Six-fifteen in the morning, the alarm rings, signaling the “starting gun” feel of weekday mornings. Getting two kids up in time to eat breakfast and get dressed, gather homework and pack lunches, and make it to school before the tardy bell (because, who are we kidding, we’re not making it by the first bell!), is no small feat. Often, it can feel like we don’t really take our first full, deep breath ’til we arrive at work!
If we were to take a moment, peek through our children’s eyes, what would we see?
The end of the school day, and the evening that follows, carries with it a similar sense of urgency, as we juggle making dinner, helping with homework, taking kids to after-school activities and finishing necessary chores, before collapsing into bed to do it again the next day.
At school children are expected to negotiate numerous complex tasks
If we were to take a moment, peek through our children’s eyes, what would we see? At the end of the school day, how do our children make sense of their experience away from family, be it a brand new game they invented at recess, a teacher’s testy tone, or a difficult problem in Math? How can they access us, the ones who know and love them more than anyone else on this planet, to offload some of these adventures and troubles, when we are busy with conflicting demands on time, attention and other resources. What happens for those children in particular, for whom school, and interactions with peers, don’t come easily?
At school, with the brain firing on all cylinders, children are expected to negotiate numerous complex tasks alongside academics, including sharing one teacher’s attention with as many as thirty other children, taking turns, raising hands and waiting patiently to answer a question, negotiating social dynamics in the classroom and at recess. By the time they return home, many children are tired and depleted. The executive functioning part of their brain, having been hard at work for 6 hours, takes a much needed break. At this time, what better than to experience gentleness, warmth, and play with parents.
Children do not feel fully emotionally connected to us after the separation imposed by the school day
However, experts in connection-based parenting, such as Patty Wipfler of Hand in Hand Parenting, and Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Child, and Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings, alert parents that children do not feel fully emotionally connected to us after the separation imposed by the school day, simply by sharing space with us. Oftentimes, in the absence of adequate emotional connection with a loving parent upon returning home at the end of the school day, children can exhibit off-track behavior, such as whining and tantrums over minor (to us) issues, verbal and physical aggression and defiance.
Dr. Markham shares the idea of children carrying around an “emotional backpack” filled with old feelings and fears that have largely remained unresolved. When an interaction or experience occurs, that triggers an old hurt or fear, behavior changes from being easy-going and flexible, able to accept affection and experience joy, to tight, inflexible and unable to laugh. A stressful day at school, where many old fears may resurface and cause discomfort, combined with extracurricular commitments, tired and busy parents, and homework to round off the evening, and the stage is set for an emotional outburst.
Reconnecting with our children is an intentional act
What power do we have as parents to prevent this sequence of events? After all, we can’t be with our kids throughout the day to protect them from academic and interactional challenges. Yes, there is much there that is out of our power to control. However, where we can make a difference, is when reconnecting with our children is an intentional act. When this happens, children have the opportunity to switch gears from school to home, much more smoothly, feeling at once reconnected, safe and secure.
Here are five ways in which we can bring our children into our orbit, emotionally as well as physically, after the day apart:
1) Statements, not questions:
Of course we want to know how our child’s day was at school. If we can refrain from asking them as soon as we lay eyes upon them, we may get more than the typical “fine.” Telling our child, “I’m so happy you’re home,” or “I’d love to hear about your day whenever you’re ready to share,” allows our children time and space to choose what to share, rather than needing to come up with an answer on demand, something that has likely been a common theme throughout their day at school.
2) Snuggle time/ positive feedback:
One of my favorite ways to connect with my two sons, ages 9 and 4, is to snuggle up on the couch, with a blanket around us, to tell them how much I love them and what positives I’ve noticed earlier that day. eg ” I loved watching how to helped your brother get dressed this morning.”
For children struggling with academic and social challenges especially, being reminded of their positive contributions to the family can help bolster self esteem, giving them an opportunity to develop a more balanced view of themselves as competent and worthy, to counteract the negative self talk that might be happening at school.
3) Gentle roughhousing:
The tool of “Playlistening,” that is one of the core facets of Patty Wipfler’s connection-based parenting philosophy, allows for a release of anxiety through laughter, that isn’t brought about by tickling (great info about why to steer clear of tickling, here)
Reversing roles, so that the child is more powerful in play, can be very healing, as children spend much of their day being dictated to, told what to do in class, where and when to eat, whether they can use the restroom. Both Wipfler and Dr. Markham talk about the benefits of this type of play to help with connection.
My sons and I play a game of “Kiss Tag” after school. I chase them around the house, exaggerating my inability to capture them, bumbling around like an uncoordinated buffoon, attempting to restore my fill of hugs and kisses that has been depleted in their absence. It brings about much laughter from all of us, as well as teamwork as my boys set up ways to protect each other from my capture attempts.
Another variation of role reversal is through using stuffed animals or puppets, in which the child takes the role of teacher, and the parent is the student. Such reverse-role activities can help children gain insight and mastery over interactional problems, as they imagine in play what they would like to see happen, or alternatively work through a negative interaction that has occurred, from a place of safety and more power than was actually afforded them.
4) Paper and crayons:
Joining kids in coloring and drawing, simply for their company and not with a plan or agenda, has the dual purpose of being deeply relaxing as well as enhancing connection. A favorite activity is for me to draw around my hand, and then around my boys’ hands overlapping mine, and ask them to join in coloring in the picture. Alternatively, I hand each child a sheet of paper, and have one myself. I set the timer to go off in 30 seconds and we draw whatever we choose for those 30 seconds. When the timer goes off, we pass the paper to the next person and continue drawing, either enhancing what is already there, or adding our own creation, then repeat until everyone has had time with each sheet of paper. Then of course we share the pictures and talk about what we see. It can be a wonderfully goofy way to spend some time.
5) Legos, glorious Legos….(or any game/activity/toy at which the child feels confident)
When I pick my older son up from school, and he is irritable and difficult to engage, it signals to me that he had a challenging day. Getting home and setting a timer for 15 minutes of Legos before the rest of the evening unfolds, tends to help him relax and feel competent as he competes with me for the best build, or I simply help him by finding just the right piece in a tub of hundreds of pieces. He might talk about what’s on his mind, or he may simply “smack-talk” at my efforts, but either way, he has begun to engage and can feel my presence and support in his corner.
Again, this idea of creating opportunities for a child to experience competence and confidence becomes especially important for those who experience less comfort and self assurance at school than their peers.
I believe that we ask a lot of our children to spend several hours a day away from the company of their favorite humans. When they return home, we can do much to ease the toils and troubles of their day by gently and playfully reconnecting with them. I’ve found, since beginning this practice with my sons, that it does me at least as much good!
Vinay Gaglani is a Pacific Northwesterner of Indian descent, an aspiring-to-be-peaceful parent to two amazing boys, and a Licensed Professional Counselor by trade. She is a lover of hiking and tea!