Happy New Year 2023!

After a festive 2 weeks, the new year marks the return to some perhaps much needed routine once again and, of course, our thoughts often turn to New Year’s Resolutions – which we of course discussed in last week’s blog.

It’s often a time when we review our habits and look at things we want to change. The Christmas holidays are a time to enjoy ourselves and our loved ones, but it can be also be a time where our children (and us) pick up or return to some unwanted, negative habits. We might overindulge during this period on food, screen time, excessive sleep (or lack of) and may also have been less active and end up, after the initial short-term boost of dopamine, feeling a little worse for wear.

January can be tough because it’s dark and cold (and often wet too) and the excitement and expectation of Christmas has passed.  Over Christmas our children’s bedtime routine might have gone out of the window, they’ve generally slept until they want to get up – and perhaps lounged around in pyjamas.  But now they have to be up by 7 am, have breakfast, get dressed and be presentable for school again. Kids have a lot on their plates with school, homework, and activities – it can be hard to find time for focusing on re-building good, healthy habits and finding new ways of connecting with our children. And, in particular, if your child is a teenager, screen time is often something that gets in the way of having quality time together once they’re home from school.

So, when reviewing your habits this January, why not make a conscious effort to develop new, positive ways of connecting with your child or teen.

The neuroscience behind connection

  • As human beings, we are hard-wired to function better in a tribe – with our family and friends. Positive interactions are important for our children’s emotional and mental well-being and literally changes the balance of different chemicals in the brain, such as Serotonin, the feel-good hormone. Connecting with others can strengthen memory, concentration and forge new neural pathways in the brain.
  • You may of course heard of the bonding hormone, Oxytocin. This is associated with feelings of love and connection and helps us to feel bonded to others. You will have heard of this hormone no doubt at the ‘love’ hormone.
  • There are many different ways to support the release of these different feel-good chemicals but perhaps the most important fundamental qualities include creating feelings of safety and belonging – and this is of course important no matter the age of your child – even though we might seek to create those feelings in different ways depending on their age and stage of development.

So, how can I start connecting more with my child in new, healthy ways?

  1. Play together. As child development psychologist, Piaget, once said “play is the answer to how anything new comes about.” With young children, this is often how they communicate and interpret the world around them. But with older children, this might be sharing a computer game they enjoy, jokes and humour or just being silly and learning a new dance routine together! Anything that brings about fun and laughter creates positive connection.
  2. Try to put distractions away. Quality time isn’t just about spending time together with our children on things we can enjoy together, but it also includes time together without other distractions that often get in the way – be it mobile phones, work emails or phone calls. Try to set a new habit of setting some time aside each day where you can communicate with your child together without any interruptions. Giving your undivided attention even for just a small amount of time each day send a clear message that ‘you are important’ and that of course fosters the feelings of love, security and belonging that are so important in creating connection.
  3. Eat meals together. In today’s busy world, this can be a difficult habit to stick to, especially if you all have different work patterns and routines at home. When meal times altogether aren’t possible every night of the week, try to schedule at least one day where you can all sit and enjoy a meal together. To make this even more of an opportunity for connection, try going around the dinner table listing one thing each that has been good about your day – this helps to open the opportunity for positive conversation.
  4. Welcome all emotions – not just the happy ones! Behaviour and big emotions communicate an unmet need. Often children and teenagers find it really difficult to express that need in a way we can understand. Try to listen and empathise with how your child is feeling. If they’re displaying really big emotions and aren’t feeling ready for a hug, just sitting and waiting and saying “I am here when you are ready” can be really helpful. It communicates to your child that they are safe.
  5. Imagine the positive outcome. We’ve shared this in previous blogs, when we vividly imagine the outcome we want, our brain takes notice. Discuss with your children what the benefits are to them making the positive changes in habits they are hoping for.  Ask them what achieving this will then lead on to – help them see that small changes actually stack up to much bigger changes in the long run. Developing and talking about new healthy habits together can be a great way to connect.
  6. Take it all in. When enjoying time together, try to stay in the present moment. In our busy lives, we’re often so focused on what is coming next that we forget to enjoy the memories we’re making right now.
  7. Progression not perfection – Remember, every day we make a positive change, it is a step in the right direction (and we begin to show our brain what we want to achieve and how good we feel when we achieve it). Even if you begin by trying one new way of connecting with your child then that alone can make a huge difference. Remember to start small!

So, whatever the new healthy habit you and your children decide to focus on it’s important to remember that healthy habits are built over time. With a little patience and effort, you can help yourself and your kids develop healthy routines that will last a lifetime and support your child’s success, mental health and overall well-being for the better.