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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Growth doesn’t always announce itself in ways that feel safe or invited. Often, it can leave us exhausted and confused and with dirt in our pores from the fury of the battle. It is this way for all of us, our children too. 

The truth of it all is that we are all born with a profound and immense capacity to rise through challenges, changes and heartache. There is something else we are born with too, and it is the capacity to add softness, strength, and safety for each other when the movement towards growth feels too big. Not always by finding the answer, but by being it - just by being - safe, warm, vulnerable, real. As it turns out, sometimes, this is the richest source of growth for all of us.
When the world feel sunsettled, the ripple can reach the hearts, minds and spirits of kids and teens whether or not they are directly affected. As the important adult in the life of any child or teen, you have a profound capacity to give them what they need to steady their world again.

When their fears are really big, such as the death of a parent, being alone in the world, being separated from people they love, children might put this into something else. 

This can also happen because they can’t always articulate the fear. Emotional ‘experiences’ don’t lay in the brain as words, they lay down as images and sensory experiences. This is why smells and sounds can trigger anxiety, even if they aren’t connected to a scary experience. The ‘experiences’ also don’t need to be theirs. Hearing ‘about’ is enough.

The content of the fear might seem irrational but the feeling will be valid. Think of it as the feeling being the part that needs you. Their anxiety, sadness, anger (which happens to hold down other more vulnerable emotions) needs to be seen, held, contained and soothed, so they can feel safe again - and you have so much power to make that happen. 

‘I can see how worried you are. There are some big things happening in the world at the moment, but my darling, you are safe. I promise. You are so safe.’ 

If they have been through something big, the truth is that they have been through something frightening AND they are safe, ‘We’re going through some big things and it can be confusing and scary. We’ll get through this. It’s okay to feel scared or sad or angry. Whatever you feel is okay, and I’m here and I love you and we are safe. We can get through anything together.’
I love being a parent. I love it with every part of my being and more than I ever thought I could love anything. Honestly though, nothing has brought out my insecurities or vulnerabilities as much. This is so normal. Confusing, and normal. 

However many children we have, and whatever age they are, each child and each new stage will bring something new for us to learn. It will always be this way. Our children will each do life differently, and along the way we will need to adapt and bend ourselves around their path to light their way as best we can. But we won't do this perfectly, because we can't always know what mountains they'll need to climb, or what dragons they'll need to slay. We won't always know what they’ll need, and we won't always be able to give it. We don't need to. But we'll want to. Sometimes we’ll ache because of this and we’ll blame ourselves for not being ‘enough’. Sometimes we won't. This is the vulnerability that comes with parenting. 

We love them so much, and that never changes, but the way we feel about parenting might change a thousand times before breakfast. Parenting is tough. It's worth every second - every second - but it's tough. Great parents can feel everything, and sometimes it can turn from moment to moment - loving, furious, resentful, compassionate, gentle, tough, joyful, selfish, confused and wise - all of it. Great parents can feel all of it.

Because parenting is pure joy, but not always. We are strong, nurturing, selfless, loving, but not always. Parents aren't perfect. Love isn't perfect. And it was meant to be. We’re raising humans - real ones, with feelings, who don't need to be perfect, and wont  need others to be perfect. Humans who can be kind to others, and to themselves first. But they will learn this from us. Parenting is the role which needs us to be our most human, beautifully imperfect, flawed, vulnerable selves. Let's not judge ourselves for our shortcomings and the imperfections, and the necessary human-ness of us.❤️
The behaviour that comes with separation anxiety is the symptom not the problem. To strengthen children against separation anxiety, we have to respond at the source – the felt sense of separation from you.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person, there will be always be anxiety unless there is at least one of 2 things: attachment with another trusted, adult; or a felt sense of you holding on to them, even when you aren’t beside them. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it needs more than an adult being present. Just because there is another adult in the room, doesn’t mean your child will experience a deep sense of safety with that adult. This doesn’t mean the adult isn’t safe - it’s about what the brain perceives, and that brain is looking for a deep, felt sense of safety. This will come from the presence of an adult who, through their strong, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for them, and their joy in doing so. The joy in caretaking is important. It lets the child rest from seeking the adult’s care because there will be a sense that the adult wants it enough for both.

This can be helped along by showing your young one that you trust the adult to love and care for your child and keep him or her safe in your absence: ‘I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.’ This doesn’t mean children will instantly feel the attachment, but the path towards that will be more illuminated.

To help them feel you holding on even when you aren’t with them, let them know you’ll be thinking of them and can’t wait to be with them again. I used to tell my daughter that every 15 seconds, my mind makes sure it knows where she is. Think of this as ‘taking over’ their worry. ‘You don’t have to worry about you or me because I’m taking care of both of us – every 15 seconds.’ This might also look like giving them something of yours to hold on to while you’re gone – a scarf, a note. You will always be their favourite way to safety, but you can’t be everywhere. Another loving adult or the felt presence of you will help them rest.
Sometimes it can be hard to know what to say or whether to say anything at all. It doesn’t matter if the ‘right’ words aren’t there, because often there no right words. There are also no wrong ones. Often it’s not even about the words. Your presence, your attention, the sound of your voice - they all help to soften the hard edges of the world. Humans have been talking for as long as we’ve had heartbeats and there’s a reason for this. Talking heals. 

It helps to connect the emotional right brain with the logical left. This gives context and shape to feelings and helps them feel contained, which lets those feelings soften. 

You don’t need to fix anything and you don’t need to have all the answers. Even if the words land differently to the way you expected, you can clean it up once it’s out there. What’s important is opening the space for conversation, which opens the way to you. Try, ‘I’m wondering how you’re doing with everything. Would you like to talk?’ 

And let them take the lead. Some days they’ll want to talk about ‘it’ and some days they’ll want to talk about anything but. Whether it’s to distract from the mess of it all or to go deeper into it so they can carve their way through the feeling to the calm on the other side, healing will come. So ask, ‘Do you want to talk about ‘it’ or do you want to talk about something else? Because I’m here for both.’ ♥️
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