A family vacation is an excellent and important time to improve the connection with your children. Use the time away to solidify the secure attachment your child has with you, and repair any relationship rifts that may have occurred.
I use our trips away as a chance to really understand what my kids love, don’t love, are afraid of, or dream about. I also use them to get to the bottom of behaviour that is a bit off. With my therapist hat on, I gently dig to understand what might be bothering my kids and spend time working on skills like calm-down plans and speaking up for themselves.
I find all these can be done when we spend a good chunk of the day in an outdoor excursion. When we’re hiking, biking, or canoeing together, it seems the usual pressures are lifted. I find a natural setting helps encourage vulnerability while distracting us enough with awesome surprises.
We can have fun and be real at the same time.
Here are five ways to tune in and reconnect with your child while on your next vacation:
Identify a few activity options available to your kids, and then let them pick the one they like. For example, our family is going to Clevelands House Resort in Muskoka on Lake Rosseau, ON this summer. They have boat rentals there so we’ll ask our kids what type of water activity they would like to do: kayaking, canoeing, or water skiing. If they want to do more than one, they can choose which day to do each of those. This is also a good time to show them how to plan based on weather forecasts!
We picked a driving trip this summer, partly to keep the costs down by not flying, but also to see the countryside around us. You can get out paper maps or use your computer search engine to plan driving routes and places to stop.
Wherever you go or however you get there, plan out what your “out the door” times are and what you need to take with you.
Do some fun math (I used to be a math teacher!) by calculating how long it will take to get where you are going based on your average speed and the distance left to drive. D=RT (Distance = Rate x Time)
You can also talk about budgeting in an age-appropriate way—what is the best way to get everyone fed: Eating out? Making meals in your room? What is the total amount you hope to spend on your vacation? How are you going to spend that?
(I'm going to take full advantage of the restaurant at Clevelands House and put my energy into my kids; not making meals!)
When children are involved in trip planning and this kind of higher-level decision-making, they feel closer to you.
A child will feel very special when you make an effort to spend time with just him or her. When you have this time together, pick an activity you both like to do and make sure to use that time as an opportunity to really see your child. Don’t criticize or constantly correct her—have fun goofing around.
Pre-teens and teens tend to open up better when they aren’t face-to-face with adults. As you are hiking together, canoeing or tossing a ball around, ask questions about how things are going in her world. Make sure not to judge what she says! Be open and interested in what she shares.
If you are staying at a place like Clevelands House that has kid’s programs, camps, and a playground, you can take each child for some one-on-one time with you while the other one(s) get taken care of by the staff!
Try asking your child this, “You know, I really want to do better. What is one thing you’d like me to fix? How can I be a better Mom (or Dad)?”
It’s okay if your child shrugs and says, “I don’t know.” See if you can get somewhere by asking about things you think might not be going well. For example, “So we kind of get on each other’s nerves about video game playing—what do you think we can do to stop that? How can you still play games a bit but not so much you make it hard for us to hang out?”
If you have a parenting goal you’d like to change, if your child is old enough to understand, perhaps share that goal. Many parents I work with are trying to yell less and calm down before doing things they regret—perhaps share how you are taking action to change your behaviour along this line. Ask your child how he or she can help you to attain your goals (by paying attention when you speak/making calm-down plans).
It is actually possible to be on a trip with your children and not fill their attachment tanks at all. Don’t just be in the same space; pay attention to what your child is experiencing—what makes him happy, sad, or angry? What is going well in his life and what are his challenges? Find a way to communicate that he matters to you.
A good question to ask yourself to determine if your time together is helpful is this:
How does my child feel about himself as a result of spending time with me?
Dads certainly have come a long way in the last few decades. It wasn’t too long ago that fathers were called “Sir” and were feared for the most part. Children needed to behave or else they heard the dreaded sound of a belt being ripped free from Dad’s pants.
Yesterday, I spotted a dad carrying a baby in a sling while happily walking down a busy street. Dads are in the playground pushing their little ones on the swing and cruising through the grocery store. These days, fathers are more invested in their children than ever, and are taking an active role in parenting. Thank you, dads!
Fathers have shared with me that they have a great desire to connect with their children, but don’t always feel confident in how to do that. I have heard from many parents whose dads were mostly absent, either physically or emotionally (through alcohol or gambling addiction or working long hours, for example) and therefore don’t have a model of what connecting looks like.
A common pattern of interaction for dads in the past was to spend time with children during activities, enjoying each other when the going was good; but when things headed a bit south, the usual reaction was big, scary anger. Many dads now are trying to be with their children more consistently, even in times of emotional intensity, but aren’t sure what to do with that anger that can surge in an instant.
Here are five suggestions for dads to strengthen the connection with their children:
Babies are born driven by the instinct to cry, kick, and flail around to stay alive. This instinct carries on as they grow, until parents teach them how to respond in a nonviolent way. It is actually our first instinct, and perfectly normal, to want to shout, kick, throw, hit and run when intense feelings arise.
Rather than getting mad at our children when they go through this normal aggressive behaviour, we need to teach them how to respond to their big feelings without hurting themselves, someone else or property. The first step to doing this is to reel our own big feelings in—pausing to calm down. We can’t help another person be rational, and shift out of their fight-or-flight response, if we are irrational, too. My mantra to remember this is, “Calm first. Talk second.”
Please go easy on yourself; our parents and grandparents didn’t have this information when they were in our shoes (we aren’t going to blame them!) so the skill of processing emotions was generally not taught to our generation. Most of us have really been winging it in this department.
There’s a lot going on in our brains when we feel like snapping—buttons from the past get pushed, and all the times we felt helpless, unheard, unimportant and alone rise up to the surface. We aren’t just trying to handle our screaming child in these moments; we have to manage all our demons at the same time! Calming down can sometimes feel impossible when those demons shout at us just as loudly as our kids do.
Today, we know that in order to really connect with kids, we also have to connect with them when things are hard, and tempers flare. We can use calm-down plans to train our brain to do the same thing each time our big anger switch gets tripped. I explain more about how to create and use a calm-down plan in this post.
This is the same process to teach your child. In order to tame the negative core beliefs, which make us feel terrible, we need to go repetitively through the calming process so our body learns to talk us down rather than rev us up. (Honesty Alert! It can feel like learning how to not freak out will take f o r e v e r. Stick with it—positive changes DO happen over time.)
Being hard on our kids pushes them away, but learning to coach them through the challenging parts, while still being friendly, draws them in.
Dads, I imagine it can be intimidating to see your partner connecting with your child and wonder if you are doing it right. Well, there is no right way to parent. Each of us parents in a way that works with our personality and our own upbringing. As long as you are staying away from harsh treatment and, if that ever does happen, are quick to repair that rift, you can parent your children in the way that feels good for you.
Allow yourself space to try something with your kids and learn from that experience. Spend time alone with your children—filling their “attachment tanks."
If you have time to read your partner’s favourite parenting book, that’s super! Learn some new tricks of the trade that can help reduce the hard parts of parenting.
Here is a list of research-based resources/enjoyable blogs written by dads:
Any POSITIVE DISCIPLINE books by Jane Nelsen, PhD and her colleagues, as well as their Facebook page, Positive Discipline. This is a research-based approach to parenting that I highly recommend.
Andy Smithson, LMSW’s (Masters of Social Work) blog and Facebook page, TRU parenting.
Jim Higley’s blog and Facebook page, Bobblehead Dad.
Chris Read’s blog and Facebook page, Canadian Dad
The book MISADVENTURES OF A PARENTING YOGI by Brian Leaf. Brian’s Facebook page is: Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi. Although many dads are not practicing yogis, they will benefit from Leaf’s insight into parenting practices that have helped him be the dad he wants to be.
And my Facebook page: Andrea Nair — parenting educator. I continually post (mostly research-based) information to help with the challenges of parenting and to strengthen the connection with children. I am doing a live online workshop June 16 and 17 (same presentation offered at two different times) on the topic of Handling Blowups and Meltdowns: How to reduce yelling (yours and your children’s). Click on the dates to get to the event page information.
Parents can grow a strong, positive relationship with their children (which helps reduce defiance!) by continually attuning to them. This means being able to be with your children in a way that causes them to really feel understood, heard and important—that who they are, and what they do matters to you.
Children have a strong need to feel significant and to belong. When parents feed that need, children can put their energy into discovery, playing and learning instead of trying to get your attention.
A post called Children Who Shine From Within by Rachel Macy Stafford really struck a cord in me. While reading the article, I said to myself, “Wow, this mom understands attunement.”
In this piece, her daughter asked Stafford what her favorite insect is. They talked about their choices: ladybugs (mom) and firefly (daughter) and then Stafford picked up when her daughter’s tone and demeanor changed. Sensing the shift, Stafford looked into her daughter’s eyes where they exchanged a moment of understanding.
What followed was a beautiful discussion where Stafford and her daughter allowed themselves to be vulnerable and share their struggles.
Children want to open to up their parents—they want to say what hurts, what is hard, and ask for help. Some children might not appear to want this openness, but there is a drive within all of us to speak our truth. For those children who avoid connecting on this level, they likely have had experiences with adults that taught them that being open isn’t helpful. If a child tries to share but continually gets shut down, he will eventually stop trying.
Here are six ways parents can attune to their children:
Take time (hopefully each day) to be with your child without having one eye on your mobile devices, computer or TV. Get involved in what he is doing, making sure to follow his lead. This way you will get to know what is baseline is (what he is like when all is well.) You’ll also learn more about his buddies, what he likes and what’s happening in his world.
You can tell when a child (and adult, too) is feeling a strong emotional surge. Often when this happens, there is some kind of physical response like looking down, a slumping of the shoulders or a change in voice. If the emotional surge is anger, the child might go into fight-or-flight (yelling, throwing, storming away). As I mentioned in this calm-down plan post, the first course of action when that happens is to try and make the shift back into our rational mind before talking: Calm first. Talk second.
When parents pause, they can take a moment to coach themselves into doing something that connects, not hurts. Take control of unhelpful self-talk like, “Not again! This kid is so freaking emotional,” and tell yourself what will help your child, “I need to help this guy back from the ‘losing it’ zone.”
If your child’s emotional response is one of fear or sadness, try telling yourself something like this, “I want to know more. Be gentle.”
Take this pause to postpone your own agenda or to-do list so you can attend to your child’s needs. If you are about to do something that really has to happen now, you can tell your child that what he is experiencing is important to you, and you’d love to come back to that right after your meeting, for example. Hopefully you’ll be able to make at least five minutes available in the moment before needing to dash away.
Steer away from questions that result in a “yes/ no” answer and use ones that tell your child you’d like to hear what’s up. You can try, “It seems to me that you are sad—I’d love to hear more. What are you thinking about (or remembering)?”
If your child turns that offer down, you can try sharing a story of your own, as Stafford did, where you explain a similar situation from your childhood. Children will often open up when they know their parents have felt sad/ angry/ mad, too. Remember to be aware of your body language when telling your story—be soft and leave pauses in case your child wants to ask you questions.
When your child does open up, make sure not to invalidate, “Oh Honey, I’m sure it wasn’t that bad,” or criticize, “Well, if you had spoken up then none of this would have happened.” Listen with the goal of clarification; not making him feel worse.
Most people don’t want others to solve their problems, but rather be an ear to hear. Help your child grow his problem-solving skills by discussing options rather than telling him what to do. You can ask questions like this, “Hmmm… OK, so what are the different choices we have to handle this?” or “What can you do to help yourself feel better?”
If you aren’t used to talking about your own emotions, I encourage you to learn how to do this. When you are experiencing a feeling (mad, sad, glad or scared), pause to notice what is happening—be a commentator of your emotions.
The next step is to ask yourself these questions: 1) Do I need a break? 2) To try again? Or 3) Some help? Perhaps that help needs to come from another person or within yourself. What do you need to happen so your emotion feels addressed? Do you need to learn a skill, talk to someone or go for a walk to cool down?
A great book to read on this topic is DARING GREATLY by Brené Brown, PhD.
I continually share free parenting resources on my Facebook page. I invite you over there to ask questions or learn more.
Have you ever felt so frustrated with your kids that you want to scream? Read Core Beliefs And Self-Talk: Be The Parent You Want To Be