection
Strangely, while we study this important connection by so many names, the one thing I’ve not seen it called in science is the one thing we most need to call it: love. It is love – or loving connection – that draws us to others because it is the truest way we can feel seen, heard, and valued. It is love that gives life.