Children need positive relationships and connections to learn, grow and thrive. Research1 shows these connections boost their psychological, cognitive and social development, as well as how they interact with other people and the world around them.
But with so many responsibilities to juggle, it may feel difficult for parents and carers to set aside enough time for those special moments to bond. And when finances are tight, the pressure to create them can feel even greater.
The good news is building a strong connection with children doesn't have to be complicated or expensive. Simple but meaningful moments can strengthen your relationship, and help children develop life skills like self-regulation, problem-solving and confidence.
Here are five tips to keep in mind:
Showing genuine interest
You might think that to truly connect you need to spend a lot of uninterrupted time together to bond with your child. However, small moments of genuine interest can be just as impactful.
For example, when your child approaches you with something to show or tell you, they’re often looking for connection. Take a moment to pause what you’re doing and try to give them your full attention. Show genuine interest in what they have to say, ask questions, be curious and listen to them.
These “mini moments” mean a lot to children, letting them know they matter and you’re available when they need you.
Even though it sounds obvious, this can be one of the most important things a parent or carer can do to help children feel seen, heard, validated and understood for who they are. It can also help children feel more secure and confident coming back to you in the future, knowing their thoughts and feelings matter. This, in turn, keeps your connecting going strong.
Connecting through play
Children need to play – so much so, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child deems it a fundamental right2. Play helps children learn about the world, solve problems, explore their creativity, practise scenarios and regulate their emotions. It’s also a protective factor against stress.
Even so, many parents and carers find it challenging to fit in playtime. This is a normal concern, especially when you're already balancing so much. Sometimes, when there’s so much on your plate already, you might feel guilty thinking "I don't have time to play with my kids."
Tweaking your approach to playing can help, like carving out small amounts of time to do one activity you both enjoy. For example, if you like art, try painting or drawing together. If you're into sports, why not kick a ball around? And if they love video games, join in the fun sometimes. Remember, you don't always have to have a bonding plan or learning goal in mind: just let things unfold.
You could also make everyday activities, like bath time or travelling to school, more playful by singing together, making up fun games, telling stories or just cracking jokes. Playful interactions like these can build strong bonds and send a powerful, positive message to children: I'm glad you're here, and I like being with you.
Emotional support, affection and warmth
Growing up can be tough, with all kinds of emotions to navigate. Some good, some challenging and some confusing. There are ways to help your child feel loved and valued through it all.
Expressing affection through physical touch, like a warm hug, can go a long way. Noticing when things go well, and praising them for their efforts, can help them feel valued and secure.
It's also important to pay attention to your reactions to their emotions, and what they're learning from you. For example, when children are feeling overwhelmed, angry, upset or worried, these are moments when they really need us to be calm and emotionally tuned in.
It’s easier said than done, especially when you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed yourself. Your first instinct might be to talk them out of their feelings, or try to solve the problem immediately. Sometimes, you might lose your cool and end up reacting in frustration.
On the other hand, staying calm, listening and responding (rather than reacting) can help them learn how to understand and regulate their emotions. This builds trust and helps them to develop positive relationships with others, too.
Calm, consistent emotional support also helps kids explore the world with confidence, knowing they have a caring and supportive adult to turn to when they need it.
Setting boundaries with children
Connecting with children is also about setting some realistic, consistent boundaries. This doesn't mean being rigid or inflexible. It’s more about keeping things predictable and stable in their daily life, which can create an environment where positive interactions can flourish.
For younger children, like toddlers and preschoolers, simple and straightforward rules can work well. This might include rules about sharing toys, being polite or limiting sugary snacks. As they get older, boundaries can become more complex, like setting limits on screen time, having a curfew or helping around the house.
And while it's important to set boundaries, it's equally important to do it in a warm and respectful way. Children are more likely to follow rules when they understand why they're there. Try to take some time to explain why certain rules are in place, and listen to their thoughts.
As children grow up and try new things, their needs and circumstances will change. So, it's a good idea to review and adjust your boundaries every so often, to make sure they're still working well.
Family routines can help keep things organised and running smoothly. Moreover, did you know they can also bring families closer together?
Having a set routine in place can make everyone feel more relaxed and prepared. Especially during those busy times like getting ready in the morning or winding down at night.
You might like to involve your family in creating these routines, so everyone feels like they are part of the process. Simple things like getting organised for next day or encouraging children to help tidy up can make a difference in creating a calm environment and encouraging positive interactions.
Growing your connection takes time (including time for you)
Taking care of yourself can have a significant impact on your ability to confidently connect with children. Finding ways to bring joy and relaxation into your life can help you be more present and engaged.
Every positive connection you have with children – no matter how small – can help build a strong, secure bond that can benefit them in all areas of their life.
1 McNamara, J., Townsend, M. L., & Herbert, J. S. (2019). A systemic review of maternal wellbeing and its relationship with maternal fetal attachment and early postpartum bonding. PloS one, 14(7), e0220032.
2 United Nations General Assembly. (1989). Convention on the Rights of the Child. United Nations, Treaty Series, 1577(3), 1-23.