Teaching Kids & Teens How to Connect with Others – Outside Their Digital World

Teaching Kids How to Connect - Outside Their Digital World

We live in a digital world, and though the digital age and the world of social media has brought great opportunities, it has also meant fewer opportunities to connect face to face. We email, text, shop, book holidays, fall in love, and maintain friendships online. It’s where our world is headed, and although in many ways this has opened our world up phenomenally, it’s more important than ever to be deliberate in teaching our kids the importance of the other type of connection – the one that doesn’t happen through wi-fi.

Kids will learn by watching and picking up what’s around them. They’ll experiment with how to do things and will learn by trial and error. Same as we did. The more deliberate we can be in teaching them social skills and nurturing their capacity to connect, the more their experimentation will be safe and enriching for them.

We can’t make their friendships for them, but we can give them vital skills so they can do this for themselves. All children start out as being self-centred. It’s important for their development and figuring where they fit in to the world. We started out that way too. Eventually though, they have to move this awareness to outside of themselves and notice the world and the people around them. 

As with any behaviour the healthiest way of being allows for freedom of movement and flexibility between the extremes. We don’t always want our children to connect – not all relationships and friendships will be good for them and it’s important that they are able to recognise and act on this. At the same time though, they need to be able to extend warmly and openly into the world when it is good for them. Healthy living is knowing the difference, and then knowing how to respond. Here are some ways to guide them along.

  1. Tolerate Difference? Nah. Enjoy it.

    It’s easy to connect with like-minded people, but sometimes the people who have the greatest capacity to open us up have vastly different experiences and world views to the ones we know. It not just about ‘tolerating’ differences, it’s also about finding ways to connect with them and enjoy them. Let them see you appreciating and connecting with the differences in others. Show them that there are plenty of great things that exist outside of what they know for sure. 

  2. Interested people are interesting people.

    Showing interest forges connections and can lead to wonderfully unexpected things. Invite their curiosity about the new kid in class, the kids on their team, the one in the corner at the party. Plant little seeds for them, ‘I wonder what the new girl used to do at lunchtime at her old school.’ ‘I wonder why the goalie likes being the goalie.’ Someone who shows interest will always be more interesting than the person who demands it. 

  3. Shhhh. Let them speak.

    Give them space to explore their minds and to feel what it’s like to be fully attended to. It’s so easy to listen to them ‘almost’ fully. Sometimes when they speak, let them be the only thing you notice.  Having someone fully engaged while your mind wanders is a beautiful thing to feel. Show them how it feels, to show them how it’s done. 

  4. Let them see you take a stand.

    Part of engaging with the world fully means knowing when not to. Let them see you resist situations or people sometimes and when you are able to, be clear about the reason. It’s an important lesson that they don’t have to connect with everyone or like everyone, but if they are going to pull away, they need to do it respectfully and not for the sake of it or just because the person is different. Part of connecting also means connecting with themselves, particularly their own intuition and the part of them that bristles when something isn’t right. 

  5. Making the right connections.

    Sometimes they won’t know why something feels bad, and that’s okay – we adults are no different. These bad feelings are important and will keep them safe, but they can also get in the way of potentially nourishing connections. It’s important to make sure the bad feelings are connected to the immediate situation, and not to a previous memory or experience. If they can’t articulate the why, help them to expand the what. ‘I can see something doesn’t feel right for you. Can you talk to me a little more about that? What feels bad? What do you think of (when this situation or person comes up)? What do you feel physically? What does it remind you of?’ This will validate their position and help them to understand more about what they’re feeling. It will also help to separate whether it is a genuine no-go, or whether the situation or person is stirring feelings or memories of something else that has nothing to do with the immediate situation. If their response seems to be triggered by a past event encourage them to notice what is different about this one. It’s a good opportunity to teach them how memories and previous experiences can intrude on the present, and why it is important to check things out.

  6. Gently ease their mind open.

    Encourage their opinions, even if they are different to your own. Hear them out and give them a place to speak and experiment with difference and diversity. Show them how to open up to other people and other opinions by opening up to theirs.

  7. Let them see beauty in all its versions.

    When we see or experience beauty, in any form, we connect with it – whether it’s in nature, music, art and importantly, people. Beautiful was never meant to mean perfect. Beauty is flawed, different, fascinating, unconventional, quirky, interesting, spirited, non-conforming, rough, ragged. These things are in all of us, but we differ in combinations and quantities. Set their lens to a diverse definition of ‘beautiful’ by pointing it out when you see it – the strengths in people and the different ways people look, do, relate, be. It will expand their willingness to connect and make their connections richer and more diverse. Children will borrow our lens. What we see, they will see too. 

  8. Make praise feel normal – giving and receiving.

    Be quick to praise them, and let them see you praising others. Encourage them to do the same, perhaps by having a dinner table ritual where once or twice a week everyone says something they appreciate about each other. Don’t overdo it though. Give praise when it’s deserved, but don’t throw it around like confetti when it hasn’t really been earned. Praise stops meaning something when it’s given without meaning.

  9. Encourage the detail.

    Encourage them to remember names and special things about people – favourite things, the things they don’t like, the funny things they do. Information can fuel a connection – the more you find out about someone, the easier it is to connect. 

  10. Boost their emotional vocabulary.

    The greater their capacity to recognise and name their emotions, the greater their capacity to recognise it and see it in others and respond accordingly. Notice what they or others might be feeling and name what you see, but give them room to disagree with your observations. ‘You seem frustrated.’ ‘That person looks very determined.’ Do this in real life, and when you’re reading books together or watching a movie.

  11. Build empathy.

    Expand their awareness of other people and what those others might be feeling by encouraging them to look from a different point of view. This will help them to be more responsive to situations and people. When they tell you about something that has happened, coach them with how to respond without forcing them, and encourage a different point of view… ‘What do you think she was feeling when that happened?’ ‘What do you think would have been a nice thing to happen next?’ ‘How would you feel if that happened to you?’ ‘If that was you, what could someone say to help you feel better?’ 

  12. They are important, but so is everyone else.

    We want our kids to know how amazing they are and how important they are to us, but without fostering the view that they are more important, more deserving or more entitled than anyone else. Arrogance is the enemy of connection. Nurture their open, warm hearts and their capacity to connect and be seen, by encouraging them to see the strengths and the goodness in others as well as themselves.

Being able to connect with people is something that might come easier to some than others, but the skills can always be learned. For that, it takes deliberate teaching and we, as parents, grandparents, carers, teachers, are in a powerful position to do that. Relationships are such an important part of life and that being able to initiate and maintain healthy ones is a vital life skill. All children have different ways of learning, but the ones they will learn the most from are the adults around them. As those adults, we are the ones who get to watch these small humans grow into amazing adults. Our role isn’t only from the sidelines – we have the privileged and vital role of guiding and nurturing them along the way.

[irp posts=”6202″ name=”How to Nurture Empathy in Children”]

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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