As we welcome children into the world, we immediately begin to create and build meaningful connections with them. These initial connections are based largely on their total dependence upon us. As we reflect upon their infancy and early childhood, the connections that bring a smile to our face are innumerable. However, as children change and grow—from complete dependence to independence—these connections change.
Oftentimes, parents of older teens and young adults look back, bewildered, wondering how and when they became less connected with their kids; or when their kids became more disconnected from them. It is usually not a single event or point in time that can be readily identified—the connections just seem to have faded. Most of the time this disconnectedness is not due to lack of love or caring, not due to neglect or mistreatment in the relationship and overwhelmingly not due to any overt acts to destroy the relationship. It just seems to have faded over time.
Conversely, there are those parents and kids whose connectedness seems to transcend the perils of adolescence. Their relationships seem to weather the changes that occur in kids as they develop through infancy, childhood and adolescence into adulthood. How does this happen?
Research suggests not only is the quantity of time we spend with our kids important, but that the quality of the time is equally critical, especially in developing and maintaining these important connections. However, as parents we must be open to adapting to the changing needs of our kids as they grow and develop. Keeping up presents an ongoing challenge.
As preschoolers, our kids spell “love” “T-I-M-E.” Connecting with them is as simple as playing with them—playing catch with a ball, playing with a favorite toy, or reading with them—the quantity of time seems to be the important variable at this stage.
Connecting with them through the elementary school years through preadolescence means attending events they are involved in, helping coach or supervise these events, celebrating their successes, doing the things they like to do and just hanging out with them.
During adolescence, as their needs become more complex, so too do the requirements for connecting. At this point in the kids’ quest for independence, the quality of time spent together appears vital. However, due to the complex nature of quality time in relation to the volatile nature of the adolescent experience, parents must put in the quantity of time in order to fulfill the quality requirement. In other words, kids will connect with us only according to their rules, under their conditions and at a time right for them; so we have to be around enough (quantity) in order to be available at those times when they need us (quality). “Quality time” is defined from their perspective, not ours.
Unfortunately, the complexity evolves. Adolescents and young adults may not only dictate the rules, conditions and timing for connecting, but they also dictate how we adults must approach this. More often than not the direct approach fails. “Nick, I get the feeling you need to talk” is met with a voiceless stare reflecting disgust for your heartfelt invitation. However, being “present” (available) on a car ride, doing something around the house or in passing creates a more comfortable, non-threatening setting and a better opportunity for connection. Paradoxically, we can’t be too interested, but must be interested enough and in the right way—a difficult balance to achieve. The good news is those families able to strike this balance reap the rewards of meaningful connections during this difficult stage.
This is not an easy process for parents or other adults who work with kids. Being flexible and adaptable to our kids’ changing needs can be confusing and frustrating. But remember, these are our kids, and although they did not come with an owner’s manual, if we are willing to invest the time (both quantity and quality), and be patient with the natural changes in their needs, we will play a crucial role in meeting those needs. The question isn’t whether our kids’ changing needs for connection will confuse, bewilder and frustrate us—they will. The question is whether we will take the time to notice these changing needs and respond accordingly.
David M. Weber, Psy.D., is a professor in the FPU School of Education in the evening, and by day practices his craft as a school psychologist with Clovis Unified School District.