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The Ten Talents of Parenting: Connection

Author Lawrence Cohen PhD
Submitted 09-08-2007

Focusing on Relationship to Ease Power Struggles with Your Child

When my daughter was just starting kindergarten, we had big battles over getting dressed. She would whine, “I can’t get dressed by myself, you have to help me.” I knew perfectly well she could get dressed on her own – she had been doing it for months – so I found this very aggravating. But guess who always wins a power struggle like this? I could never prove that she could dress herself, but she could easily prove that she couldn’t!

One day, in desperation, I picked up two bears from her bed and made one of them say, in a goofy voice, “She can’t get dressed by herself, she’s only 5 years old!”

Then I had the other one say, “Oh, yes, she can! She is Emma! She can do anything!”

Emma giggled, so I kept going. I had the snide bear say, “She doesn’t even know her pants from her shirt!”

Emma put on her pants and said, “Look!”

The bear turned around and said, “Oh, your Dad must have helped you.” The encouraging bear said, “Oh, no, he didn’t, she did it all by herself!”

In a few minutes she was all dressed, amid laughter instead of screaming. On the way to school, Emma asked me if we could play that same game the next day. I was a little worried we’d be playing it every day, but we ended up just playing it a few more times, and the power struggle vanished.

Through this game, I discovered that the real issue was connection. Most parenting difficulties boil down to a simple need for more connection. When children and parents aren’t feeling warmly connected, they tend to be uncooperative, whiny, demanding, selfish and prone to endless power struggles.

In the “good old days,” I had helped Emma get ready for preschool. But now that she was in kindergarten, she was required to dress herself. “What’s next?” she may have been wondering, “Are they going to make me get a job and an apartment?”

Putting in a few minutes of playful connecting time beforehand saved time in the end, from all the nagging and fighting we weren’t doing anymore. But when our kids are acting up, we don’t feel like reconnecting. We were probably already frustrated or upset, since that’s usually when they behave the worst. And their behavior does nothing to soothe our frazzled nerves.

As Gordon Neufeld, Ph.D., and Gabor Maté, M.D., say in their book, Hold On To Your Kids (Ballantine Books, 2005), “the will to connect must be in the parent before there is anything positive for the child to respond to.” In their excellent chapter on “discipline that does not divide,” the authors suggest using connection, not separation, to bring children into line, and they encourage parents to connect before trying to direct. In other words, without making a connection first (through physical touch, eye contact, friendly words), the directions we give are likely to be ignored or resented.

Ellen Robertson, the mother of a 2-1/2-year-old boy, sent me an email describing her successful use of connection:

One day, my son Aaron was getting into more and more things around the house and my husband and I were saying, “No, no, no.” Finally, he pulled the power cord out of the TV antenna. I said, “That’s it!” But then I thought, “Yeah, and what now?”

I decided to try connecting with him instead of getting angrier. I sat down near the TV and pulled him onto my lap. He calmed down right away. It felt good. I think doing that gave me a moment to understand that my husband and I had been doing chores for a while, not paying much attention to him. I asked him if he wanted to plug the cord back in, and he did (it wasn’t dangerous). After that he was so happy the rest of the morning.

Before that I would never have considered trying to connect with a child who was being “bad.” I thought I needed to discipline by giving stern choices. I would have thought that being nice in any way would reward children for their bad behavior. It’s funny to me to even write that last sentence, because I think so differently now.

Lawrence J. Cohen

(First appeared in Parenthood.com.)