Touch, eye contact, and physical play feel good. They are the building blocks of parent-child connection. What’s more, they nurture our brains, hearts, and disease-fighting systems. They help us build secure relationships.
Many parents see the value of helping children learn to use technology. They want to stay in touch, and help them master important tools. But we need to pay special attention if tech time takes away time spent face-to-face.
We need to mind what we do, because giving our in-person attention to parent-child connection is vital to our mental and physical health.
Secure Attachment Has a Physical Foundation
Did you feel seen and understood as a child? Then you probably feel safe, and expect connection from relationships now. Was your family distracted by work, illness, or relationship problems? Then you may not feel as safe or as confident about being present with others.
We learn how to connect with others from the experience of being with our caregivers. Our main caregiver connection, or parent-child connection is our model for forming self-understanding and connections later.
Some adults expect to feel seen, safe and accepted in a good partnership. Other adults expect to feel invisible in their most important relationship. This is tragic. The good news is, we can heal and connect better by knowing how to be more fully present to ourselves and with each other.
When connection feels secure, we find meaning, value, safety and comfort in our partnerships. When we are emotionally present in person, we can better build healthy relationships that support each other. Emotional connection helps us care across differences.
How Digital Connection Impacts Personal Connection
The attention we give to digital devices also impacts how we experience connection. Online social life has a different impact on the nervous system than in-person contact.
For example, eye contact with a loved one can be very calming. We just can’t feel the connection in the same way through a camera. Physical cues between people are missing in much online conversation.
Different stages of childhood call for different amounts of screen time.
Young children need to spend the bulk of their time engaged in real face-to-face time, and real in-person play. The nature of your parent-child connection may have its biggest impact in the earliest years.
Are you a playful parent? Keep playing! Little ones really benefit from horseplay, grasping and moving things, using their big muscles, and learning how to play without hurting anyone. All young animals wrestle, including yours!
Older children and teens often want to join in the digital games their friends enjoy.
Games and apps can make it harder to know who children are talking to, and where. That’s why it’s vital for parents to maintain healthy, open communication with their children, especially into the teen years.
When both parents — even stepparents — are emotionally present and aware, they can better help support their child in managing their activities or interactions with others.
We need to remember our human need to connect by being present with people and our inner experiences, says Dr. Daniel Siegel. Cultivating being present with each other is ever more important as we spend more time in digital spaces.
We Need Presence to Keep Working Well Together
Our wellbeing, singly and together, depends a lot on integration.
Integration is a process of enabling different parts of a system to work together. Linking the wisdom of mind and body, left brain and right brain (the more logical side with the more spatial, visual and musical side) are examples of integration within us. Integration between us is “like two people honoring each others’ differences and then promoting compassionate communication,” says Siegel.
To survive and thrive as humans we need healthy integration between parents and children, emotions and thoughts, and between different people. I agree with Siegel that: “In many ways integration can be seen as the mechanism of harmony, of well-being, of health.”
Our digital connections rarely promote integration, says Siegel. He may have good reason for concern.
One side effect of building a community of online friends is how easily one can shut out conflicting point of view. We risk seeing only what we agree with in an online filter bubble. The more we use social media and digital connections, the easier it is for computer programs to show only what we like, and limit our exposure to contrasting ideas.
As parents, our challenge is to help ourselves and our children think about the impact our digital lives have on us.
As we make our way in the world, we are bound to live, work and play with people very different from us. We need to help ourselves and our children embrace differences by learning to interact with a variety of people. “Integration made visible is kindness and compassion, wisdom and connection,” says Siegel.
Let’s remember to look up, put the devices aside, and re-engage with each other. This helps us not only feel more connected; it helps us all live more compassionate, healthier lives.
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