By Sarah Hughes
When you’re busy or stressed it can be really easy to take for granted your relationship with your children. They’re always there right? Whining about their sibling, messing up the house, asking you to buy them something. But sometimes those constant demands on your time are a childs way of saying “I’m here! Look at me, give me some attention.”
Our post-Covid world involves lots of working from home which is of course quite convenient and allows some flexibility in terms of work-life balance. However, it has blurred the line for our children about when their parents are available to give them the attention they crave, and when their parents actually need to stay in work mode.
Being a freelancer adds it’s own set of challenges for any parent. I for one feel like I’m always ‘on’, answering emails or returning phone calls. It’s important that amongst work and all our other myriad commitments we recognise the signs that our child might feel a little overlooked and need us to reconnect with them.
What are the signs we need to look out for?
Every child is different and of course the need for attention might manifest in different ways, but the UK-based Child Psychology Service reminds us that rather than seeing it as attention-seeking behaviour, we need to remember it’s actually attachment-seeking behaviour. They want to feel close to you, you’re their place of safety. Our child doesn’t have the communication skills yet to say “hey I’m feeling a bit uncertain, anxious, neglected.' So instead they might try out the following:
Asking lots of questions
Being disruptive if you are on the phone or talking to another adult
Lying or telling far-fetched stories
Trying to help you persistently
Becoming physically aggressive
These types of behaviours can begin to manifest at any time, and we should remember they’re all a normal part of development, but as parents we should still be mindful and reflective about why our children are displaying these traits or behaviours.
I know that with my three children, their ways of letting me know I’m not giving them the attention they need are all very different. Our situation is not helped by the fact that I’m midway through a divorce process and they’ve gone from having their Dad around a lot to me now being the main source of nurturing, encouragement and yes… attention.
My eldest child who is 12, is very securely attached and I think pretty confident in his bond with me. He asks very little from me in terms of attention (cold hard cash is another story). If he behaves badly I can put it down to the normal tweenage strops and not worry too much about upping the time and energy I put into him.
My middle and youngest sons are much more sensitive and have been more affected by the divorce and in particular, have struggled with being separated from me every other weekend. This of course leads to lots of overcompensation from me, showering them with attention and affection when they return because I’ve missed them so much. However day to day, it’s hard to keep up that level of intensity, especially when there’s only one of me and three of them!
Studies have shown that having an emotionally available and present parent leads to children being more confident, having increased cognitive abilities and more successful friendships and intimate relationships in adulthood. Conversely, in an article for Psychology Today, psychologist Michelle P Maidenberg states that having a parent who is persistently emotionally unavailable can lead to the child suffering feelings of loneliness, feeling awkward, or different and intrinsically misunderstood.
Obviously there are many children who are living in households where abuse, mental health, previous trauma or poverty can mean parents do not have the wherewithall to meet their emotional needs. But for the most of us, who are just hamsters on the hectic wheel of life, fitting in work, relationships, (whisper it) social lives, it’s easy for us to overlook those needs, even though we do have it within us to meet them.
So, how can we go about reconnecting with our child when we feel distance or insecurity creeping in?
Step away from the tech!
How many of us have ‘listened’ to the story of their childs entire day, whilst scrolling through Facebook and not picked up a single memorable thing? I know my hand is sheepishly in the air right now! Try to get rid of the phone for set points during time spent with your child. I find putting my phone away in a drawer upstairs is the only way I can stop myself distractedly looking at it when I want to be talking to my kids. So that’s what I do now. For the first hour after work/school,my phone is not on my person… and because of this I’m much more present and engaged for my boys.
Do what they love
This is one I’ve really had to lean into, being a mother to three boys. I can’t reconnect with them by taking them out for a day at the shops or the spa. I have to come to them and meet them doing what they want to do. If that means heading out to a soggy rainy park to kick a football about or playing FIFA with them on the Xbox then so be it. Of course, I don’t do this all the time, in fact, it’s a rare occurrence. But it really pays off when I feel distanced from them.
Ask them how their day was
It sounds ridiculously simple, doesn’t it? But just the act of asking that question and really listening and being interested in the answer is such a lovely way of saying ‘I care’. I’ve found that after years of me doing this daily check-in with my boys, they now do it to me, sometimes before I’ve had a chance to ask them; “How was your day Mum? How was work?” Reconnection doesn’t have to be a long process or a big display; small daily kindnesses go a long way.
Send a text
This one sounds silly but it was given to me by a good friend who has been through it all before me with her teenagers. Sometimes tweens and teens might find it hard to open up or reconnect in person, maybe it all feels a bit awkward. Sending a text just saying “Hope you’re having a great day, looking forward to hearing about it tonight”, just lets your child subtly know that they’re on your mind.
Don’t pour from an empty cup
Almost a year into my separation from my ex-husband, I’m just starting to learn the importance of this. You simply can’t be present and emotionally available for your kids if you’re depleted and exhausted yourself. Find ways to replenish and look after your own needs alongside your kids, as difficult as that may be. If that means leaning on friends and family for a bit of support along the way then do it.
Plan one-on-one time
Again, this is trickier if you have several children, but whenever the opportunity arises, try to spend some quality, dedicated time with each child. It doesn’t have to be for long and it definitely doesn’t need to involve spending money. Simple things like snuggling up to watch an episode of their favourite cartoon, cheering them on from the sideline of their netball game, reading an extra bedtime story or sitting on the edge of their bed to hear about the gossip from school… it’s these small things that help keep us connected to our child.