Our children are connected and attached to us! Sometimes that attachment is overwhelming and it seems like they just want our attention all the time. Whether it’s an infant’s cry, your older son endlessly talking about Minecraft, or your toddler needing extra snuggles at the end of a long day, it’s built into their DNA—and for us parents, it can be exhausting. It may help to know that this attachment is the foundation for all of their future relationships, and the love and support they receive from you colors how they feel about themselves and the world.
However, with our to-do lists a mile long and thoughts racing in our minds (“Does the cat need another dose of flea meds?” “Gregory needs new shoes for PE.” “Electricity bill is due tomorrow.”), it’s a challenge to always be present with our children.
“Presence” is the concept of being alert and focused on the current moment, rather than looking ahead to the future, or distracting yourself from the moment with other thoughts or activities. Being present with our children is a great way to meet their emotional needs. In this article, we offer tips for being more present as a parent.
We can think of being present with our children by picturing opening our arms to them, either to encourage them to explore or to welcome them back. Children need both of these things, and they learn to be independent by first knowing they have you to always be there for them. In our culture, we tend to focus on encouraging independence, but that independence needs a safe foundation in you.
Being present starts with responding to physical and emotional needs
When your infant or toddler cries because they are hungry, physically uncomfortable or sick, for example, it’s critical you respond to their immediate physical needs, quickly and with calmness. Your response also shows them your love and teaches them they have an effect on the world. Your infant or toddler has many emotional needs, too. If you find yourself simply going through the motions while changing a diaper for the 100th time today, try a more mindful and present approach through:
- Smiling, making eye contact
- Hugging, kissing or cuddling with them
- Talking in a gentle and soothing voice (even if they are not talking yet)
- Singing and reading to them
- Holding their hand so they feel safe when you are out in the world
Make it count
You can’t be there all the time, but when you are there make it count!
Some experts say with 15 minutes of fully focused attention, children will feel satisfied and independent for the next half hour or so. If a work email needs to get sent ASAP but your toddler is struggling to play independently, try reading books with him for 15 minutes, then try getting your work done again. You can think of the positive time and attention you are giving your children as “money in the bank,” or positive connection you can count on as a buffer for when you need to be away from them.
Show that you are “present” by:
- Putting down your phone, tablet or other device, and putting them out of sight.
- Avoiding vague judging words, even if they seem positive, like “good job.” Instead respond specifically and descriptively – “You made a really big ball with that clay.” When you respond this way, your child feels “seen,” loved and cared for, which builds their self esteem.
- Being at eye level with your toddler. Toddlers are little people in a big world. It’s scary to always be looking up at people towering over you. When you talk with them on their level, they feel safe; They enjoy being able to make eye contact with you, and you are able to listen more closely.
- Taking cues from your child. Use what’s called “Incidental Teaching.” Tired of answering a million “why” questions during your day? Ask your child questions, such as: “How deep do YOU think the ocean is?” Or, you can give an answer that helps them make connections, like “Is it deeper than the bathtub? Your swimming pool?”
A present mind is a calm mind
Parenting can be stressful—and it’s hard to feel “zen” when you are constantly overwhelmed or feeling anxious. Need extra support? Try these tips for supporting your own mindfulness.
- Carve out time every day for “family time.” Even if on your busiest days, you know you can count on dinner time as your family-focused moment, it makes feeling “present” more manageable. Practice gratitude together; go around the table and say something you are grateful for, even if it is the sun in the sky.
- Give your child 15 minutes of your time before starting on something that is going to need your attention for a while, such as making dinner. Let your child know that you can play together for 15 minutes, then you need to start dinner, make a phone call, clip the dog’s toenails…
- Take 5 minutes every day to just breathe, meditate, stretch…whatever it is that clears and calms your head.
- Get moving. Exercise, whether solo or with your family, is a great way to de-stress, and boost energy levels. Pack up the kids and go to the park, or walk around the block.
Past, present, and future
Children really do grow up “in a blink of an eye.” Remember to smile at them, hug them, sing to them, and listen to their interests. When you do, your child will know and trust that they are loved and cared for, and learn to be self-confident and independent, too.
This article is brought to you by Parenting Now! Parenting Educators and authors Amanda Bedortha, Claire Davis and Lynne Swartz and consultant Jay Thompson (andupdatemywebsite.com).