The Many Ways Children Request Connection and How We Can Best Support Them
By Brittany Alley, MA LPC
We are all wired for connection. It is a necessary component to our survival and overall well-being. In some ways, holding awareness that someone could benefit from connection can be easy to identify. If someone requests a phone call, a hug, or an outing, we are aware that they are reaching out because they love us and value spending time together. However, recognizing this need for connection is not always so easy to identify, specifically with children. Bearing in mind verbal development and understanding, children are sometimes unable to articulate that they need more connection with their primary caregivers. They will however develop certain behaviors that can be positive or more disruptive, to express this need. This is important: It is our job as adults to understand what is being communicated and follow through.
What are some ways children communicate their need for more connection? Whining, tantrums, aggression, stealing toys, throwing things, being argumentative or defiant, rejection, snuggling, playing and engaging, sharing, etc., are all ways that could communicate a need for connection. The context of this behavior and when it occurs throughout the day can be helpful to understand.
If you find that your child is often in extra need of attention when you are talking with your spouse, another adult, or even another child. We can avoid or lessen meltdowns by trying the following suggestion given by Dan Siegel, author of The Whole Brain Child: Connect: Make eye contact and name what they are doing. “I see you pulling on my leg with both of your hands. Your orange shirt is wrapped around your hand. I know it is hard to wait for me to be done and you’re trying your best. I’ll be ready in just a moment. Can I give you a hug?” Redirect: “You can wait by the door or gather your toys while you wait. Good job!” Kids may ask for connection based on ways they value giving and receiving love. Think of this as love languages. We all want connection in different ways, at different times. Some acts of connection are preferred over others. Below are a few examples of children’s inclination towards receiving connection, as well as how it may look in a dysregulated, frustrating, or disruptive manner. You can model more appropriate ways to express their need, so that they can take that language and use it on their own. As a direct result, the disruptive responses no longer serve the same purpose as they once did. I encourage you to find the language that works for you! 1. If they prefer quality time: They may ask for snuggles or reading a story and watching a tv show together, or to play a game.
They may also use harsh language to make you feel like you aren’t doing enough (even when you are). Example: Disruptive response from child: “you never play with me!” “You care about my sister more and don’t love me!” What to model: “Let’s play with the dolls together or read your favorite book before bedtime” “You choose a game or story for us to play for 15 minutes.” 2. If they prefer physical touch: They may request snuggles and hugs. You may also find that they are often clinging to you, invade your physical space, or throw things and are aggressive Example: Disruptive response from child: Kicking, hitting, biting, spitting, rough housing, throwing/breaking toys What to model: “I need to keep my body safe in order to play. I do not want to be hit in the face. Let’s find another way” Tossing a ball back and forth, playing soccer together, crashing into couch cushions, doing a sword fight with foam noodles 3. If they prefer gifts: They might have a favorite stuffed animal that you gave to them or are often asking for gifts for birthdays and holidays. They may often have trouble sharing or want to provide you with drawings and art that they made. Example: Disruptive response from child:
“I want so many things for my birthday! I want to have them all and I want my brother to get nothing. ”It’s all for me!” “You can’t have any of my toys ever!” What to model: “I love this drawing you gave me because it reminds me of you. I want to give you something to think of me while I’m away too” “It’s your sister’s birthday tomorrow and I want to work on something with just me and you together so that we can give to her. You are creative and thoughtful in your drawings and I would love your help”
(Note: If sharing is difficult. It is of benefit to teach both children to say their own version of "I'm not done yet.” You might suggest that they get the toy after a timer, or you might choose to teach that we can respect that the other child is not ready to share. Both instances they are learning delayed gratification and waiting. They can also learn that they can handle being told no, even when it’s hard to hear. Validate that it is hard to not get what we want when we want it, and we can handle it.) 4.If they prefer help or acts of service: They may ask for help with tasks that they already know how to do (i.e. tie shoes, get dressed, brush their teeth) they may also be overly caretaking for the people that care about Disruptive response from child: “Tie my shoes!” “Flush the toilet for me!” “You never help me!” “I don’t want anyone to ever feel sad. I want to take care of everyone” What to model: “Can you help me write a letter to Grandma?” “I see that your sister is struggling to tie her shoes. Let’s help her together.” “I’m going to wait by the bathroom door for you while you flush the toilet. I know you can do it.” “I made this hot chocolate for you because I know it is your favorite!” “It’s ok to feel sad. Sometimes just sitting by someone when they’re sad is helpful”
5.If they prefer a focus on their abilities: They may request a lot of external validation. They may also compare themselves to others and be hard on themselves when they get something wrong. Disruptive response from child: “Look at how good I am, I am the best at everything!” “I got an A and my brother got a C.” “I got the problem wrong in class and now everything thinks I’m stupid.” “You didn’t tell me I did a good job when my sister asked me to share. You always take her side!” What to model: “This grade on your paper shows me you really loved the subject you’re learning! Good job!” or other words of affirmation such as “I love our time together” “You were in a tough situation where a friend wanted to share, and you didn’t want to just yet. You made eye contact and told her you weren’t ready to stop playing but that you would let her know when you were ready” “Getting the answer wrong in class can be hard sometimes. It’s ok to feel sad, but you went back and tried again. I know that was hard to do. That was also very brave!” Something to note: When children value to focus on their abilities, we can meet this need in two ways. Both offer validation for their work, but one allows for teachable moments to model expect behavior we’d like to see more frequently.
Praise vs Reinforcement: Praise: “You aced your math test!” “Your drawing is so beautiful” “You were kind to your sister” Reinforcement: “Your grade shows me that you enjoyed what you were learning.” “I can see you drew the house like you learned in class, and then added your own creativity with designing the door and adding flowers” “You noticed your sister working hard at the table and you gave her a compliment on what she was creating. You were kind and thoughtful”
Both come from a place of the best of intentions and can be great! However, reinforcement phrases give detail to what is being praised, allowing for teachable moments for children to focus more on in the future. Knowing why you thought they were kind and helpful, what you loved about their drawing, or why you are proud that they got an A allows them to better understand goals they can works towards with clearer language and expectations.
Practicing ways to connect through play In conclusion, I want to add one more thing. It may feel like you spend so much time with your child and HOW could they possibly need more? Every child is different, and various degrees of connection are needed during different stages of development as well as during specific challenges. There are periods in life where more connection is needed than in other times. 1.Carve out time for one on one non-directive play This is a time to play where the child gets to lead. Give options for an activity that is within your threshold, where not a lot of redirection is needed. For example, if you are not comfortable with sand being thrown, try to opt for an activity where that isn’t required. You might choose playing with dolls or with cars instead. Again, allow the child to lead and create the play with you. 2.Observational statements One way that a child knows you are connected is through observational statements such as “You have the red car and you are moving it up the ramp. It’s moving so fast!” This shows engagement in the play. You can also choose to mimic the play. For example, let’s say a child grabs an airplane and is flying it through the sky. They stand up and are running with it across the room. You can then do the same thing. Eye contact, observational statements, mirroring play, letting go of redirecting, are all ways to help your child feel seen and understood and build context for what is quality time and connection. 3.Understanding their preferred mode of connection and adjusting from there There will be different times throughout a child’s life where they need connection in different ways. Noticing what their behavior is communicating with the understanding that it’s just that- Communication- helps us see their behavior from a fresh perspective. What if they are not being aggressive to be mean or manipulative? What if they aren’t spoiled asking for more presents, or bragging by needing praise? Perhaps we can begin to see that children may be requesting connection (albeit in a disruptive way) in the only way they currently know how? From there, we can find ways to adapt and meet that need in a more appropriate way.