Raising connected kids in an age of disconnection

December 17, 2018 Providence Health Team

Connection is an important aspect of youth development.

Parents can help foster this sense of connection in children.

Connected children are more resilient, emotionally intelligent, and engaged in the world in positive ways.

Connection is an extremely valuable and necessary component of a young person’s development – connection to family, the community, and the surrounding world. Connected kids possess greater emotional and academic intelligence; are more resilient in times of turmoil; and are generally more capable of having healthy, responsible relationships.

There are many things that parents, and other caring adults, can do to foster this sense of connection in children. To help provide some guidance, we spoke with Kathryn Anderson, LMHC, a family therapist at Providence Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital in Spokane, WA, about raising connected children.

What do you mean by the concept of a connected child?

A connected child is a child who has a strong sense of community within their family, their school, their friendships, their extended families, and those who surround them. It’s an awareness of belonging, of worthiness, of being needed and of responsibility to the community.

What are some of the qualities of a connected child?

A connected child has a sense within himself or herself that:

  • I know how to be in relationships.
  • I know how to advocate for what I need in my friendships or in my family.
  • I know how to cooperate when the needs of others become important.
  • I know how to use my emotions to get my needs met in a positive way (rather than exploding with my emotions, or totally suppressing them).
  • I know how to work within my emotions.

What are the benefits of instilling these values?

If children are capable of having healthy, available and responsive relationships with others — and with themselves — that makes it more likely that they are going to be able to be resilient in times of turmoil or stress. For example, it helps them be able to learn in a classroom environment.

What can also come with that is the idea that, ‘I care about the safety and the well being of others, because I myself am connected and cared for in that way’. Concepts of empathy, resilience, emotional intelligence, and academic intelligence can stem from that early core connection that we all need.

What can parents (and other adults) do to foster this sense of connectedness?

Start early with understanding the difference in how adults — in contrast to children, tweens and teens — communicate.

Children tend to communicate through play, through activity and doing, and using their bodies. Adults primarily communicate through words, so we tend to verbally express appreciation, verbally express distress, verbally express what we need.

Kids tend to learn, and communicate, and hear what we’re verbally and nonverbally ‘saying’ through how much we interact with them, through how much we play with them. So if you have young kids in your life, one of the best ways to show them that you are available to them, that you’re going to respond to them, that they matter, is to play with them, to interact with them as much as possible, and help them start to verbalize their feelings.

Do you have any specific tips for parents of teens?

Teenagers notice our actions more than our words, just like younger children do. The parts of their brain that absorb our language are still developing, but the parts that notice actions, and notice what it feels like to be connected and be doing something with their loved ones, has been primed from earlier stages in their lives.

With teenagers, it’s important to be able to tolerate the eye rolling and the protesting about having to spend time with parents and siblings. Make shared family time a priority. Everyone can put their devices down, unplug from the stressful reality of our culture, and do something together.

Connecting face to face and being on the move together, participating together in an activity, is at least as important as words when it comes to showing your children they matter, they are responsible, they are a part of the community, and they are needed.

Another key to the action component is honoring where a child is at developmentally. If you have a teenager, you can honor their independence by saying, “I want you to have a say in the activities we do.” Let’s say you just aren’t interested in baking, but your teen, for some reason, wants to make brownies. Make time to actually bake with your kid, because then you’re connecting together through an activity that matters to them. Then, make time to do something together that you like. It’s through those kinds of interaction that connection is built.

Is technology helping connect kids with others and their community, or is it isolating them from real life connections?

We talk so much about kids being plugged in to their devices, and we see it just as much in adults as I do in kids. Young children and teenagers are strongly tuned into our actions as adults, and how we communicate behaviorally can be more meaningful to them than what we as parents verbalize.

In addition, there is the concept which a colleague of mine describes as pseudo-mutuality, meaning “false closeness.” Technology and social media does give us closeness, it does connect us to each other in many ways. However, if we talk about the degree of closeness children need to feel like they belong and they matter, it’s not going to be obtainable via technology. The way to achieve truly meaningful family bonding is through face-to-face, emotionally available, doing-something-together action.

Additional resources on raising a connected child.

Anderson recommends the following books that can help reinforce how to connect with your kid and be a connected adult yourself:

The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture your Child’s Developing Mind by Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Dr. Brene Brown

Also recommended for you:

Pediatrician’s expert parenting tips to help teenagers thrive

5 uncommon but important manners to teach your children

Get answers to your questions about raising healthy kids. Download the Circle by Providence app.

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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