“My daughter seems distant.” or “My son wants nothing to do with me. It seems like my efforts at connecting just push him further away!”
Can you relate to these statements?
We’ve heard statements like these from plenty of parents. Believe it or not, they are common sentiments. Some kids, for a whole host of reasons, struggle more with connection than others.
BUT… connecting is still possible. And your child desperately needs it! Read this article to learn how to gently invite a child that wants nothing to do with you into meaningful connection, even if there is resistance.
Children can be like wild horses
Some children (whether toddlers or teens) respond to their parents’ affection in a way that says, “Private property. No trespassing in this heart of mine.” Your child may withdraw into a private world of toys, books, screens, or friends. Some children may even seem angry or defiant when they withdraw in this way.
When this happens, it’s easy to become disheartened and assume that your child doesn’t want a relationship with you. But it’s not true. More often than not, children desperately want to connect with their parents.
One stiff arm yells, “Stay out of my life.” Yet, the other hand beckons you tentatively, “I need your love!”
I remember when I (Lynne) had an opportunity to watch a horse trainer in action. I mused, “This mustang reminds me of a cranky teenager.” I watched the horse trainer’s keen discernment and saint-like patience. She would take a small step toward the wary horse, carefully assessing his response. If he even flicked a muscle to hint at moving away from her, she took a step back to give him space. Only when the horse showed signs of comfort would she take another small step forward. If he seemed unsure, she stayed where she was until he became more comfortable.
Her goal was to move toward him at his determined pace, always keeping him comfortable.
Forced connection drives kids even further away
Do your kids act like that wary horse, resisting your efforts to connect? Maybe you’ve said things like, “My daughter shuts down when I try to talk to her.” Or perhaps, “My son wants nothing to do with me.” It is natural to feel rejected, hurt, or even a bit angry. But often, a child’s seeming resistance stems from self-protection. It flows out of their own hurt or fear of rejection.
The more frustrated you feel by your child’s aloofness, the more likely you are to drive that child away by trying harder to connect. You may tend to move too fast, with anxiety as the driver of your failed attempts.
Kids perceive your frustration and anxiety, even if they can’t give it words. It feels burdensome and uncomfortable to them. This is why it’s so important to learn to connect and guide in ways that feel truly safe and don’t burden kids with your anxiety or your need to be accepted.
A healthy connection is necessary if you want your kids to receive the vital lessons you hope to teach. Your efforts to connect will be most effective when thoughtfully matched to your child’s personality, interests, and developmental stage.
7 connection ideas for younger kids
One of the key ways parents and small children can connect is through play. While playing, children are better able to relax and feel safe. This opens them up to receive your love. But if you’re tired or not into Legos and playing house, here are some ideas for connecting, especially with younger kids (scroll down for ideas for older kids).
- Body Tracing
- Have your child lie down on a large sheet of paper and then trace her body.
- Color in the outline and point out unique physical features about your child, like, “Gracie has bright brown eyes that sparkle with joy.”
- Write notes on the tracing such as:
- “Gracie is wonderfully and uniquely made.”
- “Gracie is loved by God and Mommy and Daddy, no matter what.”
- “Gracie will always be a part of our family.” etc.
- You can say them out loud as you write them. When finished, read them together with your child. Hang the paper in your child’s bedroom as a reminder.
- Individual affirmations
- Ask, “Can I tell you something special?”
- With permission, whisper how much you love your child or certain characteristics they have that you love.
- Send your child notes, reading them out loud as you write them.
- Put them through a slit that you’ve cut in a box.
- Let your child open the box and reread them after the envelope is opened.
- Love Sandwich
- Squeeze your child between both parents (or for single parents – on the floor between two pillows, squishing from the top).
- Make up some silly chant such as, “Mommy loves Aidan; Daddy loves Aidan; Jesus loves Aidan; squish, squish, squish!”
- Knock, Knock!
- Take a book and put it over your face.
- Invite your child to knock on it like it’s a door
- Then peek around the side/top/bottom and tell her you love her, will never leave her, she’s your special girl, and so on.
- Give a play-by-play as your child plays
- Watch your child and narrate what you see him doing. This communicates – “You are noticed. You matter. What’s important to you is important because you are important.”
- “Wow, look at that ____ you’re making. I can see ________ (add details)”
- Ask questions about whatever you notice.
- “I remember when….”
- Most kids love to hear stories about their birth and early childhood, especially if it involves you talking about how much you love them.
9 connection ideas for the teen that wants nothing to do with you
As kids get older, they often feel patronized by even the best efforts to connect. As a parent, you may start to feel discouraged or resentful. Even worse, you may be tempted to give up. But to give up communicates messages like, “Loving you is just too hard.” And, “You’ll never change.” This tends to cause even greater disconnection.
Be inspired by some practical ideas to start rebuilding connection with teens who seem distant:
- Acknowledge that connection can be challenging and ask the kids for their ideas.
- Even if the kids don’t have any ideas or don’t want to talk at first, they will get the message, “You’re worth learning from and connecting with.”
- Use whatever technology your kids use to message them simple notes.
- A text message or email can go a long way toward building eventual bridges, as you communicate the basic message, “I love you and notice ________” (some positive thing your child did, or an example of growth or progress).
- If your child is on a social media platform, invite them to teach you to use it and engage with their posts or use direct messaging to send encouraging messages.
- Sit next to them while they focus on a favorite activity.
- You might be working on your activity, but you can occasionally comment on what they are doing.
- Ask occasional non-threatening questions.
- “What was the most memorable part of your day?”
- “What’s one thing you’re looking forward to this week?”
- If kids give short answers, be OK with that for now. Progress can be slow.
- Turn off the radio and make the car a phone-free zone for you and your kids.
- Even if your kids don’t appreciate it at first, they might eventually. It will allow the opportunity for a non-threatening question or two.
- Attend favorite activities with the kids.
- Don’t just drop them off. Stay and watch the same game they watch, or wander the same halls at the mall. Even if there’s not much conversation, your child will probably notice.
- If they don‘t want to be with you, simply tell them you’re staying because you want to experience what they are experiencing.
- For older kids, this will be different from smaller children, but the main idea is the same (see suggestions for younger children above for the main idea): Notice what your child is up to and mention it.
- It might look like, “Hey, that looks like an interesting show. Could you tell me a little about it at dinner?”
- Go out of your comfort zone to connect.
- One dad attended a rock concert with his aloof daughter that rattled his bones and jarred his sensibilities, but he found a few things to affirm, and she noticed his effort.
- I (Lynne) overcame my fear of ziplining on a weekend away with our youngest son.
- Do things your teen loves, even if they’re not something you’d choose ordinarily.
- Enlist your child to teach you a video game you could play together.
- Be patient.
- The connection may take quite some time to build. If you do any of the above with a sour or impatient attitude, kids will notice, and the effort will likely be counter-productive. But if you share space while setting aside any judgments or efforts to shape your child’s behavior, they just might open up about a few things.
God knows and loves your aloof child more than you do!
Many parents have shared how praying for guidance has given them insights into what kind of connection their child needs from them. So if you’re discouraged and feel like your daughter shuts down or your son doesn’t want anything to do with you, have confidence when you pray.
May you experience connection with your child like this mom
Take a look at this story from Diane, a coaching client, about persevering with a daughter who had rejected her attempts to connect for years. May it encourage and equip you as you seek to build a connected relationship with your child:
Last week, when Greta (age 11) asked if she and I could go out for lunch for a special date, my mind raced back to one of my desperate attempts to connect with her just a few years ago. This happened when she was around 8.
It was incredibly discouraging that my daughter couldn’t handle verbal or physical affection in those days. There were no ‘I love you’s,’ no hugs and snuggles. I felt empty and hopeless about our relationship. ‘I just don’t think she cares.’
Being present and silent
I remembered the day I took her to a favorite quiet spot, made her a cup of hot chocolate, and brought some crayons and paper. Greta dove right into drawing and coloring but wouldn’t look up or engage in conversation.
I commented on how pretty her picture was and how I loved her array of colors. She stopped coloring long enough to say, “Please don’t say those things to me.” Lost for ideas, I remained quiet, afraid of pushing her further away. She spent the rest of the time coloring, and I watched and silently wondered if this was accomplishing anything.
The key to Greta’s heart: journal entries
Despite her resistance, I felt committed to seeking ways to connect with her. I eventually discovered that when I wrote caring notes in Greta’s journal, she privately savored each word! Over the months and years that we exchanged journal entries and notes, she gradually began to enjoy all the forms of affection that she had previously refused.
3 years later and a beautiful lunch date
After reflecting on that day from just a few short years ago, I couldn’t help but smile all the way through our lunch. During our conversation, Greta felt entirely at ease and shared with me about her friends at school, her thoughts about the future, and her favorite activities.
We laughed about things Daddy and her little brother did and discussed plans for the evening. She very openly told me how much she enjoyed spending time together, and I told her how glad I was that she requested this lunch date. As we walked out to the car, holding hands, the conversation still going strong, I was overwhelmed with joy and gratitude. Through many hours of prayer and perseverance, I had discovered how to unlock the treasures of my precious little girl’s heart!
Even if your child wants nothing to do with you, don’t give up
What a great story of how persistence pays off. We actually got the above letter from Diane almost ten years ago! So what’s happened since then? Did that sweet connection fade in the teen years? Not at all. Greta experienced some stress in high school, but she was deeply connected with her mom, which greatly helped her get through it all. She has graduated from college and thoroughly enjoys being with her family.
Diane stated, “Greta knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am always here for her. With us, she is loved, safe, and understood.” 🙂
It can be hard not to take your child’s aloofness personally and to gracefully persevere at connection. But it’s well worth the effort – for both you and your child.
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